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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. ūüė¶ 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! ūüôā

Kiki sketch!

Kiki sketch!

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Made by Swedish animator Erik Wernquist, with narration taken from Carl Sagan (his Cosmos series, I assume?). I ran across this short film back when it came out, and now that it’s come my way again I think I may show it in the summer course I’m teaching on Other Worlds in Scandinavian literature. During the first half of the course we covered the myths, fairy tales, some HC Andersen, Niels Klim’s underground journey, and the crazy hijinks of Peer Gynt, and as of this last week we’ve finally hit the 20th century and read our first science fiction novel, the dystopian Kallocain by Karin Boye. We aren’t going to be able to hit up any stereotypical sci-fi (spaceships and all–though our last two books, Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Troll both can technically be considered sci-fi), so this short with its spaceships and planets may be our opportunity to talk a bit about the teleological vision of visionary scientists like Sagan on the one hand and the culmination of that vision in… well, in extreme sports on the moons of the solar system, going by this video. OK, not to reduce it to that, but that is kind of the vibe I get, haha… It’s beautifully done in any case, and while my fear of heights would keep me from jumping off any cliffs, it does get me excited about exploring the solar system. Now if only he would update the video with some of the new data from Pluto…

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Inktober Troll 001Yikes, I haven’t done any posts yet this month–and tomorrow is a new month! Well, Halloween is a good excuse, I suppose–and this will be as much as I do for Halloween today, as I’ll be working late into the night.

Last year I posted about the politics of costuming and put up a picture of a post-colonial sci-fi teddy dressed as a Viking (cultural appropriation!), and the year previous I had a couple Halloween-related posts, one with some reading recommendations, and one with some notes for those wishing to put together an (admittedly very basic) Viking costume. This year will be about those most Scandinavian of Monsters, trolls. Well, OK, I already have a post on trolls, or more particularly, on John Lindow’s recent book on the subject, which, as I mentioned before, I highly recommend. So I’m not really going to write much today (no time in any case). Instead, here is a sketch of a troll (OK, very different visualization than what you usually get with Scandinavian representations of trolls)–my final sketch for Inktober 2014, which I’ve been occasionally contributing to on my tumblr and deviantart.

Additionally, here is a movie recommendation: Troll Hunter! I’ve mentioned it before, but I still love this Norwegian movie. OK, if you want something scarier but still Scandinavian, try the Swedish¬†Let the Right One In (there is an original Swedish version, which I’ve watched, and a remake), based on Jonas Ajvide Lindqvist‘s¬†novel (I recommend more of his work in one of my posts linked to above). If I have time for a break from work tonight, I will watch one of those two movies (last I checked, both are on Netflix). Trailer for Troll Hunter embedded below (if I manage to do it right), though honestly, part of the joy of the film is the tension as you wait to finally glimpse a troll–so I say just go ahead and watch the full movie! Also, apparently a remake is in the works–I don’t know why, as the original is pretty much perfect as is. :/

Happy Halloween.

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Inspired-by only, I'm afraid--plus I may turn this into a pic unrelated to the movie later...

Inspired-by only, I’m afraid–plus I may turn this into a pic unrelated to the movie later…

OK, I’m really short on time, so I’m really just giving a shout out to the latest Disney movie, which, with its snowy-theme, is great Winter-Break viewing. Also, a couple Scandinavian connections here–1) The movie as a whole is inspired by HC Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” (but inspired is the right word–not at all an adaptation, as there really is no connection at all plot-wise, apart from a shard of ice getting stuck in someone’s body and causing trouble–and let’s be honest, the original is way too trippy to adapt to film [oh wait, isn’t there a classic Russian animated film…]), and 2) A friend of mine who teaches Old Norse at UCLA (and who is responsible for this glorious saga-version of Star Wars) advised them on the runes and the Old Norse they (very briefly) used in the film.¬†(Update: if you want to decode the runes, Dr. Crawford [newly minted, incidentally] has put up some tips on his own blog. Also, don’t believe Yahoo UK when they claim the runes in the movie were inspired by Tolkien’s in The Hobbit and LOTR–Tolkien was inspired by Norse and Anglo-Saxon runes [seeing as he was an Old Norse and Old English philologist], and Crawford of course used actual Norse runes.)

The Scandinavian-inspired context is fairly loose, but it’s a fun variation on the usual princess/enchanted world theme, from the northern location to the architectural and linguistic references, to the trolls. I personally felt like the icy-superpowers and the whole “Barbie sings pop songs” deal was a bit too heavy-handed, but my nieces loved it–and you know, there were some nice twists, as well as some really good, quality messages–like being cautious (but still open) with your heart, as well as learning to open up about your pain, rather than keeping it in. That said, the way the “love solves everything” lesson was so blatantly spelled out by one of the leads at the very end was a bit much…¬† Oh, but OK, I was really happy to see a movie where the “evil superpowered queen” wasn’t really a straight up villain, but a complex lead character in her own right–and thank God for movies about the hard work of healing and redemption, however cheesy and Barbified it gets at times. [Late additional comments:]¬†But let’s also keep in mind the fact that the “real” Snow Queen by HC Andersen at least included some “minority” figures (Saami and Gypsy, if I remember correctly–it’s been a while), even if they were pretty thoroughly exoticized. Well, OK, I hear Kristoff is also supposed to be Saami in this (I guess I didn’t pick up on the cues–reindeer, for instance), but from what I’ve seen online there is a lot of back and forth re: his representation. There is a lot of rich material out there, so I’ll leave you to it (while I have a PhD in Scandi studies, I feel like I have not specialized enough in Saami culture and all its colonial/postcolonia issues to offer any definitive statement), but this summary here has some good links you can check out, and the MedievalPOC blog has a post on it as well. I have many friends in my field who work specially on the Saami side of Norden, so if I run across anything here, I’ll post it!

OK, gotta run–Merry Christmas everyone! Don’t know if I will have a post for tomorrow or not, but we’ll see…

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Wolverine as a viking berserkr

Wolverine as a viking berserkr. The word “berserkr” could mean “bear-shirt” or “bare-shirt”–since many of the stories of berserkrs have their skin made invulnerable to iron, I’ve made him Bare here (even if slightly cutesy-chibi-style). He has a sword instead of his claws, but you know, if a Berserkr had claws, I think he would just use those. The all-but-berserkr Egill himself kills an enemy who is invulnerable to iron by biting out his throat. @_@ Note also that Wolvie’s shield has been gnawed upon here–berserks apparently had a reputation for biting their shields in a fearsome manner (a strategy that doesn’t go well for one bersekr who faced off against Grettir… but you will need to read that saga for yourself).

Wolverine as Berserkr

[For the movie review, skip below–first one w/o spoilers, second with spoilers] One of my favorite comic book characters growing up was Wolverine. I suppose it was some combination of the grittiness, the fact that getting hurt didn’t matter to him, the mysterious backstory with his missing memory (always more to discover), and the simultaneous tragedy and wish-fulfillment of his immortality. There was also his “berserker” side–while potentially antithetical to his status as hero, his tendency to go crazy and lose himself in a fight was both scary and fascinating, his ability to be a hero itself founded on the fact that he had one foot on the side of the monsters. Wolverine’s character (like Punisher, Hulk, and others) is an exaggerated version of the type you find all over comic books and westerns (not just anti-heroes, though they are maybe the primary version…), someone who is too powerful/unusual/monstrous to really be part of society, but continually comes in to save it. Batman (who he “really” is, according to the program where I first heard about this) can’t exist normally alongside everyone else in Gotham, so he has to go around “disguised” as Bruce Wayne. The rogue gunman saves the small town, but he can’t settle down there–he has to keep moving on at the end of the movie. The two scholars who came up with this interpretation (sorry, can’t remember their names) thought that this was a symptom of a democratic society–we want the person who is bigger and better than us to save us from those others who are above and beyond the norm, but they don’t get to stick around (I suppose that implies a more general Western “Jantelagen-lite”). And given the proto-democratic nature of Icelandic society (and, well, the fact that Wolvie’s “berserker”-ness is taken from the Old Norse figure of the berserkr), well, imho we do see this sort of figure in the sagas as well (though if you are explicitly labelled a “berserkr” in the sagas, you are mostly likely just a plain old bad guy).

Some sketches for a possible Grettir comic...

Some sketches for a possible Grettir comic…

I’ve talked about this with reference to Grettis saga before, as he is the saga hero who most obviously seems to illustrate this phenomenon–he is fairly monstrous himself, never fitting in and always getting in trouble, thriving only when living away from humanity (or, interestingly enough, when under the guidance of a very understanding and strong leader whom he respects), fighting monsters or living among them. One (reductive) theme that we could draw from the saga is “it takes a monster to kill a monster”–but no one wants that monster to stick around after the battle (except maybe a certain widow near the end of the saga…). Among the “monsters” Grettir fights are berserks, representative (during the Christian period in which the sagas were written down–centuries after the events described) of the less reputable elements of the pagan past, scapegoats for the saga authors as they attempted to simultaneously recover and repudiate their pre-Christian heritage (a strategy made possible, or even thinkable, by the fact that they came to conceive of it as “heritage” at all–but that is a theory-heavy essay for another time).

IMG_2392Similar (a bit…) to Grettir, Wolverine’s character gets drawn into a berserkr rage which one the one hand allows him to beat all the monstrous baddies (OK, Grettir does not “go berserk”), but which also marks him as unsuitable for normal society. In fact, the battle between his “animal” self and his human self is the theme which prompted the comic book miniseries that the new movie is based on. A key chapter in this “bestial vs human” or “Wolverine vs Logan” struggle is the Weapon X story arc, which I recommend for the other Wolvie fans out there. Great artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, and an interesting (if trippy and not entirely resolved) plot, way better than the one in the X-men and Wolverine: Origins movies.

What exactly the historical “roots” of the berserkr figure are is a contentious topic, but they are certainly fascinating characters as they show up in the sagas. I may return to the subject in more detail, but for now check out the extended caption to my picture at the start of this post for some details re: my representation of Wolvie as a berserkr (said pic is also up on my tumblr).

The Wolverine: Movie Review (no spoilers… yet)

IMG_2391As a kid I had a copy of the final issue of the Japan-story arc miniseries (one of my more valuable comic books–I think the first appearance of Gambit was my most valuable one though), and I was always more emotionally invested in Logan’s relationship with Mariko, rather than with Jean (her relationship with Cyclops was always primary for me). The movie is fairly loosely based on the miniseries, but both are pretty enjoyable. Actually, I like the new Wolverine movie better than any of the other X-Men movies so far (though First Class was pretty cool too), even if I have some issues with both the movie and the original miniseries (but those will be discussed in the spoiler section). The movie does a pretty good job (for a comic book movie) digging into the potential in W’s character. OK, there is a lot of “let’s make him into a big white Hollywood tough guy hero” stuff, but considering how (painfully) inevitable that is, a pretty decent amount of legit story material came through. Actually, it is closer to the end of the movie that it kicks into “comic book mode”–in high gear. By the end it just felt a bit too ridiculous, but then you need to remind yourself that OK, it IS a comic book movie…

Don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the X-men movies at least (the first Wolverine movie would be good to watch too, though not essential), but reading the comic book miniseries (available in trade-paperback–click on the picture to go to Amazon) won’t make a difference–the stories are too different for spoilers. It’s fun to compare them, but comparison is not necessary. In any case, Frank Miller’s layouts are really great in the comic book (for that era, certainly), even if I sometimes feel like the quality of his art varies.

Further Notes on the Movie [SPOILER ALERT!!!]

OK, now on to some analysis/griping. This will involve spoilers. Also, these gripes are not meant to deter folks from watching the movie–I’ve seen it several times now, and still enjoy it.

Right before the movie was a preview for the new Keanu Reaves movie 47 Ronin, and I joked with my friends about it being another “white guy saves the exotic Other by dressing up like them” film (well, OK, he is supposed to be a “half breed” in the movie–still…). Then we went on to watch Wolverine, in which the white male lead is the only unambiguously “good guy” male character, the other two “good guys” were hot asian girls (who are allowed to be tough and competent, but only so long as the white lead still gets to save them), and Japanese men did things like try to kill their daughters, try to live forever by killing the white male lead (stealing what is rightfully his), get caught in their underwear with white strippers after trying to kill off their hot asian fiance (giving the white guy a reason to push around and ridicule an asian man), support the bad guy in the hope that the hot asian girl will like them again instead of the white guy, embed themselves in a mecha-suit (stereotypically Japanese, incidentally) and then get stripped out of it bit by bit by the muscular white hero, to reveal a tiny japanese man inside… I mean geez, this is like a textbook example of Western patriarchal representation of the Other (and, incidentally, appropriation of the “exotic powers” of the other–Wolvie gets to be a samurai, after all). It is… the same but different in the comic books, where Wolverine is still the white-guy hero (often the super tough but still good guy in the midst of the scum of Eastern crime syndicates), but is better integrated, fluent in Japanese, and with a presence in the area going back far enough (thanks to his long life) that he is presented as an adopted part of that world, on that world’s terms, rather than an interloper… but OK, I am maybe being overly generous in my interpretation there.

Now look, I’m not saying this is a conspiracy, that Hollywood is out to culturally beat-down minorities or anything like that–I assume this is all “coincidental”, a result of the need to limit the number of good guys, and the fact that we have two of the good guys being women. But it is ridiculous how standard this veneration/elevation of the white male against/via the ethnic Other STILL is. Does this mean we need to go out of our way to counter this sort of thing? DAMN RIGHT. I mean, look, you don’t get to just pretend all this isn’t part of the culture you were born into, white or otherwise–our ability to represent things is founded on a history of previous representations (to put it in more technical terms, human cultural/social being is inescapably and irreducibly intertextual), and we have to deal with the fact that this semiotic history IS complicit in some really shitty stuff. If you are going to be human, and in relationship with other humans, then yes, you have a duty to be responsibly human, competently engaging in a nuanced way with the Otherness of those next door to you as well as across the world (especially when those of us in the West so drastically affect the lives of of everyone else on a daily basis), and culturally competent when it comes to navigating these differences. And no, for my fellow white males, it does NOT mean a finger is being pointed at us trying to make us feel bad. All that is being asked is that you open your eyes and look beyond yourself. And OK, doesn’t mean that is always easy, but don’t make it personal when it isn’t. OK, will step off the rant-box…

As far as women go, this movie feels like a mixed bag to me (I am not even going to get into the blonde man-hating lizard woman who pushes around asian men–that’s an article in itself), but I felt like there was some good stuff here. OK, I kinda fell in love with both of the female leads, so I guess I’m a bit biased–they are really appealing characters though, once you are given time to get to know them.

On the one hand, there is a lot of “damsel in distress” syndrome here–but that is on the part of the movie, not the female characters (mostly…and if we are allowed to actually differentiate there). Logan calls Mariko “princess” while lecturing her on her apparent naivete, but while that does get milked a bit, as we move on it becomes clear that she is more in the know than he. She is also revealed to be powerful in her own way–not just physically (she has a limited amount of martial arts, but is a champion knife thrower), but in ways that we are culturally inclined to define as ‘female’–how positive we might be re: that characterization may depend on what brand of feminism we espouse, but I did like the fact that she was powerful in a non-action-movie way, regal in some scenes, pragmatic in others, and nurturing in others (and yeah, would maybe be good to have more men playing similar roles).

Yukio’s character was interesting as well, and I appreciated that she was not just a tough-girl-emotionally-and-sexually-exploited-to-make-the-white-hero-look-good type, which is more the case in the comic book miniseries. That said, while she is set up as a tough badass, she is increasingly forced into a sort of damsel-role herself as the movie goes on. My main beef–at the start of the movie Logan sees Shingen fencing and says “He’s good”–Yukio responds “He’s alright” with a bit of a sneer. But when Shingen, nearly dead from poison, attacks Wolverine while he is incapacitated (busy doing heart-surgery on himself… and yeah, it goes heavily into extreme-comic-book mode from here on), Yukio is easily outmatched by him (HE IS ALMOST DEAD!!!), and visibly desperate. In her case, her concern for the male lead incapacitates her, while the male lead (here and in every Hollywood movie) is empowered by his concern for the female leads. OK, maybe that’s not a universal in this particular movie, as Mariko’s self-possession in the face of Logan’s apparent doom allows her to participate in the climatic battle (and free Logan up to fight again). But speaking of which, let me say that the female damsel killing her (grand-)father in favor of her lover (and generally siding against her nefarious family in favor of the male lead) is very Helgakvi√įa Hundingsbana II, imho–I guess the daydreams of the patriarchy (or teen boys) don’t change much over the centuries. Oh, and let’s also note that Wolvie’s “Knight in Shining Armor” role and the personal narrative arcs of the two women are enabled by projecting paternalistic chauvinism onto the Japanese males–which may lead us to forget that the West has got its own gender issues (OK, not saying you don’t find that in Japan too–again, the issue is the fact that ALL the asian men in the movie are shoved into this role).

In the end (got a lot more to say, but should really finish this…), there is certainly a good bit of orientalizing going on here, but I admit that it is better than a lot of movies out there–and apart from some (legit) issues with the representation of women in the movie, the two female leads are pretty decent, and in my mind primarily sympathetic viewpoint characters (after a while) rather than exotic dolls. Let me know what you think!

ALSO: some more commentary on Orientalism in The Wolverine (I haven’t read them all). Huffpost, The Nerds of Color (1), The Nerds of Color (2), The Nerds of Color (3), The Toast, Shadowlocked.

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IMG_2353I’m still ashamed that I never got around to writing a blog post about the first Thor movie–but now the second one is out, and I’ve got stuff to say! First, let me get my griping about pronunciation out of the way. The Shakespearean language bothered me, as it always did in the comic books as well (which I never read much, since I was more of a X-Men and Spiderman fan as a kid), but I figure this is a product of the awkwardly archaized English of the saga and Edda translations available in the first half of the twentieth century (incidentally, these are the versions that are in public domain now–you can find some on Northvegr). If you encountered the Norse gods in those versions, then of course you think they speak like they belong in a poor Shakespeare knock-off. But what really bothered me was the pronunciation of the names– “YOTE-un-hime” for “Jotunheim”, which should be “J√∂tunheim,” which is more like “YUTunhaim” (or “J√∂tunheimr”/”YUTunhaimur” if you want the nominative form that you would see in a Norse or Icelandic dictionary). OK, OK, I’m really not giving especially accurate guidance here, but it’s a bit more in the right ballpark–the beginning of the¬†New Introduction to Old Norse has a great section on pronunciation in both Old Norse (which is reconstructed–meaning, it’s an educated and scientific guess) and modern Icelandic (which is the pronunciation I’ve usually found used in academia when we read portions of the sagas aloud). A New Introduction used to be available for free online as a PDF, but that does not seem to be the case anymore–I guess they came out with a new edition and want folks to actually buy it. The wikipedia article on the Icelandic alphabet can also give you some pronunciation tips.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I realize American audiences are not familiar with the o-umlaut, but the sounds aren’t difficult, and I feel like a proper name ought to stick at least somewhat to the original (and the fact that they used the German pronunciation of “-ei” instead of the Scandinavian is unforgivable. >:[ )¬† Also unforgivable–Laufey is Loki’s (goddess) mother in the myths, but becomes his giant father in the first movie (his giant father is¬†F√°rbauti in the myths), and Loki is bloodbrother to Odin, rather than adopted brother of Thor. Look, it just gets silly after a while… But I will get into Loki’s family and relationships another time. It’s complicated.

OK, that’s off my chest. Whew. Let me also confess that I just didn’t like the first movie as much. The romance, which is apparently supposed to be central to Thor’s redemption, just does not feel convincing, and the final fight felt pretty lame to me too. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) seemed to be in the movie primarily to make Thor look good (by falling for him and going wide-eyed in anticipation at appropriate moments)–but OK, I’ve seen several blog posts that argue that the movie actually passes the Bechdel test, so I’m willing to step back and let people make up their own mind about that. I’m still skeptical, but it seemed like they made a decent case (alas, not sure exactly which blog post it was that started it for me…).

The new movie is more of an unabashed space-fantasy, which I think is more fun. Well, OK, I think the first movie would have been a lot more interesting (maybe not necessarily better) if they had taken out all the space-stuff (that legitimates Thor’s story) until that moment at the end (spoiler alert) when he gets his hammer back and Jane et al. all see that he WAS telling the truth and is a super-being from space. But for Dark World, I really enjoyed just sitting back and watching the spaceships and stuff zoom around. Pretty fun. I like space stuff. Also, there are a few fun twists (at least one that really got me), and the dynamic between Thor and Loki is really played up a lot more, I assume partly in response to reception of the two characters among the fans and partly as a result of the ways the actors have filled out these roles so well. And I really like how the Thor franchise doesn’t take itself too seriously (not all the time anyway)–I really enjoy the humor at times.

IMG_2273Still have some issues though, so I will hit them one by one here. Spoiler alert, but oh well, you probably new that.

The Vanir are Asian? Kinda but not really, according to Snorri Sturluson, who derived the name √Üsir (whom Odin and Thor belong to) from “Asians” (for him, that would be Asia Minor–he was interested in convincing us that the gods were originally Trojans). The Vanir are another group of the gods who joined the √Üsir (after fighting with them), and Snorri’s etymology is BS but interesting in terms of how he worked it into his grand narrative deriving Norse poetics from Classical poetics. Once version of the truce that brought them together also covers the origin of poetry, but that is a tale for another day…

Minorities and Others. To continue on the above topic, race is a pretty interesting topic to get into w/ these movies. OK, you might say that race is not at all prominent as an “issue” here, so why bother stirring it up? But it is precisely the unintentional, taken-for-granted ways that race manifests itself in this movie that are telling (and interesting). There was a huge furor online (much of it blatantly racist, and much of the rest racist at the same time that its purveyors protested “I’m not racist, but…”) when it was revealed that Heimdall would be black in the movie version of the comics. Never mind that these are aliens anyway, and that they may as well be green (like the √Üsir in StarGate… which I still haven’t watched). Personally, I am more troubled by the way in which the overwhelming whiteness of these “aliens” (especially those ruling the 9 worlds) serves as an “as above, so below” justification for the situation here on earth the last 500 or so years, the imperialist and colonial programs of the West now written in the heavens and in the primordial past. As was pointed out by Karl Siegfried at the conference we met at, even Idris Elba’s version of Heimdallr becomes a liminal figure, a bodyguard who protects those on the inside from those on the outside, without being on the inside himself. With this new movie, we realize that the token Asian of the first movie is not really “from” the ruling community of the gods, but from the Vanir. I would assume that this also means that Elba’s character is from another community, although I believe I did see a token black person or two in the background among the other guards. The “earthly” varieties of “race” or ethnicity then, based on skin color and accent, stand in as “model minorities” (peripheral and not in charge, but apparently not bothered by that), while the monsters, whether the primordial Dark Elves or the barbaric looking figures with horns and stuff in the opening battle in Vanaheim, or the giants, stand in for the threatening aspect of the ethnic/racial Other (maybe not too different than in the Norse myths themselves–despite the name, the “giants” of the early texts are not necessarily gigantic, and whether they appear “normal” or “monstrous” will depend to a degree on just how much their Otherness needs to be emphasized in that particular story). The correlation between the celestial world order and that on earth becomes a bit eery and disturbing when we have Odin talking about Asgard’s peacekeeping role across the 9 worlds and the need to show these worlds that they are “strong.” The politics of power don’t differ too much across the 9 worlds, I guess. Anyway, this is not to make any of these actors feel bad for playing these roles, or to say that there is some nefarious purpose behind it all–but all this is still there, it is part of the movie, and it is better to be able to see these things (and to try to subvert them rather than reinforce them) than to be blind to them.

The Dark Elves. Not going to say much here, except that we really hardly know ANYTHING about the elves in Norse mythology, and the “dark elf/light elf” division may be an invention of Snorri, that incurable systematizer. I like the suggestion that “dark elf” or “black elf” is just a kenning for “dwarf.”

Women and power. So, Jane is great, and I appreciate that they’ve tried to portray her as a genuine scientist who really is interested in SCIENCE and not just muscles–but it seems to me that her thunder (haha) is really stolen by Thor’s arrival as one of those who really “possesses” the tech and science she is trying to just get a glimpse of. I mean, how can she ever pass the Bechdel test now if the subject she is a specialist in (SCIENCE… OK, more specific than that…) is now meaningful in the narrative only in so far as it relates to the main male character? OK, her tech is what finally defeats the bad guy, but that was just too silly for me (I mean, human home-grown tech… which her male colleague built, now that I think about it–against super-being apocalyptic tech. Not going to work). And one thing that I noticed here, and then saw paralleled in the X-men material (thinking of Jean Grey as Phoenix here)–power in these cases (the Aether for Jane) is something that possesses these women, rather than something that they possess, as is the case w/ their male counterparts. Haven’t thought further on this, but I’m curious how many other parallels there are in the comics world… Also, Jane’s impotence is really highlighted a LOT. Not just in her possession by this power, or in her out-of-placeness in Asgard (which is more of a legitimate plot-point that could have been explored more), but in the silliness of her physical violence–hitting Thor when he comes back after ages is kinda funny, sure, and we all laughed when she hit Loki, but the latter case really turns ridiculous when we really look and see her hit this man and say “That’s for New York.” Maybe it’s just me (and sure, we have Sif in this movie too, and she’s pretty bad-ass), but taken with the rest it just felt like a picture of the helpless woman juxtaposed with the competent male. And Sif or not, that is really the central relational image in this film (and of course, Sif’s place in the story is defined largely by the fact that she does NOT have the relationship with Thor that the weaker Jane has).

The Aether. OK, just going to point out that it isn’t really a Norse thing, but that’s fine. I didn’t really find it all that compelling (or well explained) a novum (or plot device) in this movie though.

Pectoral and boob plates. Yeah, just silly (always is–even if its Batman). Armor does not need to articulate that which it protects (and any articulation would just weaken it). That said, it’s nice that they don’t go for gratuitous chain-mail bikinis and the like, and really, the armor in this film is a step up from the stereotypically exploitive fantasy armor. Also check out this blog.

Mayans and Stonehenge and Ancient Conspiracies. OK, I just hate that stuff. Too many people buy into it. For a book that discusses WHY people buy into ridiculous conspiracies, ancient or otherwise, there is a handy chapter in this book (which I hope to review soon). At least it wasn’t a prominent theme in this movie.

The sneak-peak at the end. OK, who’s excited for a Infinity Gauntlet movie crossover?? ME!!!!!! I hope this means they are bringing back Silver Surfer. Honestly, I don’t know how they will do it though. The Marvel movie franchise may be big, but not THAT big. Still, I’ve been excited about this ever since the Thanos appearance at the end of the first Avengers movie. I haven’t kept up with comics for 20 years though, so who knows, maybe that whole storyline has been redone since “my time”…

I think I am missing some things, but oh well. Also check out Karl Siegfried’s interview about the movie at his blog. Karl’s interview is a lot more thorough and systematic in dealing with the connections between the “old” myths and their appropriation in the movies and comics.

And since it is that time of year, here is my pic of Thor and Loki from Christmas a couple years ago. Now available as greeting cards and posters on Redbubble, as well as on DeviantArt (where you can also get it on a mug!). The pen brush sketches from above are also on my DA acct, as well as on my tumblr.

Thor Santa Loki Rudolph God Jul_edited-1

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Weird Tales 70

OK, OK, this cover is in fact not at all representative of the “Finnish Weird” or Johanna’s work, but hey, it works into the genealogy…

For our Out of Scandinavia¬†Artist in Residence at Gustavus this year we had the Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo. The Out of Scandinavia program at Gustavus is pretty cool, I have to say– previous artists in residence include Jonas Hassen Khemiri (in the news recently for this letter), Max von Sydow (who showed up in the first Conan movie, so you know he’s a big deal), and Liv Ullmann. I was especially happy to have Johanna visit, as much of her writing fit perfectly with my course on Scandinavian Other Worlds, and I enjoyed chatting with her about (and hearing her speak on) the status of the unrealistic genres (sci-fi and fantasy) in Scandinavia in general, and Finland in particular. When I first studied in Sweden over a decade ago (yikes…), fantasy seemed to only show up in the children’s section (at least in the bookstores I visited back in Fall 2001). Later I found special sections for Anglophone science fiction and fantasy (both in English and Translated), but in Sweden at least, there was very very little in the way of “native” sci-fi and fantasy by dedicated authors of the speculative fiction “ghetto”–on the other hand, flip through the history of Scandi literature a bit, and you’ll find otherwise “respectable” authors from Karin Boye and Harry Martinson to Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gustafsson occasionally slumming in the “ghetto” to greater and lesser degrees (sorry, maybe not the nicest parallel…). As a self contained genre, however, the prestige of speculative fiction is still fairly low, so it was interesting to get Johanna’s perspective.

While she grew up on science fiction and fantasy herself, she tries to avoid the terms in describing her own work these days–it is just too difficult to escape your “brand” once it sets in, and the stereotypes associated with the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” can be pretty misleading. If you love Tolkien or Asimov, then you may be disappointed to get, for example, something like Sinisalo’s¬†Troll–if you don’t like those authors, then you might avoid¬†Troll, even if it may actually turn out to be something you’d enjoy. That said, Johanna shared a term she seems happy to embrace, which nevertheless highlights the “unrealistic” element in her fiction: Finnish Weird. The term is inspired by the term “New Weird,” which has come into use the last decade or so in the Anglophone world and which looks back to the “Weird” fiction of authors like HP Lovecraft, and magazines like¬†Weird Tales. Finnish Weird is not meant to be equivalent to the New Weird, although I imagine they can certainly be related, as the latter term encompasses many of the more “literary” minded writers of unrealistic fiction in the Anglophone world (China Mi√©ville is the first that comes to mind for me), just as “Finnish Weird” seems partially intended to enable the mainstreaming/respectibilization (I made a new word!) of the unrealistic genres in Finland. What sets “Finnish Weird” apart? Well, I’ll have to answer that after I’ve spent some more time reading other works of the “Finnish Weird”…

Troll: A Love StoryWhile she had been active as an author in the Finnish spec-fic community earlier as well, Johanna’s breakout novel is¬†Troll: A Love Story, published originally as¬†Ennen p√§iv√§nlaskua ei voi, or¬†Not Before Sundown (I believe the latter was the title on the British Market) in 2000. Among the other awards she has received or been nominated for,¬†Troll got her the Finlandia Prize as well as the James Tiptree Jr. Award. The various strands of the novel all take on the theme of Otherness and one’s relationship to the Other in quite different, yet nicely complementary ways. The troll, discovered early on by the main character Angel, is of course the supernatural Other of folklore, but while this element is preserved in the novel’s references to folk belief and Finnish literature, the troll here is treated as a scientifically verified species, having joined (in the world of the novel) the ranks of other formerly mythical creatures turned “real” (the panda, the gorilla, the komodo dragon) in 1907, and the troll’s presence in the narrative brings in, among other things, our epistemological relationship to the world (“science” and the digital and pre-digital archive) and our relationship to the environment, an examination of the Culture-Nature divide which my students this semester have gotten to see in both Norse mythology and in our (all too brief) introduction to ecocriticism. We find both the colonial and gendered Other in Palomita, a Philippine girl purchased as a “bride” by Angel’s neighbor, who gets caught up in Angel’s troll problem, and finds hope from the encounter (no spoilers here though…). Angel is homosexual, giving us a queer angle on sex and Otherness (Johanna said that¬†Troll was “that gay novel” in Finland…), and in a couple places this difference in sexual orientation/identity becomes both a point in the development of the plot, and a case-in-point of intersubjectivity (let’s say “personal Otherness”) as confusion, false-hope, and jealousy arise when another’s sexuality and intentions are misinterpreted. The Others of our relationships (OK, how about “relational Other”… well, personal Other still works) are prominent in Angel’s various sexual and/or romantic liaisons as he either tries to find love (it doesn’t go so well… um, spoiler alert…) or tries to get what he wants as he struggles to figure out how to take care of this forest creature in his apartment, and heck, we even get “One’s self as an Other,” to steal (and I think slightly modify?) a Paul Ricoeur title, as we have, for example, one character unaware that he is in “the closet” (although the audience and the other characters are clued in), and our main character Angel manages to surprise himself when it comes to exactly how he feels about… well, read the book. The way the book is written nicely emphasizes these same themes, as we get lots of short first-person accounts of the action, often different angles on the same scene, highlighting the misunderstandings and intrigues that come from… well, from being different people. Interspersed with the first person accounts are various fragments of internet sources on the flora and fauna of Finland, as well as of various literary and folkloric resources, bringing us back to the ecocritical and epistemological (how do we “know” the world) themes I noted at the start. Johanna’s strategy, as she told my class, was to allow us to fit together our own picture of what trolls are in the same way we would when we learn about¬†anything that we do not have first-hand experience of–and to my mind, it works admirably and contributes to the realistic feel of the book as a whole.

File:Iron sky poster.pngI read this book on the plane back from the annual Scandinavian Studies conference, and found it very engaging, easy to read at the same time that it kept going in unexpected directions. I should note that, while it is not at all pornographic or explicitly erotic, it could be a bit much for many of my friends and family–in fact, the homosexual angle itself would be a “no-go” for many of them, but as this novel is an essay on how to engage with Otherness, I encourage people to give it a try anyway. And for many of those same people I would have to give a similar (but… um, different) note re: the movie¬†Iron Sky, based on another story by Sinisalo. I showed this movie to my Other Worlds course after hearing Johanna’s talk (after we learned that she was involved in it, we decided we had to watch it instead of our planned Let the Right One In–we’ll get to that later).¬†Nazis on the moon–intentionally over-the-top sci-fi adventure, and pretty pointed politically. Relentless ridicule of Bush and Palin and the USA’s tendency towards international showmanship and unilateral action–a big turn-off for my Republican friends, I realize, and it is a harsh enough criticism (if satirical) that it is probably not going to actually win anyone over (but if you are already sympathetic to some degree you will probably laugh a lot… and maybe cry a little). Many of the foibles criticized are common to politicians and politics worldwide (and beyond, if we count the Nazi-infested moon), but our dirty laundry (meaning the USA’s) and its consequences take front-and-center on the world stage by virtue of both our power/significance in world politics, and, well, by the fact that American media has a stranglehold on the world (heck, what do you do when most of the movies available in your country are about American good guys beating up badies from your part of the world?). Something worth keeping in mind, though I understand that many will feel that it goes too far (OK, it is pretty [intentionally] ridiculous much of the time… I mean… NAZIS ON THE MOON).

Well, sorry for all the caveats– what can I say, I love everyone I know, liberal and conservative (and Other axes–let’s not get too binary), and sometimes it just gets a bit hard to write for all of them. In any case, I’m excited to learn more about the “Finnish Weird,” and will have to try to find time to read the next book I have by Johanna,¬†Birdbrain. You can also find this interview with Johanna at, appropriately, the Weird Fiction Review.

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feersum_viking_waryur_by_callego-d4bbn33[Note: Introductory Secondary Sources on the Viking Age are listed and discussed at the end of the post–scroll down if that’s the part you are interested in!]¬†

Finally got around to watching the first episode of the new History channel miniseries “The Vikings.” Considering how poorly the Vikings typically fare in film (I’m looking at you,¬†awkward Vikings-in-the-New-World “Pathfinder” remake), I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. There are some neat things taken from our knowledge of late Viking Age/Medieval Iceland (or rather, what sources from the latter tell us about the former–it was ‘history’ for them as well)–for example, they make the distinction between illegal secret murder and a legal killing, in which you announce what you’ve done (though the relation to feud seems a little tangled–the latter serves to enable open, reciprocal feud, rather than prevent it, as the earl’s words seem to suggest, though an anti-feud posture is arguably taken by certain Norwegian jarls and kings in the sagas). And generally, when we look this far back there is a LOT we have to speculate about, so it’s fine to guess a bit about what the religion would have looked like, etc (though let me note, the visit to the prophet doesn’t look like anything from the sources, as Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog has pointed out). Still, here are some points that bothered me (keep in mind I haven’t seen the second episode yet–it is out, right? ¬†Also, points 1 and 4 are inspired by points made by friends on facebook… nice to know so many people who study this sort of thing…). Note also that we really know very very little about the early Viking Age, and this movie is set RIGHT in the year our history books have (slightly arbitrarily) chosen as the “start” of the Viking Age (a detail I return to below).

1) Ragnar and Rollo? Two famous Vikings happen to be brothers? ¬†Not to mention chronological issues, though the miniseries doesn’t seem too concerned with that… ¬†Well, even if “Rollo” is not the famous founder of Normandy, let’s at least keep both of their names in the same language. “Rollo” is the name given to Hrolf (Hr√≥lfr) on the continent. ¬†They would have called each other Hr√≥lfr and Ragnarr (the -r endings mark the nominative case–would have changed depending on function in the sentence), though I imagine Hrolf and Ragnar would be OK too. Or, you know, Rob and Reggie…

2) I’m a little bothered by the hall they feast in, which looks a bit like a church gym decked out for a potluck (except for the throne…) with rows of tables, and the earl sitting above everyone before eating in a separate room entirely. I might be off here (would like to be Indiana Jones [=more archaeologically savvy], but I’m just a plain ol’ bookworm). ¬†I have in mind the medieval Icelandic farmhouse/hall, which I believe is similar to what you would find throughout Scandinavia pre-Viking age through the early Viking age: the “high seat” was not literally a separate, higher seat, but rather the spot reserved for the chieftain/jarl/king, whoever was Big Man, in the central position on one of the benches that lined the hall (and where everyone sat relative to him was a BIG DEAL). ¬†So, two benches, each along the walls, used as seats during gatherings, but broad and used for sleeping as well, with a long fireplace down the middle. Well, I’ll have to check with some of my archaeologist friends re: the halls of very early Viking age rulers. Still, I recommend the Icelandic film “The Outlaw” (√ötlaginn) for an alternate vision of the Viking Age hall (in relatively poor Iceland, however).

3) These accents… feel a bit hokey. That’s all… ¬†Not sure whether or not any of the actors are actually Scandinavian, but many of the accents felt a little stilted or exaggerated. But maybe I am just a jerk…

4) They treat “The West” (not the new world, but Western Europe) as though it had not been “discovered” by Norse folks yet. ¬†While pre-Vikings didn’t drop by Heathrow all that often, they weren’t completely ignorant of the world beyond the Baltic. The Viking age itself got at least some of its momentum from the earlier rise of towns when trade shifted from routes through Frankia to routes through the Baltic (creating wealth, and the demand for more wealth), Denmark was/is/and probably will be for a long time actually ATTACHED to the rest of Europe (duh), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who settled England came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany long before the Viking Age. The series seems more interested in staging the barbaric here, the usual 13th Warrior, Hollywood, timber mud n chkns (+ swords) standard primitive early-Medieval schtick. OK, OK, there are some good references to what we actually “know” (as I mentioned above), but I still think “The Outlaw” gives a nicer (=less Hollywood) feel for the Viking Age. Whoops, I just looped back to a previous topic, didn’t I…

5) “I would never insult you–you’re too great a warrior. But perhaps not so great a man…” ¬†Um… do they really think virility, virtue (note the virin both), and martial competence were understood as separate back then? (or now…) ¬†Womanliness and cowardliness were essentially equivalent in the insults of the time. Penetration in battle was sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly equivalent to penetration in a sexual encounter, and the same for turning one’s back in battle (to run away) and turning one’s back so as to be… um, well… See Preben Meulengracht S√łrensen’s¬†The Unmanly Man and Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” for more…

6)¬†¬†Ragnar is married to a shield maiden–OK, nice reference to the romantic liaisons between human warriors and valkyries in the Eddic poetry and elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Sigurd…and, well, at Ragnar too… look to Saxo Grammaticus for the account of his relationship w/ Lagertha). I am reluctant to admit the historical existence of warrior women in the Viking Age (excepting… well, exceptions–women may have been able to transgress gender boundaries more easily than in other places and times, though we just don’t have good access to information from that period), but hey, could be. I wouldn’t give too much credence to the sagas and heroic legends on this though–I consider those more fantasies about powerful women than survivals of actual socially acceptable roles. Doesn’t make them any less interesting to me, though. For more on this topic, see Karl Siegfried’s discussion of √Čowyn in LOTR and Old Norse warrior women (he is a bit more positive about the historical likelihood of warrior women than I), and check out (again) Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” (and… well, a lot of other articles…), Jenny Jochens’¬†Women in Old Norse Society and¬†Images of Old Norse Women and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. I’ll try to get to a dedicated post on the topic one of these days.

7) From the setting (fjords), I assume they are somewhere in Norway–meaning in the west, meaning closer to the apparently imaginary England than to the eastern Baltic. Norwegians and Dane typically went westward during the Viking Age, while the Swedes went east. So, the whole “we know the east, we dare not try the unknown west!” seems a bit off to me too… (OK, OK, see #4… I probably could have condensed these, huh…).

8) Feels like a whole lot that made the Vikings Vikings (according to our modern imagination) is finding its origin story here–not only two famous Viking names shoe-horned into the year we traditionally call the start of the “Viking Age” (it was no different than any other year to ‘them,’ incidentally), but the ability to sail in the open ocean (represented in three inventions all smashed into a single episode: sunboard, sunstone, and clinker built ship). ¬†Well, less about history, more about the idea of history–par for the course. And hey, it’s not like they’re killing puppies…

Hm, pretty sure I’m forgetting some… and there is probably a lot I just didn’t think of, so oh well. ¬†But hey, I can be a bit of a crank when it comes to… well, lots of things, so enjoy the series, just don’t take it as particularly educational! (par for the course for non-PBS ‘documentary’ TV…)

Dress Like A Viking copyRemember also to check out my brief notes on how Vikings dress (I’m not looking to argue with the series about that–again, not an archaeologist, and I really am not familiar with the full range of variation across the North and throughout the period), and remember that “Viking” literally means “Pirate,” even if nowadays people tend to treat it as a blanket term for everyone who lived in Scandinavia between 793 and 1066. Also check out this interview, and note that the historian in question has a book on the history of the Viking Age coming out next year! ¬†Cool! ¬†Been a long time since Gwyn Jones’¬†History of the Vikings.

And while my expertise lies more with the vernacular Norse literature of Medieval Iceland (which is what a lot of this is based on anyway), I have been meaning to share some general resources for the study of the Viking Age. Here are the books I used when I taught an upper division course on Viking and Medieval Scandinavia at Berkeley:

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings.  Great chapters on various aspects of the Viking Age (history-wise rather than culture-wise) and its later reception.

Medieval Scandinavia. Goes well beyond the Viking Age, but includes plenty of material on the earlier period as well. (The book Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia is also a great resource, but you will have to find it at a library).

The Vikings. Roesdahl’s introduction is still a great one (plus I modeled my illustrations for Viking clothes, shown above, on the illustrations in her book). Much more of an archaeological focus.

Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. A nice overview-source, but I did not feel like it was of the same caliber as some of the other sources–or maybe it’s just that I disagreed with the author’s take on the debate over the historical authenticity of the so-called blood-eagle ritual. Whatever. It has PICTURES!!! (Seriously though, it’s alright).

We were also going to use The World of the Vikings, but for some reason it was listed as out of print at the time–still, I found it handy to refer to occasionally (also, PICTURES!). Looks like it is available in paperback now!

I also recommend Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited in part by my friend and colleague Elisabeth Ward, as well as The Viking World (not the same as above). The latter is GINORMOUS and oriented towards more of an academic audience, but I think the Kindle version is relatively inexpensive, and the articles are still very introductory (I go to it for general points on Viking Age and Medieval archaeology). Peter Foote’s The Viking Achievement¬†is still great as well, but I believe out of print (for a while now).¬†If you really just want something short and quick, try The Very Short Introduction to the Vikings. I haven’t read this one, but I do like the series–in fact, I hope to talk about some of their other books (Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, etc) some other time! It is short though, so if you want anything more substantial, you will have to dig into some of the other books mentioned above. I’ll try to get around to separate posts for things like Viking Age Religion or Viking/Medieval Iceland one of these days.

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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 Gl√°mr, 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 Skallagr√≠msson is at one point said to be “large as a troll” (the Icelandic scholar √Ārmann 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 Gl√°mr).¬† 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!

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My super-duper Viking hero, complete with cheesy Super Hero name.

Here you go–a genuine Viking Super Hero.¬† Well, OK, maybe a bit over the top.¬† Went for some vaguely Icelandic/Norwegian colors (check out the flags), plus a big “V” pattern for “Viking” (duh), his mask is (hopefully) reminiscent of a Viking helmet, and his cape is fastened like a Viking age cape with a brooch/pin.¬† I added the arrows shooting from his fingers because, well, half the super heroes out there shoot stuff from their fingers or hands (or eyes, or whatever), and wouldn’t it be arrows in the Viking age?¬† Actually, I got pretty excited when I first read Arrow Odd’s saga and found an actual super villain shooting arrows from his fingers!!¬† Let’s hear it for √Ėgmundr, the doppelg√§nger nemesis of hero √Ėrvar-Oddr (who has a super-shirt and some super arrows of his own).¬† This amazing power has now been harnessed for the side of truth, justice, and the Viking Way.¬† The muscles are inspired by my own, of course.¬† If YOU would like to feel like a hero, please go to my DeviantArt page and buy a print or mug with this beautiful, completely and totally authentic picture of a Viking Super Hero, and support your local neighborhood Norse Mythologist!

Heroes and heroism of a wide variety of flavors are on my mind at the moment.¬† Watching the Olympics right now.¬† Just finished rewatching Captain America, showed both of my summer courses the movie Thor a few weeks ago (painful, but I’ll cover the problems with the movie some other time), and enjoyed Joss Whedon’s Avengers a week or two before that.¬† Watched the new Spider-man movie, after having it recommended by a friend I admire very much, who also told me about just how meaningful the Spider-man movies have been in her life (it was pretty legit, actually, and led to some of the thoughts later in this post).¬† My nieces are now playing with my old Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game that I picked up in Jr. Hi.¬† Rereading Lord of the Rings right now, and while I know the plot backwards and forwards, I’m finding myself especially inspired this time by the perseverance of the protagonists in the face of uncertainty and despair, by the humble heroism of the hobbits, and even by the humble heroism of the more traditional heroes, from Aragorn to Prince Imrahil (they may not always seem to come off as humble servant-leaders, but I think that’s more a result of Tolkien’s infatuation with high style and formal dialogue in those portions).

I think one may legitimately criticize the very idea of “heroism” in the history of Western culture (as in this review of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight)–the heroes I study in Norse literature are certainly very closely identified with the exalted image the Icelandic aristocracy had of itself–but I think the idea of a “hero” still holds a lot of very positive potential.¬† If we want to encourage kids (or adults) to use whatever powers, abilities, advantages they have been given for the good of others, in particular on behalf of those without the same degree of agency, then why not invoke the cultural capital of “hero” as a term?¬† Well, OK, that can easily turn into some exaltation of the preferred class (upper middle class white kids, for example, or aristocratic sons of Icelandic chieftains and other large land owners), along the lines of the white-savior complex that critics have seen in the Stop Kony campaign (no further comment there right now– other than, it’s good to help people, it’s hard to do it well, we should keep trying to help people even though we won’t get it completely right, and we should keep trying to get it completely right).¬† More difficult, but certainly possible, is the use of the figure of the “hero” to give the disadvantaged a hope for responsible power and agency of their own. That’s a complex issue though, and I won’t tackle it here.

I don’t know if any instance of the “hero” can hold itself entirely aloof from criticism (even significant criticism), but I do think a lot of the weight here lies in reception, in the way in which the audience/individual¬†uses the figure of the hero in the construction and development of their own identity.¬† Take the obvious wish-fulfillment of super powers, or just the heroic stature of anyone from Indiana Jones to Helgi Hundingsbani.¬† It does matter how the author/teller sets up the premise, but generally I think there is room for either a more narcissistic identification with the hero (LOOK AT ME I AM AWESOME AND WILL SAVE YOU ALL!!!!), or a more nuanced use of the hero as a way to meditate on oneself as a unique individual with power to affect the world for good or for ill.¬† “With great power…” well, OK, maybe that’s been said too many times, but there are still moments when I am able to “get it” and appreciate the sense of responsibility it gives.

What about the fact that not everyone gets to “be” the hero?¬† The hero is typically set off from the rest of the world, after all–their exceptionalism seems to be part and parcel of the role.¬† Nevertheless, I think the moral imperative of the self-sacrificing, serving hero is prominent enough in the semantics of our cultural production that I am still comfortable striving to be “heroic” myself, and wishing that everyone else would as well.¬† As Karl Lionheart says in Astrid Lindgren’s Br√∂derna Lejonhj√§rta,¬†if everyone were like his heroic yet pacifist brother Jonatan, there would be no “Tengils” in the world (Tengil is the evil dictator of the book) and no need for battles to defeat them.¬† Would I throw myself in the way of bullets for someone else, girlfriend or not?¬† I hope that I would–because if we had a world full of people willing to give their lives for others, then we wouldn’t have to worry about those bullets in the first place.¬† Meanwhile I am becoming more aware of just how much cultivation of the heart, mind, and body (in terms of good instincts, not big muscles) it takes to behave selflessly–heroic stature feels a bit further off than it did when I sat in my room reading comic books in Junior High.

All these notes assume we identify with the hero–but I’ve heard a compelling reading of the heroes in comic books and westerns which would primarily take them as an outgrowth of a democratic society’s anxiety over both the monstrous and the exceptional.¬† Lots of interesting stuff there, but I will wait to talk about that another time (esp. since I can’t remember who wrote the study in question…)

Anyway, there are some random thoughts that have been percolating in my brain the last couple weeks!
Edit: Just remembered this article on Comic Con which my friend Julie posted on her blog— all about the collision of the thoughtful and the thoughtless in the world of heroes.¬† But this is probably material for another post…

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