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IMG_2833This is sort of a belated review, but John Lindow’s book Trolls: An Unnatural History is out now, and EVERYONE SHOULD BUY IT!!! OK OK, I’ll try to quit the salesperson schtick. This book is  a solid overview of the topic from a leading scholar in the field of Norse mythology and Scandinavian Folklore,  but is also super accessible (well, as much so as a book can be while still remaining academic in nature). John has always been very at home with both the super-erudite discourse of academic journals (OK, that’s a given for a professor in the field…) as well as with articulating the state of the field in a readable and understandable way for those not in the field–note, for example, his Norse Mythology Handbook. Take this and the two Eddas and you’re well on your way to being a super-duper Norse mythologist.

The book is a slim one, at 154 pp, so it is not like this is a comprehensive book of everything about trolls–but it is an excellent overview, and is the only text I can think of that follows the term/concept “troll” all the way from its earliest attestations through it dissemination and transformation in international culture. Chapter one covers the earliest Norse attestations, chapter two the slightly later Medieval attestations (well, this is a slightly problematic distinction, as the Viking age texts were themselves written down in the Middle Ages, but it still works), chapter three covers the trolls of folklore, chapter four the transformation of the troll in the early printings of popular collections of folklore (and the illustrations are great in this chapter for showing the progression towards the more sensational, big-nosed, distinct-species of troll that we are more familiar with now), chapter five covers “trolls in literature,” inclusive of one of my favorite movies, while chapter six gets into trolls in children’s lit and marketing–and then there is the epilogue, which gets into the slang use of the word “troll” in contemporary society, from patent-trolling to the trolls who haunt the internet.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer's trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow's book is also a Bauer illustration.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer’s trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow’s book is also a Bauer illustration.

Legend Trolls vs Fairy Tale Trolls

The first two chapters were mostly a review of trollology I’d learned (from John, of course) early in grad school, but I really appreciated the overview of the later reception of the idea of the troll the latter chapters, in particular in terms of the history of the visualization of the troll (seeing how I am slowly venturing into illustration myself, and have a few troll pics, or trollish-pics, which I’ve put below). I also appreciated the observation (which I believe I’d heard before, but had forgotten) that trolls, in the more general sense of supernatural beings, are more ambiguously colored in the legend tradition (i. e., tales that are ostensibly true and less about narrative entertainment), where, for example, it is open to debate whether these Others are subject to the same salvation that the Christian, human, insiders claim, while in the fairy tale tradition (more explicitly ludic, fictional, and escapist, and often told by the rural proletariat) trolls are more explicitly Bad, playing the role of Villain, and, according to Bengt Holbek’s interpretation (which John does not get into in this book, though he does have a very thorough review of in a 1989 or 1990 issue of Scandinavian Studies), the negative symbolic embodiment of authority figures like landowners, employers, or parents (in-law).

A trollish portrayal of Thor's mother Earth.

A trollish portrayal of Thor’s mother Earth.

Trolls, Fantasy, and Good and Evil

This got me thinking about the priority of the escapist function in Fairy Tales, especially since I’d just been reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories–while the rural proletariat may be more aware than most of the potential for moral ambiguity and abuse among those who are supposed to be “in the right” (as of course those in charge would think), or so my left-leaning sympathies had me thinking, the fact that it was primarily the poorest of the poor who tell fairy stories certainly highlights the importance of escape in their situation (a point Tolkien makes about all of us–it is the jailers who argue against escape–but let’s keep in mind the fact that some are more jailed than others), and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that one aspect of escapism is the isolation of Good and Evil, at least in certain places within a story. As horrible as it is when someone gets so bad that they are Just Bad, it is also a bit of a relief, isn’t it? To just say “THEY ARE BAD” and “THEY ARE GOOD.” But maybe a more nuanced take is possible as well–let’s keep in mind a key aspect of Tolkien’s celebration of the human ability to create coherent things which do not actually exist–green suns and the like. If I remember correctly, one of his points is that this linguistic ability to see green grass as both green and grass is at the root of the sort of work we do when we create fantasy worlds which are simultaneously coherent and yet impossible. Fantasy draws its power from the way in which it dances with the real world–if iron is ennobled by the forging of the sword Gram (as the Big T says), then our real world experiences of Good and Evil are legitimated, enhanced, sharpened, and affirmed by our fictional manipulations of these things (our reification of them, our treatment of them AS things) in a fantasy world. Green is greener by our ability to separate it from the grass that we perceive it on, and similar things could be said about Good and Evil. (gooder ? eviler ?  Hm, maybe I’ll work on this idea…) Of course, that is not to deny the great evil that has been done by the various fantasies of… well, of evil, that have been transferred into the real world and used to justify everything from rape to genocide–there needs to be a sufficient about of reflexivity if our fantasy is not going to just drive a two-dimensional ideology of us versus them.

Trolls trolls trolls

One last note–while John does not pursue a very developed thesis in this regard, he certainly does touch on the ambiguity of the world “Troll” itself (troll as magical, troll as extraordinary (if still maybe human), troll as generic supernatural creature, troll as giant, troll as a specific sort of monster, etc…). I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but just don’t have time at the moment–but well, now you can read his book! You can also read this article by Ármann Jakobsson on the topic (starts p 39, I think), which also reviews the academic literature a bit–but be warned, the article is written for those who are already “in” the academic conversation about trolls, so it won’t be quite the same sort of experience. I have to run now, but may revise/expand this review a bit… we’ll see.

Meanwhile, here are some more troll pics! (FYI–these are just for fun pics. Like, let’s pretend we are making up new creatures for a video-game type fun. Not authentic at all. You’ve been warned.)

Troll Sketch 1 14_edited-1

Lava Troll_edited-1

Ice Troll Sketch_edited-1

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Jackson's take on the poem is that of the Old West--mine is more that of David the Gnome, I guess...

Jackson has his cowboy-take on the Gnomic poem–mine is more David the Gnome, I guess…

Well, three current English translations anyway, now that Jackson Crawford has his translation of Poetic Edda for the general reader tapped for publication with Hackett Publishing Company in the (hopefully near) future. I’ve been meaning to post about this news, plus a rehash of my previous notes on Edda translations, but after finding out that this is apparently Cowboy Poetry week, I figured this would be a good opportunity to mention both Jackson’s upcoming Edda and his “Cowboy Hávamál,” a really cool rendering of the long poem of wisdom and Odinic escapades from Poetic Edda (his new translation will not be cowboy-style–which may relieve some and disappoint others, I suppose). I have a brief introductory post to the Old Norse Hávamál from way back at the start of this blog, if you are unfamiliar with this somewhat unwieldy but super interesting poem (Jackson’s translation is of the “Gnomic Poem” section, the title of which led to my possibly ill-advised comic to the upper right…), though if you want a more thorough introduction and Old Norse text oriented towards scholars in the field, David Evan’s edition is available online. An older non-cowboy translation is available here, though I recommend the current translations instead. Speaking of which…

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

I have a general and short introduction to Poetic Edda in my post on the difference between Skaldic and Eddic poetry, though if you have a subscription to The Literary Encyclopedia I did the entries on Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Jackson’s translation will join two other current English versions, Larrington’s Poetic Edda and Orchard’s Elder Edda (both translations of the same book, despite the difference in titles). The selling point for Jackson’s translation, according to Jackson’s own blog, is that it in a “truly readable, contemporary style,” written for casual readers outside the classroom. Not that Larrington or Orchard are intentionally trying to obfuscate the material, but I think that scholars who are used to teaching the material in the classroom (since I have noticed this myself–though of course Jackson teaches these things in the classroom as well) have a tendency to allow the “Oddness” of the material to shine through in translation. Personally, I think this is productive, at least in a classroom setting. As has been noted by scholars in a variety of disciplines (for example, archaeologist of the North Neil Price discusses this in his book The Viking Way, citing a scholar in Classic, if I remember correctly), while we might notice the “Other” (the explicitly different or monstrous relative to the culture of the text we are studying) or the “Queer” (that which “queers” or subverts the norm of the culture of the text), we often miss the “Odd,” the ways in which the text itself, a product of a different culture and semantic world than our own, resists our own attempts to “get it”–or, we may have the illusion that we “get it,” interpreting what we see in terms of our own horizon of expectations, until we hit a knot of indecipherability, where we come up against the alienness of the text, or our own alienness relative to the world the text comes out of and once spoke within. A translation which preserves some of this ambiguity and “Oddness” helps signal the student that it will take some effort to come to terms with the text, as well as reminding us that we can never wholly “master” it–it always speaks to use from another world, to some degree (actually, another lit-crit person and I recently had a bit of an argument with a linguist about just this topic with reference to biblical translation–I suspect that there might be a bit of a divide values-wise in this matter between those who study ancient texts primarily and those who study Language primarily…).

None of this to say that I disagree with Jackson’s project–I’m really excited, actually, and curious to see how he handles the denser and weirder portions. My students have always struggled through the Helgi poems, for example, and the opening Völuspá can be super frustrating for neophytes (or anyone) with its allusiveness (an allusion is more frustrating than effective when we no longer know the reference). Meanwhile I hear Larrington’s translation is being reworked, so I’ll look forward to looking over all three eventually. 

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A quick sketch of Tolkien as a Warrior Dane. OK, I may not have the right warrior clothes for the migration era period that the poem describes, plus I got the scabbard on the wrong side, and the pin for his cloak is too centered, and the whole thing is messy... but I did this real quick in 5 or 10 minutes and need to get back to work, so gimme a break! Also, I think it looks a bit more like Magneto as a warrior dane...

A quick sketch of Tolkien as a Warrior Dane. OK, I may not have the right warrior clothes for the migration era period that the poem describes, plus I got the scabbard on the wrong side, and the pin for his cloak is too centered, and the whole thing is messy… but I did this real quick in 5 or 10 minutes and need to get back to work, so gimme a break! Also, I think it looks a bit more like Magneto as a warrior dane…

So a bunch of announcements went up today to the effect that Tolkien’s translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, brought to light a while back, will be published this Spring. [Edit: An except can now be checked out here, side by side with Heaney’s translation] This makes it the latest of Tolkien’s posthumously published works, and the latest of his interpretations (including translations) of the heroic material he studied, which in more recent times includes his own compositions building on/emulating the Volsung material in Old Norse literature and the Arthurian tradition in Britain. When I studied Old and Middle English lit (not my major, just some fun classes) in undergrad, I wrote on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and really appreciated Tolkien’s translation as very beautiful in its own right, and since I had a rudimentary competence in Middle English, I enjoyed being able to appreciate the ways his translation differed from others in its interpretation of the original. I did not use his edition of the poem at the time, but it is still available, co-edited with EV Gordon, the author of the introduction to Old Norse that so many of us in the field first studied with. Tolkien’s poetic treatments of some stories from his own mythos are clearly related to his translations and reworkings of the heroic material he studied–we might articulate it as different layers, each at a bit more of a remove from texts like Beowulf: 1) editions (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), 2) translations, 3) interpretations/original contributions to the “old” material, 4) homages from his own original universe (which, as you will see if you read some of his son’s commentary in the posthumously published Middle Earth series, could also be understood contributions to the “universe” of the older sources, related, I would argue, to the euhemeristic reimaginings of pagan myth in the Middle Ages).

Tolkien was, of course, a respectable scholar of Beowulf, and most of his “serious” fans are familiar with his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which had a significant impact on the way we study the poem (though one might also argue that it was simply a sign of the times, as things shifted in academia–but I do think Tolkien’s sympathy with a fellow poet, even across a millennium, shows through here). He also wrote an essay introducing a translation of the poem, some of the points of which are summarized here (sorry, couldn’t find an online text at the moment). This particular translation (and, I assume, the notes that go with it) belong to Tolkien’s younger days, but I am still pretty interested in seeing this (maybe HarperCollins could send me a review copy…? Maybe?). In particular it will be interesting to see the choices he makes in contrast to Seamus Heaney’s translation–both are poets, but will Tolkien’s additional qualifications as a scholar of Old English affect his translation at all? (Incidentally, I discuss Heaney’s translation as well as some notes re: the context of the composition and content of the poem here).

Well, I need to get back to my own translation work, so I will have to save anything else I’d like to say for the release of the actual translation. Other links to the news here, here, and here.

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Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1

[UPDATE: I got 3rd runner up, plus some really nice comments from not only K Siegfried and the artist of a graphic novel, but from the artist who designed the famous Faroese Norse Mythology stamps! Check out the contest results here (and buy copies of my pic here!!!!!). You can also find my pic alongside a bunch of other illustrations of the myth on this Myths and Legends blog.]

[If you want the summary of the myth, just skip to the bottom!] I like “Abduction of Idun” much better than the usual “Rape of…”, though it has been suggested that there was a sexual element to the possession of this fertility goddess by first the gods, then the giants (then the gods again). Anyway, here is my picture! I first sketched the idea back 2 years ago when a student in my mythology course requested a pic of Iðunn, but ended up never finishing it (did this quick anime-esque portrait instead). I decided to resurrect it finally for the Midwinter Art Contest at the Norse Mythology Blog. Well, OK, this is potentially problematic, as I presented this paper on one version of the myth as a harvest poem (not a winter poem), but all the reasons that the skald Þjóðólfr found the myth productive for a harvest poem also recommend it for a Midwinter poem, as the theft of the fertility goddess Iðunn brings youth and springtime bounty to the giants, while the gods are left to grow old and grey. Given that, I decided that my Midwinter picture would also draw on the myth of the abduction of Iðunn as a way of dramatizing the coming of winter–the land of the giants, behind our giant-transmographied-to-eagle, is cold and snowy, typical given the association of the giants with inhospitable rocks and mountains in many of the myths, but the cold of those mountain tops (a giantish association that is hit on a few times in the poem) will soon be transferred to the land of the gods, behind their imposing wall (shown on the right with Loki in the shadows), as Iðunn’s powers and her life-giving apples (here shown golden[-ish], as seems to be indicated elsewhere in the mythic corpus) transform those wintry mountaintops into eternal Spring. It’s not difficult to see parallels to the Persephone myth, though of course we should be cautious about assuming the two goddesses play exactly the same role. Within Snorra Edda, I think the myth makes the most sense taken in the context of the competition between the gods and the giants, as a threat to the dominance of the gods. As Margaret Clunies Ross has pointed out in Prolonged Echoes v 1, during the “Mythological Present” we find a state of negative reciprocity between the gods and giants, as it is seen as appropriate and good from the POV of the myths for the gods to appropriate goods from giantland and for the male gods to sleep with giantesses (or marry them, in the case of the Vanir), while it is a threat to the cosmic order for a giant to appropriate anything from the gods or to seek sexual access to any of the goddesses (this is apparently behind the inherent threat of Loki’s existence according to at least one version of his origins, where his father is a giant [Fárbauti] and his mother is a goddess [Laufey–yes Marvel, you got that VERY wrong…]). The abduction of Iðunn is a great example of this sort of myth, where the community of the gods is penetrated (and yes, there is a productive overlap with sexual penetration there, highlighted in the fact that it is a goddess that is abducted) and their source of prosperity is taken–but since this is a myth in the mythic present, she is recovered (spoiler alert) and everything is returned to normal by the end. As I argue in my paper, this can be described in terms of the “Image of Limited Good” theory from anthropology–but you will have to read my paper for that.  😛

I’ve got a few of the early steps in the making of this pic on my tumblr, as well as the finished product. And as always, you can (AND SHOULD) buy copies at DeviantArt and Redbubble!

Snorri Sturluson’s prose version of this myth is the first given in Skáldskaparmál, the middle section in Snorra Edda (aka Prose Edda, Younger Edda), and the section of the poem Haustlöng that covers the myth is found a bit later in that same section (you should be able to find free versions of Snorri’s Edda online, but they are all pretty old–I recommend you pick up Anthony Faulkes’ translation instead). I wrote a paper on Haustlöng as a harvest poem a few years back (based on a section from my dissertation), so feel free to read that on Academia.edu (if you can’t read it on there w/o being a member, maybe I’ll put together a version for this blog). In the meantime, find my summary of the relevant part of the poem below (cut and pasted from my paper–sorry, not much time today).

Haustlöng, as preserved, consists of two myths, both also given in prose narratives in Snorra Edda—the Rape of the goddess Iðunn, whose apples grant the gods eternal youth, and Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. For the sake of time, I will focus on the Iðunn stanzas, where the connection to harvest time is clearest.

“We begin with a reference to the performance situation as Þjoðólfr wonders aloud how he shall repay the gift of a shield from Þorleifr, then tells us that he can see the journey of the famous gods on the shield. The giant Þjazi, diguised as an eagle, flies to where Óðinn, Loki and Hœnir are attempting to cook an ox. Said cooking goes poorly, and it is hinted that something (the eagle, in Snorri’s account), is responsible for this. Then the eagle speaks up from its perch in an ancient tree and asks for a share in the meal. They agree, and the ox, now cooked, is swiftly gobbled up by the eagle. Loki strikes the ravenous eagle with a pole. This pole sticks to the eagle, as well as to Loki’s hands, and the eagle flies off so violently that Loki is forced to sue for peace. Þjazi has him bring Iðunn to the home of the giants, and all the gods grow old and ugly, due to the lack of Iðunn’s apples, as Snorri explains for us. The gods find Loki and force him to bring Iðunn back. He does, and while chasing them Þjazi is caught and roasted alive in a fire prepared by the gods.”

Idunn takes a walk in the snow

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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).

File:Snæfellsjökull-kfk-1.jpg

Snæfell

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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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 recently enjoyed watching this Nova documentary on Viking swords, in particular the Ulfberht swords, which were of surprisingly good quality, given the state of metallurgy in Europe at the time (good enough that they even inspired poor quality imitations with a misspelled Ulfberht signature, most likely sold in dark alleyways by sleazy men in trench coats). I’d heard of the Ulfberht swords before, but I am not an archaeologist and have never really worked with swords inside or outside of literature before, so learned a lot about these swords that I hadn’t expected. I loved the idea of swords as a teenager of course (and still think they are pretty awesome, though I don’t really care for what they were made for), and my dissertation dealt with their counterparts, shields (hm, maybe time for a new research project…). I would go through my brother’s Museum Replicas catalog (never bought anything), where, incidentally, you can buy your own replica of the Ulfberht, and would hang out at the blacksmith’s booth those few times I made it to a Renaissance Faire. Actually, I was really into blacksmithing for a while, as a result of reading Michael Scott Rohan‘s The Anvil of Ice back in 6th grade (the magic in the series is closely tied to blacksmithing and other crafts), and after reading that found Bealer’s The Art of Blacksmithing. Despite being the son of a carpenter, I’m afraid I have never actually been much of a handy man, and my plans of learning to blacksmith in my free time came to naught–but I did enjoy reading all about pattern welding and forges and cool stuff like that, and incorporated a lot of that (way too much) into a never-finished fantasy novel in high school.

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Swords were aristocratic weapons during the Viking age (less wealthy freemen would have to do their work with axes and spears), but of course we hear most about them in the sagas and myths (and still obsess with them today) because those stories that were written down deal, naturally, with the aristocracy that wrote them down, or at least with those they understood as their historical or mythical predecessors. Famous, old named swords come up here and there throughout the literature–but wait, you say, why would old swords be so prominent? Wouldn’t people want brand-spanking-new swords when they go into battle? Well, as my advisor once pointed out, in a world where the quality of the metal is more or less up to chance, one recognizes a good sword by the fact that it survives–so the age of a sword is going to be an indicator of its quality, and will give it a chance to acquire a reputation and a name. So no wonder Hervör travels all the way to the distant grave of her berserkr father Angantyr to talk his ghost into giving her his sword Tyrfing! The combination of oldness and quality, as well as the typically aristocratic connotations of the sword as a weapon, all come into the opening chapter of Gísla saga Súrssonar, in which a slave, of all people (it is the fact that he is  a slave who has a sword that tells us something odd is going on), possesses a special sword which allows the aristocratic ancestors of our protagonists to defeat a berserkr. When the sword is not returned to him, he and the namesake of our eventual hero kill each other, and sword is broken (but can only be broken on the head of the slave whose it was–otherwise, the person using it always wins), until it is reforged as a spear and used as the murder weapon in a killing within an extended family (in other words, it lines up pretty well as a cursed treasure story, and as I argued in my very first conference paper ever, it follows the same pattern that we see in a few other significant places in Old Norse literature).

Fun as the History channel and the Discovery channel are, the “documentaries” they run are for the most part just entertainment, capitalizing on the idea of their topics rather than really trying to “get” a topic, and I don’t particularly recommend them if your priority is actually learning something (you may want to see some of my notes on the first episode of the History Channel’s Vikings Miniseries). Nova documentaries are still about entertainment as well, sure, but generally do a better job of getting across something about what scholars are actually learning, even if they dramatize that a bit. I’ve also enjoyed Nova’s special on the Vinland map, which primarily approaches the issue from the perspective of materials science, something I’m obviously less familiar with. The full Viking Sword documentary is viewable online, though I don’t know whether it will stay that way or not.

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