Sunday, 16 September 2012

Raising The Dead

Text on pages 141-145 of Poul Anderson's fantasy novel The Broken Sword (London, 1977) has, very different, features in common both with his fantasy novel A Midsummer Tempest and with his science fiction novel The Stars Are Also Fire.

The feature common to A Midsummer Tempest is that in this passage the dialogue becomes blank verse, although here it is laid out as such, not disguised as prose. Further, this verse is particularly powerful. I found it to be so on a first reading and have confirmed that it is so by rereading. The scene is a difficult, bitter family reunion at a howe or burial mound.

The living characters are:

the hero of the novel, Skafloc;
his mother, Aelfrida;
his sister, Freda (although, until this point in the narrative, Skafloc and Freda have been lovers, not suspecting their close kinship).

The dead characters are:

Skafloc's father, Orm;
his brothers, Ketil and Asmund.

The dialogue, extracted from its prose narrative, can be re-presented as drama. I can convey its poetic power only by quoting it in full.


Waken, chieftains,
Fallen warriors!
Skafloc calls you,
sings you wakeful.
I conjure you,
come on hell-road.
Rune-bound dead men,
rise and answer!

Grave shall open.
Gang forth, deathlings!
Fallen heroes,
fare to earth now.
Stand forth, bearing
swords all rusty,
broken shields,
and bloody lances.


Who dares burst
the mound, and bid me
rise from death
by runes and song-spells?
Flee the dead man's
fury, stranger!
Let the deathling
lie in darkness.


Terror shall not
turn my purpose.
Runes shall bind you.
Rise and answer!
In your ribs
may rats build nests,
if you keep hold
on what I call for!


Deep is dreamless
death-sleep, warlock.
Wakened dead
are wild with anger.
Ghosts will take
a gruesome vengeance
when their bones
are hailed from barrow.


Gladly see we
gold-decked woman.
Sun-bright maiden,
sister, welcome!
Ashy, frozen
are our hollow
breasts with grave-cold.
But you warm us.

Orm to Aelfrida:

Dreamlees was not
death, but frightful!
Tears of yours, dear,
tore my heart out.
Vipers dripped
their venom on me
when in death
I heard you weeping.

This I bid
you do, beloved:
live in gladness,
laughing, singing.
Death is then
the dearest slumber,
wrapped in peace,
with roses round me.

Skafloc to Ketil:

Speak forth, deathling.
Say me whither
Bolverk giant
bides, the swordsmith.
Tell me further,
truly, warrior,
what will make
him hammer for me.


Ill your searching
is, you warlock!
Worst of evil
will it fetch you.
Seek not Bolverk.
Sorrow brings he.
Leave us now,
while life is left you.

North in Jotunheim,
nigh to Utgard,
dwells the giant,
deep in mountain.
Sidhe will give
a ship to find him.
Tell him Loki
talks of sword-play.


Bitter, cruel -
Brother, sister -
fate the Norns
made fall upon you.
Wakened dead men
wish you had not
wrought the spell
that wrings the truth out.

Law of men
is laid on deathlings.
Hard it is
to hold unto it.
But the words
must bitter leave me:
Skalfloc, Freda
is your sister.

Welcome, brother,
valiant warrior.
All unwitting
are you, sister.
But your love
has broken kinship.
Farewell, children,
fey and luckless!

Freda must leave Skafloc just as Gratillonius in Poul and Karen Anderson's The King of Ys cannot marry his daughter. The Christian and Mithraic law against incest overrides both elven fecklessness and the heathen gods' decrees.

In The Stars Are Also Fire, Dagny Begnac, a Lunar political leader, allows her personality to be recorded or "downloaded" in an artificial neural network - like becoming a conscious computer. Thus, her leadership outlasts her biological death although she wants the download program to be wiped when her task is completed. Instead, her son merely switched the program off. Many years later, it was reactivated to mental confusion but answered a question and was then granted permanent oblivion: an uncanny technological echo of Skafloc's spell to raise the dead.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Very interesting, this note of yours. I agree with you about the verses you quoted being moving. Amazing how much a master like Poul Anderson could say using the terse, brief verse form of the ancient Norse.

AND I was esp. interested by the parallel you found with Orm and his sons and Dagny Beynac's downloaded personality pattern being briefly aroused. A telling example of Anderson showing how family6 lines continue to influence their descendants over generations.