Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

replace with text from advisoryI’m pretty late on this, but now that we have a sharper image showing the mysterious white spot (now spots in the plural) on Ceres I can’t help but feeling like we’re in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. The most obvious reference would be 2001, of course, which in the original novel (featuring the Saturn system rather than Jupiter) involved, if I remember correctly, a white spot on Iapetus, which turned out to be the location of one of the ancient extraterrestrial monoliths. It also reminds me of Rendezvous with Rama, one of my favorites (the alien spaceship named Rama was initially mistaken for an asteroid, I believe).  And of course the annals of science fiction are filled with ancient spaceships abandoned in various places throughout our solar system (Heechee, anyone?), so I suppose it is just a matter of time before the world governments come to me, asking me to suit up and ship out to investigate the primordial ruins of the space Vikings of Ceres… Fingers crossed anyway.

Update: More detailed images available now. Still just a fuzzy cluster of light bits, but looks a bit more natural now. No crashed spaceship I guess… but who knows! 😛  Would have so much fun writing a story about this, but I haven’t and probably won’t because, well, we will most likely know what’s going on before it would get published anyway. Maybe a poem though…

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File:Jay Lake.jpgI’m pretty sad after hearing that author Jay Lake passed away today. John Scalzi has a lovely tribute to him on his blog.

Today is my birthday, making this a rather unhappy coincidence, and it has me thinking about… stuff. ‘N stuff. I actually have only known about Jay for a little while, after running across his novel Green. Since green is my favorite color, and since the book seemed to have a kickass, realistically and thoroughly developed girl protagonist, and since I have nieces and want them to understand that they get to be kickass realistic protagonists as much as Luke Skywalker and anyone else, I decided to check it out [later edit: please note, now that I’ve finished it, and however much I’ve enjoyed it, this is not a kids book–not pornographic, but definitely lots of adult content. And I have to say, I found this review a pretty legit critique of how this is handled in the book, even if i liked the overall work better than the reviewer]. Reading it actually got put on hold for a while as I pretty much always have more novels going than I really have time to read, but I’m a good way through it now and really enjoying it.

IMG_2705I heard about Jay’s colon cancer not long after learning that he actually existed and no, I never got to meet him personally, so I can’t claim to be particularly emotionally attached to Jay the person–but I’ve been really impressed by his courage in facing his mortality so publicly, and it’s been great to see the tributes come in now that he is gone–in addition to being a damn good writer (going by what I’ve seen so far), he seems to have been a pretty swell person too. I am also encouraged by the fact that he accomplished so much in a career that only began in 2001–when he would have been just a year older than I am now. I’ve been writing since 3rd grade, but with grad school and then a nascent academic career (which may be ending or may be getting a second wind, I honestly don’t know) I’ve only managed to get a few poems and one retelling of a folktale out since 2001 (2001 was when the retelling of a folktale was published in now-defunct Fables ezine). On the one hand I’m feeling inspired by how much Jay accomplished (9 novels and over 300 short stories since 2001, while working full time… holy poop)–on the other I’m reminded that none of us knows when we will go, and I want to leave a positive legacy behind me.

Looking forward to discovering more of Jay’s work and celebrating the fact that he lives on in his creative legacy, as well as in the hearts and lives of those who knew him (not me, in case that was clear…), and looking forward to finding ways to make the world a richer place for my part.

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File:Delany encyc.png

Image from Wikimedia

Around a week ago Delany was given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award at the annual meeting of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The award was announced back in December, but I thought I’d post about it now that the event has actually happened. The Grandmaster award is a great way to recognize those who take this particular corner of “genre fiction” beyond the limitations both the literary world at large and even its own fans place on it, not writing “respectable fiction” in disguise, but digging into the unique potential of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres to do something unique, something that cannot be done “elsewhere” or with other tools. Browsing the winners of the Nebula Awards each year is certainly a fine way to find new work and new authors (I am reading recent winner Ancillary Justice at the moment, which makes good use of the potential of science fiction world building as a way to interrogate our conceptions of gender), but you really can’t go wrong with the list of grandmasters, which includes Damon Knight himself, founder of the SFWA and author of a book on short story writing that I am rereading for the first time in over a decade, Gene Wolfe from last year, another super duper favorite of mine (whose fantasy duology I discuss here), Golden Age sci-fi giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (both of whom I read constantly in Jr Hi and High School), and Ursula LeGuin, like Delany coming out of the “New Wave” of sci fi and fantasy of the 60s and 70s (my favorite period, I think), and right up there with Delany as one of the authors I most look up to.

I love the cover art--I recognize the artist, but can't remember the name...

I love the cover art–I recognize the artist, but can’t remember the name…

I’m a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction (and his fantasy in the Nevèrÿon series), and just reread two of my favorites of his recently, Nova and Empire Star (I was going to continue on to reread Babel-17, which is now included on the flip side of Empire Star, as originally intended, but I seem to have misplaced it in just the last couple days…). Nova was the first book of his I read, and I think it is probably the best to start with–his work can be a bit difficult (which I admit I like–you need to read things that push you to grow in your ability to engage in a nuanced way with a complex world), and Nova is the most accessible I’ve read so far, at the same time that it has far more substance than 99% of the genre fiction out there. It is a short novel, so those used to the monstrous 700 page beasts on the market today may be a bit frustrated with the piddling 200+ of many New Wave era novels, but I really wish short novels like this were more “in” today–let’s have more variety, not less. In these 200+ pages, however, you will find a well-wrought reworking of Moby Dick (-ish… not really a thorough retelling, just a homage to the obsessive-chase motif) through the lens of the Tarot (which Italo Calvino also makes use of, and which allows for an interesting perspective on narrative itself), using the latter along with the character Katin as a way to dwell on novel writing as an art form (and in fact, this is a great meta-novel for those interested in the purported death of the novel, given that Katin is attempting to revive the art centuries after the last novel has been written), and along with all this anticipating the melding of human and machine that will later be explored in cyberpunk. Jo Walton has a great discussion of this old-but-still-so-fresh novel over at Tor.com, where she also gets into many more literary connections in the book which I did not list here. I may return to Nova again one day (it is among the most reread of my collection), but for now I suggest seeing what she has to say!

IMG_2690Babel-17 and Empire Star are also relatively accessible, though I found them somewhat less so than Nova, and somewhat less satisfying–but much easier than his Nevèrÿon stories, so check them out anyway! Where Nova is (in part) a meditation on the role of the novelist, Empire Star is (in part) a meditation on the role of the poet–but also hits on the issues inherent in living in a society built on slavery, which stood out a lot more to me as I reread it about the same time that I was checking out this articleEmpire Star can feel a bit like a cheat when you get to the end (don’t want to spoil it though), but in a way the “cheat” is part of the “consciousness novum” of the book (as in simplex, complex, and multiplex consciousness–it is a sort of Bildungsroman of the protagonist’s progress from one to the other), and so fair. Babel-17, with its linguistic novum, was always meant to be paired with the novella Empire Star, though this has only recently been done. I can’t say I was especially won over in terms of believability with both these stories (well, his -plex terms are actually super helpful for thinking and discussing about complexity of awareness versus intelligence, so I don’t think I really have too much of a complaint there), but I don’t think that is the point so much–it is more about using the tools of science fiction to think in a new way, or see our world from a new angle, putting pressure on things we take for granted in order to make them appear explicitly before us, rather than sitting in the background. And look, how many hard-science nova are really up to snuff from the perspective of actual scientists…

I’m afraid I haven’t read Delany’s famous Dhalgren yet, though I hope to get to it (and I have a copy). I did read Triton, which I did not enjoy as much as the others I’ve listed here (it was still really interesting, just didn’t engage me as much), but if you find you enjoy Delany’s style, it is certainly worth checking out. I’ve read the introduction and two of the stories to Tales of Nevèrÿon, one of which basically took a young female protagonist through the theory of deconstruction in a period long before Derrida came along. Oh, and the introduction to the book is written by an academic who is aware that he is a fiction. Gives you a bit of a feel for the book, haha. Gender and sex are common targets of Delany’s deconstructing narratives, and some of his books can get pretty “mature” (in the ratings sense), which I realize can be difficult reading for those not used to that (I’ll include myself in that category, though I’m pretty OK with reading things that make me uncomfortable–maybe not all the time though). Delany is generally a pretty unusual and interesting person, both within and without the science fiction community, so I recommend checking him out! There is an interview with him here, though it doesn’t seem to be opening for me at the moment.

So there you go–easily one of my top picks (maybe my top pick, actually) for intelligent science fiction for people in the humanities. Hoping to get around to reading Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand soon, so maybe I’ll have a post about that up eventually! Though it would be really nice to get back to some of my own writing–finally got a new project underway, and it would be nice to finish off the draft sooner rather than later.

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Hardanger Fjord seems Norwegian enough a thing to head up this post. Image from wikicommons.

Not only is May 17th the birthday of my amazing brother, AND the day after the birthday of one of my amazing sisters, it is also Norwegian Constitution Day! (not “independence” day as I once mistakenly referred to it–Norway had just switched over from Danish to Swedish control at the time, and the Swedes weren’t especially happy with the new holiday…) What’s more, this year we get the bicentennial of Constitution Day! Whoo hoo!

My cheesy Viking superhero, in the colors of the Norwegian flag... kinda.

My cheesy Viking superhero, in the colors of the Norwegian flag… kinda.

I am a quarter Norwegian-American through my dad’s side, so I grew up with the Norwegian flag coming out this time of year. No traditional “syttende mai” celebrations though–must have been interference from our Swedish side. 😛  While Norway spent much of its post-medieval history bound up with either Denmark or Sweden, it was kind of a big deal in the Middle Ages, as you can read in many of the sagas. The easiest to find (and the most comprehensive) would be Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about Norwegian kings from legendary times up through the Middle Ages by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (though I have seen arguments against his authorship). There are at least two translations current if you want to check Amazon, and there are some free ones online, but honestly, I’m not especially happy with any of the offerings out there, especially in their rendering of the skaldic passages (I say this not having looked into it for a while, but I’ve checked my own translations against these before, and usually find something to get frustrated with… but OK, I don’t specialize in the Kings’ sagas) The English translation that I picked up a while back (because it was what was there) is this one, and it is fine for a casual read–plus the version I have has some old illustrations from an earlier (I think) translation. EDIT: OK, never mind, I totally forgot about the 2011 Finlay-Faulkes translation, which is now available online for free in the first two volumes--shameful of me, as I am a fan of both Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (met Alison at a palaeography seminar and relied heavily on Faulkes’ edition of Snorra Edda for my dissertation). 

Well there you go! Happy syttende mai! Go read some Ibsen or something!

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Phew, I managed to throw together a pic for Earth day! Would have liked to put some more time and details into it, but I put this off as a reward to myself after meeting my minimum translation goal for the day–will probably try to get another page or two done as well.

Jörð, or “Earth,” giantess, mistress of the All-father, and mother of Þórr, with her son, probably dropping him off at school or something. As fun as it was to portray her like this, she wouldn’t necessarily have looked extraordinary to the gods (except that she might have been insanely beautiful… but hey, no reason this fecund form couldn’t be beautiful too), as whether or not the giants were portrayed as monstrous depends on the role they play in the particular story they show up in (in the Old Norse texts they are apparently not necessarily associated with gigantic size). Jörð seems to have been won over fairly thoroughly to the side of the gods (whether by seduction, force, or magic, we don’t know, but see the poem Skirnir’s Journey to see Frey’s shoe-boy attempt all three), as Snorri tells us in Prose Edda that she is numbered among them. I’m afraid she doesn’t really show up much in the myths, and for fertility deities you have to go to the wonder twins Freyr and Freyja… and, incidentally, Jörð’s son with his association with fertility through (presumably) the weather. 

Would love to go into some sort of eco-critical perspective on the relationship of the Vikings to the natural environment and how can be tied in to the relationship between the gods and the giants and gender and all that, but I should get back to work.

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OK, just pretend the caption actually reads "Carl = Manly Man!"

OK, just pretend the caption actually reads “Carl = Manly Man!”

Yes, it really is Carl day! OK, OK, just happens to be my Name-day (namnsdag–and thanks to Margareta for reminding me). In Sweden (and many other European countries) each day of the year is attached to particular names, originally coming out of the Calendar of Saints. My name happens to be the same as that of the Swedish king Carl Gustav (whom I got to have lunch with last year… though we actually didn’t talk, as we were not at the same table), which means it is also a Flag Day in Sweden, so PUT UP YOUR SWEDISH FLAGS!!! (um, thanks again to Margareta for pointing out that connection for me… let’s hear it for Swedish relatives!)

En riktig karl.

En riktig karl.

The names Carl/Karl/Charles/etc are all related (duh… but maybe you didn’t know that about Charles), and karl means “man” in Old Norse (as I am overfond of telling my students). Actually, I had trouble for a long time saying my name in Icelandic–the -rl ending has that same sort of saliva-y explosion that the -ll ending has, as in, for example, the name of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. The nuances in the meaning of “karl” vary throughout history and depending on context–“churl” comes from Old English “ceorl,” and “karl” in Scandinavian sources can range from something along the lines of the “common/free man” (see the Eddic poem Rígsþula) to the churlish nuances of… um, churl. It is also used as a modifier (“male”), as in “karldýr” (male animal), or, funny enough, “karlmaðr,” male… um, man. Well, “maðr” is usually translated (and is related to our word) “man,” but in this case it is best taken as “person” for “male person.” The Swedish word “kille” is sort of a “nickname” version of “karl” ie “guy,” and is similar to my nickname in Swedish–“Calle.”

Whatever. I just want to be able to tell everyone that my name is synonymous with manliness. Not that anyone would be surprised. ;P  Hm, maybe I need to put this on my CV…

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CopenhagenArni_Magnusson_portraitHappy 350th Árni Magnússon! (You can supplement the wikipedia link w/ this more official bio). Thanks to Árni, I have a profession. We owe a lot to this guy who gathered the bulk of the Old Norse-Icelandic manuscripts that we have today. The institute where I did my dissertation research, and where I took a seminar in Old Norse paleography, is named after him: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum (The Arnamagnaean Institute for the Study of Icelandic Studies). Árni’s collection was severely damaged in the Copenhagen fire of 1728. He died a bit over a year later. 😦  File:University of Iceland-Arnagardur.jpgThe collection was divided in the 20th century between Árna Stofnun in Reykjavík (Iceland) and Árna Stofnun in Copenhagen (Denmark–in fact, the Queen of Denmark is visiting Iceland right now to commemorate Árni’s b-day).



Árni has inspired a few fictional variants (which you can find listed on the wikipedia page)–my favorite is Arne Saknussem in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, with his ridiculous and clearly non-Scandinavian name (in his attempt [or in spite of it] to mimic the sound of an Icelandic name, Verne ended up completely losing the patronymic -son). I read Journey right as I was leaving for my own studies in Iceland (and I enjoyed checking out Snaefell, the mountain through which the adventurers supposedly clamber down into the earth. Fun book, and a neat example of how “exotic” Iceland was to the rest of Europe at the time.

In honor of his birthday, I did a quick sketch of Árni as a Viking, posted below for your enjoyment (as well as on my tumblr and on deviantart). If folks like it, I will put together a cleaned-up version of the picture to sell as a tshirt or print on my new Redbubble store. And as always, check out my post on the term “Viking” in Medieval Iceland if you want more info about just what the word means. Sorry for such a quick post today, but things are finally getting rolling on this translation job (a book on the theology of the body), plus my cousin and his family are in town, so no time for anything thorough…

Árni as a Viking.

Árni as a Viking.

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Forest Moon Viking

Well shoot, costumes can be complicated (and no, not just because “liberals” try to make things complicated). A friend asked me the other day whether it was cultural appropriation for someone to dress as a Viking. This came (whether coincidentally or intentionally) in the wake of several discussions on Facebook that I either witnessed or participated in about, for example, the furor over the names of sports teams (“Redskins”, “Indians”) and the (really unbelievable…) blackface costumes that have shown up online in the last week (I mean REALLY??? Not just blackface, but TRAYVON MARTIN??? How anyone thinks we are post-racial, I’ll never know…). I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about the history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in our country/Western civ. (check here for an overview of colonialism and postcolonial theory), but I’ll note a few points that I think are fairly obivous (and yet overlooked), even if yes, things tend to be pretty complicated in the real world (and since Heritage Studies is something I dig into every now and then, I may revisit this topic one of these days).

For one, there IS a history of oppression that our society is built on, and however much you believe we are “past that,” our literature, cultural semiotics, tropes, etc, are all built up on the layers of everything that has come before, and YES, in a literate culture with the “long memory” that we have (a necessary element of what we call civilization), you ARE responsible for being aware of the history of representation that you draw on (and sure, we can change things despite this baggage–but not by ignoring the baggage). So no, you don’t get to make jokes about monkeys and lynching when you are criticizing prominent black figures (and holy smokes, I DID see this on facebook–still blows me away)–nor do you get to wear blackface.  To continue on to the parallel, or lack thereof, between dressing as a Viking and dressing as, say, an Indian: a community which is reasonably well established as or within the dominant group, which then creates a totemic icon (or a costume) from a barbaric figure associated with its own past, is NOT the same as the dominant culture creating a totemic icon based on a historically subjugated group–whatever other complicating factors there may be (I believe I’ve heard that the Redskins were named out of affection for a native american coach)–let’s keep the inherent difference between the two situations in mind. And while my family (for example) loves telling “swedish jokes” about our own heritage, let’s keep in mind that the Scandinavian American heritage is not something that is a disadvantage anymore–sure, go far enough back and you find a time when jokes about dumb, thieving (!) Swedes were told–and not by the Swedes themselves. And I’ve even found a letter quoted from over a century ago in which a “WASP” foreman complained that it was only him and a couple other “white men,” plus a dozen or so Swedes (!!!) out in the forest working (no joke–I knew about the Irish, but apparently Swedes were not “white” during the immigration before the turn of the century). But you know, we tell “ethnic” jokes about ourselves now because there IS no threat to (or rather, threat perceived in) our ethnicity. That said, in one discussion I followed online, a latina woman complained about how hypersensitive white people will make a big fuss when people like her would rather not stress out over something she perceives as not a big deal–and while I don’t agree wholeheartedly with her (I know folks with the same claim on the problem that she has who WOULD be offended, so who do I listen to?), her point was driven home by the fact that a “white liberal” (sorry for the scare quotes) initially talked over her a bit… until she noted that she was latina (the “white liberal” had been treating her as another white person till then), the (totally valid) implication being that she had more of a right to comment in that situation.

So yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s still worth thinking about–better to navigate this conscientiously, even if no absolute, self-evident ethical solution is available in all cases (but dang, it’s pretty obvious that you DON’T dress in blackface and mock the death of a young black teenager, whatever you think of the trial). I mean, dressing like a ninja, an indian, a cowboy, or a viking for halloween–to a certain extent the fact that all of those are equally “cool” and valid costumes for kids these days can certainly give us hope that, when we are at our best, we can both embrace the Otherness of our varied ethnic heritages as well as understand ourselves as all part of the same community, enjoying the cool stuff that comes out of our various pasts. That said, dressing in thick glasses, a bowl cut, putting in big fake front teeth and squinting is still a way of mocking “Asian-ness” that we would “get” (meaning, we would understand that someone who is not asian is dressing up in a way that turns asians into stock, stereotyped, comic figures)–there is no equivalent for Scandinavian Americans. OK, in my family, and the church I grew up in, we would “get it” if someone dressed up as Ole or Lena, and spoke with a cheesy Swedish accent–but that is not a stereotype available to (and used by) the culture at large. So no, it isn’t the same, and it won’t be for a long time. And liberals pointing these things out is not what keeps these stereotypes around. OK, off my soapbox…  (No wait, one more point: Really, wouldn’t we comment on it if an asian or black or hispanic kid dressed as a Viking? Like “Why are you doing that, kid?” Whereas we take it for granted that a white kid might dress as a ninja…or star as one in a movie, for that matter. Maybe I’m wrong here, esp. now that Thor is not just for comic book geeks any more…)

And finally, I hope you enjoy my illustration for today! The colonial subaltern in a galaxy both temporally and spatially distant (a long time ago and far away, in case that is not clear), oppressed by the (mostly white, now that I think about it…) humans, and seen as funny, stupid, cuddly, comic, and primitive in culture, religion, and technology (in other words, culturally invalid relative to us civilized, but certainly more interesting and spectacle-worthy because of it) even by their human allies–but the table is turned here! This speculative and creative fuzzy-wuzzy has hit on a new mode of narrative, one which creates entire universes with histories totally unlike the Real World, and so he (or she? I don’t know how to tell…) has come up with a universe (and an entire franchise, I’m sure) in which there is a human galaxy, both temporally and spatially distant, with a whole history, coming down to one blue-green planet, on which there is a largish peninsula far to the north, where humans lived in a barbaric warrior society, clothed in primitive metal armor, hacking each other to pieces, raiding the weak, and sailing the world in flimsy yet fearsome wooden ships… and for halloween, this fuzzy-wuzzy has decided to dress up as one of these fictional “Vikings.” Movies, toys, novels, and comic books to follow, I bet.

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File:SeamusHeaneyLowRes.jpgSeamus Heaney, Nobel Prize winning poet and a translator of Beowulf, has passed. His translation of Beowulf came out right around the time that I studied the poem and the Old English language for the first time at UCSB with Carol Pasternack (I would later go through Beowulf again with the late Nicholas Howe at Berkeley). I believe this was my first encounter with Heaney, and have enjoyed digging into his poetry every now and then over the last decade. Speaking of digging, his poem of the same name is available to be read at the Poetry Foundation. Just reread this a few minutes ago, and I love the tension as the poet contemplates the concrete bodies and practices of his family/heritage while sitting, (gun? spade?) pen in hand, in a very different field. Maybe every (aspiring) poet faces this sense of disjunction (or are there many poets whose parents and grandparents were poets?). While not made explicit, the “cool hardness” of potatoes in hand seems to find such a clear echo in the hardness of pen-in-hand. In contrast to the pervasive physicality of his father’s work, the poet has material tools, but immaterial produce–no cool, hard poem to hold in hand. Well, I don’t know whether Heaney was making that connection or not, but it stands out to me, as the poem starts and ends with the grip of the pen but is filled up in between with the “honest work” of tilling the soil. You can find a more specific analysis of the “digging” of this poem, as well as that of Heaney’s poems on the bog bodies, in the chapter “Erotic Digging” in Karin Sanders’ Bodies in the Bog (a great book by a member of my dissertation committee, which I will hopefully get around to reviewing in more detail one day).

File:Heaneys.jpgI believe the only collection of Heaney’s work that I own is Electric Light, but it seems to have been misplaced along with half of my books of poetry in the course of my move back from Minnesota, so I can’t share any favorite poems from it at the moment. Several of his poems are available online at the Poetry Foundation, along with a biographical essay and links to many other essays about him (and I expect that their publication Poetry Magazine will feature an obituary in their next issue). Being a fan of sonnets, I especially enjoyed The Glanmore Sonnets, and will point out that you can find this translator of ancient Germanic poetry making contemporary use of kennings (intentionally derivative of the Beowulf poem) in sonnet # 7.

IMG_1854Heaney’s verse translation of Beowulf is rightly praised, and I especially enjoy having the Old English text facing the verse translation in the bilingual edition. I last took a course on Beowulf in the original (well, in Klaeber) with the late Nicholas Howe, who appreciated Heaney’s translation, but felt (if I remember correctly) that it could not adequately get across the appositive style of the poem (an aspect of the poem which Howe’s own advisor had worked on). As our “crib” we instead used Howe’s edition of Donaldson’s prose translation, which may lose the poetic flavor of Heaney’s, but translates a bit more directly (but it has been a while since I’ve worked through Beowulf in the original, so I will reserve judgement myself–but it is about time I worked through my new edition of Klaeber…)–it also includes a variety of academic articles, mostly fairly accessible, at the end, so I’ve used Howe’s edition for the most part when teaching undergraduates.

IMG_1856I especially like that we have an Irish poet translating the Beowulf poem, as that poem is itself so exemplary of the centuries of cultural contact and mish-mash throughout the North Atlantic (with an early and persistent presence in Ireland) before, during, and after the Viking Age. The poem is, of course, implicitly English in the fact that it is written in Anglo-Saxon… but it starts by saying “Listen up! We’ve heard about the deeds of the Spear-Danes (=the Scandinavians).” Why do we have an English poem celebrating a Scandinavian hero of the Migration period???  The poem as we have it was written down near the end of what we label as the “Viking Age,” so we would expect folks in England to be not-OK with poetry celebrating these pirates, right? Well, the situation was a bit more complex, and exactly what Scandinavian connection you see may depend on how far back you think the poem goes (in either oral or literary history)–is some early form of the poem an inheritance from the migration period, not so distant from the Anglo-Saxon’s own continental origins? was it composed initially to cater to new Viking lords in the Danelaw, from more the middle of the Viking Age? is it a result of the pan-Scandinavian kingdom of Knut/Canute the Great? Whatever the earlier history of the poem (though I do tend to understand it in its final form/combination as a primarily literary text in emulation of oral style), I like Nicholas Howe’s interpretation, which ties well into the Cultural Memory studies that I’ve been working in lately. If I remember correctly (it’s been a while), Nick argues that the Anglo-Saxons (in their Archive, or literate production) understood/articulated their own history, in particular their passage from Paganism to Christianity, as an Exodus on the model of the Old Testament story, crossing their own Red Sea from Southern Scandinavia/Northern Germany into England, the site of their eventual conversion. The portrayal of the heroic migration-era culture of Beowulf recovers the martial heritage of the past for the Christian present (a concern common to medieval Scandinavia as well) via (in part, at least) the Noble Heathen (to appropriate Lönnroth’s term) Beowulf, who, whether we are to understand him as a role model, a tragic figure, or something else, seems at once to embody the abstract ideals of the pagan heroic period while either relying entirely on his own strength (as opposed to the strength of the gods–this repudiation of the pagan gods is common among protagonists in the sagas), or else articulating what seem at times to be very Christian thoughts (the narrator is quite explicit in his Christian commentary). OK, the main point of all this: The poem, and the main figure, can serve as a mythic-heroic representative of the (for medieval Christians) more admirable aspects of the pagan past, recovering those ideals for a late-Viking Age Anglo-Saxon elite because they understand themselves as having come from that same place–the poem is not so much representing some cultural Other, but a primordial origin for the martial aristocracy of the present, as well as a chapter in the grand narrative of their progress from pagan the christian.

Heaney of course does a similar thing with his translation, revisiting this classic to enrich the present. Our obsession with the poem, and with any ancient “classic,” is to some degree a move of Cultural Memory (Mikhael Gronas even takes the assertion that Canon is Cultural Memory so far as to emphasize the ways in which it is an actual mnemonic system)–we turn to these texts (Beowulf, Homer, Shakespeare) because we believe there is something primordial to them, something foundational in them to who we are now. I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave it there, but if you feel like listening to Heaney read his translation, it looks like a recording is (for the moment) available here.

And now I think I will go dig up some potatoes. Or something.

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I’m kind of a space nerd (you have probably realized this by now, given all my mentions of science fiction novels and films).  Yes, OK, maybe my PhD in Scandinavian Studies and my dissertation on Viking poetry about pictures on shields are not going to get me a job at NASA (not until we meet the Space Vikings, anyway), but growing up I got pretty much an equivalent kick out of reading about old myths and reading Arthur C Clarke or watching Star Wars (please note though, I am NOT a Campbellian, even if I just mentioned Star Wars and myth in the same sentence…), and even now I get a similar thrill from both my own profession and the world of space exploration.  Both have to do with expanding the world we live in, expanding our vision of reality at the same time that we realize how impossible it is to visualize it all.  There is something in common between the experience of being confronted with an alien semantic universe and the experience of grasping, finally, the fact that the moon really is a whole other WORLD, hanging up there in the blue, an experience I had shortly after reading Gene Wolfe‘s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which exaggerates this situation by having twin planets circle each other at a relatively close distance.  I still have occasional moments when I can “get it” once more, but even then it’s only partial.  Who really has room for a universe large enough to let the moon be a world, rather than just a bit of scenery?  (though I do certainly appreciate it as scenery too…)  This is more of a process, a movement, than a goal.  If we thought there were an end-point we were somehow aimed at in this process of understanding Others or the Universe, then we’ve missed the point–then it has become more about grasping, controlling, owning, rather than about being transformed, engaging someone or something “on its own terms,” insofar as that is possible.  The “subject-object” paradigm is probably impossible to entirely do away with when it comes to the sort of “scientific understanding” that we find in everything from mythology and anthropology to astronomy and physics, but I think it is also productive to destabilize this binary a bit–in fact, we might say that that is essential in the act of science itself.  Studying something may inherently mean objectivizing it, but unless we are going to just let the object be a screen onto which we project our own meanings, we have to be open to hearing it “speak”–we have to grant some degree of subjectivity to the “object,” allow it to subvert our expectations, to challenge our attempts to sort meaning out of the data we find–even to challenge our ideas about what constitutes “data.”  Incidentally, I first encountered this idea in this book, though I hear it shows up in archaeological theory too.

OK, all that (it was more than I meant to say) to set up THIS COOL NEW DISCOVERY!!!!

Earth sized!!  Well, OK, it’s too close to the star to actually be “earth-LIKE,” but it is nevertheless exciting to get the first evidence that the nearest stellar system has planets!  And OK, it may be close, but it is still too far to get right now–but it’s a pretty awesome find when there is so much in the news right now the possibilities of interstellar flight, like this, and this!  It certainly gets the imagination going– Alpha Centauri has featured in a TON of science fiction– while still impossibly distant, it is relatively close and so allows writers and readers to entertain the illusion of realism in an otherwise very unrealistic genre.  In the late sequels to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series Alpha Centauri showed up as a planet encountered so far in the distant past of the galaxy that it had been forgotten–but more often it shows up as a first stop in the early exploration of interstellar space, as with the film Avatar (which I STILL haven’t seen– I was too busy when it came out).

Gosh, I have lots of other interesting things to say about this– but I’ve got a ton of work to do, so it’ll have to wait.  This article in particular is an interesting analysis of domestic space, with reference to (of course) SPACESHIPS, which I ran across while researching a project of my own.  Never expected my work in Old Norse literature to give me the opportunity to read about Serenity from the show Firefly!  I first heard about that show in Latin class too… hm… apparently science fiction and ancient literature go together better than even I suspected…

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