The Pulse (B.C): In the Dark Water 4
The Prophecy of the Völva
My copy of The Völuspá is slipping from its precarious cradle around the faucet and threatening to plunge into the water below. 800 years old, it recounts the birth of the world and the final cataclysm. It was written by the völva, or seeress.
The corner of my notebook, once balanced firmly on my knees, is already dipping into the water. The screen of my laptop is starting to flickr. I reach over and select the playlist, 99 Songs to be Played During the Apocalypse, which contains dire warnings and faint hopes — from the damnation of Gorgoroth to the unlikely optimism of Led Zeppelin and Queen.
The screen seems to be sending me signals in morse code. The deeper I look into it the deeper its messages become. Or perhaps it’s just my eyelids that are blinking up and down, on and off, in an attempt to ward off the phantoms of sleep. I put my fingers here and there on the trackpad and the screen blinks on and off various sites — apocalypse.org, odinsrefuge.edu, endoftheworld.cia — while my thoughts slip toward Ragnarök, the final Battle of Evermore.
I'm not sure Old Rex will be impressed with references to popular culture, but I could note, by way of introduction, that the apocalypse of Ragnarök has been retold recently in Norwegian Speed Metal — in Darkthrone's Panzerfaust and Transilvanian Hunger, and by Gaahl, the Sauron of Norwegian black metal, in Gorgoroth’s 2003 album Twilight of the Idols.
The music conjures the desolation of Tolkien's high dark plateau, Gorgoroth, the bleak realm of Sauron’s forges and mines. The music isn't recommended for suicidal adolescents, unless they find it somehow cathartic to travel deep into the province of Mordor, which if I had to locate on a map would be somewhere north of Hammerfest, in the north of Norway, in the Land of the Ice and Snow.
A BBC travel writer notes that the small town of Hammerfest has “a luckless narrative of natural disasters, fires, plagues and war, spanning a timeline from Napoleon to the Nazis." The name of the town is also the name of the Welsh festival featuring black, death, thrash, doom, and other forms of heavy metal. It’s not a refined, Brideshead Revisited sort of affair.
One of the strangest albums of Norwegian black metal is by the noxious, solitary figure, Hrothgar the Skald. Titled Raiders from the Frozen Skiff, the album follows the history of brutal free-trading aliens from another universe. Their leader, Odeen, made a whirlwind tour of our own universe a mere 1500 years ago. He and his gang of alien thugs scraped precious metals and heavy crystals from the deepest caves and darkest quarries. They even built an icy castle in the Far North, somewhere near Hammerfest, where their military commander practiced his hammer-throwing on what he called “the Reindeer People” and a few tribes of primitive Germans, whose language the Frozen Skiffers could almost understand.
The album hasn’t sold well, however, given that its music drones on for sixty minutes in what can only be described as a cavernous and cacophonous scramble, and given that its Norse themes and characters are obviously ripped off from Marvel comics and movies.
From his cell in the Oslo Asylum for the Criminally Insane Church Burners, Hrothgar laughs at the critics, and calmly tells them, “Beware the orange beams from the Sky!” When asked what he means by this, Hrothgar’s eyes turn from dark green to icy blue, and he says, “No need to hold your breath. Just wait until July 14. Their friends will be back.”
I look at the paragraphs I’ve written so far, about the tragedy of war and the hope represented by the rheinmaidens. I add a title and sub-title:
EPIC FAILURE: WHO WILL SAVE US FROM OURSELVES?
Northern Versions of Doom
Although the epic story of the Norse cataclysm is now shrouded in the mists of time, the chaos of Ragnarök has been resurrected in the Scandinavia of its birth in the form of black metal. In its bleak soundscapes and in its shrieking, thrashing guitars, one can hear the pounding of Nietzsche's godless hammers, the battering-ram rhythms of the Viking longships, the splintering altarpieces of Lindisfarne, and the smoke rising through the fractured rafters of the Holmenkollen Chapel. Forget Wagner, this is the real grinding, screeching deal.
An earlier version of Ragnarök, however, was written by Snorri Sturluson, who collected the Völuspá and other stories in his Prose Edda at the start of the 13th century. How, I wonder, did the Christian Snorri feel about the Völuspá? Did it sound to him at all like The Book of Revelation? Did he start to wonder if maybe it wasn’t so much a sin to believe in the old gods as the same old burden to believe in the new one?
Snorri undoubtedly read the story of Ragnarök in The Poetic Edda, a collection of poems which appear to have been written and re-written from the 10th century onward. The first story of this collection is the Völuspá, a seeress’ vision of how the world was born from chaos and how it will ignite into war, rise in flames, sink into the sea, and then rise again as Gimli, paradise in the sea — at last safe from the fires of Loki and Hel.
In this paper I’ll suggest that the epic is full of dire warnings about who we are and what we do. From The Odyssey to The Divine Comedy, from the Völuspá to The Waste Land, we’ve been given the same prophetic vision. The differences between the Greeks and the Norse aren't that great, because despite democratic councils — the agora or the Allthing — we’ve all been unable to divert the catastrophe. Perhaps it’s because we’re only human, only apes that have learned to philosophize. We still hoard and fight, like monkeys on the Congo. We’re still bound by our limited, self-centred nervous systems. After two World Wars and countless scientific facts about the degradation of our environment, we’re still stocking arms and slipping, inch by inch, back into the primal muck.
I look at what I’ve written and wonder how Old Rex will read it. What if he doesn’t believe in arms control or global warming? What if he thinks these things are a matter of believing or not believing? Or, worse, what if he likes opera? But how can I write about Ragnarök and leave out the three things that seem closest to it — black metal, war, and global warming? Still, why antagonize the old goat when he’s the one who grades my exam?
I decide to mitigate my paean to the pagan metallists and my warning about war and environmental destruction. I decide to soften my tone. Honey, not vinegar. What I’ve got so far will work as long as I don’t keep hammering it home. I remember Sylvia saying that in tackling war and extinction, “You shouldn’t dump fancy balsamic vinegar into people’s coffee. You have to make them feel comfortable about their lives. You have to reassure them that they can keep on living in the lap of luxury — even though you have every intention of taking it all away.” She then whistled an old Bob Dylan tune, and sang softly, The carpet, too, is moving under you / And it's all over now, baby blue.”
I need to give Old Rex that warm feeling, the one you get when it’s cold outside yet you decide to forget about the end of the world and let yourself sink into a warm bath. So I title the next section,
What better place to start our journey into the Western Epic than with the estate of Snorri, who brought together the early Norse legends, perhaps while sitting and musing in his outdoor bath. According to Wikipedia, “In 1206 Snorri Sturluson settled in Reykholt. The remains of his farm, including his hot outdoor bath (called “Snorralaug,” or “Snorri’s bath”), have been preserved to some extent.”
Sylvia insists that ecologically we're slipping dangerously toward a watery abyss, just as I slipped into the warm sudsy water of my Matthalaug, and am now slipping toward Dreamland. I'm sliding deeper and deeper into the water, leaving the things of this world behind. Despite the fact that I'm drifting into the currents below, I'm nevertheless conscious of the fact that my notebook's dipping into the water, a door's closing at the end of the hallway, and Sylvia's standing above me.
I look over at the door and see her grey hoodie drop to the floor. Her tight jeans float over white panties, while her thin cotton t-shirt brushes her nipples. The thinnest layer of strata is levitating northward. The white cotton cloud drifts so softly upward, then it falls to the south, away from the Wall and the White Walkers and those phallocentric orcs. And yet she brings with her the frozen ether as she stands there in all her teutonic glory, icy and blue like the image of Scarlett Johansson on my long lost igoogle page.
Sylvia warms her fingers in the water that fills the Matthalaug to its brim. She lifts one leg up and over the lip into the slipstream. White foam courses over the brim and onto the floorboards.
In my dream I tell myself I’m just hallucinating. Like when you walk into a room of naked girls and all of a sudden you’re Adonis. But you look into the mirror on the wall which becomes the smooth surface of a lake. You look closer and realize that you’re not even Narcissus. You’re Actaeon instead. You don’t see the underworld in the lake. Not even a little white and gold flower. All you see are dogs.
But I don’t have time for this erotic oneiric nonsense. I turn on the cold tap and splash water onto my face. I have five hours to come up with a thesis! I must look inward, downward, past slim fingers resting on white enamel into the deep blue. Past the cobalt and into the black. I must drift downward whether she’s with me or not, riding my coat-tails like a Valkyrie.
I must ride the blue eddies of the sky like a valkyrie funnelling downward
precipitous like a tornado bearing downward into the cold water
through Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, to Mimir's well
with its nine circular worlds and its strange visions
I must follow Odin into the mystic currents
into the 81 hidden worlds lying beneath
into the darkest depths of Mordor
ring under ring, all unified in
one ring of elven power
for the Dark Lord —
all bounded by
here in my
In brief, I must commune with the spirit of Jimmie Page.
I must concentrate. If only I could ignore the figment of my dreamworld — that long white leg with no hair on it that's curling its slim ankle around my neck. Did she have to shave her legs just before coming over? Is she here to distract me, or torture me, or both — a Banquo of the bathtub, eating away at my time and accusing me of ignoring our star-crossed gender (she was meant to be a lesbian, she’s sure) but somehow everything mixes so smoothly in the currents beneath our friendship, our shins and ankles slipping and sliding like the geologic zones beneath that deep Romantic chasm where we hear ancestral voices prophesying war, and Sylvia's voice warning me about ecological zones, magna and warm waters rising from the earth’s core, Vulcan and Hades, and the carbon footprint that she didn’t make as she stepped into the bath. Can there be a footprint in water, Albert Camus? The polar icecaps are blowing their tops like angry polar bears, and Hel is riding across the sea with Loki toward the great heated mineral springs of Iceland.
The ghost of Sylvia, dripping suds from her smooth chin like a hoary beard, asks me point-blank: Did you know that Iceland is heated by more than 10,000 metric tonnes of thermal water every day? She grabs the computer from the toilet seat and shows me the hot water coming up ↑ and the cold water going down ↓. It’s all very confusing, as you can see at http://tigger.uic.edu/~cstein/resice.html:
It's especially confusing because they use terms like bathymetry and heat flow and global average values for that lithospheric age. The bathy part I get (her ankle has wrapped itself around my ear), but not the average values. And when it comes to lithoshperic age I’m thinking dinosaurs, possibly Old Rex. And what about that referent that? It gets even more confusing when you take into account that as the room steams up I can barely read the screen and as the water cools down the currents mix and dissipate, mixing beneath the polar ice-capped mountains of my knees and around the other submerged body parts. Alot seems to be happening down there, which makes it really hard to concentrate.
I slide my right foot around her left shoulder to reach the gleaming silver taps. I release hot blasts into the tepid deep. I am doing my part to keep the Gulf Stream flowing, from its southern engine in the Caribbean, to its northern engine in the land of the ice and snow:
Retracting her ankles, once snugly wedged between smooth enamel and codslick bells to keep her feet warm, Sylvia pounds me with another question, more inconvenient than the first: “What if the arrows stop once the towers of ice have crashed into the sea and the northern generator sputters?”
We’ve clearly strayed into ecological territory, a secular Ragnarök. But I must leave Sylvia's question unanswered, and get back to studying for the English exam. I must slowly, carefully back away from her world of depressing facts, and try to imagine what the world was like before the Industrial Revolution and all those dark satanic mills. I must get back to the French Provençal Poets and capital letters, because there's always the possibility that traditions courtly and otherwise will be on the exam. Oscar Wilde and his dandy henchman are waiting in the wings four and a half hours from now. As Hamlet said to his buddy Horatio, The readiness is all. I'm sure that Macbeth would have something to add.
I must get back to Norse, Celtic, Greek, and Christian myth, back to the dark Western mines of lore, the gates of Moria, and Led Zeppelin. I must stop thinking about Sylvia’s thighs and stop trying to measure the depth of Odin’s well with multibeam echosounders and isobaths. It would be far better to read about paleobathymetry, that is, the study of past underwater depths — but without the echosounders.
I must strip myself of my existential self so that I can focus on Jimmie Page’s inner eye and focus on what was, transcending time itself. I must stop seeing breasts rising from the foam, just out of reach, everywhere.
I must read in palindromic Malayalam
(looking online I find:
“sex I felt, so pay zoo bastard rats a boozy apostle fixes”)
angels on a pin and elfin scrawl
following the letters, like devanagari on a string
सर्वं ज्ञानं मयि विद्यते
(“All that I have to learn is already within me”)
or follow the bubbling brook
from these sudsy waters into a forest
where I will meet Dante and Virgil
or wander alone, along some other trail
following Robert the frosty leprechaun
along a trail of words wandering onward, inward to Rivendale
and the last supper of the remaining elves in Gimli
after the fire and flood
there with the Ljósálfar, the light elves, safe from fire and flood
and from the real world of peak oil and ice caps
from Al Gore to the epic lore of Beowulf
Lancelot, Ronsard, and Geraldine
a Game of Faraway Thrones
and the skaldic bards of the Scylding line
Next: The Academic