A Book of Myths

Page: 117

“Come then! if Baldur was so dear beloved,
And this is true, and such a loss is Heaven’s—
Hear, how to Heaven may Baldur be restored.
Show me through all the world the signs of grief!
Fails but one thing to grieve, here Baldur stops!
Let all that lives and moves upon the earth
Weep him, and all that is without life weep;
Let Gods, men, brutes, beweep him; plants and stones,
So shall I know the loss was dear indeed,
And bend my heart, and give him back to Heaven.”

Matthew Arnold.

Gladly Hermoder made answer:

“All things shall weep for Baldur!”

Swiftly he made his perilous return journey, and at once, when the gods heard what Hel had said, messengers were despatched all over the earth to beg all things, living and dead, to weep for Baldur, and so dear to all nature was the beautiful god, that the messengers everywhere left behind them a track of the tears that they caused to be shed.

Meantime, in Asgard, preparations were made for Baldur’s pyre. The longest of the pines in the forest were cut down by the gods, and piled up in a mighty pyre on the deck of his great ship Ringhorn, the largest in the world.

[Pg 241] “Seventy ells and four extended
On the grass the vessel’s keel;
High above it, gilt and splendid,
Rose the figure-head ferocious
With its crest of steel.”


Down to the seashore they bore the body, and laid it on the pyre with rich gifts all round it, and the pine trunks of the Northern forests that formed the pyre, they covered with gorgeous tapestries and fragrant flowers. And when they had laid him there, with all love and gentleness, and his fair young wife, Nanna, looked on his beautiful still face, sorrow smote her heart so that it was broken, and she fell down dead. Tenderly they laid her beside him, and by him, too, they laid the bodies of his horse and his hounds, which they slew to bear their master company in the land whither his soul had fled; and around the pyre they twined thorns, the emblem of sleep.

Yet even then they looked for his speedy return, radiant and glad to come home to a sunlit land of happiness. And when the messengers who were to have brought tidings of his freedom were seen drawing near, eagerly they crowded to hear the glad words, “All creatures weep, and Baldur shall return!

But with them they brought not hope, but despair. All things, living and dead, had wept, save one only. A giantess who sat in a dark cave had laughed them to scorn. With devilish merriment she mocked:

“Neither in life, nor yet in death,
Gave he me gladness.
Let Hel keep her prey.”

[Pg 242] Then all knew that yet a second time had Baldur been betrayed, and that the giantess was none other than Loki, and Loki, realising the fierce wrath of Odin and of the other gods, fled before them, yet could not escape his doom. And grief unspeakable was that of gods and of men when they knew that in the chill realm of the inglorious dead Baldur must remain until the twilight of the gods had come, until old things had passed away, and all things had become new.

Not only the gods, but the giants of the storm and frost, and the frost elves came to behold the last of him whom they loved. Then the pyre was set alight, and the great vessel was launched, and glided out to sea with its sails of flame.

“They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves,
Baldur returned no more!”

Yet, ere he parted from his dead son, Odin stooped over him and whispered a word in his ear. And there are those who say that as the gods in infinite sorrow stood on the beach staring out to sea, darkness fell, and only a fiery track on the waves showed whither he had gone whose passing had robbed Asgard and the Earth of their most beautiful thing, heavy as the weight of chill Death’s remorseless hand would have been their hearts, but for the knowledge of that word. They knew that with the death of Baldur the twilight of the gods had begun, and that by much strife and infinite suffering down [Pg 243] through the ages the work of their purification and hallowing must be wrought. But when all were fit to receive him, and peace and happiness reigned again on earth and in heaven, Baldur would come back. For the word was Resurrection.

“So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.”


“Heartily know,
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.”


[Pg 244]


“He was of mankind
In might the strongest.”

Longfellow’s Translation.

Whether those who read it be scholars who would argue about the origin and date of the poem, ingenious theorists who would fain use all the fragmentary tales and rhymes of the nursery as parts of a vast jig-saw puzzle of nature myths, or merely simple folk who read a tale for a tale’s sake, every reader of the poem of Beowulf must own that it is one of the finest stories ever written.

It is “the most ancient heroic poem in the Germanic language,” and was brought to Britain by the “Wingèd Hats” who sailed across the grey North Sea to conquer and to help to weld that great amalgam of peoples into what is now the British Race.

But once it had arrived in England, the legend was put into a dress that the British-born could more readily appreciate. In all probability the scene of the story was a corner of that island of Saeland upon which Copenhagen now stands, but he who wrote down the poem for his countrymen and who wrote it in the pure literary Anglo-Saxon of Wessex, painted the scenery from the places that he and his readers knew best. And if you should walk along the breezy, magnificent, rugged Yorkshire coast for twelve miles, from Whitby northward to the top of Bowlby Cliff, you would find it quite easy to believe that it was there amongst the high sea-cliffs that Beowulf [Pg 245] and his hearth-sharers once lived, and there, on the highest ness of our eastern coast, under a great barrow, that Beowulf was buried. BeowulfesbyBowlby seems a quite easy transition. But the people of our island race have undoubtedly a gift for seizing the imports of other lands and hall-marking them as their own, and, in all probability, the Beowulf of the heroic poem was one who lived and died in the land of Scandinavia.

In Denmark, so goes the story, when the people were longing for a king, to their shores there drifted, on a day when the white birds were screaming over the sea-tangle and wreckage that a stormy sea, now sinking to rest, was sweeping up on the shore, a little boat in which, on a sheaf of ripe wheat and surrounded by priceless weapons and jewels, there lay a most beautiful babe, who smiled in his sleep. That he was the son of Odin they had no doubt, and they made him their king, and served him faithfully and loyally for the rest of his life.

A worthy and a noble king was King Scyld Scefing, a ruler on land and on the sea, of which even as an infant he had had no fear. But when many years had come and gone, and when Scyld Scefing felt that death drew near, he called his nobles to him and told them in what manner he fain would pass. So they did as he said, and in a ship they built a funeral pyre, and round it placed much gold and jewels, and on it laid a sheaf of wheat. Then with very great pain and labour, for he was old and Death’s hand lay heavy upon him, the king climbed into the ship and stretched out his limbs on the pyre, and said farewell to all his faithful people. And the ship drifted out with the tide, and the [Pg 246] hearts of the watchers were heavy as they saw the sails of the vessel that bore him vanish into the grey, and knew that their king had gone back to the place from whence he came, and that they should look on his face no more.