Monday, 16 September 2013

Fenrir the Wolf

In the far north, a wolf howled and the Gods awoke from their slumber, hearts racing. They knew this was the end - the wild thing had broken free and Ragnarok was upon them.
Loki the trickster,
Loki the shape-shifting blood-brother of Odin,
Loki born of a lightening strike on a leafy island,
Loki the mischief maker, the trouble-maker, the bringer of strife.
Loki was not content to stay at home with his sweet wife Sigyn - he hungered for a deeper darkness that lay far beyond the walls of Asgard. Just like Loki, the witch Angroboda was fair to the eye, but just like Loki, there was a shadow in her heart and it was that shadow which drove her. Under a starless sky, the got three monstrous children together.
The first was Jormungandr, the world serpent. When Odin saw this huge snake with dripping, venomous teeth, he picked it up by the tail and flung it into the sea and there the beast remained - biting his own tail, for he was so long that he encircled the whole world.
The second of Loki's children was a daughter named Hel. She was quite a sight to behold. From the top of her head to her waist, she was flesh and blood like you or I, but from there down she was dead, rotting, green and black decay. When Odin saw her, he banished her to the realm of the dead, that Hel might rule over Hel and there she remained amongst the swirly, grey mists.
The last of Loki's children was a wolf-cub, Fenrir. He was small and furry and seemed sweet and so the Gods decided he could remain in Asgard as their pet. Fenrir ran and gambolled and played in the grass and the Gods laughed as they watched the puppy play.
But as time passed, they saw Fenrir grow and grow until soon he was eating a whole sheep for breakfast. Soon enough, only Tyr - the God of War - was brave enough to feed him and Odin, unsure of the consequences of keeping this child of Loki's, went to consult the Norns.
"You kept the wolf cub and now you are afraid," said Urd.
"Fenrir-Wolf is great and strong," said Verdani.
"He will swallow the sun, Odin Allfather," whispered Skuld, "he will swallow the sun and then he will destroy you."
A council was called and the Gods discussed what they could do with the wolf. No blood could be spilt on Asgard soil, so simply killing the wolf (with arrows, from a great distance of course!) was mentioned. There was no easy solution - the wolf wouldn't go of his own accord and he mustn't know how powerful he would become.
Eventually the Gods came up with a plan of trickery and cunning. They found a great chain called Laeding, with rings as thick as Thor's hammering-arm and they gathered around the wolf.
"Fenrir, wolf cub, child of Loki come and test your strength for us," cooed Odin, offering the wolf the chain.
Fenrir sniffed the metal and snarled, but he nodded and allowed himself to be bound from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.
Asgard held its breath as Fenrir yawned and stretched and crack, crack, crack, the rings of the chain burst apart.
"You'll have to do better than that to beat me," snarled the wolf and sauntered away into the trees.
A council was called and the Gods, a little worried, now decided to create an even bigger chain. Forged of the strongest metal, Dromi was sure to bind the wolf.
Once more, the Gods of Asgard gathered around where Fenrir lay bathing in the early-autumn sunshine.
"Fenrir, little wolf cub come and test your strength once more," said Odin softly, offering the wolf the chain.
Fenrir sniffed the metal and growled, but he nodded and allowed himself to be bound from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.
Asgard held its breath as Fenrir yawned and stretched and stretched and yawned and crack, crack, crack, the rings of the chain burst apart.
"You'll have to do better than that to beat me little Gods," snarled the wolf and sauntered away into the trees.
Panic began to rise in the heart of each and every God of Asgard and worried voices began to spread like wildfire through the gathered deities. Odin raised his hand.
"We must ask the dwarves. Skirnir, go to Svartelvelheim and offer them as much gold as they want."
Skirnir flew like an arrow over the rainbow bridge and down into the cavernous depths of the land of the dwarves, slipping through dark rock, into gloomy cavern until he found himself in the forge of the master-smiths. They listened with interest to his tale and a lot of gold was exchanged.
Days later, Skirnir returned to Odin carrying a chain, but this was no ordinary chain. Gleipnir was a smooth and thin as a strip of silk and it gleamed in the sunlight.
"What is that?" cried voices from the council. "How will that tether the wild wolf?"
But Odin saw the magic in it.
"The dwarves made it," said Skirnir, "and they made it from the sound of a cat's footfall, the beard of a woman, the breath of a fish, the roots of a mountain and the spit of a bird. They tell me this will bind the wolf, because this chain is made of impossible things - it should not exist."
The Gods walked with Fenrir to an island in the centre of a lake in the heart of Asgard and there they showed him Gleipnir.
"Come wolf-pup, one final test of strength."
Fenrir sniffed the chain and snorted, "There is no glory for me in this. Why should I test my strength against a piece of gossamer? Unless there is more here than meets the nose... you have forged it with cunning and deceit. I will not test myself against a God's trickery."
The Gods shifted uneasily and avoided meeting the gaze of the great wolf. Only Tyr stepped forward.  
"It will be so easy, why not try? If the you beat it then you have lost nothing and if you are beaten by it, we will untie you," Tyr said calmly.  
Fenrir sniffed the chain again and thought deeply.
"If one of you will put your hand inside my jaws, I will allow myself to be bound. As long as there is no falsehood in your words and you untie me, you will keep your hand."
Every God, even Odin, looked down, up, into the distance, anywhere but at the wolf. Only Tyr stepped forward.
"Ok then little wolf. You have nothing to fear."
And so Fenrir allowed himself to be bound with the rope called Gleipnir, from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.
Fenrir yawned, stretched, yawned, stretched and shhhkk, the chain tightened around his legs, shhhhk the chain tightened around his chest, the wolf struggled and scrabbled and the Gods laughed and the wolf roared and the chain tightened and Tyr lost his hand.
One of the Gods, maybe it was Odin, took a sword and has the wolf howled in pain and fear and anger, he thrust the point of the blade into the roof of the creature's mouth, the hilt in his jaw and so the beast's mouth was held open. Another God took the end of the rope and with a great stone he plunged it into the soft, brown flesh of the island and Fenrir was bound and tethered, tethered and tied to Asgard soil, unable to snap or bite or howl at the moon.
And there he remained. The great, wild wolf was bound, fettered, shackled and the Gods walked back to the mead halls of Gladsheim to celebrate their great victory.
Deep below, at the roots of Yggrdrasil, the world tree, the Norns were weaving the threads of fate.
"The wolf was tricked," said Urd.
"The wolf is bound," said Verdani.
"He will swallow the sun," whispered Skuld, "he will swallow the sun and then he will destroy you, Odin Allfather."
Reflection on the tale
This is one of my very favourite stories, although I didn't like it at first. It seemed so simple- the evil wolf is beaten by the great Gods - so I ignored it. But like all good stories, this tale did not let me relax or sleep and kept whispering in my ear as I slept. So one day I decided to learn it and then I told it again and again and again.
The first time I told it to a friend of mine, she cheered when I told her that Fenrir does break free. She said that she had felt sorry for the wolf and that she couldn't stand the Gods.
So what is going on in this story? It is worth noting, before I continue, that the Norns are not exactly the same as the fates of Greek mythology - the futures they see are not set in stone but are likely outcomes from circumstances as they are. The actions of the Gods failed to change the future - they went down the road of trickery and violence rather than trying a different approach. I always hold the question within me - what if the Gods acted with compassion instead of violent control? It's the same with Loki - they are told he is going to lead the forces of darkness against Asgard at Ragnorok, but still they sow up his lips, threaten him with violence and throw his children into the sea. Maybe this saga is there to show us that we should not try to be like Odin but try and find another way - domination, violence and a lack of empathy and compassion destroyed Asgard and all of the Gods. If they had treated Fenrir with compassion or love, would this story have had a different ending?
I see Fenrir as an embodiment of that wildness, not unlike the lion cubs we want to cuddle and keep as housecats, until we see them ripping a zebra apart. Despite being born from darkness, his attractiveness as a small pup overrides Odin's impulse to throw all of Loki's children out of Asgard and he decides that they can handle or control this wolf. As they begin to fear his size and strength, they are told that he is a threat and so they try to control him- literally tying up the wolf. The threat itself, to swallow the sun and to kill Odin, could be read as a destruction of the status quo - swallowing the old sun and the old king so a new dawn can rise. How many times have we done the same - found an instinctive element or thought within ourselves that threatens to throw off the status quo of our quiet existence and so we respond with fear and try to chain it up. The instinct to break out of a boring, monotonous job and search for something greater, the instinct to leave a fading relationship, the instinct to throw ourselves naked into the sun-kissed waters of the lake, all tethered and tied up by the reigning Allfather of our conscious - maybe he comes in the form of a dominant narrative (that's not how ladies should behave) or maybe he comes in the form of a negative thought or fear (no-one else will every love you). What would happen if we let the wolf out, destroyed our old ways of being and welcomed in a new dawn?

If we read this as an ecological tale, we see a story where man identifies the wildness of nature as being a threat and tries despearately to control it, but even when man thinks they've won, wildness is tethered, not destroyed. Nature is patient and will-out. Fenrir has to wait, tied up, laughed at and in pain, but he escapes in the end. It reminds me that grass and flowers grow even in concrete jungles and even though we invest thousands of pounds in weed control, weeds still grow. The Gods didn't beat Fenrir and we haven't beaten the wild, even though we have set ourselves up against it, pretending we are not part of it and have not got part of the darkness and determination of Fenrir in our hearts.
Which brings me to my last idea...
The final act of the Gods is to thrust a sword in Fenrir's mouth. This image makes my whole body tighten - it is an unnecessary domineering act of violence, a celebration of 'victory' over animal wildness. In my mind, I picture the God's faces having similar expressions to the joyous faces of those awful safari hunting parties that send snapshots to friends and family of when they killed a lion, a bear, a tiger. But is there another way to read it instead of a simple cruel, vile gesture of power?
The Gods show no violence towards the wolf until the wolf is tethered. When they realise that Gleipnir will hold Fenrir and the wild is shackled, it mutates and transforms and a toxic imitation (a phrase borrowed from Dr Martin Shaw) of the brutality of the wild is created in the act of torturing Fenrir's mouth open with a sharp sword. 

(C) Abigail Palache 6th October 2013

1 comment:

  1. The story seems to be saying to me that within each of us there are many parts, the fearful, the angry, wicked, the wise. It is hopeless to try to cut out any one of these, because each part has its own purpose though it is easy to hate one part and project it outwards on others. Accepting all parts, is the only way to move forward.