ReNEW PhD student Anna Bark Persson defended her thesis ”Steel as the Answer? Viking Bodies, Power, and Masculinity in Anglophone Fantasy Literature 2006-2016” on 2 June 2023 at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.
This dissertation examines the motif of the popular Viking in contemporary Anglophone fantasy literature, with a focus on masculinity, power, embodiment, and sexuality. The study draws on queer-theoretical perspectives on masculinity and the method of queer reading, and approaches the Viking as at once bound up with the legitimization of normative and hegemonic forms of masculinity and open to (queer) negotiations and possibilities beyond normative male masculinities.
The material consists of contemporary gritty fantasy, a recent subgenre deeply invested in contemporary concerns regarding masculinity, masculine failure, and masculinity crisis narratives, where the Viking motif plays a major role. The texts under consideration are Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law (2006–2012) and The Shattered Sea (2014–2015), Richard K. Morgan’s A Land Fit for Heroes (2008–2016), Mark Lawrence’s The Red Queen’s War (2014–2016), and Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s The Iskryne Saga (2007–2015).
Understanding the Viking as a motif that is intractably bound up with ideas of the past and the historical period of the Viking Age but not reducible to it, the thesis considers the fantasy Viking as a medial representation of spectacular hardbody action masculinity and puts in in relation to the fantasy text and fantasy worldbuilding as well as more generalized cultural ideas of the North and the Nordics. Furthermore, it asks how we can understand the masculinity of the Viking – long made symbolic of or associated with white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and reactionary gender roles – beyond an assumed direct relation to men or men’s concerns.
Analytically, the thesis considers the Viking in relation to spatiality, temporality, and embodiment, finding that in the fantasy text, the Viking emerges with a strong focus on a strong, muscular body and as a barbarian Other connected to the past and in direct opposition to civilization and futurity, making it an escapist possibility outside the disciplining power of neoliberal late-stage capitalism.
Furthermore, connecting to postfeminist perspectives on masculinity in media, the thesis finds that the fantasy Viking has developed in ways that seemingly take into account feminist and queer critique of traditional, homophobic forms of masculinity, transforming the Viking and offering it up for (queer) objectification. At the same time, the Viking also becomes a safe site of traditional masculinity, where anxieties and concerns regarding a supposed loss of male power in modernity can be projected and ultimately resolved.
An electronic version of the doctoral dissertation is available on DiVA: Steel as the Answer?: Viking Bodies, Power, and Masculinity in Anglophone Fantasy Literature 2006–2016