In the north of what will later be Europe, in the prehistoric days before the glaciers come from the north, humans live in fear and trembling—in fear of the elements, the beasts of the jungles, and their own primitive leaders. Into one of those herdlike groups is born a boy who is named Fyr. As the child grows older, he is seized with a desire to climb to the top of Gunung Api, a vast volcano, quiet but not extinct. On the slopes of the volcano, wandering by himself, Fyr learns to make use of fire to keep himself warm, to cook meat, to provide himself with a deity, and to enhance his own importance.
Attracted first by his songs and then by his person, women join Fyr, until he, like other leaders, is the head of a primitive family group. After the women come children and, finally, other men who make themselves subservient to Fyr. Under his leadership, the tribe becomes a band of hunters, using the pits, spears, and bows that Fyr devises for them. Wherever they go, they take with them burning wood to re-create their god and household symbol: the fire. Soon all the forest folk bow to the authority of Fyr, bound to him by his fire and by the tools of wood and stone that he creates to make their lives more bearable. One day, however, their god seems to demand a sacrifice, and the people, making Fyr their scapegoat, place him in the fire he has brought them. Although he is roasted and eaten, he lives on, a representative of human ingenuity that they cannot understand.
As ages pass, Gunung Api becomes extinct. Still later, the northern ice cap begins to move over the land, bringing cold to the tropic jungles. After other ages have passed, a small band of hunters lie crouched in the same forest where Fyr and his followers lived. The climate is much colder than it once was, and the tribe and most of the animals had moved to the south until a hunting expedition brought them back to the old territory. One of their number, Carl, is the tender of the fire. When he lets the fire die, he is thrown out of the band and becomes an outcast.
Carl flees to the North, somehow keeping himself alive in the winter by wrapping himself in skins and burrowing into the ground or building rude huts of stone. He travels high on the extinct volcanic cone, and everywhere he sees only desolation and ice. He seeks the enemy of his tribe, the cold, but he does not find it. He is joined in his wanderings by a dog; the animal slowly joins into a comradeship with the man, although not without some trembling and hesitancy on the part of both. As the winters pass, Carl learns to prepare for the coldest season by laying in a supply of food and building a shelter. He even learns to foretell when the great cold is coming and where he will find food and shelter as its ice and snow move gradually to the south. When he occasionally encounters another human being, Carl uses the opportunity to hunt for and eat a different kind of meat. One day, he gives chase to a human being who turns out to be a woman. After he captures her by the sea, she becomes his wife; the lure of the sea is to call him again.
Carl’s wife, Mam, brings new habits of gathering and storing; she also brings him children. She adds vegetables to Carl’s diet, and their home becomes a permanent one. Carl is still aware of fire, a possession that he has lost and not regained. Gathering many stones, he chips them against one another in an effort to strike fire from them. At last he is successful, and he bequeaths fire to his children.
The children of Carl and their wives add pottery work to their skills; with ceramics comes boiling, a new way of cooking. Among the descendants of Carl there arises a group of priests against whom others sometimes rebel. One such rebellious man is White Bear. Denied a certain woman for his wife, he kills the leader of the priestly clan. Like Carl before him, White Bear becomes an outcast, taking May, his woman, with him. White Bear becomes a seaman, building small boats and sailing them, in company with his sons, while May and their daughters remain at home to farm and care for the cattle.
White Bear begins to use horses for transportation. He builds a chariot and uses horses to draw it. His sons, more adventurous, learn to ride on horseback. One of the sons, Wolf, becomes so enamored of the horses that he rides away with them to become a nomad, forerunner of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan.
Ages later, a new man appears. He is Norna Gest, son of the matriarch Gro. While he is still a young boy, dwelling at the edge of the sea on an island, he builds himself a dugout canoe and sails away, carrying with him a girl who will, after a time, become his mate. They and their child explore a new land to the north (which will later become Sweden) but return to their home island in later years. Gest himself is not an ordinary mortal; he is to live as long as he keeps a partially burned candle. After he returns to his original home, he and his companions go on many voyages, using sails as well as oars on their ships.
As years pass, Gest finds that he has outlived his companions. He awakes one day to find...
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