Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Hard Choice

It would be wrong to say that I am a fan of eschatology, but it does fascinate me to some extent. I think that the way a culture believes the end of time will occur says as much about it as its cosmogenic narratives do. Unfortunately, for those of use with a proclivity for Celtic cultures, we lack both; or what we have are tiny fragments with tantalizing hints of a much broader set of complimentary myths. Of all the eschatological narratives our there, being discussed and bandied about, my personal favourite is that of Ragnarok, or the twilight of the Aesir. It has everything that makes a story both memorable and enjoyable: prophecies fulfilled, old scores being settled, single combats to the death and the last, great stand of those who would defend the cosmos from oblivion; those willing to sacrifice all they are to purchase a future for those who may come next. I used to balk at the fatalistic tendencies inherent in the tales of the Aesir, and ponder why none of the gods would reject a future that had been written, but not yet come to pass. I questioned the tales and the perception of impotent gods, unable to do anything to change their fate. It took me a while, and some deep discussions with some very wise and eloquent Asatruars to realize that in my dedication of the rejection of fatalism, I missed the point. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this would be to use one of the very episodes in question, a precursor to the main event, so to speak. It is a story involving Tyr, and how he came to lose his hand.

Tyr, a member of the Aesir, god of single combat (among other things) along with the other gods, had grown concerned of the growth of the wolf Fenrir, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboða, and so resolved to chain the great beast, for they had foreknowledge of the doom which would occur as a result of him. They tried three times to bound the wolf, and three times he broke the fetters they laid about him. Finally, Odin resolved to have the dwarves forge a special ribbon, Gleipnir, which would finally restrain Fenrir. The wolf, sensing that some trick was being performed upon him, would only allow himself to be retrained if one of the gods laced their hand in his mouth. Were he unable to break free, he would bite off the hand of the god. The Aesir balked at this, except Tyr, who placed his hand in the gaping maw of the wolf, who was then bound. Unable to break free of Gleipnir, and having realized the cunning of the Aesir, bit down and severed Tyr's hand from his arm. The wolf was thus bound but at a high price.

Looking at it from a fatalistic standpoint, there was no prophecy that Fenrir would devour Tyr's hand, but there were prophecies of the ill which would befall the world, because of Fenrir. Tyr had the ability to say no, to balk as the other Gods did, knowing full well what would happen once the wolf became wise to the Aesir's deceit. But had he balked, he would have not been Tyr, the embodiment of the warrior, god of single combat and heroic glory. Tyr understood exactly what would happen, knew the outcome, yet willingly bought the entrapment of Fenrir with his own hand. This speaks to one of the most important themes running through the Icelandic sagas, the hard choice.

The hard choice is never pleasant and only marginally better than the alternative, but that sliver of distinction is how honour abides. It is easy to have lofty ideals when it is convenient, but true virtue is tested when things go wrong. If you suddenly find yourself staring at the hard choice, and your resolve fails, what then of morality? What then of honour? Lofty ideals to be abandoned when they become a burden, will forever remain just that; esoteric and highfalutin sound bites. Those willing to make the hard choice, willing to embody the ideals they espouse, can justify their virtue and be held as honorable. This is one of the morals of the story of Tyr that I think has immense value, and it is a lesson that is sorely needed.

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