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Title: The Regent of the North Author: Kenneth Morris * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0700721h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2007 Date most recently updated: May 2007 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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The northern winter is altogether ghostly and elemental; there is no friendliness to man to be found in it. There, the snow has its proper habitation; there, in the gaunt valleys of Lapland, in the terrible, lonely desolations, the Frost Giants abide. They are servants of the Regent of the North: smiths, that have the awful mountains for their anvils; and, with cold for flame tempering water into hardness, fashion spears and swords of piercing ice, or raise glittering ramparts about the Pole. All for the dreadful pleasure of doing it! They go about their work silently in the gray darkness; heaven knows what dreams may be haunting them--dreams that no mind could imagine, unless death had already frozen its brain. When the wind wolves come howling down from the Pole, innumerous, unflagging, and insatiable: when the snow drives down, a horde of ghosts wandering senseless, hurrying and hurrying through the night: the giants do their work. They make no sound: they fashion terror, and illimitable terror, and terror....Or--is it indeed only terror that they fashion?...
And then spring comes, and the sun rises at last on the world of the North. The snow melts in the valleys; white wisps of cloud float over skies blue as the gentian; over a thousand lakes all turquoise and forget-me-not: waters infinitely calm and clear, infinitely lovely. Then the snow on the mountain dreams dazzling whiteness by day, defiantly glittering against the sun; dreams tenderness, all faint rose and heliotrope and amber, in the evening; blue solemn mystery in the night. Quick with this last mysterious dreaming!--for the nights are hurrying away; they grow shorter always; they slink Poleward, immersed in ghostly preoccupations; by midsummer they have vanished altogether. Then the sun peers incessantly wizardlike over the horizon; the dumb rocks and the waters are invincibly awake, alert, and radiant with some magic instilled into them by the Regent of the North....It is in this spring and summer-time that you shall see bloom the flowers of Lapland: great pure blossoms in blue and purple and rose and citron, such as are not found elsewhere in the world. The valleys are a dreaming, silent wonder with the myriads there are of them--silent, for the Lapps have followed the reindeer, and the reindeer have followed the snows.
Into this region it was that Halfdan the Aged came, when he was tired of the new ways and faith that had come into the south. The viking days were over forever, one could see that. Meek, crozier-bearing men had invaded the realms of Odin and Balder; laying terrible axes of soft words, of chanted prayers and hymns, to the roots of--? All the ancient virtue of the race, said Halfdan the Aged; all the mighty and mystic dreams that had been surging through the Northlands these hundreds of years; sending the brave forth to wonderful deeds and wonderful visions about the seas and coasts of the world. And Inge the king at Upsala, forgetting all things noble and generous, had foresworn Odin and battle-breaking Thor; had foresworn Balder the Beautiful; had welcomed these chanting, canting foreigners, and decreed their faith for his people. So that now nothing remained but a fat, slothful life and the straw-death at the end of it: there should be no more Viking expeditions, no more Valhalla; no more Asgard and the Gods. "Faugh!" thought Halfdan Halfdansson, old hero of a hundred raids in the west and south; "this small-souled life for them that can abide it; it is worse than death for a Man's Son."
Not but that his own days of action were over: had been these ten years; had passed with the age of the Vikings. Also his seven sons were in Valhalla long since, and beyond being troubled; they had fallen like men in battle before there was any talk of this Christian heaven and hell; as for his wife, she, royal-hearted woman, had died when the youngest of them was born. So that it would have been easy for him to cut himself adrift from the world and voyage down through pleasant dreams towards death, after the fashion of clean old age. He had already put by, somewhat sadly, the prospect of future expeditions, and was reconciling himself to old age and its illumination, when King Inge went besotted over the foreign faith. From his house, Bravik on the hillside, through whose door the sea-winds blew in salt and excellent, he could watch the changes of the Swan-way, and nourish peace upon the music of the sea. Below at the foot of the hill, was the harbor from which his ships used to sail; drawn up on the beach, sheer hulks, still they lay there, the Wild Swan and the Dragon, accustomed to Mediterranean voyagings of old. For his own life, he found to action to regret in it; it had all been heroic doing, clean and honorable and vigorous; and the Gods had had their proper place in it, lighting it mysteriously from within.
But what room was there for dreaming, when the cry The glory is departed! rang so insistent? The new order liked him so little, that in place of peace and its accompanying wisdom, the years brought him unease increasingly. With his old skalds about him, to sing to him in the hall in the evenings; with his old and pagan servants, faithful all of them to the past as to himself, he watched the change coming on Sweden with disquietude and disgust; and for the first time in his life, experienced a kind of fear. But it was a pagan and greathearted fear, and had nought to do with his own fate or future.
He knew the kind of tales these becroziered men from the south were telling, and that were becoming increasingly a substitute for the old valiant stories of the skalds. A man had come to Bravik once, and was welcomed there, who, when the feast was over, and the poets were relating their sagas, had risen in his turn with a story to tell--of a white-faced, agonizing God, who died a felon's death amongst ignoble and unwarlike people. Halfdan had listened to it with growing anger: where was the joy, where the mighty and beautiful forms, the splendid life, of the Divine Ones in this? At the end of it he had called to the stranger:
"Thy tale is a vile one, 0 foreign skald! Fraught with lies it is, and unwholesome to the hearing?'
"Lies it is not, but the truth of truths, 0 chieftain, and except thou believest, thou shalt suffer the vengeance of God throughout eternity?'
"Go!" cried the Viking; and in the one word rang all the outraged ideals that had stood him in stead for sixty years. One does not defend his standpoint, but merely states it. He saw none of the virtues of Christianity; while its crude presentation shocked his religious feelings as profoundly as the blatant negations of atheism shock those of the pious of our own day. And his aspirations had a core of real spirituality in them. The Gods, for these high-souled Pagans, were the fountain of right, the assurance and stability of virtue. Thor, probably, stood for courage, spiritual as well as physical; Odin for a secret and internal wisdom; Balder for a peace that passeth understanding. Things did not end in Berserker fury: the paths of the spirit were open, or had been of old; beyond the hero stood the God; beyond strife, a golden peace founded on the perfection of life. Wars, adventure, and strenuous living were to fashion something divinely calm and grand in the lives of men; that once established, and no possibility of evil left lurking in any human soul, Balder's reign would come, something like the glow and afterglow of sunset, or a vast and perfect music enveloping the world--there should be a love as of comrades, as of dear brothers, between all men. But that Peace of Balder and of Odin was separated by all Berserkerism from the peace that is fear or greed. It was a high, perpetual exultation: a heaven into which the meek and weak could not slide passively, but the strong man armed (spiritually) should take it by storm.--And here was negation of the doctrine of the strong man armed; here was proclaiming godhood a thing not robust, joyless, unbeautiful....Old Halfdan went moody and depressed for a week after the priest's visit. The serene Balder-mood, into the fulness of which now, in the evening of his life, he had the right to grow naturally had been attacked, and could not be induced to return. A God crucified!...his soul cried out for Gods triumphant.
Inge might launch his decrees at Upsala; at Bravik, not the least intention existed of-obeying them. With dogged and defiant faith Halfdan performed the rites of the religion of Odin, having dismissed from his house all who hankered after the newly proclaimed orthodoxy. With it all, he was ill at ease; as seeing that Sweden would not long hold a man faithful to her ancient ideals. Tales were brought in, how such and such a pagan chief had suffered the king's vengeance, or had been compelled to profess and call himself Christian. Heaven knew when his own turn might come; Inge would not overlook him forever. Well, there would be no giving in for him, no lip profession--a thing not in him to understand. He could-swing a battle-ax yet, at the head of his retainers; he could die in his burning house like a Viking's son. That would be something: a blow struck for olden virtue: a beacon of remembrance for Sweden, in the dark days he feared and foresaw. His religious broodings deepened; he strove incessantly to come nearer to the Gods; for although he held it a coward's creed to think They exist to help men, and a brave man's, that men exist to help Them; yet at such a time, he deemed, They might find it worth Their while to turn from vaster wars for a moment, and concern themselves with the fate of Sweden. So he prayed, but his prayer was no petition nor whining after gains; it was a silencing of the mind, a stedfast driving it upward towards heights it had not attained before: eagle altitudes, and sunlight in the windless blue, where no passion comes, and the eternal voices may be heard.
The tide of trouble drew nearer. Presently a messenger came from Inge, with a priest. Halfdan was to install the latter in his house, and learn from him the faith of the Nazarene; was to forgo the Gods, or expect the king's armies. Halfdan sent them back; to say that Inge would be welcome at Bravik: as a friend, as of old; or still more as a foe. Then he dismissed the few women there were in his house, called in his men, and prepared for a siege: thoroughly if fiercely happy at last. But there was no bottom to the king's degeneration, it seemed. After three weeks this came from Upsala: "Halfdan Halfdansson, you are senile; you will die soon, and your false religion will all but die with you. The faith of Christ commands forbearance and forgiveness. You shall die in peace, and suffer hell-flame thereafter; I will not trouble with you." I will not trouble with you....For a week the old man raged inwardly. Inge should not thus triumphantly insult him; he would not die in peace, but lead his fifty against Upsala, and go out fighting....Then the Balder-mood came once more; and with it, light and direction vouchsafed him. He would go a-viking.
He summoned his fifty, and proclaimed his intention in the hall. Let who would, stay behind--in a Sweden that at least would let them be. For himself, he would take the Swan-way: he would have delight again of the crisping of blue waves against his prow: he would go under purple sails into the evening, into the mystery, into the aloneness where grandeur is, and it is profitable for souls to be, and there are none to tell heart-sickening tales....There, what should befall him, who could say? Perhaps there would be sweet battle on the Christian coasts; perhaps he would burn and break a church or two, and silence the jangling of the bells that called ignoble races to ignoble prayer. Perhaps there would be battling only with the storm: going out into that vast unstable region the Aesir loved, perhaps they would expend their manhood nobly in war with the shrieking wind, the sweet wild tempest of heaven. At such times the Gods come near, they come very near, they buffet and slay in their love, and out of a wild and viking death, the Valkyrie ride, the Valkyrie ride!...There were fifty men in the hall that heard him; there were fifty men that rose and shouted their acclamation; fifty that would take the Swan-way with their lord.
So there came to be noise of ax and hammer in the haven under Bravik: the Wild Swan and the Dragon being refurbished and made all taut for voyaging. Within a month they set sail. But not southward, and then through Skagerack and Cattegat, out into the waters of Britain and France, as Halfdan had intended. On the first day, a sudden storm overtook them, and singing they plunged into black seas, beneath blind and battling skies. Singing they combatted the wave of the north; they went on, plunging blindly, driven for three days whither they knew nark; then, with a certain triumph in their souls, they succumbed singing, to the gale. They saw the Valkyrie ride through heaven, they gave their bodies to the foam about the rocks and rose upon the howling winds, clean and joyous of soul at the last.
Halfdan had forgotten Christianity: all thought and memory of it deserted him utterly before the storm had been beating them an hour. In the end it was all pagan, all Viking, exultant lover and fighter of the Gods, that he leaped from his sinking ship in the night, fully armed, into the driving froth and blackness; struggled as long as might be with the overwhelming waters, as befitted his manhood; then lost consciousness, and was buffeted and tossed where the grand elements listed; and thrown at last, unconscious, on the shore.
Certainly he had seen the Valkyrie riding, had heard their warsong above the winds and waves: like the lightning of heaven they had ridden, beautiful and awful beyond any of his old dreaming; why then had they not taken him? This was no Valhalla into which he had come: this dark place smokily lamp-lit; this close air, heavy, it must be said, with stench. And were these the dwarfs, these little figures that moved and chattered unintelligibly in the gloom?...Slowly he took in the uncouth surroundings; raising himself, rather painfully, on his elbow from the bed of dry heather on which he was lying. There, on the tent-pole, hung his armor: his helmet with the raven wings; his shield, sword, and battle-ax; these were skins with which he was covered, and of which the walls of the tent were made. He was not dead then? No; it appeared that it was still mortal flesh that he was wearing. He had been thrown on some shore by the waves, and rescued by these quaint, squat people. Ah! he had been driven into the far north, and was among Lapps in the unknown north of the world.
He lay back, exhausted by his bodily and mental effort; and the sigh that broke from him brought the Lapp woman to his side, and the Lapp man after her. They brought him hot broth, and spoke to him, their unknown and liquid tongue, in which no sound unmusical intrudes, was full of gentle kindliness; their words were almost caressing, and full of encouragement and cheer. He had no strength to sit up; the Lapp woman squatted at his head and lifted him in her arms; and while he so leaned and rested the Lapp man fed him, sup by sup; the two of them crooning and chuckling their good will the while. In three days he was on his feet; and convinced that he could not outwear the kindly hospitality of his hosts.
The weeks of the northern spring went by; the flowers of Lapland were abloom in the valley, and old Halfdan wandered daily and brooded amidst the flowers. His mood now had become very inward. He hungered no more after action, nor dwelt in pictures of the past; rather an interiority of the present haunted him: a sweetness, as of dear and near deities, in the crag-reflecting waters, in the fleet cloud-fleeces, in the heather on the hills, and in the white and yellow poppies on the valley-floor. As the summer passed this mood grew deeper: from a prevalent serene peace, it became filled with divine voices almost audibly calling. As for the Lapps, they behaved to him at all times with such tenderness as might be given to a father growing helpless in old age, but loved beyond ordinary standards.
The first frosts were withering the heather; in the valley the flowers had died; the twilight of early winter, a wan iris withering, drooped mournful petals over the world. On the hills all was ghostly whiteness: the Lapps had come south with the winter, and there was a great encampment of them in the valley; it never occurred to Halfdan to wonder why the couple that had saved him had remained during the summer so far from the snows. One day he wandered down to the shore: the sea had already frozen, and the icy leagues of it shone tinted with rose and faint violet and beryl where light from the sun, far and low in the horizon, caught them. Wonderful and beautiful seemed to him the world of the North. There was no taint in the cold, electric air; no memory to make his soul ashamed for his fellow men. The wind blew keen over the ice, blowing back his hair and his beard; it was intense and joyful for him with that Divine life of the Gods that loves and opposes us. He walked out on the ice; something at his feet caught his attention, and he stooped to examine it; it was a spar, belike from the Wild Swan or the Dragon, the ships he had loved. Then came memory in a flood. All his life had gone from him; the faces familiar of old had vanished; down there, in the south, in the Gothland, all the glory had departed; and there was nothing left for him on earth, but the queer, evil-smelling life in the Lapp tent....Yes, there were still the Gods....A strange unrest came upon him; he must away and find the Aesir....He had no plan; only he must find the Bright Ones: must stand in their visible presence, who had been the secret illumination of the best of his life. In mingled longing and exultation he made his way back to the camp.
He found his Lapp friends standing before their tent, and their best reindeer harnessed to an akja*; they knew, it appeared, that he was to go; and mournfully and unbidden, had made preparation. They brought out his armor, and fondled his hands as they armed him; a crowd gathered about him, all crooning and chuckling their good will, and their sorrow to lose the old man in whose shining eyes, it seemed to them, was much unearthly wisdom. On all sides, evidently, there was full understanding of his purpose, and sad acquiescence; and this did not seem to him strange at all: the Gods were near and real enough to control and arrange all things. He sat down in the akja, and took the rein; the Lapps heaped skins about him for warmth; then, waving farewells, amidst an outburst of sorrowful crooning and chuckling, he started. Whither the reindeer might list; whither the mighty Undying Ones might direct.
[* The Lapp sledge of wicker and skin, capable of holding one man sitting with legs stretched out, and guiding the reindeer with a single thong of rein.]
On, and on, and on. Through ghostly valleys and through the snowstorm, right into the heart of the northern night, the reindeer, never uncertain of the way, drew him. The Balder-mood came to him in the weird darkness; in the cold desolation the bright Gods seemed nearer than ever. Through ghastly passes where the north wind, driving ice particles that stung, came shrieking, boisterous and dismal, down from the Pole to oppose him, on sped the reindeer while the mind of the old Viking was gathered into dreams. Waiting for him, somewhere beyond, were Those whose presence was a growing glory on the horizon of his soul....The snow-ghosts, wan, innumerable, and silent, came hurrying by; on sped the reindeer, a beautiful beast, heeding never the snow-ghosts over frozen rivers and frozen mountains, through ghostly cold valleys and the snow. Under vast precipices that towered up, iron and mournful into the night; or along the brink of awful cliffs, with the snowstorm howling below... on and on. Who was to measure time on that weird journey? There were no changes of day and night; and Halfdan, wrapped in the warmth of his dreams, hardly would have heeded them if there had been. Now and again the reindeer halted to feed, scraping in the snow for his familiar moss-diet; then on again, and on. It was the beast, or some invisible presence, not the man, who chose the way.
A valley stretched out endlessly before; and afar, afar, a mountain caught on its whiteness some light from heaven, so that amid all the ghostly darkness it shone and shot up, a little dazzling beacon of purity on the rim of the world. The snow had ceased to fall, and no longer the north wind came shrieking to oppose; there was quiet in the valley broken only by the tinkling of the reindeer bells and the scrunch of the falling hoofs on the snow. The white mountain caught the eyes, and at last the mind of the long dreaming Viking; so that he began to note the tinkling of the bells, the sound of the hoofs falling, the desolation before and around. And at last another sound also: long howling out of the mountains on this side and that; long, dreary howling behind, like the cry of ghosts in a nightmare, or the lamentation of demons driven forever through darkness beyond the margin of space. For some time he listened, before waking to knowledge that it was actual sound he listened to; and then for some time longer before it came to him to know whence the sound was. It had drawn nearer by then, much nearer; and peering forth through the glint and gloom, he saw the shadows that were wolves streaming up after him through the valley, and coming down from the mountains; singly, in twos and threes, in multitudes. The reindeer snuffed, tossed its head, and speeded on prodigiously, yet with what gathered on the hillsides, it would be a marvel if he escaped. On came the shadows, until one could see the green fire-sparks of their eyes, behind, to the right and to the left, almost before; and on sped the reindeer, and the white mountain drew nearer.
Then Halfdan the Viking scented war: he remembered his youth and its prowess; he made ready his shield and battle-ax; and thanked the Gods fervently that after all he should go out fighting. The brave reindeer should have what chance it might to escape by its own untrammeled fleetness: so he drew his sword and cut the harness. The beast was away over the snow at twice its former speed; and Halfdan in the akja shot forward thirty paces, fell out, and was on his feet in a moment to wait what should come.
A black, shag shadow, the foremost of them, hurled itself howling at his throat--eyes green fire and bared teeth gleaming; the ax swept down, clave its head in midair, and the howl went out in a rattling groan and sob. No question of failing strength now; old age was a memory--forgotten. The joy of battle came to him, and as the first wolf fell he broke into song:
In the bleak of the night and the ghost-held region, By frozen valley and frozen lake, A son of the Vikings, breaking his battle, Doth lovely deeds for Asgard's sake. Odin All-Father, for thee I slew him! For thee I slew him, bolt-wielding Thor! Joy to ye now, ye Aesir, Brothers! That drive the demons forevermore!
While he sang, another wolf was upon him, and then another and another; and the war-ax that had made play under Mediterranean suns of old, God, how it turned and swept and drove and clave things in the northern night! While they came up one by one, or even in twos, the fight was all in his favor, so he slew as many as a dozen at his singing; then the end began to draw near. They were in a ring about him now; rather fearful of the whirling ax, but closing in. Old age began to tell upon his limbs; he fought on wearying; and the delight of war ebbed from him; his thigh had been snapped at and torn, and he had lost much blood with the wound. Then the ax fell, and he leaned on it for support for a moment, his head bent down over his breast. The war-mood had gone altogether; his mind sped out to the Gods. Of inward time there had been enough, since the ax fell, for the change of mood, for the coming of calm wonder and exaltation; of the time we measure in minutes, enough for the leaping of a wolf. He saw it, and lifted the ax; knowing that nothing could be done. At his left it leaped up; he saw the teeth snap a hand's-breadth from his face.-...An ax that he knew not, brighter than the lightning, swung; the jaws snapped; the head and the body apart fell to the ground....And there was a wolf leaping on his right, and no chance in the world of his slaying it; and a spear all-glorious suddenly hurtling out of the night, and taking the wolf through the throat, and pinning it dead to the ground. And here was a man, a Viking, gray-bearded, one-eyed, glorious, fighting upon his left; and here was a man, a Viking, young and surpassing beautiful of form and face and mien, doing battle at his right. And he himself was young again, and strong; and knew that against the three of them all the wolves in the world, and all the demons in hell, would have little chance. They fled yelping into the dark; and Halfdan turned to hail those that had fought for him.
And behold, the shining mountain that had seemed so far, shone now near at hand, and for a mountain, it was a palace, exceedingly well-built, lovely with towers and pinnacles and all the fair appurtenances of a king's house. No night nor winter was near it; amidst gardens of eternal sunlight it shone; its portals flung wide, and blithe all things for his entering. And he greeted Odin All-Father, as one might who had done nothing in his life to mar the pleasant friendliness of that greeting. And in like manner he greeted Balder the Beautiful. They linked their arms in his, and in cheerful conversation he passed in with them into the Valhalla.
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