Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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To me there is something very touching in this primeval figure of
Heroism; in such artless, helpless, but hearty entire reception of a
Hero by his fellow-men. Never so helpless in shape, it is the noblest
of feelings, and a feeling in some shape or other perennial as man
himself. If I could show in any measure, what I feel deeply for a long
time now, That it is the vital element of manhood, the soul of man's
history here in our world, - it would be the chief use of this
discoursing at present. We do not now call our great men Gods, nor
admire _without_ limit; ah, no, _with_ limit enough! But if we have no
great men, or do not admire at all, - that were a still worse case.

This poor Scandinavian Hero-worship, that whole Norse way of looking
at the Universe, and adjusting oneself there, has an indestructible
merit for us. A rude childlike way of recognising the divineness of
Nature, the divineness of Man; most rude, yet heartfelt, robust,
giantlike; betokening what a giant of a man this child would grow
to! - It was a truth, and is none. Is it not as the half-dumb stifled
voice of the long-buried generations of our own Fathers, calling out
of the depths of ages to us, in whose veins their blood still runs:
"This then, this is what _we_ made of the world: this is all the image
and notion we could form to ourselves of this great mystery of a Life
and Universe. Despise it not. You are raised high above it, to large
free scope of vision; but you too are not yet at the top. No, your
notion too, so much enlarged, is but a partial, imperfect one: that
matter is a thing no man will ever, in time or out of time,
comprehend; after thousands of years of ever-new expansion, man will
find himself but struggling to comprehend again a part of it: the
thing is larger than man, not to be comprehended by him; an Infinite

* * * * *

The essence of the Scandinavian, as indeed of all Pagan Mythologies,
we found to be recognition of the divineness of Nature; sincere
communion of man with the mysterious invisible Powers visibly seen at
work in the world round him. This, I should say, is more sincerely
done in the Scandinavian than in any Mythology I know. Sincerity is
the great characteristic of it. Superior sincerity (far superior)
consoles us for the total want of old Grecian grace. Sincerity, I
think, is better than grace. I feel that these old Northmen were
looking into Nature with open eye and soul: most earnest, honest;
childlike, and yet manlike; with a great-hearted simplicity and depth
and freshness, in a true, loving, admiring, unfearing way. A right
valiant, true old race of men. Such recognition of Nature one finds to
be the chief element of Paganism: recognition of Man, and his Moral
Duty, though this too is not wanting, comes to be the chief element
only in purer forms of religion. Here, indeed, is a great distinction
and epoch in Human Beliefs; a great landmark in the religious
development of Mankind. Man first puts himself in relation with Nature
and her Powers, wonders and worships over those; not till a later
epoch does he discern that all Power is Moral, that the grand point is
the distinction for him of Good and Evil, of _Thou shalt_ and _Thou
shalt not_.

With regard to all these fabulous delineations in the _Edda_, I will
remark, moreover, as indeed was already hinted, that most probably
they must have been of much newer date; most probably, even from the
first, were comparatively idle for the old Norsemen, and as it were a
kind of Poetic sport. Allegory and Poetic Delineation, as I said
above, cannot be religious Faith; the Faith itself must first be
there, then Allegory enough will gather round it, as the fit body
round its soul. The Norse Faith, I can well suppose, like other
Faiths, was most active while it lay mainly in the silent state, and
had not yet much to say about itself, still less to sing.

Among those shadowy _Edda_ matters, amid all that fantastic congeries
of assertions, and traditions, in their musical Mythologies, the main
practical belief a man could have was probably not much more than
this: of the _Valkyrs_ and the _Hall of Odin_; of an inflexible
_Destiny_; and that the one thing needful for a man was _to be brave_.
The _Valkyrs_ are Choosers of the Slain: a Destiny inexorable, which
it is useless trying to bend or soften, has appointed who is to be
slain; this was a fundamental point for the Norse believer; - as indeed
it is for all earnest men everywhere, for a Mahomet, a Luther, for a
Napoleon too. It lies at the basis this for every such man; it is the
woof out of which his whole system of thought is woven. The _Valkyrs_;
and then that these _Choosers_ lead the brave to a heavenly _Hall of
Odin_; only the base and slavish being thrust elsewhither, into the
realms of Hela the Death-goddess: I take this to have been the soul of
the whole Norse Belief. They understood in their heart that it was
indispensable to be brave; that Odin would have no favour for them,
but despise and thrust them out, if they were not brave. Consider too
whether there is not something in this! It is an everlasting duty,
valid in our day as in that, the duty of being brave. _Valour_ is
still _value_. The first duty of a man is still that of subduing
_Fear_. We must get rid of Fear; we cannot act at all till then. A
man's acts are slavish, not true but specious: his very thoughts are
false, he thinks too as a slave and coward, till he have got Fear
under his feet. Odin's creed, if we disentangle the real kernel of it,
is true to this hour. A man shall and must be valiant; he must march
forward, and quit himself like a man - trusting imperturbably in the
appointment and _choice_ of the upper Powers; and, on the whole, not
fear at all. Now and always, the completeness of his victory over Fear
will determine how much of a man he is.

It is doubtless very savage that kind of valour of the old Northmen.
Snorro tells us they thought it a shame and misery not to die in
battle; and if natural death seemed to be coming on, they would cut
wounds in their flesh, that Odin might receive them as warriors slain.
Old kings, about to die, had their body laid into a ship; the ship
sent forth, with sails set and slow fire burning it; that, once out at
sea, it might blaze-up in flame, and in such manner bury worthily the
old hero, at once in the sky and in the ocean! Wild bloody valour; yet
valour of its kind; better, I say, than none. In the old Sea-kings
too, what an indomitable rugged energy! Silent, with closed lips, as I
fancy them, unconscious that they were specially brave; defying the
wild ocean with its monsters, and all men and things; - progenitors of
our own Blakes and Nelsons! No Homer sang these Norse Sea-kings; but
Agamemnon's was a small audacity, and of small fruit in the world, to
some of them; - to Hrolf's of Normandy, for instance! Hrolf, or Rollo
Duke of Normandy, the wild Sea-king, has a share in governing England
at this hour.

Nor was it altogether nothing, even that wild sea-roving and battling,
through so many generations. It needed to be ascertained which was the
_strongest_ kind of men; who were to be ruler over whom. Among the
Northland Sovereigns, too, I find some who got the title
_Wood-cutter_; Forest-felling Kings. Much lies in that. I suppose at
bottom many of them were forest-fellers as well as fighters, though
the Skalds talk mainly of the latter, - misleading certain critics not
a little; for no nation of men could ever live by fighting alone;
there could not produce enough come out of that! I suppose the right
good fighter was oftenest also the right good forest-feller, - the
right good improver, discerner, doer and worker in every kind; for
true valour, different enough from ferocity, is the basis of all. A
more legitimate kind of valour that; showing itself against the
untamed Forests and dark brute Powers of Nature, to conquer Nature for
us. In the same direction have not we their descendants since carried
it far? May such valour last forever with us!

That the man Odin, speaking with a Hero's voice and heart, as with an
impressiveness out of Heaven, told his People the infinite importance
of Valour, how man thereby became a god; and that his People, feeling
a response to it in their own hearts, believed this message of his,
and thought it a message out of Heaven, and him a Divinity for telling
it them: this seems to me the primary seed-grain of the Norse
Religion, from which all manner of mythologies, symbolic practices,
speculations, allegories, songs and sagas would naturally grow.
Grow, - how strangely! I called it a small light shining and shaping in
the huge vortex of Norse darkness. Yet the darkness itself was
_alive_; consider that. It was the eager inarticulate uninstructed
Mind of the whole Norse People, longing only to become articulate, to
go on articulating ever farther! The living doctrine grows,
grows; - like a Banyan-tree; the first _seed_ is the essential thing:
any branch strikes itself down into the earth, becomes a new root; and
so, in endless complexity, we have a whole wood, a whole jungle, one
seed the parent of it all. Was not the whole Norse Religion,
accordingly, in some sense, what we called 'the enormous shadow of
this man's likeness'? Critics trace some affinity in some Norse
mythuses, of the Creation and suchlike, with those of the Hindoos. The
Cow Adumbla, 'licking the rime from the rocks,' has a kind of Hindoo
look. A Hindoo Cow, transported into frosty countries. Probably
enough; indeed we may say undoubtedly, these things will have a
kindred with the remotest lands, with the earliest times. Thought does
not die, but only is changed. The first man that began to think in
this Planet of ours, he was the beginner of all. And then the second
man, and the third man: - nay, every true Thinker to this hour is a
kind of Odin, teaches men _his_ way of thought, spreads a shadow of
his own likeness over sections of the History of the World.

* * * * *

Of the distinctive poetic character or merit of this Norse Mythology I
have not room to speak; nor does it concern us much. Some wild
Prophecies we have, as the _Völuspa_ in the _Elder Edda_; of a rapt,
earnest, sibylline sort. But they were comparatively an idle adjunct
of the matter, men who as it were but toyed with the matter, these
later Skalds; and it is _their_ songs chiefly that survive. In later
centuries, I suppose, they would go on singing, poetically
symbolising, as our modern Painters paint, when it was no longer from
the innermost heart, or not from the heart at all. This is everywhere
to be well kept in mind.

Gray's fragments of Norse Lore, at any rate, will give one no notion
of it; - any more than Pope will of Homer. It is no square-built gloomy
palace of black ashlar marble, shrouded in awe and horror, as Gray
gives it us: no; rough as the North Rocks, as the Iceland deserts, it
is; with a heartiness, homeliness, even a tint of good humour and
robust mirth in the middle of these fearful things. The strong old
Norse heart did not go upon theatrical sublimities; they had not time
to tremble. I like much their robust simplicity; their veracity,
directness of conception. Thor 'draws down his brows' in a veritable
Norse rage; 'grasps his hammer till the _knuckles grow white_.'
Beautiful traits of pity too, an honest pity. Balder 'the white God'
dies; the beautiful, benignant; he is the Sungod. They try all Nature
for a remedy; but he is dead. Frigga, his mother, sends Hermoder to
seek or see him: nine days and nine nights he rides through gloomy
deep valleys, a labyrinth of gloom; arrives at the Bridge with its
gold roof: the Keeper says, "Yes, Balder did pass here; but the
Kingdom of the Dead is down yonder, far towards the North." Hermoder
rides on; leaps Hell-gate, Hela's gate: does see Balder, and speak
with him: Balder cannot be delivered. Inexorable! Hela will not, for
Odin or any God, give him up. The beautiful and gentle has to remain
there. His Wife had volunteered to go with him, to die with him. They
shall forever remain there. He sends his ring to Odin; Nanna his wife
sends her _thimble_ to Frigga, as a remembrance - Ah me! -

For indeed Valour is the fountain of Pity too; - of Truth, and all that
is great and good in man. The robust homely vigour of the Norse heart
attaches one much, in these delineations. Is it not a trait of right
honest strength, says Uhland, who has written a fine _Essay_ on Thor,
that the Old Norse heart finds its friend in the Thunder-god? That it
is not frightened away by his thunder; but finds that Summer-heat, the
beautiful noble summer, must and will have thunder withal! The Norse
heart _loves_ this Thor and his hammer-bolt; sports with him. Thor is
Summer-heat; the god of Peaceable Industry as well as Thunder. He is
the Peasant's friend; his true henchman and attendant is Thialfi,
_Manual Labour_. Thor himself engages in all manner of rough manual
work, scorns no business for its plebeianism; is ever and anon
travelling to the country of the Jötuns, harrying those chaotic
Frost-monsters, subduing them, at least straitening and damaging them.
There is a great broad humour in some of these things.

Thor, as we saw above, goes to Jötun-land, to seek Hymir's Caldron,
that the Gods may brew beer. Hymir the huge Giant enters, his grey
beard all full of hoar-frost; splits pillars with the very glance of
his eye; Thor, after much rough tumult, snatches the Pot, claps it on
his head; the 'handles of it reach down to his heels.' The Norse Skald
has a kind of loving sport with Thor. This is the Hymir whose cattle,
the critics have discovered, are Icebergs. Huge untutored Brobdignag
genius, - needing only to be tamed-down; into Shakspeares, Dantes,
Goethes! It is all gone now, that old Norse work, - Thor the
Thunder-god changed into Jack the Giant-killer: but the mind that made
it is here yet. How strangely things grow, and die, and do not die!
There are twigs of that great world-tree of Norse Belief still
curiously traceable. This poor Jack of the Nursery, with his
miraculous shoes of swiftness, coat of darkness, sword of sharpness,
he is one. _Hynde Etin_, and still more decisively _Red Etin of
Ireland_, in the Scottish Ballads, these are both derived from
Norseland; _Etin_ is evidently a _Jötun_. Nay, Shakspeare's _Hamlet_
is a twig too of this same world-tree; there seems no doubt of that.
Hamlet, _Amleth_, I find, is really a mythic personage; and his
Tragedy, of the poisoned Father, poisoned asleep by drops in his ear,
and the rest, is a Norse mythus! Old Saxo, as his wont was, made it a
Danish history; Shakspeare, out of Saxo, made it what we see. That is
a twig of the world-tree that has _grown_, I think; - by nature or
accident that one has grown!

In fact, these old Norse songs have a _truth_ in them, an inward
perennial truth and greatness, - as, indeed, all must have that can
very long preserve itself by tradition alone. It is a greatness not of
mere body and gigantic bulk, but a rude greatness of soul. There is a
sublime uncomplaining melancholy traceable in these old hearts. A
great free glance into the very deeps of thought. They seem to have
seen, these brave old Northmen, what Meditation has taught all men in
all ages, That this world is after all but a show, - a phenomenon or
appearance, no real thing. All deep souls see into that, - the Hindoo
Mythologist, the German Philosopher, - the Shakspeare, the earnest
Thinker, wherever he may be:

'We are such stuff as Dreams are made of!'

One of Thor's expeditions, to Utgard (the _Outer_ Garden, central seat
of Jötun-land), is remarkable in this respect. Thialfi was with him,
and Loke. After various adventures they entered upon Giant-land;
wandered over plains, wild uncultivated places, among stones and
trees. At nightfall they noticed a house; and as the door, which
indeed formed one whole side of the house, was open, they entered. It
was a simple habitation; one large hall, altogether empty. They stayed
there. Suddenly in the dead of the night loud noises alarmed them.
Thor grasped his hammer; stood in the door, prepared for fight. His
companions within ran hither and thither in their terror, seeking some
outlet in that rude hall; they found a little closet at last, and took
refuge there. Neither had Thor any battle: for, lo, in the morning it
turned-out that the noise had been only the _snoring_ of a certain
enormous but peaceable Giant, the Giant Skrymir, who lay peaceably
sleeping near by; and this that they took for a house was merely his
_Glove_, thrown aside there; the door was the Glove-wrist; the little
closet they had fled into was the Thumb! Such a glove; - I remark too
that it had not fingers as ours have, but only a thumb, and the rest
undivided: a most ancient, rustic glove!

Skrymir now carried their portmanteau all day; Thor, however, had his
own suspicions, did not like the ways of Skrymir; determined at night
to put an end to him as he slept. Raising his hammer, he struck down
into the Giant's face a right thunderbolt blow, of force to rend
rocks. The Giant merely awoke; rubbed his cheek, and said, Did a leaf
fall? Again Thor struck, so soon as Skrymir again slept; a better blow
than before: but the Giant only murmured, Was that a grain of sand?
Thor's third stroke was with both his hands (the 'knuckles white' I
suppose), and seemed to dint deep into Skrymir's visage; but he merely
checked his snore, and remarked, There must be sparrows roosting in
this tree, I think; what is that they have dropt? - At the gate of
Utgard, a place so high that you had to 'strain your neck bending back
to see the top of it,' Skrymir went his ways. Thor and his companions
were admitted; invited to take share in the games going on. To Thor,
for his part, they handed a drinking-horn; it was a common feat, they
told him, to drink this dry at one draught. Long and fiercely, three
times over, Thor drank; but made hardly any impression. He was a weak
child, they told him; could he lift that Cat he saw there? Small as
the feat seemed, Thor with his whole godlike strength could not; he
bent-up the creature's back, could not raise its feet off the ground,
could at the utmost raise one foot. Why, you are no man, said the
Utgard people; there is an Old Woman that will wrestle you! Thor,
heartily ashamed, seized this haggard Old Woman; but could not throw

And now, on their quitting Utgard, the Chief Jötun, escorting them
politely a little way, said to Thor: "You are beaten then: - yet be not
so much ashamed; there was deception of appearance in it. That Horn
you tried to drink was the _Sea_: you did make it ebb; but who could
drink that, the bottomless! The Cat you would have lifted, - why, that
is the _Midgard-snake_, the Great World-serpent, which, tail in mouth,
girds and keeps-up the whole created world; had you torn that up, the
world must have rushed to ruin! As for the Old Woman, she was _Time_,
Old Age, Duration; with her what can wrestle? No man nor no god with
her; gods or men, she prevails over all! And then those three strokes
you struck, - look at these _three valleys_; your three strokes made
these!" Thor looked at his attendant Jötun: it was Skrymir; - it was,
say Norse critics, the old chaotic rocky _Earth_ in person, and that
glove-_house_ was some Earth-cavern! But Skrymir had vanished; Utgard
with its skyhigh gates, when Thor grasped his hammer to smite them,
had gone to air; only the Giant's voice was heard mocking: "Better
come no more to Jötunheim!" -

This is of the allegoric period, as we see, and half play, not of the
prophetic and entirely devout: but as a mythus is there not real
antique Norse gold in it? More true metal, rough from the Mimerstithy,
than in many a famed Greek Mythus _shaped_ far better! A great broad
Brobdignag grin of true humour is in this Skrymir; mirth resting on
earnestness and sadness, as the rainbow on black tempest: only a right
valiant heart is capable of that. It is the grim humour of our own Ben
Jonson, rare old Ben; runs in the blood of us, I fancy; for one
catches tones of it, under a still other shape, out of the American

That is also a very striking conception, that of the _Ragnarök_,
Consummation, or _Twilight of the Gods_. It is in the _Völuspa_ Song;
seemingly a very old, prophetic idea. The Gods and Jötuns, the divine
Powers and the chaotic brute ones, after long contest and partial
victory by the former, meet at last in universal world-embracing
wrestle and duel; World-serpent against Thor, strength against
strength; mutually extinctive; and ruin, 'twilight' sinking into
darkness, swallows the created Universe. The old Universe with its
Gods is sunk; but it is not final death: there is to be a new Heaven
and a new Earth; a higher supreme God, and Justice to reign among men.
Curious: this law of mutation, which also is a law written in man's
inmost thought, had been deciphered by these old earnest Thinkers in
their rude style; and how, though all dies, and even gods die, yet all
death is but a phoenix fire-death, and new-birth into the Greater and
the Better! It is the fundamental Law of Being for a creature made of
Time, living in this Place of Hope. All earnest men have seen into it;
may still see into it.

And now, connected with this, let us glance at the _last_ mythus of
the appearance of Thor; and end there. I fancy it to be the latest in
date of all these fables; a sorrowing protest against the advance of
Christianity, - set forth reproachfully by some Conservative Pagan.
King Olaf has been harshly blamed for his over-zeal in introducing
Christianity; surely I should have blamed him far more for an
under-zeal in that! He paid dear enough for it; he died by the revolt
of his Pagan people, in battle, in the year 1033, at Stickelstad, near
that Drontheim, where the chief Cathedral of the North has now stood
for many centuries, dedicated gratefully to his memory as _Saint_
Olaf. The mythus about Thor is to this effect. King Olaf, the
Christian Reform King, is sailing with fit escort along the shore of
Norway, from haven to haven; dispensing justice, or doing other royal
work: on leaving a certain haven, it is found that a stranger, of
grave eyes and aspect, red beard, of stately robust figure, has stept
in. The courtiers address him; his answers surprise by their
pertinency and depth: at length he is brought to the King. The
stranger's conversation here is not less remarkable, as they sail
along the beautiful shore; but after some time, he addresses King Olaf
thus: "Yes, King Olaf, it is all beautiful, with the sun shining on it
there; green, fruitful, a right fair home for you, and many a sore day
had Thor, many a wild fight with the rock Jötuns, before he could make
it so. And now you seem minded to put away Thor. King Olaf, have a
care!" said the stranger, drawing-down his brows; - and when they
looked again, he was nowhere to be found. - This is the last appearance
of Thor on the stage of this world!

Do we not see well enough how the Fable might arise, without
unveracity on the part of any one? It is the way most Gods have come
to appear among men: thus, if in Pindar's time 'Neptune was seen once
at the Nemean Games,' what was this Neptune too but a 'stranger of
noble grave aspect,' _fit_ to be 'seen'! There is something pathetic,
tragic for me in this last voice of Paganism. Thor is vanished, the
whole Norse world has vanished; and will not return ever again. In
like fashion to that pass away the highest things. All things that
have been in this world, all things that are or will be in it, have to
vanish, we have our sad farewell to give them.

That Norse Religion, a rude but earnest, sternly impressive
_Consecration of Valour_ (so we may define it), sufficed for these old
valiant Northmen. Consecration of Valour is not a _bad_ thing! We will
take it for good, so far as it goes. Neither is there no use in
_knowing_ something about this old Paganism of our Fathers.
Unconsciously, and combined with higher things, it is in _us_ yet,
that old Faith withal! To know it consciously, brings us into closer
and clearer relation with the Past - with our own possessions in the
Past. For the whole Past, as I keep repeating, is the possession of
the Present; the Past had always something _true_, and is a precious
possession. In a different time, in a different place, it is always
some other _side_ of our common Human Nature that has been developing
itself. The actual True is the _sum_ of all these; not any one of them
by itself, constitutes what of Human Nature is hitherto developed.

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 25 of 43)