- Evergreen Ash: Ecology and Catastrophe in Old Norse Myth and Literature by Christopher Abram
What stories do we choose to tell about texts like Vǫluspá, the complex and enigmatic literary amalgamation that synthesizes Norse pagan and Christian worldviews to offer a murky but memorable portrayal of the end of the world, its renewal, and its ominous further harrowing? In this interesting and readable study, Christopher Abram reads Vǫluspá and related texts from an unapologetically ecocritical and modernist perspective, seeing the text as a Norse contemplation on the end-time informed by prime metaphors in the experience of medieval Icelanders: the terrorizing specter of Icelandic volcanic eruptions and the historical experience of the island's deforestation in the aftermath of colonization by humans (and livestock). While positing the likely gravity of these experiences on the Icelandic imagination, Abram also argues eloquently and convincingly for the validity of anachronistic readings, proposing to let Vǫluspá speak to our modern situation in an era of global warming and looming environmental collapse. He writes: "Reading ourselves, our anxieties, and our worldviews into the medieval text transforms the text into something it was not before; reading the text transforms us into something we have never been before" (p. 40).
After an introductory chapter on ecocritical theory and Icelandic settlement, Abram's chapters 2 and 3 resist any reading of Old Norse mythological material that would somehow absolve it of the anthropocentric and Earth-dominating ideologies that Lynn White so famously [End Page 550] perceived in the Genesis narrative (see White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155:1203–7, 1967). For Abram, the Old Norse materials show a similar tendency toward normalizing and justifying human (male) control over all other species and beings of the Earth, of proclaiming domination a human right and good. Chapter 2 provides an interpretation of materials from Vǫluspá, Vafþrúðnismál, Grímnismál, and Snorra Edda that acknowledges the deep Christian influences evident in these works but that recognizes nonetheless a core account of the creation of the world that moves from a nontheistic, nonsexual ("queer"), natural cosmos to an ordered, heterosexual, patriarchal one ruled by male deities ensconced in walled-off fortresses. Chapter 3 explores how terms for Earth in these same texts—heimr, verǫld, jǫrð—reflect this same essentially dualistic and domineering worldview that separates humans from the other species, lands, and waters that surround and sustain them.
Chapter 4 turns a more sympathetic eye toward the Old Norse past, exploring mythic ash trees and Yggdrasill in particular from the likely perspective of Icelanders living in a deforested and wind-eroded island. The "arborocentric" religiosity brought to the island from continental Scandinavia may have harbored, Abram suggests, "the possibility of a nonhierarchical, possibly even transcorporeal approach to the interrelationships between people and the nonhuman" (p. 85). From mentions of the first humans Askr and Embla, poetic expressions of identification with the feelings of Yggdrasill, skaldic kennings that describe humans in tree terms, and Egill's poetic uses of deforestation as a poignant metaphor for human loss, the chapter makes a case for a Norse paganism that once credited trees with consciousness and feelings. Chapter 5 then uses this backdrop to shed light on narrative accounts of Iceland's deforestation as well as the allure of a richly wooded Vinland in Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða, seeing these as depictions of a paradise lost, one in which the historical loss of trees paralleled the political loss of autonomy in Icelandic society.
Chapters 6 and 7 return to the theme of apocalypse and decline, suggesting that the narrative of Ragnarǫk, like the narrative of Icelandic deforestation, helps express a broader mythic notion of a world headed, ineluctably, toward destruction due to human errors: "The gods' fate is to repeat and amplify the mistakes that create the conditions in which the world inevitably will end" (p. 124). Here, Abram's metaphorical reading comes fully to the fore: "The gods, I...