Isabella Valancy Crawfords Gisli the Chieftain
by Catherine Sheidrick Ross
The structural core of all Isabella Valancy Crawfords work is romance. At fourteen she was writing fairy tales already containing the elements of design that she was to elaborate in her later fiction and poetry. Her prose romances repeatedly use motifs of dark and fair heroines; a descent into a world of confusion and darkness followed by re-ascent and recovery of identity; ritual sacrifice and rebirth; and identical twins, separated as children, who bring into alignment opposite worlds of darkness and light. Her poetry, while relying upon these same patterns, is more clearly mythopoeic. The twins in Malcolms Katie, for example, are the North and South Winds whose unending contest divides the solar year into winter and summer; in Gisli the Chieftain they are Brother Good and Brother Evil who sprang from the one great mystery and jointly do the work of the gods. Quite early on, Crawford discovered that she could use the larger structural principle of the solar cycle to integrate these various romance patterns. Gisli the Chieftain, of all Crawfords works, is the most condensed and complete working out of the solar myth that informs all her writing.
Solar theory was very much in the air when Crawford began her work. Students of mythology were suggesting that all stories about the gods are versions of the suns cyclic struggle with darkness. As George Cox puts it in his preface to Mythology of the Aryan Nations (1870), the epic poems of the Aryan nations are simply different versions of one and the same story, and . . . this story has its origins in the phenomena of the natural world, and the course of the day and the year.1 Such a theory suggests that to reunite the different versionsto find the source for a grammar of mythone must return to the mythic core of narrative which is in the story of the Sun God. Accordingly, Gisli the Chieftain presents the complete annual cycle of Gisli, whose name in Icelandic means sunbeam. Within this comprehensive structure, Crawford rejoins figures from separate mythologies, combining the Russian goddess Lada and the Icelandic Brynhild and Odin. The main characters in Crawfords narrative are the Goddess Lada; Gisli and a phantom rival; Brynhild who is caught between these two; and eagle and swan who reflect Gisli and Brynhild on another level; and the All-Father Odin.
An Interregnum (The Mail, May 3, 1875) is an early version of Gisli. It uses classical Roman motifs, not Icelandic, but it already contains prototypes for Gisli, his phantom rival, Brynhild, and the warrior with shield of gold. The old sun in An Interregnum, the de-throned Polar Caesar striding to the north, becomes the ghost on the Hel-way in Gisli. The new sun, sleeping like Arthur or Endymion that sweet hidden king, / Bud crowned and dreaming yet on other shores will wake up and become the victorious chieftain Gisli. Spring, earths fairest lord, / Soft-cradled on the wings of rising swans with his sceptre of a ruddy reed! Burnt at its top to amethystine bloom becomes Gisli the hero, armed with his bud-tipped spear, and about to marry the swan-maiden, Brynhild. The Sun within his azure battlements, who watches in An Interregnum from his high towers, is the golden warrior in Gisli who, watching from Valhalla, greets the phantom ghost.
Icelandic sources provide Crawford with Brynhild and the love-rivalry relationship between Gisli and the phantom. Brynhild is a Valkyrie, one of those fierce swan-maidens who choose those who are to be slain on the battlefield and carry them up to Valhalla to feast with the gods. Her main literary appearances have been in the Germanic epic Nibelungenlied; in the Volsunga Saga translated by William Morris into prose by 1870 and into verse by 1875; and in Wagners Ring of the Nibelungs completed in 1874. The essence of these versions is in the Sleeping Beauty story of the maiden who is pricked by the thorn of winter and sleeps on the heights in her ring of fire or briars, until the bright hero comes who can drive away the chill im prisoning mists. John Fiske in Myths and Myth-Makers (mentioned in Wilfred Campbells Mermaid Inn column of February 20, 1892 as to be found in every first class city or town public library) comments as follows:
Nineteenth Century comparative mythologists such as George Cox and John Fiske popularized the solar theory that lies behind Gisli the Chieftain. A more direct source for Gisli, however, is W.R.S. Ralstons Songs of the Russian People (l872).3 Crawford certainly used Ralstons book as a source for The Mothers Soul (or The Butterfly), which can be dated by its publication in the Telegram on November 14, 1883. Crawford, possibly writing Gisli the Chieftain around this same time, used the following passages from Ralston as her major source for Lada, the Dark and Bright twins, the death-boat, Hel-shoes, the pilgrimage of the soul, the glass hill, Valhalla, the paradisal home of the sun, the suns arrows, and the red colour of spring:
In the Russian songs several other mythological names occur, . . . two names which are very often mentioned are . . . Lado and Lada . . . the generally received idea is that Lado was a name for the Sun-god answering to Freyr, and that Lada was the Slavonic counterpart of Freyja, the goddess of the spring and of love. In Lithuanian songs Lada is addressed as Lada, Lada, dido musa deve. Lada, Lada, our great goddess! One Lithuanian song distinctly couples the name of Lado with that of the sun. A shepherd sings, I fear thee not, O wolf! The god with the sunny curls will not let thee approach. Lado, O Sun-Lado! In one of the old chronicles Lado is mentioned as The God of marriage, of mirth, of pleasure, and of general happiness, to whom those who were about to marry offered sacrifices, in order to secure a fortunate union. And nearly the same words are used about Lada . . . In the songs of the Russian people the words lado and lada are constantly used as equivalents. (pp. 103-5)
In common with the other Aryan races, the Slavonians believed that after death the soul had to begin a long journey. According to one idea it was obliged to sail across a wide sea. . . . To the idea of this voyage, also, some of the archaeologists are inclined to turn for an explanation of the old Slavonic custom of burning or burying the dead in boats, or boat-shaped coffins.
According to another idea the journey had to be made on foot, and so a corpse was sometimes provided with a pair of boots, intended to be worn during the pilgrimage and discarded at its termination. . . . What is certain is that the Slavonians believed in a road leading from this to the other world, sometimes recognizing it in the rainbow, but more often in the Milky Way. . . . At the head of the Milky Way . . . stand four mowers, who guard the sacred road . . . a myth closely akin to that of Heimdall, the Scandinavian watcher of the Rainbow-bridge between heaven and earth.
A third view of the souls wanderings was that it had to climb a steep hill-side, sometimes supposed to be made of iron, sometimes of glass, on the summit of which was situated the heavenly Paradise. (pp. 107-10)
The abode of the dead was known to the old Slavonians under three names, Rai, Nava, and Peklo . . . in modern Russian Rai stands for Heaven and Peklo for Hell . . . this Rai. . . is the home of the sun, lying eastward beyond the ocean, or in an island surrounded by the sea. Thither repairs the sun when his days toil is finished; thither also fly the souls of little children. . . . No cold winds ever blow there, winter never enters those blissful realms, in which are preserved the seeds and types of all things that live upon the earth, and whither birds and insects repair at the end of the autumn, to re-appear among men with the return of spring. (pp. 111-12)
Another strange being who figures in many of the stories is Koshchei the Immortal, who is considered to be a mythical representative of Winter. His name is derived from the word Kost, a hone. . . . As the earth is locked up by the Winter say the Russian commentators as the bright and blooming Spring cannot become visible till the wintry season is past, so are beautiful princesses kept in imprisonment by Koshchei, unable to show themselves to admiring beholders till his spell is broken and his power is overthrown. . . . Koshchei is, in the opinion of the mythologists, one of the many forms in which is personified the Evil Spirit who wars against sunlight and fair weather, and who is usually personified in the Russian stories under the form of a snake. In a Polish version of the Sleeping Beauty, it is Koshchei who carries off the Princess, and throws her, as well as all the in habitants of her fathers kingdom, into a magic slumber. At last the des tined rescuer comes, who conquers Koshchei and seizes his magic gusli. (pp.164-66)
In one of the metrical romances a hero sees a wondrous swan its plumage all golden, its head formed of red gold, set with pearls and is going to let fly an arrow at it, when it cries aloud, Do not shoot at me! comes flying up to him, and turns into a fair maiden, who afterwards becomes his wife. (p. 181)
The mixture of nuptial and funereal ideas connected with this Midsummer festival gives it a double nature; one set of its rites and songs being joyous as if to exult over a marriage, and the other tragic, as if to lament for a death. In the former case it appears to be a mystical union between the elements of fire and water that is celebrated; in the latter the downward course of the sun towards its wintry grave. (pp. 242-43)
Ralston assembles as many legends as possible around such topics as Ideas about the Soul, The Snake, Swan Maidens, Death of Winter, Midsummer Rites, Mythical Wedding Guests, Human Sacrifices, Lament of Orphans, Vampires. Crawford sees the relationship between details like the Dark and Bright twins and Ladaitems that Ralston handles consecutively but separately under the heading Ideas about the Soul. Ralstons casual identification of Lada, goddess of love and springtime, with Freyja is the basis for Crawfords exciting connection of the Slavonic myth with the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. She read Ralstons reference to the glass hill, thought of the one in Dasents Princess on the Glass Hill from Tales from the Norse (the king of the country where Boots lived had a daughter, whom he would only give to the man who could ride up over the hill of glass, for there was a high, high hill all of glass, as smooth and slippery as ice, close by the kings palace)4, and wrote When my foot the Glass Hill5 seeks,! Such a maid may do for me lines which contrast the fire and flame of life with the crisp ice-flake, and foreshadow the seasonal change of winter and the pilgrimage of the phantom to Valhalla on its shining peak. Crawford, already interested in solar myth, would have a ready context for Ralstons references to Sleeping Beauty, the celebration of the death of winter, the mixture of nuptial and funereal ideas . . . the mystical union between the elements of fire and water . . ., and downward course of the sun toward its wintry grave.
In Gisli, Crawford subsumes this wealth of material from Slavonic, Icelandic and Greek sources into the solar myth which sustains the mythic structure of her whole work. The calendar of the solar year provides an organizing principle for many of her poems, as, for example, the Indian Calendar of Moons in Malcolms Katie or the central place of dawn and Easter in Hugh and Ion. For Crawford, the solar myth is a way of expressing not just the opposition but the relationship of light and dark, good and evil, spring and winter, life and death. Light is born from his dark mother, the Night, and returns to darkness.
We could compare Tennysons similar use of these oppositions and their final reconciliation in love in Demeter and Persephone. Demeter is told that The Bright one in the highest / Is brother of the Dark one in the lowest (11. 93-4). She has intuitions of a new dispensation of love when thy dark lord accept and love the Sun, / And all the Shadow die into the Light. It would be tempting to see Demeter and Persephone as a major influence on Gisli. The arrows What know I . . . The Gods know best and Gods benison Ye shall not know sound much like Tennysons lines:
However, Tennysons poem was published in 1889, five years after Crawford sent him a copy of Old Spookses Pass in which Gisli appears.
To leave the question of sources and turn now to the poem itself, we note that the motifs of Lada and springtime, Gisli and Brynhild, eagles and swans, marriage and death are integrated in a solar myth that begins with joy and marriage, darkens into sorrow and death, and ends with a final consolation. The mixture of nuptial and funereal ideas that Ralston says gives to the summer solstice its double nature is dramatized in the roles of Gisli and the phantom rival as two aspects of the solar power. Gisli who carries a talismanic budded spear, like Aarons flowering rod, represents the exuberance of life, of cosmic and biological energies, that is celebrated throughout Part I. With his yellow beard (later his Ruddy beard stretched in the loom of the wind), he is both Thor and the strong fierce waking sun. As such, he is related to all other active masculine agents who relish the vital joy of the present hour the eagle that tears the dove, the Viking galley that cuts the waves, the west wind that blows away the mists. The economy of the symbolism is such that each reflects the others on different levels, and a reference to any one includes them all. The chief agent in Part I is Gisli; in Part II, the west wind; in Part III, the eagles. Instead of proceeding laboriously through each cycle of creation and destruction separately, Crawford uses a significant episode in each cycle to imply the whole process.
In Part I, Gisli asks Lada, the Goddess of Spring and Love, to Give the flesh its fitting wife. Part II shows the winning of his destined mate, Brynhild, not as a typical courtship, but in terms that indicate the storys basis in the changing seasons. Just as in Sleeping Beauty and the Volsunga Saga, the hero must disperse the cold mists that imprison the sleeping princess pierced by winters thorn, before awakening her to life and springtime with his kiss, so here Gisli-Sigurds main job of courtship is to chase away the woman-lipped haze and the cunning mists shrouding the sea and the sky: Below the dumb stroke! Of the Suns red hammer rose blue mist like smoke. Part III celebrates the triumph of galleys, west wind, eagle, and Gisli over the retreating thick mist. As in the summer solstice, however, victory is combined with defeat: Stared at them, triumphant, the eagles is in evitably followed by Met in the fierce breast of the eagle! The arrows of Gisli and Brynhild.
Gislis nameless rival and double in Part IV, the wan ghost on the Helway, is the dying sun. In life, he has been young, fair, one whose years by flowers might yet be told (IV) in fact, Gisli himself in Parts I and II. Whereas Gisli generates light and heat (Fire to chant their warriors name, Victory with his pulse of flame, Mate the fire and flame of life), the ghost, though still golden-crested, has been conquered by the returning mists. The mists in Part IV, close-curved and cold / As in a writhing dragons fold, are related to Nifiheim or mist-home, the Icelandic under world, but no less to the dark and obscure forces that yearly swallow the sun.
These opposites of light and dark, heat and mist, spring and winter are woven on Ladas loom of fate: She, with mystic distaff slim, / Spun her hours of love and leaves; Warp and weft of flame she wove. Lada is Freyja, goddess of fertility, who is always shown with her spindle and loom, weaving the pattern of life and death. The opposites are further connected by the weapon symbol of conflict but also of conjunction and sacrifice. Gislis spear, the agent of death, is bound with buds of spring. It is identified with the keen shafts of the suns rays (II), the piercing red gaze from the eagles red eyes! Like fires (III), the galleys sharp prow, and the shrill spear of the west wind that smites the mist (III). This double power of creation and destruction belongs primarily to the arrows of the Sun which sustain life but also kill with their scorching heat. The Song of the Arrow in Part III belongs alike to suns rays, galleys prow, eagles gaze, west winds spear and Gislis shaft:
The arrow performs his necessary role, knowing nothing of the shape and meaning of the entire cycle. He exults in the energy and speed of his present flight; the galley throbs but to the present kiss / Of the wild lips of the sea (I); Gisli says Thus a man joys in his life / Nought of the beyond knows he (I); the eagle bears in his breast the love of the quarry (III). The images everywhere insist that hunter and quarry, Gisli and rival, life and death, victory and defeat, spring and winter are not only deadly enemies but also the closest of kin.
The murder is handled in a way that emphasizes the recurrent nature of the episode. Crawford uses the eagle to represent this phase of the cycle. The one living creature able to gaze directly at the sun, the eagle is conventionally shown carrying a victim and is related to height, speed, and imperial power and war. In Icelandic myth, he is Odins bird who watches from his perch on Iggdrasil, the world-tree.6 He represents all the qualities already associated with Gisli and therefore is Gisli at another level. But he is quarry as well as hunter; he is pierced by the knife-pangs of hunger and the long shaft of Gisli. The following lines skillfully gather together sun, hunter, the piercing weapon, and the innocent victim, and establish the identity of the eagle with both hunter and quarry, Gisli and the ghost:
The killing of the eagle works as a sort of shorthand notation to indicate the death of the rival and the death of the old sun, and implies therefore Gislis own death to come.
In the Icelandic saga, Sigurd is eagle to Brynhilds swan. Here, Gisli and Brynhild, eagle and swan, sun and moon represent different forms of the same relationship, any one pair including all the others. Although Brynhild is not mentioned by name until the last line of Part III, she is present from the beginning in references to White swan from the blue-arched south (I), the sharp wings of swans as they rose (III), and Deep pierced the red gaze of the eagle / The breast of the cygnet below him (III). Here the solar bird is victorious, but in the next stanza the shaft of the swan-maiden Bryn hild bites into the eagle from the westward. In the solar myth that underlies this plot, the sun loves the dawn but must inevitably desert her on his west ward journey, and she avenges his betrayal of her with his death.
The complete cycle of the myth which Crawford is creating from her various sources runs, therefore, something like this. Gisli, the spring sun, asks Lada, goddess of Love and Spring and weaver of fates, for a bride to mate the flesh. He defeats Brynhilds present lord who has kept her for his for one brief year (IV). Gisli wins Brynhild and the complete fulfilment of desire which brings about his own death, just as summer in Malcolms Katie chokes with its own surfeit lushness. Brynhild, in her role as Valkyrie or chooser of the slain, has killed the old Gisli to marry her accomplice in the Volsunga Saga, Sigurds blood-brother Gunnar, or in Crawfords poem, the new Gisli or reborn sun. In An Interregnum Crawford emphasizes the joyous, nuptial aspect of this cycle:
In both An Interregnum and Gisli, the defeated lord is the winter sun who must die to allow the rebirth of spring. The phantoms role as Gislis double accounts for the reduplication in the poem: Gylfag and the phantom hound; Gislis galleys and the galleys of the ghost, which by long winds were tost; the town on its sharp hill and Valhalla on its peak. Nine years after An Interregnum", Crawfords new emphasis in Gisli on the grief of the defeated lord parallels her concern, expressed most fully in Hugh and Ion, with themes of pain and despair.
The story of Gisli and his victim therefore links together the cycles of creation and destruction, ascent and descent, life and death, spring and winter, light and dark, fire and ice, active and passive, eagle and dove, repletion and hunger, love and hate. The symbolic imagery, the repetition in Part I of the budded spear, ice-locked fires, warp and weft of flame, the deliberate frustration of narrative interest, the sudden shifts in the verse form, the introduction as speakers of the eagle, the arrow, and the ghost all these direct the readers attention to the fact that the same Gisli plot constantly recurs with variations throughout creation.
In Part III, the eagle is labouring up the steep blue of the broad sky; / His gaze on the fields of his freedom; / To the gods spake the prayers of his gyres. In another form he continues his pilgrimage as the ghost on the Hel way in Part IV, upward spiralling peaks replacing gyres. There is a sudden shift to a vantage point far above the solar cycle of creation and destruction. Crawford has opened up the poem to include her three-levelled universe, translated here into the Icelandic equivalents Midgard, Nifiheim, and Val halla. The purpose is to provide a satisfying consolation for pain and death. The phantom on the hel-way says, I loved this is my tale and died. The song of the eagle has already asked What know I / Of the will of the bow that speeds me on high? and the answer is The gods know best. When mens voices eager and querulous and weak ask God, What hast Thou done? What dost Thou do?, Gods benison returns, Ye shall not know! After allowing full expression to the ghosts sense of betrayal and sorrow (How fiercely hard a mans heart dies!), the poem, in its conclusion, achieves acceptance and consolation. The phantom is received by his heavenly father, reconciled and redeemed. There are echoes here of Odins welcome of the slain Balder, or of God the Fathers welcome of the Son.
Faint and weak from his struggles along the reeling Hel-way, the ghost hears a trumpet blast and recognizes the voice of love. The figure that he encounters is a more resplendent Gisli, panoplied like the sun:
The warrior is Odin, the All-Father, the spirit of the sun itself, meeting his most recently slain annual incarnation. His question What dost thou here, my youngest born? . . . Why art thou from the dark earth torn? makes sense in terms of the annual death of the sun, which leaves the earth in darkness. The relation of this golden warrior to the ghost is as father to son and as eternal self to annual incarnation of that self: My soul recalled its blood and bone. When the warrior blows his trumpet again, the arrival of this pair at the awful peak where the Blest dwell is anticipated in the im agery of light, energy, flights of arrows, bright vales, sunlit harbours, green paths beneath their tread and so forth. The Christian implications of the imagery are not developed in Gisli as they are in Hugh and Ion, but are present all the same Gislis budded spear suggesting Aarons rod; the relation of sacrificed son to father in Part Four with its obvious Christian parallel; and I hunger and I thirst in the epilogue as an echo of Christs words on the cross.
The poem ends in understanding and reconciliation. The predominant sense of conflict and polarity which has been expressed in the weaponry the sharp spears and lances, the arrows connected perhaps with Apollo and Artemis, the red hammers of Thor that bite, pierce, smite, and strike this conflict is resolved in the final metaphor of twins and the image of clasping:
These terrible twins are life and death, good and evil, light and dark, Christ and Satan. They have counterparts in Cain and Abel, Set and Osiris, and Castor and Polydeuces, the latter parallel suggesting that they are Ladas (Ledas) twin offspring and do her necessary work of creation and destruc tion. The poem finishes with the Dark brothers recognition that he is just as much a child of God as his Bright brother is, and that by some miraculous process evil, which recoils back upon itself, is necessary in the final triumph of good.