Rudolf Simek

Reader of the month

The Austrian medieval scholar Dr Rudolf Simek isn't troubled by the Norse pantheon's relatively newfound employment as comic-book heroes: “On the contrary,” he says in the following interview, “I'm pleased that these myths still serve as material and inspiration for new creative enterprises.”

Rudolf Simek

One of the many things Austrian medieval scholar Dr Rudolf Simek has explored in his work is adaptions of Old Norse literature in popular culture – for instance, the Edda as a major influence on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Our interview with Dr Simek coincided with the premiere of the highly publicized Hollywood adaption Thor, so we naturally inquired about his views on the Norse pantheon's relatively newfound employment as comic-book heroes. From there, however, the conversation moved on to masculinity in the Icelandic Sagas, and to the brand-new four-story collection Sagas aus Island. Von Wikingern, Berserkern und Trollen (lit. Sagas from Iceland. Of Vikings, Berserkers and Trolls), edited and translated by Dr Simek and Reinhard Hennig.

These days, huge posters for the Hollywood comic-book adaption “Thor” are a common sight. One of these posters portrays Odin, which you described, in the introduction to your book Mythos Odin: Texts From the Edda to Heavy Metal, as “not only the most important god of the Ancient Germanic religion, but also the most complex.” Why, then, does Thor make for a better comic-book hero than Odin?

"Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure that Thor really makes for a better comic-book hero, but in the sense of being an object of ironic exaggeration, he was already being portrayed that way in medieval literature. In a sense, the many comic book incarnations of Thor are rooted in an 800-year-old tradition of portraying the brawny Thor as a bit of a simpleton. That, however, can't be said of Odin, who resists ironic treatment because of his complexity, although Henning Kure, author of the Danish Valhalla comics, manages to pull it off. However, in those comics it is still Thor who has the more rewarding role. Not least, only Thor qualifies as “the action hero”, a figure that has held unbroken attraction, from Hercules to the Terminator. For Odin, that role would be entirely inappropriate."

Thor - plakatThe book Mythos Odin also contains lyrics by “Viking Metal” bands, and references to science-fiction adaptions of the Eddic myths. As a medieval scholar, how do you feel about these things? Are you happy that the myths and characters live on in popular culture, or do you feel that an ancient cultural treasure is being trivialized, commercially exploited and deprived of its context?

"Oh, I don't have a problem with the old Norse mythology being trivialized or commercialized. On the contrary, I'm pleased that these myths still serve as material and inspiration for new creative enterprises, some of which go beyond pious veneration for the Germanic heritage. I just hope to also show that the medieval texts were often of a higher literary quality and more original than many of the modern texts. Consider, for example, a work like the dramatic and humorous Eddic poem Thrymskvida."

This spring, you published the collection Sagas from Iceland: Of Vikings, Berserkers and Trolls. Your selection of sagas includes two famous, canonical Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Egil and The Saga of Grettir, but also two lesser known texts, The Saga of Bárður, Protector of Snæfellsnes and The Saga of Egil One-Hand and Ásmundur Berserker-Slayer. Why did you choose these sagas?

"Besides including two of the most highly regarded works of Icelandic medieval literature, I also wanted to introduce the reader to the delights of other, (as yet) uncanonized works, and the way they rapidly oscillate between realistic portrayals of Icelandic farm life, creatures from the era's folklore and the remote, exotic world of the Vikings. This is something all four works do, and the binding theme was always “Vikings, berserkers and trolls”. These figures don't play much of a role in our lives today, but probably offered a venue of escapism in the 13th century."

In the anthology's epilogue, you write that in the sagas, the borders between the realistic and the fantastic are ambiguous. Why is this, do you think?

"Because of the overall medieval concept of reality – not only in the sagas. In a society where trolls, ghosts and the healing miracles of Christian saints are a part of everyday experience, the borders between reality and fantasy will seem ever-shifting from our point of view. On top of that, there's the transfer to literary form – just as today, while watching a James Bond film, we don't ask ourselves if something or other could really take place. It's just part of a genre's fictionalization process."

The promotional blurb for the collection contains a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Herbert Grönemeyer song “Männer” – specifically the line: “When is a man a man?” Could this be considered a sort of leitmotif through the sagas?

"Surely, it only plays a part from a modern standpoint. The predominant values of a patriarchal, very warlike society can only be pictured by us today with great difficulty – or ironically."

The book contains a map, “a medieval Scandinavian view of Northern Europe”. Iceland is placed almost at the centre of the map. A coincidence? Or does it express the view that Iceland had something of a central place in the literary world of medieval Scandinavia?

"Yes, of course. To Icelanders even today, this island hugging the very edge of European weather maps is the middle of the world. But this was even truer of the Middle Ages, because Iceland was located in the middle of the sailing route between Scandinavia, Greenland and the New World (which was considered a remote part of Scandinavia by the Old Norse)."

Your large body of work seems to testify to a wealth of knowledge of, and an endless fascination with, Icelandic medieval literature. What is it that exerts such a pull on you?

"It's not only Icelandic medieval literature that fascinates me, but the Middle Ages in general and their literature – whether Scandinavian, Celtic, German or French. Not least, this is because there is still so much left to explore. Many texts haven't been edited yet, let alone translated. The thought of studying these, and in that way experiencing something of the lives and knowledge of people living a thousand, or even just six-hundred years ago – that is something I find unbelievably exciting."

Translation: Steingrímur Teague

Photo of Rudolf Simek: C.H. Beck