Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fenrir the Wolf & Samson: Fairy Tales & the Bible

I've spoken often of a course I could give on Fairy Tales (and Mythology) and the Bible. Noted author Neil Gaiman has recently released his retellings of Norse myths, appropriately titled Norse Mythology. His collection is eminently readable, and in the tale of Fenrir the Wolf, Loki's son, readers will recognize strong similarities to our Samson story. I've reproduced Gaiman's retelling of the story below.

Excerpted from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, pages 97-106 

When they had brought the third and smallest of Loki's children back from the land of the giants, it had been puppy-sized and Tyr had scratched its neck and its head and played with it, removing its willow muzzle first. It was a wolf cub, gray and black, with eyes the color of dark amber.

The wolf cub ate its meat raw, but it spoke as a man would speak, in the language of men and the gods, and it was proud. The little beast was called Fenrir.

It too was growing fast. One day it was the size of a wolf, the next the size of a cave bear, then the size of a great elk.

The gods were intimidated by it, all except Tyr. He still played with it and romped with it, and he alone fed the wolf its meat each day. And each day the beast ate more than the day before, and each day it grew and it became fiercer and stronger.

Odin watched the wolf-child grow with foreboding, for in his dreams the wolf had been there at the end of everything, and the last things Odin had seen in any of his dreams of the future were the topaz eyes and the sharp white teeth of Fenris Wolf.

The gods had a council and resolved at that council that they would bind Fenrir.

They crafted heavy chains and shackles in the forges of the gods, and they carried the shackles to Fenrir.

"Here!" said the gods, as if suggesting a new game. "You have grown so fast, Fenrir. It is time to test your strength. We have here the heaviest chains and shackles. Do you think you can break them?"

"I think I can," said Fenris Wolf. "Bind me."

The gods wrapped the huge chains around Fenrir and shackled his paws. He waited motionless while they did this. The gods smiled at each other as they chained the enormous wolf.

"Now," shouted Thor.

Fenrir strained and stretched the muscles of his legs, and the chains snapped like dry twigs.

The great wolf howled to the moon, a howl of triumph and joy. "I broke your chains," he said. "Do not forget this."

"We will not forget," said the gods.

The next day Tyr went to take the wolf his meat. "I broke the fetters," said Fenrir. "I broke them easily."

"You did," said Tyr.

"Do you think they will test me again? I grow, and I grow stronger with every day."

"They will test you again. I would wager my right hand on it," said Tyr.

The wolf was still growing, and the gods were in the smithies, forging a new set of chains. Each link in the chains was too heavy for a normal man to lift. The metal of the chains was the strongest metal that the gods could find: iron from the earth mixed with iron that had fallen from the sky. They called these chains Dromi.

The gods hauled the chains to where Fenrir slept.

The wolf opened his eyes.

"Again?" he said.

"If you can escape from these chains," said the gods, "then your renown and your strength will be known to all the worlds. Glory will be yours. If chains like this cannot hold you, then your strength will be greater than that of any of the gods or the giants."

Fenrir nodded at this, and looked at the chains called Dromi, bigger than any chains had ever been, stronger than the strongest of bonds. "There is no glory without danger," said the wolf after some moments. "I believe I can break these bindings. Chain me up."

They chained him.

The great wolf stretched and strained, but the chains held. The gods looked at each other, and there was the beginning of triumph in their eyes, but now the huge wolf began to twist and to writhe, to kick out his legs and strain in every muscle and every sinew. His eyes flashed and his teeth flashed and his jaws foamed.

He growled as he writhed. He struggled with all his might.

The gods moved back involuntarily, and it was good that they did so, for the chains fractured and then broke with such violence that the pieces were thrown far into the air, and for years to come the gods would find lumps of shattered shackles embedded in the sides of huge trees or the side of a mountain.

"Yes!" shouted Fenrir, and howled in his victory like a wolf and like a man.

The gods who had watched the struggle did not seem, the wolf observed, to delight in his victory. Not even Tyr. Fenrir, Loki's child, brooded on this, and on other matters.

And Fenris Wolf grew huger and hungrier with each day that passed.

Odin brooded and he pondered and he thought. All the wisdom of Mimir's well was his, and the wisdom he had gained from hanging from the world-tree, a sacrifice to himself. At last he called the light elf Skirnir, Frey's messenger, to his side, and he described the chain called Gleipnir. Skirnir rode his horse across the rainbow bridge to Svartalfheim, with instructions to the dwarfs for how to create a chain unlike anything ever made before.

The dwarfs listened to Skirnir describe the commission, and they shivered, and they named their price. Skirnir agreed, as he had been instructed to do by Odin, although the dwarfs' price was high. The dwarfs gathered the ingredients they would need to make Gleipnir.

These were the six things the dwarfs gathered:

For firstly, the footsteps of a cat.
For secondly, the beard of a woman.
For thirdly, the roots of a mountain.
For fourthly, the sinews of a bear.
For fifthly, the breath of a fish.
For sixth and lastly, the spittle of a bird.

Each of these things was used to make Gleipnir. (You say you have not seen these things? Of course you have not. The dwarfs used them in their crafting.)

When the dwarfs had finished their crafting, they gave Skirnir a wooden box. Inside the box was something that looked like a long silken ribbon, smooth and soft to the touch. It was almost transparent, and weighed next to nothing.

Skirnir rode back to Asgard with  his box at his side. He arrived late in the evening, after the sun had set. He showed the gods what he had brought back from the workshop of the dwarfs, and they were amazed to see it.

The gods went together to the shores of the Black Lake, and they called Fenrir by name. He came at a run, as a dog will come when it is called, and the gods marveled to see how big he was and how powerful.

"What's happening?" asked the wolf.

"We have obtained the strongest bond of all," they told him. "Not even you will be able to break it."

The wolf pupped himself up. "I can burst any chains," he told them proudly.

Odin opened his hand to display Gleipnir. It shimmered in the moonlight.

"That?" said the wolf. "That is nothing."

The gods pulled on it to show him how strong it was. "We cannot break it," they told him.

The wolf squinted at the silken band that they held between them, glimmering like a snail's trail or the moonlight on the waves, and he turned away, uninterested.

"No," he said. "Bring me real chains, real fetters, heavy ones, huge ones, and let me show my strength."

"This is Gleipnir," said Odin. "It is stronger than any chains or fetters. Are you scared, Fenrir?"

"Scared? Not at all. But what happens if I break a thin ribbon like that. Do you think I will get renown and fame? That people will gather together and say, 'Do you know how strong and powerful Fenris Wolf is? He is so powerful he broke a silken ribbon!' There will be no glory for me in breaking Gleipnir."

"You are scared," said Odin.

The great beast sniffed the air. "I scent treachery and trickery," said the wolf, his amber eyes flashing in the moonlight. "And although I think your Gleipnir may only be a ribbon, I will not consent to be tied up by it."

"You? You who broke the strongest, biggest chains there ever were? You are scared by this band?" said Thor.

"I am scared of nothing," growled the wolf. "I think it is rather that you little creatures are scared of me."

Odin scratched his bearded chin. "You are not stupid, Fenrir. There is no treachery here. But I understand your reluctance. It would take a brave warrior to consent to be tied up with bonds he could not break. I assure you, as the father of the gods, that if you cannot break a band like this- a veritable silken ribbon, as you say- then we gods will have no reason to be afraid of you, and we will set you free and let you go your own way."

A long growl, from the wolf. "You lie, All-father. You lie in the way that some folk breathe. If you were to tie me up in bonds I could not escape from, then I do not believe you would free me. I think you would leave me here. I think you plan to abandon me and to betray me. I do not consent to have that ribbon placed on me."

"Fine words, and brave words," said Odin. "Words to cover your fear at being proved a coward, Fenris Wolf. You are afraid to be tied with this silken ribbon. No need for more explanations."

The wolf's tongue lolled from his mouth, and he laughed then, showing sharp teeth each the size of a man's arm. "Rather than question my courage, I challenge you to prove there is no treachery planned. You can tie me up if one of you will place his hand in my mouth. I will gently close my teeth upon it, but I will not bite down. If there is no treachery afoot, I will open my mouth when I have escaped the ribbon, or when you have freed me, and his hand will be unharmed. There. I swear, if I have a hand in my mouth, you can tie me with your ribbon. So. Whose hand will it be?"

The gods looked at each other. Balder looked at Thor, Heimdall looked at Odin, Hoenir looked at Frey, but none of them made a move. Then Tyr, Odin's son, sighed, and stepped forward and raised his right hand.

"I will put my hand in your mouth, Fenrir," said Tyr.

Fenrir lay on his side, and Tyr put his right hand into Fenrir's mouth, just as he had done when Fenrir was a puppy and they had played together. Fenrir closed his teeth gently until they held Tyr's hand at the wrist without breaking the skin, and he closed his eyes.

The gods bound him with Gleipnir. A shimmering snail's trail wrapped the enormous wolf, tying his legs, rendering him immobile.

"There," said Odin. "Now, Fenris Wolf, break your bonds. Show us all how powerful you are."

The wolf stretched and struggled; it pushed and strained every nerve and muscle to snap the ribbon that bound it. But with every struggle the task seemed harder and with every strain the glimmering ribbon became stronger.

At first the gods snickered. Then the gods chuckled. Finally, when they were certain that the beast had been immobilized and that they were in no danger, the gods laughed.

Only Tyr was silent. He did not laugh. He could feel the sharpness of Fenris Wolf's teeth against his wrist, the wetness and warmth of Fenris Wolf's tongue against his palms and his fingers.

Fenrir stopped struggling. He lay there unmoving. If the gods were going to free him, they would do it now.

But the gods only laughed the harder. Thor's booming guffaws, each louder than a thunderclap, mingled with Odin's dry laughter, with Balder's bell-like laughter...

Fenrir looked at Tyr. Tyr looked at him bravely. Then Tyr closed his eyes and nodded. "Do it," he whispered.

Fenrir bit down on Tyr's wrist.

Tyr made no sound. He simply wrapped his left hand around the stump of his right and squeezed it as hard as he could, to slow the spurt of blood to an ooze.

Fenrir watched the gods take one end of Gleipnir and thread it through a stone as big as a mountain and fasten it under the ground. Then he watched as they took another rock and used it to hammer the stone deeper into the ground than the deepest ocean.

"Treacherous Odin!" called the wolf. "If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of all things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you."


Please compare this story to the one about Samon and Delilah in the Book of Judges, Chapter 16.

I am most interested in the similarities and differences between the two tales.

In the case of Fenrir, he is a wolf with the attributes of a man. He can speak and reason as a man. In the case of Samson, he is a man who has the attributes of an animal. As a consecrated Nazirite, his hair is long, unbound and wild, uncut. He is extraordinarily strong and powerful.

Fenrir's strength comes from an unholy place, the union between Loki (a god) and a frost giant. In contrast, Samson's strength comes from his devotion and allegiance to the Lord.

Samson is undone because he loves Delilah and her loyalties lie with her Philistine people. In contrast, Fenrir is undone because he cannot resist pride (showing off his strength) and he is betrayed by Tyr, his childhood friend, and Odin, father of the gods.

It takes four tries for Samson to finally reveal the secret of his strength (and for Delilah to cut off his hair) while it takes three tries to successfully entrap Fenrir. The fourth try is unusual in the Samson story as such stories typically fit the trope of three.

I didn't write this part of the story, but Fenrir's mouth is jammed open with a sword to prevent him from biting down and harming others. Similarly, Samson is blinded (to humiliate him, but perhaps also so that he would not be able to find and harm others if he were sighted).

At Ragnorak, Fenrir will succeed in killing all the gods. In the Samson tale, once Samson's hair has grown back and he entreats God, he brings down the entire Temple of Dagon around the Philistines' ears.

What I think is fascinating is that Fenrir's tale focuses upon an unjust betrayal (from his viewpoint) as he has not actually harmed any gods yet. It also teaches about how pride can lead to one's downfall. Granted, Fenrir's trust in Tyr is also a problem, but it is not the main problem. In contrast, Samson's tale is a critique of Samson in that he trusts the wrong person (Delilah). He has already fought against the Philistines and thus they are justified in considering him an enemy. In his case, it is love that leads to his downfall. In Norse mythology, the Fenrir tale is another tale of the gods' cunning and trickiness. In Judaism, the focus is on the flawed nature of Samson as a judge. Where the emphasis in the story is placed is important as it helps stress what each worldview finds to be most significant. The Judaic emphasis is on the flawed nature of man, his tendency towards seduction (or short term gratification), but how even he can be redeemed. There is no such moral in the Fenrir version. There, cunning and trickiness win out in the short term, but one day Fenrir will have his due.