Monday, March 21, 2011

Champion of Thor, Part Three

Click here for Part Two.

In a subsequent adventure, Haldan is challenged by Sivald, a high-ranking man with seven sons “skilled in the practice of sorcery.” Saxo describes their wild behavior.
Often, impelled by sudden strong fits of madness they would bellow wildly, bite at their shields, swallow hot coals and walk through any bonfire; nothing else could appease their frenzied bouts but rigorous chains or the slaughter of human beings.
Their skill in magic ties them to Odin, as does the fact that they are clearly berserks, members of the fierce warrior-clan associated with the cult of Odin in literary and artistic sources. Snorri’s description of the berserk lines up very closely with Saxo’s, and the Icelander makes the connection to Odin explicit.
Odin could make his enemies battle-blind, or deaf, or panic-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could cut no better than a willow-wand; but his own men dashed forward without armor, and became as frenzied as dogs or wolves. They chewed their shield-rims, and became as strong as bears or bulls, and slaughtered people at a single stroke, but neither fire nor iron could touch them.
Once again, Haldan is in conflict with representatives of Odin. Sivald demands that Haldan face him and his seven sons all at once, taunting him with disparaging comments as Odin himself taunts Thor in Hárbarðsljóð. Haldan again turns to Thor’s oak for help: “As it happened, he was walking through a tract of shady woodland when he tore up by its roots an oak which blocked his path, and by simply stripping off its branches shaped it into a hefty cudgel.” This giant armament is elsewhere described by Saxo as a club, truncheon and giant hammer, combining the various forms of Thor’s mystic weapon.

Haldan also displays the Bunyanesque stature of Thor, who stands on the bottom of the ocean while fishing from its surface and wears the giant Hymir’s ale-kettle (which is “a league deep”) on his head. The Danish hero shows again that he is divinely “rock-strong” as he uproots an oak and uses it as a club. He vanquishes his challengers with the wooden weapon, suggesting that they, like Hakon and Snorri’s berserks, have the Odinic power of blunting swords. In the end, however, “their vigorous ardor was useless against the extraordinary mass of his truncheon.” Thor-given strength again overcomes Odin-inspired magic.

Haldan’s next opponent is another Odinic berserk, albeit one who also exhibits characteristics of Thor’s traditional enemies, the giants. Harthben is described by Saxo in the same terms as the earlier berserks (shield-chewing, coal-swallowing, fire-running, prone to murderous fits). What makes Harthben different is the fact that he stands almost sixteen feet tall (!) and spends his time kidnapping and violating high-ranking aristocratic princesses.

The giants of Norse myth are frequently found abducting (or plotting to abduct) the loveliest of the goddesses. Idun and Freya are, in contemporary terms, far out of the giants’ league. Thor is usually the one who takes on the job of protecting the godly women’s honor and avenging the wrongs done to them, and his champion plays a similar role. Haldan defeats the beserk giant in one of the quickest battles in Saxo: “[Harthben] then went for Haldan, who smashed him down with the giant hammer and deprived him of life and victory.” This abbreviated ending is reminiscent of Thor’s own giant-battles, in which the god invariably makes quick work of his outsized foes.

Haldan’s last three adventures likewise present adversaries with a mixture of Odinic and giantlike qualities. First, Haldan overthrows a pirate named Eggther who shares his name with the guardian of the Ironwood giantess in Völuspá ("Prophecy of the Seeress"). Second, Haldan disguises himself before challenging a warrior named Grimmi who has been demanding the daughter of a prince under threat of violence. Grimmi has the Odinic power of blunting a sword with his gaze, but Haldan has cleverly brought along a backup sword and emerges victorious. Haldan’s fury at Grimmi’s demands on the young woman again echoes Thor’s righteous anger as he defends the goddesses.

In Haldan’s final outing, he confronts Ebbi, “a pirate of peasant stock” who attempts to force a marriage with the daughter of the king of Götaland. As Thor is deeply angered by giants looking for brides above their station, Haldan seems strongly motivated by a desire to enforce class boundaries, providing a fine rant that demands “in tones of utmost rage what raving madness had brought [Ebbi] to such a pitch of insolence, presuming to mingle his own vile, contemptible species with outstanding nobility, daring to lay serf’s hands on a royal personage.” In fact, this emphasis on class may come from Saxo himself; he repeatedly demonstrates a strong belief in the inviolability of class structure throughout his History. Cambridge’s Hilda Ellis Davidson writes that “the idea that union between a person of noble birth and another from a lower social class is disgraceful and unforgiveable receives considerable prominence in Saxo.” The historian is neither the first nor last to write his own sociopolitical views onto mythical or legendary figures.

Haldan attends the wedding, destroying “all appearance of his kingly grandeur by assuming a hideous disguise and, coming upon the wedding at night, spread fear when all who met him were thunderstruck at the arrival of this man of superhuman size.” Thunderstruck, indeed – Haldan’s disguised appearance at the wedding is reminiscent of the poem Þrymskviða (“Thrym’s Poem”), in which Thor disguises himself a the goddess Freya in a bridal gown and pretends to marry a giant in order to win back his stolen hammer. As the human wedding guests are amazed by Haldan’s appearance (he seems to have disguised himself as a giant), the giant guests are amazed that Freya/Thor has such a huge appetite and such a fierce gaze.

In the end, Saxo’s portrayal of Haldan sits on the third stage of the descent of religion. What begins as (1) religion devolves into (2) myth, (3) legend, (4) tale, and (5) superstition. I suppose we can now add (6) comics and (7) movies! Historically, Thor begins as a sky-god feared and worshiped by his followers before becoming a character in myth – and what is myth but religion that is no longer believed? Haldan exists in the next stage, the world of legend. He embodies cultic aspects of Thor’s religious worship (calling on Thor for help in dangerous times, ritual use of the oak tree); we can also sense the faded echoes of conflict between the cults of Thor and Odin. Haldan’s adventures allude to or retell myths of Thor in the legendary, human (or superhuman) realm. Like other heroes of legend (Beowulf, Siegfried), he brings mystic tales of myth down to the earthly level. By extrapolating backwards from these legends, we make a small step towards reverse-engineering and understanding a pan-Germanic religion and mythology that only exists in tantalizing fragments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this to be a good post. I myself have written on heroes such as these, in specific the daughter of Hrothgar of Beowulf legend.

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