This post was so long that I've split it in half. I'll put the second part up in a few days.
I was going to follow up a prompt from Whispering Gums and write about Proust's chances as a Las Vegas security officer, but then when I was standing wet in the shower on Wednesday watching ants go up the wall from the gap around the tap I began thinking about the Norse sagas I'd been reading and how much they reminded me of the webcomic known as Axe Cop.
These weren't the more famous sagas, not the more serious or historical or developed ones, no Story of Burnt Njal or Egil's Saga, nothing from the saga-groups known as Icelanders or Kings -- the most disseminated sagas come from these groups -- but smaller sagas, pieces of "entertainment," according to Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, the translators of the book I'd been looking at, which was Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales. "The Legendary Sagas, from which the five stories in this volume come, originated in the 12th century, though the type continued to be written for many years after," say they. "They were intended primarily as entertainment -- one might almost say as escape literature." The character Bosi from Bosi and Herraud, "might remind the reader of one or two popular modern fictional figures" because he performs "amorous feats" and has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence."
In fact everyone in these sagas has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence," and so do the characters in Axe Cop, which is a mad, cartoonish, imaginative comic, all wild battles and people getting smashed, but it wasn't the violence on its own that got me thinking, it was the way the violence was introduced, the way the characters were described and named, and a kind of uncanny purity in both of them, the particular way the stories move, their mutual rhythm, the way they deal with the different parts of themselves.
Characters in Axe Cop are named after their traits, with Axe Cop being a cop who carries an axe, and Uni-Baby a baby with a unicorn horn growing out of her forehead, and Flute Cop a cop who played the flute until dinosaur blood turned him into a human-dinosaur hybrid, whereupon his name changed to Dinosaur Soldier, not only in the minds of his fellow characters but also in the minds of his two creators, who didn't try to hide or normalise this transformation but gloried in it, writing, "And so they became ... AXE COP & DINOSAUR SOLDIER!" Several of the saga characters acquire nicknames from their traits too, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, Asmund Berseker-Killer, or Stunt-Brunhilda (who is stunted), and one of them goes through a renaming process, like Flute Cop, when his trait changes.
That character is a Norwegian, Thorstein Mansion-Might, "so big that in the whole country there was hardly a door he could walk through without some difficulty," and he is travelling away from home on an adventure when a group of uniquely massive strangers rides up on horses and befriends him. From a tall person in a society of smaller people he becomes a tall person among even taller ones. "In my opinion," says the largest of these strangers, surveying Thorstein's height, which is instantly nonimpressive, "you ought to be called Mansion-Midget, not Mansion-Might." The Norwegian agrees. With that, the story abandons his original name and refers to him from then on as Thorstein Mansion-Midget.
It's this fluidity that characterises both Axe Cop and the sagas -- fluidity coupled with the principle of surprise -- the idea that names and things aren't fixed, that they can change or appear or vanish at will, that Thorstein can be a skilled bowman for one paragraph when he needs to shoot an eagle, even though we've never heard anything about him having a talent for archery before and never will again, that the dwarf whose child he has saved from the eagle happened to have a magic ring which he gives gratefully to the rescuer, who, a few chapters on, discovers that this is exactly the kind of magic he needs if he is going to sneak into the kingdom of King Geirrod the giant. Strange events occur in both saga and comic, not to advance the plot but because the author thinks they're interesting or funny: a giant-woman wears a skirt short enough to display her genitals; a kidnapping is carried out not by a normal kidnapper but by a mythical animal called the hjalsi; Axe Cop can't drive a magic riding spider because a sticker on the dashboard tells him that driving is restricted to "Cowboys and Warriors," and he is not a cowboy and not a warrior and so he has to let a vampire werewolf drive instead, because this vampire werewolf is also a ninja warrior from the moon.
(And it's the word that is magical here. Axe Cop behaves like any warrior hero, always looking for people to fight, but the narrator never describes him as a warrior -- he is a cop. Axe Cop knows this and he abides by it. He doesn't try to drive. And now you could argue that the practice of Law, which relies so much on definitions and words, is an extension of the logic of a six-year-old, because the boy who comes up with Axe Cop's stories and rules is six. His thirtysomething brother turns the ideas into scripts and draws the artwork.)
The reader rarely needs to wait, gifts appear instantly in the characters' hands, inspiration is a fact of life, everything uncanny is real. The people in Axe Cop obtain powers with wishes -- "I wish to be super strong!!" shouts Uni-Baby's father, "And," explains the narrator, "it happened" -- or they know where to go or what to do to find the weapon they need, or it just appears. A king sends Bosi to fetch a specific vulture egg decorated with gold lettering, and in less than a page he's met a woman who can tell him where the vulture lives and how it can be beaten. Gangrene in Thorstein Mansion-Might's saga happens immediately.
They rode as far as the river. On the bank there was a hut and from it they took a set of clothes for themselves and their horses. These clothes were made so that the water couldn't touch them, but the river was so cold that it would cause instant gangrene to any part of the body that came into contact with the water. They forded the river, with the horses struggling hard, but Godmund's horse stumbled, so Thorstein got his toe wet, and gangrene set in at once. When they got out of the river they spread their clothes on the ground to dry. Thorstein cut off his toe, and they were immensely impressed by his toughness. So they rode on their way.
If you turned Axe Cop into prose without the pictures it would look pretty much like that, complete with that touch at the end, And then they went on to the next adventure. There's a terrific transparent naturalness in the way the characters receive their gifts, just taking them as they come, like that set of waterproof clothes "made so that the water couldn't touch them," or, in Axe Cop, "a database of every bad guy, which included all their locations and powers," using them blithely and not feeling surprised by the sheer handiness of it all -- and events around them will barely disguise the fact that these treasures come from one place only, which is the author.
That's why the gifts can arrive immediately, and that's why they're always precisely and foresightfully the right thing, that's why a big man is not just a big man but a man so big he can barely get through doorways, or when the Norse heroes find gold it's not just a little bit of gold or even a usefully comfortable amount of gold but "They found so much gold there they had more than enough to carry." An author can create a tonne of gold as easily as a tiny handful, so why not the tonne?
An audience that expected realism would make the saga-tellers pause and reduce their gold, concerns about the strict believability of the events in the story might freeze them up, but they pre-date Flaubert by centuries upon centuries; they don't have to ignore the genre of literary realism (with its subtle psychological build-up, its immunity to magic dwarves) because that aesthetic does not exist, it is a unicorn or an atom bomb or a rocket ship, and the author of Axe Cop can ignore Flaubert too, because he is six years old, and, so, as far as storytelling goes, he is free to operate at the level of a twelfth-century Scandinavian. His lifespan is his history and he is still in the twelfth century, living through the High Middle Ages of his existence, later he will graduate to the fifteenth century, the eighteenth century, and the twenty-first, his expectations changing all the time, and how long will he be able to keep it up, I wonder, this kind of storytelling -- and so perhaps it is true what they say about older writers, they lose their edge. Philip Roth worries about ageing too, allegedly.