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21.08.29 Plumb et al (eds.), What is North?

21.08.29 Plumb et al (eds.), What is North?

What is North? is the first volume in the new Brepols series on the North Atlantic world (400-1900), and it emerged from a conference organized around “Visualizing the North” held in 2016. The perspective of the conference and of this volume is how “the North” was understood, idealized, politicized, and visualized from the North Atlantic perspective. It should be noted that in this volume “North Atlantic” means the “Celtic, Anglo-Saxon [sic], and Norse milieu;” the editors note that other inhabitants of the North, such as the Sámi and Inuit peoples, appear as cultural outsiders in the sources under discussion in this volume, and that “othering” of Native peoples is a consistent and significant feature in North Atlantic engagement with the North (10). Situated thus, What Is North? comprises twenty essays ranging across the North Atlantic from Scandinavia to the Orkneys, Ireland, Greenland, Canada, and worlds beyond, from the early medieval period up to the twenty-first century. What could easily be a disparate collection of essays coheres as a volume through which to explore how Northern-ness has been variously constituted by some of the people living within or near its borders. The volume builds on the existing conversation about the Northern-ness and the North Atlantic world that has emerged over the past fifteen years, and contributes to it by including essays on medieval Christian depictions of Sámi magic (Ellen Alm and Rune Blix Hagen), on Scandi noir fiction (John W. Dyce), and on nineteenth and twentieth century Icelandic literature and culture (Sumarliði R. Ísleifsson, Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir).

Of particular interest to medievalists are the dozen or so essays in the first half of the volume, all of which explore different aspects and pose different answers to the question “what is north?” The North Atlantic world under discussion is vast and varied, but linguistic, cultural, and religious heterogeneity exists within a network of connections, exchanges, and affinities, so that both common themes and specific cases can be productive for understanding this region. Some of the common themes under discussion in this volume include hostility (of people and the natural environment), heroism (spiritual and physical), acquisition (of territory, fame, or insight), and the tension between “civilization” and “wilderness.”

Several of the essays consider elements, both real and mythical, of the distinctive sub-Arctic landscape, and encounters between inhabitants of the North Atlantic world and the natural world. In “Moulding One Another: Grettir and the Landscape,” Eduardo Ramos skillfully explores how the harsh environment of Iceland was presented as the natural backdrop--and adversary--to the hero Grettir, and how surviving the North involves becoming like it. Two of the essays, by Ragnhild Ljosland and Jay Johnston, explore the how the Neolithic Orcadian burial mound, Maeshowe, was variously understood in the medieval period and later. Ljosland’s contribution in particular offers new perspective on how later people during the medieval period conceptualized and related to the tangible evidence of much earlier settlement, and on how human-built elements of the landscape can be naturalized within it. This essay will be particularly useful to scholars working at the intersection of eco-criticism and medieval studies. Donna Heddle’s contribution also takes Orkney as the locus, specifically the placement and meaning of Orkney in the cartographic imaginary, and considers how the changing political importance of Orkney over centuries is reflected in maps. Political and ethical requirements also figure in John Moffatt’s essay on the Vinland sagas, while Oisín Plumb explores how “North” functions as a place like “beyond” in seventh-century Irish hagiography. Marged Haycock also takes up the topic of a voyage northward, but in the context of fourteenth-century Wales, “north” was a marker in time (the deeper past) as well as a cardinal direction.

Several of the essays that deal with more contemporary material may also be of interest to scholars working on medievalism. Lynn Powell examines the imagined Viking past in the late nineteenth-century children’s novels of Jessie Saxby. Jim Clarke looks at how “Northernity” features in twentieth-century English-language fantasy literature; that is, the characteristics linked to “the North” in literature of imaginary worlds.

The essays are somewhat uneven in terms of polish, some reflecting more of their origins as conference papers than others. The essays also do not exhibit a coherent idea of the intended audience for each piece; some are quite specialized, while others are more inviting. Nevertheless,What Is North? represents a welcome contribution to the field of North Atlantic studies and medieval studies.