Notes from Niflheim: What’s in a Name?

I am half inclined to think that the old gentleman [parson] was himself somewhat tinctured with superstition, as men are very apt to be who live a recluse and studious life in a sequestered part of the country, and pore over black-letter tracts, so often filled with the marvelous and supernatural.
—Old Christmas, Washington Irving

I may have mentioned how country living has made me a bit superstitious. Well, so has having kids. I’m beginning to wonder just how much naming influences destiny.

With our first child, I had this ambition that any son of mine would be named for both a philosopher and a conqueror. At the time, my wife was particularly keen on Kierkegaard, the Gloomy Dane, so he supplied the first name. And that’s exactly what we ended up with. Our boy is very much a moody philosopher with a perhaps too vivid interest in historical conquests. He wonders about the theological implications of Miyazaki films, and consistently persuades his playmates to act out the Russo-Japanese War with him.

Our second child was given the Greek name for “resurrection” and the Latin for “born again.” This was the daughter who abruptly rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up in the warming pan immediately following birth. We should’ve known then and there that we were in for a daredevil. Truly she has no fear of death, not even healthy self-preservational fear. This is the child who enjoyed climbing up flights of stairs in order to leap giggling off the side rail, so that her father would have to intercept her in midair like a football.

When my wife became pregnant with our third child, we were both independently inspired to name her after a specific saint from Kildare. Lo and behold, that’s what we got: a little Zen saint, easy from day one. Easy labor, easy delivery, easy ride home. As yet she does not display her brother’s obsessive inquisitiveness, nor her sister’s devilish charm, but she is the sweetest and happiest of us all. I love all my children, but believe you me, if the first two had been as effortless as the third we’d have eight of them by now.

So be careful what you name your offspring. Aim for generous saints if you want a quiet household. Go for warrior-kings if you want a little more adventure. Then again, what do I know? My wife’s name means ewe, after all, implying passive or submissive—and she’s anything but.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found at Grimly Optimistic.

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Waking Odin

RDGStout

One of the remarkable things about mythology—be it Egyptian, Classical, Norse, Arthurian, or what have you—is that the collections we have today may indeed reflect rather little of the original folk beliefs whence they sprung.

This first became obvious to me upon familiarizing myself with the history of Egypt, wherein local gods rose and fell in prominence, messily entering and exiting the pantheon along with the fortunes of their sponsor cities.  Many gods, particularly solar deities, merged and re-merged, first with other Egyptian divinities and later, of course, with the Greek.  The nice, neat little collections of Egyptian mythology we read today, with all the edges smoothed over and the loose threads tied, has more to do with Victorian tidiness and Britain’s post-Napoleonic Egyptology craze than with anything else.

As for the Classical myths, we in the Anglophone world have been raised (fortuitously) on Bulfinch and Hamilton, who wove and synthesized their raw material as skillfully and thoroughly as did the Brothers Grimm.  We recognize Greco-Roman gods not necessarily as the Hellenistic world would have recognized them—amorphous, shifting, and contradictory in their tales—but as 19th Century Brits and Americans would.  The only sacrosanct text for the Greeks came from Homer, and perhaps Hesiod, though even these paint rather different pictures of the gods.  The myths don’t match and often contradict, necessitating a good editor.  Aphrodite and Artemis have varying origin stories; Hecate emerges first as a new goddess, then as a new aspect of an older one.  Who is to say how the Greeks themselves understood this stew of stories?  It reminds one of the perpetual reboots and retcons suffered by modern superheroes.

The Norse are no different.  The Norse myths enjoying resurgent popularity today stem primarily from two sources: Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda, and a collection of songs and short stories known as the Poetic Edda.  Both were compiled and (especially in the former case) redacted by Scandinavian Christian monks.  In them, pagan and biblical sources mirror one another. How many parallels stem from pagan responses to Holy Writ? How many from Christians emerging from a pagan culture? How many from shared reflections of mutually encountered truth? None can say. I’ll venture this much, however: that Odin only sacrificed himself on a tree with a spear through his side some 1200 years after Jesus made that look popular.

What we call the Norse myths have more to do with successive waves of Romantic, Darwinist, and Occult crazes from the 17th through 20th Centuries, drawing from and elaborating upon muddled sources.  How could poor Tactitus know that his Germania would inspire industrialized eugenics millennia after the fact? Even the murderous Odin cult might well have quailed at the 20th Century racial myths grafted on to a supposedly Nordic mythology. Medieval Scandinavians, believe you me, had no problem vigorously interbreeding with whatever populations they met in their travels. I’m living proof.

In his 1993 Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Ronald Hutton argued quite persuasively, and in the face of neopagan assertions to the contrary, for an aggressive agnosticism: “I have no real idea of what pre-Christian belief and religion looked like in Europe, and neither do you.”  (He later penned a very popular and somewhat apologetic follow-up volume on the history of modern neopaganism arguing, in effect, that the movement has nothing to do with actual ancient paganism but still has its positive aspects and contributions to society. So, thumbs up, I guess.)

The Church Fathers, for their part, having honed their skills drawing extensive parallels between the Old and New Testaments, enthusiastically embraced doing the same between Christian stories and their antecedent “pagan dreams.”  (Once more, we find that the only sources we have for Christian opponents most often come from the Church herself, preserving past controversies as though in amber.  One might infer that she respected her opponents as men made in the Image of God, if nothing else.) Again, no one can say how many of these parallels stem from coincidence, Providence, or syncretism, but one very popular line of interpretation came from Christian euhemerism: that is, the reading of ancient myths and folktales as exaggerated history.

Euhemerism made perfect sense in a world that regularly deified great rulers and heroes. Whereas Jewish pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Enoch (not to mention several of the Fathers) spoke about pagan deities as fallen angels, euhemerism argued that they were in fact great figures in human history posthumously divinized.  St. Augustine embraced this situation for the Roman gods, peopled as that pantheon was with Caesars in apotheosis.  But he wasn’t the only one: the Venerable Bede argued the same for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon gods of Britain, as did Snorri for the Norse gods.  Before you knew it, Odin (or Wotan) was taken neither for a demon nor for a symbolic embodiment of natural forces, but rather for the great warlord and Allfather of the ancient Gothic root-race that emerged from Asia (Aesir, get it?) to found the various Teutonic tribes.

Outlandish as such a history may be, this euhemerism—historically demonstrable amongst the Romans (Caesar), Greeks (Alexander), Egyptians (Ramses), and Celts (who never could differentiate between fairies, gods and ghosts)—strikes me as a plausible explanation for pagan pantheons.  No wonder that pre-Christian gods seem so fickle, so contradictory, so mercurial—indeed, so dreadfully human.  (Anyone who thinks that America has shed this universal human impulse to divinize emperors needs only spend an afternoon strolling about D.C. to be otherwise convinced.)  Truly our tendency has been to deify all great men, good and evil: a desire quenched only upon reaching its fulfillment in the Cult of Saints. But that’s a tale for another time.

Were the pagan gods embodiments of natural forces and abstract concepts who only later developed personalities and well-defined stories? Or did they in fact start out with said personalities and tall tales, only later growing in stature to become absolutes? We cannot say, of course; Hutton stands ready to reprimand us should our speculation spool out too far.  Our history reveals at least as much about the modern day as it does about our ancestors, and the past remains shrouded, vastly more inscrutable than we will ever care to admit.  Nevertheless, as surely as I relish the idea of a historical Celtic war chieftain defending Romanized Britannia from Saxon invaders—only later earning the sobriquet of Arthur, “the Bear,” and all the mythical accretions of the centuries—so too must I admit that the idea of Allfather Odin as an ancient warlord and sorcerer—one-eyed and roaring, charging amongst his ravens and his wolves—impossible though such a figure would ever be to verify, warms the cockles of my bizarrely medieval heart.

Waking Odin

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Blood and Sand

RDG Stout

I find the Middle East endlessly fascinating. This is due in no small part, I’m sure, to my profession, which requires a working knowledge of the various ancient empires of the Fertile Crescent, not to mention the later Classical accounts of Greeks and Romans running roughshod through Anatolia, Persia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

Of course, I’ve also grown up with the Middle East constantly on American television. I was pretty young when the Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan, but we all remember Rambo III. (Go ahead. Try to forget it.) Desert Storm and the Gulf War made a big impact on me in elementary school because all of a sudden war wasn’t just something we learned about in school. Now, with cameras stuck on smart bombs, we could watch it live on CNN after class.

Everyone remembers the shock and horror of 9/11. I was in college at the time, and I vividly recall students having difficulty explaining what was going on to our morning professors, who clearly didn’t keep up with online news as obsessively as we did. Everybody was behind Afghanistan, right? Just War and all that.

But then we went back to Iraq—for absolutely no reason. Of course, at the time I thought we had perfectly good reasons. As yet I didn’t understand the deep hatred that Al Qaeda held for the Baathist regime (the finer points of Middle Eastern politics were largely lost on undergraduates) so I swallowed hook, line, and sinker when the executive branch informed us that WMDs were a “slam dunk.” Hadn’t the Israelis taken out an Iraqi breeder reactor years earlier? Saddam was trying to build nukes and give them to Osama! We had to do something, or there would be mushroom clouds over Manhattan!

What can I say? I was young and stupid. Scaremongering was more effective back then.

Today I have a seven-year-old son who has developed an insatiable curiosity about military history, empires, wars, that sort of thing. He still struggles to understand whenever I try to explain to him that a country’s problems can’t all be solved by shooting people. He doesn’t get how we could win every major battle in Vietnam, yet utterly lose the war. And he can’t figure out why Afghanistan and Iraq are such horrific, bloody messes when we steamrolled right over both opposing forces.

He’s in second grade. That’s a little young for me to recommend Sebastian Junger’s War or Evan Wright’s Generation Kill or Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War or Mark Owen’s No Easy Day. We’ll stick with Harry Potter for the time being. That series gets dark enough. But the rest of us are old enough to learn from history. I’d advocate gratis subscriptions to Foreign Affairs for every member of Congress, if only I thought they would read them.

Obviously Saddam was a Bad Guy. The world is full of such tyrants. And his sons, Uday and Qusay—these were not men who were ever going to die peacefully in their beds. But before we invaded Iraq, relegating Afghanistan into a sideshow and thus letting Bin Laden escape for another decade, there was no Al Qaeda there. It took our pounding a third world country into dust and grease to allow foreign insurgents to flood in as AQI—which in retrospect was probably the big picture all along. Create a honey pot to lure and trap the flies. We dutifully killed all comers, but not before a few AQI survivors were able to flee across the border to Syria (another theater we had to ignore, being elsewhere bogged down) and there recruit the masses by portraying the Iraq War as a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Which by that point it had become. Experts had warned us not to simply swap out Baathists for Shiites, but nobody really listened, it seems. Too many double vowels.

So now in 2015 we have to deal with ISIS, a twisted chimera of Al Qaeda, Baathists, jihadis, and bored Western teenagers. They’re bringing the Seventh Century back to the Middle East, only with Kalashnikovs and heavy armor. Honestly, these guys have risen to Bond-villain levels of evil. Who else could unite Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran against a common foe? Strange bedfellows doesn’t begin to cover it.

I know there’s a sort of “You break it, you buy it” argument for going back for Iraq War III. And certainly you couldn’t pick a more deserving group of psychopaths to bomb into paste. But every time we interfere—every time!—things get worse. Afghanistan is falling back into Taliban hands. Libya, Iraq, and Syria have ceased to exist as nation states. Iran and Syria are leading the Iraqi Army into a Shiite-Sunni civil war that’s already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We’re 0 for 5 over there, folks. And to top it all off, the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East have been systematically eradicated in the wake of every American military venture. Every one.

Meanwhile, we seem to be doing everything we can to exacerbate the situation. Samuel Huntington predicted the division of Ukraine and rising spheres of influence for Russia and China back in 1996’s Clash of Civilizations, and things are proceeding according to his timetable. As the West escalates the conflict in Ukraine, which Russia has always viewed as its backyard, Moscow retaliates by destabilizing the Middle East. Putin is so determined to keep this sphere of influence that he’s doubling down even as the Americans and Saudis wring the life out of the Russian economy like a python.

China, the great power most dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, can’t believe that the US is really this incompetent and suspects instead a deliberate conspiracy to starve the Middle Kingdom of petroleum. Beijing will happily cozy up to Moscow and Tehran if Washington can’t get its act together. The spice must flow. Otherwise they won’t find much incentive to work with us in the progressively turbulent East China Sea.

It’s an increasingly multipolar world, and the US will have to work with Russia and China to pursue common interests if we hope to avoid further wars not only in the Middle East but in Europe and the Pacific. We have to ask ourselves which priorities we’re willing to fight for, and which we’re willing to negotiate. America has the ear of the Sunnis in Egypt and Arabia; Russia has the ear of the Shiites in Syria and Iran. If we want to prevent out-and-out genocide, we have to cooperate with all the regional powers. We cannot confront everyone, everywhere. Ask Rome about that. Or Great Britain.

We have many enemies who would rather be our allies, and blowing things up is not our only leverage. It’s not even the most effective. Economic sanctions work; they’ve brought Iran begrudgingly to the bargaining table, and they’re putting the screws to Russia. What’s the hard power alternative? Antagonize Iran, have them go ahead and build their nuke, watch Saudi Arabia and Turkey do the same to create parity, and—well, use your imagination. Clearly that’s not a road we wish to go down. These are not regimes that shy from mass casualties.

Look, I’m just plunking away on a blog in the middle of nowhere. But it seems abundantly clear that no amount of blood spilled on that sand is ever going to bring peace to the Middle East. Least of all American blood. And the sooner we finally learn that, the happier our children will be.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Dad by Disney

RDG Stout

They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.

But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.

Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.

Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.

Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.

Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.

Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.

Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.

We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)

Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.

The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.

That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?

In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.

So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.

Well, her and a certain Mouse.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Notes from Niflheim: Frost Bites

RDG Stout

I recently asked our local chief of police if he needed extra manpower to prepare for the infamously raucous Niflheim Mardi Gras. He laughed, but I warned him that chilly co-eds might flash in exchange for scarves.

The East Coast, at least up New England way, just keeps getting pounded this winter, which is doubly bizarre for rural Minnesotans because ours has been uncharacteristically gentle. Indeed, unnervingly so. Last winter was rough even on the seasoned veterans; the temperature stayed around negative 20 for three months straight, with wind chills often dipping near negative 50. The frost line plunged down seven, eight, nine feet. Water mains froze. In town folks had to keep their faucets running for the entire season.

In contrast, this winter has been suspiciously enticing. We experienced warm spells up to 40 degrees (positive!) at both Santa Lucia and Christmas Day. I was out walking the dogs in December, which proved highly surreal. The high school crowd is grouchy because we’ve had so little snow that they can’t break out the snowmobiles, and even the most ardent of the ice fishers had to wait a bit to drive out on the lakes and drag along their mobile fishing palaces.

Recently we’ve dropped back down to a more familiar negative 30 wind chill, so I can return to bemusedly smirking at Facebook friends who cry out in astonishment at five degree temperatures in New Jersey. (Native Minnesotans are far too polite to mock the rest of the country’s inability to deal with even moderately sized frost giants. As a transplant, however, I have no such qualms.)

I remember when I first flew out to Fargo to meet up with my wife, whose move had preceded mine by a few months. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath—and doubled over hacking. It was a balmy negative 40, and my lungs were as yet Pennsylvanian in constitution.

“We don’t gulp the air here,” my wife admonished gently. “We sip it.” What sort of people voluntarily dwell where the very air one breathes burns from the inside out? I tried to sputter. All I got out was, “Ack! H-guh! *cough*” There’s nothing quite like the first time that you feel all the hairs inside your sinuses freeze at once.

I later recalled my Giants in the Earth, and realized that people used to wait out these winters in sod huts. Sod huts! Truly these were gods amongst men. Or at least part bear.

After several months of acclimation, however, I remember chipping my car out of an ice bank one fine day for my morning commute—it often snows here from Halloween to May Day, and we had but a single car garage while my wife was pregnant, so you know she wasn’t going to be chipping out her car—and thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad today.” So I removed the earmuffs and gloves and scarf, and made do with the long coat.

Then on the drive in I noticed the temperature on the bank sign: negative 20. Negative 20! And I could breathe! And expose bare skin! By thunder, I’d done it! I’d acclimated! It’s like learning that you can breathe underwater, or walk unsuited on the moon.

So buck up, Jersey. You’ll survive. Around here at negative 20 kids still frolic in the backyard with dogs, and school is never, ever canceled. Take some inspiration from the Vikings. Visit Fargo. Read Giants in the Earth. And know that this too shall pass. Why, it probably won’t even last much past May Day.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.  His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Notes from Niflheim: Country Moon

One’s definition of “rural” is completely relative. After spending years living out of efficiencies in Philadelphia and Boston, moving to Fargo deeply jarred me. Everything seemed so small, what with buildings rarely rising above two stories in height. I laughed the first time that one of my new coworkers referred to Fargo-Moorhead as “the metropolitan area” for “urban ministry.”

“Urban!” I replied. “Man, this is rural.”

“Then what do you call what we call rural?” he asked, sipping his coffee.

Frontier.” For heaven’s sake, the town is named for Wells Fargo.

That was a long time ago. Having spent almost seven years in a town of 1200 souls, Fargo-Moorhead’s 140,000 indeed seems like the Big City now. All those lights, all that traffic, all the pavement—after living on 5.2 acres of forest and field, the whole thing feels like a wasp nest. Country life has ruined me for being urban, or even suburban, ever again. There’s just something about the space, the people, the wildness that liberates one’s soul. Plus it forces you to learn a whole host of basic survival skills that one never develops living in crowded neighborhoods.

One transitional memory that really sticks with me even today is how we had to adjust to the darkness. Growing up I never much noticed the full moon, save for my time working in the trauma bay. (Weird stuff happens when the moon is full, believe you me.) But this knowledge became less theoretical and more practical when we left behind the highways, the street lights, the passing cars. On a moonless night, there’s nothing, no light at all, a darkness like the plagues of Egypt. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. And on a full moon, holy cow. It’s like a spotlight in the sky, a second silver sun. You can see everything.

It also drives kids and dogs wild, and our household possesses both in abundance. Take, for example, last night. We had the Super Bowl on as we chased small children about, but my wife and the kids passed out before halftime, so I switched to something I can only enjoy when I’m the solitary viewer: PBS’s delightful second season of Shakespeare Uncovered. (That’s how I roll, son. Bard4Life.) After A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, I should by all rights have gone to bed, but the moon was just so bright, streaming in the windows … I decided instead to read a bit of The Book of Conquests, which has proven highly addictive. Celtic mythology is metal as fudge.

By the time I finally hit the hay, our night unfolded like so:

10:45 p.m.—Go to bed.

12:00 a.m.—Youngest child cries because moonlight is shining directly on her face. (Middle child long ago tore down the venetian blinds.) Youngest is only consoled with a bottle and being brought to your bed.

1:00 a.m.—Dogs insistently bark at a forest monster that’s, like, right behind you, seriously. You can see them clearly in the moonlight wagging their tails and staring in the windows at you, happy to have saved the entire family from a gruesome demise.

2:00 a.m.—Eldest child awakes and comes in to check on you, because he dreamt that you grew a beard. You remind him that you’ve always had a beard, and get up to tuck him back into bed.

3:00 a.m.—Middle child cries because the moonlight is now shining directly on her face. This is the child we’ve caught howling at said moon. She demands to sleep with a parent.

5:00 a.m.—Eldest child turns on the lights and walks on top of your feet to wake you up because he’s seen an alien. Alas, it seems not to have abducted him.

6:00 a.m.—Alarm goes off because it’s Monday, sucker.

Just another full moon in the country.

 

 

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

Beneath Pixie Hollow: A Brief Social History of the Fey Folk

RDG Stout

So apparently fairies are a thing again.

When most folks hear “fairies,” we surely think of Tinkerbell. Disney has rather cornered the market on tiny winged Victorianesque young ladies. As a father of little girls I must confess that I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in the various denizens of Neverland, and I can’t say as I mind a bit of Tinkerbell merchandise. Indeed, I rather hope that hanging a blonde in a strapless miniskirt from the Christmas tree gives my wife ideas.

But this fad goes beyond Disney and the family-friendly market. Neopaganism and the New Age movement have made fairies into big business. Witness the art of Amy Brown, or the 131,395 books that an Amazon search for “fairies” nets you. Cynics would surely dismiss this as infantilism, the aptly-named Peter Pan Syndrome, and lump it as part of a larger phenomenon encompassing Avengers movies and Brony conventions. (Not that we don’t watch a little MLP in the Stout household.)

But methinks there’s more to it than that. Fairies inevitably represent nature, and our postmodern world—largely disconnected from the soil and insulated from the seasons—yearns to reconnect with natural phenomena not just on a physical but also on a spiritual level. We want the world to feel enchanted again. And that’s what fairies do: they enchant the world. But nature isn’t cutesy. And up until recently, neither were fairies.

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