THE WAY OF WYRD (Book Review)

 

way-of-wyrdWay back when, The Way of Wyrd opened a whole new world to me and many others: the shamanistic world of pre-Christian (Saxon) England, the world that was in some respects the original of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth.

I have classified it here as Fiction, though (like much of the best HF) it is also a documentary novel – in this case (to quote the Preface) “a report of a major research project into Anglo-Saxon sorcery […] in which each event and detail of the teachings is reconstructed from the Anglo-Saxon evidence.”

The book is divided into two parts, the first tells how a young Christian scribe, Brand (our narrator), meets Wulf, the wolfman, the sorcerer, and is eventually obliged to acknowledge the reality of Wulf’s powers; the second is the story of Brand’s own encounters with “wyrd” and the World of Spirits.

And as Brand comes to understand what “wyrd” means and is, so do we, at least to some extent.

After what is in effect a classical healing narrative (it is a shamanic healing and Wulf the sorcerer is clearly what we now think of as a shaman), we go back to Brand’s arrival on the south coast  where he is part of a mission imposed on the pagan king of what is presumably Sussex (the realm of the South Saxons) by the Christian king of Mercia, Wulfhere, son of Penda, the “most powerful warlord in the land”.

Wulf later explains that and another healing, this time of a horse, in terms of “life force”, and goes on to introduce Brand to runes, carved on a stick as a protective amulet. He explains why people fear him – and why warriors do not fear death. He speaks of the Wyrd Sisters – then suddenly announces that “they have come to loosen your fibres”. Brand is terrified.

In the second part of the book, the point comes where the natural and the supernatural intersect – which is of course what sorcery and witchcraft are all about, as is made abundantly clear in this book, but misunderstood (or totally ignored) in most orthodox religion and science (though the greatest scientists – men such as Newton and Einstein – like the great trailblazers of religion, do not make that mistake): things go together, happen together (co-incidence) but it is not a matter of one causing the other.

By sorcery [Wulf explains], I mean the forces that rule Middle-Earth. I have told you that, for the sorcerer, everything vibrates the web of wyrd, whether it is an act of the gods or the movement of the tiniest insect. Your arrival trembled the web. The flight of the ravens trembled the web. My presence vibrates the web. All our lives are locked together in the shimmering world of wyrd in which all things are enmeshed, and connected to one another by the threads of wyrd.’

I had been impressed by Wulf’s explanation of a web which contained all things, but now that I was supposedly caught within it, the idea seemed sinister and I could not accept it …

Finally, Brand loses his soul, and has to travel to the Underworld to beg the assistance of “the mighty smiths” before he makes the leap into the World of Spirits in a desperate attempt to retrieve it.

Of particular interest to me now (on rereading the book) were Wulf’s explanations of such common symptoms as fever and sweating: so different, yet quite as likely and as reasonable as our explanations, and his remedies at least as effective.

And this: ‘You must draw your spirit to you along your fibres by singing your own song. That way the guardian spirit will find you […] Do not worry about the words, just make the sounds that come to you. The spirits will understand.’ He gripped my arm. ‘You must do it, Brand. You must! If you do not sing, you will see only visions of death. […] I cannot tell you what to sing, or how to sing. It is your guardian spirit we are seeking. It must be your song. […] Float your word-hoard on the waves of wyrd; the power to release your guardian spirit lies within you alone.‘ These might be words for any poet – indeed any writer!

Essential reading for anyone interested in the culture and beliefs of the early Middle Ages – Middle-Earth.

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