Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Causing a Bear, Scandinavian-style

His name is Bödvar Bjarki, which means "Warlike Little-Bear". He has a typical Scandinavian genealogy: his father Bjorn was a were-bear (as a result of a witch's curse); his mother's name, Bera, means "She-Bear". He casts a long shadow through the sagas of the North. He is the perfect warrior, stronger and fiercer than the berserkers ("bear-shirts") who are the champions and bodyguards of kings but must yield pride of place to Bodvar at the royal tables when he makes his entrance, often by knocking the door or wall down. While berserkers whip themselves into the fighting frenzy of an angry bear, Bodvar causes a bear. While his father was condemned by sorcery to turn into a bear of uncontrollable appetites in in the daytime, Bodvar is free from the curse of the were-bear; he chooses when to project a second body, in the shape of a warrior bear. This recalls the practice of Northern sorcerers who project fylgjur, "fetches" or shadow selves. The fylgjur are sometimes phantom figures, used to spy on adversaries or confuse their minds, but Bodvar's bear is entirely physical to those who meet it, and invincible among men in battle.
Bodvar is the hero of the last chapters of the Icelandic Saga of Hrólf Kraki. He is now the champion of King Hrolf of Denmark. who is leading a tiny force into battle against a vastly larger army that has invaded his lands. As the battle rages, a great bear advances in front of Hrolf's men. Always standing next to the king, the bear kills more of the enemy with a single sweep of its paw than five of the king's best warriors can despatch with swords and axes. The bear seems impervious to blows and missiles. It crushes men and horses with its weight, and rips enemies apart with its teeth.
Against the odds, things are going well for King Hrolf until Hjalti - a boon companion of Bodvar - notices that his friend is missing from the field. He protests to the king that Bodvar should not be looking to his own safety in the midst of the fray. King Hrolf counsels that "Bodvar will be where he serves us best."
Not grasping what this means, Hjalti runs back to the king's chamber, where he finds Bodvar apparently "sitting idle", or perhaps asleep. [1] Bodvar is in a state of shamanic trance. Not understanding, Hjalti seeks to rouse him, protesting that it is a disgrace that he is not fighting. "You should be using the strength of your arms, which are as strong as a bear's." In his outrage, Hjalti threatens to burn down the house, and Bodvar in it, unless his friend goes into battle.
With a deep sigh, Bodvar rises from his place and complies. After affirming that he is a stranger to fear, and fully aware of his obligations to the king, Bodvar cautions his friend that"By disturbing me here, you have not been as helpful to the king as you intended. The outcome of the battle was almost decided. You have acted out of ignorance...Now events will run their course, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. I can now offer the king far less help than before you woke me." [2]

When Bodvar goes into battle, the giant bear disappears. Now King Hrolf's army is exposed to psychic as well as physical attack. When the bear was present, the dark arts of the invader's witchy wife Skuld were useless. Now she is able to project her own monstrous animal, a hideous boar that shoots arrows from its bristles. Bodvar Bjarki fights furiously, mowing down enemy warriors like grass. Yet their numbers do not diminish, and he begins to suspect thad ghost warriors are fighting among the living. The champions fall, and after them King Hrolf. Because the bear shaman was torn from his trance when the bear was most needed.


When I first came upon the 14th century Icelandic saga of King Hrolf, many years ago, I thought the tale of Bodvar Bjarki was a marvelous window into old European shamanic practice, even distorted through the lens of a medieval Christian chronicler. I have returned to it now, amongst wider researches into the worlds of the Eddas and the sagas, in the wake of my recent travels in Sweden, where I hope to return to teach further workshops and practice some "dream archeology" to reclaim the remembrance of old ways that have been lost or confused.
In this pursuit, I am finally acting on what my Tolkien urged me to do, more than a decade ago. In a powerful vision in the course of a group journey to the Dream Library, I found myself inside a space like the New York Public Library, where I was greeted by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Tolkien urged me to study Scandinavian mythology. I baulked at the assignment. Years later, when I was writing my Dreamer's Book of the Dead, I had a visitation by my Jack Lewis (C.S.'s friends call him Jack). When I asked him, "Where is Tolkien?" he responded, "Tolkien isn't talking to you because you did not do what he said." I have not seen Tolkien again, but hey, you never know...

[1] In a paraphrase of the famous (but otherwise lost) poem Bjarkamal appended by Saxo Grammaticus to his Gesta Danorum Bodvar Bjarki (here called "Biarco") is in a deep "sleep" from which Hjalti has great difficulty in rousing him.
[2] Quotations are loosely based on Jesse L. Byock's translation of The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998).
Graphic: Bodvar's fetch on the field of battle in the shape of a bear, in "Hrolf Kraki's Last Stand" by Louis M. Moe (d.1945).


Worldbridger said...

I'm sure Tolkien would be pleased, just as he was probably annoyed that Peter Jackson cut the bear sequence from Lord of the Rings.

On a side note, I don't know what you think but I have always been appalled by the "armoured bears" of The Golden Compass. Spoiled the entire series for me.

Louisa said...

So, the moral is that when one sees the sign "The Witch Is In" on the door of the lady of the house, one should take it seriously and stay out.

Robert Moss said...

Worldbridger - I hope you are right about Tolkien. As for Philip Pullman's arnored bears, I must confess that I rather like them in the novel and true in spirit to those old Northern sagas. I found the movie a disappointment, though.

Alla said...

I believe I already mentioned once that in my childhood, reading all kinds of fairy-tales and myths, I found Scandinavian legends most fascinating. They have a different spirit, flavor. I think I'll return to them some day again and see the difference. :-) Thank you very much, Robert!

Robert Moss said...

Alla - Yes, the world of Scandibavian legends is rich. In the saga of King Hrolf, there are also seeresses who perform for kings on "trance platforms" set up in the royal banquet hall, magicians who project fetches, heroes who are not too heroic until they drink the blood of monsters or the hearts of wild animals, trolls and elves who take many more forms than the modern imagination allows, a "sleep-thorn" which keeps the victim in an enchanted sleep until it is removed from its ear, and shaman-gods who apear in disguise and set many paradoxical tests.The borders of dreamland are very porous, yet dreams - declared as such - often drive the action.

Patricia said...

Hello Robert,
I remember well the active dreaming my little group did with you at Hawkwood a few years ago. I honour in particular, the lion on the front steps who said to me "Don't worry, he will get it eventually." And it seems that he was right. Doing the homework that Tolkien set for you has produced many riches for us, especially those of us who continue to struggle in a land that, in my opinion, has lost it's dreaming.
Thank you.

Robert Moss said...

Louisa - Maybe that sign should be amended (in the light of the saga) to read: "The Witch Is In When the Bear is OUT".

Robert Moss said...

Patricia - Though I have always loved lions (and once had a personal club called the Friends of Aslan) I did not have a conversation with the lion on the steps at Hawkwood College. Thanks for passing on his message!

At Hawkwood (in Gloucestershire) we did, of course, step through the garden gate into worlds of living myth. I wrote of my personal encounters with the denizens of the greenwoods there in an earlier blog post.

I'm sad to hear you speak of the loss of the dreaming in my native land. The Iroquois - in the land where I now live - say that if we lose our dreaming, we lose our connection to the spirit world and are at risk of losing our souls.

Susan said...

Robert and Patricia,
Life does--as you would say, Robert--indeed rhyme. I've been searching for the right perspective from which to tell a children's nature story I wrote some months ago.

Something was missing until the right protagonist appeared--a (young male) Pixie!

Hawkwood magic is still at work.