- Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jón Karl Helgason
Jón Karl Helgason’s Echoes of Valhalla has as its stated goal “to consider [the] connection between the eddas and sagas and their modern legacy . . . the way in which texts that were originally written many centuries ago have become part of our (almost) universal cultural memory” (p. 11). Although the majority of the adaptations have been Icelandic, the author wishes to expand the scholarly consideration of works to include modern adaptations that have been underrepresented (p. 11). To that end, Helgason discusses not only the representations of characters and tales from Icelandic eddas and sagas in contemporary films and comics but also earlier novels, plays, and films from Norway, England, and the United States. This wide-ranging project is constrained by the publisher’s format, which balances scholarly content with a succinct presentation.
Helgason’s cross-cultural approach focuses on a small number of significant characters: Thor, Odin, Hallgerd Long-Legs, and Gunnar of Hlíðarendi from Njáls saga; Leif the Lucky; and the writer Snorri Sturluson, generally considered the author of the Prose Edda (also known as the Younger Edda). Near the end of the book, Helgason, an Icelander, admits that although selections from the eddas and sagas are part of the Icelandic secondary curriculum, he had already been exposed, via comics and heavy metal music, to some of the major figures of his nation’s early literature (p. 193). The opening passage of chapter 1 (“Thor: From Superhero to ‘Kitchin’-maid”), from “Thor’s Wedding” in the Danish comic series Valhalla, is a classic example of the appropriation that characterizes contemporary approaches to eddic material, in this case, a version of the Þrymskviða tale of the theft of Thor’s hammer: the wedding includes a music group made up of characters recognizable as Jim Henson’s Muppets (p. 11). The remainder of the chapter discusses the evolution of the Marvel Comics version of Thor, with a consideration of the ways the cultural climate of increasing concern with the rise of Nazi Germany inflected the comics, for example, defining Valhalla as Norse, not German, and Thor as being on the side of the Allies. Helgason argues that the print comics were more influenced by their own early versions of Thor than by Icelandic texts but that the current Avengers film series shows some awareness of eddic material, at least in names such as Laufey (actually Loki’s mother in the medieval text) for the chief giant.
As a testimony to Snorri Sturluson’s reputation, there is even a plaque at the Sorbonne that names him, although it spells his name as “Snorro-Sturleson” (p. 48). While he admits the extent of Snorri Sturluson’s reputation as a major author, Helgason, in chapter 2 (“Snorri: The ‘Real Stories’”), “want[s] to cast some doubt on the nature and extent” (p. 49) of his authorial role in the Heimskringla (The Circle of the World) and the Snorra Edda (the “prose” or “younger” Edda). Helgason prefers to use the concepts of distributed authorship or rewriting to approach the problem of authorship of medieval prose texts. He makes a broad—and not argued—claim that he finds no significant difference between medieval prose writers and those producing “Thor” comics; that is, Snorri is an important link in a long line of authors (p. 49). This claim devalues the cultural work done by Snorri and others in imposing order on the mythological tales contained in the Poetic Edda, especially in the Völuspá. The chapter does credit the complex framings by which Snorri and others enabled the transcription of pagan mythology in a now-Christian Iceland. Helgason ends the chapter with a discussion of the idea that Snorri was the “creator” of Egil’s saga. This chapter, like most in Echoes of Valhalla, is a starting point for those interested...