A few weeks ago I wrote about trickster tales, and the importance of reclaiming intellectual courage from the stigma of trickery. The tradition of the trickster is world wide, and many of the stories are very fun.
Some of them, not so much. Fenrir the Wolf is like that.
The trickster figure may have been a way of explaining why a beautiful and bountiful world contains so many dangers and sorrows. Among the Norse people of Scandinavia, Loki was blamed for some very grim events, including the Death of Baldur (which I will retell in an upcoming post). On top of that, Loki also fathered three monstrous children with the giantess, Angrboda: a horrible serpent, the grim daughter Hel (consigned to underworld, and giving us the word Hell), and the dread wolf, Fenrir. Prophecy told the gods that Fenrir would swallow the sun at world’s end, destroy all creation and kill Odin. Bad wolf. Very bad wolf.
Because of this prophecy, the gods decided they would have to restrain Fenrir, but it was no easy task. He had the cunning of his father, and the strength and size of his mother. The gods played to his vanity, daring him to break an iron chain. He did it. Increasingly nervous, the gods tried a stronger chain, which Fenrir also broke. At last, they resorted to asking for help from the magical people underground, the dwarves, who fashioned a silken ribbon with enchantments to keep it from snapping. The gods offered Fenrir the chance to prove his strength once again by allowing them to tie him in this ribbon. Sensing a trick, Fenrir said he would allow himself to be tied, on the condition that one of them put his hand into his mouth.
Only Tyr, god of justice and right action, stepped forward to offer his arm as hostage. The wolf was tied with the spellbound rope, which tightened more each time he struggled. And each time he struggled, he bit down harder on Tyr’s hand, until at least he bit it off. The wolf was securely bound and imprisoned for all time.
My daughter and her classmates heard this story last year in school, and I told it to K. and two of her friends again a few days ago. “Was Tyr brave?” I asked. One of the girls said, “But he had to do it, it was his turn to do something difficult, so he had no choice.”
“Does that mean a soldier who is ordered to do something dangerous is not brave?” I asked.
“He could have said no,” K. said. “He did have a choice. Tyr was brave.”
Tyr was brave because he did the right thing, the girls concluded. He volunteered for something that had to be done for the safety of the whole world, even though it was really dangerous for himself. Moral action often comes at the expense of physical safety, or even life. It seems that the kind of moral courage we have seen in civil rights and justice struggles around the world frequently requires physical courage as a partner. To do the right thing, the moral thing, even if it puts us in physical danger, inspires awe and admiration. We always have a choice, even if all our options are against our nature or if the choice is made with little conscious deliberation. This is why acts of moral courage or right action inspire us, because we are seeing people choose a righteous path in spite of the danger. When we witness peaceful protesters being beaten or attacked but not fighting back, we see the courage of a god. This is why we also share true stories from history with children – so they can see that the six types of courage also dwell in the real world, and are not only the stuff of legend.