Strange, how coincidences happen – I am here writing on the elegiac side of epic, and High Noon is on tv: Gary Cooper’s handsome face, the music, the sense of isolation of the sheriff. The oldest western I can think of that has this melancholy side. But it is not an elegy, because there is no loss: it is an epic whose hero is more than a killing machine, but a thinking, feeling man.
Elegy is poetry or fiction that expresses a feeling of loss, not in desperation but in softer tones. The western, the only primary epic of the modern world, developed its elegiac side a little later.
sank prone in death; upon his goodly limbs
the life-blood ran unstopped, and low inclined
the drooping head; as when some purpled flower,
cut by the ploughshare, dies, or poppies proud
with stem forlorn their ruined beauty bow
before the pelting storm.Then Nisus flew
straight at his foes; but in their throng would find
Volscens alone, for none but Volscens stayed:
they gathered thickly round and grappled him
in shock of steel with steel. But on he plunged,
swinging in ceaseless circles round his head
his lightning-sword, and thrust it through the face
of shrieking Volscens, with his own last breath
striking his foeman down; then cast himself
upon his fallen comrade’s breast; and there,
stabbed through, found tranquil death and sure repose.
(Virgil: Aeneid, Book 9, transl. by T.C. Williams)
In epic tales is not uncommon to find moments that verge on elegy – strong young men die, and the celebration of their bravery and prowess is tinged with sorrow for the loss of their lives. In the arcaic Germanic world death itself was not regretted as strongly – for after all, what could a long life give you in a world of scant resources and harsh winters? And besides, the search for renown, and the will to reach the halls of the gods, made warriors and adventurers less worried about their lives, yet one may suppose that the loss of dear ones was felt anyhow. It is one of the many ways in which that world was beautifully contradictory, and from this contradiction elegy springs; anyway it was more centred on the way individuals, or communities, could lose their place in the world. We have such moments in the great epic poem, Beowulf, and in proper elegies like The wanderer:
Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!
(Anonymous: The wanderer)
We, modern readers and spectators, with our long life expentancy and lives that are infinitely easier than those of the Anglo-Saxons, r of the Italic tribes Aeneas fought, find this latter point of view difficult to digest. It is probably impossible for us not to regret death. At the same time, for those of us who ponder on themes such as these, there may be a twinge of sadness, of regret because, whatever we believe concerning the afterlife, we know Valhalla is not for us, for we will all die straw deaths. So even when a story belongs to the Germanic tradition, for us the elegiac tone arises from impending death as well as the possible loss of the survivors’ place in the world.
(I do not own the rights to any of the images, clips ans quotations in this post)
I can think of many moments in which elegy surfaces in the series Vikings – the ones that moved me most were Siggy’s and Thornstein’s deaths, and Ragnar ‘s vision of Lagertha and the children waving goodbye when they were younger, and young Githa was still alive. In the first half of season 5, the last episode is entirely permeated by it, but the main elegiac (or elegaic – beautiful word) element concerns Harald Finehair and his brother Halfdan the Black (who were not, historically, brothers).
In season 4, the two brothers from the North of Norway were a simple team: both good warriors, both ruthless, Harald was the one with a thinking head, though not as complex as Ragnar Lothbrock’s; he had a simple plan: to become king of Norway so that he could marry his beloved. Halfdan was the bloodthirsty madman who lived for the delight of battle and looked after his brother in case he lowered his guard.
Jasper Pääkkönen as Halfdan the Black
When the leading warriors each announced their future plans at the end of the season, and Halfdan declared he would go to the Mediterranean with Bjorn, I thought he may mean to kill the eldest of Ragnar’s sons. But no: it was the beginning of a different phase in which, while Harald would pursue his ambition to become king, Halfdan would follow his wonderlust and his desire to know more of the world. A new arch, which would not repeat the previous ones. There is a conversation at the beginning of season four in which Halfdan explains to his perplexed brother that ambition is not his thing.
In Bjorn’s company he has discovered that swinging an axe is not all that there is; patterns and relationships change, and when civil war comes again, Halfdan chooses to switch his alliance from his brother to his friend out of gratitude for what he has seen and learned. About himself as well as about the world. Yet the parting of ways does not happen lightheartedly, especially seeing that Harald is sorry, not angry about it. He who is apparently gaining much is about to lose much.
The end of this specific thread in Vikings’ tapestry happens is beautifully rendered; the brothers will meet in battle because that is their fate; it will happen with no resentment, rather, in a melancholy mood which is expressed at the start with the song the brothers sing while they wait for the armies to gather.
The tone, and the rhythm, are different from other times we have heard it sung: there is sorrow, and regret: not of the death which may come, but of not being on the same side once more.
Here are the lyrics of the song – well, it’s not Tennyson, but you can spot the alliterations.
(The translation is the one in the series with some changes I made)
Þat mælti mín móðir, at mér skyldi kaupa
(my mother told me someday I would buy)
fley ok fagrar árar, fara á brott með víkingum,
(galley with god oars , travel far with the vikings)
standa upp í stafni, stýra dýrum knerri,
(stand up high in the prow noble barque I steer)
halda svá til hafnar hǫggva mann ok annan.
(steady course for the haven hew many foe men)
Thinking back, the elegiac tone of the last episode had been prepared not just by Halfdan’s decisions, but also by King Harald’s growing tenderness for Astrid in the previous episodes, by his misguided belief that he has her heart, and his happiness at going to be a father. It was a little unexpected, another way to make the character more human and more likeable, as Vikings’ fans are likely to root for Lagertha and Bjorn; be as it may, we knew it could not be. One almost feels sorry, but getting rid of Astrid the unlikely is just fine. And anyway, this is not a world where you could live happily ever after. But you could meet again in the halls of the gods. With the right sort of death.