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Archive for March, 2012

Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the most renowned Icelandic poets of the Viking age-- also the orneriest s.o.b. in all the sagas. Well, maybe some others come close. Picture from a late manuscript. Sorry, the poem at the end of the post isn't by him. I'll probably cover him again sometime though...

Ah, I need to start finding out about these special days in advance!  Today is World Poetry Day.  Yay for poetry!  I have all sorts of things I’d love to post (with translations, of course)– Erik Gustav Geijer‘s “Vikingen” (= The Viking), Egill Skallagrímsson‘s “Sonatorrek“, and others– but I’m short on sleep and behind on grading and class prep, so this will be a less involved post.  I thought of posting the poems I did my dissertation on, but honestly, those need to be cleaned up a bit before they are readable for a casual blog-audience.  In keeping with the “Book Reviews” element of this blog, I’ll bring to your attention the relatively recent (2005) A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics by Margaret Clunies Ross (also the author of Prolonged Echoes, my favorite large-scale interpretation of the corpus of Norse mythology).  Affordable, and a nice introduction for the beginning grad student, or the ambitious undergrad or enthusiast.  I haven’t had the opportunity to teach with it yet (and I’m not sure I would teach it in an undergrad course– actually, I’m not sure I would have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in Old Norse poetics at all, though I would like to do a grad course on the subject one day), but it covers the basics as well as a wide range of pertinent issues, from questions of genre, to the transmission and recording of the poetry, to the “Poet as Craftsman” metaphor behind much of the poetic terminology (this section was helpful to me with both my dissertation and a conference paper I gave a couple years ago), to the vernacular grammatical treatises of the later Middle Ages.  One day (maybe soon, now that it is on my mind) I will put together a post on Eddic versus Skaldic poetry (and whether that is a useful distinction or not).  Meanwhile, there is wikipedia and this book.  Well, and some other books as well.  Like this book, which will also give you some short, easy-to-read (for the most part) introductions to a whole range of genres and topics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Well, I don’t want to leave you with nothing but prose, so here is some actual poetry, taken from a 13th century rune stave from Bergen, Norway (B255).  Text and translation are from A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, page 20.  I’m short on time, so I’ll just let Margaret Clunies Ross tell you what it means.

Vár kennir mér víra
Vitr úglaðan sitja;
Eir nemr opt ok stórom
Öluns grundar mik blundi.

“Intelligent Vár (goddess) of wires [goddess of wires/jewelry=woman] teaches me to remain unhappy; Eir (goddess) of the land of the mackerel (sea) [goddess of the sea = woman (?)] takes away my sleep, often and mightily.”

Or another way to put it, if you are having trouble following the kennings (I’ve got to admit, the goddess of the sea = woman doesn’t really work for me…):

First Couplet: That smart lady is schooling me in misery, but I’m still hot for teacher. 

Second Couplet: No sleep for me–that siren keeps me up, way up, every night. 

What can I say, I’m a sucker for depressing love poetry (and can certainly empathize with the lack of sleep).  Well, OK, maybe my interpretation of this runic poem is a bit on the unsubtle side [edit: actually, now that I look at it again, it could be a bit raunchier than I meant… that’s what I get for paraphrasing skaldic late at night], but if you want the full experience, you’ll just have to go and learn Old Norse.  Then you can take another year (or two… or three) to learn how to interpret Skaldic poetry.

EDIT: For more romantic runes, check out this Valentine’s Day post from Viqueen.

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Shoot, almost missed St. Patrick’s day.  Wore green– but I always do that (it’s my favorite color).  Well, I don’t really know anything about St. Pat, and I can’t claim to be a Celticist (though I did finally buy a translation of the Mabinogion— haven’t had time to read it yet though), but considering how involved the Vikings were in the history of Ireland (they were responsible for the rise of many towns, including Dublin, just as they were involved in establishing and expanding towns and commerce in Russia), and considering that I am teaching Laxdœla saga right now, with the Cinderella-esque Irish princess-turned-mute-slave Melkorka and her son Olaf Peacock (genetic studies show a large amount of Celtic blood in the Icelandic population), I thought it’d be appropriate to do a quick sketch of some abomination of a horned leprechaun hybrid.  Yes, I know, Vikings didn’t have horns–but I’m pretty sure Leprechauns don’t actually look like cereal mascots, so I figured hey, as long as as I’m doing a cartoony Viking-Leprechaun, I may as well…  In any case, we could say that his rainbow shield includes echoes not only of popular leprechaun imagery, but also of Bifröst/Bilröst, the bridge of the gods which Snorra Edda equates with the rainbow.  Hm, his shield is a bit lopsided… I’ll see if I can fix that later, maybe…

I also came across this interesting article about the Irish as the first “immigrants” to the US.  Well, OK, the first settlers were immigrants as well, but the point of the article is that the Irish were the first to come as the poor and needy after the “settling” of the continent was already done, and so were the first to be seen as an invasion of unsavory, ill-bred types.  My family (Swedish/Norwegian) immigrated around 1900, during my great-grandparents’ time, and I’m fortunate that my family has kept so many diaries, letters, and papers from that period.  It’s really touching and satisfying to “see yourself” in those who went before you.  Like many Scandinavian American families, we celebrate our heritage not only with gross fish dishes at Christmas and painted wooden horses strewn about, but also with… Swedish and Norwegian jokes!  You know you’re white when… you tell ethnic jokes about yourself.  Haha.  Well, OK, the Swedish Americans never had to face discrimination at the same level as the early Irish immigrants did, or any immigrants whose skin looks a bit darker than… well,  than Scandinavian skin, but I do find it surprising to compare the jokes we tell around the table now to the jokes collected by folklorists in the first half of the century.  While we tell jokes about ourselves now, jokes were told about Scandinavians by non-Scandinavians back when they were still fresh off the boat.  Here’s what I remember of one (I’m going from memory, so take this as a creative performance, rather than a verbatim one): Ole is on the run from the cops.  He runs into Sven’s shop and says “Yumpin’ Yiminy Sven, ya gotta hide me!”  So Sven says, “Oh, well, Okey, I got dis bag behind da counter, you can hide in dat.”  So Ole hides in the bag.  The cops come in and ask whether anyone had run in there.  Sven says no, but they start looking around.  They find the bag behind the counter, but Sven says, “Oh, dat sack’s just fulla bells, dat’s all dat’s in dere.”  So one of the cops kicks the bag, and the bag goes “Yingle yingle.”  (Click the link for notes on Swedish pronunciation– the joke hinges on the Swedish accent, as well as immigrant stupidity–but the Swede’s role as criminal surprised me.  It seems like it is almost always the poor and destitute, the have-nots, who get labeled as threats to the prosperity of the rest, whether we are talking about immigrant jokes or the “witch”, aka the poor old widow on the outskirts of town).

Pic, sloppy as it is, is up on DeviantArt as well.

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Sorry, no Vikings today.  Though I will probably post on Gender in Old Norse studies one of these days… just not today.  Just saw this excellent post from Feminist Frequency, and had to reblog it (or whatever the technical term is…)

Here is the link to the original post.

Be sure to watch both videos.  Myself of ten years ago would have tuned out, I think– but note that she is not saying that these stereotypically feminine qualities are inherently bad– it is programing little girls to think that this is what defines them that is wrong, along with the aggressive gender segregation involved (which may be good for business, but I don’t think that necessarily makes it good for people…).  And while I certainly appreciate adventure material like Star Wars myself, there is something not quite right about the massive emphasis on violence in children’s games– more so than at the height of the Cold War, I expect.  It reminds me more of the children’s games described in the Swedish dystopia Kallocain by Karin Boye— the book was written in response to her visit to the Soviet Union, but the paranoid post-9/11 world of international capitalism isn’t a bad fit for some of the satire of the book, hyperbole taken into account.

I loved Legos as a kid myself, especially the space ones– but what I enjoyed most was creative potential and freedom the toys offered.  It goes without saying that the “girls version” criticized in these videos does not offer such potential, but really, the new boys (ie standard) version of legos is pretty limited now too, from what I can see– more like action figures than building blocks.  But OK, I haven’t played with Legos for years and years, so I can’t say I have much experience with the current crop of products…

EDIT:  I have the perfect solution.  You know how Legos has done some Viking themed sets?  Let’s have a Laxdæla Saga theme!  It’s set in the Viking Age (even if written in the 1200s), has feuding and killing and fun “guy stuff” (irony intended), and yet it has a remarkably high density of strong, positively portrayed (or at least respectable and competent) female characters.  Like Pride and Prejudice with swords and tragedy.  Or something…

Also, while the saga link above is to a free version, I recommend buying a current, up-to-date translation.

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Mr. Howard. A pretty canonical photo of him. I picked it up from Wikicommons.

Despite the lengthy title of this post, I actually only spent one day teaching two of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian stories: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (free version here) and “The Tower of the Elephant,” both out of The Coming of Conan, the first of Del Rey’s collections of the original Robert Howard Conan stories (valuable collections, since for so long one couldn’t be sure that one wasn’t getting a reworked, non-authentic Conan story by some later hack–or so the intro to the collection generously informs me).  I had taught several stories by Howard’s friend HP Lovecraft the two previous class days, including, of course, the classic “Call of Cthulhu.”  I think my students were pretty sick of all these escapist/titillating/creepy fantasies for teenage boys of the 30s… but I had fun!  Well, OK, it’s a bit depressing wading through all the racist and anti-immigrant paranoia in the Lovecraft stories, and Howard wasn’t exactly the most enlightened guy in the world– “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is basically a rape narrative, a barbaric “Taming of the Shrew” in which the ultra-masculine hero conquers the haughty temptress who “has it coming”.  Sure, the girl gets away, because even Howard can’t let us become that complicit, voyeurs that we are–but it’s still one in a long line of such uber-patriarchal stories.  Well, I wouldn’t be in my field if I weren’t capable of appreciating cultural products at the same time that I find aspects of their implicit (or explicit) ideology noxious.  You have to try not to get carried back to your teenage-years too much, though…

Cover story for Conan! Queen of the Black Coast. Not the way we usually picture him, post Franzetta…

Apart from dissecting said noxious elements, I would say that the most obvious element to examine in these stories is the figure of the “barbarian.”  It is Conan, after all.  Who better to look to for the figure of the barbarian in the 20th century?  The introduction to The Coming of Conan is quick to point out that Howard was not a fan of the “Noble Savage,” whom he pictures living in harmony with others and nature, authentic wisdom dripping in pearls from his lips–but it is clearly the barbarians who come out at the top of the moral ladder in Howard’s view.  Just as Rousseau [whoops, NOT ROUSSEAU!  Sorry, my bad…], and later the Romantics, projected their ideals onto the “authentic” “primitives” of exotic lands, so Howard projects an early twentieth century imagination of an Übermensch onto a figure of barbarism.  It is not so removed from the Romantics though– the National Romantics were as eager to found their constructions of Nationhood on their “barbarian” ancestors as they were to found them on the “authentic folk,” the native and contemporary rural “primitives.”  The Viking was a favored barbarian figure for all the Germanic nations of the time (not too different even now, really…), which is why I included “Frost Giant’s Daughter” in my course, with its pseudo-Norse and Old English names.  That said, let’s remember that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons would not have been eager to label themselves “barbarians.”  Think of Viking art, or Skaldic Poetry– baroque, artificial, and “barbaric”to us in its abstruseness, it was that very artificial character which marked it as “Culture” in opposition to the monstrous and dangerous world of “Nature” for the Viking age Scandinavians (or so goes one interpretation).  Some of Howard’s ideas of “barbarism” don’t quite fit, but are still interesting, when compared to these prototypical “barbarians.”  In “The Tower of the Elephant” we find the barbarians explicitly characterized as taciturn and polite, while “civilized” folk can get away throwing their words about in an extremely offensive manner–because no one is going to split them down the middle for being impolite.  Well, OK, the saga heroes can be fairly taciturn– but remember the proverb: “Only a slave gets revenge at once, a coward never” (OK, going from memory here– may be a bit off with my quote).  You may kill someone for an insult, but probably not right away, and it is likely enough that you will kill someone close to him– or even more likely, start circulating scurrilous verse.  The feud will have plenty of time to escalate to killings (for more info on how Bloodfeud works in the sagas, check out Bloodtaking and Peacemaking by Bill Miller).  How about the Old English poem Beowulf?  Well, the characters are anything but taciturn there.  Beowulf and Hrothgar seem inclined to go on for HOURS, if we trust the poet.  This eloquence (a true man is a master of both words and deeds!) has its roots in politeness, though (or is it that politeness has its roots in violence?).  We learn early in the poem that a good king is one who invades enemy halls, overturns their mead benches, takes tribute from others–and protects his own people from those same horrors.  When Beowulf comes to Hrothgar, he comes as an armed young man with a band of followers into the hall of a king who has clearly failed to protect his people.  All the wordy, round-about, and very public conversations are necessary to keep the swords in their sheathes, to convince the people that there is no reason for bloodshed (a point I believe was first made for me by the late Nicholas Howe).  So OK, there are some resonances with Howard’s vision of a martial, barbarian culture, but it is pretty different as well.

My Conan Library–minus the Renee Zellweger film “The Whole Wide World”, which I forgot about, and is more of a chick flick. But still part of the Conan complex!!!

I’ve been pretty interested in the emerging phenomenon (well, “emerging” over the last 20+ years…) of the so-called “expanded universes”, from Star Wars, to Star Trek, to Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer (I think “Expanded Universe” is a term coined by the Star Wars franchise, but I apply it indiscriminately, being the open-minded guy that I am).  We might see the Conan complex as an early example of this, especially considering the fact that for several decades it was only the “expansion” that was widely available.  Comic books, paintings, movies (including a new one), rewrites of Conan stories, and new original novels (including some by the author of the Wheel of Time series) made sure that everyone know roughly who Conan was.  Personally, I prefer the original stories, but the whole complex is pretty interesting.  This figure of the “barbarian” clearly holds a lot of power for us still– look at our movies, or heavy metal music!

A quick sketch I made of Conan a couple months back. Finally an opportunity to use it!

Well, I will likely post on Conan again one day– but for now I’ll end with a note about Howard’s writing of the stories and his inspiration in the idea of the “ancient world” that a bookish young man would have had in the 1930s.  The introduction cites Howard’s tendency to “lose” the character in his stories, in particular in the Kull stories (which I haven’t read), which had less of a pseudo-history surrounding them.  For Conan, on the other hand, Howard wrote out several pages of a “world history” (which you can find in the appendix to The Coming of Conan) which served to give him an “accurate and realistic” ground for his stories (check out the introduction to the book for a more thorough discussion).  I’m a big fan of “sub-creation” (Tolkienian or otherwise–though I suppose this isn’t the term Howard would use, is it?), so this is one of my favorite parts of the whole Conan corpus.  Apart from my predilection for “thick worlds” (to misappropriate some Geertzian terminology), I think the enabling effect of this “world creation” on Howard’s creativity is interesting in light of the stories that circulate about Conan’s own agency in the writing of these stories.  Authors often talk about characters who “write themselves”– I’ve been advised in writing courses and at writers conferences to develop my characters  sufficiently that, while writing the actual story, the characters themselves will surprise me with what they do.  There are all sorts of things we could get into here about subjectivity/agency, the divided self, etc, but I don’t have time for that (another time, maybe).  In any case, Conan was apparently an unusually virulent case of this phenomenon.  The version given in the “Making of” special on the DVD of the Schwarzenegger movie tells us that Howard was writing one night when he felt Conan behind him, telling him to write, or else he would cleave him in two.  This occurred night after night, until a whole bunch of stories were written.  Well, it’s colorful, at any rate.  I don’t know whether it is just a bit of apocryphal creativity, or actually from an account by Howard, but I’ll re-quote one version Howard gives, which I found in the intro to Coming of Conan: “…the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen– or rather, off my typewriter– almost without effort on my part.  I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred.  Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.  For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan.  The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-telling.” (pp. xxi-xxii)  The history which enlivens the character and gives him agency is a pastiche of pseudo-historical bits (like the faux-Norse in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)– but it is real enough, apparently.  Maybe we could think of it as the image of antiquity, or maybe discourse of antiquity, which Howard grew up with and was embedded in, speaking through him– a more explicit dramatization of the fact that, while we are the ones who “speak language” and who create texts, we are also “spoken by” that language and that intertextual world– since it pre-exists us, and we can only speak or create ourselves by virtue of that pre-existing system, which both enables and constrains.

Well, writing this went on longer than it should have, and I have midterms to grade, classes to teach, an abstract to write, and job applications to send out, so I’d better go.  The last picture (a sketch I did a few months ago) is available in various forms on DeviantArt (follow the link and click on the “buy print” button in the right top corner.  CONAN SAYS DO IT!!!!).

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