Yggdrasil in Post-Print Fictions

Yggdrasil as unifying metaphor for rhizomatic/arborescent

George P. Landow’s Hypertext 3.0 goes into depth about two elements of hypertexts – their “decentering” and “rhizomatic” natures, and how the rhizome structure is opposed to the arborescent structure of tree-like genealogies, and how these hierarchies “limit instead of enhance or liberate thought” (60).

When describing a research session using a hypertext system on page 58, he says that instead of following a traditional author-centered approach, users can use periods as their point of reference, moving between Romantic and Victorian, or theory as starting points, such as feminism or the Victorian novel, and organize their search in these ways instead.

But taking this description along with the binary set up by rhizomatic/arborescent causes a problem. The rhizome/network structure definitely allows a user to “begin anywhere and make connections” (59), but to be useful, doesn’t the information have to be organized in some kind of hierarchy? In Landow’s description of the research session, is the user not simply choosing the hierarchy he wishes to start from (rather being forced into one) and moving to other hierarchies from there? Would it not just be chaos without these hierarchies?

The problems with rhizomes and arborescent hierarchies can be resolved, and the best features of the two unified, through the metaphor of Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology. Yggdrasil is a great cosmological Ash around which nine worlds are situated and connected (networked). The gods meet their daily to hold court. However, notions of an implied hierarchy (with top of the tree being the most important or privileged) are dashed by further description of the tree. Its branches continue into the heavens, but one of its three roots also extends to Uroarbrunnr, a well in the heavens. So both the tree’s roots and branches stretch into the heavens, while another root shoots into Hel (conceived as the underworld).

It is hard to picture such a tree, let alone think of such a tree as representative of ideas about genealogy or hierarchy, and in this respect, along with its networked nature, Yggdrasil is rhizomatic. Yet the tree also acted as a place of coordination (the court of the gods) and as a structure by which the Norse could organize their cosmology, and in this respect is hierarchical and thus arborescent (being a tree helps drive this metaphor home, naturally).

Thinking of Yggdrasil as a hypertext shows how the freedom and decentralization of a rhizome can be combined with the organization of an arborescent to form a useful, cohesive structure, neither absolute rigidity or riotous chaos.

Yggdrasil and House of Leaves

Yggdrasil features quite prominently in House of Leaves.  The most explicit reference to the cosmological Ash Tree is the last page of the novel and the short poem located there.  The poem too deals with the tree’s impossible nature, but refers to it as a “miracle,” so the author does not take the inability to conceptualize Yggdrasil as a negative thing.

Another reference is that the house resides on Ash Tree Lane.  The house itself is referred to as a “Mead Hall” (Danielewski 21) by Zampano at the beginning of the novel, a term which is also used by Pelafina (595) when she writes about Johnny’s school battles. 

Of course, perhaps the most obvious connection lies in the nature of the house itself – changing, shifting, but at the same time still just a house.  Both a tree and a house are normal, everyday objects, but both are represented in inconceivable ways.  Yggdrasil changes form or location as necessary, and the house of course twists and expands.

Odin, the head of the Nordic pantheon, once hung from Yggdrasil, pierced by his own spear, for 9 days and 9 nights to acquire knowledge.  He also sacrificed one of his eyes at Mimir’s well to gain wisdom, similar to Navidson losing an eye due to frostbite (523) and gaining understanding or peace through his last journey in the house, and Pelafina’s suicide by hanging (643).

However, the associations begin to run thin.  Yggdrasil was a great unifying structure, connecting Norse cosmology.  It was a sacred thing and reverent symbol.  The protean section of the house is ominous, foreboding, causing fear, trauma, and death. 

Continuing the conversation about hypertext above, Navidson’s first foray into the house is described in terms reminiscent of language used for hypertext:  Doorways lead “off into alternate passageways,” his flashlight cannot “come close to determining an end,” his light “never comes close to touching the punctuation point promised,” and the whole things is “undreadable” (64, emphasis added).  The house is Yggdrasilic and hypertextual, albeit in a dark and sinister way.

If House of Leaves is partially about the limits of print, this commentary as the house as hypertext and the house being an unsettling, destructive force seems out of place, as if hypertext were to be understood in these terms.

– Zack Manko


Danieleswki, Mark Z. House of Leaves. 2nd Edition.  New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Landow, George P.  Hypertext 3.0.  Balitmore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006.



~ by gottgeist501 on February 5, 2010.

One Response to “Yggdrasil in Post-Print Fictions”

  1. There are refs to Yggdrasil in two of our print texts…one we have read already…would be interesting for you to go back and add the understanding of the ash tree to the novels’ use of this term.

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