Friday, November 10, 2017


Posthumanism sounds really dumb. It's like a Matrix phrase, or worse, an Alex Jones concept. But it's real meaning is pretty simple. We humans are not and have never been the top dog. We are not the center of the universe. 

So, the initial concept of posthumanism is not too difficult to grasp. Humanism believes in individual autonomy and agency. This puts human beings at the center stage, and often times at odds with the non-human, such as nature. But the posthumanists see this exceptionalism as humanism's greatest flaw. They use Derridean deconstruction to break down this framework that for so long has propped human beings above nature and instead places them within nature, as a part of the machine rather than the observer or operator. As Donna Haraway explains in her seminal The Cyborg Manifesto, humans are not set apart from the world, but "are tangled in it."

Haraway and Bertens spell out how we came to see ourselves outside of nature, and it mostly comes down to the Western Christian belief of dominion. In the Old Testament, God tells Adam that he will have dominion over the creatures and the plants and the future laffy taffy factories. So right away in Genesis, we see a deep-seeded religious belief that the Judeo-Christian is outside of his natural world, set apart and set above. This seems at odds with some of the Eastern beliefs that instead hold harmony with nature in very high regard. And if we are slated to hold dominion over the other species and over Mother Nature herself, that means we are in charge and can make decisions like cutting down the rainforest, use pesticides, hunt animals to extinction, etc, etc. I mean, the good Lord put those things here for our disposal, right? And now multiple countries who heartily dislike each other sit on an arsenal of nuclear weapons that, if used, could not only wipe us out, but wipe out much of life in general. Pretty exciting, huh?

This version of posthumanism has given rise to ecocriticism. With the same concept at heart (that humans are not the central figures in the world), ecocriticism began as a warning about the dangers of treating nature with disregard. Historically, too, nature has held a very prominent place within literature, often on one of two extremes. Many times, we see nature and love of nature as good and positive, while evil and darkness treats nature with contempt, or with TOXIC LOVE.

Bertens uses a great example from The Lord of the Rings in that Mordor is a volcanic wasteland, while the Shire is a beautiful, green and serene location. So there is this connection between nature and goodness. On the other hand, nature has been often portrayed as an enemy, or a place to be tested. J.K. Rowling's Forbidden Forest, Jack London's Yukon, Herman Melville's white whale. Regardless of its use, nature factors in greatly into literature. The ecocriticism then "seeks to evaluate texts and ideas in terms of their coherence and usefulness as responses to environmental crises." This is only natural, as we have seen generation after generation put just a little more weight on the foot that rests on the neck of the Earth. Our carbon emissions, our destruction of the forests, our using the ocean as a garbage dump--these are real crises, regardless of what the Trump administration may tell you. Then, will we look at texts and literature for answers, examples, and failures that placed humans forever above their natural habitats. And we try to solve these problems.

There is one glaring problem with these ideas: that ecocritics would then know, or have some idea of what the world really is. If we ruined the world and it must be returned to its original state, we must have some idea as to what that natural state was. But many would say that we can't really know what the world really is, or that there are so many interpretations and conceptions about the world that there's no telling what this original state could have been. For instance, if it were up to me, I would fix things to rebuild the world that I know!

One of the more popular deconstructions within posthumanism is that between organic and machine. Haraway touches on this in The Cyborg Manifesto. And I think one of the most interesting things brought up is the idea of the technology of today's language. When I send a text to a friend, it carries information and ideas through English language, but underneath it, unseen by me or the reader, is a coded language of zeros and ones. How much do we need technology now to "be" human? And if the answer is quite a bit, then how human are we really? Here I am typing this mumbo jumbo out on an expensive computer with a bunch of one's and zero's uploading my shitty ideas onto a silly blog so that I can pass a course that is taught in a language I can't even understand! WHAT A WORLD!

And lastly, I will just mention this weird connection to animals. In the same way that we have shown that humans are not above nature, we can also single out animals as specifically being attached to humans which makes us not so human. We eat them, tame them, cuddle with them, use them for work, and sometimes really weird and deranged people have sex with them! 


Anyway, these relationships also are deconstructed and people look at literature and instead of viewing nature through the post-humanism lens, they look specifically at animals and human interaction with animals. But most animals are gross or scary, so whatever. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Gender? Hardly Know Her/Him!

Here we are. We've arrived at the most sensitive topic so far: gender.

No matter what I say, I fear I will cross some lines, so let's start out on the right foot.

In the last post, we learned that gender is a performative act, as well as a social construct. To a large extent, gender studies and queer theory are extensions of feminist studies. Looking at literature through the eyes of the Others that have been marginalized under the patriarchal systems in our societies. The difference is looking more specifically at sexuality- how marginalized genders and sexual orientations are represented, or, more often than not, not represented.

The literary criticism movement sort of began with Jane Rule's The Lesbian Image in 1975. And already, there are some issues to tackle, which Hans Bertens carefully touches. Do we separate lesbian studies from gay studies, and is it the same as queer theory? Do we envelope them all in Gender studies? There are fine lines to walk here. And more importantly, how does one critically a text through these theories? Bertens asks, "when sexual orientation is invisible, how can we reconstruct a gay or lesbian literary tradition?" In other words, if a text does not specifically address gay/lesbian/queer concepts, contain a queer character, or is written by a gay/lesbian/queer author, how does this theory apply? An openly gay writer like Michael Cunningham who addresses many difficult issues attached to gay lifestyles, especially the 90's AIDS issues, lends himself and his texts very easily to gender theories. But how do we read classics like Huckleberry Finn or As I Lay Dying  through this lens? Or can we?

Part of the answer to this goes back guess it...FOUCAULT! What a guy! The balance of power has, for the most part, always been tipped towards the heterosexual patriarchy. So the feminist criticism looks at texts to see what was said about women, what was not said, how they were oppressed, and how we can free them from their literary bonds. Queer theory likewise questions the status quo, only in this instance, it focuses more on traditional constructions of sexuality. Again, this may focus more on what is left out of texts. As Foucault says, there are many silences, and these silences are an important part of the discourse. Using the text itself, as well as the context surrounding the text and the author, what may have been left out, suppressed or hidden when it comes to sexuality?

Again, this is a slippery slope in that some people may find a loose thread only to pull it and find there is not much there. Can every single text be read through a queer theory? Most likely not. But, I think some texts would surprise us in regards to what could be pulled out. There are times that I roll my eyes because these are very recent concepts that have been developed (even if some form of queer identities may have existed for many, many years). So reaching back into medieval literature when people were not so accustomed to this type of personal freedom, liberation, or discourses on sexuality. How, then can the sagas be viewed through queer theory? Are we placing our modern concepts onto literature whose societies would not recognize such ideas? I think to some extent, yes. But the sagas are surprising. Loki seems to change sex at will. Thor was known to put on a dress as a goof. The Maiden Kings of the later romance sagas took on male personas and even used male pronouns and names. Króka Refs saga has some suggestive sarcastic jabs back and forth to suggest certain characters may have been in homosexual relationships. And even when sex is addressed, it is so cryptic (they "talked") that I think interpretations of certain relationships could be very different. So even though gender and queer theories are very recent, certain texts do in fact lend themselves to a re-reading. And these readings could provide incredible revelations in the masculinity-driven world of the sagas. If someone could show that gender was more fluid, or that gay or lesbian identities or relationships were possible, then our reading of the sagas could very well be changed.


Challenge the idea of literature by poking at the missing pieces and saying, what about these things that we left out? Deconstruction has its dangers, but I think in general, it can at the very least expose the discourses of power that left certain ideas and people on the margins. And maybe, just maybe, they can find a missing piece.

Feminism, But From a Male Idiot's Point of View

Let's talk about WOMEN!

Hell, yeah! Ain't nothing wrong with that!

Okay, long story short: women have not had it very easy since....well, since they were around. I mean, the first woman was blamed for everything that had gone wrong, and since then, women have been the weaker sex, the submissive partners, etc. Thus, for many hundreds and thousands of years, a woman's place has been behind or by her man's. She has been defined within a world of masculinity. Expectations of loyalty and submission are high, while opportunities outside of the family home have been traditionally few. It isn't easy being a woman. Well, don't take my word for. Take Tammy's.

Earlier female writers who pointed out inequalities and differences between sexes, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Stanton, have since been known as first wave feminism, while the late 60's and early '70s saw the second wave, in which a lot of theory developed. From the 1990's to the present has been known as third wave, and the theories from the 1970's have been placed alongside race and gender theories. A lot of the theories are also based on Foucault and Derrida, which, I think has become a real problem.

Feminism is important and necessary. Especially feminist literary criticism! Using Foucault's discourse on power has revealed a lot of super interesting and important ideas surrounding women in history and literature, as well as in history through literature. Part of these revelations have been part of the binary oppositions. While this certainly assists us in literary criticism on a male/female axis, it has leaked into the socio-political sphere so much so that feminism and anti-feminism have developed its own social axis. For instance, if this blog post falls into the wrong hands, there is every indication that I will be marked as anti-feminist because of my rough understanding of feminism. The power oppositions work super well in literary criticism, but I am starting to think that, especially in the United States and PARTICULARLY on social media, these binary opposites have not just settled into our social discourse but have come to define our conversations. If you voted for Trump, you are racist. If you believe in socialism, you are a communist. If you kneel during the national anthem at a sporting event, you hate the military. These binary opposites have created an impossible minefield of where people wait in anticipation for an opportunity to go be offended so that they can whip out faulty information about their opposition. It's a real mess!

But I digress.

What a lot of feminist literary criticism has in common is the (rightful) belief that women have been and continue to be oppressed by the controlling patriarchy. By exposing the patriarchal ideology, the hope is introduce a new ideology that says gender is a social construction and not determined by your biological sex.

Unfortunately, I think this is where a lot of people (not just men) get a little lost. I had a hard time slogging through Judith Butler, and even with the help of Sara Salih trying to explain everything. Just that phrase, "gender is a social construct" rings with the sort of extreme and foreign strangeness that makes a lot of men equate feminism with man-hating, or, worse, weird performance art:

So, let me try to break this down into terms that I can maybe understand. Because, I'll tell you, Butler and Salih do not make it easy to understand!

You are born with a ding dong, or you are born with a vagina (usually). These genitals determine what Eve Sedgwick has called "chromosomal sex." So this is the raw materials, the very basic platform. However, as we know, some people do not identify with this chromosomal sex. Plenty of people with ding dongs feel like they got shafted (thank you, how am I doing on time), and vice versa. We also know that there men attracted to other men and women attracted to other women, as well as men and women attracted to each other. I will skip over the Freudian explanations of all this because it gives me a god damn headache trying to sort out how I was attracted to my dad but now I am trying to fill a dad-sized hole with unrequited love of the opposite sex. Freud, you kooky son of a bitch!

So how do we make heads or tails of all of this confusion and crossed wires? Judith Butler's answer is that gender is not something that you "are" but something that you "do." Gender, then, is performative, a social act. She says that "gender is an act, or a sequence of acts, that is always and inevitably occurring." So, if I understand this correctly, your gender is a performative social act (and therefore a construction of your own making) that has nothing to do with your biological affiliation. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around what this has to do with literary criticism, but I am trying to get it. And I will discuss this sensitive topic more with just as much deftness in the next post about gender studies.

One more important aspect discussed by the brilliant Annette Kolody (who has been kind enough to answer my pestering questions over email!) is that of the canon. To me, this part of feminist theory is a universal idea that can be transferred into many different media forms. THE CHALLENGE TO THE CANON! Kolodny says literary history is a fiction. We are taught to read through paradigms rather than actually engaging with texts. So we read texts according to what we need. And what we as a society need now is much different than what a bunch of old stuffy white fuddy duddies needed when the canon was created. So, Kolodny's message is QUESTION EVERYTHING! Just because some dude said something was good once doesn't mean it is good. This can be super controversial. Questioning the timeless excellence of something like Shakespeare or The Beatles sounds like sacrilege, but it is essential and incredibly important to feminist literary criticism. They look into how aesthetic value was assigned in the first place, where that value lies and what that value means for us in our world. And even more importantly, "what ends do these judgments serve, and what conceptions of our world do they perpetuate?" In other words, why are these canonical texts celebrated, what does the text and the celebration/reception of the text say about our world, and what sort of stereotypes and conceptions do these celebrated texts put forth into our world? This is such a punk rock thing to do that it gets me so stoked! Kolodny goes on to say that questioning the canon does not diminish the value of the texts. But if the canon was mostly created when women or black authors were not looked on favorably, questioning the canon and suggesting new ideas may be the only way to get certain authors and texts their due credit.

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Post-colonialism has become a buzz phrase recently, and not without reason. I mean, just look at the recent disaster in Puerto Rico. My Indiana representative responded to my email saying that Congress passed a number of bills that should help get some money to the dying people on the island but, like Trump, blamed the inability to help more on Puerto Rico's poor infrastructure. This failure to act is part and parcel of the United States' being an unofficial empire. Without claiming imperialism like Mother England, the U.S. is then not responsible to these middle of the road, left out to dry nations like Puerto Rico. Not a state, not my problem. More like POORTO RICO, am I right?!

All jokes aside, I have contact my representatives and governor to urge them to do more. Post-colonialism, am I right?!

Post-colonialism comes out of the ashes of the second World War, when the British empire, as well as Western certainty and confidence began to crack and splinter and (though not entirely) crumble (OR FALL) apart. Hans Bertens tells us that what Western criticism sees as universal is really just European. And in this light, literature from other cultures, particularly those cultures seen as inferior, was held at arms length and not really worthy of much notice. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, however, writers like Chinua Achebe began to publish stories and novels that combatted this Euro-centric phenomenon. And guess what! Some of it was pretty dang good!

Suddenly, the world had a new and exciting form of literature from the underdogs- the voice of the culturally displaced. And as nation after nation began to establish independence, these voices became even more essential to reclaiming what had been lost to imperialism. But it is not as simple as a classic underdog story. In many instances, during or even after imperial rule, native writers would need to travel to places like London or Paris in order to get published or be taken seriously. There is a strange dynamic between this "metropolis" concept the colonial subjects. It would be like a Puerto Rican poet having to travel to D.C. to get a book deal for his poems criticizing the failure of the U.S. government.

Tied to this concept is Said's idea of Orientalism. Said claims that the concept of the Orient was invented by the West, maintained by the West as an effective "Other" against which to assess themselves. I've often been curious about the idea of Westerners "studying" other cultures in which they stick their noses in people's everyday lives and have the tenacity to write books about these things, as if we would know how to portray cultural mainstays more so than those who practice them. What was supposed to be a discourse really became a show of power of the Western world over the Orient and the Eastern cultures.

To some extent this can be easily transferred into the study of Vikings. This term was invented by nineteenth century medieval enthusiasts. Through Wagner, comic books, and film, it is hard to shake the Americanized invention of the Vikings. And the academy certainly believes it has intellectual authority over the idea of Vikings. We will tell you what is true and what is invented when it comes to popular images. Of course, this group of people who seemed to be much more fluid and interchangeable than some think, is extinct (or, rather, domesticated). The Eastern cultures that came to define the Orient for British, French and American thinkers existed and continue to exist both outside and inside the sphere of Orientalism. So the stakes certainly aren't as high, but the invention of a term and the control over that term is consistent. Plus, the term Viking is so problematic and vague that there is no true Viking....except perhaps Cris Carter.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Kvikmyndafræði: Film theory

I have always tried to stay away from film criticism, mostly because my top 5 favorite films include Home Alone 1 & 2. So what the heck do I know? In fact, I have a feeling my analysis of movies will fall well short of these two geniuses:

The two articles assigned for this topic, written by Jeffrey Geiger & R.L. Rutsky, and by Robert Stam, and they emphasized two important points for this theory: First, that films should be "read" like a text. But that, secondly, and importantly, films are both more complex and completely different than an "original" text. It becomes very fluid, and frankly very subjective to critically analyze films. Can I watch Home Alone as a text? I mean, this film is meant for giggles and good, old fashioned family fun with catch phrases and bonks on the head! But, as far as artistic value, you are going to come away fairly empty handed. Unless, of course, you appreciate the perfect physical comedy of the great Daniel Stern...but I digress.

Reading a film as a text can sound like a contradiction, especially when viewing a film through adaption theories. But as Robert Stam points out, a film adaption is often less of a resuscitation of an original text and more of an ongoing intertextual dialogue. For instance: Nobody asked for a Ghostbusters remake. The original and sequel should have been more than enough for everybody to get along with bustin' ghosts. Then everybody got up in arms because the "remake" was casted as all females. While I do have some personal thoughts on this topic as a whole that will not be addressed here, the point is that the most recent Ghostbusters should be seen as an ongoing intertextual dialogue, not a remake--a continuation, if you will, of the joyous tradition of catching spooks and spirits.

The issue, however, is that a text is a single body, albeit only in written word so that the imagination has to work to create things like settings and costume designs. A film throughs at you music and shot selection and transitions. So it becomes much more three-dimensional. And so you can have films with a great story but terrible acting (Star Wars prequels) or perfect music but kind of a dumb execution (Godzilla [1998]). On one hand, you can have one of the worst James Bond films (Goldeneye) that spawned one of the best video games, and on the other hand one of the most iconic video games that spawned a terrible (yet fascinating!) film (Super Mario Bros.). And so, as Geiger and Rutsky say, film analysis examines every little detail of the film in order to create a better understanding of the meaning.

Of course, not all films have a deeper meaning. It would be difficult to apply a Marxist or post-structuralism theory to Dude, Where's My Car? But, on the other hand, the difficult images in The Dark Knight Rises, not to mention the horrors attached to the Denver theater shooting, creates a much deeper meaning for Americans who have seen part of the population at odds with law enforcement in recent years.

One of the biggest issues plaguing film criticism is the idea of adaptions. I have read a little bit of adaption theory, mostly through Jón Karl Helgason's work on English translations of Njáls saga. And while it doesn't totally apply to what I am doing, there are still some interesting insights into how adaptations are viewed. Stam says that some things must be cut, otherwise the film adaptation of War and Peace would be 30 hours long. Is this being unfair to the "original" text? Who chooses what to cut? Your idea of what a character should look like is different than my idea. Did Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger make a better Joker, and who is to say? Some have argued that film adaptations can offer very little as far as cultural contributions. They are high on action, low on introspection. Case in point: In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film adaption, Ludo Bagman was cut out completely. This makes sense on a budget/time constraint, yet without his character's suspicious past and his attempts to assist Harry, a huge part of the mystery and Harry's inner thoughts go missing. Likewise, in the following book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry's absolute terror of what is going on inside of him, his connection to Voldemort and his learning to face his destiny is almost completely absent from the film. Yet, what a wonderful interpretation of Delores Umbridge, and of the Weasley twins' escape. The film version of Goblet of Fire, too, presented a darker and much more intense series of events from the maze to the graveyard that I myself anticipated.

Nevertheless, it becomes a sticky business, attempting to sift through these decisions of interpretations and adaptions, editing and cutting, or adding and manipulating. The best option, according to these articles, is to view a film in a new light, as a separate entity, with the "original" text as a sort of guide, rather than a source of inspiration. This is nice, in theory, but tell that to the die hards.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Historicism

Unspoken power behind a text. That's what we are talking about in this post. Implicit power discourse. New historicism places a text firmly in history and says that it cannot separate itself from it. You know, like how early '00s emo bands were certainly influenced by both myspace and Hot Topic, even if they claimed not to be. Or how every post-9/11 super hero film is dark as hell. Signs of the times!

New Historicism as a literary theory comes from. . . you guessed it: FOUCAULT! Is there anything this guy CAN'T DO?! All his talk about power and discourse and how we are all under surveillance leaked into this postmodern understanding of literature so that new historicists would ignore the "genius of the author" and look at the text as part of its historical context.

Now, to some extent, this will always be true. I can escape my cultural and societal boundaries no better than the thirteenth-century saga compilers, the Danish quirk Ole Worm, or even Tolkein. Each of us had or has an affinity to the Old Norse sources, but our understanding and perception--and therefore our writing--remains stubbornly bound to cultures in which we were raised. Bertens discusses, however, how close this comes to Marxism. Indeed, you are getting close to sounding conspiratorial when claims of unseen themes run amok in texts. But what the historians are really saying is that everything outside of the text should also be taken into account.

Kenneth Johnston uses a great example from Wordsworth's poetry. In the past, the poem "Tintern Abbey" would be in the foreground and the focus of literary critics. Remember Arnold's holy poetry fervor? Well, we might scale that back a bit. But still, the point is to look specifically at the text. Wordsworth's notes, biographical information, political leanings, etc, would take a backseat as secondary or background information to assist in better understanding the text and author. New historicism, however, wants to take into account background and foreground and in fact compare and study both together.

This is a difficult jump to make. Again, I think we can take for granted our shaping and formulating. But to actually subconsciously (or in some cases consciously) promote a certain discourse of power? Shouldn't Huckleberry Finn be read without discussing the race relations of post-reconstruction in the American South? Well, maybe that's a bad example. I mean, can't we use the helpful contributions to Old Norse studies by Otto Brunner (whom we've discussed here before) without mentioning is Nazi sympathizing?

Here's an awfully unpleasant and embarrassing attempt of bringing Huck Finn closer to a modern audience. Enjoy!

Okay, I admit these are extreme examples, but you see the reason behind the thinking? One of the critiques Johnston hurls at New Historicism is their obsession with tangible anecdotes, which, I admit, I fell prey to during my MA thesis. For instance: When I discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson had read and written about Heimskringla, and Thoreau mentioned once in passing the idea of Vinland, I took these threads and tried to weave together a sort of literary discourse in New England during the nineteenth century that focused on Old Norse literature. To be sure, these things were on the periphery of whatever nonsense the Transcendentalists were kicking around at the time. But it is so tantalizing, it's difficult to ignore. This is what Johnson complains about: "Interesting anecdotes need to be connected to a larger explanation." WHAT A FOOL I'VE BEEN!

More important to my field of research is this idea that comes from Foucault that the powers that be subvert smaller groups, and that texts, when picked apart (or DECONSTRUCTED) can reveal certain ideas related to this discourse of power. But when the "privileges of power" becomes the focus, the subverted groups can often become homogenized. And in a cruel twist, some scholars have suggested that dissent simply exists to justify the power and is therefore a part of the machine. However, it is difficult to ignore this approach altogether when look at Old Norse sagas, as they, themselves, are partially historicized. In fact, it is almost a necessity. Which is a total shame because some of the stories, by themselves, are tremendous. But today one does not often scrutinize the text as a text but rather search for hints and threads that can be connected to history so that generalizations can be hypothesized.

In short: it's got its ups and downs and I am fine and annoyed with it. GO AWAY LEAVE ME ALONE!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I Just Lacan't: Postmodernism at is best

In this chapter of Hans Bertens book, we cover the different aspects of postmodern theory, starting with Foucault's Panopticism. This is a strange and difficult concept, but it has to do with the fact that we are constantly under surveillance--not in an Enemy of the State kind of thing, although, I am sure that falls into this category. Bertens uses a great example from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Many of the patients at the mental hospital are there voluntarily because they saw something abnormal in themselves. In other words, they scrutinized their behavior against a backdrop of "normalcy" somehow defined by societal standards. We deeply invest in certain ideologies which then retain a certain amount of power over us.
Pretty fun, right?

So, we are looking carefully at ourselves and others for signs of abnormalities. It reminds me of when I worked as a 911 dispatcher. In the post 9-11 world, people were on their toes about everything. And Carmel and Fishers in Indiana were some of the most affluent towns in the state. Paranoid rich people with too much time on their hands would call to report a suspicious person in their backyard looking at their gas meters, with a yellow vest that read "meter reader" on the back. They were constantly on the alert for something abnormal in their neighborhoods. Within this standard of normalcy sits a large amount of power. Foucault explains that people adhere to what they are told is to be normal, thus a strong connection between knowledge and power. This is old news, right? Whoever wields the knowledge has the power. That's why teachers are so highly paid!

According to Bertens, "Foucauldian criticism focuses on the role of literary and other texts in the circulation and maintenance of social power."(147) Foucault is therefore tied up with deconstruction because in this literary theory, you look for the discourses of power in literary texts and break them down.  Not that this approach will break any chains of power but will certainly expose them. And in an ideal world it might "release us from our stilted social norms."

Lacan also concerns himself with ideology. He builds upon Freudian theories but is careful to avoid some of the blatant sexist ideas put forward by Sigmund. Without going into much detail (because you know how much I LACAN'T STAND PSYCHOLOGY), Lacan explains that when the "mirror-stage" is broken, we are left with a ruined illusion of what we thought the world was supposed to be, thus a desire for something that will never be fulfilled. Lacan says that even love is a temporary fix for this longing! He knows me so well!!
Ideology, then, is a temporary fix that fills this empty hole left behind from our mirror stage. Literary texts can be read, looking for these escapes or temporary fixes. Don't ask me how, it all sounds like a bunch of baloney to me!

Moving right along, we come to Helene Cixous and the French feminists. Coming off of the post-structuralism binary opposites, Cixous and the French feminists of the 1970s point out that the binary oppositions can be categorized as basic male/female opposites. The inferior is always associated with the feminine, while the positive and superior is consistently male. Cixous theorized that writing could perhaps expose and somewhat undo this "phallocentric" system. I think this is certainly a helpful tool. Old Norse literature often praises the masculine and uses the feminine for insults and putdowns. A lot of work has been done in this field by scholars like Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir who are digging further into gender roles and masculine system of repression expressed in the sagas.

These ideas and writers have been more or less lumped into the category of postmodernism. But what Bertens eventually tells us is that postmodern writing plays around and escapes reality. By borrowing characters from other fictional stories, refusing to give a story closure, or other various tinkering, postmodern authors are knowingly playing with understood and traditional motifs and genres in order to "deconstruct and unsettle traditional modes of fiction." (Bertens 145). It opens the audiences eyes to the construction and illusion of certain settings. This is perhaps where postmodernism because entangled with cynicism, as these authors purposefully break the rules in order to show that rules have been constructed. It's an eye roll, a goof.

Monday, October 2, 2017


Finally, we have come to post-structuralism! I love all of the post-subjects. Post-modernism, post-traumatic stress disorder, Post cereal, and most of all, playing the low post!

And, not unlike Shaquille O'Neal's career, the literary criticism has made some sense so far, but suddenly we are in some murky and difficult waters as if we too were old, slow and trying to keep Cleveland a contender.

In order to understand the deconstruction theory, it is necessary to go back a little bit to look at structuralism, not only for the reader's sake but also because I probably understand it a little bit better. See, structuralists were obsessed with language. Remember the denim mogul Levi-Strauss and his anthropological structuralism and the obsession with language? In the late 1960s and 70s, Jacques Derrida continued this line of thinking into foreseeable and also strange yet necessary ideas. Structuralism believed that language was the key to understanding ourselves, and, using Propp's folktale themes, the structuralists claimed that even though languages differed, there were certain structures that we all were a part of. There were similarities that bonded us together through the use of language.

The issue that Derrida and the post-structuralists saw was that the structuralists did not appreciate the gap between language and the real world, a word and the thing to which it refers. Additionally, the structuralists talked about the structures that make up our world without considering that they were also part to this same structure! It's like Inception! What Derrida says is that whatever is inside you, your "presence," as it were, is the last piece of true knowledge, according to Hans Bertens, and language allows you to convey that knowledge. However, Derrida says that language cannot be trusted. Because of the gap between word and the thing it notates and because each language takes its own course towards these things, language is incredibly vulnerable. The authenticity inside us that is so treasured by structuralists disappears as soon as language is initiated; and since we cannot express ourselves without using language, nothing is real and we are all doomed to die.

So how to solve this problem? Derrida more or less suggested deconstructing the structures that hold us in place--not a Marxist theory but in a way that discovers the "center" of a text and breaks down the binary oppositions that exist to expose certain ideas in order to better understand texts and therefore ourselves. Let me explain: in every text there is something explicit, usually something explicitly positive but not always. For these explicit themes, there is, implicitly, an implicit! For instance, a novel about good will without doubt also contain evil. A nationalistic text that discusses what "we" as a people are will inevitably deal with an "other." Therefore, according to Derrida, binary opposites exist within texts and very often one side is not represented. Deconstruction aims to hollow out the text to reveal these whispers of the other side.

Hans Bertens puts it best: "Deconstruction is analyzing and dismantling texts in order to reveal their inconsistencies and inner contradictions. At the heart of deconstruction is the effort to dismantle the cover-ups that texts use to create the semblance of stable meaning: their attempts to create privileged centers - implicit or explicit binary opposites - with the help of all sorts of rhetorical means." (115)

This approach, then, has tremendous advantages. For instance, in the sagas, the effort to define the Icelandic identity inevitably discusses others without explicitly saying that "this person means it is not us." This would appear to also lend itself to investigating gender roles, as the sagas are very vocal on the masculine and manly and, apart of the occasional insult, are somewhat mum on feminine concepts. Deconstructing what is there in order to find what isn't there, however, can be not so much dangerous as it can be misleading. Using this approach, critics can find just about whatever they like in texts. In fact, picking out a small detail and claiming this as the center, then pairing it with a binary opposite is rather indicative of the faulty projections of modern ideals into the medieval world.

This means that, though incredibly powerful, and to some extent helpful, deconstructionism can also be a burden and a weakness in scholarship. Much like an old, slow Shaq on the Cavs.

Death of the Author

Continuing on the road from intertextuality, we come to this concept of the death of the author.
This theory is attributed to a 1986 article by Roland Barthes with the same title. This was sort of the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, which we will get into more fully in the next post.

Barthes's famous proclamation was, "Who is speaking anyway?" His basic argument was that giving a text an author was limiting the text's independence. Pulling from the same sort of concepts as intertextuality, he claims that a text "does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single theological meaning...but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture." Pulling the author into this equation creates an enormous amount of confusion. The examples he gives consist of the questionable narrations of texts. Do we suspend our knowledge that J.K. Rowling certain is not in the magical world of Harry Potter? Keeping her in mind, however, ruins the aesthetic of a secret wizarding world. And when the narration speaks, is it her voice or Harry's? Is it Rowling, or someone else who experienced these events? WHO IS SPEAKING ANYWAY!?!? Barthes argues that only by eliminating these questions and the source (author) are we really capable of seeing the text for what it is.

Michael Foucault, who seems to run through all of these readings, also adds to the conversation with an essay, What is an Author? His claim that the author is outside of the text, someone who precedes it. This adds considerable influence to the text when it need not be there. In Foucault's mind, the author exists for categorical purposes. Prior to actual, living authors writing their own texts, certain works were lumped under one name. This is particularly interesting for Old Norse studies because the sagas are for the most part anonymous and the closes we come to this phenomenon is Snorri Sturluson. While The Edda is the only work that can truly be attributed to the name Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla has also been attributed. Some author also suggest that Egils saga is also a Snorri work, based solely on writing style. Could this have been a similar move in early literary history? If so, what does that name do to the text? What does it hinder or solve?

All in all, this theory has one purpose: to yank whatever meaning or message lies inside of a text from the author and put in the hands of the readers. Only by divorcing the two can the text be fully appreciated. Barthes eloquently claims that the death of the author is the birth of the reader. And yet, as we have seen, eliminating the author loses certain context. This theory takes us a little bit back towards New Criticism and the power of the singular, independent text. It would be difficult indeed to remove Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse Five, as it is his most biographical novel. It is still a fine text without him, but in this humble student's opinion, the living author and the additional questions are part of what makes critical analysis interesting.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


For this week, I read selections from Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette and Graham Allen, all discussing the complex theory of intertextuality. Genette goes into quite some detail that makes the entire idea incredibly complicated, but I will attempt to break it down here because to a certain extent I believe in this theory, or at least I think that this theory holds some truth to it.

Julia Kristeva is generally acknowledged as one who coined the term intertextuality, though it is tied to some of the French post-structuralist and other theories that had been floating around in the 1960s. For her, authors do not create new texts; instead, they compile and build upon what has already been created and so on. This is somewhat true in all art. One cannot escape their inspirations or sources. Yet Kristeva seems to suggest that there is nothing new to say or do.

Incidentally, this song is a direct influence upon one of my own songs, perhaps proving Kristeva's point.

One of the points made by Graham Allen, however, is that intertextuality means that an individual text cannot have meaning, that it is part of a larger whole, a continuum of sorts. This is certainly partially true. Today's modern indie rock music could not have existed without its grunge predecessors, who in turn formed out of the 80s rock who can trace their paths back to the late 70s punk, etc, etc until we get back through the initial rock and roll movement that developed from the blues and we are on the back porch of a West Virginia farm house listening to a family jug band. Does that mean that the songs in themselves are without significance?

While I do agree that individual pieces of art or literature cannot have stable interpretations, to say that they cannot have significance or meaning on their own is misleading. A piece of good writing can be that regardless, but it becomes a great piece of writing when placed in the line of other good writings and within the social and cultural time and context. No matter how terrific a piece of literature is, there will always be something that came before it that made it possible. Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author, could not have created his masterpieces without the influence of Mark Twain, who, likewise, is indebted to those before him. Even the standout geniuses are on the continuum. The Beatles, original and amazing though they are, were majorly influenced by the early rock and roll singers. Today, we have become aware of this fact, and this incites some interesting reactions. When we become aware that nothing is new, people began to attempt a newness in hopes that they can cross a virgin threshold. Art, music and literature that to the trained eye and ear feels odd, offensive or ridiculous. Take for instance Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Many would argue that this is not art but simply something offensive floating in a jar of his own piss. Is this art? It certainly hadn't been done before, except when unsuspecting artists dropped valuables in the toilet.

Genette sets down a long list of what he calls "transtextuality" that helps to understand the subtleties surrounding the concept of intertextuality. I will skip most of these for now, as they don't necessarily help us understand this idea much better. Suffice to say that there are many different ways to see a text's relationship to the wider textual world. Chapter titles, commentaries, awareness of its genre and many other things force a reader to acknowledge the necessity of the continuum of literature. 

One point I would like to discuss is what Genette calls "paratext."  For an example he mentions the chapter titles that James Joyce originally had developed for his book Ulysses but later removed. Does the reader ignore this insight into the text since it is not part of the end result? If this is true, every mistake, every edit would contain some sort of significance for the text. It reminds me a little of Dave Egger's book, You Shall Know Our Velocity! In the first edition, there is a thirty-page interruption by one of the side characters, named Hand. Hand is painted as a mischievous and unreliable friend to the main narrator. But in his interruption, Hand contradicts some of the points the narrator made, asking the reader to reconsider the entire story. This added so much to the story, so many interesting ideas that require another reading to decide what you want to believe. Yet in the subsequent editions, Eggers removed the interruption, leaving him determinately as the unreliable friend, and lending credibility to the original narrator. Do I now ignore the interruption because it was removed? 

Intertextuality is a very interesting way to view things. While I cannot fully commit to some of the ideas put forth by Kristeva and Genette, I do believe there are many valid points that one has to acknowledge in the literary world. But it does beg the question if nothing is new and nothing can truly be created, why do we try to create at all?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Structuralism is spawned from language. The brain behind the movement was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. There appear to be many different aspects of a structuralist approach to literature, some of which are still useful, some that have become outdated. In a nutshell, the idea that language is all encompassing, that it stretches over nearly every part of human life, is essential. Saussure also breaks down this concept of symbolism so much that even words themselves are merely symbols for what they refer to. Simple, right?

But the main point of structuralism for us in Old Norse studies is the latching onto patterns. Lévi-Strauss, the founder of the wonderful denim company, developed his anthropological structuralism into a literary theory. This is rather straightforward. Lévi-Strauss was studying the differences in cultural signs, but with the help of Vladimir Propp's book on myths, he began to see connections. Myths from different cultures and different times worked along the same underlying principles and even shared some of the same structures, even if the settings and characters were completely different. This, then, is transferred into narratives in general. Certain underlying structures of narratives can be gleaned, and how well the narrative uses these structures reveals more or less its value.

Or, on the other hand, we can use this concept to look at the sagas, which are, after all, rather repetitive and formulaic. The introductions to stories, the building up of characters, and even the action sometimes reflects that of other sagas and even of other continental literature. Studying these common structures within the narratives can tell us more about the individual texts and about the genre as a whole. This can be of great assistance when trying to discover variances in texts or outside influences. When the introduction of characters begins every time with, "there was a man called _____ and he was _______.

A structuralist approach to Njals saga also reveals certain patterns. Many scholars such as Joseph C. Harris, Jesse Byock, and Andrew Hamer have reached very different conclusions from their view of the structure of this one particular saga. Patterns can be found throughout literature and no doubt certain aspects of structuralism can be of use, but that is not the end all. And, just as with Njals saga, over-enthuisasm for the particulars can lead to overexposure and beating a burned down horse.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


I have to admit that in the last couple years of high school I read, nearly back to back, The Communist Manifesto and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I never had the guts to tackle Atlas Shrugged. I know what you are thinking....but I promise I was not one of those kids. I have worked through Marxist theory before but never thought to apply it to the Icelandic sagas. This leads to some very interesting theoretical discussions.

Marxism, of course, deals with the class struggle. And reading something like A Tale of Two Cities or Sinclair Upton's The Jungle, a Marxist point of view lends itself extremely well to how the author thought or how the text itself may have been developed. What is so interesting, though, is many of the Íslendingasögur takes place in the so-called Common Wealth era of Iceland's history--a time before government structure. Iceland was more or less settled by independent and free farmers with very little governmental infrastructure. According to Louis Althusser, however, any kind of ideology is an instrument of the state that keeps an individual suppressed. With the development of the Alþingi and the intense legal system (though no executive branch), then could the ideology of keeping the peace have turned into the kind of thing Althusser mentions?

Certainly much of Sturlunga saga lends itself to a Marxist lens. Here, at least, there is a sense of class disparity. Now that I think about it, however, the foundation myth of fleeing Norway from King Harald's tyranny falls into the same category! Nevertheless, a pre-state Iceland that existed long before the industrial revolution throws some wrenches into the Marxist machine. Throughout much of the sagas, however, there is discernment between small farmers, big farmers, outlaws and royalty. The production of the sagas themselves was more often than not overseen by the ecclesiastical class. And its intended audience was originally part of the upper tiers of society. Yet again, the question comes to hand, just how divided was Icelandic society? Even during the Sturlunga Age, as the families of big farmers collected the power, how tangible were the class differences?

Now, I am very aware that to read something with a Marxist theory, the text does not need to have a deliberate class struggle present. The Icelandic sagas, though were pseudo-historical, which means that this power dynamic is extremely important to the reading. I think much more can be said about a Marxist reading of the sagas, especially as manuscripts vary through the centuries. Looking at differences from early writings to late, post-reformation versions, when Iceland left the Common Wealth and entered the world economy through its cod industry can reveal some very interesting differences and insights.

Then again, sometimes the theory just doesn't quite fit.


I will not pretend that I don't have very little patience for psychoanalytical interpretations of literature. This may perhaps stem from my inability to grasp the entire field of psychology, which I nearly failed in high school. "A bunch of dumb names for things that we all have in common!" I would bellow at the D on my report card. Thus, I am one of those whom Maud Ellman claims "snorts with disbelief." It's not that I think psychology and psychoanalysis has no place or value; it is that I simply have no patience to wade through what sexual stages I went through as a toddler that are not haunting my relationships today. That, plus a lot of this is beyond my comprehension. According to Ellman and Freud, then, I am repressing a lot of garbage and am resistant to discovering the nature of my issues. Hey, Freud, kiss my ass!

In reality, I think the psychoanalysis can be of some use but I think it has the tendency to create a tunnel vision. Ellmann says that the focus is on a person. And that is true. Whether it is the author (which makes the most sense) or character or reader, to understand the the text, the focus shifts from the text to a person. I find this incredibly problematic. Though, as many have shown, this focus on the person and the elements paining and assisting him can be of extreme help in better understanding the text as a whole.

Psychoanalysis has found a home in Old Norse studies, most recently with a former classmate and all around wonderful human being, Suzanne Valentine. Her approach is to use Freud's theory and Carl Jung's theory concerning dreams and apply them to dream sequences throughout certain saga texts. You can read it here. Not to disregard my colleague's work, but I believe that this approach can only work in isolation. Viewing Guðrún's dreams throughout Laxdæla saga through a Freudian lens may help develop a more acute understanding of the text; however, dream sequences are so frequent throughout the saga corpus and so repetitive that it is difficult to see them as formulaic rather than informative. The same is true with many characters. Often in the sagas, a character is introduced with immediate associations: big, handsome, good at sports, i.e. a hero. Or, on the other side, dark, shrewd, taciturn and a trouble-maker. Applying a theory to these types of characters seems to be a little forceful.


That is not to say it is not appropriate. Egill Skalagrimsson is a great example of a complicated character, something Torfi Tulinius has written about. One of my all time favorite saga character is Kálfr Árnason from "Saint Olaf's Saga" in Heimskringla. I have written extensively on Kálfr here, and I think that an approach to the character may only be available through a Freudian or other type of psychoanalytic lens. This landed man is tempted by King Cnut, betrays King Olaf, raises and rouses an army of farmers who have their doubts, leads a battle agains the king and his four brothers, comes out victorious only to be betrayed by King Cnut. Kálfr then works with an old adversary to clean up his mistake by finding Olaf's son and bring him back to the throne from exile. In short, Kálfr is messed up and has a lot of issues and things going all at once. His situation that leads to defiance and then remorse is atypical of saga formulaic writing. This, then, can lend itself to a more psychoanalytical approach.

Now I realize that I am being extremely narrow and that psychology is a lot broader than Freud's obsession with sex. But when the text is anonymous and the characters often follow specific patterns, I find a lot of the psychoanalytical approaches to be helpful but not all that concrete.

Reader Response

In stark contrast to the New Criticism discussed in the previous post, the Reader Response theory is a very basic approach that relies on the reader's active interpretation of literary texts. This seems rather straightforward, but it is important to remember that Matthew Arnold thought that the reader should be eliminated from the equation when it comes to understanding individual texts. Lois Tyson argues that a text cannot be separated from what it does, meaning that interpretations cannot be ignored.

This is both exciting and horrifying. I have clung to such a theory when it comes to art for most of my life. A piece of art, whether it be a literary text, a painting, a song, a film, is eternally renewed by new generations of interpretations. That one specific work can have an infinite number of meanings is exciting. It will live on eternally as younger people with different cultural experiences and outlooks understand and evaluate it. On the other hand, if this were an a misinterpretation of the author's true intentions it can sometimes develop a negative or opposite meaning or connotation that will continue to haunt the work.

Wolfgang Iser, in his article "The Reading Process" supports this theory when he claims that literature has two poles: artistic (created by the author) and aesthetic (created by the reader). And these cannot be separated when evaluating and understanding a text. This concept, as well as the guidelines set down by Hans Robert Jauss help in understanding how important active readers are to literature, especially in Old Norse studies. As has been discussed in earlier posts, the written sagas were once oral stories dependent upon the audience knowing and anticipating certain things. Although, Jauss's horizon of expectation more than likely works differently in today's literature than with thirteenth or fourteenth-century literature. Today, we like to be surprised. Good literature is often valued on its ability to be simultaneously familiar and surprising. In the case of the sagas, these stories were often familiar and very well known and the importance was often placed upon how it was retold. The best example was Professor Kenneth Harl's metaphor as "free jazz": a familiar structure left to the creativity of the story teller. It seems evident that the story teller would adapt his story to his audience, much like I as a musician did. If the venue was small, or the audience older and not very lively, a chill set with some more relaxed numbers would be more appropriate. A loud club with exciting young fans will call for a more rocking and engaging setlist. The result is the same: the audience gets a taste of what the band is, but hopefully more in tune with their expectations.

This type of active audience is all fine and well when the setting is live. But what about literature put down years ago? Well Jauss explains that in order to fully understand it, we have to be not only familiar with literature but also attempt to understand how the readers of the day would have understood it, as well as set it within its place in the successive literary historical context. These efforts are self-evident in the field of Old Norse studies. Much work has been done in attempting to understand the mindset of medieval Icelanders who would have been reading these texts. Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland comes to mind. Other scholars, such as Torfi Tulinius, have attempted to place Old Icelandic literature within the broader scope of European literature at the time. Some people believe that the sagas were miraculously born out of Icelandic ingenuity, but in reality, many correlations and influences can be parsed out when inspected. This does not by any means remove their importance or uniqueness as a literary genre. But without putting them in this context, we are getting dangerously close to isolating the texts. That's New Criticism, you dope!

This is partially my gripe with the Evangelical Church and the understanding of the Bible. Born-again Christians are often given this ancient text and told to read it on their own and retrieve meaning from it without really understanding these two essential points mentioned by Jauss. And without these two points, the Bible can be developed into that dangerous other side of reader response theory and be used in a way that it was never intended to be, which of course, spells out a large part of human history.

Monday, September 18, 2017

New Criticism

After a long absence, I am back. But in the place of history texts, I must now turn my attention to literary criticism and literary theory. This is by no means out of pure pleasure! As I have been accepted into the comparative literature program, it is essential that I understand the basics. The basics, however, are taught in a BA level course taught in Icelandic; therefore I am somewhat on my own, with the texts and what I can gather together to help me understand some of these concepts. Of course, I studied these early in my college life, but that was many years ago and under the accusatory glare of Dr. Buck.

In this first post, I will attempt to tackle New Criticism and the assigned readings by Hans Bertens and T.S. Eliot. New Criticism grew out of a discontent with Romanticism and focusing more on the text. This focus is known as formalism, or, that a text is simply self-contained. We do not take into account outside influences like reading responses, author, social context. Immediately this approach seems problematic. And yet, there is some validity to it.

Eliot and the New Critics believed in the timelessness of a text, that if an artist or poet could combine the correct amount of influence with ingenuity that he or she would land upon a further extension of an artistic movement. Eliot claims that this "tradition" of art is "timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and temporal together." According to Matthew Arnold, then, literature should be viewed out of time and space and through an ideal lens. This, of course, is very difficult to do. A book like Slaughterhouse 5 is a fantastic story. Yet, without the cultural and historical, not to mention the authorial, contexts, the impact is not as powerful. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was himself a prisoner of war during WWII, which adds another level of understanding to the text. If Arnold had his way, the text would be lifted out of the real-world conditions. A novel questioning the difficulties of war set during World War II yet released in the United States at a time when it was wrestling with its role in the Vietnam conflict is essential to the book's humor and irony and ultimately to its success.

Hans Bertens points out many of the problems with Matthew Arnold's idealized and timeless culture. What he and Eliot presumed was that literature was sacred, and it elevated those who took part in the act of reading into this timeless sphere. Bertens, however, describes how many of us are from very different backgrounds and socio-economic places. Upon these elements, authors from very different places could not have shared the same sacral scepter to shine light for us all. Charles Dickens and Zora Neale Hurston more than likely did not share this same view of ideal culture.

Though there are timeless elements within poetry and prose, which is what makes them appealing and keeps readers coming back for generations, separating them from their cultural and historical places seems, at least to us today, to be moving backwards. Fortunately, in the field of Medieval Literature, and especially with Old Norse-Icelandic texts, this type of isolation is fairly unhelpful. From this wannabe-scholar's point of view, many of the Islendingasögur are dry and uneventful. Isolated from their cultural and historical perspectives, the sagas become even more drab and boring. And yet this is what makes this corner of literature so amazing to study. Many prop the sagas up against archaeology and history and shift the completely opposite direction of Arnold's New Criticism. Yet this too is problematic. The sliding scale of truth and reliability, of artistic and literary value within the sagas is what makes this field exciting!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

No Grace for James? James Potter and the Noble Heathen

No Grace for James:
James Potter & the Noble Heathen: presentation at the 4th Annual World of Harry Potter Conference at Ohio State University, February 25, 2017.

I was a late bloomer when it comes to Harry Potter. I did not grow up with the series like many of my peers. Not until I was 25 years old did I finally give the series a chance. Since 2010, I have listened to the audio books a total of 15 times, only occasionally reading the actual texts. Thus, most of my knowledge comes from Stephen Fry’s reading the books, which, to some, sounds like cheating. If so, you can meet with me after and we can discuss whether it warrants taking some house points from me.
After my fifth time through the series, I found myself discontented with a number of issues that Rowling had brought up but had never fully resolved. From Harry’s use of the unforgiveable curses to Hermione’s head-scratching crusade for house-elves, the series is full of difficult issues with no clear answers. But the question that has nagged me the most is what I am supposed to think of Harry’s father.
James Potter is an enigma, who acts as an archetype at times for Harry’s heroics and at other times for his misdeeds. Contrasted with the radiant and unwavering Lily, James is something of a stain on Harry’s past that requires explanation. Harry himself seeks reassurance for the confusing mark James left on his life. Yet the poor excuses for his youthful idiocy that are given by Lupin and Sirius do not appear to have assuaged Harry’s conscience, and they gave me cause for even more mistrust of James. For many years I have been unable to reconcile the brief glimpses of James’s bad qualities and negative tendencies that J.K. Rowling shows the readers. Why, when everyone comments on Lily’s goodness, is James never given redemption? Why, when Rowling provides evidence of remorse for characters like Snape or Grindelwald, is there no grace for James Potter? Though we may never be certain of Rowling’s decision to leave James out to dry, I found some helpful answers in Lars Lönnroth’s famous article from 1969, The Noble Heathen: A Theme in Sagas. I am sure Rowling did not write her series with Old Norse saga scholarship from the 60’s propped up beside her. But, viewing James through the lens of Lars’s Noble Heathen, especially in contrast to Lily and Sirius, provides a context in which his lack of grace makes a little more sense.
            I will first explain what Lönnroth means by Noble Heathen. The Icelandic sagas were written down beginning in the thirteenth century, well after the conversion to Christianity and the end of the Viking Age. This caused considerable problems for the Christian scribes in Iceland: how do they reconcile the obvious pagan tendencies of the heroes that they were writing about when they are at times at odds with the beliefs of the church? Elsewhere in Christendom the old religions were all but wiped out from history, but in Iceland, the heroic past of their pagan ancestors was not condemnable—on the contrary, it was highly venerated[1]. Scribes utilized a few different techniques to address this issue of the pagan past and the Christian present. One way was to simply say that the heathens were tricked by demonic forces. Another popular method was euhemerism. Snorri Sturluson uses this in his introduction to the Prose Edda when he explains that Odin and Thor were great men whose deeds created enough fanfare that the ancient Scandinavians, understandably, began to think they were gods.[2] The third method, which can be applied to James Potter, is that of the Noble Heathen: that the pagan beliefs of Iceland’s ancestors represented a kind of incomplete or imperfect Christianity that derived from their natural instincts. The Noble Heathen, according to Lönnroth, was a sort of pre-curser to Christianity, and certain virtues stretched across the two belief systems. He was sort of a compromise, a way for the writers to celebrate the ancient heroes in the stories without the risk of sounding like they were supporting pagan idols.[3]
            At first glance, the Noble Heathen does not fit into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With the exception of Harry’s sacrifice, J.K. Rowling beautifully sidesteps any sort of religious undertones and keeps religion at bay within the series. Without distinct religious factions, the use of the Noble Heathen seems out of place. I do not suggest assigning any religious beliefs to the characters but instead applying the framework of the Noble Heathen. In order to accomplish this, the story must be split, with Lily’s sacrifice acting as the conversion. Pre-sacrifice characters, such as James, Lily, Lupin and Sirius, who represent the pagan characters in this analogy, tend to operate throughout the series according to a different set of morals than Harry, Ron and Hermoine, who represent the post-conversion Christians. It is through this framework of Lönnroth’s, that James can be seen as a kind of Noble Heathen—a virtuous “pagan” who is viewed in retrospect from the “converted” characters who inherited a new belief system after Lily’s death.
            We can actually witness the two sets of values colliding when Harry tries to weigh how he feels about his father while he sits in Umbridge’s fire. In a desperate attempt to make sense of James’s behavior in the pensive, Harry reaches out to Sirius and Lupin for explanations. After feeble excuses like, “he was young,” or “he grew out of it,” Sirius admits that James never really stopped treating Snape in a negative way[4]. Harry does not seem convinced. Rowling, too, leads us into doubt. When Harry is unsure whether or not to believe Sirius and Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling uses the helpful phrase, “And at long last, Harry believed them.”[5] Likewise, in Goblet of Fire when Ron begins to apologize for abandoning Harry, Rowling lets us into Harry’s mind again, illuminating his realization that really did not need an apology. The lack of any of these helpful insights during the discussion in the fire leads me to believe that even after his talk with Sirius and Lupin, Harry still has his doubts. He, like the Christian Icelandic writers, is looking back in judgment on the ideals of his forebears, attempting to place their behavior within his worldview. But, as Lönnroth explains: some of these fit nicely while others are utterly wrong. He warns us not to fall into a trap of believing that there were clear-cut lines between pagan and Christian beliefs.[6] In fact, there was a sliding scale with many different variations, just like there is today.
            In order to show the prized virtues of a Noble Heathen, many saga writers included a less-noble character almost for scale. Lönroth points out many of these duoes, such as Þorsteinn and Jökull in Vatnsdæla saga or Þórólfr and Egill in Egils saga. The same is true in the Harry Potter series.[7] James takes the position of the Noble Heathen—good in spirit but distant enough from the modern morality that rules Harry’s world. For contrast, Rowling uses Sirius as the less-noble heathen. Much like the blood-brothers of the sagas, Sirius and James were very close. Yet, the adjectives to describe Sirius are always slightly darker—rash, reckless, sullen. Sirius seems like a good person, but he would have gladly sent Snape to his death in his youth. James, who was no friend to Snape, shows restraint—a virtue highly valued by both pagan and Christian moral codes—and saves Snape from his demise.[8] Though the two seem equally talented and good, this contrast elevates James slightly in the eyes of the readers.
            For even more contrast, some writers balanced the Noble Heathen with the Ignoble Christian.[9] To the medieval Icelanders, they seemed to prefer a brave and heroic pagan rather than a weak or lukewarm Christian. Lönnroth gives a great illustration of this from Njáls saga in which two brothers, Óspakr and Bróðir travel to Ireland to take part in the famous Battle of Clontarf[10]. Óspakr is a pagan until he sees the majesty of the Irish king Brian Boru who served the one true God. Óspakr switches sides, is baptized, and emerges victorious. Bróðir, on the other hand, starts out as a Christian but reverts back to the old religion, fights against Brian Boru and eventually suffers a very greusome death. The Ignoble Christian can be seen in the character of Bartie Crouch during the first rise of Voldemort. He is a man so hellbent on doing the right thing that virtues like justice and compassion get overlooked. The worldview in the post-Lily sacrifice culture seems to value a thief like Mundungus Fletcher more than the ignoble Bartie Crouch.
            Ironicaly, Lönnroth expresses explicitly that the Noble Heathen in the Icelandic sagas had to stay away from sorcery in order to maintain his status as a herald for the coming Christianity.[11] This obviously poses some problems in this analogy, as everyone in this world practices magic; however, Rowling makes it very clear that there is good magic and dark magic. As many faults as we can find with James, he never goes near dark magic. Again, we find a contrast in Peter Pettigrew, a friend who switches sides, not unlike Bróðir at the Battle of Clontarf. With Pettigrew taking on characteristics of the Ignoble Christian, Sirius, as the less-noble heathen, looks that much more respectable.
            Lönnroth says that the Noble Heathen is slow to take revenge, shows restraint, patiently tries to seek the most peaceful solution, and is careful not to break the law.[12] When sizing James up to these, we immediately find a number of problems. James broke the law by becoming an animagus and hardly shows any restraint that the reader can see. His one act of restraint, stopping the death of Snape, does not quite add up to Lars’s ideal of a Noble Heathen. Rowling, however, shifts some of these attributes to other members of the pre-sacrifice culture: for instance to Severus Snape, who patiently waits years for his revenge of Voldemort for killing Lily, restrains himself from showing his true nature. Likewise, Lupin, though an outcast, never is seen as a law breaker.
            Perhaps the most intriguing moment when the two cultures meet, however, is in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry saves Pettigrew’s life. Lupin and Snape, both belonging to the pre-sacrifice culture, are intent on killing Pettigrew for the betrayal of Lily and James. According to the old moral code, and to some extent even the new moral code, they would have been justified for this vengeance killing. However, Harry shows Pettigrew mercy, even though the betrayal deserved death. This wasn’t just the old pagan restraint showing up within Harry; he was introducing the option of mercy into the pre-sacrifice cultural framework. This is parallel to the sagas. According to Andrew Hamer’s book, Njáls Saga and its Christian Background, Christianity and violence did not necessarily disagree. Christian men in medieval Iceland were expected to take revenge and even take lives, depending on the wrongs that were done to them; however, the conversion to Christianity introduced new options into the legal framework: mercy and forgiveness.[13] This can be seen all over Njn﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽bbornness elevated Njauminatingn and London: Yale University Press, 1995.e house points from Stephen Fry' to theáls saga: in Njál’s refusal to fight back while he burns inside his house, in Höskuld’s Saint Stephen-like prayer for his killers, and when Flosi and Kari reconcile at the end of the story.
Harry demonstrates the cultural change again in The Deathly Hallows during the battle with the Deatheaters when he shows mercy to Stan Shunpike. Lupin chastizes Harry for not aiming to kill his enemies. Coming from the pre-sacrifice culture, this option was preferable. And even we the reader would not have blamed Harry for tossing a killing curse towards a Deatheater in the midst of a chaotic flee for his life. Violence is still permissible and socially acceptable but not preferable over peaceful avenues.[14] Harry, then, represents this shift, not towards a more peaceful society, but a society in which more peaceful options are introduced alongside the violent ones.
It is Harry’s innocense and goodness that makes us, the audience, second guess James. He has adopted these post-sacrifice morals that correspond all too well with the post-conversion morals. This makes James look like kind of a crummy dude. But perhaps his flaws are needed in order to create in Harry his burning passion for justice and compassion. Lönroth quotes Aristotle, saying that “a hero must have flaws in order to generate dramatic action.”[15] Harry saw in his father many things that the Noble Heathen stood for: honor, wisdom, and loyalty.[16] But he also saw in James a creeping sense of the “pagan” past, and fought hard to separate himself from that kind of behavior, while at the same time celebrating the virtues that could be transferred from the pre-sacrifice culture.
Perhaps the most easily identifiable Noble Heathen that mirrors James is Gunnar from Njáls Saga. Like James, Gunnar was a troublemaker who died before he experienced the post-conversion benefits. Gunnar was a skillful warrior, while James was a skillful athlete. They both displayed courage and bravery, attributes that both pagans and Christians could admire. And in both stories, these two heroes are glimpsed posthumously: James in the pensive and in Harry’s flashbacks, Gunnar singing at night in his tomb.[17] In Njáls saga, Njál converted to Christianity and was a wise sage, someone that the other characters obviously greatly respected.[18] Gunnar was written in contrast to his sensible and wise friend Njál, which is what made their relationship so entertaining. The authors made Gunnar a hothead who got into trouble, who went against the advice of Njál, and who ultimately paid the price for it. His arrogance and stubbornness elevated Njál’s character. Likewise, in order to build up Lily as the force of so much positive energy, James had to be given certain characteristics that contrasted her. Hot-headed and somewhat of a bully, young James displays just enough negative characteristics to set Lily apart—something for which she was remembered by admirers like Professor Slughorn and Snape. Lily needs to be a powerful figure in order for us to believe in Snape’s devotion, which ultimately brings about the second and final downfall of Lord Voldemort. Seen through this light of the Noble Heathen, James’s bad behavior can be understood as essential to Lily’s character.
Watching Harry work through his feelings about his father puts me in mind of the medieval Christian scribes questioning how to handle their pagan ancestors. As Lönnroth says, “The Noble Heathen nevertheless shows that there were certain things in the pagan tradition which embarrassed at least some of the Christian writers to the extent that they felt the need to justify the past and bring it into concordance with the values of their own time.”[19] This is exactly what Harry is struggling with as he kneels in the fire in Umbridge’s office, asking for an explanation on the embarrassing tactics used on Snape so many years ago.
            James as the noble heathen, then, accomplishes two things: First, he shows the completeness of Harry’s character. Lönnroth explains that many of the writers who used the noble heathen conclude that the pagan belief was incomplete without the Holy Spirit, but that their hearts and minds were in the right place. James died before Lily’s sacrifice and therefore did not experience the cultural shift that Harry promotes. This shift is essential to showing the power of Harry’s character, but cannot be shown without a “before” and “after.” James is the before—an incomplete hero. Secondly, as the Noble Heathen, James demonstrates the complex sliding scale of morality that Rowling provides for us. From Lily to Sirius to Bartie Crouch to Snape, our concept of what is good and what is bad is thrown into question. How could a good man like Crouch let his son be taken by the Dementors? How could Snape do something so brave and good and still be such a jerk? Rowling provides such a murky worldview that we, like Harry, are left to search for “mutual interests and overlapping ideas” that can give some sort of order to such a complex moral system. Likewise, the medieval writers probed their ancestors’ religion and found an array of beliefs, some that mirrored their own, some that contradicted it, and many others in between. A compromise was devloped with the Noble Heathen, who could successfully stay pagan but display Christian virtues, which allowed them to explore this grey area between the religions. And their probing verifies that there is no clear-cut right and wrong, either in thirteenth century Iceland, modern day Ohio, or even in the fictional world of Harry Potter.

Hamer, Andrew. Njáls saga and its Christian Background. Belgium: Peeters, 2014.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Lönnroth, Lars, “The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas,” in Scandinavian Studies,Vol. 41, No. 1 (February, 1969), pp. 1-29.
Njal’s Saga. Trans. by Robert Cook. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

[1] Lars Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas,” in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (February, 1969), 4
[2] John Lindow. Norse Mythology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 21-30.
[3] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 2.
[4] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Press, 2003), 670-671
[5] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York: Scholastic Press, 1999), 372
[6] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 11
[7] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”21-22
[8] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 14.
[9] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 20
[10] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 20-21
[11] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 17
[12] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 14
[13] Andrew Hamer. Njáls saga and its Christian Background (Belgium:Peeters, 2014), 133
[14] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”25
[15] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 23
[16] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 23
[17] Njáls saga, trans. Robert Cook. (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 129-130
[18] Njáls saga, 35
[19] Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”28