One of my long-time head-characters — those several people who inhabit my brain and nag me to write about them, but never quite give me enough detail to actually make a story — is a spacecraft pilot. Probably obviously. She’s a dreadfully cliched muddle of Han Solo/Mal Reynolds stereotypes, only she’s a gurl.
And she has a squirrel. Initially the AI robot avatar of her ship, the Serious Mouser (I have literally no idea), the squirrel evolved and became a character in his own right, until a friend pointed out he was basically Rocket Raccoon. And, on watching Guardians of the Galaxy, I realise he was right.
This is why I don’t write fiction.
Anyway, the point is, I have a fondness for squirrels. Not an unhealthy fondness, I should point out: we’re just good friends. But I do find them the most utterly adorable flea-ridden, verminous little rat-bastards — even the grey ones whom we here in the UK are supposed to hiss and shoot at when seen. (The greys are an invasive species who’ve largely displaced our native red squirrel, which I admit is a shame. Reds are beautiful, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life). From my office, there are a few green spaces visible, and some trees, and it genuinely makes my day when I see squirrels barrelling around the place doing their deranged sciurine thing. Also bunnies. We have bunnies. You can see them at silflay, bouncing about in the evenings and early mornings. There are definite plusses to my workplace.
My wife’s Asatru. It’s not the screeching non-sequitur it sounds like. Asatru is a name for the religion of the Old Norse: a faith centred on the (for want of a more popularly descriptive term) ‘Viking’ gods, such as Odin, Thor, Freyja, and countless others. And the Asatru tradition possesses a vivid and distinctive mythology, in Europe perhaps rivalled only by that of the Greeks: stories of heroic deeds and terrible battles and monsters and trickery and dragons and elves and a primeval cosmic cow for some reason and a great tree. The tree is the “World Ash”, Yggdrasil, and it serves as the Norse axis mundi, the pillar which connects earth and sky. In the case of Yggdrasil, it reaches up through the Nine Realms of Norse cosmology.
It’s honestly not a non-sequitur.
Aside from all the hectic comings and goings in the realms amongst the world tree’s branches, there are two places of particular interest. The top of the tree, which is occupied by a great Eagle (which has a hawk between its eyes, but we’ll pass over that for now). The Eagle is rarely named, as far as I can tell. There is, in the mythology, a giant called Hræsvelgr, who takes the form of an eagle, and some say this is the being sitting atop Yggdrasil; however there’s no clear source linking the two. And some call the great Eagle ‘Gwaihir’, though this appears to be drawn from the lord of the giant Eagles in Tolkien’s (admittedly heavily Norse-influenced) The Lord of the Rings.
In any case, the Tree Eagle has a counterpart tha’ below: around the roots of Yggdrasil is coiled the great serpent Níðhöggr– pronounced ‘NITH-og’ or ‘NEE-thog’, but if you search for ‘Nithogg’ all you get is pages and pages about World of Warcraft, where every mythical being from every mythology anywhere in the world ever has been put to work as a non-player character. Níðhöggr is generally represented as an evil being, which gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil as it tries to undermine the great cosmic order, and so forth.
But as interesting as these two beings might be, our concerns today do not lie with them, but with their active contest, their ongoing battle of wills, and the method of its execution.
The two great entities, at the top of the cosmos and the very roots of it, are engaged in an eternal flyting. This is, in essence, a sort of Scandinavian rap battle — a ritualised and often quite skilful exchange of grievous insults intended to humiliate the other party. But there’s a lot of distance between the two competitors, and they don’t have an Internet. What they do have, bless his poor floofy tail, is a Ratatoskr.
Because who better to scurry up and down a tree, up and down, up and down, all the live-long aeon, than a squirrel? Ratatoskr has the unenviable task of carrying the abusive messages from top to bottom and back — and I never could help but sympathise. I’ve always seen Ratatoskr as a fairly put-upon kind of fellow. Just as his modern movie counterpart, Scrat, only wants somewhere quiet and peaceful to store his acorn, yet spends at least the first Ice Age film (the only one I’ve seen) the victim of endless disaster and calamity, I think of Ratatoskr as someone who, true to the nature of squirrels, only wants to gather nuts, bounce around tree branches and snooze in the shade. And instead…
“Squirrel!” bellows the Eagle. “I have a task for you.” Ratatoskr was young then, and full of vim. And there was something vitalising about life in the canopy. The view, for one thing. From his favourite high branch, Ratatoskr could see out clearly over three of the great worlds resting in the boughs of the World Tree, and glimpse three more in the shady places further down – including that one with the people… what were they called? The ones like Elves, but who kept dying off after ten minutes — or so it seemed. Below their level he’d never been, and never intended to. A keen ear heard tales of the lowest of the lands, down near the thickest, oldest trunk of the Tree. On the one paw, cold that could freeze even the furriest rodent through to the bone. On the other, a desert of fire and lakes of flame. And between those two primeval extremes lay, so it was said, an eerie land of ghosts — those forlorn-but-peaceful spirits, forgotten by gods and heroes and monsters alike, but for the Lady Hel in whose halls they gathered.
No, Ratatoskr thought to himself as he gazed down upon the green meadows of Vanaheim and the glittering towers of Asgard; no, he would never go down there. Nothing good for squirrels lay down there.
Here, he had a good life. The cooling wind, the warming sun, clear, crystal rainwater to drink and as many acorns as he could eat. And more! All the acorns he could eat, and all the room he needed to store the ones he couldn’t. He’d put them aside for a winter that would never come — and then eat them later because why store food when winter wasn’t coming? There was never any winter up here. And no-one bothered him. Even the Eagle who ruled the Treetop rarely looked his way — and when it did, it was usually with a simple, untroublesome task. This would surely be another.
Ratatoskr popped his latest acorn into a convenient crevice in the trunk and hopped onto a higher branch.
“What can I do you for, feathery boss?” he asked, face radiating keenness.
“I want you to carry a message,” the Eagle replied, gazing downwards with narrowed eyes, down beyond the deepest of the worlds.
[1 – Why yes; yes, I can. Though not in any particular order. Asgard, home of the gods, particularly the Aesir (Odin, Thor, et al); Vanaheim, home of the ‘nature gods’, the Vanir; Midgard, aka “Middle-Earth”, where we live; Alfheim, the home of the Elves; Svartalfheim, home of the Dark Elves and/or the Dvergar, the Dwarves; Jotunheim, home of the Giants; Helheim, the land of the ‘ordinary dead’ — those who didn’t die heroically in battle etc; Muspelheim, land of fire; and Niflheim, land of eternal ice and snow and sometimes home of the ‘ordinary dead’. It all gets a bit confusing and depends to a great degree on who’s listing the worlds.)