Tell Me a Story: Rhyme and Reason

Posted on May 13, 2010 by

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I have always been fascinated by poetry. First it was epic poetry. I think my life – and my literary tastes – were profoundly changed when a friend introduced me to Beowulf for the first time. I think I must have been thirteen. Shortly after that it was the Song of Roland and the Lay of the Cid. Then on to Milton. I ate the stuff up. And I wrote it. Quite a bit of it, actually, and some of it very true to style. But the problem with epic poetry is that almost nobody wants to read it. It is long and wordy by its very nature, and most of us would like to see the dragons slain, the Grand Vizier punished for his wicked doing, and the hero get the girl, all in the space of an hour, minus commercial breaks and the opening credit sequences. So my book of epic poetry sits in a corner for now, except for the nights I pull it out and dust it off and read it to myself. Someday maybe it’ll be read by other eyes. I don’t know.

When I got older, though, I was exposed more to a form of poetry that is both easier to write and to read. It’s the kind that rhymes, and if you do it right it can be pretty enjoyable for most people, regardless of the genre. I mostly blame Kipling for this. His “Ballad of East and West” is one of my favorite poems, and he certainly has a lot of other good ones besides.

Most of my poetry isn’t about the normal kinds of things you’d associate with poems. I don’t write poems about love lost or found (except to Sophie, but you don’t want to see those) or how tormented my soul is (because it generally isn’t), or how trees and water and such make me feel. I like to tell stories. Stories that did or didn’t happen, or that might have happened, or should have happened. But I like poetry. It is by far the best form of literature, and if I had the time I think I would write more of it.

So this is a poem I wrote a while back. It’s a poem about heroism and fighting and hunting large animals, both of which are delightful subjects to me. It’s the kind of story that the men and women of Rolf might have told each other around the campfire. Of course, the “demons” and “monsters” are great apes, and the “world’s end” is Africa, or somewhere similarly distant and full of gold. But if you think too hard about such things it takes all of the fun out. So here is Halgar’s Saga: Or, the Adventure at the End of the World.

Lived a man, Halgar-called

Many-a-moon ago.

He lived atop a homestead hill

Throughout the winter’s snow.

And when the snow did melt away

He roamed across the land

Protecting innocent, helpless,

Against evil making a stand.

The summer of our tale

He met upon the way

A vagabond, an armed-man,

At the dawning of the day.

Cries him to that hero:

“Art thou that Halgar strong?

Who travels o’er throughout the land

Defending the right from wrong?”

Thus said our doughty hero,

“Halgar I am, ‘tis true,

And I roam seeking adventure –

So what adventure bring me you?”

Bemoaned that traveler weary:

“Trouble prodigious and great!

Never was another man

In such a painful straight.

“I’ve lost my only daughter,

Progeny most fair,

She was snatched away by devils.

They took her to their lair!”

“Now tell me,” Halgar said,

“How may this thing be?

And who are you, good sir,

Who’ve come for help from me?”

“My name is Red Bjor

I live upon the sea.

Now I will tell you all my tale

And how this came to be.

“I sail a merchant vessel

Past the moor in his hold,

I sail and trade in spices

And Ethiopian gold.

“From thence it’s home to Daneland

To my wife and daughter sweet.

My gold then I’d freely give

And dance and feast and fete.

“But now happy days are gone

And now’s my joy all spent

For devils did my daughter take;

My heart from my breast have rent.

“It happened thus, you will see

When last voyage I did take

My daughter would feign come,

My sweet companion for to make.

“So we sailed cross the whale’s way*

Past the lands of Gauls and Wulflings too

Past Moors and Ethiopians;

Great commerce did we do.

“But I heard of a land to the south,

At the very edge of the world

Where gold was like to iron!*

So we went with all sail unfurled.

“We sailed through windless sea,

We sailed through hurricane.

We sailed through poisonous airs

And blinding, driving rain.

“At last we found a coast,

All covered in thickest trees.

The people, naked savages,

They hovered round like bees.

“They proffered signs of peace to us

And showered gold around.

So we made our landing all,

Put our feet on solid ground.

“They threw a mighty feast for us

I think they thought us gods.

They gave us many gifts and lodged us

In houses made of logs.

“We thought us fortunate:

They for one wedge of iron gave

A hogshead full of gold!

We there our several fortunes made!

“So lay we all to sleep that night,

After we’d danced and drunk and fed,

When rose up a horrible cry!

That might have woke the dead.

“We leapt all of us to our arms,

Ran out into the night,

When saw we devils foul and grim

Enow to set the boldest to flight.

“Tall as a man they stood,

And a man’s chest full doubled and more.

Covered in reddish hair were they,

No feet, and of hands, four.

“They beat their breasts and bellowed

And gave no quarter there.

Tossed men and women and children –

Their strength o’erpassed a bear’s!

“We fought them but we lost

Our iron they bit in twain.

Then we shot them with arrows

And now some advantage gained.

“But ere the row was over

I chance did spy one fiend,

He snatched my only daughter

And with her fled the scene.

“So I chased him through the forest,

I pursued him through the wood.

But alas, he ran quicker,

And the treacherous paths understood.

“So I returned to Daneland in sorrow.

I lost me full half o’ my men.

But I would give them all, and more,

To see her face again!

“So I have come a-searching

For a champion, near and far

So now you see my search is o’er:

For I have found Halgar!”

Then says our hero mighty:

“Your story indeed is grave!

Enow of talk, let’s now away,

And at world’s end your daughter save!

“And Christ will go before us,

In Him we’ll put our trust.

So fear you not, dear Red Bjor –

Your daughter lives – she must!”

So they sailed ‘cross wavey waters –

Past Wulfling, Gaul, and Moor.

They halted not at all for commerce

Nor placed they foot on shore.

They sailed through windless seas –

They sailed through hurricane.

They sailed through poisonous airs

And driving, blinding rain.

At last they reached again that coast,

Hard by the edge of the world.

And there they anchored fast

There their sails they furled.

Savages upon the seashore,

They anxiously await,

And standing among them a tall white maid –

With ample red locks on her pate.

Bjor then did cry,

And leapt him from the boat,

“Oh my daughter, my daughter!”

His voice rang in joyful note.

And so at last together,

The father and his child,

Red Bjor’s heart could rest

From all its worry wild.

Said the father to his daughter,

“Pray, how can this thing be?

For I had thought you captive –

For ever lost from me!”

Replied that maiden gracious:

“The demon-apes did me take,

But at last I saw my chance

And my happy escape did make.

“And so since then in this village

Have I awaited thee

And the people have all been good

And shown much favor me.

“Howbeit, once every moon

Do the devlish monsters come

And terrorize the village

And carry away someone.”

Now Bjor said to Halgar:

“My daughter now we have

Let’s now away to Daneland –

To tarry here is mad!”

But ere Halgar could speak,

The maiden, flushed and red,

Spoke, implored him passionately –

And this is what she said:

“I call you false and perjured hero

Who sail away from here

And leave these folk in bondage

To dire demon-fear.”

Spoke that most hearty Halgar:

“I’ll not leave them, no not yet,

Till I’ve gone into the forest

And the monsters there have met.

“We’ll show them how a Christian fights

(For you see I must confess,

Whatever task a Christian does

He ought to do his best!)

“We’ll free them from these monsters

To whom they’ve all been slaves –

Then I will tell them of Jesus Christ

Who from vilest sin dost save.

“For before you can evangelize

And save a man from hell

You ought to meet their pressing needs

So they’ll listen when you tell.”

The Danes tried to dissuade him

By words of peril bleak –

But he went still into the forest

The demons there to seek.

He came upon their leader –

A silvery, hairy beast –

He said, “I’ll give you battle, fiend.”

And shirked not in the least.

The conflict was tremendous –

The din rose to the sky –

The combat there was mortal.

One of them would die.

The monster swung and bellowed

And Halgar tried to pin.

Then saw our doughty hero

That strength could not this fight win.

The fiend he picked him up

In killing-gripe most cruel.

Halgar bared him a dagger

And ran the monster through.

The monster staggered back,

Halgar breathed a prayer

And severed head from shoulders.

He killed the ape-fiend there.

And Halgar took the hide

And bore it on his back

And came into the village

And laid it on a slab.

“Now,” he said with labored breath,

“I have killed their king.

Now I have a plan to make

An ending of these fiends.”

So he girt his trusty sword

And dressed in the devil’s hide

And carried an earthen jar

With simmering fire inside.

Then he went back to the wood

And found their tree-homes there,

And all the devils did obeisance –

For their king’s hide he did wear.

Then he set their homes ablaze

With fire from his pot,

And drove them out with burning brands –

And with some of them he fought.

But the fire-terror was in them,

They fought with half a heart.

Halgar, he confounded them,

And made them all to smart.

So the devils took to running,

And Halgar pressed them hard.

He did them grievous injury,

Left many dead and scarred.

And so at last the fight was o’er,

And Halgar came to village again,

He came with twenty corpses

And gave them all to them.

“Here,” he said, “are your enemies

I’ve laid many of them low.

Never again will you lose a man

To hairy, fiendish foe.”

And so they greatly cheered for him

And gave him then much gold,

And so they all listened hard to him

When he them of Jesus told.

And so at least our hero

With the Danes did sail away,

And bore on the ships figurehead

The fiend he’d come to slay.

So they sailed through windless sea,

They sailed through hurricane,

They sailed through poisonous airs,

And driving, blinding rain.

They came at last to Halgar’s land

And there he disembarked,

He left with many treasures –

Enow gold to fill a cart.

But took he greater treasure

Than gold or silver from that ship –

For he, inside his brawny hand,

The merchant’s daughter’s gripped!

So Red Bjor did sigh and say:

“I sailed o’er watery wave and hill

To rescue her at the end o’ the earth –

And have lost my daughter still!”

So Wulfings all remember how,

When at the earth’s very end,

That Halgar fought the fiends

And bearded them in their den.

And so this saga’s moral:

A father had better do his best

And not enlist a hero –

Lest he wants an empty nest!

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Posted in: storytelling