- Echoes of Valhalla, The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jón Karl Helgason
W.H. Auden, The Avengers (both the film and comics series versions), Alexander Stirling Calder, the Monty Python troupe, Captain America, Scrooge McDuck, Tolkien, Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer, Joey Tribbiani and the rest of the cast from the TV show Friends, William Shakespeare, Richard Wagner and the Ring Cycle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, The Vikings (the film and its short-lived TV spin-off), and Led Zeppelin—these are just a few of the topics discussed in this ground-breaking, well-written, always-intriguing study of the extensive, post-medieval legacy of the Icelandic eddas and sagas. The pervasiveness of that legacy is astounding, as Helgason moves beyond Andrew Wawn's thorough but more limited study of the Victorian embrace of many things Viking. And, for Helgason, such a study is something of a labor of love: he grew up in Iceland, surrounded by the legacy of the eddas and sagas in everything from the books he read in school to the names of the streets in his neighborhood.
Especially intriguing here are the multiple linear connections in that legacy which Helgason is able to trace, connections many of us might well have never thought of tracing. Hedda Gabler, for instance, 'can be regarded as among the fourth generation of robust protagonists in Nordic literature, and among her foremothers are: a) Hiordis [from Ibsen's earlier play The Warriors/The Vikings at Helgeland], b) Hallgerd [from Njáls saga] and Gudrun Osvifursdottir [from Laxdæla saga], and finally c) Gudrun Gjukadottir and Brunhild Budladottir [from the eddic poems]' (p. 86).
Helgason announces his goal early on and achieves it admirably throughout the remaining six chapters, epilogue, timeline, and bibliography of his book: 'The primary objective of this book is to consider this connection between the eddas and sagas and their modern legacy. In particular, I am fascinated by the way in which texts that were originally written many centuries ago in the isolated rural areas of my native Iceland have become a part of our (almost) universal cultural memory. At the same time, I hope to offer insights into some of the diverse intentions and constraints that have shaped individual adaptations and framed the afterlife of the eddas and sagas as a whole' (p. 11).
In chapter one, Helgason considers the afterlife of Thor, who has been transformed over time from a Norse god to 'the most exciting superhero of all time' (p. 18). That afterlife sees Thor variously as a force standing up to Nazism and as the nemesis of any number of right-wing extremist groups (both of which tried unsuccessfully to appropriate his legacy as their own), as an anti-communist and anti-Soviet figure, as a combatant in the Vietnam War, and as a spokesperson for, or counterforce to, social anxieties in twentieth- and twenty-first century America, Japan, and Denmark.
Helgason next examines the complicated role Snorri Sturluson has played in the composition and transmission of a number of medieval Icelandic texts. Such texts were at times compilations or rewrites of older pre-texts, and part of a rich literary tradition embracing a 'compelling need for self-expression' that shaped works 'which [End Page 78] were more original' (p. 75). And just who originally wrote what for whom and why is still not always easy to fathom since many original sources have been lost. Postmedieval adaptations of the eddas and sagas continue to have personal stories to tell, and those stories are anchored in a rich, though complicated, tradition, stretching back to medieval times, while also reflecting a continuing series of changes in literary conventions, genres, and styles. In chapter three, Helgason charts how, along with more than a generous nod to the plays of William Shakespeare, the legacy of the eddas and sagas informs the depiction of women on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Scandinavian stages.