Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2099
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 himself in a changed Sealand, a place where the people are either thralls or nobles. Disturbed at the changes and despised because he has taken as his new wife a milkmaid, one of the thralls, he wanders sadly about the land.
Unhappy in the changed Sealand, Gest and his wife sail to Sweden to found a new colony in which they are to be the leaders. They take with them new techniques of smelting and forging metals, and in their new land they gradually acquire domestic animals—horses, sheep, and cattle. Their sons and daughters marry, and the colony grows. Gest’s wife dies, and one day Gest disappears to wander again over the globe. Unnoticed but noticing, he travels through central Europe and floats down the Danube. He traverses the Mediterranean lands, where his life began in the early Stone Age. Finding something wanting in the lands of the South, Gest turns his face once again toward home, where he becomes a wandering poet.
Arriving in Jutland, he is greeted by Tole, a leader who is guardian of the wooden idol that represents the ancient god of the Jutlanders. Tole wishes to enclose the idol in a great bronze bull, and he welcomes Gest as the bringer of skills with metals and as a man of great wisdom. The two men make plans to cast the bronze bull at the time of the great spring festival, before the flocks and herds are taken up to the summer pastures. The bull is successfully cast, and the festivities end with human sacrifices of slaves and thralls. Gest wanders off on foot after the festival.
In later years, floods rise up in the seas around Jutland, and the younger men wish to leave the country to search for a homeland safe from the ever-encroaching sea. The entire tribe leaves, except for the elderly Tole. With the tribe goes the bronze bull, destined now to take long journeys across the face of central and southern Europe.
Back and forth across the lands the Cimbrians journey, enlisting other tribes in their search for better lands. At last, they travel far enough to come to the notice of the Romans. Failing to obey the Romans’ warning to stay out of Rome’s dominions, the Cimbrians and their allies of the North become enemies of the empire. They decide to strike at Rome itself. Victorious at first, they become proud; they do not anticipate at all the strategies of the Roman generals, who ultimately defeat them. In their defeat, the Cimbrians and their allies are ruined. Those who are not killed or do not commit suicide are sold into bondage to the Romans, to live miserably as captives in the South, where eventually their blood blends with the blood of their conquerors. Norna Gest sees these things happening. Finally, knowing that his time is at an end, he leaves Rome in his boat and glides slowly toward the sea, there to burn his candle to its end.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, barbarians from the North are gradually assimilated into the Christian religion. The ancient ship of the North, inverted on land, becomes the Gothic cathedral, a compound of the mariner’s vessel and the stately forests through which humans earlier roamed. Among the descendants of the barbaric tribes of the North are the Langobards. One of the descendants of this group is a man named Christopher Columbus, who is to lead humankind farther on its journey of discovery across the seas and into a whole new hemisphere then undreamed of, or at least forgotten by the descendants of the early Northmen who once visited it.
Columbus sees himself as a veritable Christopher, one who carries the Christ into the world. While others carouse before setting out across the ocean with him, he prepares himself by attending masses in the cathedral. He has faith in divine help and divine purpose. When the qualities that his faith gives him prove insufficient to meet the demands of leadership, however, he can call upon the amazing strength of body that his northern forebears have bequeathed him.
Although he reaches the islands of the West Indies, others will carry the long journey into the New World; Columbus is doomed to be only a leader pointing the way. To later conquistadors, men such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, goes the credit for gaining the mainland for European culture. They face the odds of sheer numbers when they meet the strength of the late Stone Age people, the followers of Montezuma and the Incas, who still exist in America, caught in the lag where European culture left them many ages before. In Mexico, for example, Cortés finds human sacrifice and the worship of volcanic spirits, examples of cultural practices that long since ceased to exist in the Old World. The light that Columbus sees from his ship at night is a symbol of the fire worship that exists throughout the New World.
The Indians of the Americas believe that the coming of the white men marks the return of their great sun god, Quetzalcoatl. Perhaps the god might have been Norna Gest, visiting the New World during his travels. The natives, however, soon lose their superstitious awe of men with fair skin and fair hair, and many Europeans are sacrificed on the altars of Mexico and other Southern countries.
The great battle of the New World is fought in Mexico. There the journey of the European culture is most seriously threatened. In the North, the Indians seem to fade away before the white culture; in the West Indies, disease kills them like summer flies at the first autumn frost. In Mexico, however, there is warfare between the eagle and the serpent, symbols of the migrations and conflicting cultures of humankind. Cortés and his soldiers are like eagles swooping down on the snake, insignia of the Aztecs.
Although Cortés is temporarily successful, with the help of a woman who turns against her own people, and although he is able to send the idol of Huitzilopochtli toppling down the long flights of stairs that lead to its temple, the Spaniards are doomed to temporary defeat. Cortés has to hack his way out of Tenochtitlán with the screams of Spaniards who are being sacrificed echoing in his ears.
Years later, a young man named Charles Darwin, a naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle, is to become a new symbol in humanity’s journey from the past through the present and into the future. Those on the Beagle think they see the Flying Dutchman, a dread sea captain doomed to sail forever. This figure will become the symbol of humanity’s long journey as it continues. Perhaps the long journey is now almost ended. No one knows.
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