We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us just for one day
As I prepare to write this post, these words float through my mind unbidden. But what are heroes? Do they swim like dolphins, as David Bowie suggested or are they not like that at all? Who are the people we – as humans – have looked up to for centuries? You might be tempted to say there is not much to link heroes, perhaps a dash of bravery, a pinch of handsome, but actually, the image of the hero has not changed that much at all and I find that humanity has been admiring basically the same person for hundreds of years. And who is that person, I hear you ask?
Why, J.R.R. Tolkien's Aragorn, of course!
After all, he is brave, noble, handsome, adventurous, wise and kind. A fearless fighter and a just ruler, both things that mankind has long dreamt of, though it hasn't seen much of either. It seems fascinating to think, that as they dealt with tyrants, unfair laws and defeat in war people consoled themselves with visions of heroes and tales of adventure, of good versus evil, of the one who would step forth and defeat the darkness forever.
Aragorn, son of Arathorn, but it wasn't always him. After all, Tolkien only wrote the Lord of The Rings in the 20th century, not long at all, is it? And what did humanity dream of before then? Well, as it turns out, the character of valiant Aragorn echoed two other great heroic figures, from the long-ago past.
1. Sigurd the Volsung
This Norse folk tale is truly an astonishing one. Sigurd's story begins, actually, with the wedding feast of his uncle, Signy, if you would believe it. Signy and his brother, Sigmund (Sigurd's fahter) were the children of Volsung and descendants of Odin himself. During Signy's wedding feast, Odin appears and plunges a sword into the trunk of an oak tree, saying
"Whoever draws this sword from this oak will have the sword as my gift to him, and will find that he never had a better friend in time of need."
Remind you of anything?
Of course, many try to pull the sword out of the tree, but only Sigmund succeeds. During his reign as king, Sigmund is then forced to fight an invading army and he meets Odin on the battlefield, where the great all-father tells him that his rule has come to an end, his time is over and proceeds to shatter his sword.
During the war, Sigmund is wounded and eventually dies, but not before saving the pieces of his broken sword for his son, Sigurd.
As with any hero, Sigurd must first go on some quests, designed by his tutor Regin. First, he is sent to find himself a horse, which he does, with Odin's help. And then, he is sent to kill the dragon Fafnir. His father's great sword is reforged and the hero takes it with him and slays the dragon, naturally.
His tutor then instructs him to roast the dragon's heart, which Sigurd does. But in doing so, a drop of dragon blood falls on his finger, burning him and he sticks the burned finger into his mouth, to cool it. Immediately, he is able to understand the language of birds and listening, he realizes Regin is tricking him and that he wants to eat the dragon heart in order to become the wisest of all. Angered, Sigurd eats the heart himself and then goes on to kill his tutor, stealing off of him a cursed golden ring (that belonged to the dwarf Andvari and that is very probably the inspiration behind Tolkien's Ring of Power).
Having done this, he sets out to awaken the sleeping Valkyrie Brynhild. He swears his love to her, vowing to marry her and gifting her the ring, but then he leaves for war. He arrives at the Niblung court, where he is bewitched to fall in love with another, Gudrun, and he marries her instead. Still under spell, he magically disguises himself as Gudrun's brother and rides out to save Brynhild (his true love). The Valkyrie, foretold to marry whoever saves her from the circle of fire where she resides, marries the brother but then discovering the betrayal, she urges him to kill Sigurd, which he does. Filled with remorse, Brynhild kills herself and the two lovers are burned together on a single funeral pyre.
Complicated or what?
2. King Arthur
I'm sure that anyone who's familiar with the Arthurian myth has already noticed many similarities with the tale of Sigurd, although Arthur's story is tamer, by quite a bit. Here, the sword is not stuck in a tree, but famously in a stone. Arthur, who is the rightful heir to the throne, but is brought up in a different home, is the only one who manages to pull out the sword, and thus is proven to be the one true ruler.
He heroically defends Britain against the invading Saxons and together with his knights of the Round Table, he does many chivalrous deeds, saves damsels, etc. He too has a great sword – Excalibur - with which he kills many worthy adversaries. He too has a beautiful lady love and he too must first redeem his kingdom before he can marry her. And here too, there is the element of evil magic, portrayed by Arthur's sister, Morgan le Fay.
Sadly, the peace established by Arthur is broken by his treacherous nephew, Mordred, and civil war breaks out. In the final battle of the war, both Arthur and Mordred are mortally wounded. The good king is placed in a boat which floats downriver, taking him to the isle of Avalon, where his wounds are healed by three strange maidens.
It is said that Arthur isn't dead, merely waiting – along with his knights – under some rock or other such secretive place to ride out and save the country again.
You will have noticed I haven't talked quite so much about Arthur and his legend, mainly because it's more widely known already.
Finally, I'd like to point out a few interesting similarities between the fictional King of Gondor and these two legends. First, all these three heores are rightful rulers who are raised far from home. Sigurd in Denmark, Arthur by a peasant (some stories say), and Aragorn at Rivendell. All three must perform feats of great strength and they must first win battles before they can reclaim their thrones and with them, their lady love (Sigurd his Brynhild, Arthur his Guinevere and Aragorn his Arwen). Like with Sigurd, Aragorn too wields the sword that was broken but was made again, only in this story, it belonged to his ancestor, Isildur, not to his father.
Apparently, Tolkien was far more interested in the early Germanic culture of the fifth century (adapting many elements into his own tales).
As David Day, in his The Heroes of Tolkien, so aptly puts it,
Sigurd the Volsung warrior is a wild warrior who would have been out of place at Arthur's polite, courtly Round Table. Curiously, although Tolkien's Aragorn is essentially a pagan hero, he is often even more upright and ethically driven than the Christian King Arthur.
There are many fascinating similarities between the three warrior kings and they all speak volumes about the archetypal hero and what humanity tends to admire and look up to, both in the long ago, but also in modern times.
Thank you for reading.
Authored by: @honeydue
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