What is Barbarism?

A review of: Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings (OnSpec #88, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings recreates a Norse worlds where Seidr, magic, meets Viking might and ideas of strength. Wolfrom challenges ideas of masculinity in this short story, using a group of people, the Norse, who are often associated with the extremes of masculinity and male violence, to complicate notions of heroism and the masculine.

Wolfrom creates two protagonists: Sveinn, a young Norse man at the height of his strength, and his uncle Thialfarr, a Seidrman, magician, whose body becomes weak with the more seidr he performs. His strength, his power of magic is antagonistically linked to his physical strength and health. His social purposes are collective, sacrificing himself for the greater good of his people. Sveinn, much like our modern conception of the Norse, is heavily individualistic, assertive, aggressive, and fundamentally threatened by idea that don’t fit into his world view. He sees Thialfarr as fundamentally feminine and threatening, but possessing a power that he desires to claim for himself. Sveinn fears that cooking and other ideas associated with the feminine will bring shame upon him, while Thialfarr tries to teach him to shift his ideas to a broader understanding of collective power and the need to protect his people and care for them.

Christian and pagan are set side by side in this Norse world where magic and masculinity are put in opposition to one another to open questions about what the idea of ‘power’ means.

Wolfrom also questions ideas of the monstrous and situates the Skraelings, an enemy of Norse people as not monstrous, but, rather, a different group of human beings with similar life challenges and experiences. Re-situating the Skraelings questions the idea of ‘otherness’ and suggests the need to explore cooperative practices and understandings rather than violent opposition. Worlfrom privileges the notion of understanding other people over constructing others as monsters. Wolfrom reminds us that words and thoughts really do hurt, and, in the world of magic, can literally change the surrounding environment and patterns of fate.

This story is well researched and insightful, posing a different conception of the Norse while challenging ideas of individualist, violent masculinity.

The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings was published in the most recent volume of OnSpec, a magazine of the Canadian fantastic, and you can explore OnSpec at http://www.onspec.ca/

Aging Gods Lost in Modernity and the Search For Thought and Memory

A review of “Thought and Memory” by Catherine Knutsson. In On Spec Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2012.

By Derek Newman-Stille

Catherine Knutsson’s Thought and Memory expands on a line from the Norse “Sayings of Grimnir” in which Odin discusses his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) and expresses his fear that the ravens may be lost. Knutsson portrays Odin as an old man who has been hospitalised and has lost both Thought and Memory: both the birds, and his actual thoughts and memory. The story serves as a metaphor for old age and the fear of Alzheimers and dementia, and it postulates the idea that although our society tends to ignore the elderly and abandon them to the world of the medical, the life and death of even one old man IS significant and world-shaking.  It suggests that there is more to age than the medical profession and the perceived burden on society and instead suggests that the elderly are a receptacle for the mythical, important story-tellers that are the key to social memory. Odin, like many symbols of heritage, is lost in modernity.

While his ravens search for Odin, the world grows cold and people begin to die. The Norns weave their own hair to try to keep the thread of life continuing and trying to prevent the freezing touch of Ragnarok. This short story makes a connection between Canadian fears of uncontrolled ice and the Norse terror over ages of ice.

Knutsson makes the pagan very real and modern, playing with a system in which so many issues of the past are lost to the march of progress.  Knutsson speaks to the idea that the world itself is forgetting, that we are divorcing thought from memory and the repercussions of modernity’s quest to think only of the future. The results are the loss of the natural, the coldness of science without history or the human, and an amnesiac world in which actions are divorced from their consequences.

As Knutsson suggests, the loss of memory really is the loss of everything.

You can check out On Spec’s website at www.onspec.ca and find out more about this story. Visit Knutsson’s website at http://www.catherineknutsson.com/ for more information on her upcoming projects.