- Echoes of Valhalla. The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jón Karl Helgason
Jón Karl Helgason has previously written several interesting books about the reception of medieval Icelandic literature, particularly Njáls saga, after the Middle Ages. The present book also concerns what he calls "the afterlife" of this literature, but it is directed at a readership that is presumed to be more knowledgeable about the cultural products of the afterlife than about what he calls the "pre-texts" behind their creation. Throughout the book, the author cues his readers in to the basic information about the medieval "pre-texts" that is necessary for their understanding of how and why these have been transformed into something different but still connected to the past. On the whole, this method works well, with possibly one exception, Chapter Two, "Snorri: The 'Real' Stories." The style of Echoes of Valhalla is laid back and sometimes chatty, in keeping with the author's professed desire to explain "the afterlife of the eddas and sagas" to interested students, scholars, and journalists (pp. 184–85).
Echoes treats several key topics of the Icelandic inheritance that have had a major international influence, often through several media, on postmedieval, and particularly contemporary culture, devoting a chapter to each. Although there is a common thread linking all six chapters, in that all investigate internationally significant topics, the chapters do give something of an impression of a set of the author's selected essays, especially as versions or parts of several of them have been previously published or are to be published elsewhere.
There are six individual chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the last-named investigating the afterlife of the medieval sagas in the author's native Iceland. The first of the key topics is the afterlife of the Nordic god Thor in the genre of modern comic books and the politically conservative, pro-American ideology with which the figure of the Mighty Thor is associated there. This chapter also looks at comic treatments of Norse mythology in the Danish Valhalla series and several Japanese manga comics. Chapter Two is unlike all the other chapters in Echoes because it does not so much look at the modern inheritance of the works ascribed to the medieval Icelander Snorri Sturluson, principally the Edda and Heimskringla, but [End Page 569] rather at the question of whether his contribution to the world of letters has not been greatly overrated (p. 49). The author draws on some recent research that questions Snorri's authorship of Heimskringla and suggests also that Snorri's role in the Edda was likely to have been that of a compiler of material from existing "pre-texts" rather than that of a creative author in the modern sense. This latter argument is not new, and there is some truth to it, but it needs to be balanced against medieval concepts of authorship, which are not mentioned at all in this chapter. Nor is the synthetic power of Snorra Edda in comparison to its known "pre-texts" acknowledged, nor indeed the work's contribution to the study of both the diction and metre of skaldic poetry, let alone its central importance to all postmedieval understandings of Norse mythology. This unsympathetic chapter sits oddly with the rest of the book.
Chapter Three investigates the influence of Old Icelandic myths and sagas on the development of drama, first in Scandinavia and later in Germany and England. This subject has only recently attracted the attention of scholars following the influence of medieval Icelandic literature on the theatre. The chapter brings together a lot of interesting material and, with its focus on the influence of several sagas on Ibsen's Hærmændene paa Helgeland, develops some excellent close comparisons between the treatment of character and motive in drama as compared with sagas such as Völsunga saga and Njáls saga.
The subject of Chapter Four is the appropriation of saga...