The author’s look at Icelandic sagas is aimed beyond academic circles to inquiring readers of all stripes.
Marvel Comics, Led Zeppelin, Gandalf, Ibsen, Kirk Douglas and Wagner have at least one thread in common. In one way or another, they’ve carried and amplified the voices within medieval Icelandic sagas and eddas. An expert in the afterlife of the original stories, Jón Karl Helgason gathers his research into Echoes of Valhalla, aimed beyond academic circles to inquiring readers of all stripes.
Helgason starts off spiritedly. He shows how J.R.R. Tolkien’s lifelong career elucidating Old English and Norse literature entered his novels, as when The Hobbit features a list of twelve dwarves whose seemingly whimsical monikers are in fact taken verbatim from The Poetic Edda.
His preface conveys this book’s accessible tone, in his collaboration with translator Jane Victoria Appleton. He states his purpose: “I approach the eddas and sagas as a flourishing cultural tradition: an accumulation of images, sounds and ideas that reverberate through the fabric of various cultures at various times.” Helgason examines examples from the past century and a half, within mass market productions or under the scrutiny of Old Norse scholars. The results produce this topical blend.
Thor dominates chapter one. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, as Helgason demonstrates, reworked comics from the 1940s and 1950s into their Cold War take on Thor as an epitome of American foreign policy, patriotism and conservative values. By contrast, Danish treatments in the 1980s applied that nation’s shifting mores. Thor finds himself “becoming a victim of sexual harassment, jingoism and the gender pay-gap.”
In the next section, Snorri Sturluson receives a more sober treatment. Here Helgason turns to address his academic colleagues who debate whether this medieval Icelandic writer-warrior authored or compiled certain famous texts attributed to him. Helgason avers that Snorri was more of a compiler.
Henrik Ibsen’s incorporation of Hellgard Long-Legs from one work claimed (on suspect grounds) as Snorri’s, Njál’s Saga takes up much of the third part. Helgason again dons his mortarboard as he gathers textual study, plot summaries and dutiful analyses of Ibsen’s adaptations of this protagonist. Hedda Gabler as well as other dramas by Gordon Bottomley and Thit Jensen also receive close readings.
Turning to English visitors, who during the Victorian era invented a subgenre of gawking at bookish Icelanders during long treks into the interior in search of the sources of the sagas, Helgason does not compare these British scribblers to the American cartoonists who reworked Thor’s tales 100 years hence. But these two projects resemble each other. For both enriched what continues to be an inspiration for contemporary storytellers such as Neil Gaiman. Surprisingly, his American Gods (2001) gets but a passing nod. Helgason elaborates rather a guarded appreciation of Dorothy James Roberts’ Fire in the Ice (1961). After all, unlike the prolific Gaiman, she stays within Iceland’s range. Helgason critiques Roberts’ novel as neither fully medieval (one wonders how it could be) nor modern. He admits this estimation applies to most of what he covers from popular or learned culture.
Next, he links Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and subsequent “Viking metal.” Extending his investigation beyond Northern Europe, he includes a Mexican sextet, Mighty Thor, and name-checks “the Italian one-man metal band Solarsteinn.” Such asides, however, weaken his coverage of this aspect of recent rock music and sociopolitical ideology. More depth, as shown in his scholarship in previous chapters, would have enriched this coverage. As it is, Helgason relies on too few critics and too few bands to satisfactorily document and widen by any original additions his claims of influence among this “cult following,” whether in salutary or in sinister manner.
Recent reconstruction of the pre-Christian religion as Ásatrú deserved more than a secondary quote, for this movement enlivens the attempts of Icelanders today, however few, to recover and enact the “elder” beliefs as lived rather than written or sung about. Helgason fumbles this crucial opportunity. He does grant that lately the direct line of credit to past Norse exemplars fades. He reckons that Marvel more than Wagner is likely the motivation for today’s fans of black or pagan forms of metal.
Pivoting to another early 1970s portrayal of these raiders and voyagers, Helgason begins his survey of Erik the Red and Leif the Lucky with an affectionate cameo of Monty Python’s send-ups of dumb pillagers. Their “cinematic clichés about Nordic Vikings” carom off Richard Fleischer’s 1958 film; The Vikings loosely looks back (as does the current Irish-Canadian cable series on History Channel of this same title) to Ragnar Hairy-Breeches. He starred in his own marauding saga, written around 1230 about incursions by Ragnar’s rampaging kin upon Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent.
The movie starred Ernest Borgnine, Kirk Douglas, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, with a lengthy preamble voiced by Orson Welles. The “historical reality” of these sea-pirates gets an imaginative reworking. Helgason is placid; he shrugs that the sagas similarly adapted this sexy, bloody material.
Wrapping up his trek, Helgason scans his native Iceland. Its “afterlife” sustains origin myths, whether credited to the gods or the first permanent settlers from Scandinavia over a millennium ago.
In early modern times, farmers and herders found role models, noble ancestors and a Golden Age “to counter contemporary miseries” in this prose and verse. Hearing or reading these narratives could motivate some and bore others. Made mandatory study for schoolchildren, sagas generated what Helgason, an eager student in the early 1980s, characterizes as an “intense” exposure to their legacy. Street signs, personal names and items for sale all hearken back to those founding fathers, mothers and monsters. Then, Helgason ends his survey suddenly and strangely. Coming after the admiration he has given sagas, this conclusion sours.
As frequently as had Victorian tourists, Helgason and his neighbors confront this “strange past” and “our attitude towards it is coloured by a mixture of admiration and disgust.” Echoes of Valhalla provides an uneven examination of this Old Norse word-hoard in its pop culture and learned manifestations. Chapters rich in verve bookend central exegeses deeply documented. Throughout this brief book, it’s Helgason’s personal reactions and his guarded enthusiasm which enliven his labor and our reception.
More of his own insight into why these tales and their aftermath rouse up not only Icelandic affirmation but denunciation would have deepened this worthy topic with guidance for the foreign audience he addresses. Why Helgason finds the sagas in their emanations around us so haunting is left unanswered. This may be intentional, but it leaves those of us off his island adrift and addled.