Ode to Viking: Storytelling as a powerful learning tool

In loving memory of my father

Sven Åke Lennart Hedlund (1942 – 2019)

 

“To him an heir was afterward born,
a son in his halls, whom heaven sent
to favor the folk, feeling their woe
that erst they had lacked an earl for leader
so long a while; the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.
Famed was this Beowulf…”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50114/beowulf-modern-english-translation

That excerpt can be found at the beginning of the tale of Beowulf, great Danish warrior who defeated the monstrous Grendel and his mother, beheaded them, became king, and slayed a dragon with his friend Wiglaf to die immediately after because of a lethal wound in the confrontation. A fantastic story based on several elements from the Norse mythology that had reached the Anglo-Saxon world through the raids of fearless warriors coming from the east: the Vikings. Generations of children who inhabited Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland centuries ago and even today heard tales of Odin, the mighty one-eyed god who carried a spear and ruled Valhalla, the Nordic heaven, father to the god of thunder Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, husband to Frigg, a clairvoyant. This all might seem familiar to us because of Marvel’s depiction, however inaccurate, of these incredible tales. The question we might ask is: why have those and other tales survived the test of time?

We connect through stories. Gathering around a bonfire to share the myths of how the universe was created, why the weather worked a certain way or why people died and where they went to is older than written language. The Vikings were excellent storytellers and their contribution gave birth to some of the most praised narratives of our time such as Tolkien’s acclaimed The Lord of the Rings based on the tale of a shape-shifting dwarf who could turn into a fish and had lost his precious golden ring or Amleth’s story of his murderous uncle who killed his father driving him to madness that served as a source of inspiration to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (noticed the anagram?).

You see, what happens in our brains when we listen to stories is quite interesting. Our hippocampus and neighboring structures are involved in the consolidation of a particular type of long-term memory, namely the declarative memory. This type of memory is often divided into episodic or contextual (life events, scenes) and semantic (ideas, concepts). When we hear the story of Ragnar Lodbrok’s ruthless son, Ivar the Boneless, seeking revenge for his legendary father’s death in England, who defeated King Aelle and performed a blood eagle on him, cutting his back open with a hatchet while he was still alive or Eirik’s saga crossing the Atlantic Ocean 500 years before Columbus reaching  Canada and calling it Vinland (Wineland), multiple regions of our brains are activated. The occipital lobe, responsible for visual processing, our temporal lobes, in charge of language, our amygdala, center of emotions and so on. We encode that information by relaying all those elements from these regions via the hippocampus and back to the cortex of the brain where they will be stored. Tales like these tap into both our episodic and our semantic memories and seem to linger with us throughout our lives.

Take you for example. Go back to a particular story you heard from a parent or a teacher. Reimagine it in your mind. Doesn’t it bring back an array of memories? The most vivid memory I have of my father is sitting outside. Those were normally bright days filled with sunlight and green leaves and grass. Our dogs were all around him as they would normally do. There was a red brick wall behind him where he had built a stone oven. He was always wearing a light-colored polo shirt, usually holding a cigarette in one hand and a glass of caipirinha in the other. Funnily enough, I always thought he had this incredible resemblance to Sir Anthony Hopkins portraying Odin in the Thor series (except for the long hair).

I would sit right across from him and listen to his stories. His favorite childhood story was about a powerful man, a nobleman or possibly a king, who fell ill and had to take a bath to break his fever. Since taking baths was not customary, this man shouted in despair saying that he was certain he was going to die because all the fleas and lice had abandoned his body. Another funny story was about the time he was stationed in Vietnam because of his electrical engineering job. He was in his hotel room and the first sunrays were beginning to appear when he woke up to a bunch of screaming men outside the hotel. He quickly ran to the window, opened it and saw a group of men struggling with a giant snake. They killed it and carried it on their shoulder somewhere. Later, during breakfast, he realized they had served the snake as the main delicatessen on the table.

So many stories! They keep coming to my mind as I write. Dad was in the Swedish Navy and he shared the bunk bed with a friend. They once went to France by ship and found their way to Paris on their day off. Their superior said they had to be back at a specific time the next day or the ship would leave without them. They went out to the Parisien clubs (that was in the early 60’s) and got incredibly drunk. They nearly missed the departure and because of the sea motion, his friend got sick and threw up from the top of the bunk bed. And there’s this one: Years later, doing some work in Bolivia, he had to catch a bus very early in the morning to get somewhere. He got a regular bus that went up a mountainous region and it was during the winter. The bus was filled with local people who were traveling with their animals (hens, goats, dogs,  alpacas). He said the smell was terrible and it was freezing. For some reason, the bus driver stopped at a plateau. Nobody said anything. He could hardly speak Spanish but decided to ask the driver what was going on. He said: “Estamos esperando el sol, hace mucho frío”. Another one was that once, still as a kid, he stole some chemical products from his father who worked in the railroads. His friend and he managed to make an explosive with the products and put it on an old bike that they placed at the center of a frozen lake. He said the explosion was so big it made a huge hole through the ice and completely destroyed the bike.

I have learned countless lessons from my father’s stories. He told me funny and sweet stories about my half-siblings from his previous marriage in Sweden, with whom I keep in touch until today. Johan, Lotta, and Susanne are their names. He was proud of them. He had me and my brother Jonas in Brazil in his second marriage. But, unfortunately, as every good story, the human characters die after all their spoils. My father, Sven Åke Lennart Hedlund, passed away yesterday. He was 76 years old and didn’t care much about his health. He had a stroke and left us. As the fate of King Beowulf, who was laid on the pyre and set on fire, my father was cremated. His ashes will be given to my mother in my hometown in Brazil.

His stories will never die in me. They will carry on through the course of my life and be used as sources of inspiration whenever I teach, lecture, study or simply have a conversation. Because stories are the fabric of life. And what we do is create new stories and relive old ones. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or hero’s journey shows us that the stories we get hooked on are actually pretty much the same story. Like when the Vikings left the Scandinavian shores to explore the unknown and ended up arriving in Lindisfarne, an island in northeastern England. They conquered their way through the British territory and even reached Paris and the Muslim world in Northern Africa. Battling in uncharted territory, merging their culture with the natives and carrying their stories with them. Like when my dad left Sweden to work in Brazil after having traveled to many countries in the world. Or when he met my mom in Rio de Janeiro and fell in love and a couple of years after she was pregnant with me. They’re all stories lived and relived by people through the ages.

My father was not a warrior or a hero. He was a simple, many times stubborn, man who lived his own story. Our relationship was not perfect, far from it. But he meant the world to me and I will miss him so much. If there’s a lesson you can learn from these stories, this is the most important one: stories are a powerful means of teaching and learning. Your story matters too and it will live on through the people you touch the hearts of. 

Use powerful stories in your teaching

Right now, I’d like to think of a story for my dad. He’d be feasting in the halls of Valhalla, sitting next to Odin, telling him his stories and silly jokes. He’d be drinking ale (or would possibly teach Odin how to make caipirinha) and listening to the chants of warriors and their spoils of victory and many other stories. They’d be saying something like this beautiful prayer from the movie The 13th Warrior:


Lo, there do I see my Father
Lo, there do I see my Mother and
My Brothers and my Sisters.
Lo, there do I see the line of my People back to the beginning
Lo, they do call to me,
They bid me take my Place among them in the Halls of Valhalla
Where Enemies have been vanquished
Where the Brave shall live forever
Nor shall we mourn but rejoice for those that
Have died the Glorious Death

This is to honor you and your people, dad. I will always love you and promise to visit Lindisfarne, where your people first entered the UK and reunite my brothers and sisters in Göteborg to scatter some of your ashes at sea while we all drink a caipirinha

Jag älskar och saknar dig, pappa

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