Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Stern High World

"Icelandic studies may be more than a mere cultural discipline; they may contribute to the positive exaltation of those who pass through them into that stern high world where our forefathers lived and died with fearless eyes and undefeated hearts." – Watson Kirkconnell, OC FRSC (1895–1977)

When the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper Lögberg-Heimskringla sent that snippet of wisdom out over its Facebook page last November, it struck a chord--though one with a bit of dissonance.

I do rather like the idea that my many years of studying Icelandic sagas have resulted in my "positive exaltation," and I think I know what Kirkconnell means by "that stern high world."

It's rather like what J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis characterized by the term "Northernness." As I wrote in Song of the Vikings, these writers of high fantasy were not only drawn to the Norse mythology's dragons and dwarves, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone, but to their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of Right and Good even when there was no hope at all.

According to Tolkien, this theory of courage was "the great contribution of early Northern literature." It is a "creed of unyielding will," the heroes refusing to give up even when they know the monsters will win.

For that is the big difference between the Norse Ragnarok and the Christian Doomsday. Odin and the human army of Valhalla do not win. They have no hope of winning. They are doomed and they know it.

There's a "shadow of despair" about these heroes, Tolkien noted, an "intense emotion of regret" as in his own fantasy world. For even if Middle-earth is saved from the evil forces of Sauron, the elves must leave; magic will dwindle. Still men and elves, dwarves, wizards, and hobbits fight and die for the Good and the Right.

But there's a big gap--a Ginnungagap--between Kirkconnell's "fearless eyes and undefeated hearts" and Tolkien's despair and regret.

In the introduction to his new translation of the poems of the Poetic Edda (Hackett Publishing, 2015), Jackson Crawford attempts to bridge that gap, pointing out that many of these heroic and mythological poems allude to "the belief that each person has an inevitable, fixed date of death, decided by the shadowy goddesses of fate called the Norns."

Sigurd is not afraid of fighting the dragon Fafnir because nothing he can do (or not do) will change the date of his death. If he kills the dragon, it was fated to be so. If the dragon kills him, ditto. All he can do is "manage his own wealth / till his fated death-day"--with all the good things in life wrapped up in that one word "wealth."

Likewise Sorli can shrug off losing the battle by saying, "But we fought well, /... We earned honor here, / though we are fated to die today-- / a man will not live one day longer / than the Norns have decided."

Writes Crawford, "The characters in these myths are marching toward their doom, unable to change course or to step off their predetermined path even if they fight it the entire way." But are they hopeless? despairing? We, the readers of these myths, may despair for them, but "the gods and heroes alike are actively engaged in courageously combating the inevitable," Crawford writes. "This code of boldness and the defiance of fate must have stirred something in the Norse audience in their barren farmsteads ... just as it may stir a modern audience faced with the seemingly hopeless circumstances of life in the crowded, postindustrial world of today."

We may no longer believe in the Norns, but it's still true that each one of us is fated to die. It does no good to live in fear of it. Why not instead spend our days earning honor? Our methods may be a little different than Sorli's or Sigurd's or Frodo's, but it's still a stern high world out there.


  1. "The characters in these myths are marching toward their doom, unable to change course or to step off their predetermined path even if they fight it the entire way."

    Reminds me of today's American politics.

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  4. Dear Nancy Marie,
    I just read an article in the National Post, called The Norse Origins of Bilbo Baggins, which quotes from your book Song of the Vikings. I wondered: would it be fair to say that Bilbo is Tolkien's version of the Kolbitar, also found in our Norwegian folk-tales (I am Norwegian) as the Ash Lad? Clearly there are parallels between Bilbo and the Ash Lad: young men, initially very housebound, but then—when reached by important news/missives—their courage and thirst for adventure is awaken?

    I would be very grateful if you had the opportunity to give a comment on this?


  5. That's not the point I was making, but it's a good one, Terje.


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