Archive for July, 2011

My Wolfian and non-Wolfian readings on knights.

Gene Wolfe is the relative unknown whom all the famous fantasy and sci-fi authors like to venerate.  Kinda like lots of famous bands all listen to relative unknowns King’s X (or did a decade ago, according to a VH1 countdown I watched as an undergrad…)  Even the stars need to feel like fan-boys and -girls every now and then.

I’ve been occasionally picking away at Wolfe’s books and short stories for around 4+ years now.  Some are pretty challenging– Fifth Head of Cerberus is fascinating, but feels a bit like a riddle which I will have to reread a few times before I get it.  His Wizard-Knight duology (really one novel in two volumes– The Knight and The Wizard) is much more accessible, as is his recent novel Pirate Freedom.  Both are very similar in the voices of their first-person narrators, though I haven’t read enough Wolfe to say whether this is peculiar to these novels, or typical of Wolfe’s protagonists.  There are some similarities to Severian in the Book of the New Sun, but the narrators in WK and PF seem a lot more… well, naive and innocent are the words that come to me, as well as plain-spoken, but none of those descriptions necessarily fit. More on that below.  For now, I will say that both WK and PF feel like Wolfe is attempting to take on two classic boyish-adventure genres and inject them with some postmodern originality (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much) while still retaining/valuing the “boyishness” of the genres.  I use the term “boyish” deliberately– the protagonist in each novel is male, and has a very “boyish” voice, and the world which we see through the narrator’s words at times seems to stem from a very “boyish” vision.  Some reviewers have complained about this– one in particular felt like all the women in PF were idealized, and while I disagreed at the time, I think it is a reasonable reading of the book, if expected, considering the narrator.

That said, I think a closer look reveals something a bit subtler going on in the narrator’s voice and his telling of events (you will have to decide for yourself whether the women are truly idealized or not– I am of two minds at the moment, but certainly in WK there are both men and women of varying degrees of moral perfection, and no one seems absolutely perfect to me).  Wolfe is notorious for using unreliable narrators.  Sometimes the unreliability of the narrator is deliberate and duplicitous– the case in particular for one of the narrators in Fifth Head.  There is a chance that we have a similar extreme of unreliability in these books– the narrators in WK and PF may both be delusional, and there are at least some hints that that may be the case in WK (though these hints may also be interpreted in a way consistent with the “in-world” narrative– Michael Andre-Driussi’s Wizard-Knight Companion makes some point on several possible interpretations)– but I think we have the unreliability of the narrators treated differently here.  For one thing, the narrators are up-front about the fact that they don’t want to tell you everything, and some of the most intriguing bits of WK are the places where Able/Arthur says “I saw something really amazing there, but I will never tell anyone about it”.  For another, the plain-spoken, even boyish and self-deprecating voices of the narrators are misleading.  In both books the narrator manages to retain the “innocent” voice, as well as a sense of idealism and honor, while demonstrating in words and actions that he is anything but naive.  Much fantasy in the last 10-20 years, especially the big post-Robert Jordan epics (Martin, Goodkind, Ericksson), has been interested in showing just how corrupt, dirty, and horrible things can be in a medieval-ish world.  OK, good to burst the bubble of infantile fantasy medievalisms, but I feel like Wolfe is specifically trying to show a man of real “honor” surviving and shining in a narrative which acknowledges that same “dirt”, both inside and outside the character of the narrator himself.  Maybe another way to put it: Wolfe attempts to answer the question “How can a boy become a man, act with honor and do Good, while living with the fact that he himself and the world around him fall short of that ideal?”  It does feel very “boy-centric”, how to “be a man”, as I said, and so it may be less meaningful to some female readers than it is to many guys, but again, I’ll leave it to you (for now) to decide whether or not this “boy-centricness” goes too far.  There are certainly some strong women in the book– but the narrator very clearly buys in to the world’s hierarchy, and that includes gender roles (meaning, women are powerful within those roles set out for them).  But again, it is a medieval world which is being shown, and we cannot really blame the book for giving a narrative which works according to those rules.

On to the world itself.  The Wizard Knight reminds me more of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in its use of mythology and legend, rather than of Tolkien’s work.  Tolkien certainly borrowed from the various medieval sources which he studied, but the world he created was designed to stand on it’s own–whereas Lewis’ strategy (and Wolfe’s) is to borrow in such a way that the borrowing is clear, a deliberate homage, transparently blending bits of otherwise unrelated mythologies, and more openly intertextual.  It reminds me “mythpunk“, to borrow Valente’s term, though I haven’t read much in the genre itself– but my point is, it deliberately plays on the canonicity of myths, fairy tales and legends, as well as on the later reception of the same (for example, not just Norse mythology, but Wagnerian Norse mythology).  WK deals primarily in Norse Mythology, Arthuriana and Chivalry, and Christianity.  Wolfe is Catholic, and I have to say, this is the most “Christian” of his book that I’ve read.  The comparison to Narnia is valid in more than simply the mode of mythological borrowing.

That said, please don’t use these books as a resource for finding out about Norse mythology.  One of the best arguments for the entire narrative being a post-9/11 delusion of an injured teenage Arthur (=Able) is the fact that the mythological bits look like fanciful reconstructions and syntheses of a boy stuck at a cabin alone while his older brother is gone, with nothing but books on knights and mythology to read.  Not that we necessarily have to interpret the narrative in that way, but the Norse material, at least, could only have been borrowed in the direction Our World > Supernatural(/Fictional) World.  I say this because the names and characters in this supernatural world are not systematically coherent in their own world– for example, the -r ending of certain nominative noun forms in Old Norse is included in some of the Norse-derived names in the book, but just as part of the “Norse coloring” of the names, not in terms of its actual grammatical function.  In other words, it is our world’s mythology and fairy tale which generates this Other World, rather than this Other World which generates the myths and fairy tales of our world.  Again, I think this is typical of Mythpunk– at least I see similar things going on in the way Michael Swanwick (one of those Gene Wolfe fans) uses Norse sources in The Dragons of Babel, but more on that some other time.

Well, this review has gone on long enough.  I expect I will return to this book in more detail at some point (the potential connections to 9/11 are worth an article in their own right), but for now I will say that it is very enjoyable and original.  It is probably vulnerable to various criticisms, non-trivial in my view (the issue of women, which again, I am of two minds on, and the fact that the flesh-eating bad-guys are conflations of Mongol and Arab culture, while all the good guys are conflations of various White mythologies), but it is also possible that these could be resolved in reading the series as stemming from the delusion or imagination of the narrator as the young boy he is at the very start of the narrative.  In any case, I hope it stays in print, because it is worth far more than the vast bulk of best-selling fantasy novels that are out there now.

My take on a Wizard-Knight– this one more wizard than knight, and apparently not too skilled at dungeon-crawling. Better pick up that sword, buddy…

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Maybe not the best pic for this post, but it was all I could think of related to photography, subjectivity, and preserving the dead...

I finally saw the documentary “Born into Brothels”, a touching film in which a photographer documenting the lives of women in the red light district in Calcutta ends up befriending the children born there, teaching them the art of photography and attempting to get them away from the brothels and moved into boarding schools. OK, not much about Vikings here, but it is close enough to a book review, and I’ve already warned you that I would be doing those.  Plus I found a not-too-roundabout way to connect it to theoretical issues in folkloristics, so it is still somewhat related to my field…

I’ve seen some comments online to the effect that the film was more about Zana, the photographer who came up with the idea– she certainly appears as the protagonist, and to the extent that her centrality to the narrative becomes clear, it is possible to feel disappointed in the artifice of it all, to feel like this is “Zana’s chance” for an award-winning story.  One commenter felt that it would have been better to have more of the candid shots, the camera just sitting there invisibly while “real life” happened.  I think this criticism goes too far, and in the wrong direction.  True, we want this to be the story of these kids, but the supposedly “candid” shot is only an excuse for the audience to feel invisible, to make the viewer feel like he/she is not present in the action as a disruptive, disembodied, grotesque and voyeuristic mechanical eye.  We find a similar problem in folkloristics– the urban Western world’s search for the “authentic” leads to the objectification of the “folk”.  How would you like to be put under a microscope?  Well, we all get examined by doctors, but under the condition that it is something that happens to everyone, not just one particular type or class of person (and there is the assumption that the doctor is there to serve us).  To some extent Zana takes our (us being upper middle-class Westerners) position as the foreign, privileged see-er, hearer, etc, in the scene.  Centering the narrative around her, while it may have its share of problems (more on those below), at least reminds us that this is an intersubjective situation and keeps us aware of our own strangeness in that context.  Not a scientist looking in on some bugs behind glass, but a person embedded in a concrete situation, attempting to understand the others there, on their own terms (ideally).  The brothels are not a closed system– observing them is itself an action within them, or within the larger context in which they are embedded.

I particularly liked the role of the camera in the story.  At one point one of the kids says that what he likes about photography is that he can take a picture of someone or something he loves, so that he will still have them even after it or they are gone or dead.  Leaving aside all the other fascinating things going on in that statement, I find this interesting in light of one of the basic assumptions behind a documentary like this: These children only “matter”, they are only seen, they will only be remembered once they are captured on film.  By giving cameras to these powerless ones whom we pity so much, and emphasizing their own telling and showing of their world and their lives, the documentary grants them a degree of agency, more than children will typically get in a film, documentary or otherwise.

That said, the image of the  “Benevolent West” feels a bit overbearing at times.  It is this Benevolent Western World which “grants” them their voices, after all– as though they can be nothing without “Us”, as though they only matter when they speak our language.  Near the end the narrative does seem to get reduced to the saintly Zana’s heroic efforts to bring the benefits of the Western world (education–though I will say, I am a “true believer” in the benefits of education myself) to these (at times reluctant) children, despite the barbaric treatment (cursing and beating) and superstitions (“no, I won’t let her go on Thursday, because it’s a bad day to do anything special”) of the “native” adults.  Even the agency and subjectivity of these children through their photographs is only powerful to the degree that they are marketable, both the persons and their products– salvation through integration into the system of Western capitalism.  In fact, a significant part of the capital they bring to the table is their misfortune and their position as the naive and innocent in the third-world urban jungle.  An authentic “folk” for (and to enable) post-modern humanitarianism (which, whatever its benefits, certainly becomes a sort of feel-good entertainment at times).  Beyond that, they become subjects to the degree that they become Western subjects, taking on the “eye” of the First World (in the current sense of “developed countries”), from which they can look back on the Third World from which they came– they are “people” to the extent that they separate themselves from they place they came from.

Well, sure, we could pull all these issues and more out of our dissection of the film, and they may be more or less valid– but overall I feel very positive about the documentary, and I think that Zana’s approach to helping the children is creative and effective (to a reasonable degree), and the film did pretty well in terms of granting the kids agency and voice.  I suppose one can’t really judge it without being there– even apart from the fact that a film must be cut, there is the fact that not everything can be filmed.  Taken as is, and assuming genuine goodwill on the part of Zana, I am not in the mood to complain too much. Certainly it doesn’t solve the larger issues of poverty and the market demand for people’s bodies, but it is still a concrete gain.

Apart from the representation of these issues in documentaries, here are a couple of less-entertaining (but maybe more practical) sources on the issue of human trafficking.  A couple of my friends have just wrapped up a year in the Phillipines.  Their funding came from a Fullbright scholarship and from generous people, and hopefully a novel on human trafficking will be coming out of this eventually.  Their time there is done, but you can still see their blog.  International Justice Mission, which they are associated with (among other programs) can be found here.  They also worked with Samaritana, a more aggressively faith-oriented organization.

Human trafficking doesn’t just happen abroad– I was surprised to learn a few years ago that Oakland is a major West Coast hub for trafficked women and children.  The New Day for Children safehouse is an attempt to provide a place for young women who are afraid they will be forced back into prostitution by their pimps.  It is a faith-based program.  They are one of the few groups providing this sort of service– largest program on the West Coast, I believe I heard, and they don’t even have enough money to care for more than about a dozen girls right now.  I’m sure donations would be welcome.

Human trafficking and the sex trade take up an enormous chunk of the worldwide economy (just under drugs, from what I am told, and likely to surpass that–people are reusable assets, after all), and I expect it would be good to be more aware of this issue.  It doesn’t just happen in poor, exotic countries on the other side of the world, or to people who want it or probably deserve it.

When a thousand years have passed, you are allowed to romanticize the abduction of women and children, apparently. Not exactly the same as the romanticizing of the "painted women" of exotic ports, but not completely different either, I think.

Side note on Vikings: From what we can tell, Vikings were not actually known for using rape warfare in the Middle Ages (in contrast to other armies both then and now), and in Frankia they did very little slaving.  Ireland was not so lucky as far as slaves go, though we have at least one Irish princess in the sagas, bought as a slave in Russia by an Icelander.  She ends up as one of the stronger female characters in a saga full of strong women, and she manages for her son to claim his royal ancestry.  You can read about Melkorka and her son Óláfr pái (Olaf Peacock) in Laxdœla saga, translated as “The saga of the people of Laxardal”, among other titles.  Generally slaves and servants are not portrayed particularly well in the sagas– at least not in Gísla saga (The saga of Gisli) and Grettis saga (The saga of Grettir).  Those in Iceland with a smaller reserve of honor than a land-owning male of the farming aristocracy typically did not count for much in the sagas.  As for “the world’s oldest profession”, I imagine there were women available for pirates and merchants in the Viking age towns– there were in the medieval ones.  As to the degree of agency those women had in their profession, well, it’s not a path a woman would have chosen for the sake of her honor.  More on the nature of Viking/Medieval Icelandic honor later– but if you’d like to read ahead, try this book, or this one.  Carol Clover’s article “Regardless of Sex” is a good introduction to and reading of the nature of gender and honor in Medieval Iceland.  If you can get access to www.jstor.org (I get it through UC Berkeley– not sure how much a subscription costs), you can download a PDF.

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Snorri Sturluson. Photo copyright CG Olsen 2009

Statue of Snorri Sturluson, author of Edda. Photo copyright CG Olsen 2009.

I’ve been teaching Norse mythology in various classes over the last 8 years or so– mostly during the first couple weeks of my Reading and Composition courses, but the last couple years I’ve been able to touch on it in my upper division Scandinavian Folklore, Viking and Medieval Scandinavian History, and Old Norse literature courses.  Now I am finally scheduled to teach an upper division course in Norse mythology, my favorite subject.

This comes with its perils.  The internet is full of enthusiasts eager to tell you all about Norse myth and legend, and I expect that, despite my warnings, at least 2 or 3 students will make use of, or outright plagiarize, a Wikipedia article or some overenthusiastic… um… enthusiast (note that I previously had a somewhat deprecating reference to Ásatrú here in the first version of this post–have changed that now, as religious affiliation has nothing to do with my points here, and my friend Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology blog is in the process of adding an advanced degree in history of religion, emphasis on Nordic and Germanic heathenism, to the PhD he already has–so you can be heathen and educated, no prob there).  Not that I have anything against either type of source apart from my course– I use Wikipedia all the time (it’s a casual resource, but that’s all I need when I’m curious about Linear B or the CMB), and the fact that there is such a fan-base for Norse material gives me some hope for my career.  And it’s not like scholars necessarily get everything right (part of the problem is that some  “enthusiasts” use older scholarship which has not stood up to later examination).  Still, a scholar is invested in understanding these texts on their own terms, as far as possible.  Strictly speaking such an understanding is an impossible task, but so is translation, and we do well enough there anyway (see Paul Ricoeur on the topic).  In addition, these books and articles are read, reviewed and discussed by others who are similarly invested in understanding these texts– meaning, the author can’t just make up whatever he wants.  Sure, it can devolve into a game or politics at times, but there are certainly a lot more checks and balances, as well as expertise, on the side of the scholars.  Not to put down enthusiast websites– just to discourage you from using them in your course papers…

That said, there isn’t much need to go to Wikipedia or others for accessible, concise info about Norse mythology– there is plenty available for the novitiate from  the academic sector, and not at the crazy prices you have to pay for your Physics or Chemistry textbooks.  I am only planning on using three books in my course, aside from a course reader, but they are good places to start.  First, there is John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs (also available in hardcover as the Handbook of Norse Mythology).  This is a relatively concise and easy to read encyclopedia of Norse Mythology by one of the leading scholars in the field (also the head of my dissertation committee).  In addition to the individual entries, the book starts with a chapter introducing the historical background (external to the myths) and a second discussing Time in the mythology (internal to the myths).  Next, I am assigning the two Eddas as primary sources.  Yes, there are lots of other relevant primary sources out there– excerpts of those will be included in the course Reader.  The Eddas are a good place to start, though, so if you are hoping to get a taste for the medieval texts, try these two translations: Edda trans. by Anthony Faulkes, and Poetic Edda trans. by Carolyne Larrington (but note that a competing translation by Orchard is also available now, and pretty good as well imho).  These are the best translations out there– doesn’t mean they are perfect or that one could not disagree with bits and pieces here or there, but I am quite happy with them and have been teaching them for most of a decade now. You can find out-of-copyright versions of the Eddas online, but I would suggest you not bother– the translations are horrible and portions are left out because they were too impolite for readers of the time.

What are the Eddas?  Good question.  Short answer: Edda (aka Prose Edda or Snorra Edda formerly known as Younger Edda) is a book of poetics written by the Icelandic Chieftain Snorri Sturluson in the first half of the 1200s, in which he happened to include a large number of Norse myths, wrapped up in a frame narrative which rendered them fictional for his Christian audience (Iceland converted c. 1000 CE).  Poetic Edda (formerly known as Elder Edda or Sæmundar Edda), as we have it preserved, is a collection of poems about the gods and heroes, written c. 1270 (based at least in part on texts written earlier in the century) and mistakenly named Edda as well when rediscovered centuries later.  Yes, there is a lot more to say about these, but that will have to be a separate post.  I did write two Literary Encyclopedia articles about Prose Edda and Poetic Edda— unfortunately, you need to subscribe to The Literary Encyclopedia to get access (or get access through an institution which subscribes).

Other sources: Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology covers a larger number of topics than Lindow’s– but it is also going to be a bit bulkier and doesn’t have any of the introductory material that John’s book does, so I suggest you turn to this after checking out John’s Norse Mythology.  Andy Orchard had a dictionary of Norse Mythology as well, but I don’t think it is available any more.  Heather O’Donoghue has a book on Norse mythology and its post-medieval reception which I haven’t read yet– From Asgard to Valhalla.  Looks interesting and I look forward to reviewing it more thoroughly at some point.  I also recommend Thomas DuBois’ book Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, which is fairly accessible at the same time that it opens up new directions in the field.  His book rests on the fact that the Viking Age was not a period of religious homogeneity– the pagan Scandinavians certainly did not have anything like the sense of orthodoxy that literate religions like Christianity have (and please note that this is not a put-down on heathenism– just a point re: the ways in which oral cultures differ from literate cultures).  He explores the ways in which “standard” Norse paganism coexisted and blended with elements from the Saami peoples (aka the Lapplanders, though that is not the polite term now) and Christianity.  A great introduction to some significant aspects of Viking Age religion.  Hm, and let’s take this moment to remember that Norse Mythology (which was written down by Christians centuries after the conversion) does not necessarily equal Norse Religion– the relationship between the two has been argued back and forth on both the broad points and the miniscule details, and the matter will never be completely resolved.  That said, there is certainly a lot we can say about Norse Religion– but I’ll return to that another time.

Goðafoss. Photo copyright CG Olsen 2009

Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods), where Lawspeaker Þorgeir threw his idols after the conversion to Christianity. Photo copyright CG Olsen 2009

Out of all the “broad” readings of Norse Mythology in the last 20-30 years, I consider Margaret Clunies Ross’ Prolonged Echoes volume 1 to be the most important.  Unfortunately we have now gotten to sources which are much less accessible, and you will have to check with your nearest university to see whether they have a copy you can read.  Still, it is a great, theoretically-savvy and interdisciplinary interpretation of Norse Mythology as a system in the context in which it was written– Christian Iceland of the 1200-1300s.  Not that everyone has loved it (I’ve heard people criticize some of the feminist elements of her analysis, though I’m not endorsing those criticisms by mentioning them) but I am a fan myself, and I expect it will remain influential for a long time to come.

Well, I would have liked to make a much longer list of books, but I’ve been too verbose and better shut it down– thanks if you’ve read this far.  More books on Norse Mythology (and other topics) to come– probably with more focused topics or reviews from now on.

4/6/14: Wow, this is by far my most popular post on this blog. Please share if you have found this helpful or interesting at all! If you are interested in other Norse-myth/culture/lit/history posts, check out: my review of Orchard’s Edda translation, an announcement of ANOTHER new Poetic Edda translation plus a link to a cowboy version of one of the poems, my post on the term “Viking” and what it meant back in the days of the sagas, my list of ways to learn to “talk like a Viking” and my brief tips on dressing like a viking, some more book recommendations appended to a critique of the first episode of the History Channel’s “Viking” series, a short intro to the Eddic poem Hávamála discussion of and link to a documentary about the Viking age “Ulfberht” swords, a Mother’s Day post on powerful mothers in Norse myth and saga plus a Father’s Day post on a complementary topic, some notes on valkyrie love stories in Old Norse tradition, a link to one of my papers and book reviews on Cultural Memory and the sagas, and a post on one of the myths I’ve had the opportunity to study a few times, the abduction of Iðunn (illustration below). 

And to complement the mythic reading list, here are some of my mythic pictures (don’t take these as canonical interpretations–just “fun” interpretations). 🙂  Click the pics to go to the galleries they are in (or check out the galleries themselves at DeviantArt or Redbubble). If you really like it… you can buy it! 😀

Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1


Valkyrie Valentine 1 fixed

Mist Valkyria Black Backdrop

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What to expect

Welcome to my new creative outlet. What you will find here:

1) Links to poems and stories I manage to publish.  The most recent one is here, and another is coming up in Ideomancer.

2) Viking stuff.  Well, Old Norse literature stuff.  I’m a Norse Mythologist, among other things

3) Book Reviews– from Vikings to Critical Theory to Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Yeah, not the most focused blog in the world, is it…

4) Drawings.  Hopefully entertaining ones.  Try this one:

They are coming

There we have it.  More fearsome Viking fun next time.

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