It’s Halloween, so I suppose I should post a little something about Scandinavian ghosts and monsters. The pictures here are of a pipe-cleaner sculpture from a former student, representing one of the many monster fights in Grettis saga (also available in this translation), one of my favorites, and probably the one I have taught the most times over the years. Can’t remember exactly which monster fight this is– probably the fight with the troll-woman just before the final chapter of Grettir’s life on Drangey, though I think my first guess was that it was the fight with Glámr, the pagan Swedish immigrant to Iceland turned draugr. A draugr = a ghost, but corporeal–a zombie, but not hungry for brains, and much more articulate, and not decaying but instead superhumanly strong, troublesome, and “walking again” because of something left undone, often an improper burial. While I’ve labeled one of these a fight with a “troll” and another a fight with a “ghost,” really both are “troll” fights, in the older sense of the word–monstrous or superhuman in the sense of transcending that which is normal–Grettir himself invites comparison to the monsters he fights, as a super-strong outsider (literally–he is an outlaw), and the similarly cantankerous Egill Skallagrímsson is at one point said to be “large as a troll” (the Icelandic scholar Ármann Jakobsson has written on this an related topics). Grettis saga is relatively late for one of the classical “Sagas of Icelanders,” which may explain why it is just bursting with encounters with the supernatural–other Sagas of Icelanders (aka Family Sagas) may have occasional ghosts or other otherworldly types showing up, but overall they are less sensational, and correspond more to our contemporary sense of “history,” while the legendary sagas (or “sagas of ancient times”) are… well, fantasy novels, basically. More akin to the Romances, if we are more conscious of the time in which they are written, but also reworking stories which seem to go back to the Viking age, and often claim to go back further. The setting of Grettis saga is standard Family Saga, however, and the monster fights themselves (there are a lot of them!), as well as Grettir’s character and his representation of himself at a few points in the saga, all work together to mediate between the heroic past and more mundane present of medieval Iceland. Get a copy–if you have trouble appreciating the larger vision of the saga (many don’t like it as much as the more central classics), try out Kathryn Hume’s article “The Thematic Design of Grettis saga.” It’s available on JSTOR, if you have access to that. Many contested connections of Beowulf as well, if you want to bring some even more famous medieval monsters into it.
That’s a medieval monster story for you. As far as modern Scandi scary stories go, I’m getting into John Ajvide Lindqvist’s work. You may have heard of his unusual vampire movie, Let the Right One In (available on Netflix, last I checked), originally a novel. I am currently reading his novel Handling the Undead, a treatment of the zombie genre which is less about eating brains, and more about what we would do if suddenly our loved ones came back to “life,” even if they were clearly not themselves, not entirely at least (and far less articulate than a draugr like Glámr). I’m around halfway through, and at the moment it seems to be revolving around not only issues of death and life and loss, but also the question of who exactly gets custody of these “reliving”–the government or their families? What are the boundaries between the phenomenon as a national health problem and as a crisis of personal relationships? Not your typical thrilling brain-chase, but I’ve found it disturbing enough–if zombie stories normally gloss over the actual trauma of the impossibly concrete confrontation with death and loss that the return of the dead implies, the absence of the usual horror-film bells and whistles in this book allows mortality and mourning to come to the forefront in a very powerful way. I had to put the book away for a while today– it was just too much (plus I was eating lunch…) Anyway, I highly recommend it so far, even though I’m not actually a horror fan and get a bit grossed out by the book at times. Plan on teaching it next semester, so we’ll see what my students think!
That’s it, a bit late for a Halloween post, but there ya go! Remember, if you need a costume, check out my links in my post on dressing like a Viking!