The meaning of Vikings, and other things learned in New Zealand (part one)

Dear interblogotubes: I am in a foreign country! This is cause for considerable excitement, not least because I have somehow never managed to be in a foreign country before in my adult life.

The foreign country in question is New Zealand, which looks like a mere hop skip and jump across the puddle, and yet somehow took me all day to get to. And the reason for this Tasman-skipping adventure is – or was, initially – ANZAMEMS, which wrapped up a few days ago.1

1. To be recognised en route to conferences, wear a Chaucer blogger T-shirt

The flight experience was deeply entertaining – if you’re entertained by medievalists and early modernists scrambling every which way in airports across eastern Australia and all over New Zealand. All the New Zealand bound flights out of Sydney on the 1st between about 10:30am and middday got scrambled. So there’s a somewhat confused Highlyeccentric, who’s only been through Kingsford-Smith once, and that nine years ago under the supervision of schoolteachers, wandering about trying to reconcile the gate number on her ticket with the gate number on the board and the total lack of Christchurch-bound flights in evidence at either of these gates – and whom does she bump into but fellow medievalist D., who’s supposed to be on a flight via Auckland with an entirely different airline and has likewise misplaced her flight. We did manage to get ourselves sorted out (although I didn’t see D. again until late afternoon on the 2nd, and was slightly concerned that she may have been lost in transit). 2

Mid-air across the Tasman, on my way to the airline bathroom, I bumped into another Sydney postgrad whom I had not known, until that moment, was also a medievalist. We proceeded to terrify everyone in her seat row by talking about late-medieval cornish plays until someone came along and made me sit down again. Christchurch airport was swarming with ANZAMEMS delegates – and pretty much no one else: for a major domestic airport it was almost deserted, and strangely lacking in fast food – and my hitherto-unknown colleague and I distinguished ourselves by going twice through domestic security before realising that small turboprop flights in NZ don’t get security screened at all.

Now, as it happens, I was wearing my “I’m impossible to date – like Beowulf” t-shirt (not on purpose; it was just the nearest halfway respectable t-shirt when I rolled out of bed), and on the turboprop flight down to Dunedin I discovered that this worked as a sort of medievalist-magnet. My seatmate turned out to be an Old French scholar from Canberra (given how few Old French scholars there are kicking around Australia, that’s slim odds), someone from UWA helped me wrestle my recalcitrant carry-on luggage, and someone else whose name I never actually learned spotted me in baggage claim.

I was not wearing a Chaucer blogger t-shirt during the conference but I found internet-people anyway. zcat_abroad loomed up in front of me on my way into the first plenary session and declared “I know you!”, which was how I came to meet the Auckland contingent, who were lovely. And Stephanie Trigg I discovered, or she discovered me, in the question slot for kayloulee’s paper on SGGK on the very last day of the conference. Fortuitous blogger encounters = good things.

2. The Meaning of Vikings

What Do Vikings Mean? – Kim Wilkins (UQ), Thurs. 3rd February

I had only a moderate interest in a panel on ‘Influences of the Medieval in the Modern World’, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to find out – once and for all – what Vikings mean.
Perhaps fortunately, Kim Wilkins did not actually purport to have codified the meaning of Vikings from any perspective: instead, she posited a new set of ways of thinking about Vikings, and especially the roles Vikings play in modern pop culture and subcultures.

I liked this paper. It began with a clip from How To Train Your Dragon and ended on the Viking Kitties flash animation, and it got from a. to b. via Playmobil, Mel Gibson, Marvel Comics, True Blood and Viking Death Metal. What’s not to like about that? Moreover, Vikings in pop-culture medievalism are something I’ve been aware of but never really invested in. Arthuriana has always been what intrigues me, when it comes to modern adaptations – ever since I was fifteen and just starting to get my head around the fact that this Arthur chap probably didn’t exist. So it was interesting to have Kim Wilkins walk me through another line of popular representation, some of it right out of my usual haunts (I’m not in Marvel fandom, I’ve never seen True Blood, I don’t listen to Death Metal).

Kim’s paper was also a really useful paper for me, in that she also walked us through the basics of adaptation theory – most of which weren’t new concepts for me, but concepts I’m more used to seeing in blog format than academic texts. She put forward the argument that we need to stop judging adaptations primarily on their fidelity to the source. For one thing, that leads to strange tangles, like the fan who commented on Facebook expressing the desire to see the forthcoming movie Thor accurately represent Norse mythology – apparently either disregarding the Marvel comics entirely, or expecting the movie to somehow ‘correct’ the errors of that canon.

Kim argued – and backed her argument up with citations which I copied down but have buried in the bottom of my suitcase since then – that an adaptation should be regarded as a process as well as an end product, and that thinking about the work of adaptation, the choices made in re-representing an original text or idea, can lead us to a whole new set of questions. Not “aaargh, why must the likes of Mel Gibson persist in talking about Vikings as brutal monsters????”, but “why do the likes of Mel Gibson represent Vikings as brutal monsters?” What does that tell us about Mel Gibson? About us?

Kim made a few suggestions about the function of Vikings in popular culture:
– that the horns are good for something, in that they’re iconic and therefore memorable. You try asking a non-medievalist to draw a Saxon or a Norman – they can’t. And yet Vikings? Their memory sticks around as long as the horns do.
– that the figures of Vikings are fascinating as the “them” in a them-and-us equation: that sometimes you need brutal monsters, and Vikings are there to fill that slot in your story.
– that sometimes Vikings are not them, they are us – that sometimes we like to identify with Vikings, and some of the traits they can embody include aggressive masculinity, sense of adventure, and courage.
– that subculture associated with Viking Death Metal relies on both the scary-threatening idea of Vikings and the admirable heroic ideals, and that furthermore ideas about Viking group identity and loyalty lend themselves well to the formation of a death-metal subculture which is highly performative but not designed to be immediately comprehensible to those outside of the subculture.

So that, folks, is the meaning of Vikings!

And I’ll leave you with this totally not-Viking-related at all photograph of the main entrance to Larnach Castle, built in the 19th century by an Australian banker who’d come to Dunedin to set up a bank when the gold rush hit there.

Larnach castle: steps framed by stone lions; tower above them

It’s a very beautiful Victorian home, influenced by Australian design as well as English – you can see there the verandah which surrounds the first floor; Larnach had to glass it in after the first winter, since he and his wife discovered, much to their discomfort, that Otago is a whole lot colder than Melbourne.3 The current owners have managed to reclaim and restore a lot of the original furniture, and replace others with similar Victorian-era pieces, as well as restoring the spectacular grounds. And they serve really good tea and scones.

The place tickled my fancy for Victorian-era colonial history: it’s a priceless time capsule in that respect. As a medievalist, the only thing I have to say on the matter is that that castle wouldn’t withstand a good seige.

1. In theory, this could be a multi-part post summarising all the interesting papers I heard at ANZAMEMS, but in practice, it’s liable to be a one-or-two parter consisting of however many papers I can summarise in the time between now and getting to Wellington for a friend’s wedding.

2. Meanwhile, my colleague-and-housemate kayloulee flew via Brisbane, and apparently so too did vast numbers of ANZAMEMS delegates, because customs stopped her on her way out to ask why there were so very many people on the direct flight to Dunedin today. Apparently she had been immediately preceded by a crowd of professors, and customs found this slightly odd.4

3. Other things William Larnach had in his castle: very early double-glazing, and a methane-powered chandelier. And his own methane production plant to go with the chandelier.

4. If some of this crowd were the UQ contingent, I can confirm that they are slightly odd. Lovely, very entertaining, interestingly clever people, but slightly odd. Especially when drunk, which was the state in which they were when I met them. One of them gave a paper on the Dante’s Inferno video game, which I’m sorry to say I missed.


8 Responses to “The meaning of Vikings, and other things learned in New Zealand (part one)”

  1. hexebart Says:

    Hey, thanks for blogging my paper. 🙂

  2. Hannah Kilpatrick Says:

    Hm. That sounds a novel and interesting way to locate mediaevalists. I have no Chaucer blogger tshirt, but I have two mugs! Perhaps I should wave them around next conference.

    Although I could probably manage to recognise Stephanie without mugs.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I’ve always wondered what the social effect of wearing that t-shirt would be—to fend off or attract attention?—but I have to admit I don’t think I would have worn it where medievalists would see it. But now we have experimental data!

    Welcome, by the way, to the giddy world of international conference tourism. Also, this:

    sometimes we like to identify with Vikings, and some of the traits they can embody include aggressive masculinity, sense of adventure, and courage

    I have also been saying to students these last few terms that one of the reasons the Vikings have attracted such a lot of attention since the 1960s, and cast so heavily as traders as well as raiders, may not be unconnected with the fact that they can thus be read as secular venture capitalists avant la lettre and therefore feel Modern and Comprehensible.

    • Hannah Kilpatrick Says:

      Secular venture capitalists who hit things. Do not forget this important and exciting fact!

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Heh. Well, the non-medievalist effects of it are mixed. The writing’s not particularly large and is rather… unfortunately placed, so I think what people mostly see is “I’m impossible to date”, while the second line gets obscured unless they’re shorter than me or standing at a bit of a distance. I’ve had a few people on buses strike up conversations about Beowulf, though. Mostly people give me strange looks, and I’m not sure if it’s the Beowulf part or the fact that “I’m impossible to date” isn’t something people expect to see on a girl.

      secular venture capitalists avant la lettre and therefore feel Modern and Comprehensible.

      I can see that playing into it, yes. Hmm. You wouldn’t happen to have a handy pop culture citation for that, would you? I know very little fantasy or TV with vikings in it…

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