The endtime is coming. The night is very long indeed; sun and moon have vanished. From the east march the frost-giants, bent on the destruction of all that is living. From the south come fiery powers, swords gleaming brightly. A dragon flies overhead. And, terrifyingly, the dead are walking too. Heroes are ready and waiting; representing the best of mankind, they have trained in anticipation of the greatest of battles. Now the two mighty forces lock together in apocalyptic combat. Who will emerge victorious when the fight is over and the sun returns once more?
If you’ve been watching the final season of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, you may think that you recognise this scenario as the long-anticipated showdown involving the Night King and his army of the dead. Against the elemental power of ice are ranged heroic humans in all their vulnerability and courage, supported by the forces of fire. But, in fact, what underlies the vividly horrifying vision I outline above is not Game of Thrones at all – though the similarities are indeed striking.
No, I’m describing the culmination of the magnificent Old Norse-Icelandic poem, “The Seeress’s Prophecy” (Völuspá), probably composed in the late tenth century and which stands first in the astonishing collection known as the Poetic Edda. Mostly preserved in a single manuscript written in Iceland around 1270, these poems relay much of what we know about Old Norse mythology. They also recount the wildly dramatic history of a single heroic dynasty – the Völsungs, a lineage that is extinguished through its uncompromising adherence to ideas of honour and vengeance and, inevitably, violence.
“The Seeress’s Prophecy” is the answer a prophetic female giantess give to Óðinn, the Norse god of wisdom. He has sought her out to discover, or confirm, his understanding of the distant past – and the unknown, but greatly feared, future – a mission he often undertakes in the mythological poetry. The seeress tells about the creation of the universe, detailing how the earth was raised by the gods up out of the sea, how the gods instituted time, built temples and made golden gaming-pieces, and how dwarfs and humans came to be created. With the beginning of time comes both fate and history; the seeress’s vision grows increasingly darker once it moves beyond the present. For the gods themselves become compromised; one of their number, Loki, finally breaks with them and shows his true loyalties to the gods’ enemies: the giants.
When the mighty wolf, Fenrir, Loki’s monstrous child breaks free, the great cosmic wolves swallow the sun and moon: “one in trollish shape shall be the snatcher of the moon,” says the poem. The frost and fire-giants march, Fenrir the wolf and the Miðgarðs-serpent attack: “the serpent churns the waves, the eagle shrieks in anticipation/ pale-beaked he rips the corpse.” Óðinn and Þórr are slain. Hel’s kingdom empties as the dead march out: “heroes tread the hell-road and the sky splits apart.” The heroes of Valhalla ready themselves to fight – in vain; and the world plunges headlong to its doom:
The sun turns black, land sinks into the sea,
the bright stars vanish from the sky;
steam rises up in the conflagration,
hot flame plays high against heaven itself.
It’s here in “The Seeress’s Prophecy” then that the potent myth of ragna rök, the destruction of the world in searing flame and darkness, first appears. The inescapable apocalypse, the end of human hopes and divine ambition has seized the imaginations of writers, composers and artists ever since the Poetic Edda began to circulate through the rest of Europe, primarily from the later eighteenth century onwards. Onto his saga of the downfall of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer and his kinsmen by marriage, the Gjukungs, the composer Richard Wagner bolted the tale of the Ring, stolen from the Rhine-maidens and a much grander narrative: that of the downfall of the gods. Götterdämmerung is a name derived from a medieval rewording of ragna rök – the Doom of the Gods, as ragna rökkr – the Twilight of the Gods. Wagner was less interested in battles between giants, gods and monsters, but rather in the ethics of his deities, the equivocation and double-dealing that Wotan (Óðinn) employs to establish Valhalla and to inaugurate a line of heroes. At the end of Wagner’s great opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, the gods’ palace collapses in flame, the Rhine rises in flood and the old order is swept away.
J. R. R. Tolkien too loved the darkness imagined for the end of the Northern world; he admired the stoic courage that kept humans going in the certain knowledge that one day the dragon must come. Since Tolkien, children’s and young adult authors, such as Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon – and of course Neil Gaiman, in American Gods – have seized upon the ragna rök theme as speaking particularly to the hopes and fears of young people in the postwar world. George R. R. Martin, in A Song of Ice and Fire, and, following him, the Game of Thrones showrunners have also incorporated the larger themes and many smaller details from the Norse endtimes into their vision of the greatest existential threat that humanity could ever face.
Why does the ragna rök myth speak to us so compellingly? There’s the drama of the loss of everything. All that we have ever loved – and hated too – is swept away. Gods and humans know it must come, but they bravely resolve to keep going meanwhile, even in the face of profound hopelessness. And – crucially – the end is not the end. For, in a while, the earth rises up again, green and lovely and the sun’s daughter sets out on her path across the sky. Another generation of gods finds the golden gaming-pieces, lost in the long grass in the earliest age and: “the waterfalls plunge, an eagle soars above them, / over the mountain hunting fish”. Our beautiful world is renewed and cleansed. Can it – and we – do better next time in this bright, new dawn?
If you’d like to hear more about The Poetic Edda, check out our Author Talk with Carolyne Larrington.
Featured image credit: “Battle of the Doomed Gods” by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1882). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.