Wednesday, November 30, 2016
That Stern High World
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."
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.
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."
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.