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Interview with Ada Palmer, historian and author/composer of Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok

June 9, 2013

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok is a song cycle, an album, and a musical play that retells the history of the world according to Norse mythology, focusing especially on the relationship between Odin and Loki, and the death of Baldur. The Sundown Project is the work of Sassafrass, a singing group of mostly women performing original a capella pieces that weave together multiple lyrical and musical lines set in close harmony, mostly with fantasy, mythological, and science fiction themes. Take a listen to part of the finale, Longer in Stories than Stone:

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Ada Palmer (as Loki)

The premiere of Sundown at Balticon over Memorial Day weekend was a great success, and Ada Palmer, the author and composer of Sundown, graciously agreed to be interviewed about some of the historical, literary, and translation issues behind the work that would be of interest to our readers.

BLT: Can you situate the eddas for us in context: when, where, and under what circumstances were they written? Do we have a sense of the social settings for which the oral predecessors of these texts would have been composed?

Ada: Viking cultures in the Middle Ages had a strong tradition of public performance of poetry. Myths and histories were set to complicated meters, and performed by skalds, poets most of whom were courtiers in the employ of lords and kings, who wanted them to immortalize their names and deeds in verse. Skalds would perform at courts and public gatherings; they may have been accompanied by instruments but it is uncertain. Memorization and the ability to speedily regurgitate complex information in quiz-like riddle contests were highly prized, so verses were transmitted orally. As is common in such situations, the poems were written down only late, when the keepers of the tradition felt threatened by changes and foreign incursions, in the form of the advance of Christianity.

The Poetic Edda (also called the Elder Edda) collects verses, many fragmentary, difficult to date and certainly composed at different times, but probably before the 10th century, but they may have been transmitted for centuries before then. The Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) was composed by Snorri Sturlson (1179-1241), a very late skald and political figure prominent in the last days of the Icelandic republic just as it fell under the control of Norway.

Scene from a play: two men dressed in different styles seated at a fire in conversation, while a woman holding a staff stands to the left and looks on.

Snorri Sturlson, seated to the left of his nephew, who has come north to learn from his renowned uncle. Standing to the left is the Seeress. The dialogue among these three characters provides the framing story for the play.

Snorri wanted to preserve both the old stories and the methods for composing traditional poetry. The primary part of his book depicts a riddle contest between Gylfi and Odin in disguise, which reviews many myths and names and comments on excerpts from the Poetic Edda; the second half explains the techniques and meters of Icelandic poetry, with numerous detailed examples.

BLT: How do the prose and poetic eddas differ from each other? Can you compare them with some other texts with which our readers might be familiar?

Ada: Neither Edda really resembles the familiar epic poem tradition. The individual poems in the Poetic Edda are mainly no more than sixty short verses, and many have long sections missing. Some tell stories, while others are lists of advice, or lists of spells. The meaning of the poems is often opaque as well because they are filled with kennings, poetic ways of referring to objects and people, such as “swan-road” for the sea, or “he whom all gods hate” for the Fenris wolf. The bulk of Snorri’s book is a competition in which the characters try to stump each other with mythological questions, a framing story which strings together stories and facts. Both are quite meandering, presenting puzzle pieces rather than a narrative. If you can imagine trying to piece together a history of the Roman gods from the brief and out-of-order stories told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or a contiguous history of England from only the parts depicted by Shakespeare with no other help, you can understand how challenging it is to stitch together a coherent story of the Norse cosmos from the Eddas and the few glimpses we have from other sagas.

BLT: Tell us a bit about the issue of contamination, and the implications for understanding these texts.

Ada: We will never be able to detangle all the contamination in the Eddas. They were drafted very late, after a great deal of interaction with southern influences. This issue is amplified by the fact that Vikings traveled far more widely than many people imagine. In addition to raiding the British Isles and France, Vikings sailed down rivers deep into Russia, down to the Mediterranean, and we have records of Vikings in the Holy Land during the First Crusade. A glance at the beginning of Snorri’s Edda, where he explains that Thor was king of Troy, instantly shows how deeply things are tangled. The elements where the possibility of contamination is most intriguing lie in the similarities between the Crucifixion and the stories of Odin hanging himself on the tree, and of Loki and the murder of Baldur. The fact that Baldur’s birthday was celebrated Dec. 25th is particularly striking. Etymological evidence shows Loki in a more positive role in early myths, possibly identical with Odin’s brother Lodur, and if so his transformation from trickster in some myths to evil traitor in others may reflect the arrival of the Satan narrative. When dealing with texts from the twelfth century containing stories that evolved over the centuries beforehand, from a culture that experienced frequent and repeated contact with Christianity over that entire period, it is impossible to tell whether individual similarities were generated when stories absorbed Christian ideas, or whether the stories evolved from them like a game of telephone, or whether the similarities are chance, or derive from some even older archetypes in European mythology.

BLT: You mentioned that while Christianity struggles with the problem of evil, the Norse myths face a rather different issue. Tell us about that.

Ada: Christianity and the Greco-Roman religions emerged around the Mediterranean, where life was basically good: the climate is comfortable, the earth is fertile, and there is an abundance of plants and animals for food. In these surroundings, where the world was basically good, the gods too are conceived of as basically good, thus giving rise to the question “if the gods are good, then why is there evil in the world?” But in the far north, where Viking culture emerged, the world was a very different place: the earth is more often frozen than not, plants and animals are rare, and even the gods have to fight and scheme for survival in a fundamentally inhospitable cosmos. In Norse cosmology, the basic elements of creation are ice and fire: dangerous elements that are intrinsically hostile to life. In such a world, the basic question that emerges isn’t “why is there evil in the world”: it’s “why is there anything good in the world at all?”

BLT: In what language were the eddas written? Is that language still spoken and/or written today? If we learned our Nordic runes from the Futhark song, what would we be able to read with them?

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Ada: The Eddas are in Icelandic. As with any living language, the modern form of Icelandic differs from its medieval ancestor, much as modern English differs from Chaucer. The Runic Alphabet as taught in the Futark song is very archaic. It was used for writing (from around 150 to 800 AD, and some variants as late as 1200 or 1500) but it was already fading out of use, displaced by the Roman alphabet, by the time the surviving manuscripts of the Eddas were written. Thus even the Codex Regius is in Roman script, with a few special characters (like Thorn). In the modern era, reading the Runic alphabet is mainly useful for reading runic inscriptions on tomb markers and other runestones which survive in many parts of Northern Europe touched by Viking cultures.

BLT: From what translations did you work? Did you do any of your own translations from the original language?

Ada: I have never studied Icelandic but I have studied some related languages, and Icelandic shares some roots with English, so if I have several translations in hand it is easy to cross-compare them with the Icelandic and identify the meaning and nuance of each word. Thus, if I want to quote a passage directly, I usually work by comparing many translations, and then developing something of my own. My favorite translation of the Poetic Edda is the Carolyne Larrington translation. I have no favorite for the Prose Edda.

BLT: What literary or poetic techniques, sonic effects, wordplay, or allusions are characteristic of the eddas? Did you try to find a way to render such language-play in Sundown, either in the text or in the musical composition?

Ada: The poetry in the Eddas is very compact, with short lines and a strict scheme using patterns of syllables and consonants more complex than simple rhyming. It also uses a lot of very periphrastic language, referring to things by titles instead of names. Both these things make eddic language rather opaque, so I didn’t want to imitate it closely in music intended to help people understand the stories in a digestible way. One thing I do that reflects the language somewhat is my frequent use of half rhymes and imperfect rhymes. I end lines with words with the same type of sound but that very frequently aren’t proper rhymes in the English sense. This gives the music a sense of pattern and regularity that is different from standard English rhymed poetry, and in which the beginnings of words and the patterns of what is in them is as or more important than the ends of the words. That’s what produces lines like:

“Ice and fire,/ ice and terror,/ ice and murder,/ mixing with the/ ice and fire/ ice and horror/ ice and hunger/ warring with the ice.”

When examined directly it’s clear that “simple” and “equal” don’t rhyme, nor do “rule” and “you” but they work when the rhythm and structure of the music are behind them.

BLT: There’s a bit in the play where Snorri starts to expound on the etymology behind Loki’s name, but he gets hushed by the other characters. Tell us about that.

Ada: The word “Logi” means wildfire, and a being called Logi (which might be Loki in disguise) appears in the Utgardsloki myth. Linguistic shift means that G often turns into K over time. Separately, Lodur is Odin’s brother responsible for creating the warmth of the human body. Lodur, Odin and Hoenir are the three brothers, but Lodur drops out of the myth and pretty-much never appears after the creation, but there are several stories of Loki, Odin and Hoenir traveling together. Loki seems to take Lodur’s place, or it could be that they were originally one figure which branched into two as Loki absorbed more of the “evil brother” notions and eventually was turned into a blood-brother. Lodur and Loki are less etymologically bound, but Logi as heat and Lodur as heat does form a vague connection. In addition, Loki has two Jotun brothers, one of whom is called Helblindi, which is one of Odin’s names. Are these figures the same? No. Are they mythologically and etymologically tangled? Very.

BLT: There are bits in Sundown that are very funny. How much humor is there in the original?

Ada: There is humor in the originals, though it’s not easy to tell which things are supposed to be funny and which aren’t. Humor doesn’t tend to last well over time, so it’s actually hard to answer that. There are many elements of the stories which are funny, and can be told aloud in ways that are very funny, but it’s difficult to tell whether we were intended to take them as funny, and there are probably other bits that are jokes we don’t get. One example is the story of Thor and Loki traveling to the hall of Utgardsloki, where Thor gets tricked repeatedly, and it can be told in a way that’s hilarious, but Snorri introduces it by saying it’s a story we usually don’t tell because it’s rude to talk about Thor looking foolish. Similarly I’ve had delightfully hilarious times reading the Lokasenna aloud, the section of the Poetic Edda where Loki is drunk and insulting everyone, and with the right gestures and tone of voice it’s roll-on-the-floor funny, but it’s also a terrible argument between the gods in which Odin and Loki are torn apart and Baldur’s murder is revealed, dooming the world, so was it intended to be funny? Hard to say. I use humor because I find humor in the original stories, and also because when the tone is so dark you need some humor to pep you up from time to time. It’s also a fun way to make Snorri’s character endearing, and the points where there is humor between him and the Seeress about bits that are missing from the Eddas is my chance to remind the audience that there are holes in what we know without turning it into a boring lecture.

BLT: There are places in Sundown that seem to bring the Norse myths into conversation with 21st century sensibilities. That struck me as a form of cultural translation, providing a bridge between Norse culture and ours. Is that what you were doing?

Ada: Because my audience consists of modern people with modern knowledge, assumptions and beliefs, it is impossible not to create a dialog between this era and the Viking one when I present these stories. None of us can look at how Hel is treated without feminist issues popping up in our minds, nor the strife with Jotunkind without thinking of race relations, nor the way family members treat each other without the modern nuclear family in mind, rather than the family of the Viking era with its servants and slaves and vassals and inheritance tensions and hostages and all that. In the play I aim to bring as much of the Viking era to the fore as I can but then to invite people to think about it from a modern perspective, and to try to understand the differences between period mindsets and our own. No Viking of Snorri’s era would ever have thought Loki and Odin and Baldur and Hel felt as I have them feel in the play, but no modern person can look at the stories and not start asking the questions and feeling the tensions that I introduce. The goal is to present balance, and show that, while these feelings that the gods voice are not in the Eddas, they are authentic to the content of the Eddas as we can understand it now.

BLT: One of the heart-rending themes of the play is the anguished wondering of whether there really was no other way to resolve the conflict among the gods than the all-out war of Ragnarok. *Could* there have been another way? Is that even a fair question for us to ask of these texts?

Ada: Treating the texts as historical artifacts and as religious texts, it isn’t a reasonable question in many ways, since these are stories which evolved over time and whose structure was intended, not as entertainment, but as a way of explaining and understanding the world. We can ask “What about Norse culture made it feel right to them that there was no other way?” and thereby learn about the ethical and cosmological mindset behind the stories. However, from a modern standpoint, we think about the stories and characters as we would a modern piece of fiction, then it becomes an unavoidable question. Every piece of modern fiction based on the Norse Cosmos gets to take a different approach, and look at what other options might have been open. It’s easy for me to speculate about many different potential alternate ends for the Norse Cosmos. I didn’t explore any in Sundown, not because they don’t excite me, but because I intended this project to stimulate people to think about it themselves. I wanted to present the stories in the unfinished form in which we received them, and ask the question, so those who watch and listen can wrestle with the issue for themselves.

BLT: The costumes for the play had many period-accurate details. What can we learn from such artifacts, whether authentic or replicas, about the texts?

Ada: For me at least, the costumes remind me powerfully of how barren the world was, and how close to starvation Vikings often were. Viking clothing is generally extremely simple and practical. We are used to the lavish brocades and curving gowns and tailored doublets we associate with medieval garb, but Viking clothing is pretty basic, rectangles, the occasional triangle, everything loose so it can be worn over many years even if the body changes shape, and the materials are simple, wool, linen, so that stripes or simple embroidery are about as lavish as it gets.

A lot of people, when they first see the type of apron dress worn by Viking women, think it looks Native American, rather than European, because of something in its simplicity and aesthetic, and I like that reminder that medieval France is not the primary peer we should be thinking of when we look at Vikings. We tried to make the costumes for the chorus members (i.e. humans) be at a very realistic tech level, and use the duller dyes that were realistically available.

The gods are in lavish costumes, but lavish doesn’t mean silks and satin????????s and glittering golden cloth, it means red, blue, purple, fur trim, with embroidered decoration instead of simple woven trim, and a tiny touch of gold thread on Odin and Baldur. This is not a world of decadence. It is a world of survival, even for the gods.

BLT: The cast is made up mostly, but not entirely, of women. Is that simply an artifact of the group’s history, and/or is there some artistic significance?

Ada: That’s an artifact of the group’s history, and who has asked to join since. Sassafrass started at Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, which I attended, not because I cared about the single-sex environment, but because I wanted its great classics program. That meant the original members were female, and those who have joined since have been whatever friends happened to express an interest. That said, I do think about the fact that I’m working with mainly female voices when I design and cast songs. It’s very rare for composers to do much with the low alto range of female voices, since the tenor is preferred in the same range. That means that my music sounds a bit strange, almost foreign, compared with what we are used to hearing, and, while Vikings certainly didn’t have low female a cappella singing, it is good that it feels “different.” It also lets me do things like have Hel provide the base line for the pieces she sings with Odin, Loki and Baldur. If they were played by men, the female voice would have to be on top, but with all women she can be the bottom, which is eerie, and a reminder of her grim underground kingdom. It also means that I know there is a striking change whenever the male voice comes in, and I use it carefully, for moments like Gift of Life where he starts singing when humans are created, making the chorus suddenly feel full when the Earth is finally fully populated.

BLT: What’s next for the song cycle? Might you someday expand it with additional pieces to include more from the eddas? Or would that be a completely different project?

Ada: I do have a couple more Norse songs brewing in my mind: one about Thor and Mjollnir, one about Frey and Freya, one about witchcraft. I don’t know if they’ll mature – it usually takes six months to a year for a song to mature in my mind, often longer. If they do then we may occasionally perform an extended Sundown with one of them added in if they fit, or they may be separate. But with such a big project freshly complete, right now my focus is on recording and performing it, not yet on the next thing.

BLT: Thank you very much, Ada, for taking the time to share all this with our readers! It’s all fascinating, and Sundown is such a terrific project. We wish you the very best of luck with the recordings, and with all your work.

And let me remind our readers that it’s not too late to help support this ambitious project, and thereby preorder the audio and/or DVD recordings: the Kickstarter remains open for one more week. Although the Kickstarter quickly made its original fundraising goal and has reached several of its stretch goals, every dollar raised will make it more likely that it can be performed again – maybe in a city near you!

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There are also more photos and music samples available from the Sassafrass website and Bandcamp page.

Ada Palmer is an historian, teaching at Texas A&M university.  She works on the Italian Renaissance and on the long-term history of ideas, especially Machiavelli, and the relationship between religion, science, heresy, atheism and the classics.  She does research in Europe, mainly at the Vatican Library; she also works extensively on mythology and literature, and on the history of books, technology, and costume.  Her first scholarly book, on the reception of Lucretius, atomism and secular science in the Renaissance, is due out from Harvard University Press in 2014.

She has studied instrumental music including violin, piano, mandolin, guitar, recorder and various medieval instruments, but her compositions are primarily vocal. She completed the Peabody music theory program at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, and took advanced music theory courses at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. She has sung in numerous vocal groups, including the Bryn Mawr Renaissance Choir, which focused on original and unpublished fourteenth through sixteenth century pieces.

Ada also researches Japanese pop culture, focusing on early post-WWII manga, especially the “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, as well as gender in manga and anime, Japanese folklore, cosplay and otaku culture.  She founded TezukaInEnglish.com, has published scholarly articles on manga, and done consulting work for publishers including ADV, Funimation and Tezuka Productions.

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