I think of the great wolf, whose reins were serpents,
who lent the burning boat the purity
and whiteness of the beautiful dead god.
Vikings, the nomads of the Dark Ages, span the gap between Christian Europe and its pagan past. In the course of their epic journeys, they encountered several rival civilizations, all of which wound their way into the intricate weave of the Norns. The Eddas speak of York and Gibraltar and Newfoundland, of France and Germany, of the Urals and Navrogod and Kiev. Vikings turn up in the most unexpected places: they were mercenaries in Byzantium; traders in Mongolia; the very first “Russians.” Despite their itinerant ways, the Vikings vanished from what Marxists call “material” history. This has made them deeply vulnerable to the distortions of history, something Borges elaborated upon in his essay “The Scandinavian Destiny”:
in universal history, the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in a crystal ball where clairvoyants gaze. In the 12th century, the Icelanders discovered the novel—the art of Flaubert, the Norman—and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.
Fenrir is a speculative history set in the 9th century A.D., during the Viking siege of Paris. Sequel to last year’s Wolfsangel, its narrative will be familiar to anyone who has read the earlier novel. Here is the good twin (Wolfsangel‘s Vali) making his cosmic compromise; there is the bad one (Feilig) redeeming himself; between them is the girl they love (Adisla, here called Aelis). The three are drawn together across the span of an epic trek, this time in across Central Europe instead of Scandinavia. With each meeting, history repeats itself in an orgy of violence and betrayal. The wolf shatters its fetters, the god is martyred, a new age is born. As Marcus Aurelius once said, remember all things turn, and turn again in the same orbits.
Lachlan’s fidelity to his arc frees him to explore his metaphors in greater depth than Wolfsangel did. The myth he mines in his books is the onset of Ragnarök, when the King of the Norse gods—Odin—is killed by the monstrous wolf Fenrisulfr. Fenris, like Odin before him, is a kinslayer; the wolf manifests (per Lachlan) when one twin feeds on the other. There is considerable instability in this confrontation, for Fenris the Ravenous is equal parts Odin’s protegé and nemesis (an aspect of the myth Fenrir captures far better than its prequel did). Further, the death of Odin is a palliative to the Norns. He offers them many mortal deaths in return for both knowledge and protection. Odin is born to die; as long as he dies, he remains immortal. By seeking death on one plane, he ensures his primacy in another, and it would be a far more terrible thing for his death to be averted than for it to occur.
This is a subtle theme, and Lachlan skilfully exploits the tensions within the myth: would you, he demands, rather be sacrificed or martyred? Is knowledge earned or granted? It is a question that distills the transition from paganism to a doctrinal religion; the shift from blood-magic to the magic of the written word. As all myths, Ragnarök reveals nested conundrums. Should one rage against destiny or succumb to it? Can such defeat, such submission, ever be truly voluntary? Why are people condemned by fates beyond their personal beliefs and identities? Is all religion only the stories you tell children to keep the wolves at bay?
It is one thing to suggest that stories resonate across time. It is another to write the same book twice, as Lachlan comes perilously close to doing. Fenrir begins slowly, and the first hundred pages are a trudge. The tedium is relieved later in the book with twists that deepen the mythological narrative (if not always the plot itself). The best of these is a ruse spun around the identity of Feilig. Lachlan invokes Odin’s ravens—Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory—to complicate the symmetry of Vali and Feilig. He uses, in effect, one set of twins to fashion another set of twins. It’s an interesting take on the binaries prevalent in all myths—twins, after all, are a symbol that transcend time and geography—and I hope he will further investigate this confusion in later novels. I was also very glad to find that heroine of Fenrir does things other than move the plot forward, for my biggest gripe with Wolfsangel was its women. Aelis, unlike Wolfsangel‘s Adisla, is as conflicted and selfish as everyone else; even the most noble and heroic of her decisions is tinged with doubt and opportunism. Most significantly, none of the protagonists are “ethnically” Viking. All of them are Christians (one is even a monk) that are adopted into Norse culture.
Lachlan’s Ragnarök is a salute to the many layers of accreted story he relies upon. Consider, he asks us, how many generations have gone into the weaving of this tale: beginning with the 9th century Norsemen recapitulating their past, we ended up with Tolkien’s Middle Earth during the 20th century. Along the way, several peoples and movements added their agendas to the tale, whether it was 13th century Skaldic composers reconciling their newfound Christianity with older beliefs, or 19th century Romantics in search of a common “Nordic” ancestry.
Fluidity was thus built into the structure of the Norse myths. Ragnarök, for instance, translates as two overlapping possibilities: “The Twilight of the Gods” and the “Doom of the Gods.” The usual interpretation favors the fading away of the old gods in the face of monotheism, anarchy giving way to rigidity. The possibility of an ongoing apocalypse, the recurring doom of the gods, was revived by the Romantic movement. In the late 18th century, linguists definitively translated old Norse, and began to decipher runes and epitaphs strewn across Europe. This sudden surfeit, coupled with the search for a “Germanic” heritage, encouraged writers and ideologues across Europe, and Viking Scandinavia soon became Germany’s memory. By the 19th century, the faith of the old gods—fallible and incomplete—was so endemic that even Kipling, hardly a moony idealist, draws upon both possible meanings in his poem “The Sack of the Gods”:
dust of the stars was under our feet, glitter of stars above—
wrecks of our wrath dropped reeling down as we fought and we spurned and we strove.
Worlds upon worlds we tossed aside, and scattered them to and fro,
The night that we stormed Valhalla, a million years ago!
They are forgiven as they forgive all those dark wounds and deep.
Their beds are made on the Lap of Time and they lie down and sleep.
They are forgiven as they forgive all those old wounds that bleed.
They shut their eyes from their worshipers; they sleep till the world has need.
The playwright Schiller, definitely a moony idealist, had many of the same concerns as Lachlan, if formulated under very different premises. His play The Robbers bears a passing resemblance to Lachlan’s books, and their central questions are remarkably similar. Schiller, too, is fascinated by the moral distinctions between suicide, sacrifice, and martyrdom, and he draws heavily upon the motifs of mythology to make his point. His hero is a melancholy bandit who makes of himself a “death-offering.” Is this, one wonders, more Fenris or Feilig? Has he succumbed to the senseless fires of self-destruction, or given himself up to love and fate? Perhaps, as the villain of the piece would have you believe, it doesn’t really matter:
Memento Mori! it doesn’t concern me.
Should I happen to pass the gallows stone,
I would just take a sight with one eye,
And think to myself, you may dangle alone,
Who now, sir, ‘s the fool, you or I?
“The Bohemian Woods,” The Robbers
Fenrir, for all this marvelous metaphysics, would’ve been well served by a tighter edit. Lachlan likes spelling things out to his reader, a tendency a wise edit might have curbed. His characters, moreover, aren’t terribly compelling as people, however potent they are as symbols. The lack of personality makes it hard to get invested their (inevitable) fate. My hope for the next book is that it will further unravel the myth to fashion new people, even beyond the three central characters. The death of Odin, after all, is only the beginning of Ragnarök.