Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Viking Sermon

I've been involved with Toastmasters through my workplace for about three years now, and I am really enjoying it, even more so now that I am moving on to some of the more advanced manuals.

Playing to my strengths, I selected Humorous Speeches and Storytelling as my next two modules, and am trying to alternate between them. The first assignment in Storytelling is to relate a folk-story without any notes, and I found it surprisingly challenging to find one I was interested in telling.

In the end, I left fairy tales behind and started looking into mythology, and while the Greek mythos is full of great tales,they are also exceedingly familiar. Instead, I turned to Norse mythology, drawing less upon the eddas and sagas and the works of Snorri Sturlisson, and more upon my youthful exposure to the Deities and Demigods manual for D&D, and the Thor comics of Walt Simonson.

It didn't take me long to find a story suitable for telling from memory, and quickly chose the tale of the Binding of Fenrir, the great wolf. The starring god of this particular story is one of my favourites, despite getting almost no mention in the aforementioned comic books. I first encountered Tyr in the Norse mythology section of the D&DG manual back in high school, but had seen various iterations of how hehad lost his right hand over the years, sometimes just in articles about how the days of the week got their names, as the Germanic name for Tyr, Tiw, is where we get Tuesday from. The fact that he shares a name with one of my favourite metal bands is just icing on the cake, really. But now that I had my 'what', I really needed a 'why', and that presented a bit of a struggle.

Because of the way speeches get evaluated in Toastmasters, I am always consciously looking for a reason for my speeches; time is valuable, why should a group of people sit down and listen to you use up 7-9 minutes of it? What is your speech's purpose?

I do believe that while not every tale has a moral, virtually all stories have a lesson or two they can teach us, and I felt very strongly that Tyr's story has a lot to say about the importance of keeping one's word, and remaining resolute in the face of consequence.

With this in mind, I pieced together a framing element for the story: I would play the part of someone relating the Binding of Fenrir to a group of younger vikings prior to a dangerous voyage. I would use Tyr as a model for oathkeeping and bravery, things we value even today, if perhaps in different ways, and that would give my story purpose.

It was only after I had written my first draft that I realized I had created, in essence, a sermon for marauding Norsemen: an assessment of our current situation, the relating of ancient wisdom, and then connecting the lesson to that situation.

The Runepriest Tells of the Binding of Fenrir

Sons of Odin! Shieldmaidens of Freya! Vikings, all! At last the winter ice has broken, and tomorrow we board the longships to sail to the West, to raid and plunder, to show our worth to our chieftain, and our valour to the gods.

For some of you, this will be your first voyage. I have been on many, so believe me when I say that not all of us will be coming back.

Does this frighten you? It should not! The Norns weave our fates as they do those of the gods, so your fear gains you nothing, and you should be brave in the face of your destiny. You have have sworn oaths of loyalty to your brothers and sisters of the shield wall, and you must uphold them.

Our Jarl has asked me to tell you a story about fate, and bravery, and the cost of oaths – the tale of the binding of the great wolf Fenrir.

It is a woeful tale, so of course it begins with Loki. Loki, the trickster! Loki the changeling, Loki the perverse. Loki, who lay with the giantess Angrboda and fathered three monstrous children.

The first was the great serpent, Jormungandr, the second the she-creature Hel, and the last was the great wolf Fenrir. All of these were foretold to be the undoing of the gods, and to contribute to the chaos and unravelling of the world.

To stave off their fate, the gods threw Jormungandr from Asgard into the surrounding sea, where he wrapped himself around Midgard, our world, and on winter nights you can see his rippling scales in the night skies, glittering green and gold and scarlet.

Hel they cast out to Niflheim, a world of cold and mists. She dwells there even now, tending the souls of mortals who died unnotably, a straw death, and who cannot enter Valhalla.

The great wolf Fenrir they feared most of all, however, so they reared him in Asgard amongst the gods. During this time, only the god Tyr was brave enough to approach the wolf and to bring him food. Fenrir grew so rapidly though, that the gods began to fear him in earnest, so they formed a plan to restrain the wolf, to bind the scion of Loki and Angrboda, foretold to bring ruin to Asgard.

Seeing the gods approach with chains, Fenrir was canny, but the crafty gods appealed to his vanity,”We want only to test your strength, think of the fame that will come when others hear of it!”

Fenrir consented, and so the gods brought forth a sturdy chain called Leyding, and the wolf felt that his strength was greater than Leyding’s, so he agreed to being restrained, and allowed the gods to bind his legs.

Once he was fastened, Fenrir strained against his bonds and Leyding shattered into a hundred pieces! The gods all cheered and praised the wolf for his strength, and the great beast smiled, for wolves can be as vain as men.

The gods went away for a time and brought forth a second chain called Dromi. Dromi was twice as strong as Leyding, and Fenrir was apprehensive, but the gods egged him on, saying, “Your renown will be even greater once you break so mighty a chain as Dromi. And after all, the brave must be prepared to take risks if they are to become famous,” which made sense to Fenrir.

Again Fenrir allowed himself to be bound, and again the gods stood back to watch him struggle. He knocked the fetter against the ground, and straining his mighty muscles, burst Dromi asunder, the same as he had done with Leyding, and pieces of the chain showered the gods from afar.

Again the gods cheered and spoke approvingly of Fenrir’s great strength, but in their hearts they were afraid, as they knew not how to fashion a stronger chain than Dromi.

The god Frey sent his messenger Skirnir to Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarfs, to ask them to craft a binding for Fenrir that he could not burst. All the gods were surprised when Skirnir returned, not with a chain, but with a ribbon.

Skirnir explained: “The wily dwarfs had heard of Fenrir’s great strength, and thought it impossible to restrain him. So they had constructed this fetter, which they named Gleipner, from six impossible things:

The beard of a woman

The roots of a mountain

The long sinews of a bear

The breath of a fish

The spittle of a bird.

The sound of a cat’s footfall.”

The gods brought Gleipner to Fenrir, who was unimpressed with the slight ribbon, even when the strongest of the gods showed that they were incapable of tearing it. Fenrir said, “I would gain little fame from breaking so slight a thing as this. And if I could not free myself, I think you gods would have little reason to do so.”

The gods appealed to Fenrir’s logic, saying, “If you cannot break Gleipner, then your strength is not so much of a threat, so there would be no reason not to release you,” but Fenrir was unconvinced.

Into this stalemate strode Tyr; god of the law, god of heroic glory, and he said, “If I place my hand into your mouth as proof of our intent, will you agree to be bound?”

Now Fenrir truly was trapped; he could not refuse Tyr’s offer without having his courage called into question, which he would not do, for wolves can be as vain as men. And so Fenrir reluctantly agreed, and with Tyr’s hand in his mouth, the gods bound him with the silken cord, Gleipner.

Try as he might, as strong as he was, Fenrir was not able to break Gleipner; the more he struggled, the stronger his bonds became. Looking at the faces of the assembled Gods, he knew he had been fooled, and would not be released, and in anger and shame, he bit off Tyr’s hand.

Tyr made no effort to withdraw his hand, and wordlessly, he bound his wound while the other gods took Fenrir to a lonely and desolate place, to wait there until the time of Ragnarok, when the great wolf can play his part in the undoing of the gods, and the unmaking of the 9 worlds.

Some will tell you that the tale of the binding of Fenrir is about using the impossible to do the impossible, or of the perils of vanity, but I tell it to you for another reason: to remind you of the importance of oaths; for the reason for keeping one’s honour, even in the face of punishment.

Tyr knew that placing his hand in the wolf’s mouth could only end one way, but he did it regardless. Even the gods must live with the oaths they make, and the real price for the binding of Fenrir was not a dwarven chain, but the hand of Tyr.

Tyr’s missing hand is not a sign of weakness, as you might think, but a symbol of strength. Even amongst the gods, Tyr is a law giver, whose word is trusted, and whose surety is never second-guessed. If you place his mark, the Tiwaz, on your axe or sword, you mark yourself as one who keeps their oaths, and that rune may be what turns a battle in your favour.

Some of you might be afraid of what tomorrow’s voyage may bring, but I know that will not stop you. Tomorrow, like One-Handed Tyr himself, you will fulfill your oaths, to your kin, and your Jarl, and even to the gods, by following your brothers and sisters into battle.

And even if you should fall, you have still kept your oath, you will not be called a faithless one. If you are among the bravest, Odin will send his Valkyries to lift you from the battlefield and bring you to his hall, Valhalla, and perhaps you will meet Tyr, and he will tell you the truth of what I have said.

7-9 minutes is a long time to speak without notes, especially in a story where everything, even the chains used to bind the wolf, have their own names, but I made it through all right, and without going over time for once.

The speech was well received, although both the Toastmaster of the Day and my evaluator mentioned getting distracted at my mention of Loki, as both these ladies' thoughts floated to Tom Hiddleston's cinematic portrayal.

It turned out my evaluator is not only a fan of Norse mythology and the television show Vikings, but has always wanted to be one, and was thrilled by my framing element, and addressing my audience as though we were feasting in a smoky meadhall. I really wish I had managed to record my speech though, as she felt my inflection or accent was different before and after the tale, as opposed to when I was telling the story of Fenrir. I clarified with her afterwards:

Me: You thought I sounded different in the middle?

Jamie: Yeah, nothing really pronounced, but when you started speaking, I totally believed you were a viking, and talking to me, another viking, which was awesome. When you got into the actual story though, you sounded like Stephen again. Which was still good, it just sounded more familiar.

Me: And not as viking sounding.

Jamie: Not as much, no.

Me: (mildly disappointed) So, you're saying that I am not a viking?

Jamie: (palms up) I'm not saying anything like that.

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