INTERVIEW: Carl Olsen

Carl Olsen got his PhD in Scandinavian Studies at UC Berkeley in 2009.  His dissertation was on viking poems about pictures of myths on shields, which is pretty much the most awesome dissertation topic ever. He continued as a lecturer at UC Berkeley until Summer 2012 and most recently taught as a Visiting Professor in the Scandinavian Department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN. In addition to teaching and researching, he writes poetry, draws stuff, and blogs about Vikings, Scandinavian Studies, science fiction and fantasy, and lots of other stuff at Vikings, Books, etc. You can find links to his poetry on his blog, and you can find his art both on his blog and on deviantART.

In this interview we talk about how Carl became a Doctor of Viking Studies, his art and research on the Norse sagas, and why Norse culture is more complicated than you might think.

PT: Doctor of Viking Studies is probably the coolest title (official or not) I’ve ever seen. What made you decide to go that route?

Well, technically my PhD is in Scandinavian Studies, but since I specialized in Old Norse literature, and my dissertation was on the so-called “shield poems” (supposed to be from the Viking period, but not written down until the 1200s, over two centuries after the conversion), I figured I could get away caricaturing myself as “Doctor of Viking Studies.” As for how I got into this field, I have to admit that I started out pretty early. As a child I loved, for example, the versions of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, or the recovery of the Sampo in the Kalevala, in the Myths and Legends volume of the Childcraft series (not even sure that series is around anymore—I also loved their volumes on dinosaurs, space, and pretty much everything cool). I also come from a Scandinavian American family, so as I grew I came to think of Scandinavian culture and identity as something I had a stake in. The turning point for me, however, was my discovery of Tolkien. I’d already decided in third grade that I wanted to be a novelist, and not long after I started reading The Hobbit, and later the Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, and eventually the posthumously published material. I decided by at least fourth grade that I wanted to be Tolkien, and after I realized that Tolkien studied Old English and Old Norse language and literature for a living, I figured that must be just as fun. The older I got the more I realized that I did well in the humanities, so I just kept going until I ended up in the PhD program in Scandinavian Studies at UC Berkeley. The idea was that it would be possible to keep working as a novelist on the side, but it turns out that doing anything on the side of grad school and an academic career is pretty darn hard, pre-tenure at least. I have been able to get some of my poems published in the meantime, but my fiction writing, short or long, has been mostly on hold for a while. Fortunately I’ve found that I enjoy teaching, so as long as I can find a good long-term job, I think I’ll do alright in this field.

What are you researching and/or drawing these days?

My drawing has been on hold a few months now, but I’ve been kicking around some ideas that would be a bit closer to a webcomic than the random Viking, etc, pics that I’ve been putting up so far—maybe a series of saga-themed cartoony scenes. Still sorting out whether any saga moments would really lend themselves to the treatment I have in mind—just a couple sketches in my journal right now, we’ll see if they go anywhere.

My current research (which is one reason my art has been on hold) is on the figure of the Home/Interior in the sagas for volume three of the Comparative History of Nordic Literary Cultures. I was pretty excited that they asked me to write for it. My draft is in now, so hopefully they will like it. I presented a condensed version of the last ten pages or so at a conference just a week and a half ago, and it seemed to be well received. I figure that bodes well. May possibly put a version of the conference paper up on my blog.

I’d also been working with Cultural Memory in the sagas over the last few years, and may work on turning a conference paper from last year into an article, if I can find the time. There has been a lot of work on this lately, so I want to make sure I have hit all the relevant secondary lit. I’m mostly interested in looking into why exactly we have medieval, Christian Iceland generating all this material from or about their pagan past (not something medieval Christians were supposed to do). I try to explain it in terms of the ways in which literate cultures remember and construct identity. Cultural Memory and Heritage Studies are two more recent interests of mine, and I will hopefully get a to blog post with some recommended reading on those topics one of these days.

Do you draw digitally or by hand? What is your process like?

Until a couple years ago I only drew by hand, but it was rare I did anything that felt like a finished piece. Then I picked up an iPad (really couldn’t afford it, but I’d been told it was a handy teaching tool) and got some art programs, and decided to get more serious about it. My early pics on my blog and deviantart are from my iPad (the programs I’ve used are Brushes, Sketchbook Pro, and ArtStudio), but then I ended up getting a Bamboo tablet with Photoshop Elements, and I’ve been very happy with that (upgraded to a larger tablet back before Christmas, but it is gathering dust at the moment). I still sketch in pencil in my notebooks, but I haven’t done any non-digital polished work since… well, maybe since I was an undergrad. I’m a self-taught amateur, having taken no art courses since High School, but I’ve enjoyed the encouragement and exposure I’ve gotten through my blog and DeviantArt. I’ve had a lot more practice than usual the last couple years, and I’m hoping to keep getting more and more professional.

My process varies depending on what I’m doing. If I’m just throwing together one of my “speed paint” landscapes, I may just start throwing color down on one layer to figure out what it’s going to look like, then will add more layers as I start working more on specific objects or distinguishing between background and foreground. If I’m spending more time on something, I will have a larger number of layers, sometimes several for more central objects. If I’m doing a cartoon character or comic strip, or if I am trying to plan out a landscape in more detail, I will have one or two layers of sketches which will eventually be deleted, after I’ve either painted over them or made an “ink” layer, with more polished lines (though I find that my hands are a bit shaky even with my “final draft” lines). If there is an ink layer, I put the color layers underneath that. After blocking in the colors I’ll start working out the shading and the highlights. For a while I was addicted to Photoshop’s “burn” tool, but I’ve been trying to be less dependent on that—it can be a nice effect, but it is easy to overdo. I know that Photoshop has a lot of tricks that I haven’t learned yet, but I for now I like keeping things simple. With my art and with my guitar playing I really like just “noodling” around until something starts to cohere. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes less well, but I enjoy this way of working best when it comes to a piece done in one sitting (like when I write poetry, actually). If I’m going to pick something up later, I need things planned out a bit more.

Ever since I read “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” by Wells Tower, I’ve wondered about the blood eagle. Was it real, and if so was it a casual thing like the story made it out to be?

I haven’t read “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” but there has definitely been some discussion of the historicity of the blood eagle in Old Norse studies. It isn’t something that comes up constantly in the sagas or poetry, so we can’t talk about it with the confidence that we can talk about, say, death by hanging being associated with Óðinn. I agree with Roberta Frank, who argued back in the 80s that the “blood eagle ritual” actually came from saga authors misunderstanding a reference to an eagle eating carrion on the battlefield (birds or wolves eating dead warriors is standard skaldic imagery). Her position was contested by Bjarni Einarsson, and there was some interesting back and forth. I believe the final chapter of the debate is from 1990, with two short notes in the journal Saga-Book (which you can read here). Could be there has been discussion since then, but it isn’t a discussion I’ve really followed (but there are still scholars who think it was a legit ritual). I figure the medieval saga writers could be just as interested in playing up the violence of the Viking age as contemporary authors and screenwriters are. That said, I won’t claim to know absolutely for certain whether the “blood eagle” was a real or imagined ritual.

If you could bust one myth about the Vikings, what would it be?

Hmmmm…. tough question. I would say “Well, they didn’t wear horns on their helmets,” but I think everyone already knows that. As I note in one of my early blog posts, the term “Viking” actually just meant pirate back then, at least in the Scandinavian languages, and for the most part I find it is a negative term—the protagonist of a saga may go a-viking, but it is usually the bad guys, or somewhat more peripheral characters (a side kick or friend) who get the label “víkingr” (Egill Skallagrímsson would be an exception). More pertinent for some of my own research is the question of just how monolithic or varied “Viking” culture and religion really were. We are used to treating Norse religion like we do the “religions of the book” (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), but even within those religions there is an enormous amount of variety. I think many enthusiasts of the Viking age tend to think that there is some original, authentic version of “Norse mythology” that they can dig up, but you just can’t talk about a pan-Scandinavian “canon” or anything like that when it comes to an oral culture. That’s not to say that there are no connections, or that we can’t make useful generalizations or legitimately try to recover an understanding of earlier forms of the religion, but I do think it is helpful to remember just how varied things could be, and how drastically the details can change over time—culture is always in flux, and the details can get pretty fuzzy at this distance. Going along with that point is the fact that there is no such thing as a closed cultural system—Scandinavian religion existed alongside, intersected, and was influenced by all the rest of Europe, and there is a lot we could look into regarding the relationship between, say, Saami shamanism and Óðinn, or Christianity and Ragnarök—doesn’t make it any less “authentic,” just reminds us that culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum or come in perfect categories. Hm, that’s a bunch of things, and not really specific “myths,” but I think they constitute some preconceptions about the subject that are worth working through.

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