Archives For Vikings

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

Civilized Savages

June 24, 2014 — 13 Comments

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).

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An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.

scandinavians

Avoid Living in Fear

December 4, 2012 — 15 Comments

nuclear blast

Nuclear war. It’s an extremely unpleasant subject, and its grim specter still haunts the world. Oddly, though—even as we anticipate the day when Iran’s lunatic Mullah’s develop them and North Korea’s deranged generals learn how to deliver them—the world is in a sort of “nuclear hiatus” at this very moment.

The Mutual Assured Destruction apparently worked, as the former Soviet Union and the United States decided against nuclear suicide. At the present moment the three world powers show little appetite for total war, so today’s children don’t have to learn the Civil Defense precautions that kept an earlier generation safe.

I was one of those young Americans indoctrinated in the sophisticated “duck and cover” method of nuclear blast survival. This video provides a nostalgic look at the paramilitary training we received. (A link to the full training film appears below.)

C.S. Lewis lived during the height of nuclear paranoia. Yet he retained his composed Northern Irish demeanor as he reflected on the threat. In an essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age” he wisely advised:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

In his essay “Is Progress Possible,” Lewis addresses those who used the uncertainty of the future as an excuse for making irresponsible life choices. His words ring just as true today, when so many youth turn to nihilism and self-destructive behaviors.

As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation. I am more concerned by what the Bomb is doing already. One meets young people who make the threat of it a reason for poisoning every pleasure and evading every duty in the present. Didn’t they know that, Bomb or no Bomb, all men die (many in horrible ways)? There’s no good moping and sulking about it.

If only remaining safe in this fallen world was as simple as dropping to the ground and sheltering one’s head. It isn’t, of course, but we need not live our lives under the shadow of fear.

Returning to “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Lewis adroitly places the entire menace—and all perils to human life—in their proper perspective. It may not be the most comforting words we will ever read, but they are certainly true.

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

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You can watch the entire “Stop and Drop” Civil Defense Video here.