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The Poetic Edda, Game of Thrones, and Ragnarök

Season Six of Game of Thrones is about to air. One of the great pleasures of watching the show is the way in which George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the show-producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, build their imagined world from the real and imagined structures of medieval history and literature. I don’t know whether they have ever read the Poetic Edda, but it’s clear that the series’ conception of the North borrows many themes and motifs from Norse myth.

At the end of Season 4, Bran and his companions had finally located the Three-Eyed Raven, a frightening figure sitting in a dark cave far north of the Wall. His body is twined about with the roots of a tree; through his connection to this tangle he can see all that transpires through the sacred weirwoods of the North. The Raven is one-eyed; this, along with his connection with ravens and crows, and the tree system into which he is incorporated, link him suggestively with Odin.

Just as ravens, with their ‘dark wings’ bring ‘dark words’ throughout Westeros, so Odin gathers knowledge through his two ravens:

“Hugin and Munin fly every day
over the vast-stretching world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin.” Grimnir’s Sayings, v. 20

Like the Three-Eyed Raven, Odin becomes one with the great world-tree Yggdrasill, on which he hangs himself as a sacrifice:

“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows where its roots run.” Sayings of the High One, v. 138

Odin in an eighteenth-century 18th century Icelandic manuscript of the Prose Edda (NKS 1867 4to) via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus Odin wins knowledge of the past, the present and of the future too. Although he and the other gods will perish at ragnarök (the end of the world), he also knows that his dead son Baldr will return in the new world. ‘All evil will be healed; Baldr will come’, says the Seeress’s Prophecy (v. 59). Does Odin also know of the return of the treacherously slain Jon Snow? I think so.

In Norse myth, wolves are dangerous beasts. So too are the direwolves of the world of Game of Thrones, except with the Stark children to whom they were given as pups; the direwolves become loyal pets. Nevertheless, when, as Theon notes, ‘there’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years’, their appearance is a portent of the many disasters to come.

In the Poetic Edda, two cosmic wolves pursue the sun and moon through the sky, the offspring of the enormous wolf Fenrir who lies chained up until ragnarök. The gods challenged him to see if he could break the slender-looking bonds they brought to him. Smelling deception, Fenrir demanded that someone should place his hand as a pledge in the wolf’s great jaws. The gods hesitated – until Tyr stepped up. As the magic fetter tightened around the wolf’s mighty paws, the gods laughed in triumph. All except Tyr, whose hand was snapped off. Loki, Fenrir’s father, later taunts Tyr with his lack of even-handedness:

“Be silent, Tyr, you could never
deal straight between two people;
your right hand, I must point out,
is the one which Fenrir tore from you.” Loki’s Quarrel, v. 38

Týr and Fenrir (1911) by John Bauer, from Our Fathers’ Godsaga by Viktor Rydberg. Wikimedia Commons

It’s easier to function as a one-handed god than a one-handed warrior though, as Jaime Lannister knows to his cost.

At ragnarök, the pursuing wolves will finally catch up with the heavenly bodies; the sun and moon will vanish from the sky:

“In the east sat the old woman in Iron-wood
and gave birth there to Fenrir’s offspring;
one of them in trollish shape
shall be snatcher of the moon.” Seeress’s Prophecy, v. 39

So too, the world in which Game of Thrones is set is heading for apocalypse. The White Walkers are on the march: ‘Cold winds are rising and the dead rise with them’, the Commander of the Night’s Watch reports to the Small Council in King’s Landing. The White Walkers with their powers of regenerating the dead are strongly allied to the forces of winter; their icy touch shatters metal and their faces are rimed with hoar-frost. Norse frost-giants are equally chilly beings: ‘the icicles tinkled when he came in: the old man’s cheek-forest [beard] was frozen’, we’re told in Hymir’s Poem (v. 10).

At the final battle, Loki, in alliance with frost-giants and Surtr the fire-giant, will advance upon Asgard, the home of the gods, and the world will sink beneath into the sea. There are still two seasons – or maybe more – of Game of Thrones to come, so it’s unlikely that ragnarök, the expected showdown between the dragons and the White Walkers, the forces of fire and ice, will occur this year. But the Seeress’s Prophecy gives us a foretaste of what it might be like. And in the meantime there’s all the intriguing ways in which the Poetic Edda’s distinctive world is reimagined in the show. From the Valhalla-like hall of the Iron-Born’s Drowned God, to the warging (shape-shifting) of the Stark children, from Valyrian steel swords to the Free Folk’s spear-wives and shield-maidens, the legendary North is always present.

Featured Image: Game of Thrones – Influencer Outreach Box by C. C. Chapman via Flickr

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Twenty-first-century Shakespeare

Forever demanding new performers to interpret them for new audiences under new circumstances, and continuing to elicit a rich worldwide profusion of editions, translations, commentaries, adaptations and spin-offs, Shakespeare’s works have never behaved like unchanging monuments about which nothing new remains to be said. The histories of important theatre companies need almost continuous rewriting. Both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, carried out some significant architectural self-reinvention between 2001 and 2015 and a fair few changes of artistic policy too. Current critics and artists move from bylines to obituaries in a sort of permanent melancholy background knell. (I remember adding ‘d.2000’ to the entry about Sir John Gielgud when the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare was just going to press; Alan Howard’s ‘d.2015’ just missed the deadline for the second.) Yet neither Stanley Wells nor I could have anticipated the extent of changes in the culture at large and to Shakespeare’s place within it within the last fifteen years.

While the last two decades have seen a boom in biographies of Shakespeare, there have been no major archival discoveries about his life, though if the Cobbe portrait (brought to fresh public attention in 2009) is genuinely a likeness of Shakespeare we may be able to make some new inferences about his interactions with the aristocracy (more of which were convincingly teased out of his poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ by James Bednarz in 2012). Recent theatre archaeology, meanwhile, notably at the site of the Theatre in Shoreditch (the main playing place of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until they dismantled it and recycled its timbers to build the Globe in 1599), has tended to confirm earlier hypotheses rather than to overturn them. More attention is devoted to new Shakespearean theatres rather than old. These have included not just the remodelled Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford (2010) and the indoor, neo-Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London (2014) but more novel structures elsewhere in the world. The remarkable Teatr Szekspirowski in Gdansk, Poland (2014), for example, a distant dream in 2001, can convert from being an indoor, seated, proscenium-arch venue to being an outdoor yard-based one (its shape based on that of the Fortune in London) thanks to its magnificent self-opening roof.

Winedale Shakespeare Festival by AJ LEON. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The worldwide attention given to the opening of Gdansk’s new Shakespearean playhouse, itself designed to serve a well-established and growing international Shakespeare festival, is one minor symptom of a much larger change in Shakespeare’s status. In 2015, to think about Shakespeare primarily as the cultural property of the British, or even to regard him solely as the supreme literary figure of Anglophone culture, seems parochial as never before. Although Shakespeare continues to benefit from the dominance of English as a world language, more people now speak English as a second or third language than as a first, and globally at least as many performances of Shakespeare are given in translation as are offered in his native tongue. (German-language productions in Germany, for instance, alone outnumber English-language productions in Britain and Ireland.) Geopolitically, this has produced a definite shift in the balance of power in Shakespearean performance and scholarship. The years since 2001, for instance, have seen the formal establishment of the European Shakespeare Research Association (2007), the foundation of the Asian Shakespeare Association (2014), and the inauguration of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (2010), a Singapore-based digital resource which provides online access to video recordings of a whole new wave of Shakespearean performances from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and mainland China. (In 2015, tellingly, even the loyally Stratford-focused RSC is embarking on a project to foster a new, more actor-friendly translation of the plays into Mandarin.) These developments became visible even to those British theatregoers who never venture beyond London in 2012, when the Cultural Olympiad that accompanied the London Olympics chose a World Shakespeare Festival as its central feature, and Shakespeare’s Globe contributed by hosting visiting productions from all over the world – memorably advertised as ‘36 plays in 36 languages.’

If Anglophone live performance has had its centrality to the world’s engagement with Shakespeare challenged over the last two decades, then so has live performance itself. Film and television have continued to adapt and appropriate Shakespeare (in Britain, in Hollywood, and ever more visibly in India and the Far East too), while theatre audiences at mainstream performances by large companies are more and more likely to find themselves in the company of television cameras, as more productions are digitally streamed in real time to screens around the world in a curious 2-D hybrid between live theatre and the cinema. The physical book, and even the library, meanwhile, have been equally decentred. Nowadays ‘digital Shakespeare’ is more likely BuzzFeed quizzes, satirical memes, movie trailers, and live-performance tweets than specialist-content subscription sites in libraries.

Older scholars, then, have been fortunate to recruit those that, among their many other qualifications for the job, are significantly younger than us. It isn’t exactly that we feel ourselves to be closer to the Shakespeare of Richard Burbage and the First Folio than to that of Tom Hiddleston and YouTube, but it has been a definite advantage to have as colleagues brilliant commentators on 21st-century Shakespeare.

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Bittersweet melodies of Agustín Lara in Güeros

The story of four teenagers on a quest to locate their ailing musical idol requires a mix of nostalgia, myth, apathy, and disillusionment. Played out across the vast urban expanse that is the City of Mexico, Güeros is conceived in the alternative deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch’s early films or, perhaps, Wim Wenders’ mid-1970s road movie triology. Director Alonzo Ruizpalacios chose a self-consciously cosmopolitan yet at the same time distinctly Mexican sound to convey the journey — the songs of Agustín Lara (1897-1970). For the Spanish-speaking world, Lara’s music tends to inspire feelings of melancholic romance along with a fondness for a now distant past.

In Sombra, Santos, Tomás, and Ana’s journey in search of the older musician, brilliant use of Lara’s compositions create emotional and cultural depth in his main characters, effectively revealing disappointment and loss with a deeper longing for love and personal meaning as the brothers “come of age.” In particular, Lara’s “Azul” and “Palmera,” evoke a tropical, mid-twentieth century feeling closely associated with the eastern port city. Other songs such as “Palmera,” “Imposible,” “Tus pupilas,” “Farolito,” and “Veracruz” similarly establish a romantic tone during certain scenes in Güeros.

As the film unfolds, Tomás leaves his mother and home in Veracruz (with guitar in hand) to go live with Sombra in Mexico City. During this transition sequence, the song “Azul” plays, sung by the popular composer’s most beloved female interpreter (Veracruz native) Toña la Negra. In portions of this section, the soundtrack features a heavy echoing of Toña la Negra’s recording that reflects the anxiety Tomás is feeling as he first arrives in the capital.

Shortly thereafter, a version of “Veracruz”–this time with Lara playing and singing–is heard as the boys sit idly outside their apartment complex, smoking cigarettes and talking. Interestingly, the tune features lyrics that fondly remember the port town with its faraway “palm trees,” “beaches” and “star filled nights.” In the song, the singer pledges to “return one day.”

Big city adventure calls, however, and the next moment, Sombra notices Tomás listening to music on his portable cassette player in a parked car. He looks at the tape case and sees the name “Epigmenio Cruz.” “You still listening to this?” he asks his younger brother. Tomás nods, “Yes.” Shortly thereafter, the two brothers and their friend Santos are seen sharing the headphones, dreamily listing to Cruz. Their mission is now set.

Publicity still of three boys sharing headphones

As they make their way through among the tall glass buildings of the city’s southwestern sector, a verse of Lara’s “Imposible” as sung by Toña la Negra is heard. Their quest may be a difficult one but they are determined despite a deep sense of alienation.


Night falls and the boys come to the gates of the National University where the student strike is in full flower. They enter the main auditorium where organizer Ana is giving a passionate speech. As the three make their way, an innocent, childlike rendering of Lara’s “Azul” (now performed by contemporary singer songwriter Natalia Lafourcade) is playing. Ingeniously, Lafourcade’s version (she is from the Veracruz town of Coatepec) is mixed with the older, classic recording by Toña la Negra, thus blending Mexican musical past and present.


Ana then meets up with Somba, Santos and Tomás as they once again pile back into the car. The opening bars of Agustín Lara’s lighthearted classic “Farolito” (or “Little Light”-as in street light) plays as young Tomás watches Ana freshen up in the front passenger seat. The camera closes in on Ana’s eyes and lips as she applies her make up. Older brother Sombra also watches her with affection. Appropriately, “Farolito” continues to be heard in the background as our adventurers cruise the central city late at night. Street performers, drunks and garbage collectors move amidst the shadows.

Tomás, Sombra, Santos and Ana briefly attend a party celebrating the debut of a film. “Farolito” is still heard, now mixed with surreal electronics and conversation. Not long for the gathering, the four are soon back outside. Toña la Negra’s rendering of Lara’s tropical song “Palmera” plays in the open air as Ana playfully pushes Sombra in a nearby pool. The others quickly join in, frolicking in the water until a security guard comes and asks them to leave.

Ever persistent in tracking down the fabled musician Cruz, the boys and Ana eventually find Epigmenio in a cantina in Texcoco—to the east of the central city. Disappointingly, a sour-faced Cruz rejects the young man’s request. In Tomás’ defense, Sombra steps forward, informing the musician that the cassette was once their father’s. Shortly thereafter, the film ends as Lara’s tune “Veracruz” is heard one final time. They boys no doubt are disappointed in their musical idol but are nonetheless reunited as brothers, friends, and (in the case of Ana and Sombra) perhaps even lovers.

The ever-romantic Agustín Lara has long been associated with Mexican cinema. Now, with Güeros added to an already impressive filmography, one can imagine the composer would be pleased to learn his songs continue to inspire both artists and audiences worldwide.

Featured image: publicity still from Güeros, courtesty of Catanoia Films.

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Florence Foster Jenkins: a user’s guide to aging the female voice

In a brief scene in the 1931 Warner Bros. horror film, Svengali, an aging heiress takes voice lessons, falls in love with her teacher, and upon finding her love unrequited and her voice uninspired, throws herself in the river. That the film hastily banishes her for these infractions isn’t much of a surprise, for we don’t tend to remember bad voices, nor do we dwell on older women who would dare possess them. In fact, were it up to Hollywood, we’d hardly dwell on older women at all. Unlike her male peers who continue to be paid handsomely well into their 50s, when an actress reaches the age of 34, her salary drops precipitously. Assuming she can even find her way to the screen, of course, for as popular male stars inevitably grow older, their on-screen love interests typically do not. It would seem that Hollywood follows the bleak mantra implicit in Sunset Boulevard: to see an aging actress is unpleasant, to love one is perverse. But what does it mean to hear an older woman sing or speak on screen? Does Hollywood’s ageism apply to perceptions about the female voice?

Florence Foster Jenkins, a new movie starring Meryl Streep with a planned release date later this spring, may provide an answer. Directed by Stephen Frears (who made The Queen with Helen Mirren and Philomena with Judi Dench), the film is based on a true story of a surprising musical career. Born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Florence Foster Jenkins left home against the wishes of her parents to marry and become a singer, a dream that cost her everything when her husband abandoned her, leaving her with syphilis and an inability to fully support herself. Undeterred, however, Jenkins taught the piano until she inherited a great deal of money in her 40s and began singing lessons in earnest. By all accounts, no matter how hard she worked Jenkins remained very bad at her craft. And that would be the end of the story, were it not for Jenkins’ refusal to succumb to the fate of Svengali’s heiress or Hollywood’s female romantic leads. Rather than cave to criticism of her efforts, Jenkins persisted, until eventually, in 1944, at the age of 76, she gave a performance at Carnegie Hall that was uproarious, ridiculous, and sold-out in a mere two hours.


It would be easy to dismiss Florence Foster Jenkins as delusional, but history can’t seem to dismiss her at all. Her recordings still sell, her life story has become a successful play, and now, one of the greatest actresses of our time will play her on screen. When people write about Jenkins’ oddities, and there were many, they tend to discuss the curious concurrence of her inability to sing and her confidence that she had every right to do so. They ask, “Didn’t she realize everyone was laughing at her?” That she seems not to have cared produces a collective shudder of sympathetic embarrassment. However, rarely does someone point to her age at the peak of her fame, which is remarkable, for the list of singers giving a public debut in their mid-70s must be incredibly short. I wonder if our horror at Jenkins’ determination is a substitute for a more frightening question: “Wouldn’t we laugh at any older woman who dares to speak without being asked?”

A theorist of voices, Michel Chion writes, “Only a woman’s voice can invade and transcend space… No need for a curtain. The curtain drop is a masculine artifice.” Yet the world is full of curtains. Curtains define the stages on which women play roles written by patriarchy. They determine which women are seen and which remain invisible. And on most of us, they close before we’re ready. The voice, however, poses a challenge to the regulation of women’s bodies. A woman’s voice isn’t bound to space or character; it’s an idea that demands action. Beautiful female voices lure us to death, as with the sirens of Odysseus, or call us to life, as with the mother’s voice heard in the womb. Voices that aren’t beautiful expose the flaws in the logic of how we characterize women. They insist that a woman can be something other than a seductress or a mother.

We might be tempted to point to Meryl Streep to refute claims about the limited representation of older women in Hollywood. Since reaching the age of 60, she has played Margaret Thatcher, a fairy tale witch, a failed rock star, and a British suffragette. Indeed, there seems to be an incredible mismatch between Meryl Streep, who has more Oscar nominations than any other actress in film history, and Florence Foster Jenkins, who performed so badly that one review of her Carnegie Hall concert declared she could sing “everything but notes.” Although she sings from time to time in her earlier films, it’s only in the past decade that Streep has ventured wholeheartedly into musicals, a career shift that has been received mostly with acclaim. In making that same leap toward a musical future, however, Jenkins was seen as an affront to a number of artistic and social standards—that women ought to fade quietly out of view, that people who sing should have a particular kind of training, that youth is more valuable than passion. Yet are these women really so different? Meryl Streep has remarked that she wants to portray women who assert: “I’m not what I look like.” With enormous angel’s wings strapped to her back and a crown of pearls atop her head, Florence Foster Jenkins certainly didn’t look like a “respectable” American socialite. She didn’t sound like one either. And that’s the point. There may be only room enough in Hollywood for one Meryl Streep, but any of us could be Florence Foster Jenkins. By using her voice in a way that she loved, Florence Foster Jenkins tore down curtains. I hope she inspires the rest of us to do the same.

Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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A reimagined Wonderland, Middle-earth, and material world

Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Philip Pullman are three of the many great writers to come out of Oxford, whose stories are continually reimagined and enjoyed through the use of media and digital technologies. The most obvious examples for Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are the many adaptations in theatre, film, and television. Tolkein’s The Lords of the Rings, with all of the facets of Middle-earth, has developed incredibly in the film and gaming industries. Pullman’s His Dark Materials has also seen success in film, particularly in the The Golden Compass, an adaptation based on the first novel in the trilogy.

In a discussion held at the Oxford Museum of National History, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford), Stuart Lee (Member of the English Faculty and Merton College, University of Oxford), and Margaret Kean (Helen Gardner Fellow in English, St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford) explore the use of media and its effects on these authors’ works. Together they raise questions and encourage conversation about how the use of digital tools gives stories new and diverse afterlives.


Featured Image: “Illustration from The Nursery “Alice”, containing twenty coloured enlargements from Tenniel’s illustrations to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” with text adapted to nursery readers” by John Tenniel. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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