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Whichever Spaniard first coined that proverb really had no idea. I am busy with at least three devils, with the potential for more depending on how you count them. Although Beowulf is an aglæca rather than a feond. Not that either word has a specific meaning which can be pinned to the paper. The term aglæca applies to Grendel as well as Beowulf; does it mean monster, or hero, or something in between? Does it refer to ferocity? Does the application to Beowulf make him monstrous? The application to Grendel make him heroic? Robinson once got irritated at this conversation, stating that the word meant something like ‘troubler, vexer’.1

At this point I want the adjective applied to the poem Beowulf. It is certainly vexing, troubling- and monstrous. Writing a commentary on only a handful of lines I already want to borrow Unferth’s sword and hack away at the sodding thing. I cannot imagine the heart-strength and mind-ferocity that it takes scholars to spend their careers studying this impressive piece of verse.

At some point I lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about. Oh! Why I am behind on blogging. The reason is simple: I am busy. All those devils which trouble me, the chief of whom is not named Beowulf, but ‘procrastination.’ A lot less heroic, that one. So while we wait for me to have some spare time:

Those of you with some northern European language skills may like to try your hands at this runic puzzle over at the Omniglot blog. I have not studied runes enough to be able to tell, offhand, the difference between the Elder and Younger Futharks, let alone transcribe or translate from them. Worse, I suspect that this may well be Tolkein’s Cirth runic system. Anyone want a challenge?

Evan Dahm, creator of the brilliant webcomics Rice Boy and Order of Tales, has commented on his tumblr that he would love to do a comic biography set in our period:

I’d like to do something (though it would probably be more historical fiction than biography) about a monk during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, or about a viking living in the midst of Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, or about someone during the Reconquista in Spain. These are all ideas I’ve worked on a bit but don’t have time for! I’m really interested in how individuals cope with these big cultural paradigm shifts, and I’m interested in religion, as a complete outsider to it.

While his work-to-date is psychedelic fantasy rather than historical fiction, I know that Dahm would more than merely do these ideas credit: his take on these would be incredible. A number of medieval themes are discernable in his work; the fall and inheritance of empire, the weakening grasp of ancient, isolationist powers, the problems of religious power.2 The Iconoclasm is a topic I would particularly like to see rendered in comic form; a text-as-images discussing the forbidding of religious imagery during the wounded trashings of an empire being pounded from without? Yes please. Dahm is a dab hand at allowing silent images form scenes (spoiler) in his comic work. He could do amazing things.

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to discussing this. In the meantime, what piece of history would you like to see rendered in comic form?

Read the rest of this entry »

(concluding from last week…)

Þrymskviða

…Senn váru hafrar heim um reknir,
skyndir at skǫklum, skyldu vel renna.
Bjǫrg brotnuðu, brann jǫrð loga,
ók Óðins sonr í Jǫtunheima.

Þá kvað þat Þrymr, þursa dróttinn:
‘Standið upp, jǫtnar, ok stráið bekki,
nú fœrið mér Freyju at kván
Njarðar dóttur ór Nóatúnum.

Ganga hér at garði gullhyrndar kýr,
øxn alsvartir jǫtni at gamni;
fjǫlð á ek meiðma, fjǫlð á ek menja,
einnar mér Freyju ávant þykkir.’

Var þar at kveldi um komit snimma
ok fyr jǫtna ǫl fram borit;
einn át oxa, átta laxa,
krásir allar, þær er konur skyldu,
drakk Sifjar verr sáld þrjú mjaðar.

Þá kvat þat Þrymr, þursa dróttinn:
‘Hvar sáttu brúðir bíta hvassara?
Sáka ek brúðir bíta in breiðara,
né inn meira mjǫð mey um drekka.’

Sat in alsnotra ambótt fyrir,
er orð um fann við jǫtuns máli:
‘Át vætr Freyja átta nóttum,
svá var hon óðfús í Jǫtunheima.’

Laut und línu, lysti at kyssa,
en hann útan stǫkk endlangan sal:
‘Hví eru ǫndótt augu Freyju?
Þykki mér ór augum eldr of brenna.’

Sat in alsnotra ambótt fyrir,
er orð of fann við jǫtuns máli:
‘Svaf vætr Freyja átta nóttum,
svá var hon óðfús í Jǫtunheima.’

Inn kom in arma jǫtna systir,
hin er brúðfjár biðja þorði:
‘Láttu þér af hǫndum hringa rauða,
ef þú ǫðlask vill ástir mínar,
ástir mínar, alla hylli.’

Þá kvað þat Þrymr, þursa dróttinn:
‘Berið inn hamar brúði at vígja,
leggið Mjǫllni í meyjar kné,
vígið okkr saman Várar hendi.’

Hló Hlórriða hugr í brjósti
er harðhugaðr hamar um þekkði;
Þrym drap hann fyrstan, þursa dróttin,
ok ætt jǫtuns alla lamði.

Drap hann ina ǫldnu jǫtna systur,
hin er brúðfjár of beðit hafði;
hon skell um hlaut fyr skillinga
en hǫgg hamars fyr hringa fjǫlð.
Svá kom Óðins sonr endr at hamri…

Stenkvista runestone in Södermanland, Sweden; depicts Thor's hammer.

…The Lay of Thrym

Straightaway were billy-goats driven into the dwelling,
hastened at the harness, they should run well.
Rocks were shattered, the earth burned with fire;
and Óðin’s son came into Giantsholme.

Then said Þrymr, lord of giants:
‘Arise, giants, and strew the benches!
Now bring for me Freyka as wife,
Njǫrðr’s daughter from the field of ships.

Walk beside this courtyard of golden-horned cows,
all-black oxen for the giant’s pleasure;
I own a multitude of treasures, I own an abundance of neck-rings;
it seems to me I lack only Freyja.’

It was the time when evening soon comes,
and ale was brought forth before the giants;
the husband of Sif ate an ox,
eight salmon, all the delicacies a woman should;
and drank three casks of mead.

Then said Þrymr, lord of giants:
‘Where have you seen a bride bite more keenly?
I have not seen a bride bite more broadly,
nor a maiden drink more in mead.’

The all-clever handmaid sat in there,
who found words against the giant’s speech:
‘Freyja ate nothing for eight nights,
so madly eager was she to come to Giantsholme.’

He bent under the head-dress, desired a kiss;
then he sprang back the whole length of the hall.
‘Why are they eyes of Freyja piercing?
It seems to me fire burns forth from her eyes.’

The all-clever handmaid sat in there,
who found words against the giant’s speech:
‘Freyja slept not for eight nights,
so madly eager was she to come to Giantsholme.’

In came the wretched giant’s sister,
she who dared to ask for the bride-free.
‘Give over the red rings from your hands,
if you wish to gain for yourself my affections,
my affections and all favours.’

Then said Þrymr, lord of giants:
‘Bring in the hammer to bless the bride;
lay Mjǫllnir on the maiden’s knees;
so that by the hand of Vár our togetherness is blessed.’

The heart of Hlórriða laughed in his breast
when the hard-minded one recognised his hammer.
Þrymr he slew first, lord of giants,
and all the race of giants he battered.

He slew the old sister of the giant,
she who had begged fr the bride-fee;
she suffered a strike for shillings;
the blow of the hammer for many rings.

Thus came Óðin’s son to his hammer again.

Read the rest of this entry »

Þrymskviða

Reiðr var þá Vingþórr     er hann vaknaði
ok síns hamars     um saknaði;
skegg nam at hrista,     skǫr  nam at dýja,
réð Jarðar burr     um at þreifask.

Ok hann þat orða     alls fyrst um kvað:
‘Heyrð nú, Loki,     hvat ek nú mæli,
er eigi veit     jarðar hvergi
né upphimins:     áss er stolinn hamri!’

Gengu þeir fagra     Freyju tuna,
ok hann þat orða     alls fyrst um kvað:
‘Muntu mér, Freyja,     fjaðrhams ljá,
ef ek minn hamar     mættak hitta?’

Freyja kvað:
‘Þó munda ek gefa þér,     þótt ór gulli væri,
ok þó selja,     at væri ór silfri.’

Fló þá Loki,     fjaðrhamr dunði,
unz fyr útan kom     Ása garða
ok fyr innan kom     jǫtna heima.

Þrymr sat á haugi,     þursa dróttinn,
greyjum sínum     gullbǫnd snøri
ok mǫrum sínum     mǫn  jafnaði.

Þrymr kvað:
‘Hvat er með Ásum?     Hvat er með álfum?
Hví ertu einn kominn    í Jǫtunheima?’

‘Illt er með Ásum,     illt er með álfum;
hefr þú Hlórriða     hamar um fólginn?’

‘Ek hef Hlórriða    hamar of fólginn
átta rǫstum     fyr jǫrð neðan;
hann engi maðr     aptr um heimtir,
nema fœri mér     Freyju at kvæn.’

Fló þá Loki,     fjaðrhamr dunði,
unz fyr útan kom     jǫtna heima
ok fyr innan kom     Ása garða;
mætti hann Þór     miðra garða,
ok þat hann orða     alls fyrst of kvað:

‘Hefr þú erendi     sem erfiði?
Segðu á lopti     lǫng tíðindi;
oft sitjanda     sǫgur um fallask
ok liggjandi     lygi um bellir.’

‘Hefir ek erfiði     ok ǫrendi;
Þrymr hefir þinn hamar,     þursa dróttinn;
hann engi maðr     aptr um heimtir
nema hánum fœri     Freyju at kván.’

Ganga þeir fagra     Freyju at hitta,
ok hann þat orða     alls fyrst um kvað:
‘Bittu þik, Freyja,     brúðar líni.
vit skulum aka tvau     í Jǫtunheima.’

Reið varð þá Freyja     ok fnasaði,
allr Ása salr     undir bifðisk,
stǫkk þat it mikla     men Brísinga.
‘Mik veiztu verða     vergjarnasta,
ef ek ek með þér     í Jǫtunheima.’

Senn váru Æsir     allir á þingi
ok Ásynjur     allar á máli,
ok um þat réðu     ríkir tívar
hvé þeir Hlórriða     hamar um sœtti.

Þá kvað þat Heimdallr,     hvítastr Ása-
vissi hann vel fram,     sem Vanir aðrir-
‘Bindum vér Þór þá     brúðar líni,
hafi hann it mikla     men Brísinga.

Látum und hánum     hrynja lukla
ok kvenváðir     um kné falla,
en á brjósti     breiða steina
ok hagliga     um hǫfuð typpum.’

Þá kvað þat Þór,      þrúðugr Áss:
‘Mik munu Æsir     argan kalla,
ef ek bindask læt     brúðar líni!’

Þá kvað þat Loki     Laufeyjar sonr:
‘Þegi þú, Þórr,     þeira orða;
þegar munu jǫtnar     Ásgarð búa,
nema þú þinn hamar     þér um heimtir.’

Bundu þeir Þór þá     brúðar líni
ok inu mikla     meni Brísinga;
létu und hánum     hrynja lukla,
ok kvennváðir     um kné falla,
en á brjósti     breiða steina,
ok hagliga     um hǫfuð typðu.

Þá kvað Loki     Laufeyjar sonr:
‘Mun ek ok með þér     ambótt vera,
vit skulum aka tvær     í Jǫtunheima…’

Carl Larsson (1893)

The Lay of Thrym

Then Ving-Þórr was angry when he awoke
and he missed his hammer;
his beard began to shake, hair began to quiver;
the son of Jǫrð started to grope about himself.

And this of words he said first of all:
‘Hear now, Loki, what I now say;
it is not known on earth anywhere
nor in up-heaven: a god is stolen of his hammer.’

They went to the abode of fair Freyja,
and these words first of all said:
‘Will you loan to me, Freyja, your feather-shape,
so that I might find my hammer?’

Freyja said:
‘I would give it you, even were it of gold;
and I give it you, even were it of silver.’

Loki flew then, the feather form shook
until he came out of the court of the Æsir,
and instead came into the home of the giants.

Þrymr sat upon a mound, lord of giants,
twisted gold-bands for his bitches;
and trimmed manes for his mares.

Þrymr said:
‘How is it with the Æsir? How is it with the elves?
Why are you come alone into Giantsholme?’

‘It is bad with the Æsir, bad with the elves;
have you hidden the hammer of Hlórriða?’

‘I have hidden the hammer of Hlórriða
eight rǫstum beneath the earth;1
a man cannot recover it back,
unless he brings Freyja to me for wife.’

Loki flew then, the feather-shape shakes;
until he came out from Giantsholme
and came into Ásgarðr;
he meets Þórr in the middle courtyard
and he said these words first of all:

‘Have you a difficult message?
Tell the long story while aloft;
often seated stories break down
and one who’s lying down utters lies.’

‘I have a difficult message,
Þrymr has your hammer, lord of giants;
one cannot recover it back
unless he brings Freyja to him as wife.’

They went to pretty Freyja to meet,
and he said these words first of all:
‘Bind you, Freyja, with a bride’s belt.
You two shall drive into Giantsholme.’

Freyja became angry then and snorted;
the entire hall of the Æsir shakes underneath;
the great necklace of the Brísingr-people sprang away.
‘You will know that I became man-crazy
if I go with you into Giantsholme.’

‘All the Æsir went straightaway to a Thing
and all the goddesses at discussion,
and discussing that with the wealthy gods-
how should they seek the hammer of Hlórriða.

Then said Heimdallr, whitest of the Æsir, that
he knew well forward like those others, the Vanir.
‘Let us then bind Þórr with a bridal dress;
let him have the great necklace of the Brísingr-men.

Let us jangle the key beneath him
and women’s clothes hang down over his knees,
then on his breast jewellery be spread out,
and upon his head let us neatly put a head-dress.’

Then quoth Þórr, mighty of the Æsir;
‘The Æsir may call me a poofter2
if I let myself be tied with a bridal dress.’

Then said Loki, son of Laufey:
‘Be silent you, Þórr, regarding these words;
the giants will immediately dwell in Ásgarðr,
unless you recover your hammer for yourself.’

They then bound Þórr into the bridal head-dress
and the great Brísingan necklace;
let the key jangle beneath him,
and women’s-clothes fall over his knees,
then spread out jewellery on his breast,
and dressed a head-dress neatly upon his head.

Then Loki, son of Laufey, said:
‘I will stay with him as a handmaid;
we two shall drive into Giantsholme…’
Read the rest of this entry »

Our period, the middle ages, never ceases to interest the general public. There is a constant stream of media dedicated to the period: videogames based on Dante, endless bad medieval movies, television series, discoveries of the original Old Norse texts for Star Wars, and of course the vast majority of fantasy fiction has either heroic quasi-knights or pseudo-Viking marauders. This is great news for medievalists, or at least it ought to be, as such intense interest indicates that our period is perpetually relevant, and therefore worthy of funding…right? When combined for our era’s tendency for genre-blending, this fascination with the period has given me an idea: a Western set during the Settlement Period of Iceland.

A quick glance at the Wikipedia tells us that the Western is characterised by I) ‘the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilization.’ The society in Western literature is II) ‘organised around codes of honour and personal or private justice (such as the feud)’; it features III) little social order except the immediate family or neighbours. Often Westerns have IV) a semi-nomadic fighter as the central protagonist, often with a dark past.

All this is a perfect description of Settlement Period Iceland. If we take each of these one by one:

I) The settlement of Iceland begins in the second half of the 9th century, and will gradually cover the whole of the island. By the 930s, most of the island is settled; in 930 a general assembly is formed from the pre-existing systems erected in the districts. During this period the colonisers pushed back the forests and covered Iceland with pasture for horses, sheep and the like. While an Icelandic Western would lack encounters with bears and cougars -features of the American West- as Iceland has no megafauna, this could be remedied with some Norse myth. Throw in a troll or an ogre lurking in the foothills, and we have dangerous monsters for pioneers to encounter. Or witches.

II) Icelandic civilisation was practically built on the feud. Brennu-Njáls saga is probably the most famous saga involving the familial feud. It shows the terrible tragedies resulting from the need to avenge slights and against honour and how a single feud may cripple families for generation. Attempts by some of Iceland’s greatest minds to stem the flow of blood with weregild or mediation fail, and the cycle continues on and on. It is beautiful and tragic and awful- and a sequence of perfect, ready-made plots.

III) A theme in some Westerns features the society gradually building order out of chaos. The HBO show Deadwood famously expands the mining camp with each succeeding season, and would serve as an admiral model for our theoretical production. As settlement spread across Iceland, a sense of community was gradually built surrounding the Þing. A sort of communal parliament, presided over by a lawspeaker, the Þing sought to restrain the bloodshed of feuds as well as negotiate marriages and inheritance disputes- the matters of government.  As Iceland became further and further settled, these communal law structures became under greater stress, eventually leading to the creation of the Alþing in 930, as mentioned above.

Family and neighbours are far more important, particularly early on. If one has been insulted, one gathers one’s friends and allies amongst the neighbours and seeks revenge. Familial ties, old friendships, guests and those to whom you have previously given hospitality are the foundation of early Icelandic society. The complications and humanity of these relationships are among the more interesting facets of the sagas, and would make for spectacular television.

IV) Ah, wandering fighters. Offering hospitality to guests is a fundamental feature of early Norse culture, and the mysterious travel-stained wanderer is a core feature of many tales. Usually the grey-cloaked figure wandering the land turns out to be Odin in one of his many disguises, but there are dozens of less godly outlaw figures and mysterious soothsayers scattered throughout the literature.

The only regular feature of many Westerns we are lacking is an indigenous people to subjugate, as Iceland was uninhabited. Personally finding that sort of thing distasteful anyway, I’m grateful, but it does mean that themes of cultural conflict could be lacking. To this potential criticism, I offer two responses. First, Deadwood featured almost no Native American plotlines, and was all the stronger for it. Instead the writers concentrated their energies on some of the themes mentioned above, notably the increasing civilization of the mining camp. Second, many of the Icelanders brought ‘wives’ from Ireland and it would not at all be difficult to add a Celtic element as an undercurrent to the show. There are similarities between the two cultures, yet many children would be brought up primarily by the Irish mother and this could generate friction. Indeed, it does in at least one saga of which I am aware.

There need be no fear of weak women in our Settlement-era Western, either. The women of the Old Norse sagas were fierce, and depicting them as such would in no way be anachronistic. There are cross-dressing women who go adventuring, spurned wives who knife their husbands, witches, fierce matriarchs who rule their families with iron fists. This is leaving aside the women of myth, such as Valkyries. While cowering women awaiting rescue are a trope of Western as well as Norse storytelling, the gun (sword-)slinging fighter fits in just as smoothly. This is a topic about which I intend to go into detail in the future; watch this space.

Let us imagine the ‘Seven Guest-Warriors’, about seven exiles from Norway seeking a place to settle coming to the aid of their beleaguered host when his neighbours are unfairly roused against him. The ongoing television show Reykjavík, watching the outlaw settlers from Norway slowly carve farms and civilisation from the long winter. Gestir, about a mysterious warrior clad in grey who bears an ornate cross and refuses to give sacrifice to Thor for his safe voyage to Iceland. Let us imagine two warriors, settling a dispute between them, bearded and scarred, slowly drawing swords as they step into the ring…

Medieval literature crops up in the oddest places, sometimes blended strangely with newer fictions. The 2007 movie Pathfinder, by way of example, combines elements of Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða with the traditional Hollywood trope of a white hero leading the natives oppressed by his own people to victory. The combination of these fictions resulted -in that case- a terrible movie made palatable only by the sheer ridiculosity of the viking helmets the antagonists wear into battle.1

The illustrated prose novel Cðulhuviða (Larry Holderfield, 2007) is also a genre-blending work, with the difference that it is quite good. Originally released in weekly episodes as the only linoblock webcomic on the ‘net, Cðulhuviða combines Norse and Lovecraftian myth in a retelling of Thor’s battle against the Serpent encircling the world: now revealed as Cthulhu.

Just studyin'; ignore the tentacle...

From Chapter I

Cðulhuviða purports to be a translation of an account ‘mouldering in the archives’ at St John’s University in Newfoundland- a translation compiled, of course, by a graduate of Miskatonic University. Holderfield does a good job of mimicking the style of nineteenth century scholars, whose translations had a lamentable tendency to veer slightly from the main text. There is a wonderful nod to this in the penultimate chapter, where our author wanders completely from his text upon a scholarly digression of his own.

Occasionally Cðulhuviða does feel slightly off; at times the the text does not feel very ‘Norse’. In the main, this can be put down to an error in ‘translation’. For example, the opening paragraph reads:

In the year 1000, as the Christians measure time, the old ways were being forgotten. Norway and Iceland had converted to Christianity and only the western lands of Greenland, Markland and Vinland remained true to Asgard.

All the Norse sagas we have are thoroughly Christianised; it damages suspension of disbelief to accept that this one manuscript is somehow from the perspective of nostalgic Norse pagans. On the other hand, this is a Lovecraftian work as well as a Norse, and this is a regular theme in the Cthulhu mythos. Furthermore, the ‘translator’ of the text is at least sympathetic with pagan mythology, and it would not surprise me if he had adjusted his translation accordingly.

The beautiful artwork makes up for any such nitpicking, and Cðulhuviða is worth looking at for these alone. The linocuts range from landscapes to bulls bellowing at the heavens, to great tentacled maws rising from the depths. Holderfield has managed to convey the ice-coated north and the bleak horror that awaits all mankind within a few slices of a knife and some ink. The imperfections that necessarily come with such serve only to improve the experience.

Cðulhuviða is certainly worth your time. It does not do anything particularly exciting or new with the Norse half of its fusion, but we are talking about an illustrated prose work that involves Cthulhu wrestling Thor. The fact that the linocuts are beautiful or that Holderfield has mimicked nineteenth century scholarship wonderfully are immaterial. Here we have a work that presents Thor wrestling Cthulhu.

You can read Cðulhuviða as it was originally released at UpDown Studio.

It is available for purchase in both hard and electronic copy from Lulu.

Full disclosure: Larry Holderfield provided me with a free .pdf copy of Cðulhuviða about a million years ago in order to review it. It took me long enough, but here we go. I also have a short story in his soon-to-be-published anthology A Child’s Guide to Teasing Bees.


1. Also, Karl Urban takes his clothes off.

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