At Rice University, higher learning is not an arduous trek to High Hrothgar.
Come spring 2013, Dr. Donna Beth Ellard and her students will chart a course across the North Sea, bridging the worlds of medieval Scandinavia and modern Anglo-Saxon fantasy.
Hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand, have their eyes on Ellard and her future journey aboard "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim".
== ABC is easy as Fus Ro Da ==
Ellard is not a gamer and she would be the first person to tell you.
"My husband plays video games and I'm always sort of … ‘Halo', again?" she said, rolling her eyes.
Her 14-year-old nephew is a gamer too. One day at her brother-in-law's house, she saw "Skyrim" and felt immediately drawn in.
"I was so compelled watching this game, I just wanted to pick up the controller and play it, so I bought the game and fell in love with the game," she said. "And I was like oh my God, this stuff that I research on is acting out in this video game right here. How are the two talking to one another?"
That dialogue will be the focus of Ellard's upcoming class "Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim". The goal is for students to understand the dialogue between medieval times and the 20th century.
"It's trying to bridge those gaps in time and space by means of thinking about fantasy because medieval fantasy, and particularly Scandinavian fantasy, is a really powerful, sort of resonant within popular culture," she said. You can just think not just to the world of ‘Skyrim' but to the world of Tolkien and all sorts of moments in which we call up Scandinavia and the Vikings in order to press upon something within contemporary pop culture that appeals to us."
== More Septims, more problems ==
Why is medieval Scandinavia so resonant within our culture? Ellard said that's the million-dollar question. The attraction is complex, historic and problematic. During the 18th century, Britain sought a new national identity that would separate themselves from their French adversaries.
Historians looked to Anglo-Saxon England, prior to the Norman conquests, to find the emergence of the English nation. They ended up running into a brick wall:
-- Old English literature from that period was few and far between.
Much of it had not been translated yet, including "Beowulf".
-- There was an inferiority complex regarding Britan's Anglo-Saxon ancestors because they lacked the strong literary tradition of France.
What historians did find in abundance was recent translations of Scandinavian literature, circulating in popular culture. They ended up appropriating that literature as part of their own history.
But you can't take the good without taking some of the bad, Ellard said.
"The problem is the Scandinavians are not English or British and that history is bound up in the Viking Invasions. As the English are simultaneously claiming kinship with Scandinavia by saying, ‘You are our greatest ancestor,' they are also like, ‘Oh, s**t. You raped, pillaged and plundered us'."
== Dark Brotherhood is the label that pays me ==
Ellard said much of that conflict is paralleled in the world of the "Skyrim". Underneath the dragons and draugrs, elements within the story are doing exactly what the Vikings did for the Brits in the 19th century.
"… You got this external force that you are in the one hand that you really wedded to. There's this feeling in ‘Skyrim' that people like the Empire but at the same time you feel really uneasy about the Empire being there because they are like imperial occupiers and you want them to leave."
"Skyrim" may not be exclusively beholden to Scandinavian mythology, but it is attached to the tropes we have seen being played out again and again in the 19th and 20th centuries. It also helps the game is a bit more relevant and current than other fantasy works.
"It makes you wonder why this game is coming out now. What's inside us that makes us so compelled to play this game? I could have picked Tolkien or ‘13th Warrior' or some really bad Viking film, but I felt … I don't understand why ‘Skyrim' is so exciting. People are going bananas over this course. I felt like it was asking ourselves why ‘Skyrim'? Why now? What can it tell us about popular culture and the drives behind popular culture?"
Ellard hopes her students, at the end of her course, understand the Middle Ages are alive and well in our subconscious. Just because a piece of text may be a thousand years removed from the present, it does not mean it lacks impact.
Just look at "Skyrim" or any other game in the past 20 years or so.
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