One of the more powerful poems we have is the Voluspa. It gives us the sweep of the mythic past, the context of the mythic future, and glimpses of the mythic future. When I was young, the glory of it all was stirring, as a young warrior, visions of the end times, and the final struggle were compelling. Like most young folk, I missed many lessons of the Voluspa, because I saw only the fire, and looked away from the ashes. Wisdom is supposed to be the greybeards (or grey-braid) stock and trade, for with the colour of ashes in our hair, comes the wisdom gleaned from the ashes of our own struggles.
To be young and idealistic is to speak of death before dishonour, victory or death. For many, the understanding that you can one day be standing in the ashes of all that you had cherished, and yet live. While everyone focuses on the fall of the gods and their ancient foes, the destruction of all that was, the Voluspa does not end there. Indeed, the end of everything is written in the beginning of things, even as the beginning of what will be is written in the death of what was. Life goes on. When almost all is lost, what is left is more precious. When you have given your all and failed; you yet live, you begin again.
59. Now do I see | the earth anew
Rise all green | from the waves again;
The cataracts fall, | and the eagle flies,
And fish he catches | beneath the cliffs.
60. The gods in Ithavoll | meet together,
Of the terrible girdler | of earth they talk,
And the mighty past | they call to mind,
And the ancient runes | of the Ruler of Gods.
Wyrd weaves as it will. There is no judgement given in victory or defeat, for the gods themselves fight the battles that are necessary, not simply the battles that can be won. Those who took the field at Ragnarok knowing their fate did so because it must be done, with the certainty that necessary was enough, victory was not. Because you cannot win, does not in any way suggest that you should not fight for what is important. Simply losing does not absolve you from the responsibility to keep going.
Growing up in the forest, I learned the lessons from the ashes. Forest fire is terrible, it kills everything in its path, searing the world bare of all life and construction. To see the devastation of the fire from the road is to see the magnitude of what was lost. To tread upon the ash is to learn a different truth. To stride among the ashes is to see bright green life setting forth again. In the fires of destruction are the seeds of renewal awakened. In the destruction of what was, are the seeds of what will be brought to life.
When we are young, we look to build a future and hope that it will last. Some die before their dreams, and some live to see those dreams burned to ash in front of them. Our ancestors were a hard people, but a joyous one. They lived in conditions in which death was common, security a dream that seldom lasted more than a brace of seasons, but they dared ever to rebuild, ever to love, ever to dream. They looked upon the ashes of all they had, clutched the few scraps they preserved to their chest, and began again.
We are not the people we were. Many who have endured hardships have learned hard truths about themselves, and found the taste of that knowledge bitter upon the tongue. Many look upon their scars and trauma, the wounds they carry internally and externally from their struggles, and think themselves weak. The opposite is true. In the light and innocence we hold many illusions about ourselves and our world. When twilight falls, and illusions fail, what is left is often less pretty, less perfect, less whole than we thought. It is real, however. When twilight falls, and the world we built falls with it, what remains? We few. If you are here to count the cost of what is lost, you live still. As our ancestors learned to look at what was lost, to shrug, and build again, so must we.
Young people look at the eyes with a thousand dreams of glory, and promise. In them are all the fires of promise. Old people look at the world and see the graveyard of dreams that were. Some dreams died aborning, some dreams flourished for a time, and some look to live on long after we past. Young people stand in the green of the forest edge and know that tomorrow will be better, old people stand in the ashes of loss and smile, for they know that with a whole lot of work, tomorrow can indeed be better. We need the dreams of youth that we try, the experience and initiative of the middle aged to make practical the dream, and we need the wisdom of the old to remind us that the ashes of loss are the seeds of dreams to be.
John T Mainer