Haunting 80s, Monstrous Governments and ‘Other’ Dimensions: Stranger Things

Warning: Spoilers ahead! Also occasional references to medieval literature. You have been warned.

After the madness that was the last chapter, I took a few days off last week, and I finally managed to catch up with a show that people on all my social media feeds have been obsessed with: Stranger Things. And it was just as good as everyone made it sound. The soundtrack is absolutely amazing and the imagery is fantastic. I’m not a big fan of Stephen King, but the small town horror, the claustrophobia of the setting, worked really well for me. And, while I never got into role-playing, I loved all the nerdy references. I’m sadly a few years too young to get the nostalgia that some people have described, but I still think it’s an awesome show.

Because, more than anything, this is a show about monsters, and – as you should know by now – I love monsters. I can’t watch a lot of horror films because I’m a big softy who gets nightmares (I mean, think about it: there’s a monstrous Other dimension RIGHT HERE!), but if I rationalise monsters, if I find an academic way of thinking about them, if I analyse them and turn them into articles, blog posts or my thesis, they lose some of their threatening, haunting nature. They become accessible for me. So here is my way of accessing the monsters of Stranger Things.

First of all, I would argue that there is more than one monster in this show. The Demogorgon is obvious, of course. It’s even called a monster by some of the characters, so its monstrosity should be clear. But what about some of the humans? And what about the Upside Down itself?

In a way, this is a story about lost children, and about losing children. We see three parents who all lose a child, and they all lose it to a monster, or monstrous force. Hopper’s daughter dies of cancer, and while cancer is unseen, unseeable for ordinary humans, it is as destructive and disruptive as any corporeal monstrous creature. Right now I’m listening to a song sung by an artist who died of cancer a few months ago, at the age of 39. Losing a child to it is even more cruel. While, much like the sea that Egill rages against in his Sonatorrek, cancer cannot be grasped, cannot be fought with physical weapons, and cannot be taken vengeance on, it nevertheless disrupts families, takes those we love like a monster at night. And like the monster, we cannot conceive of its terror, of its threat, until it’s too late, until the monster has already ripped through the fabric of our lives. Most of my own family, including my mother, died of it.

But to return to corporeal monsters, and to the children they take from their parents. There is of course Eleven, born Jane, the daughter of one of the secret government organisation’s test subjects. She is taken from her mother right after birth, and there is no record of her existence. The man whom she comes to call “Papa” is the monster who rips her from her mother, the monster who disrupts her family, and who turns her herself into… Well, I will return to that below. But Dr Brenner can certainly be argued to be monstrous in the way he acts and interacts with people, in the demands he makes on them, and especially on Eleven herself. It is significant that he is also a father figure for her, making her call him “Papa”, which could be read in a psychoanalytic way of one chose to do so. Brenner is of course also a representative of the monstrous organisation itself: an organisation that violates not just human bodies through its experiments – and through their consequences, which have to be cleared up and hidden –, but also the boundaries of dimensions. The organisation, as a physical entity, thus becomes a liminal space, the building it owns the gate into another world. It also embodies the monstrosity of a government that directly impacts, even invades, people’s lives: listening to their conversation, entering their homes, killing them.

And then, finally, there’s the Demogorgon. All body and mouth, with a rapacious hunger, it is a classical monster that bites, tears, eats. It bleeds, revealing its intense corporeality. But, as Cohen put it, the monster’s “threat is its propensity to shift”, and the Demogorgon can shift between dimensions. It takes a long time until we finally see it, but – just as the monstrous revenants of the Icelandic sagas, whom we only see when a hero is there to fight them – this “camera shyness” makes it even more threatening. We catch glimpses of slime, of organic matter, of a web and a living body that swallows, but its extension, the monster itself, is invisible at first. It could be anything. It could be anywhere. It could be right here. And because of this shifting but ultimately stable corporeality, the Demogorgon abducts to eat. Much like Grendel, it has an appetite that cannot be satiated. Even more than Grendel, its entire head is replaced by one giant mouth, a mouth that does not give – it does not speak – but only takes. It is attracted to blood, to leaking bodies, and its opened mouth looks like the petals of a monstrous flower. I’m not going to take this idea further, but there is something that suggests itself here: after all, Nancy loses her virginity (and turns into a massive bad-ass when fighting the monster), so I wonder if these themes can be connected. But I don’t want to go crazy with the psychoanalysis, so I’m going to stop here.

The humans who come in contact with these monsters are changed, showing again the contagiousness of monstrosity. Hopper’s marriage fails because of his daughter’s death, and he turns to alcohol – another monster. Dr Brenner shapes and changes Eleven, giving her both a chance to learn how to control her powers, as well as turning her into a weapon for his war, the war in which his government is caught up. Eleven then encounters the Demogorgon in the world Brenner makes her enter, and both she herself and the world she belongs to are forever altered by this encounter, as it enables the monster to cross into our dimension. Through this encounter, they seem to be linked, and she – in her own potential monstrosity, as a weapon – turns into the monster hunter that finds and eventually kills the Demogorgon. Monster and hunter are closely connected, they are often doubles, and the hunter is always close to becoming a monster themselves. El, in her final appearance, embodies this closeness, this doubling and monstrosity, and because of it, she herself disintegrates when she destroys the Demogorgon. Finally, Will seems to have been physically infected by his encounter with the monster, and it will be interesting to see what happens to him: will he turn into another monster, or will he be able to cross into the Upside Down at will, as he seems to do in the final scene? Here’s hoping for season 2!

Speaking of the Upside Down itself: what is going on there? It is of course a parallel dimension of some kind, and one whose boundary with our own is permeable enough to allow communication. If one thing happens in one world, like the burning of the Demogorgon, it also happens in the other, or at least leaves a trace – the stain is visible there as well. I kind of see this dimension as a subversion of our own world. Much like the niðsele of Grendel’s Mother, or the outlaw colony of Hörðr that gives a home to those who don’t belong, the Upside Down is a world that looks much like ours, but isn’t. Not only is its atmosphere toxic to normal humans, it is also characterised by the intense decay visible in all its features. Nothing there lives. The forest is dead and covered in shadows, Hopper and Joyce do not meet another living being, the houses are crumbling. Strange tatters are floating in the air. But it still has the same roads, the same houses, the same structures. The Upside Down is so haunting because it’s so familiar: at first glance, it looks normal, like the house you live in, like the streets you walk every day. But then, the unfamiliarity hits you. This is not your world. You do not belong here. This world is monstrous, it grows tentacles and extends into your own – even into your body if you’re truly unlucky. The Upside Down is the Uncanny made flesh, made town, taking the shape of an entire dimension: your Other home is not heimlich but unheimlich, it is monstrous. It might kill you. It’s certainly trying.

Ultimately, the question must be asked what these monsters embody, what cultural fears and anxieties they can be used to explore. Much like the monsters of the Sagas of Icelanders, they must be seen both against the context in which they appear – 1983, the Cold War, emerging technologies, the aftermath of Project MKUltra etc – and against the context that created them – the present day. Within the 1983 setting, especially the Cold War background is significant because it gives a rationale for El’s existence, and therefore for the way in which the Demogorgon found its way into our dimension. But ultimately, the present context is more important to explore, since this is the time that gave rise to this particular monster. Monstrous scientists like Brenner are timeless, transhistorical – a figure we all know since Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll. His connection to the government is interesting, especially at times of the NSA and other scandals that revealed how many of us across the world are actually subject to surveillance.

But the Demogorgon, with its insatiable hunger, its pure corporeality that takes and never gives back, could be read as a monster of capitalism and consumerism: we all take from this world more than we could ever give back, and we are encouraged to always want more, take more – to tear the world apart for our desires like the Demogorgon tears through dimensions in its search for food. 8th August, only a week ago, marked Earth Overshoot Day, the day from which on we take more from this one planet that we have than it can renew – the day from which on we would need another Planet Earth to fulfil our desires. The Demogorgon is therefore a very real monster in times of climate change and environmental destruction, a monster that demands that we listen to its warning. It is a creature that has crossed the boundaries between ordinary human consumption and monstrous consumerism, holding a mirror to us and our behaviour. The dimension it comes from is one of decay and death, and it warns that our own world might turn into this dimension if we are not careful. It is a monster whose warning we should take seriously at a time of climate-change denying politicians across the world.

So, now that I got this out of my system, I seriously need to go back to my thesis. No more pop culture until I’ve submitted!


Call for Papers, IMC Leeds 2017: Otherness, Monstrosity and Deviation in Old Norse Literature and Culture

I decided to use this platform for some serious academic stuff for once: a CfP!

The theme of next year’s IMC in Leeds (3rd-6th July 2017) is “Otherness”, and for obvious reasons I, together with Gwendolyne Knight Keimpema, would very much like to get two or three sessions together for that, under the heading of the Old Norse Network of Otherness (ONNO). A few people have already expressed interest, but we want to formalise things now as there are only 1.5 months left until the deadline for session abstracts.

We see these sessions as providing a space for the exploration of themes of otherness, monstrosity and deviation in Old Norse literature of all genres. What kinds of otherness do the genres of saga literature explore, what are the monstrosities we find in eddic or skaldic poetry, and how can deviation be framed within the written record? Perspectives that take other texts into consideration, that for example explore the interplay between legal material and the literary sources, or the influence of continental othernesses and monstrosities on the medieval Icelandic conception of these issues, are very welcome, as are studies of interactions between the physical and the literary through the lenses of palaeography and material culture. Critical engagement with the terms “otherness” or “monstrosity” and the forms they take in Old Norse literary texts is also encouraged, since we often cannot assume that different genres, traditions and cultures apply the same conceptualisations to their perspective of the monstrous/other.

If you are interested in participating, in exploring the monstrous and the other in Old Norse literature with us, then please email me at rm625@cam.ac.uk or Gwendolyne at gwendolyne.knight@historia.su.se by 1st September. We look forward to hearing from you!

The Monstrous Medievalist, or, Caught Between Two Worlds

As a medievalist, I often feel caught between two worlds: the modern one that I live in, constantly connected to the entire globe and what happens in it, the whole knowledge of humanity at my fingertips – and the medieval one that I research, of which I will give no description because it is impossible to generalise the experience of people over the span of ca. 1000 years and an entire continent. These generalisations are in themselves a problem, mostly since they tend to privilege one narrative, one view of “The Middle Ages” over others; due to the nature of the sources, this is mostly the narrative of the courtly elite, or religious and learned traditions – or, as happened here, the entire era is painted with one broad brush of negativity and darkness. In my own work, I have run into these views when trying to establish an alternative view of monstrosity in one genre of medieval literature, the Sagas of Icelanders. I have been told that there was only one kind of monster in medieval Europe: the Plinian or monstrous races. Monstrosity, however, depends on the context in which it appears, and learned monsters cannot account for all instances in which human beings, or society as a whole, are troubled or haunted, in which social stability and human physical integrity is under threat. However, these generalisations are not what I want to talk about here.

What concerns me is that, as a medievalist, I am essentially monstrous: trying to bridge the gap between the text I study and the time in which I live, I am a hybrid, not fully belonging to either. For I am obviously not a saga author of the 13th or 14th century, but I am also not supposed to read the texts as a woman of the 21st. Because that would be “projecting modern sensibilities” or concerns onto medieval texts, an anachronism, a modern bias – subjective, monstrous. This accusation has haunted me since I was writing my master’s thesis on revenants in the Íslendingasögur, returning like the revenants themselves at random intervals, in Q&As after conference papers, in peer reviews, in conversations. But whenever the revenant of anachronism raises its head, I ask myself two questions: Firstly, if I am projecting modern concerns onto medieval texts, why then did medieval Icelandic authors write about these concerns? And secondly, what exactly is the problem with such an approach in the first place?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Tübingen, I had to attend seminars in linguistics. Among them was a seminar on pragmatics, i.e. the linguistic field that explores how we make sense of utterances, how the context in which they are spoken contributes to our understanding, and how we infer meaning from said context. It was taught by the brilliant Stu Watts, whom I will now probably embarrass with what little I remember (I attended this seminar 9 years ago after all). What I do remember is speech act theory, which has since come in handy in my work on how people are assigned monstrous status. What I also remember is that we always have to bring our own background knowledge, our experience of the world, into a communicative situation in order to understand what a conversation partner means. So if someone asks me, “What did you think of The Room”, I have to know that The Room is a movie rather than a part of a building. What is more, according to Relevance Theory, I can in fact only make sense of utterances that are relevant to me, i.e. that contain information pertinent to my background. If I don’t detect relevance in an utterance, I will not process it.

I know that there are certain issues with translating linguistic theories that talk about real-life communication to other situations, as for example how we understand the speech acts within a literary text. Are they spoken by the author, the narrator, the characters? Since speech acts are in themselves actions, and are followed by an effect they have on the world, what is this effect if they do not relate to the real world? I don’t know if anyone has done research into Relevance Theory and the way it might apply to our reading of literary texts. Do I only read->process->understand texts that matter to me in some way? Or do I only read->process->understand texts in a way that matters to me? If that were the case, it would explain why, in my opinion, it is impossible to read a medieval text, or indeed any text, completely objectively.

When I approach a text that is new to me, from any historical period, I use my knowledge of language, human experience, history, and my own life story, to make sense of this text. That is why some texts speak to me more than others. Grettis saga is relevant to me because I identify with the saga’s main protagonist, because we share certain physical and character traits: we are both ginger weightlifters with an impulsive temper. Njáls saga, always hailed as the best saga ever written, is less relevant to me. While I sympathise with Gunnar and Skarphéðinn, they simply aren’t as close to me. This is subjective. But it is no more or less subjective than when certain scholars asserted that some sagas are better than others, either because they fit better into their narrative scheme or theory, or because they fit their aesthetics of what saga style should be like (realist, rational, straightforward, no supernatural stuff).

Because of this subjective reading of the texts, because I bring my own experience and my own expectations to them, I will never be able to read them like 13th or 14th century Icelander did. I can read all the classical and learned material the writers of the Íslendingasögur would have had access to, and if that is the way in which I want to approach the texts, this will tell me certain things. But being well-read in learned medieval discourses won’t get rid of my own modern life experience, my own background. I will always look in the text for things that are relevant to me in one way or another. This does not have to lie in some deep, psychological issue, but each of us has different interests because of our different experiences. Or maybe because of our genes, which are also all different. Nature and nurture. Let’s not go there.

Thus, in my attempt to bridge the gap between my own world and the world of the text I am reading – the world of medieval Iceland – I am always bringing a part of myself into the reading. The bridge can only be built through my understanding, and my understanding depends on my experience. Objectivity is ensured by basing my findings, my reading, my understanding in the world of the text: if it is there, you can argue for it. Don’t force it. Don’t make things up. The words of other scholars are then used to back up these findings.

There are many things that separate the two worlds of medieval Iceland and the present day,  and the fact that I am a woman in a university doing a PhD is just one of them. But there are also many things that connect them. Again, if I am projecting modern concerns onto the sagas, why then did medieval Icelanders choose to write about these concerns? They chose to write about toxic family relationships that lead to disaster, about foreigners stealing “our women”, about humans and their lack of agency in a changing environment. They were afraid of those with special knowledge just like some people today reject experts, and the narrative about the dangerous foreigner has gained increasing currency after the events in Germany on New Year’s Eve. So yes, these are modern concerns. But yes, they are also reflected in the Íslendingasögur. Because, after all, people haven’t changed that much over the last couple of millennia, and there seem to be certain anxieties and concerns that underlie the human experience of the world. These are fundamental concerns: about marriage, sex, the family, children, collaboration, alliance, power, knowledge, agency. They are transhistorical, much like the monsters used to explore them.

Basically, to say that medieval texts can only be read in medieval ways is like saying that only Icelanders are allowed to do research on the sagas, because only they understand them properly. And yes, this argument has been made. But just like a foreign, non-Icelandic perspective can add to our understanding of these texts – and it has done, massively, free of the nationalist agenda of some earlier Icelandic scholarship –, a modern, seemingly anachronistic perspective can open up new avenues of exploration, and ultimately lead to new understanding. This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to immerse ourselves in the medieval Icelandic experience (as much as that is possible), or that we shouldn’t read the texts the writers of the sagas would have read. It means that anachronism is not a bad thing, and the application of seemingly anachronistic theoretical approaches – like monster theory, or ecocriticism which is often combined by its users with a strong interest in current environmental issues –, when done properly, will enable us to look at yet another aspect of texts that, like the Íslendingasögur, have been studied extensively. We aren’t done with them. There is much more to discover.

I look at the sagas as a cake. It consists of multiple layers of jam, marzipan, sponge, cream, icing – whatever you want. Layers of meaning, of secular concerns, religious and learned influence, vernacular heritage, historiography, oral tradition, continental influence – and monsters. We can only address one of these at a time because this cake is too complex, the recipe too long, for one person to buy all the ingredients. My way of dealing with the monster layer (the icing to me, something really boring to some other people) has enabled me to not only find this layer of social monstrosity and establish that it exists. It has also opened up a possible way of understanding it, of detecting what went into it, and what role it plays in the recipe as a whole. It seems that anachronism serves its purpose.

So eventually, for me it’s about facing our bias, acknowledging it, and working with rather than against it. By doing so, we won’t sacrifice our objectivity. But we will gain new possible ways of reading and understanding the texts we look at, and the role they play in either world, and between them. For ultimately, it’s the text that bridges the gap, never losing relevance, always demanding to be read, and read again.


I really like cake. I have not watched The Room.

Return of the Monster: Abuse

[Content warnings for discussion of various types of abuse should be given, even though the title should probably do the trick.]

I don’t know why I’ve been absent for so long. I really don’t know why I didn’t write this post sooner (it was planned in November!). I do know that I’ve been quite busy in the meantime, attending conferences, writing chapters, planning stuff… the usual. Not an excuse for not talking about monsters in public. Just a reason. But then, we’re all busy.

Anyway, here I am, back to the blog. The monster always returns, after all, and it returns with a long long post. The reason why I wanted to write this post in November was that, at the time, I was working on two papers (one of which has since been turned into an article, due to appear at some time in the future) about different forms of abuse and their connection to monstrosity in the Sagas of Icelanders. The other reason was that, in late November, I spent two intense days binge-watching Marvel’s Jessica Jones. The show resonated with me for a variety of reasons, and the multi-faceted, ambiguous, complex depictions of violence, abuse (in all types of relationships) and, yes, monstrosity were part of the impact it had on me. Especially at a time when I was writing about abuse, reading psychological studies on the impact of child abuse on its survivors, and thinking about the subtle ways in which the Íslendingasögur go about portraying sexual violence. If you Google “Jessica Jones abuse”, the amount of articles that comes up shows that this is a show that has stirred things in many people, and that the way in which it depicts violence, abuse and the consequences of both has had a profound impact on many trauma survivors. (This article is probably my favourite. It also introduced me to the concept of “red pillers”, which came in handy a few months ago…)

For me, it also opened up the question whether – and if yes, in what way – a monster can be both abuser and abused. Because in Kilgrave, there are hints that he is both. A product of the harm of his parent’s experimentation, and a producer of pain and death for anyone who comes close to him. Still a monster, but also a victim? Interestingly, this is mirrored to some extent in medieval Icelandic literature.

For the outlaws of the Icelandic family sagas are in many cases both the product of abusive familial – and especially paternal – influence, as well as the cause of their family’s destruction. Not all of their family members die because of them, but the family itself drifts apart as it dissolves from within. And while it is not entirely clear if we’re dealing with a question of nature and nurture – especially in the case of Grettir, where we don’t know whether his father doesn’t love him because he’s a difficult child, or whether he’s a difficult child because his father doesn’t love him – child abuse is still part of the problem. Grettir’s father Ásmundr continuously belittles his son, and never gives him a chance to prove himself in a way that the wilful and stubborn Grettir would accept long enough to try to control his very short temper. Eventually, Ásmundr just gives up on the son he hates, with the result that Grettir is never properly socialised, and after he has learned to take every potential slight personally. In the present day, Grettir could have been “saved” with the help of a good psychotherapist, a decent gym membership, and a group of people he belongs to. In the world depicted in the saga, he never fits in anywhere. Because of him, both his brothers are killed.

A similarly problematic parental influence on a child is shown in Harðar saga. Hörðr grows up with his parents until he is three, but the relationship of his parents is strained. When Hörðr breaks his mother’s favourite necklace, the mother, Signý, prophecies a bad future for him – which in turn makes his father Grímkell so angry that he doesn’t want to have the child at home anymore. He basically projects his anger at his wife onto his son. Hörðr’s mother dies shortly afterwards when she gives birth to a girl, and this puts further strain on the familial situation: Torfi, Hörðr’s maternal uncle, does everything to make life difficult for Grímkell. Hörðr learns early to distrust his male relatives, and this later impacts his relationship with his in-laws, who end up being the ones killing him.

One could argue that there is no element of this kind of abuse in Gísla saga, the third famous outlaw saga, and that the real family problems mostly enter the narrative when the siblings are all grown up. That, however, is only true if one reads the shorter version of the saga. But the longer version offers an interesting variant. Early in the text, there are rumours that Gísli’s sister Þórdís is being seduced by a young man. The father of the siblings, Þorbjörn, believes them, and eventually goads the reluctant Gísli into killing the guy by calling him a girl and other nasty things. In this version, Gísli seriously tries to keep the suitor away, but eventually has to kill because of his father’s goading. He learns that Þorbjörn’s understanding of family honour is quite strict, and he tries to take care of this honour for the rest of his life – killing his sister’s later husband in the process. The impact Þorbjörn has on Gísli is so profound that Gísli ascribes all his martial deeds to him in his dying verse: ‘My father gave hardness to his boy’s sword’, he says. Þorbjörn has indeed hardened Gísli’s sword by giving him reason to kill for the first time, and by instilling in him a focus on his kin’s honour that, like a sword, cuts through his family.

What do we do with this information? The sagas tell us that the men who later turn into monsters – disrupting social stability in their outlawry by stealing, raiding and killing; turning their kinsmen against them or relying on their help so much that the strain becomes too much, resulting in the dissolution of family ties – start out as victims of child abuse. This on the one hand serves to introduce the topics of disruptivity – Grettir first becomes economically disruptive when he kills his father’s farm animals to get back at him –, but on the other hand it also renders them more human. It doesn’t excuse any of the things they do in later life, as the way they are perceived by those who encounter them shows so clearly. But while the outlaws of the Íslendingasögur are thus monstrous in the eyes of the society they harm, they are also the heroes of their sagas, which shows that the line between hero and monster is thin and transgressible. Giving these monstrous heroes a background of abuse highlights this thin line, and draws our attention to the fact that monsters do not always have to be villains as well.

This, however, is not true of all the monsters of the Sagas of Icelanders, because there are others that only abuse and disrupt without having been abused and their lives disrupted: berserkers. Especially those who belong to the type Benjamin Blaney has termed “Berserk Suitors” are rarely suitors – the only exception I know of appears in the form of Halli and Leiknir in Eyrbyggja saga who actually want to marry the girl – but rather berserk rapists. They are described as fearsomely strong men whom fire and iron can’t bite, and who take from the people whatever they want: money, food, possessions, and most importantly women. If the men of the household don’t want to suffer the shame of seeing their women raped before their eyes, they are instead killed in a duel with the berserker.

Berserkers are not only terrifying because they’re half human half animal, seemingly invulnerable and violent, but also because their violence is of a sexual nature. This implies not only shame to the family and pain to the woman, but also the potential of procreation. Berserkerism, according to Eyrbyggja and Vatnsdæla saga, is something that lies in a man’s eðli, his nature. Can it then also be passed on? Looking for example at Egils saga (and maybe also Svarfdæla saga?) it seems not only possible but likely. So the problem with berserk rapists is not only their sexual abuse, but also what may result from it. Again – and just as with outlaws –, the consequences of abuse have direct implications for social stability, because a berserk child running wild, belonging to an Icelandic family because of the kinship ties that are supposed to ensure social cohesion, will have a disruptive, destabilising, dissolving impact on society. Maybe it’s for the best that none of the outlaw heroes discussed above have any surviving children…

What does all of this have to do with Jessica Jones? Well, not very much. As usual, these are just my ramblings. But maybe, writing this post half a year later than I intended shows two things: firstly, that there are certain things that won’t let you go until you’ve put them into words. And secondly, that abuse is a monster that always returns to haunt. Those who survive abuse – be it sexual, physical or emotional – and who live through the consequences will always bear the scars. I’ve found that my research is more about uncovering these scars – both on the level of individual characterisation and interaction with the monster, as well as on the level of social and cultural anxieties that are reflected and reflected on in the Sagas of Icelanders* – than I thought it would be. And maybe, my PhD will – once it is finished – be not only an exploration of what I’ve uncovered, but also a testament to my own survival. 6 months to go.

*I don’t want to suggest that Iceland collectively survived any kind of abuse. While the events of the 13th century were surely traumatising, the importance of the “loss” of Icelandic independence has been overstated by often nationalist scholarship. Rather, I will suggest in my thesis that there are certain concerns and anxieties at the heart of human experience, and that, in medieval Iceland, these found their expression in the social monsters of the Íslendingasögur.

Zombies, Ghosts and Revenants – 50 Shades of the Undead

There have been plenty of reasons lately to write another posts about the undead. First of all, Medievalists.net shared an, um, article about the Icelandic draugar written by a lady, sorry, mistress, who thinks she’s a twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon. (I will not share it here because I don’t want it to get even more publicity.) It was horrible and I called them out for posting something as unscholarly as this. I hope they’ll check their sources better in the future.

Then there is the release of Crimson Peak, the new film by Guillermo del Toro. I loved his Pan’s Labyrinth but have not been so impressed with the things he has done since (Pacific Rim? Seriously?). From the trailer I had high expectations that weren’t quite fulfilled.

And then there’s also this: I’m finally writing my chapter on revenants. I thought it would be easy to just go back to my master’s thesis, extract the relevant information and then write a few thousand words, but it seems like this will be a bit more time-consuming than I thought. For the undead aren’t something one can play with, something to be dismissed as easy or fun. Yes, most of the time they provide excellent, blood-curdling entertainment, but that does not mean that one should not take them seriously.

So where do I even begin? Maybe with a disclaimer that zombies and revenants are not the same, and that both are obviously different from ghosts. Ghosts are mostly understood to be apparitions, and thus immaterial. Zombies and revenants on the other hand are both corporeal. Why then should we distinguish between them? Because the medieval Icelandic undead, for one, don’t behave in the way that we expect zombies to behave in. They don’t often speak, but if they want to, they can. They are contagious like zombies, but then, so are vampires. And indeed, some of the revenants of the Icelandic sagas have much in common with the vampires of the modern imagination (except maybe those from Twilight).

The most malevolent of the medieval Icelandic undead drain the living not of blood but of energy, sanity and sometimes even of humanity, instead infecting them with their own monstrosity. Those they kill often join their ranks, and sometimes, these groups of revenants then invade the homes of the living, establishing a parallel community, a subversion of the society of the living. In the case of group hauntings, this infectious quality might actually be an attempt at making sense of an epidemic. This, however, does not diminish the threat posed by the undead and the paranormal incidents that sometimes, as in the famous Fróðá Hauntings, accompanies them.

So the distinction in terminology is important mostly just to keep us modern readers from picturing the anti-Christian undead Swedish shepherd Glámr – Grettir’s greatest challenge – like someone out of 28 Days Later. For while he is ‘black as Hel(l) and fat as a bull’ in his undead state, he is fast. And he is driven by a desire to destroy rather than by the hunger that plagues not only zombies but even Anne Rice’s vampires.

Others in this ‘category’ of revenants (if you can ever speak of categories where monsters are involved!) are driven by a different desire: the lust for possession. Þórólfr bægifótr from Eyrbyggja saga – the saga that also includes the Fróðá episode – does not acquire as much land in life as he would have liked to. He really tries hard, even playing his son Arnkell against his greatest opponent (and getting Arnkell killed eventually), but to no avail. When Þórólfr realises that his plan has failed, he implodes. And soon comes back to haunt. After death, his hauntings enable him to control a much bigger territory than anything he ever owned in life.

A similar case is Víga-Hrappr who asks his wife to be buried upright under his doorstep. This does not bode too well, and indeed, shortly after his death, Hrappr returns. His son wants to take over the farm, but he is driven mad by the continued hauntings. Hrappr wants to hold on to his possessions so badly that he drowns an entire boat full of people who had wanted to settle at his farm.

These characters all have two things in common: they are problematic characters in life, anti-social and unpopular. And as revenants, they cause immense trouble for the living: Þórólfr kills animals and farm hands, as does Glámr, who haunts the entire valley day and night so that no one dares to go about their business, and Hrappr makes sure his property is not passed on to his legal heir. They all disrupt economic prosperity in one way and another. They make social interaction impossible, bringing all travel and communal activities to a halt. They don’t let go.

One might ask what these revenants have to do with del Toro’s ghosts that I mentioned above. And that is actually a very good question, the answer to which is: not much. The ghosts of Crimson Peak are all of one kind: they are scary, smoking, immaterial, noisy, scratching on doors, pointing at things, imparting warnings and so on. Once you’ve seen one of them, the rest seem over the top, exaggerated for the effect they are supposed to have on the audience. The first one doesn’t even make much sense: why should the ghost of a loving mother turn into something so terrifying, so horrible? Why should she return and scare her own daughter senseless?

But that’s not the worst thing about them. While the supernatural in Pan’s Labyrinth was used to striking effect, to talk about the horror of the Spanish civil war in a way that would otherwise be unspeakable, the ghosts of Crimson Peak are stereotypes. Actually, most of the medieval Icelandic undead are more individualised and therefore much more effective in inspiring terror in the (past and present) audiences of the sagas. There is one case in which a man comes back from the dead to warn his wife, give her some advice, tell her about her future, and complain about the way people have been buried. This happens in Eiríks saga rauða and is clearly a Christian motif. This saga was probably written some time in the 13th century.

The ghosts of Crimson Peak (all female, until the last minutes of the film, which fits with the general menstrual/vaginal imagery of the film and the opposition of the virgin and the incestuous whore that plays such a big part in the film) are of the same kind. The protagonist’s dead mother comes back to warn her about her future. The sinister husband’s dead wives come back to tell the young bride about the terrible things that have been happening in the house. They make sure that she avenges them and achieves justice – and probably a proper burial. Old clichés. Nothing new. The dead come back to haunt the living because they belong to a past that has to be laid to rest.

But the undead, like all monsters, can be so much more than that. They can talk about the concerns of the present. They can address fears and anxieties about the nature of society, culture, life itself. Maybe I am blind, but I did not see that when I watched the film.

I do see it in the sagas though. One time of transition (the time of and after the Sturlung Age) speaking about another (the conversion to Christianity). Transposing its own unspeakable concerns onto a different time, and onto people who come from the outside. To address issues, work through emotions, through fear and stress. To come to a new understanding of the progression of history, from the haunting past to the haunted present.

The undead, in all their shapes, can do so much. Let’s take them seriously.


For a long time I’ve been thinking about writing a post on this current “migrant crisis” that’s been going on in Europe. And I thought I’d better leave it at occasionally sharing articles on Facebook rather than talking about it openly. After all, my opinion should be clear, shouldn’t it?

After all, what do “migrants” have to do with monsters?

But this morning, something broke in me. I don’t know why, or how, or what. I just know that I’ve had enough. I also know that whatever I write will be inadequate, will not capture the sadness and rage I feel. I still need to try.

I was reading an article on The Guardian, and in my stupidity I then also read the comments, both on the newspaper’s website and on Facebook. So full of ignorance, of wilfully denying the truth, the suffering of the people who come to Europe, of claiming that “the UK is full”, or “the UK is smaller than Germany, so obviously they have to take more”. The worst is when they say that Germany has a historic obligation to take in more “migrants” than other countries.

And then a friend of mine posted a link to yet another part of this debate that is all over social media at the moment, this time concerning Germany and what’s going on there. It lead me to read more on similar pages, on which people try to, often polemically, refute all the ignorant, stupid arguments presented by those not willing to read up on the facts for themselves. But so often, they run against a wall of people not wanting to listen, of preconceived ideas about what “migrants” do and who they are (criminals, rapists, thieves). They talk about “Asylschande” (asylum shame/defilement), a word that somehow strongly reminds me of “Rassenschande” (racial shame/defilement).

People say that you can feel a tension in Germany at the moment, similar to the tension the night before 9 November 1938. I hope they’re exaggerating. But there are similarities, like the violent attacks, the arson committed against places in which refugees are housed. Like the people who threaten to kill refugees. Thankfully, there are people who speak up against such threats, such violence. But they’re still not vocal enough. For the voices that can be heard most loudly are the voices of hate and resentment.

And these voices are not confined to only one European country. A few weeks ago, I was reading all those articles about “migrants” (in Calais, in Greece) stopping British people from going on holiday. As if that was the most important thing. As if the suffering that must have driven those “migrants” to risk their lives to cross over the Channel did not matter at all.

We talk about “them”, about a “swarm of migrants” that threatens to overrun Western (in this case, British) civilisation. Is there still anything that distinguishes these swarms from the hordes of zombies out of the latest post-apocalyptic horror film? It has become a “them” vs. “us”, non-European vs. European. Why do we feel so threatened?

This fear makes us forget our shared humanity. By calling them “migrants” we de-humanise them, justifying our lack of humanity. I’m a migrant: someone who willingly chose to move from one country to another. A refugee is not a migrant: a refugee is someone who is fleeing war, persecution, disease, poverty, death. But if we were to call them refugees, if we were to understand what this term really means, if we acknowledged why these people, these human beings, try to escape from violence (only then to be treated violently again), would we be able to uphold our fear and forget our humanness? Would we be able to continue to declare them the Other, that which we are not?

Why are we so afraid of each other?

I have no answers, of course. I only hope that more people will stand up, raise their voices and be human, be humane, to other human beings.

Edit: I just read this article in which someone manages to capture this issue much more eloquently than I ever could. So read this instead!

Trolls, Jötnar and other Others: Monsters at the 16th Saga Conference

I have recently been feeling marginal, or marginalised, in my own field. After a harsh Q&A in April and a devastating peer review that I received a few days before I left for Germany in July, I had been gaining the impression that my work was useless and wrong, or at least that others thought that there was an inherent flaw in my approach. On both occasions, I was able to argue against it. I know what I have read, and what I have thought and thought about. I know that I am not the first medievalist who tries to approach monstrosity in medieval literature from a non-medieval (i.e. non-Isidorean, non-learned) direction that takes into account that there is more than one literary tradition in medieval Europe. Certainly, the learned and the vernacular always intersected: in the Icelandic sagas, one can clearly trace learned and courtly influence on the “native” literature. However, at least at this early stage, I cannot look at all three of them together, so I have to choose one.

So I chose to look at the vernacular, “native”, secular side of these texts. And I chose to approach them from the point of view of monster theory, while at the same time adapting this theory and developing a scale or spectrum of monstrosity. Others before me (Asma 2009, McLennan 2009, Shildrick 2002) have argued that there are degrees of monstrosity. The clearest example of such an argument is perhaps this:

“In place of a morality of principles and rules that speaks to a clear-cut set of binaries setting out the good and the evil, the self and the other, normal and abnormal, the permissible and the prohibited, I turn away from such normative ethics to embrace instead the ambiguity and unpredictability of an openness towards the monstrous other. [My aim is] to contest the binary that opposes the monstrous to the normal.” (Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 2002, p. 3)

Still, one of my peer reviewers said that “trolls are trolls”, in spite of this word being used to refer to all sorts of paranormally-connoted, threatening, disrupting others (like witches and sorcerers, berserkers, an outlaw, revenants) as well as the ethnically other mountain-dwellers that we tend to associate with Scandinavian folklore. The word is flexible enough to accommodate the modern usage as well, again referring to disruptive people who threaten the stability of an online community.

I wish this person had attended Ármann Jakobsson’s paper at the conference. Entitled “Troll Space”, it explored the place of trolls as others in saga texts, considering examples from the contemporary sagas as well as from Bergbúa þáttr. Ármann examined the fear and wonder inspired by these characters, thus assuming a more classically medievalist reading of monstrous otherness than my own. However, these examples, according to Ármann, are only individual dots in a more fluid concept, a mental “troll space”, in which different types of trolls take on different roles and inhabit different places. Thus, trolls in literature become the externalisation of a psychic concept, showing us that trolls are not all the same trolls, but each troll has to be regarded in their own right to understand what “troll space” really entails. I look forward to reading the book Ármann is working on at the moment.

Among some other interesting papers that I did not take enough notes on for a more detailed account were Sean Lawing’s exploration of references to the burial of body parts in legal texts (gruesome and thorough!) and Heidi Støa’s discussion of artifical bodies in Old Norse literature. Apparently there are golem-like animated humanised revenant-ish creatures in Þorleifs þáttr jarlaskálds! I really should read this story!
Two interesting papers by Þórhallur Eyþórsson and Kirsi Kanerva explored different aspects of Grettir’s fight with Glámr, and the idea of both physio-spiritual penetrability as well as empathy hierarchy employed in the narration of the scene gave me things to think about.

Sarah Künzler is an old friend of mine, so I’ve known that she is brilliant for several years. However, her paper again proved it, and not just to me who did not need to be convinced. Investigating the depiction of heroic, courtly and monstrous bodies in Sigurðar saga þögla, she argued that the saga subverts not only the bodies but also the readers’ expectations on what courtly and non-courtly should be like, thus breaking down the binary between nature and culture, the court and the wild, the human and the non-human. This, according to Sarah, is not necessarily a general tendency of the riddarasögur, but does show that they are far less stereotypical and “boring”, far more varied and subversive than a lot of previous scholarship has thought them to be. And again we could here see an example of non-binary thinking in a medieval texts.

Arngrímur Vídalín’s tracing of blámenn in the Icelandic literary tradition seemed to point in a similar direction. Blámenn, literally “blue men”, can appear as neutrally or even positively depicted champions as well as in the role of vicious opponents. As such, they share similarities and characteristics with berserkers, and their colour connects them with revenants who are sometimes described as “blár sem hel”, “blue as Hel(l)”. Thus, again, we can see a nuanced, non-binary depiction of characters that should appear to be simple rather than complex.

My own paper went okay, I guess, at least I heard from some of the rather few people who attended it that it was interesting. It is now on my academia.edu profile for those who are interested. It is the most theoretical thing I have written to date, and I wish I had had a bit more discussion afterwards, so comments are very welcome!

There was another high number of interesting papers on Wednesday. Roderick Dale explored the patters (or rather, the lack thereof) in the naming of berserkers in the sagas. While giving an interesting overview, I wish this paper had gone a bit further, although I cannot really pin down where I would have liked it to go. Also, there are some characters who I would clearly read as berserkers without them being called such, and their names often fall within the larger pattern discussed here as well. However, I do agree with Roderick that we have to look at these figures on a text-by-text basis rather than coming up with generalisations.
Oren Falk’s discussion of boyhood (rather than childhood or male adolescent, on which a lot has been written already) in the Íslendingasögur and contemporary sagas was particularly interesting to my chapter on outlaws and their families, and reminded me of things that I have to think about, and texts that I have to read, as for example Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa.
Marion Poilvez’ discussion of outlaws and kings opened up another spectrum, this time one of legal adherence, with outlaws on one and kings on the other extreme. In between, characters seem to be able to move, and in some cases there seems to be a mutual influence. This in particular I find a very interesting idea, although again, one has to look at individual texts rather than general patterns. For example, some kings like Óláfr Haraldsson are not “contaminated” by an outlaw’s presence, whereas Eiríkr Bloodax is exiled himself after his dealings with Egill. Egill, however, is not like other outlaws (the heroes of the so called “outlaw sagas”), so I wonder what we can make of this. I am looking forward to hearing more from Marion!

Finally, Ingunn Ásdísardóttir presented a fascinating new reading of the jötnar (often called “giants” in translations) of Old Norse mythology. She proposes to “get inside their heads”, so to speak, to turn the mythological accounts that are all biased on the perspective of gods and humans on their heads and try to recover their perspective. She argues that the perceived enmity between the gods and the jötnar is not as strong as it has been made out to be, that there is more fluidity between them, and that we should maybe conceive of them more in terms of competition than of oppositions. Again, the binary structures that have dominated our thinking for too long are being broken down here, and while Ingunn’s approach is certainly a dangerous and difficult one (and one that will bring her a lot of opposition, especially among older scholars), I am intrigued and excited to see this project develop.

The thing that I am most excited about after this conference, however, is the fact that we have founded a new network: The Old Norse Network of Otherness (ONNO), as it is currently called. We all felt that there is not enough collaboration between us, that we all work on similar ideas (the breaking-down of binaries, the development of spectrums and continuities, the de-marginalisation of otherness in a field that often seems to be behind the developments of the humanities more generally) but work on them alone, only discovering the overlap when we meet every few years to exchange our ideas. Such exchange, however, is vital for scholarship. Without it, the field will never change. I hope that this new network will enable such an exchange, that it will inspire us all and bring us closer together, connecting us across the boundaries of countries and divisions of genre. Eventually, I hope to be able to organise a workshop, maybe even here in Cambridge, who knows.

This conference was excellent, thought-provoking, fun, strenuous, tiring, fantastic. I am still exhausted and excited at the same time, and I can’t wait to see what will come of the conversations and meetings we had in the past week. One thing I know for certain though: I feel much less marginalised, much less excluded, and I am ready to face the critics again head-on.