The sorcerers who weave the algorithms that divine our innermost thoughts and darkest desires have decreed that I must trade with the Norse. An outfit called Grimfrost keeps turning up, tempting me with Thor’s Hammers, Viking gymwear and books. Must be that paracord Thor’s Hammer bracelet I bought last year…
On Saturday, my morning coffee was interrupted by images from Fall of Gods. “This trail I must follow,” says I. Turns out that an artist in Copenhagen, Denmark, has created a classic frontier tale out of Norse myth and legend, recast in his own fashion and crowdfunded to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
I love this, for so many reasons. Here’s the world created by Rasmus Berggreen:
The gods have long ago vanished. In their place, two rivaling races now inhabit Midgard; humans and jotnar. Fifteen years ago, a coalition of chieftains drove the jotnar race from Midgard. Now, from each side of the border, humans and jotnar eye each other with hatred and suspicion. When his wife, the estranged daughter of one of Midgard’s most powerful chieftains, is mysteriously kidnapped, a retired warrior takes up the hatchet and sets out to rescue her. But he risks unleashing the wild demon buried deep within him and losing his soul in the process. His journey will bring him into conflict with terrible forces as a cynical plot is revealed and the dark mythological past of the North begins to awaken once more.
The retired warrior once again taking up his weapons is a frontier or Western archetype. Also archetypal is the quest to rescue a captive woman: From Captain Sam Brady on the Western Pennsylvania frontier to The Searchers…
Berggreen’s efforts are self-consciously cinematic — which seems to have served him well, since 20th Century Fox is developing Fall of Gods as a TV project.
And speaking of the Norse…
The renowned scholar Tom Shippey has a new book out, which I coerced our library into ordering. It’s titled Laughing Shall I Die:
In this robust new account of the Vikings, Tom Shippey explores their mindset, and in particular their fascination with scenes of heroic death. Laughing Shall I Die considers Viking psychology by weighing the evidence of the sagas against the accounts of the Vikings’ victims. The book recounts many of the great bravura scenes of Old Norse literature, including the Fall of the House of the Skjoldungs, the clash between the two great longships Ironbeard and Long Serpent, and the death of Thormod the skald.
Shippey is pushing back against the relatively recent effort to gentle the image of the Vikings, making them into peaceful traders, farmers and fishermen with a taste for art. As he rightly points out, Scandinavians who were peaceful traders, farmers and fishermen with a taste for art were… Scandinavians.
“If you come across headlines . . . which say something like ‘Vikings! Not just raiders and looters any more!’ then the headlines are wrong. If people weren’t raiding and looting (and land-grabbing and collecting protection money), then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians…”
Whether Vikings were attacking monasteries, “organizing slave markets, grabbing land to settle or engaging in something very like a ‘game of thrones,’ what they did was based on violence. That is what Vikings were good at, especially good at, spectacularly good at.”
The “Northern Thing” has always resonated deeply with me. The title of Shippey’s book gets at the fundamental (and, for me, profoundly appealing) fatalism of the North:
The hero “is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.”
In his introduction, Shippey contrasts this outlook with the modern Western (and especially American) obsession with being a “winner.” It has always seemed to me to be a beautiful kind of raw barbarian stoicism, and it has served me well. Due to my sister’s severe cerebral palsy, I knew from the time I became a conscious person that my family was fighting the Long Defeat. “Winning” was never in the cards, but fighting the good fight was nevertheless vitally important. “Winning” is always, in any case, ephemeral. Never giving in — that is eternal.