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Antiguas literaturas germánicas

Given the ingenuity and thoroughness of Northern European philologists, it seems odd that anyone might consider a Spanish study of ancient Germanic texts to be a relevant groundswell of information – but then again not every book is authored by this Argentine. The imagination and style necessary for great fiction comprise the acme of literary artistic talent. So it is a great pleasure when such a mind does us the favor of expressing his or her views on the content and history of texts often reserved for more obscure interpreters. If you are familiar with Borges’s oeuvre, you are aware that his learning is not only breathtaking, it is systematic, a fortress built on a million precisely positioned bricks that render the whole formidable, impenetrable and, with the exception of this poet, unparalleled in the history of modern letters. To create a story, or poem, or essay, one of these bricks is taken and examined as closely as one can without letting it slip into the woeful chasm of triviality. This one brick then reminds its builder of other bricks, some of which may sit next to the one he is examining, others of which might be located on the farthest end of his battlements. But only one base is required to build his structures, one beach-found pebble, one flickering amidst the “heaventree of stars” (a metaphor proposed in this novel) to re-imagine an entire realm of gods, of giants, of dwarfs, and their interaction with us mere humans. And the brick for this book is a runic drawing of something that terrified generations of coastal dwellers, a Viking longship.

We begin with ancient Britain and conclude with ancient Germany, but in between we find the richest of all long-gone Germanic traditions: the Scandinavian. Students of that beautiful incantation, Old Norse, will not only be quick to point out that modern Icelandic is this tongue’s direct and close descendant, they will also invoke the primacy of this tradition as the most remarkable in Europe at the time. Now, as much as I am captivated by Norse mythology and most things Nordic, we must be fair in stating that Greek and Latin mythology, reinforced by the Christian credos that were spreading at the time of the composition of some of these epics, were primary sources for their structure, and to a lesser degree, their content. This notwithstanding, Borges reiterates one facet of this literary development that makes it unique:

In Iceland, the new Christian faith was not hostile to the old. In contrast to what occurred in Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, and Denmark, conversions here were bloodless. Those Norwegians who had settled in Iceland displayed the religious indifference of aristocrats; their descendants looked back upon the pagan faith with nostalgia, just like other old things lost over time. What happened to Germanic mythology was exactly what had happened earlier to the myths of the Greeks: no one believed in them anymore, but a firm knowledge of their stories was indispensable for learned persons.

There are other reasons for the survival of Norse traditions that in some countries have now been transformed into modern paganism, and no reason is more significant than the gods’ mortality. You will have heard about Ragnarök (Götterdämmerung in the Wagnerian cycle), which is traditionally rendered as “twilight of the Gods,” a German mistranslation akin to what Herder did with ellerkonge. Scholars of Scandinavian languages will tell you, however, that it really means the “fate of those who reign,” which could be gods, or lords, or run-of-the-Althing despots. It is this eschatological feature that separates the Norse tradition from the Greek and Latin, and makes it more palatable to the martyrdom of Christianity in which a God, only one in this case, knows his end in his beginning.

That Antiguas literaturas germánicas is primarily designed as a survey for Spanish speakers of a hitherto little-researched field for Latin Americans is a correct supposition. But Borges could not possibly have written something simply for pragmatic purposes.  We must consider, therefore, the investigation’s poetic value, and most relevant to his works are the kennings, the famed Scandinavian metaphors with which Borges is more than a little enamored, and which he lists with relish in the middle of his work. Among many others, he includes: “the battle ice,” “the wrath stick,” “the helmets’ fire,” “the helmets’ rodent,” “the blood branch,” “the wolf of wounds” (for “sword”); “the whale roof,” “the swan land,” “the waves’ path,” “the Viking field,” “the gulls’ meadow,” “the whale path,” “the islands’ chain” (for “sea”); and “the ravens’ delight,” “the raven beak’s reddener,” “the eagle gladdener,” “the helmet tree,” “the sword tree,” and “the swords’ dyer” (for “warrior”). Here was an endless font of poetry for a bilingual English-Spanish speaker who many feel wrote with a surfeit of adjectives placed before nouns.  Borges, his vision fading, slowly became so taken by these sagas that he began to believe they had all actually happened. He even confessed in an interview that, while he might not be a Christian in the strict sense of the word, he “believed in the Norse gods,” a response that did not surprise the interviewer and should not surprise us. The advent of Christianity did change something in the tone of these sagas. As Borges laments:

The saga, like all novelistic works, is nourished on the richness and complexity of its characters. The new faith resulted in banning this disinterested contemplation and shoved it out in favor of a dualistic world of virtues and vices, of punishments for some and rewards for others …. From these awful syntactical equivalences …. it should be noted that the movement from a ‘storm of arrows’ [for ‘battle’] to a ‘firebrand of a storm of arrows’ comprises the degeneration of the poetry of Iceland.

Thus the violent and mystic images of the Vikings, above all for kinship and military terms, were replaced by the black-and-white simplicity of good versus evil. But much more than that, a whole world was submerged beneath frozen waters for the good of mankind, which had the remarkable foresight not to forget about it. Perhaps, for this reason, you will be stunned at the coherence of such an endeavor, of the revivification of the invaders, their hymns and dirges, their macabre prophecies and sayings. And in the end, through several centuries of asides and esoteric learning, we picture quite clearly Bede, Snorri Sturluson, and Otfried of Weissenburg under one bright Northern sky. That is, a “cloud house and the sister of the moon.”

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