Archive for the ‘Scandinavian Studies’ Category

WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProFinally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.

“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.


Not a scene from the book–just one of my earlier mermaid pics. 🙂

Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kĂ€rlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).

So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.

The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.

Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.

There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.

I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.

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A friend recently shared Atlas Obscura’s post on Hollow Earth theories. At once fun (because it is always entertaining to look at the crazy stuff folks once thunk, plus it’s a neat setting for fantastical tales) and terrifying (given that there aren’t only the flat-earthers and young-earthers out there [confession: I was one of the latter for a period as a child], but also the hollow-earthers). The article mentions Dante’s Inferno as a potential first-visualization of such an idea (I believe the genealogy of the idea has been traced back further, but hey, not my specialty), stops briefly at Halley, then skips on to 19th century pseudo-science, before getting into science fiction from Jules Verne onwards–which completely misses my favorite hollow earth story, Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Ground (links to various digital transcriptions of the English translation here).  I’ve taught Niels Klim at least 4 times now, in various incarnations of my “Scandinavian Other Worlds” course (somewhat an overview of the history of Scandinavian literature, somewhat an exploration of different variations of the theme “Other Worlds”), though I am not an early-modernist (I’m a [Scandinavian] medievalist first, maybe a Scandi folklorist after that, then a general Scandinavianist), so the info provided below is brief and just a matter of a few things I found helpful/interesting/insightful when teaching it.

Image from Wikipedia

The story, from the same period as Gulliver’s Travels and clearly influenced by the same (though I’ve heard one person suggest it might go the other way, positing a very early Holbergian draft…) follows upwardly-mobile Niels Klim, who, on attempting to explore a mysterious cave in the mountains (and Scandinavian legend tradition re: underground populations of “under-earthers” is a relevant echo here, even if the story here opts for a very different direction), falls deep into the earth, emerging into the center of the earth, which consists of three parts–the lands on the firmament (the underside of the crust), a mini-sun in the middle, and a small planet (later we learn it is called Nazar) circling that sun. Niels is brought to the surface of the planet by a giant eagle, and there meets the inhabitants, who are sentient trees.

The larger narrative can be divided up geographically to a degree, and while Holberg’s point with the whole, apart from, well, entertainment, is fairly polemical, his strategies for his polemicizing shift from utopian to satirical with each location/section–though I suppose both elements are active here and there throughout: utopian in Holberg’s visions of social perfection, satirical in his biting commentary on contemporary Denmark and Europe.

Potuan Maiden by Callego

Haven’t consulted the text in a while, so no promises this is an accurate depiction–but hey, close enough to an illustrious many-branched Potuan maiden.

First we have Niels’ initial stay in Potu, a country on the planet Nazar. This is an explicitly Utopian portion of the narrative, as may be clear from the name (Potu is derived from Utop[ia] in reverse–also, apart from this name, the language of the Potuans might be considered an early conlang, though I don’t know whether it was a serious enough construction to really be labeled such…). We get a first glimpse here of Niels’ role as buffoon, a role Holberg would use in his comedic plays as well–a particular characteristic would be taken to extremes in a buffoonish character, or such a character would seek to live outside his proper place and abilities, and so would be exposed to ridicule, such that the audience could point and laugh and say “Oh, OK, that is definitely not the right way to do things, is it…” (so not satire on specific real-world people or institutions, but on generally attitudes, behaviors, etc), but here this is primarily in terms of Niels as European foil to this logical and perfect society of intelligent trees. Examples of the perfection of the Potuans: no arguing allowed over religious points, and the religious outlook is vaguely Deist (so no Catholics and Protestants burning each other); apart from a hereditary ruler (this is the age of Absolute Monarchy and Villainous Aristocrats, after all) all jobs are assigned according to who can best do them (instead of matching the prestige of the job with the prestige of the person); as a development of the latter point, we get a pretty gender-progressive stance from Holberg (not Klim, alas) as the Potuans think it ridiculous to exclude women from, for example, prestigious government posts, so long as a given woman is most suited to that particular job; and introducing any change to society must be brought to the learned to consider, and if rejected the innovator will be executed–so that people will only offer an innovation if they are really very certain about it. Careful thought and consideration is the name of the game here, and Niels Klim is too hasty to even listen to the rules, and from the start the Potuans pity him, and he bridles under his reduced estate (ie, no longer so upwardly mobile–hm, maybe this subterranean position has a figurative connection to his career…). This brings us to the next section…

Unhappy with his humble position as courier (since, not being a tree, he can move quite fast), he convinces the king to let him go on a journey around the planet, surveying the other societies there. Here we might say we’ve gone Dystopian, though perhaps it is better to understand it as more satirical education via buffoonery, just projected on to the level of entire nations. Each place he visits has one particular thing taken to extremes (again, in true buffoon fashion, contradicting the Golden Mean)–a place where women are not just equal, but in fact in charge (which nicely illustrates how lame it is to actually be a woman in a patriarchal society); a place where everyone is a philosopher; a place where people live too long; a place where people know when they will die; etc. And of course, while many of these might be taken to derive from some vision of perfection (“wouldn’t it be nice if everyone…”), put into practice we see that nothing taken to extremes is good. So there!

This ends with him returning to Potu, but he is still unhappy–so he decides he will make a name for himself by introducing an innovation! Sure, it means risking his life, but a clever, upwardly mobile Norwegian boy like himself (OK, my blog title says Danish, but Norway was under Denmark at the time, so whatever) should have no trouble, right? So he suggests that women not be allowed to hold office. Well, it doesn’t go well, but because he is a stupid foreigner (not in so many words, but that is essentially it) they decide to exile him to the firmament instead–the inside surface of the earth’s crust. This is done using eagles of the sort that initially brought him.

Image from Wikipedia

On the surface we can still detect some dystopian elements and buffoon-at-the-level-of-nations polemicizing, but to a large degree this is where we finally actually start getting a narrative interesting in its own right, moving into adventure mode, and later into conquering hero mode–but all still very much a parody, and involving countries of apes, of tigers, of horses, and other animals, and of very primitive humans, along with our hero going from clever courtier to galley slave to “Yankee In King Arthur’s Court”-style antics that make him a celebrated, and then cruel, and, frankly, stupid conqueror and emperor. And OK, we do get one more intriguing bit of explicit satirical commentary as Klim discovers a manuscript from an subterranean explorer who went up to explore the surface–there are of course many details relevant to that period in European history (it is targeted satire, of course), but it essentially comes down to “Holy crap, those Europeans–smh.”

Klim screws up and has to run (spoiler alert), and ends up getting blown by a wind back up through the hole he fell into–on exiting he is mistaken for the wandering Jew (another bit of folklore to add to the “underearthers” reference), but ends up finally being taken care of by an old acquaintance, who helps him get a minor position–but of course he will forever remember that he was once a magnificent ruler and has a queen and princely children somewhere in the earth below, and the story itself is framed by a preface purporting to answer the ridicule of those who say it is all, pardon my language, balderdash (not a Danish/Norwegian word, btw). I tend to assume this was all tongue-in-cheek and that no one was going to be mistaking this for anything but a polemical flight of fancy, but hey, not a period I usually work with.

Like the Atlas Obscura article points out, the Hollow Earth idea has been around a long time. Wikipedia seems to have a good summary (and actually mentions Holberg), but if I remember correctly, this edition/translation has a good introduction covering not only Holberg, and not only the story’s place in the Hollow Earth tradition, but in literary history more generally. Alas, it is not in print any more, and the used paper back versions are a bit pricey. 😩 But again, feel free to read it for free online!

[EDIT: Holy crap, to think that only days after I published this that whole election thing happened. I’ve got to say, our president elect seems to have stepped right out of a Holbergian satire. Klim-as-buffoon ranges from relatively harmless ridiculousness as he gets himself exiled for his attempt to capitalize on his ostensibly ingenious misogynistic policy recommendation to very harmful (=world war level) ridiculousness as this very small-minded and entitled man pushes the martial, imperial, and colonial programs of Europe to extremes in the subterranean world after managing to displace an emperor–and when he himself is displaced from his ill-gotten throne he is full of his tragic downfall, oblivious to his role as hyperbolic object lesson. I’m tempted to get into political cartooning… but I suppose a centuries-old Danish utopian satire is not going to be the most accessible allusion for US politics…]

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Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

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


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

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

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

Some last notes:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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13659048_10105479182161833_7042778099053674245_nYikes, this will be the only post I make this month–and I only did one last month too. Plus, I’ve already posted about my translation of Ola Sigurdson’s Heavenly Bodies, though last time it hadn’t actually come out yet (and the release date I shared then ended up getting pushed back by almost a month). Well, it is out now, and you should all GO OUT AND BUY TEN COPIES RIGHT NOW!!!! Well, OK, not so much urgency, I guess, given that I’ve already been paid for my translation services and will not be getting royalties myself (which doesn’t surprise me with an academic translation like this–I believe the case is different with literary translations, which I confess I would like to move into eventually…). The list price of the book is $60 (actually not so bad for a rather erudite, and potentially obscure, book like this, though I hope the price will help it become less obscure), but Amazon has it for about $43. I’m waiting for it to show up at the UC Berkeley and GTU libraries here in Berkeley… may have to nudge someone about that.

The book is, in short, on the theology of the body, beginning with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity’s scorn for the body, preferring the spiritual over the corporeal, and going on to both affirm this critique and then to place it in its proper historical situation in 19th century Protestantism–given the centrality of the Incarnation in Christianity, we have to suspect that the religion was not always so “body-denying.” The book then proceeds in three parts of several chapters each, covering first the Incarnation (both the development of the doctrine in the early Church and more recent theological contributions), the Gaze (covering philosophies thereof along with the Byzantine Iconoclasm and the particular Gaze embodied by Jesus in the Gospels), and, at most length, Embodiment (ranging from Merleau-Ponty to Foucault and Butler, from the “closed” Classical body to the open “grotesque” body, to torture, to S&M, to the Eucharist…) OK, look, you will just have to read it yourself. Only $43 on Amazon!!

Since I was (thankfully, given how little time I had finishing up) not asked to give any sort of “Translator’s Note” (I did not expect to write one–in fact, not all translators get to show up on the title page, so I’m very happy I made it to so prominent a place with my first such job), I did not have an opportunity to give the usual “Any reason you might find to dislike this book is clearly my (the translator’s) fault, and no one should blame Ola or the editors at all, because really, if there is a jackass here, it is me.” Or some such. Editors and author all seemed happy with the end result, but certainly there are plenty of places where I could wish for just one more pass of revisions, and here and there I see something where I think “I thought I’d changed that…” (and one place so far where the editors changed something without sticking to the phrasing Ola and I had agreed on, but it still works), but so far I haven’t caught any meaning-changing errors (nor, apparently, did Ola or Eerdmans), and I trust that there are not too many places (ideally very few, but it is my first time doing this…) where my clumsy prose gets in the way of Ola’s argumentation. My first drafts certainly had me thinking too much in Swedish while attempting to write in English. My many revisions (later on with Ola’s commentary) were very helpful in working this out and situating the text more firmly in the target language, but I fear there are still spots that held out till the end. I won’t share any thoughts here on particular translation choices (there were some tricky bits), but we’ll see, maybe that will be a post for the future.

13615127_10105479179038093_2631524740532332328_n.jpgThe project itself was a delight, if often challenging (certainly in scope–let me tell you, this book is a brick), and in spite of the additional stress of translating the last third or so while also filling in as a lecturer in the Scandinavian Section at UCLA (also a fun job, just, you know, more work–also more $$ tho, so that was nice). I’ve told friends and family that this project was like being paid to sit in on three or more graduate seminars in very different fields, which I note was part of the attraction for me. While the ultimate point of the book belongs to (Christian) systematic theology (itself of non-professional interest for my very [in this subject] amateur self), Heavenly Bodies also constitutes a very erudite work in both the history of religions and philosophy, in particular the more continental side of philosophy that owes so much to the later reception of phenomenology, and in particular with regard to two subjects I have long been interested in within the humanities: the gaze and embodiment (the former of which figured prominently in my dissertation on ekphrasis in Viking age poetry–but let the uninitiated beware, while treatments of the gaze and embodiment are ubiquitous from the early 20th century on, what is meant by and the significance of each can vary widely depending what school of thought you are looking at). Ola covers a lot of ground, and diligently and clearly (again, fingers crossed that damn translator did his job right) presents the thought of everyone from St Paul to Origen, Schleiermacher to Barth and beyond to various feminist theologians, laying out the relevant arguments in a sympathetic manner even if he will then go on to argue against, or beyond, them. The philosophers and theorists I am more familiar with are all on display here as well, and more, covering both hermeneutic and radical phenomenologies (ie, from Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty to Derrida and Marion), as well as various “post-phenomenological” thinkers, from Foucault to Butler (and we also find many other disciplines represented, from psychoanalysis to cultural anthropology–but look, my fingers are getting tired so let’s stop there…). I find Ola’s presentations of these various, often very difficult, philosophies to be quite clear and helpful–well, OK, it is still philosophy and theory, and you will struggle to work through a tenth of the book if you don’t even have a reasonable sense of who Heidegger (for example) is, so I can’t recommend it as a gift for your ten year old niece–maybe wait till she’s finished college, though you will have to suggest she take Philosophy, or English, or Communications, Feminist Studies, something along those lines. Even better, I’m still looking for a teaching position for the Fall and would be happy to tutor the whole family. Look, we’ve already got a textbook…

Well, that was a bit of a ramble. I’ll close by thanking Mark Safstrom for sending Eerdmans my name when they were looking for a translator, former editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Jon Pott, who entrusted me with this job, James Ernest who took over for Jon as I was finishing up the translation, and especially Ola, who wrote this fine and fascinating book and who was so essential in his help with my revisions–I was very grateful for his willingness to spend so much time on a project that was otherwise almost a decade in his past, and I dearly hope the final result does some degree of justice to the original.


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File:Lars Gustafsson in 2012.jpg
 Image from Wikipedia

Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar Lars Gustafsson has passed away (Swedish language notice here). A literary giant in Sweden, he also made a significant mark internationally. He has been widely translated in English and was included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. He served as a professor at the University of Austin, and the southwest of the United States figures prominently in his work (well, out of what I have read–which is not much, given his impressive output). His work could certainly be erudite (he was a professor in philosophy), but I found much of his fiction to be very accessible, and what wasn’t accessible (like some of the short fiction discussed below) was still quite interesting, even if a reread may be in order at some point (but a reread is in order any time you find something good).

Find a list of his work on Amazon here. I’ve read a bit of his poetry (currently A Time in Xanadu) and recommend it. I am a very casual poetry reader myself (despite most of my non-academic published work being poetry), but he is also quite well appreciated for his verse, so you don’t have to take my word for it! Check out a sampling of his verse here (the poems are listed in the right-hand menu). Out of his many novels some places to begin are Death of a Beekeeper (a novel written as entries in the diary of a man dying from cancer), The Tennis Players (set in Austin, a short comic novel with a professor as protagonist, touching on everything from Strindberg’s period of apparent insanity to early-80s hacking and accidental nuclear warfare), and Bernard Foy’s Third Castling (a novel within a novel within a novel, the first being a straight-up thriller).

Science Fiction nerd that I am, I first became (especially) interested in Gustafsson after randomly happening upon a minor work of his in the tiny science fiction section of Celsius bookstore in Uppsala: Det SĂ€llsamma Djuret FrĂ„n Norr (“The Strange Beast from the North”). I initially didn’t think it could be the same Lars Gustafsson–I hardly knew of him then, apart from the fact that he was “literary” and “respected”, and these were outright pulpy (well, not so pulpy) science fiction short stories, with a frame narrative on par with the best Space Opera, old or “New”. Not available in English, alas–nor is his much earlier set of short stories Förberedelser till Flykt (Preparations for Flight), a group of experimental short stories that edge into science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism. The two are collected in one hard back edition (which I have out from the UC Berkeley library), but still in Swedish. I’ve played around with translating bits myself here and there, but if I do get that done it probably won’t be especially soon–translation may be especially important for those of us who teach foreign literature, but you don’t get much credit for it academically, a problem when you are a young scholar still trying to find a tenure-track position. :/  But we’ll see–I may have a translation of one of the stories from Förberedelser till Flykt translated soon (one of Gustafsson’s favorites, according to his afterword), and the titular story is translated in, and gives, once more, its title to another collection, Robin Fulton’s collection of translations from Swedish Preparations for Flight and Other Stories (an old volume–1990 I think–but looks like Amazon has a few used copies available). This is one of my favorite stories from the collection in any case, with a very accessible premise (though some of my students still didn’t get what was going on…) and an otherworldly and quietly post-apocalyptic flavor (in my reading, at any rate).

Gustafsson’s blog is still up–mostly in Swedish, but every now and then you’ll find something in English or German. I’m afraid I’m at the limit of what I can recommend–but definitely someone to read, whether you are specifically interested in Scandinavian literature or not.

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Looking back at Solvorn from the Urnes stave church–the seter I hiked up to would in the hills to the left of the town (I think the tiny little bare patch you can see up next to the corner of the roof may be part of the pasture).

I’ve been putting off sharing my pictures from a Norwegian seter since August, so may as well make it my last post of 2015! As you may have noted in my August posts, I was able to scrape together some funding to visit Scandinavia this past summer–first time in Sweden in… maybe 7, 8 years, and first time in Norway since I was 15. I got to visit lots of awesome locations on this trip, relevant to my past research, my teaching, my favorite movies, or my family history, but one unexpected pleasure was finding that there was a seter (summer pasture, called a shieling in Scotland) right next to Solvorn, the town I stayed in when visiting the Urnes stave church (will have to post on that another time). I’ve got a professional interest in the seter, of course, but I’ve also been working the idea into some of the fiction I’ve been writing the last few years (one story got honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest), so it was nice to visit one personally!



I hiked from Solvorn up to the far end of the circle, before it continued on up the mountain.

The seter (Norwegian– sĂ€ter in Swedish), is part of a tradition of transhumance in Norway and parts of Sweden (though not the parts my family is from, I believe). The seter/sĂ€ter is basically summer pasture, or a summer dairy, run by women in Scandinavia (I believe the Scottish shieling is used by male shepherds, but I still hear the term used in connection with the Scandinavian phenomenon). A summer dairy could be run by an older woman, or, going by the legend tradition that I’m familiar with, you could have just unmarried girls running the summer pasture. Some places might have a distinction between nĂ€rfĂ€bodar (pastures closer to hand where the cattle are first moved) and lĂ„ngfĂ€bodar (where they are moved later in the summer–see the Swedish wikipedia entry for fĂ€bod for this


Gudbrandsdal, where Peer Gynt takes place–the seter would have been further up in the mountains.

info), and while some locations may have the seter nearby (I got a bit lost, but I think you can make it to the seter from Solvorn in 1-2 hours) there are others where (I believe) you might have to hike a good part of the day to get there–I imagine it goes even longer with the cattle. If you’ve read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (you probably haven’t–it’s pretty different from his A Doll’s House, but a fascinating read), you might remember the three seter girls he encounters early in the play, who are crying out for the trolls living nearby to keep them company (a bit euphemistic here–Peer stays with them instead, and we catch a glimpse of the anxiety over sexually mature yet unattached young women staying alone out in the wild that we see in the legend tradition).


The first cow I encountered–right around where the trail runs into the lower end of the loop (the higher end was where the seter buildings were, so I imagine this was the start of the summer pasture here). When I came back down this way there were four or five cows lying around, completely blocking the path, so I had to clamber down through the brush, then back up to the path again. A city boy like me just doesn’t know what to do with these ferocious beasts…

My knowledge of the seter/sĂ€ter is mostly limited to some of the ways it shows up in Scandinavian Folklore (a course I took with John Lindow when I started grad school at Berkeley back in 2002-3, and which I later got to teach as a lecturer in 2010), and I’ve never pursued the topic in my own research, just in my teaching, but I’ve been interested in it since I first heard of it. In the legend tradition I am most familiar with the story is usually one of a failed abduction–a young woman, engaged but not yet married, is alone at the seter with her dog. A cute guy from the huldre folk/hidden folk/underjordiska (the under-earthers)/elves/trolls/etc stops by and starts wooing her–potentially a very attractive offer, as there were certainly legends out there about girls abducted by the hidden folk who later appear to their parents and tell them to stop searching because they’ve married the prince of the mountain or some such and are actually a lot better off now than they used to be.


The first building I encountered up at the seter.

Of course in this story the girl is loyal to her fiance, but this other guy suddenly has all his hidden folk family and friends there and they are putting a bridal crown on her head and pretty much getting set for the I-dos, so she ties a ribbon around her dog and sends him running down the mountain for her fiance. And of course when her fiance sees the ribbon he knows something is up, so he rushes up the mountain, gun in hand, and when he sees the wedding going on he shoots a bullet over the wedding party (because, of course, you get power over the hidden folk when you pass iron/steel over them, duh), and they all scatter, and human boy and human girl live happily ever after, the end.

IMG_3885I’ll leave off more thorough analysis, but the narrative tradition surrounding the seter is obviously pretty preoccupied with young unmarried women and sex–some versions have outlaws visiting the girls instead of trolls, and I expect that in some versions the girl actually does marry the troll–and taking a cue from the cameo in Peer Gynt, I also expect there is bawdy folklore aplenty revolving around seter girls (not my specialty, so I don’t have much to say about that, sorry!). Folklorists have noted that the legend tradition often features threats at key points in the standard (local) human biography–in-between points, liminal moments, where someone is poised between two identities and is therefore vulnerable: the space between birth and christening is dangerous in changeling folklore, for example, and of course not being properly buried or given last rites at death can result in the dead walking again–the liminality of the living dead is right there in the name. For young men and women just reaching sexual maturity, the threat is–you guessed it. SEX. In the version of the story I gave above we see her liminality emphasized in her engaged status–pledged to be married, so not “single”, but not yet married. No longer a child, not yet an adult. Legends (as opposed to more explicitly fictional and escapist fairy tales) tend to be told by the farming class–maybe still poor, but nevertheless with a bit more of a stake in the status quo than the rural proletariat (those who tend to tell fairy tales, according to folklorist Bengt Holbek). Given this we shouldn’t be surprised to see the legend tradition expressing anxiety over these eligible and unattached young women out in the wilderness–lots of potential for transgression there. And of course, lots of potential for titillation on the other hand. Early folklore collectors tended to keep bawdier material out of circulation, but their informants were not necessarily so shy.

I didn’t actually hear about the seter first at Berkeley–during an undergraduate semester abroad in Lund, Sweden I took a course in Scandinavian Music history which began with the kulning, a traditional way of singing (or of herd-calls, however you want to think of it) that girls at the seter would use. You can see a nice traditional version here, and here you can see what a contemporary composer has done with the art. It’s a bit harsh at first, but it didn’t take too long for me to fall in love with it–haunting.

Below are more of my pictures (two sets) from the hike up to the seter and the seter itself. Enjoy!


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