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Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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Hey folks! Since most of my non-academic time lately has been taken up with making art, I thought I would share a few of my recent projects–and of course, I don’t update my art here very often, so keep an eye on my sketchblog, my deviantart, and my instagram. And if you would like to support me (PLEASE DO!) I have my print on demand store at redbubble as well as a wishlist on Amazon, primarily for art supplies that are a bit more difficult for me to afford. My traditional media paintings and prints will hopefully be available soon either on etsy or through a gallery, but in the meantime if you are thinking you might like to pick up any of these, just leave a message and we can get in touch!

 

First up are a couple cartoony viking pics that were commissioned for a grad student conference at UC Berkeley–I was giving a talk at another event on campus at the same time, but a former student of mine was helping organize things and requested some pics for the meal tickets. 🙂  The Valkyrie one is my favorite, but too detailed for the little tickets, alas. A print will hopefully be available soon. Thinking of adding color…

Hungry Viking by CallegoDrinking Buddies by CallegoAnd then there is my linocut printmaking–a few pics here of my carvings, test prints, and a sketch for a potential larger future print. I’m using oil-based black ink and then when dry adding in the sky with watercolor.

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Design will change a bit I expect… Gotta figure out something carvable.

And finally here process photos of three of my favorite paintings so far. Info on materials is posted for each on my deviantart, but paints for all of these are my Daniel Smith extra fine watercolors (I also got some Chinese watercolors for Xmas that I enjoy, which I used for my fanart for Sorcerer to the Crown).

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Sorry for the lack of posts–too much going on lately. I’ve got a ton of books I want to recommend, and I just have not been keeping up with posting about them here, so I will see if I can catch up the next week or two… no promises.

The first I want to recommend is Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho is a Malaysian author and lawyer, based in London. Sorcerer is her first book, and the first in a series (so looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming out!!!), but you can check out her website for links to short fiction and interviews if you need more. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can practice law and write at the same time–38 and I’m still trying (and failing) to figure out how to keep space open for both my academic and my creative lives. :/  But more power to her, and I will take inspiration from her example.

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My hasty bit of fan art of Zacharias, Sorcerer Royal–sorry, will have to try Prunella another time. And yes, I know, I’m a lousy illustrator of period costumes–I tried… a little…

Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy set in Regency England–so Jane Austen meets Harry Potter, I guess. OK, sorry, not really… If you’ve heard any buzz about this book, it has probably (apart from the Potter/Austen mashup) been the fact that it has a black male lead and a half-Indian female lead and gets into everything from microaggressions to outright racism to colonial politics. All true, but I find myself frustrated by the fact that this will be taken by many as a “gimmick” (crazy, I know, but Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are a thing)–if we are going to imagine that making a main character a POC and involving racism and colonialism in the plot is gimmicky, well, we are lost. The racial and colonial situation of the book and the two protagonists are perfect material for fictional obstacles and conflicts, and Cho does an excellent job exploiting this throughout. This aspect of the book is explored better than I can manage in Alex Brown’s review at Tor.com, so I will direct you there for a more thorough discussion. Cho notes that she is not interested in turning into a spokesperson/mascot for diversity, and the novel is not in the least preachy–the attention to perspectives and contextual material so often ignored in Western (especially speculative) literature is refreshing–there is serious untapped potential here. I’m reminded of the collection of Southeast Asian steampunk stories I picked up a while back–both fantasy and steampunk have long been ripe for a “The Empire Writes Back” moment (bracketing off for now all the complications involved in postcolonial literature and what exactly constitutes a legitimate subaltern voice), and Sorcerer is one of many excellent contributions in this vein. But again, the novel is not reducible to its relationship to racism and colonialism (or sexism, though it weaves that very realistically into the treatment of women’s magic throughout). Mild spoilers below:

The plot revolves around our two protagonists, sensitive and idealistic Zacharias, a former slave who was rescued and adopted by the former Sorcerer Royal for his magical talent, and pragmatic and proactive Prunella, half Indian and raised in England as an orphan by the mistress of a house for magically gifted women–the point of such a house being to suppress their magic, “for their own safety.” Following a short prelude, we open the story with Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, a position you come into by virtue of being able to bear the staff that goes with the office–and the suspicion among those inclined to suspect those of darker shades is that he has achieved that office only by murdering his mentor, the former Sorcerer Royal. This is complicated not only by the color of Z’s skin, but by the fact that magic, a sort of resource that comes from Fairie, a realm with its own political complications in this story, is on the decline in England, a fact that also tends to be blamed on this unprecedented new Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias remains slightly mysterious to the reader until the end, since the story requires him to keep quiet about so much–a bit frustrating at times, but it does feel necessary for the story and I appreciated Cho’s keeping us in the dark till all is revealed at the end–suspense accomplished. Prunella’s own mysteries are unknown to herself as well as to the audience, and while for much of the novel it feels like Zacharias is the moody, cosmic hero whom the Big Deal plot revolves around, Prunella turns out to be quite a Big Deal herself as she upends the cultural assumptions about “women’s magic,” in many ways eclipsing Zacharias as Special Hero(ine)–and while I think Zacharias is still very lovable and certainly still as much a Big Deal as P in this book, I did appreciate Prunella’s Leia (oh, going to make myself cry…) standing toe-to-toe with Zacharias’ Luke (even snarky, accomplished princesses tend to get displaced by sensitive, special farmboys, alas)–while the book starts with P falling into Z’s orbit, they are a nice binary by the end, and P has her own very real motivations–while they are allies to a degree, she still has her own very distinct story, motivations, and strategies. And while they may at times feel like a very opposite binary pair, I think they go really well together (which I suppose is the point), and I look forward to a more developed romance in the sequels (did I really say that? I must be mellowing with age if I’m wanting more romance in the book… But it may be a mistake to take a continued romance for granted, we’ll see.).

So in summary, I loved the plot and the way in which we are gradually introduced to both the worldbuilding and the character’s secrets, I really loved the two main characters (both as foils and partners), and I felt like Cho very expertly tapped into the potential in the racist/colonial/sexist elements (all entirely realistic, let’s remember–these three things are not fantasy) for compelling plot and characters. I’ve seen reference to occasional “purple prose” in an otherwise positive review–I sometimes felt that way myself, but, while I can’t speak for Cho’s intentions, I feel like (however serious the Big-Deal conflict is in-world) there is enough humor and playfulness to signal that when the prose does get a bit overdone it may be read as part of the game. Well, this is my perspective two months on, so it isn’t really fresh enough in my head to comment. I also listened to it on Audible, and I’m not sure whether I judge things the same when I listen to them–but I will note that the narration is very professional and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve got it on Kindle now and may try a reread soon… but we’ll see. I have too too many books in progress. 😦

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Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Njáls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Njáls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.

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A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisfærsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

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Gosh, it’s been way way too long since I’ve actually written about Norse mythology here, hasn’t it? Well, why not take on one of my favorites: Óðinn’s acquisition of the Mead of Poetry. Loosely based on a version of a talk I prepared but never gave relating to my recent research on the figure of the home and interior in the sagas (I’ve spoken twice, not including academic conferences, on the subject since, but this portion got edited out both times). Watch out, this turned into a super long post.

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The abduction, as I illustrated it for the contest at the Norse Mythology blog.

In our approach to this particular narrative, I think it is helpful to point out the obvious comparison to (and contrast with) the story of the abduction of Iðunn, which I have previously illustrated and discussed. Both stories, after all, involve a Viking raid of sorts, the penetration of a rival community to acquire or reacquire a resource, sexual access to a woman of the rival group, shapeshifting into eagle form (among others), and a dramatic chase scene through the air back to the home of the gods–and both show up in approximately the same section of Prose Edda. Both poems are also set in the so-called “mythic present”, as opposed to the “mythic past” (the prehistory, creation, and ordering of the world) and the “mythic future” (the fall of the gods, disintegration of the world, and the coming of a new world). The mythic present is primarily about the gods attempting to maintain the status quo, meaning, doing their best to assert and maintain their superiority over the giants. Margaret Clunies Ross (whose book Prolonged Echoes informs a lot of this post and my other posts) has called this situation “negative reciprocity”, in that, rather than a reciprocal relationship between gods and giants (ie, fair exchange of goods, marriage alliances, etc, or on the other hand hostilities, whether theft, sexual access to women, or killing, like in a feud or war), the situation is instead one-sided, with the gods, by and large in the mythic present, having their way with the giants while rebuffing the giants’ attempts in the other direction (for example, giants die right and left throughout the mythic present, but the gods are mostly untouched–until Baldr’s death). We might think of it as an attempt to project and enforce a vertical relationship, such as you would have in the hierarchical relationships within the space of the Icelandic farmstead (from the landed family down to the lowest slave), onto the level of horizontal relationships between different groups–but again (or even in parallel with this), it also works well enough to read these as, say, “viking raids”, or as a mythic prototype for the relationship to the Saami, from whom the Germanic Scandinavians extracted tribute–certainly the myths serve to set up a properly demonic straw-man, justifying the aggression of the POV of the mythology.

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Thor’s mother is the giantess “Earth”. There are several giantesses in the matrilines of the gods, even going back to Odin (who essentially creates the world by murdering his maternal great-grandfather). We may take the entry of several giantesses into the community of the gods as either wives or mistresses as a reinforcement of negative reciprocity in the myths, which tends to involve denying the giants sexual access to goddesses while the gods have their way with the giantesses. More on that another time, probably… And incidentally, my comic here is not intended as an accurate portrayal of the giantess Earth–when giantesses play the role of object of desire in the myths, they tend to look the part as well.

From the perspective of the gods (and the aristocratic Icelanders whose interests they may be taken to represent in the Eddas) the proper direction for action is outward from Ásgarðr (“Asgard”, “farm/enclosure of the gods”) towards the land of the giants–as with what we call “acquisition narratives”, such as the origin of the mead of poetry, in which the gods go to the giants and come back with something that is, in the mythic ideology of medieval Iceland, associated with the gods as representatives of Culture, with humanity, etc. When the opposite is the case–the action is directed against the gods, with the giants threatening either their women or their stuff (or just their assumption of superiority, as I can think of at least two instances where giantesses attempt to insist on a more reciprocal standing–more on that another time)–it is a crisis, the natural order of things is inverted (represented in one myth by Þórr getting dressed up as a bride) and (again, in the myths of the mythic present) the myth ends with the restoration of the status quo. The abduction of Iðunn is this latter sort of myth, while the story of the Mead of Poetry is of the former type–one of the most prototypical of the acquisition narratives to my mind.

I would say “welcome to the militant world of Viking mythology”, but keep in mind that the versions of the myths that we have were written down by Christian Icelanders two hundred years after the conversion. In fact, a possible interpretation of the significance of the myths in an Iceland that was Christian but still managed conflicts via bloodfeud (as well as more mundane settlements) is that they functioned as fantasies in which one’s rivals could be completely dominated and demonized–more on that another time, probably, esp. given that the situation isn’t too different in so many of our own stories…

Throughout the myths we find a prominent anxiety over the vulnerable interior at two symbolically conflated levels–that of the community (the home of the gods is marked out by a great wall, whose origin story is itself pretty interesting) and that of the body. One could in fact read the arc of the mythology as a whole (as preserved in the medieval Eddas) in terms of the anxiety of the gods over the threat of penetration, bodily, sexually (generally manifested either as threats to the women of a community or as threats to the virility/masculinity of a man), strategically, etc (all the while, of course, they constantly penetrate away when it comes to the land of the giants). Relevant here are several seminal studies on insults and gender in Old Norse lit (not too far off from us when we flip the bird or say “screw you”, or less bowdlerized forms, but you could be outlawed for such things in Medieval Iceland), but I think I’ll have to save that for another time.

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Possibly Odin in eagle form, on Gotlandic picture stone Stora Hammars III. My own photo, so alas not adjusted to let the image show up more clearly…

The conflation of home/community and body with each other is not unique to the sagas and myths, of course, in particular in terms of the permeability of the body. It is an understandable and, I imagine, universal tendency to think of the home as what keeps the outside out and the inside in, and this concern over boundaries of course maps onto our concerns over our bodies as well, which we also think of in terms of inside/outside, and the integrity of which is often dependent on the integrity of our various shelters. This inside/outside symbolism is of course useful when constructing communal identity (“insiders” vs “outsiders”, to be “in” on something, etc), the perceived unity of the human body being rhetorically mobilized in the articulation of a cooperative unity of many bodies. We find this at play in the larger story of the mead of poetry.

The story begins with one version of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir (we might tentatively locate this at the end of the mythic past, but generally let’s think of the larger myth as representative of the mythic present). In their truce, they exchange hostages—not “hostages” like we are used to thinking, but representative members of one community go to live with the other community—since members of each community now live in the same spaces, they now constitute one community (at some level of signification anyway–arguably the Vanir members are still treated differently, as represented in the Eddas). In addition, and more pertinent to my point here, both sides spit in a big puddle. Wouldn’t it be great if we settled conflicts this way now…. The idea being, their bodily fluids—their insides—are now mixed, and so they are one. Óðinn doesn’t stop there, of course, and he turns this puddle of spit into a person, because mythology. The metaphor of shared bodies equating to communal unity is made concrete as the bodily fluids of both communities are now contained within one literal body.

The person created from the spit is called Kvasir. He turns out to be the wisest being in the world, and he goes around telling folks wise stuff. But then he runs into some dwarves who think he is a smartass, and they kill him (they excuse themselves, saying, essentially, that he choked on his own wisdom)—and of course, they take his blood and mix it with honey to make mead, an alcoholic beverage associated with the aristocratic male community in ancient Scandinavia, because mythology, again, though we will probably get tired of this explanation. These dwarves get into a feud with a giant, who takes the mead in compensation for their killing of his parents, and this giant, Suttungr, hides it in the middle of a mountain, guarded by his daughter Gunnlöð, because duh, that’s what you do when you have magical mead made from the blood of the wisest person in the universe, and before that from the spit of the gods (I know “Drunk History” is a thing–“Drunk Mythology” would be good, but you would have to do this myth in poetic form…).

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The origin of the “rhymster’s share” (aka Odin loses his shit). Image from wikicommons.

So Óðinn finds out and he thinks “Well, that’s not a good way to use my spit, we don’t want the giants to have it”, so he disguises himself, which is typical enough for Óðinn, and goes to seduce Gunnlöð—also quite typical for Óðinn. Well, it’s kind of complicated getting there, as he has to trick Suttungr’s brother into helping him, but in the end he drills a hole into the mountain, turns into a snake, and penetrates the chamber where Gunnlöð is guarding the mead—and if that wasn’t Freudian enough for you all, then he sleeps with her for three nights. In return she lets him drink up all the mead, and he turns into an eagle and flies away, because (again) mythology. Well, Suttungr doesn’t like this, so he turns into an eagle as well and chases Óðinn back to Ásgarðr. When Óðinn gets there he pukes the mead into containers, making the mead of poetry, now refined a final time with this return to and from Óðinn’s gut, available for gods and humanity—so this is where poetic skill comes from. But Suttungr was so close behind him that Óðinn peed himself a bit, and that’s where bad pop songs come from. Read the story in full in Prose Edda (for which, as usual, I recommend Faulkes’ translation–I’m a fan of his edition of the book as well).

The anxiety over penetration (again, of various sorts, both metaphorical and less so) in the state of negative reciprocity that I discussed above is hopefully illustrated well enough between the “Mead” and “Abduction” myths (oh, and please don’t assume the “screw you” ideology noted in passing here is all there is to say about gender in the sagas–it’s true that we tend to consider the sagas written by aristocratic men for aristocratic men, but there is a lot more to women in medieval Iceland beyond saga anxiety over their potential for penetration…). Beyond that, there is a lot more to reading this myth in terms of an implicit symbolic conflation of body, hall, and community. The mead of poetry is an origin myth for a specific type of poetry, Skaldic poetry. The form of skaldic is interesting in itself, but that’s a bit of a complex topic to get into here. In practice, skaldic was a commodity of the aristocratic male (again, this is the general, but not universal, picture we get through the sagas). Poems were composed in honor of chieftains, kings, wealthy men, and the prototypical performance would involve poetry performed in honor of the patron in his hall, with all the other retainers there as well. The communal identity of this boys-club of warriors is both symbolically and concretely reinforced by the fact that they are all together in this hall, “their” hall, that they are drinking alcoholic beverages together, a standard warrior-band practice marked by aristocratic exclusivity (a potential reason for the difficulty of the form), and the fact that they are all participants in this oral poetic performance—in fact, ears are referred as mouths in one kenning, showing us that the appropriateness of the conflation of mead and poetry was not lost on them. They all take in the poetic mead together, symbolizing their communal identity, just like the Aesir and the Vanir become one by sharing their own bodily fluids–we emphasize our communal sense of belonging by symbolically constructing shared bodily insides (think of the blood-brother ceremony, for example, which actually shows up in the sagas as well). OK, OK, kinda gross, but you know, at least I’m not telling you the story of Loki and the goat…

This was a bit of a rambly and long commentary on this myth (sorry), but if you made it this far I hope you will check it out yourself–it is early in the Skáldskaparmál section of Prose Edda. We should note that it is contested how much of this myth actually goes back to the Viking age–I expect that at best Snorri (author of Prose Edda, fyi) misunderstood a bit here or there (as has been suggested for the containers involved), while at worst he invented things wholesale based off of obscure references to the poetic mead in early skaldic poetry. That said, that there was some idea of a mead of poetry that came from Óðinn is indeed clear from some of this earliest poetry, as even then the skalds would articulate their own poetic act as a sort of regurgitation of Óðinn’s gift, so I feel like it is fair enough to apply my interpretation from the previous paragraph to the Viking age court. And while we are certainly interested (from an academic perspective) in sorting out how much is “heathen” and how much is Christian reception of the myth, we should also remember that Viking age religion did not involve the sort of aggressive orthodoxy you find in, for example, Christianity–myths were certainly expressions of religious faith, but there was no fixed text to refer back to, and variance would have been the rule, even, potentially, from fjord to fjord and farm to farm.

And last but not least, for a bonus visualization of the myth check out Drachenseele’s illustration here, done for me as my reward for getting second in an art contest on deviantart! 😀

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I love it when “literary” authors dip their toes (or better yet, dive in head-first) into the world of more fantastic or science-fictional literature. Sure, they sometimes get accused of “slumming” (as Ursula LeGuin apparently suggested could be the case, depending how how Ishiguro framed his new novel–from what I hear, she has retracted this comment), but that’s more a matter of how they represent their relationship to genre fiction–as for me, I just love seeing someone do something new with this particular toolbox. Those unused to the genre may still fall prey to tired iterations of the formulae of fantasy and sci-fi, but they at least tend to do it in very different ways than the usual “ghetto” authors (and sorry for still using that ghetto metaphor–I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with it, but I haven’t hit on another yet), and at best these authors are a bit more conscious than their genre-peers of the particular potential of the fantastic or science-fictional mode for their topic.

WP_20151026_15_53_44_ProGiven all this, I was excited to run across Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. While I hadn’t yet read anything by him, I knew that he is most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day (maybe more famous as the movie) and thought it would be interesting to see what he was doing in this corner of the literary world. Apparently a couple of his other novels have edged towards the fantastic, one being read as magical realism by many critics and another as science fiction–more that I have to read now…

With The Buried Giant Ishiguro puts the fantastic, as well as the sense of the primordial and mythic that we associate with Arthurian and Anglo-Saxon England, to work in an exploration of memory and forgetting (two very intimately intertwined phenomena, as is often pointed out in memory studies within the humanities) at the level of both larger (ethnic) communities and individual relationships. The scene of the novel is post-Arthurian England, the land in a state of mysterious forgetfulness in the decades following the death of the King of the Britons, ogres roaming the countryside (though as a matter of course, rather than a special state of affairs), a giant buried beneath the landscape (how literal is this to be taken? though most of the other supernatural elements seem to clearly play out just as much at the literal as at the symbolic level), a dragon sleeping in the mountains, whose role in the story I will let you discover for yourself. We start following the story through the eyes of the aged pair Axl and Beatrice, and their journey to find their son is the central quest, even if it gets caught up in a much grander quest. Stereotypical fantasy “grandness” is avoided, however–there is plenty of blood, but you don’t leave a fight scene feeling like Conan the Barbarian, covered in blood and glorying in it. Certainly for duels (there are at least a couple) you leave feeling that a real person has died, not a cardboard enemy, and even the monster fights have a satisfying anti-climatic quality, a quickness in the moment of death that actually leaves more room for death in the narrative than a hack-n-slash would. Sword and Sorcery fans may find the pace unbearable, as the narrative follows a different rhythm than stories built around extended knots of action (well, there is action here, but it hardly holds itself in focus in the way many fantasy readers would want), but the novel builds its own tension as the couple’s journey towards memory and mortality and the reader’s increasing awareness of the forgotten backstory to this cursed world build chapter after chapter. In many ways it is a gentle and melancholy narrative, but by the end it is also full of terror (well, resigned terror, or horror is maybe the better word here…)–with a glimpse of hope too, maybe, but I’m not sure we can leave the final chapter in the most optimistic of moods. But yeah, spoiler alert–definitely got teary with the final chapter (but hey, I’m a sap).

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A very quick sketch from the half-remembered setting of one of the climatic scenes… May need to redo this one, haha…

I don’t want to get more specific because I personally really enjoyed piecing together the world and narrative as I inched along, but feel free to check out Neil Gaiman’s review for more details. Neil doesn’t sound especially enthusiastic about the novel here, but I would still recommend checking it out, as long as you can handle fantasy that doesn’t feel like your usual pulp epic. As someone who has done a bit of work in Cultural Memory studies, I enjoyed the treatment of memory from various angles, and especially the way the “novum” (if we can apply Suvin’s term to fantasy) allowed us to stage a particular ethical conundrum in a very concrete way–something which would have been lost had Ishiguro written this in post-WWII France or elsewhere, as I understand he considered doing. Be sure to check out Neil Gaiman’s interview with Ishiguro, as the two of them get into a very productive and engaging discussion of the issue of genre when it comes to “literary” fiction and fantasy (just keep in mind that it is an informal interview, not a rigorous dissertation). For more background to Ishiguro’s writing of the novel, check out this review. For a more negative review, there is this one. I can sympathize with some this reviewer’s points, but I think I’m just more willing to take it for what it is (and more interested in fantasy of any sort, and with no real horizon of expectations for Kazuo Ishiguro’s work)–I say enjoy the fable-like quality, the awkwardness of doddering old folks as protagonists, the “Monty Python but not funny” pitifulness of the knight who gets caught up in it all (or rather, always has been caught up in it all)–but you know, if you just can’t enjoy those things, that’s fair. I enjoyed it, but don’t know yet whether this will be a “reread until I die” book or not (to be fair, there are a lot of books on that list–and many that aren’t on that list even if they are better than most of those on the list…). And again, I am a particular fan of quirky or unusual entries into the corpus of fantastic literature, so I’m a bit predisposed to find this book engaging.

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IMG_4647Highlight of my trip so far: meeting Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service (the Miyazaki version, of course–otherwise she wouldn’t be in Visby). Kiki very kindly gave her permission for the photo to go up here (and I’m glad I happened to run into her and her friend once more before leaving Visby this evening).

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a big Miyazaki fan the last few years. Most of his work isn’t exactly aimed at my age range, but I really enjoy his creativity and sensitivity in his world-building and storytelling, and have been inspired by him when it comes to my own creative work, sparse as it is. I hadn’t known that the location of Kiki’s Delivery Service was inspired by Visby, Gotland, and Gamla Stan (Old Town) in Stockholm the last time I was here (over 8 years ago… yeesh), but when I first watched Kiki I did so with an eye for that inspiration.

According to the documentary, one of the sites that inspired the locations in Kiki.

According to the documentary, one of the sites that inspired the locations in Kiki. Formerly a coffee shop, now a crepe place.

Going back now, I was even more impressed with the movie as an homage to the “feel” of Visby–honestly, I found myself a bit confused between echoes of my own original impressions/memories, the portrayal of the town in the movie, and the revisiting of the Swedish locations in the Ghibli film locations documentary included in the extra features of my dvd of Kiki. I think what I enjoy in particular about this movie (though I like all the others as well) is how much a sense of a fascination with a place comes through–and the fact that it is a place I have visited as well, and even have a professional/sentimental connection to, makes it all the more interesting to see it treated by a storyteller/artist I admire.

So it was really fun for me to run into two cute girls on my second day in Visby, one of them dressed as Kiki with the dark blue dress and a red bow in her hair. I initially thought they were specifically there as Kiki fans, but when I ran into them again later in the afternoon they explained that the one dressed as Kiki just happened to wear that dress, and the other happened to have a red bow, and so they spent the day taking pictures of “Kiki” in Visby. Super cool, and I wonder if anyone else recognized her.

Just before I ran into them once more at the end of the day I had done a quick sketch of Kiki for fun (and to commemorate my second visit to Visby)–though I ended up making her a slightly older Kiki, I guess… Also, I just realized now that I hadn’t finished the picture–the hands aren’t done. 😦 But when I saw them again I decided I had to give them the picture, so I was a bit hurried about getting it ripped out of my sketchbook, haha. They were gracious enough to take it, haha, but I hope I wasn’t imposing on them too much. I got some photographs of it before hand, so you can see it below, along with some shots that connected to the movie for me. The drawing was pretty hasty… And my hands are not very steady after all this traveling and not enough sleep, but hopefully people enjoy it! 🙂

Kiki sketch!

Kiki sketch!

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