It’s not like I can avoid it. I speak English, so my experience of the world is slanted by Homer. I’ve talked about him and his Iliad before.
“Rage! Sing, Goddess…!”
The wars, the passion and the poetry could never—still aren’t! —be exhausted. The British university students kept on with their Greek translations well into Victoria’s reign.
What could compete with Homer’s words?
William Morris, famous for his arts and crafts textile designs, was also a poet and novelist. HE had an Icelandic friend who introduces him to an ancient Old Norse manuscript, which included the Volsunga Saga.
It’s from the 1200s, talking of historic events from 800 years earlier in Central Europe. The adventures described were dark powerful stories of the Volsung family, a fierce multigenerational story of revenge and the will-to-power.
Unlike the Greeks, these heroes were not the playthings of the gods. The tribal ferocity had a timbre rooted in the cold and dark north–a strange yet familiar indigenous epic. It wasn’t only England that was looking for its own unique identity in stories and language. The Brothers Grimm are just one example of the search for essential national identity through old oral traditional stories.
In the late 1800s industrialism and colonization had toppled old assumptions. Where did people fit in their lives and in society? The people were re-examining the stories of their own ancestors, not the re-purposed stories of Olympian gods grafted into the culture so long ago.
The emperors of industry didn’t trace their family trees back to kings. They filed their power in books managed by clerks. Sign here:
to pay back the loan
that lets you own
the smokestacks and the men who feed them.
Where is the heroism? What does success mean without the story of who I am?
Wagner was finishing his famous Ring cycle opera series with the Twilight of the Gods, based on the same stories. The story chronicles the end of the world. The time of the gods—heroism, honor and love—was ending.
What brought about this annihilation? How did it Wagner show this collapse?
It began with the craven breaking a contract. The God of all, Odin, made a contract with the Frost Giants to build his dream home, Valhalla. But he made the deal with no intention of paying the price.
But in the new world of industry and capital, where trust has taken the place of lineage, a broken promise proved to be the end of everything.
The Grimm brothers, Morris, and Wagner were trying to find a shared heritage, but Wagner brought it back to trust or honor. What allows us to be alongside one another if not trust?
This story, of the ring and the broken sword that begun in Old Norse was picked up by a more modern and familiar artist: Tolkien.
As powerful as a contract is in the world of the new middle class, Tolkien found another layer needed peeling away. He was chest deep in these indigenous stories—he was a linguistics professor. But before he brushed out his first tweed jacket, he joined the fight in World War One, seeing the worst of the modern reenactment of battle. Blood and sickness and death alongside his modern life.
The Volusunga Saga told the story of unbound ambition, constrained only by the limited power of what a collection of humans could do to one another. Humans had progressed since. The industrial age for workers led to the industrial age for warfare. The same tools that kept the smoke pumping out of the factories kept the men in place on the front lines to die in ways and numbers unimagined.
The 20th century epic story of the Lord of the Rings of Power followed a small insignificant hero. He refused to use the power. He never forgot where he came from, longing to return to his beloved shire. His sense of belonging and the peace of his community fueled his commitment to not only refuse the power, but to prevent it from being used by others.
I can read the story of the Volsungs. I wonder what they would think of us, 1600 years later. We have more power than they could have dreamed. Can we refrain from using it? Have we turned the hero’s story inside out?