Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Whoops, I think I was supposed to post about this over a year ago. @_@ It was at that point that this book came out–too late for me to use in my teaching at Berkeley, but I have it in mind for next time I might get to teach Swedish. ūüôā

WP_20170331_18_35_03_Pro (2)Swedish Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook is by MY former Swedish teacher (twice! At Uppsala International Summer Session, which anyone who wants to study Swedish should go to!) Ylva Olausson. I’ve had many Swedish teachers over the years, and in the last decade have found many more as colleagues, and amazing as they all are, Ylva is among the best. In addition to teaching in Sweden, she has also taught in Spain, Korea, Finland, and Scotland, so she is quite familiar with the needs of international Swedish learners of all sorts.

My own read-through of this book has been a bit light and scattered so far, as I got it when I already had my texts set for my beginning Swedish course. This is the sort of book I would recommend after taking a full year of Swedish at an American school (first year covers levels A1-A2 at the institutions I’ve been at, though you might find it useful earlier than that as well), and while it might be nice to teach with as a supplementary text, it is designed with the independent student in mind, the person who has a working knowledge but wants to brush up, review, or fill in the gaps. While each chapter does take the time to introduce the grammatical concepts covered (all in English, note), this is still very much a workbook, rather than an introduction (like¬†Rivstart) or a grammar (like Essentials of Swedish Grammar or Swedish: An Essential Grammar)–the descriptions and explanations here will be most useful as reminders, or as an alternate way of explaining things (I have always found it helpful to have grammatical concepts articulated in different ways at different points in my learning process–seems to provide the space needed for those “aha!” moments).

Note that this is the first edition, and there may be some typos, etc to be fixed in the next edition. I only have one in mind that I noticed in my most recent flip-through: the rubric at the top of page 72 says “Expressing put in Swedish,” but going by what the exercise actually does, I think it is supposed to say “Expressing position” (or location, or “place”–instead of “placement” as the title implies) with verbs. The verbs used in this exercise (√§r, ligger, sitter, st√•r) are used to say where something is, as opposed to where it is placed (in which case we would use transitive verbs like l√§gger, s√§tter, st√§ller). My guess is that this section originally also covered these latter verbs and they ended up getting dropped without the rubric being corrected. That said, the exercises themselves are still fine here, and the little marginal notes very helpful in sorting out the proper usage of the verbs used (which can bit a bit tricky for English speakers).

In any case, a great book and I gladly recommend it for anyone who wants to brush up on their Swedish for fun or who is getting ready for/in the midst of second or early third year Swedish (though very advanced learners may find it less exciting). And of course, you are always welcome to use some of my illustrations from my time teaching Swedish if you want to give those place/placement verbs a workout. ūüėČ

Kan du beskriva Strindbergs rum?

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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. ūüė¶ 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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Looks like I’ve got kind of a series going now. After resorting to my old Bamboo tablet (after unsuccessfully trying to get my Intuos to work without the stylus that came with it), and after dealing with all sorts of frustrating glitches while trying to draw w/o my usual 2-fingered drawing glove (at times it felt like a digital ghost was trying to take over the pic), I have another speedpaint (kinda–over 2 hours tho)/landscape/critter pic up. And here it is (click the picture to be linked to the pic and description on DeviantArt):

Late Sun Tomte Fox Dragon copy

Tomten again, and this time he and Herr R√§v (Mr Fox) seem a bit more friendly. Not sure where Tomten’s faithful bunny steed went, though it looks like we might have a new ‘friend’ hidden in the picture to take his place…

After fiddling around not knowing what I would draw, it turned into a sort of sunset/late-night summer sun sort of a pic–not sure if it fits the bill of “capturing the spirit of Norse Mythology” for the art contest I posted about earlier, but if I don’t manage to pull anything else together in time, I may just submit this. Or I may just let it be. I enjoy it well enough just on it’s own (though if I had more time, there is a lot I would like to clean up and polish in this picture… but that goes for all my pics).

For those who don’t know what a tomte is, well, Wikipedia gives a decent enough intro.¬† My portrayal is basically a combination of the portrayal in Astrid Lindgren’s picture book (based on the poem by Rydberg, though I can’t remember who the illustrator was) and the animated series David the Gnome from when I was a kid (though it came out at a time when I wasn’t watching cartoons so much any more). OK, David the Gnome isn’t Scandinavian, but the image was pretty close to how I’d seen Tomten portrayed as a child. I’m enjoying this series so far, even if the first pic and this latest one just started out as free-painting exercises rather than intentional entries in “a series.” Will plan on getting back to this more.¬† I’m putting all three below in the order they were painted. What do you think is happening in the pictures? What happens in-between the pictures, and what will happen next? Feel free to comment if you have ideas (I don’t get many comments!), though I do have to approve all comments before hand, so nothing mean or nasty please…

As always, click on the pics to go to the DeviantArt page for them, where you can see larger versions and also buy downloads (for REALLY cheap) or prints! Prints and cards also available on Redbubble, which is easier to buy from. I’m currently an unemployed mythologist (again!), so feel free to help me out here!


God Jul 2012 Winter Night

Late Sun Tomte Fox Dragon copy

And if you just can’t get enough of Tomten and don’t mind hastily drawn scribbles, here are some exercises from tests and homework that I gave Fall semester at Gustavus–I usually could barely fit them in, which is why they are a pretty sloppy, as well as why I didn’t do that this past spring semester–but I wish I could have spent some more time on this. Hopefully the poor quality of the pics didn’t cause too much trouble for my students…

From the final for my first semester beginning Swedish course, testing their classroom vocab as well as spatial prepositions.

From the final for my first semester beginning Swedish course, testing their classroom vocab as well as spatial prepositions.

I had really wanted to turn this into something more polished, but the end of Fall semester was just too crazy, and I ended up with this sloppy thing. Testing landscape vocabulary as well as spatial prepositions for my first semester intermediate Swedish course.

I had really wanted to turn this into something more polished, but the end of Fall semester was just too crazy, and I ended up with this sloppy thing. Testing landscape and occupational vocabulary as well as spatial prepositions for my first semester intermediate Swedish course.

Normally I try to flip a picture to its mirror image to double check whether it actually "works" or not--should have done that with some of these sketches.  Gr.  Anyway, this was an exercise in telling talking about what a person does during the day. Didn't even make it through an entire day, alas...

Normally I try to flip a picture to its mirror image to double check whether it actually “works” or not–should have done that with some of these sketches. Gr. Anyway, this was an exercise in telling talking about what a person does during the day. Didn’t even make it through an entire day, alas…

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These are pretty quick and sloppy, but I’ve had so much fun doing them that I thought I’d post them anyway.¬† First, I needed an illustration for a quiz for my second year students, who were working on spatial prepositions, so I threw together the following picture:

Next, I needed some extra exercises for my first year students who are learning to tell time.¬† Many other curricula reinforce this with “What so-and-so does during the day”¬† sections, so I decided to do that too.¬† After sketching Strindberg for my last blog post, I decided to go with cartoon Strindberg, which turns out to be LOTS of fun.¬† I think I will work towards a whole cartoon-Strindberg curriculum.¬† Maybe.¬† This first illustration is the sloppiest (though both are pretty hasty):

The first batch didn’t have much to do with anything uniquely Strindbergian–but with the next I decided to touch on his alchemy, his misogyny, and his less-than-happy love-life.¬† The last isn’t so surprising considering the preceding bit, but I suppose causality could be a bit problematic here…

Alas, I did not have enough time to actually complete a day with StrindbergРin fact, ended up short on sleep as it was.  But I really enjoyed this, and will hopefully revisit this theme again.  Hope you enjoyed it!

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Learn to talk like a Viking (Viking = Pirate, and it is talk like a pirate day, so there).¬† Though the Old Norse grammar that I’ve linked to would be for the literary language of 13th and 14th century Iceland and Norway– if you want some language from the Viking Age and earlier, there is a brief intro to “Ancient Nordic” in The Ancient Languages of Europe (though this is drawing on a very limited runic corpus), and if you want to learn to hold an actual conversation, you can try Modern Icelandic (which is fairly close to the Old Norse/Icelandic of the introduction I linked to at the very start), or you can take Swedish from someone like me, or Norwegian or Danish.¬† A good number of institutions offer one or more of these– UC Berkeley covers all three, and Gustavus has a lively Swedish program, to name just those places I have had the opportunity to teach at.¬† No time for an original Viking picture right now, but here is the one I started this blog with.¬† Vikings!¬† RAWR!

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New Job

The bust of “Gustav the Great,” defender of protestantism, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus college.

I suppose I should post an announcement about my NEW JOB.¬† For this next academic year I will be a visiting professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN, teaching Swedish for the most part, plus a couple of Scandinavian culture courses (one in Old Norse literature and its reception, one on the theme of Other Worlds in Scandinavian lit.).¬† Pretty excited about this– I’ve never been at a smaller institution before.¬† Seems like it will be a bit more intimate, and I think it is fun to be a part of a small department (2 of us!!!)– plus the king and queen of Sweden are coming in October (!!!).¬† It will be sad to leave Berkeley after all this time, but St Peter seems like a pretty little town, and the Twin Cities are only around an hour away (depending on how fast I drive…)

The college has been around for 150 years, and is named after the conquering hero of the Reformation in the north, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the “Lion of the North.”¬† Not a surprising mascot, as he is so closely identified with Sweden’s “stormaktstiden,”¬† the height of Sweden’s military power (sorry, they weren’t always neutral)– just the person a population of recent immigrants would want for their Swedish-language, Lutheran college in southern Minnesota. ¬† I’ve been working a bit recently on Heritage Studies with reference to the reception of Norse Literature and to the construction of Scandinavian American identity, so I’m looking forward to thinking more about the ways in which this bastion of Scandinavian American identity “does” Heritage.¬† The job is only a year at the moment, but there is the possibility of it going tenure-track, so here’s hoping I will be able to teach a course the following year on this topic!¬† Ties in very well with my work in Cultural Memory–though I’m been focusing on Medieval memory for the most part.¬† In any case, here’s to an exciting new chapter!¬† I’m afraid that means I’ll still be short on time for my blog, art, and poetry/fiction (my children’s book that I was planning will have to go on hold indefinitely), but hey, it’s good to be employed!

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Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the most renowned Icelandic poets of the Viking age-- also the orneriest s.o.b. in all the sagas. Well, maybe some others come close. Picture from a late manuscript. Sorry, the poem at the end of the post isn't by him. I'll probably cover him again sometime though...

Ah, I need to start finding out about these special days in advance!¬† Today is World Poetry Day.¬† Yay for poetry!¬† I have all sorts of things I’d love to post (with translations, of course)– Erik Gustav Geijer‘s “Vikingen” (= The Viking), Egill Skallagr√≠msson‘s “Sonatorrek“, and others– but I’m short on sleep and behind on grading and class prep, so this will be a less involved post.¬† I thought of posting the poems I did my dissertation on, but honestly, those need to be cleaned up a bit before they are readable for a casual blog-audience.¬† In keeping with the “Book Reviews” element of this blog, I’ll bring to your attention the relatively recent (2005) A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics by Margaret Clunies Ross (also the author of¬†Prolonged Echoes, my favorite large-scale interpretation of the corpus of Norse mythology).¬† Affordable, and a nice introduction for the beginning grad student, or the ambitious undergrad or enthusiast.¬† I haven’t had the opportunity to teach with it yet (and I’m not sure I would teach it in an undergrad course– actually, I’m not sure I would have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in Old Norse poetics at all, though I would like to do a grad course on the subject one day), but it covers the basics as well as a wide range of pertinent issues, from questions of genre, to the transmission and recording of the poetry, to the “Poet as Craftsman” metaphor behind much of the poetic terminology (this section was helpful to me with both my dissertation and a conference paper I gave a couple years ago), to the vernacular grammatical treatises of the later Middle Ages.¬† One day (maybe soon, now that it is on my mind) I will put together a post on Eddic versus Skaldic poetry (and whether that is a useful distinction or not).¬† Meanwhile, there is wikipedia and this book.¬† Well, and some other books as well.¬† Like this book, which will also give you some short, easy-to-read (for the most part) introductions to a whole range of genres and topics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Well, I don’t want to leave you with nothing but prose, so here is some actual poetry, taken from a 13th century rune stave from Bergen, Norway (B255).¬† Text and translation are from A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, page 20.¬† I’m short on time, so I’ll just let Margaret Clunies Ross tell you what it means.

Vár kennir mér víra
Vitr √ļgla√įan sitja;
Eir nemr opt ok stórom
√Ėluns grundar mik blundi.

“Intelligent V√°r (goddess) of wires [goddess of wires/jewelry=woman] teaches me to remain unhappy; Eir (goddess) of the land of the mackerel (sea) [goddess of the sea = woman (?)] takes away my sleep, often and mightily.”

Or another way to put it, if you are having trouble following the kennings (I’ve got to admit, the goddess of the sea = woman doesn’t really work for me…):

First Couplet: That smart lady is schooling me in misery, but I’m still hot for teacher.¬†

Second Couplet: No sleep for me–that siren keeps me up, way up, every night.¬†

What can I say, I’m a sucker for depressing love poetry (and can certainly empathize with the lack of sleep).¬† Well, OK, maybe my interpretation of this runic poem is a bit on the unsubtle side [edit: actually, now that I look at it again, it could be a bit raunchier than I meant… that’s what I get for paraphrasing skaldic late at night], but if you want the full experience, you’ll just have to go and learn Old Norse.¬† Then you can take another year (or two… or three) to learn how to interpret Skaldic poetry.

EDIT: For more romantic runes, check out this Valentine’s Day post from Viqueen.

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Mr. Howard. A pretty canonical photo of him. I picked it up from Wikicommons.

Despite the lengthy title of this post, I actually only spent one day teaching two of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian stories: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (free version here) and “The Tower of the Elephant,” both out of The Coming of Conan, the first of Del Rey’s collections of the original Robert Howard Conan stories (valuable collections, since for so long one couldn’t be sure that one wasn’t getting a reworked, non-authentic Conan story by some later hack–or so the intro to the collection generously informs me).¬† I had taught several stories by Howard’s friend HP Lovecraft the two previous class days, including, of course, the classic “Call of Cthulhu.”¬† I think my students were pretty sick of all these escapist/titillating/creepy fantasies for teenage boys of the 30s… but I had fun!¬† Well, OK, it’s a bit depressing wading through all the racist and anti-immigrant paranoia in the Lovecraft stories, and Howard wasn’t exactly the most enlightened guy in the world– “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is basically a rape narrative, a barbaric “Taming of the Shrew” in which the ultra-masculine hero conquers the haughty temptress who “has it coming”.¬† Sure, the girl gets away, because even Howard can’t let us become that complicit, voyeurs that we are–but it’s still one in a long line of such uber-patriarchal stories.¬† Well, I wouldn’t be in my field if I weren’t capable of appreciating cultural products at the same time that I find aspects of their implicit (or explicit) ideology noxious.¬† You have to try not to get carried back to your teenage-years too much, though…

Cover story for Conan! Queen of the Black Coast. Not the way we usually picture him, post Franzetta…

Apart from dissecting said noxious elements, I would say that the most obvious element to examine in these stories is the figure of the “barbarian.”¬† It is Conan, after all.¬† Who better to look to for the figure of the barbarian in the 20th century?¬† The introduction to The Coming of Conan is quick to point out that Howard was not a fan of the “Noble Savage,” whom he pictures living in harmony with others and nature, authentic wisdom dripping in pearls from his lips–but it is clearly the barbarians who come out at the top of the moral ladder in Howard’s view.¬† Just as Rousseau [whoops, NOT ROUSSEAU!¬† Sorry, my bad…], and later the Romantics, projected their ideals onto the “authentic” “primitives” of exotic lands, so Howard projects an early twentieth century imagination of an √úbermensch onto a figure of barbarism.¬† It is not so removed from the Romantics though– the National Romantics were as eager to found their constructions of Nationhood on their “barbarian” ancestors as they were to found them on the “authentic folk,” the native and contemporary rural “primitives.”¬† The Viking was a favored barbarian figure for all the Germanic nations of the time (not too different even now, really…), which is why I included “Frost Giant’s Daughter” in my course, with its pseudo-Norse and Old English names.¬† That said, let’s remember that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons would not have been eager to label themselves “barbarians.”¬† Think of Viking art, or Skaldic Poetry– baroque, artificial, and “barbaric”to us in its abstruseness, it was that very artificial character which marked it as “Culture” in opposition to the monstrous and dangerous world of “Nature” for the Viking age Scandinavians (or so goes one interpretation).¬† Some of Howard’s ideas of “barbarism” don’t quite fit, but are still interesting, when compared to these prototypical “barbarians.”¬† In “The Tower of the Elephant” we find the barbarians explicitly characterized as taciturn and polite, while “civilized” folk can get away throwing their words about in an extremely offensive manner–because no one is going to split them down the middle for being impolite.¬† Well, OK, the saga heroes can be fairly taciturn– but remember the proverb: “Only a slave gets revenge at once, a coward never” (OK, going from memory here– may be a bit off with my quote).¬† You may kill someone for an insult, but probably not right away, and it is likely enough that you will kill someone close to him– or even more likely, start circulating scurrilous verse.¬† The feud will have plenty of time to escalate to killings (for more info on how Bloodfeud works in the sagas, check out Bloodtaking and Peacemaking by Bill Miller).¬† How about the Old English poem Beowulf?¬† Well, the characters are anything but taciturn there.¬† Beowulf and Hrothgar seem inclined to go on for HOURS, if we trust the poet.¬† This eloquence (a true man is a master of both words and deeds!) has its roots in politeness, though (or is it that politeness has its roots in violence?).¬† We learn early in the poem that a good king is one who invades enemy halls, overturns their mead benches, takes tribute from others–and protects his own people from those same horrors.¬† When Beowulf comes to Hrothgar, he comes as an armed young man with a band of followers into the hall of a king who has clearly failed to protect his people.¬† All the wordy, round-about, and very public conversations are necessary to keep the swords in their sheathes, to convince the people that there is no reason for bloodshed (a point I believe was first made for me by the late Nicholas Howe).¬† So OK, there are some resonances with Howard’s vision of a martial, barbarian culture, but it is pretty different as well.

My Conan Library–minus the Renee Zellweger film “The Whole Wide World”, which I forgot about, and is more of a chick flick. But still part of the Conan complex!!!

I’ve been pretty interested in the emerging phenomenon (well, “emerging” over the last 20+ years…) of the so-called “expanded universes”, from Star Wars, to Star Trek, to Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer (I think “Expanded Universe” is a term coined by the Star Wars franchise, but I apply it indiscriminately, being the open-minded guy that I am).¬† We might see the Conan complex as an early example of this, especially considering the fact that for several decades it was only the “expansion” that was widely available.¬† Comic books, paintings, movies (including a new one), rewrites of Conan stories, and new original novels (including some by the author of the Wheel of Time series) made sure that everyone know roughly who Conan was.¬† Personally, I prefer the original stories, but the whole complex is pretty interesting.¬† This figure of the “barbarian” clearly holds a lot of power for us still– look at our movies, or heavy metal music!

A quick sketch I made of Conan a couple months back. Finally an opportunity to use it!

Well, I will likely post on Conan again one day– but for now I’ll end with a note about Howard’s writing of the stories and his inspiration in the idea of the “ancient world” that a bookish young man would have had in the 1930s.¬† The introduction cites Howard’s tendency to “lose” the character in his stories, in particular in the Kull stories (which I haven’t read), which had less of a pseudo-history surrounding them.¬† For Conan, on the other hand, Howard wrote out several pages of a “world history” (which you can find in the appendix to The Coming of Conan) which served to give him an “accurate and realistic” ground for his stories (check out the introduction to the book for a more thorough discussion).¬† I’m a big fan of “sub-creation” (Tolkienian or otherwise–though I suppose this isn’t the term Howard would use, is it?), so this is one of my favorite parts of the whole Conan corpus.¬† Apart from my predilection for “thick worlds” (to misappropriate some Geertzian terminology), I think the enabling effect of this “world creation” on Howard’s creativity is interesting in light of the stories that circulate about Conan’s own agency in the writing of these stories.¬† Authors often talk about characters who “write themselves”– I’ve been advised in writing courses and at writers conferences to develop my characters¬† sufficiently that, while writing the actual story, the characters themselves will surprise me with what they do.¬† There are all sorts of things we could get into here about subjectivity/agency, the divided self, etc, but I don’t have time for that (another time, maybe).¬† In any case, Conan was apparently an unusually virulent case of this phenomenon.¬† The version given in the “Making of” special on the DVD of the Schwarzenegger movie tells us that Howard was writing one night when he felt Conan behind him, telling him to write, or else he would cleave him in two.¬† This occurred night after night, until a whole bunch of stories were written.¬† Well, it’s colorful, at any rate.¬† I don’t know whether it is just a bit of apocryphal creativity, or actually from an account by Howard, but I’ll re-quote one version Howard gives, which I found in the intro to¬†Coming of Conan: “…the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen– or rather, off my typewriter– almost without effort on my part.¬† I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred.¬† Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.¬† For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan.¬† The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-telling.” (pp. xxi-xxii)¬† The history which enlivens the character and gives him agency is a pastiche of pseudo-historical bits (like the faux-Norse in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)– but it is real enough, apparently.¬† Maybe we could think of it as the image of antiquity, or maybe discourse of antiquity, which Howard grew up with and was embedded in, speaking through him– a more explicit dramatization of the fact that, while we are the ones who “speak language” and who create texts, we are also “spoken by” that language and that intertextual world– since it pre-exists us, and we can only speak or create ourselves by virtue of that pre-existing system, which both enables and constrains.

Well, writing this went on longer than it should have, and I have midterms to grade, classes to teach, an abstract to write, and job applications to send out, so I’d better go.¬† The last picture (a sketch I did a few months ago) is available in various forms on DeviantArt (follow the link and click on the “buy print” button in the right top corner.¬† CONAN SAYS DO IT!!!!).

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