- Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jón Karl Helgason
Jón Karl Helgason's Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas investigates popular Icelandic stories by playing on the double meaning of [End Page 236] popular. On the one hand, Helgason explains how the eddas and sagas from Iceland, like the thirteenth-century manual of poetics Snorra Edda or the twelfth century Erik the Red's Saga (Eiríks saga rauða), represent the island's folkloric corpus. These poems belong to the Icelandic popular tradition as they have been part of the local culture for about ten centuries and are what the Icelandic people consider their own founding genealogy: "First of all, they supplied the general public with suitable role models; second, they provided them with a noble ancestry; and third, they offered the Icelandic nation a Golden Age in the past to counter contemporary miseries" (186). On the other hand, the same eddas and sagas are vastly popular outside of Iceland and the Scandinavian territories, that is to say, they are widespread, easy-to-access, and a source of replication for pop idols and myths. Echoes of Valhalla indeed opens with a reference to Gandalf: a wizard from Nordic mythology, the wise helper in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, or the nickname to a character in the American sitcom Friends? All of the above, Helgason claims, as Gandalf is popular.
Helgason's book works around this dichotomy to analyze what he calls the "contemporary afterlife of the medieval eddas and sagas" (9); in other words, it focuses on the adaptations of the traditional epics and poems that originated in Iceland between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. These adaptations belong to a variety of media, such as films, comics, heavy metal and rock songs, novels, operas, theater plays, and travelogues. The author is especially interested in genres that combine a written component with a visual component and that feature heroes or "characters that, just like Gandalf, have enjoyed international exposure" (12). A praiseworthy novelty is indeed the book's comparative approach and the focus on worldwide contemporary adaptations rather than on one single culture. After a prologue, crucial to the book's overall understanding as it lists Icelandic literary terms like skaldic poetry, namely poetry by a skald (medieval Scandinavian poet), or kennings, the fixed metaphors upon which eddas and sagas were built, Echoes of Valhalla presents six chapters respectively dedicated to five heroes and one heroine that indulge fame in eddas and sagas as much as in their adaptations. These more or less fictional characters are: Thor, who inspired American, Danish, and Japanese comic books from 1940 to 1980; Hallgerd, the model to four "robust female protagonists in Nordic literature" that Helgason analyzes in three plays by Henrik Ibsen, Gordon Bottomley, and Thit Jensen (86); Hallgerd's own husband Gunnar, featured in the sagas that fueled many of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century explorations of Iceland; Snorra Edda's Odin, at the basis of the Valhalla's popularization and the ancestor of many musical heroes; Leif "The Lucky" Eriksson, whose adventures in the North American continent around 1001 CE bestowed on him an afterlife of cinematic success; and finally, Snorra Eddas's compiler and quasi-mythological figure in his own right, Snorri Sturluson. Echoes of Valhalla then closes with an epilogue and a timeline of Icelandic history.
Helgason aims to understand the connection between eddas and sagas and their contemporary rewritings in Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia by drawing on the theoretical work of Frederick Jameson, Tzvetan Todorov, and Linda Hutcheon. From the latter comes, for example, the notion of [End Page 237] repetition without replication; Helgason points out that the first eddas and sagas were not a fixated text in time but rather a diverse group of texts that were themselves changing. The "flourishing cultural tradition" embodied already in its plots metaphors of narrative ingestion and textual reproduction (12). The book's ultimate goal is to "offer insights...