Category Archives: Scandinavianism

Ollie’s advice

So Ollie and Lena have their Sunday dinner, and once they’re done Ollie steps outside for a smoke while Lena cleans up. And while he’s outside, Ollie notices his neighbor Carl standing on his front lawn, staring at his porch with a very serious expression on his face.

“What’s da matter, Carl?” Ollie asks. “You look so grim and all.”

“Ya, Ollie, I got troubles,” Carl says. “I got a family of raccoons living under my front porch and I can’t get rid of ’em.”

“Oooh, Carl, dat’s no good. Have ya tried setting traps?”

“Ya, Ollie, I set a bunch of traps, but dese raccoons are real smart. Dey steal de bait outta de traps and leave ’em for me to step on. So dat’s no good.”

“How about puttin’ out poison bait?”

“No, Ollie, I don’t want ta do dat. I have dogs and dey might eat da bait and dat’d be no good neither.”

Ollie thought about it a bit.

“I tell ya what, Carl,” he said. “Have yer missus cook up a big platter of lutefisk and put it under de porch. See what happens then.”

Carl smiled and nodded. “Dat’s a good idea, Ollie! I’ll give dat a try, you betcha.”

So a week goes by and Ollie and Lena have their Sunday dinner. And when Ollie steps out for his usual smoke, he sees Carl on his front lawn, looking even more serious than before.

“So Carl, what happened? Didn’t the lutefisk work?”

“Ooooh, Ollie, dat was one good idea. It worked just swell. My missus made the lutefisk and I put it under the porch and the raccoons ran away and I haven’t seen ’em since.”

“So what’s wrong, Carl? Why are you stil looking so serious and grim?”

“Well, Ollie, the lutefisk chased out the raccoons all right. But now I got a family of Norwegians living under the porch and I can’t get rid of them.”

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Don’t mess with Iceland

If Bill O’Reilly ever goes back to Iceland, I suggest that instead of crow, he be given some nice dish of hakarl to eat. Just saying.

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A saga at a time

My own book collection served as the nucleus of Nighthawk Books, and while the store’s collection has since multiplied by several orders of magnitude (or so it seems when I have to reshelve), every now and then somebody will buy one of my old books. That doesn’t always bring on a pang, but there are times when I inwardly sigh as I ring up a sale. That happened the other day when a customer bought one of the Icelandic sagas from the Medieval Literature section.

Actually, I had a small run on the sagas shortly after the store opened in February. Egil’s Saga flew out the door the first week in March, followed in short order by the Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettir’s Saga, the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Orkneyinga saga. They’re leaving the store, a saga at a time. Sad to see them go. So far, at least, nobody’s come in to buy the Laxdaela Saga, which shares space in my heart with Egil’s Saga.

Of all the sagas, Laxdaela comes closest to working like a conventional novel, though if you read it that way sooner or later you will fetch up against its inimitably Icelandic preoccupations. For example, some of the most intriguing episodes concern a brutal, nasty-minded farmer named Hrapp, who terrorizes his neighbors and family. Feeling death near, Hrapp orders his wife to have his body buried standing up beneath the threshold of his farmhouse:

After that Hrapp died, and all was done as he said, for Vigdis did not dare do otherwise. And as evil as he had been to deal with in his life, just so he was by a great deal more when he was dead, for he walked again a great deal after he was dead. People said that he killed most of his servants in his ghostly appearances. He caused a great deal of trouble to those who lived near, and the house of Hrappstead became deserted. Vigdis, Hrapp’s wife, betook herself west to Thorstein Swart, her brother. He took her and her goods in. And now things went as before, in that men went to find Hoskuld, and told him all the troubles that Hrapp was doing to them, and asked him to do something to put an end to this. Hoskuld said this should be done, and he went with some men to Hrappstead, and has Hrapp dug up, and taken away to a place near to which cattle were least likely to roam or men to go about. After that Hrapp’s walkings- again abated somewhat.

I love that “somewhat.”

Stephen King would have milked that anecdote for a shelf-busting novel, at least four hundred pages, throwing in the brief mention of the fact that all those who inherited Hrapp’s considerable wealth came to bad ends. He’d also have plenty of fun with the seal with uncannily human-seeming eyes that appears linked to the drowning of a family ferrying itself across a fjord to Hrapp’s old haunting grounds. But the Laxdaela author simply tosses these incidents off and gets the important task of reciting names and genealogies.

But none of that matters for anyone attuned to the singular music of the sagas, and Laxdaela gives us the  fascinating character of Gudrun, a beautiful and willful woman who falls in love with the handsome Kjartan, only to marry his foster-brother Bolli out of a mixture of confusion and spite. When Kjartan takes a wife, Gudrun pulls strings and cooks up plots that get him killed. She lives to a ripe and regretful old age, with four husbands behind her and two sons, one of them named Bolli after the man she goaded into killing his foster-brother.

I want to adapt Laxdaela as a film, just so I can see this scene:

Now Gudrun began to grow very old, and lived in such sorrow and grief as has lately been told. She was the first nun and recluse in Iceland, and by all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land. It is told how once upon a time Bolli came to Holyfell, for Gudrun was always very pleased when he came to see her, and how he sat by his mother for a long time, and they talked of many things.

Then Bolli said, “Will you tell me, mother, what I want very much to know? Who is the man you have loved the most?”

Gudrun answered, “Thorkell was the mightiest man and the greatest chief, but no man was more shapely or better endowed all round than Bolli. Thord, son of Ingun, was the wisest of them all, and the greatest lawyer; Thorvald I take no account of.”

Then said Bolli, “I clearly understand that what you tell me shows how each of your husbands was endowed, but you have not told me yet whom you loved the best. Now there is no need for you to keep that hidden any longer.”

Gudrun answered, “You press me hard, my son, for this, but if I must needs tell it to any one, you are the one I should first choose thereto.”

Bolli bade her do so. Then Gudrun said, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

“Now,” answered Bolli, “I think the whole truth is told,” and said she had done well to tell him what he so much had yearned to know.

I always imagine Gudrun staring across the waves while some great, melancholy Bernard Herrmann-esque music purls on the soundtrack. I’m pretty sure Howard Shore would be up to the task.

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Ashes to ashes

Some pretty outrageous photos of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

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The fall and the falls


As Jeff reminds us, this lovely spot is where a notable Icelander threw his pagan idols after converting to Christianity sometime around 900 or 1000. Now that the bitter aftertaste of economic snake oil has kicked in, maybe contemporary Icelanders can come here and toss away their copies of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.

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That sudden recognition

As I write this, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun has fallen to the second tier of the New York Times bestseller list, having debuted on the tenth rung of the list only the week before. That’s a bit of a comedown, considering that the previous manuscript exhumed from Tolkien’s papers, The Children of Hurin, debuted at the top of the list in May 2007. It’s also a pity, because The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is far and away the more valuable of the two books.

That’s because The Children of Hurin, cobbled together from notes and previously published excerpts, merely showed Tolkien imitating one of the sources of the inspiration that led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on the other hand, shows the old philologist grappling directly with one of those sources, on its own terms, and if read in that spirit it could start other readers on the same scholarly quest that animated Tolkien’s life and work. 

The sources of Tolkien’s inspiration are well known: echoes from the Elder Edda, Old English verse (notably Beowulf), and the Icelandic sagas run through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For me, the biggest selling point for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the chance to read one of the old don’s own lectures on the Elder Edda, and get a glimpse of the scholarly passion that drove him:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the truin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) — such at any rate has been my experience — only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

I experienced my own faint echo of that “sudden recognition” years ago when I had to translate a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” for a Spanish class. After weeks and months of See-Diego-Run grammar exercises, to have a genuinely great story come into focus under my pen was a rare thrill — something akin to having a statue I’d walked past for weeks suddenly turn its head and call out to me.

I envy anyone who has that experience on a regular basis, though I don’t envy anyone the amount of labor it takes to get there.

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The anxiety of influence

J.R.R. Tolkien was seldom more amusing, and less convincing, than when he grumpily dismissed any attempts to draw parallels between The Lord of the Rings and Richard Wagner’s  The Ring of the Nibelung. The posthumous publication of Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun — soon to take its place alongside The Children of Hurin and just behind The Silmarillion on the “Often Purchased, Seldom Finished” shelf of the Tolkien library — has resurrected the Wagner Question, and Jeff Sypeck deals with it head-on in this interesting post.

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Monster rules


So these zombies got me thinking about vampires . . .

Hey, how’s that for an opening line? Zombies got me thinking about vampires. If I were a staff writer at The New Yorker, I could dine out on that one for at least a week. Or do I mean Fangoria?

What happened is that somebody convinced me to watch the 2004 remake of George Romero’s classic 1978 horror flick Dawn of the Dead, and I found it so uninteresting that I spent much of the time thinking back to the last horror flick I saw, Let the Right One In, and why it’s stayed with me and will probably keep tickling my imagination long after the false Dawn has done a sunset in my memory. I’ve decided it’s because of the monster rules.

Every monster has rules, but some have more rules than others. Zombies and werewolves are pretty basic, simple monsters and therefore have the fewest rules of all, and you mess with them at your peril.  Zombie rules, following the template laid down by Romero in the seminal Night of the Living Dead, have the simplicity of a child’s nightmare: they’re dead, they’re hungry for anything with a pulse, and they’re never going to stop coming after you unless you can put them down with an extremely difficult head shot, and while you’re managing that trick a bunch more are coming up behind them — or you.

 Most importantly, they’re slow. You can outrun them and outmaneuver them, but if you get careless or get tripped up, you’ll be surrounded. Then, because of their slowness, you’ll have entirely too much time to contemplate the likely awfulness of your imminent demise. The original Dawn of the Dead plays by those rules, and in addition to generating enormous amounts of suspense it creates a surprising amount of pitch-black satirical humor. Each shambling ghoul is a former human with remnants of its old identity trailing from its body. This makes for a potent blend of creepiness and absurdity, as in the scene where the heroine is attacked by a Hare Krishna zombie. The ghoul’s orange robe and the shaved head appear funny, but the leechlike tenacity of its assault quickly makes the scene terrifying.

The remake screws with these rules and falls flat on its rotting face. The script has twice as many characters but they’re only about half as interesting as the original quartet, which is a problem. The biggest problem of all, however, is that the  remake’s zombies are fast, and the film’s ADHD editing keeps you from getting anything more than a quick glimpse of some gross face or rotting claw before the shotguns go to work. Worst of all, they’re preposterously fast, as in the scene where a morbidly obese woman who in life probably had just enough strength to get a bag of Cheetos away from Jonah Goldberg suddenly turns into a zombie with the stamina and agility of an Olympic triathlete. The first couple of times it’s startling, but after that it’s simply predictable — and predictability is death to a horror story. What’s supposed to be a remake of  Dawn of the Dead becomes a ripoff of 28 Days Later, itself a better-made but ultimately flat attempt to play with Romero’s Rules for Zombies.

The fact that zombies have so few rules — few, but unbreakable — means there are rather few really good zombie movies. Unless you’re a gorehound Lucio Fulci fan, there’s really only the Romero canon (not even all of it) and maybe Shaun of the Dead. The storytelling options are too limited. Same thing with werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London takes the traditional scenario as far as it will go. The Howling plays it for satiric laughs and some genuine scares. After that, nothing.

On the other hand, vampires have lots of rules, which paradoxically offers lots of room for storytelling. (They also have personalities, which makes them far more interesting monsters.) There are loads of pretty good vampire flicks and a few great ones — Near Dark and Shadow of the Vampire are two that come instantly to mind — and Let the Right One In has recently taken its place among them. The title refers to a bit of lore that bars vampires from entering houses uninvited. Though we get to see what happens when the rule is broken, there’s a far more unsettling meaning at work in the story — one that doesn’t become apparent until the very end.                


The director, Tomas Alfredson, captures the claustrophobic Patricia Highsmith atmosphere of the novel, and brings a unique visual flair that has me eager to see what else he will do. The sterile interiors and barren outdoor spaces, made even more forbidding by a blanket of snow, create a sense of alienation and dreamy anxiety. The story’s setting, a Stockholm suburb called Blackeberg, is like a well-scrubbed simulacrum of a real town that defies any attempts to give it character. (Even long-occupied apartments and houses look like hotel rooms.) Alfredson amplifies the eerie mood with slow, stately camera moves — no cheap shock cuts or people leaping out of shadows. In this film, the scariest shadows are inside people’s heads. There’s a scene involving cats that employs some unfortunately cheesy CGI, but Alfredson’s visual sense is otherwise razor sharp, and the climax uses economical means to suggest a tremendous amount of carnage while keeping the actual gore to a pretty chaste level.  

Alfredson also gets quietly accomplished performances from his two leads: Kare Hedebrant as Oskar (the blond kid with the knife up top), a socially isolated 12-year-old who passively suffers the torments of some relentless bullies; and Lina Leandersson as his new neighbor Eli (pronounced “Ellie”), who at first appears to be a young girl living alone with her father, a man named Hakan. The novel’s subtler touches have been glossed over, though we are able to guess at the pedophile nature of Hakan’s love for Eli, which leads him to make a curiously noble and quite horrible gesture of self-sacrifice on her behalf. Likewise, the fleeting glimpse we get of Eli’s body (in place of the book’s detailed flashback scene) gives her character pathos as well as horror, and reinforces the theme of how inhuman monsters are too often born of monstrous human behavior. 

But the real strength of Let the Right One In, both as a novel and a film, is that it’s actually a story about love and mutual need. Oskar is essentially human clay in need of shaping: his divorced parents aren’t up to the task, and the local bullies are only too willing to make him into a lifelong victim. Eli needs a companion and daytime protector: though she plays the role of a bright 12-year-old for Oskar’s sake, an unguarded moment lets us see her real age, and grasp the calculating nature of her approach. As awful as the outcome may be for the rest of the world, it makes perfect, awful sense for Oskar and Eli. In a world of soul-destroying monsters, Oskar has at least managed to find one that cares for his well-being.

* * * * *

By the way, the American DVD and Blu-Ray releases have rightly been criticized for using substandard titles, though I think the movie is still eminently worth watching. Unreliable subtitles are a chronic problem for anyone with a taste for  foreign films. You simply aren’t going to get the verbal texture of the original dialogue. In this case, you get lines of dialogue that are simplified to the point of being dumbed down, as well as laundered to remove everyday vulgarities, but unless you’re ready to master Swedish — or Italian, or German, or Japanese, or Russian, or any of the other languages of art-house cinema — you’re always going to be missing something the home audience can take for granted. The DVD release of Let the Right One In also has a dubbed version that adds inappropriate vocal choices to the translation problem.

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Friday finds


The International Edible Book Festival gets cooking tomorrow. Once again, the standard-bearer for America will be Seattle, where past entries have included The Milagro Bean Dip War (above), One Hundred Spears of Solitude (with asparagus), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Bread, The Unbearable Lightness of Bean, Remembrance of Things Pasta and — wait for it — Banana Karenina. If I were in the neighborhood, I might just build a figure out of instant waffles and call it Eggo’s Saga. Ba-dum, bish! Thank you!

Survival tips for writers: How to fake a clean house. (Via J.D. Rhoades.)

Beautiful photos of Icelandic landscapes, courtesy of the poet Anne Carson, who is working on a choral piece based on some of her sonnets, with music by a member of Sigur Ros, due for performance next year.  

On April Fool’s Eve, 1979, a little problem developed at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. I can tell you it was a very tmi-lamp7strange thing to have just seen Jane Fonda’s latest movie, a nuclear nightmare flick called The China Syndrome, and then about two weeks later see a New York Post headline: Race With Nuclear Disaster. It was also a very disquieting thing to realize that the public safety measures taken during the scare had more to do with protecting the image of the nuke industry than public safety. Let Newstalgia take you there day by day, then go browse some of the kitsch (like this Three Mile Island lamp, which probably glows most appropriately) at the National Atomic Museum in New Mexico.  

Here’s your chance to create a book trailer for Elmore Leonard’s new novel. The first eight chapters are available online.

Christiania, the singular utopian community that has existed on the Copenhagen waterfront since the early Seventies, may not be long for this world if the Danish government has its way.

“Whichever subject you have chosen, you must realize that knowledge in it is limitless. Every subject brims with mysteries and thrills, and no two students of the same subject discover a like amount of delight, accumulate nabokov2exactly the same amount of knowledge. … Suppose a schoolchild picks up the study of butterflies for a hobby. He will learn a few things about the general structure. He will be able to tell you that a butterfly has always six feet and never eight or 20. That there are innumerable patterns of butterfly wings and that according to those patterns they are divided into generic and specific groups. This is a fair amount of knowledge for a schoolchild. But of course he has not even come near the fascinating and incredible intricacies invented by nature in the fashioning of this group of insects alone. He will not even suspect the fascinating variety of inner organs, the varying shapes of which allow the scientist not only unerringly to classify them, often giving the lie to the seeming resemblance of wing patterns, but also to trace the origin and development of their ancestors, the varying influence of the environments on the developments of the species and forms, etc. etc. etc.; and he will not have even touched upon other mysterious fields, limitless in themselves, of for instance mimicry, or symbiosis. This example applies to every field of knowledge, and it is very apt in the case of literature.”

Here are some DVD supplements that really offer interesting information about their movies, as opposed to the lackluster PR fodder found on many DVD releases.

If stuffing cliches into newspaper articles were an Olympic event, this guy would go home with a gold medal.

You might want to start doing some curls in order to get in shape for Stephen King’s next novel.

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Hard to believe it was only two years ago, standing on line with my kids  to get a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that I asked myself how many more times I would get to see kids lining up at midnight to get a copy of a 759-page book. Now, a month before the release of  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I get to wonder how many more times we’ll get to see a retelling of a Norse saga that’s guaranteed to hit the top ranks of the bestseller lists.

The curious thing about Tolkien’s fame is that his scholarly background, and his relatively small output as a fiction writer, has already brought unlikely mass appeal to the medieval English poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, works you would not otherwise have expected to see in mass-market paperback editions that have stayed in print for decades. Now Tolkien’s name will apply the same marketing magic to the story of Sigurd the Volsung in a way even William Morris couldn’t manage.

I’ll certainly be interested in reading Tolkien’s take on Sigurd, but something tells me it will suffer from the same stylistic problem that made The Children of Hurin all but unreadable — Tolkien’s storytelling ideas work best when he gets as far as possible from the style of his inspirations. Long stretches of Hurin read like indifferent translations of an obscure Icelandic manuscript. There’s no contesting the fact that Tolkien was comfortable with Old Norse and the other medieval languages he studied, but the chattier, more informal style of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was where his voice rang out most clearly. I much preferred the audiobook version of Hurin, and I can only hope there’ll be an audio version of this new book as well.

Personally, I’m most interested in the news that the book will have an introduction adapted from one of Tolkien’s lectures on Norse literature. Now that I’m looking forward to!

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