The Elements – Fire

OK, so I’ve come to the second of my posts on element-themed folklore, and so we’ve reached… fire.

That, of course, can only mean one thing – dragons!

(Well. not just dragons – but dragons are always a good place to start).

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf gives us a solid template for the popular image of dragons in the Western imagination:

“He lived on a cliff, kept watch over a hoard

in a high stone barrow…”

When a slave wanders into the dragon’s lair and steals some of his treasure, he takes his revenge:

“Then the dragon began to breathe forth fire,

to burn fine buildings; flame tongues flickered,

terrifying men…

He had girdled the Geats with fire,

with ravening flames…”

Beowulf, no longer the young warrior of the first part of the poem, but now an aged king, goes into battle one last time to protect his people, and time and time again is beaten back by the dragon’s fiery breath (“he who had ruled a nation suffered agony, surrounded by flame”). But one of his companions, Wiglaf, runs to his aid, and drives his sword into the dragon’s belly, and Beowulf is then able to finish it off with his knife. But he is mortally wounded by the dragon’s venomous bite, and the mourning Geats build a pyre for him on the headland:

“And there on Whaleness, the heroes kindled

the most mighty of pyres; the dark wood-smoke

Soared over the fire, the roaring flames

mingled with weeping – the winds’ tumult subsided –

until the body became ash, consumed even

to its core.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World).

In vernacular British folklore, dragons tend to be less like the dragon of Beowulf, and more like snakes, who often live in the sea or in marshland, and kill their victims by wrapping themselves around them and crushing them. But still, a story like The Dragon of Wantley tells of a dragon who “…ate trees and cattle, and once he ate three young children at one meal. Fire breathed from his nostrils, and for long no man dared come near him.” (Katharine Briggs, British Folk-Tales and Legends).

The Dragon of Wantley.

Of course fire is not just a destroyer, but a creator also, and the Titan Prometheus is punished for stealing it from the gods and giving it to mankind by being chained to a mountainside and having his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, whereupon it regrows each night, and the torment is repeated.

There are other versions of this story beyond Greek mythology – in Polynesian myth, the hero Maui challenges the guardian of fire, Mahu-ika, to a contest, in which each shall compete to throw the other as high as possible in the air. But when it is Maui’s turn to throw Mahu-ika, he cheats him:

“Mahu-ika turned over and over in the air and commenced to fall back; and when he had nearly reached the ground Maui called out these magic words: ‘That man up there – may he fall right on his head!’

Mahu-ika fell down; his neck was completely telescoped together, and so Mahu-ika died. At once the hero Maui took hold of the giant Mahu-ika’s head and cut it off, then he possessed himself of the treasure of the flame, which he bestowed upon the world.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The idea that the world will one day be consumed by flame, and a new one reborn, is common across different cultures and mythologies – the Aztecs believed that flames would end the aeon of fire (our present aeon), and the Stoics believed in “cyclic conflagration”, i.e. that fire will destroy all, before the universe and everything in it is reborn, exactly as it was, and we all get to live our lives all over again.

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Norse mythology, this idea finds its fullest expression in Ragnarok, when Loki’s wolf, Fenrir, will be free from his bonds (“Flames will dance in [his] eyes and leap from his nostrils”) and Jormungand, the snake that encircles Midgard, will “spew venom”. The giant Surt, who was there at the beginning of creation, will “…fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces – places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die.”

Out of this great conflagration, however, a new world will emerge: “The earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green… There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths).



“The Last Kingdom” – review

The BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s epic Saxon Stories series of historical novels began last Thursday evening, and for an opening episode – saddled with the usual problems of establishing setting, characters, and plot – it was pretty promising.

I haven’t read the original novels – indeed, I must confess I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s work – but I am certainly familiar with the time and place the tale is set – Ninth Century England – having long since fallen under the spell of the story of the Anglo-Saxons, that brave, melancholic people who created the English nation, and gave it its identity, its language, and many of its customs, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy which endures to this day.

Cornwell’s retelling of that story begins in 866, in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with Viking longships bearing down on the coast, and a young boy named Uhtred, of Bebbanburg (later to become Bamburgh Castle), caught up in the dangerous battle between his father and the Danes. When his father is killed – and there was a great early scene where the Saxons were trapped between two Danish shield walls, and had to push against them like some particularly lethal game of rugby – Uhtred is adopted by the Viking Ragnar the Fearless (you’ve got to love those Viking names), and his blind father Ravn (played here in a lovely little cameo from Rutger Hauer). He adapts well to his new life, and before you know it he’s all grown up and heading off into the woods for a spot of (tastefully filmed) recreational sex with Brida, who like him is a Saxon orphan brought up by the Danes.

But while they’re away, Ragnar’s hall  – and Ragnar himself – are burnt to the ground by Kjartan, an old enemy, with the apparent connivance of Uhtred’s scheming uncle, Aelfric, and Uhtred is out for revenge, and to take back Bebbanburg.

Most of the main characters in the opening episode are fictional, though there was a brief appearance from Guthrum, a real Viking warlord, and – in a trailer for Episode Two – from Alfred the Great, the man with whom Guthrum would have an ultimate showdown at the Battle of Edington in 878.

The title – The Last Kingdom – refers to Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom to hold out against the Danes after they had overrun the rest of the country.

Inevitably, the new series has been compared to Game of Thrones, which Cornwell amusingly dismisses in an interview with the Radio Times, and indeed it’s rather more low key than that comparison would suggest, lacking (so far at least) the boobs and beheadings that characterise so many GOT episodes (though there was still a fair bit of gore, and Matthew Macfadyen, as Uhtred’s father, gets a very nasty sword to the neck).

Randy fourteen-year-old boys might be disappointed, then, but I think The Last Kingdom may provide subtler charms, and the story of how Alfred and his descendants, against the odds, rolled back the Danish conquerors, and created a united England, is always worth hearing again. And, what’s more, it’s true.

Dragons Part Two

I remember, aged about nine or ten, seeing the film “Dragonslayer”, with its splendidly named dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative. I’ve been fascinated by these mythical creatures ever since. The origins of the dragon myth are often unclear – in medieval England, it’s not difficult to see how dinosaur fossils and other natural phenomena, like comets, could be misinterpreted:

“Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…”

This entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for 793, appears to presage the coming of the Vikings later that year, and all the havoc they would wreak on the English.

Nowadays we don’t tend to believe in dragons as literal creatures – yet there is literal truth and symbolic truth, and many of our great dragon stories, like much of folklore, tell us deeper truths about ourselves without being “true” in the strictest sense.

The standard of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex is of a wyvern (a type of dragon with only one pair of legs) on a red background, and the flag of Somerset, my home county, and once part of Wessex, also bears the image of a dragon. Interestingly, in Wales, in the Mabinogion, the Historia Brittonum, and The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon of the Welsh fights and finally defeats the white dragon of the invading Saxons.

Why do dragons still hold an important role for us in the post-Enlightenment age? And how has that role changed over the years? These are questions I want to explore further in Part Three.