Codex to Weave a Spell Unspoken

Dan Campbell

Sometimes, the map is the memory.

I read somewhere once that the shaman’s song guides her across the landscapes of the soul. Her telling of the tale, reciting the journey, makes the power real.

Sometimes, the map is the territory.

When I read Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time,[1] the same reality came to mind. Tolkien took his experience in the trenches and made it real on the plain of Dagorlad, remembered the dead back into a life of corpse candles, transfigured madness through the retold pain of the Rhinegold’s possession.

For a moment the water below him looked like some window,
glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering.[2]

Now I find the map is all: mind and mulch and mulling words woven into a texture of understanding molded by thought’s touch. It is how the moment feels that is real.

Now are there none alive
with whom I dare to tell
the truths from my heart.
No weary mind
may withstand Wyrd.[3]

Maddened mind-lust
marks each mind
to fare away;
so must I seek abroad
hence from home.[4]

I came to Tolkien’s meanderings at a time when madness marked every corner of my mind-home. I grew up the only son of a schizoaffective [5] single mother. For nine years, between ages 9 and 17, I was her only trusted confidante, doing my best to rein in the extremes of her delusions and paranoia. I lived with the fear of death, guarding against being orphaned by suicide, yet girding myself for a cross-country trek I secretly hoped would be my release. Instead, reading my way through Middle Earth kept me grounded in a fantasy more true than the reality I was surviving.

Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á
nætr allar níu… á þeim meiði,
er manngi veit hvers af rótum renn.[6]


I know I hung on a windy tree
nights all nine… on that beam,
where no one knows where from its roots run.

The Old Norse word meiðr means ‘a pole or longitudinal beam’. In context of Hávamál 138, the word refers to Yggdrasil, Ygg’s drasil, Ygg’s steed or horse, Odin’s gallows, from which the god of the hanged — the aldingautr, the ancient sacrificial victim — hanged himself. Cleasby and Vigfusson note that meiðr “can never be used of a living tree,” but they offer another poetic usage, from Rígsþula: “telgja meið til rifjar, to shape a pole for a loom, to make a weaver’s loom.”[7]

Mál er at þylja
þular stóli á
Urðarbrunni at,
sá ek ok þagðak,
sá ek ok hugðak,
hlýdda ek á manna mál.[8]


Time it is to speak
by the sage’s stool
at the well of Wyrd:
I saw and kept silence,
I saw and held back thought,
I listened to them speak.

In The Norns in Old Norse Mythology, Karen Bek-Pedersen observes that, while the Norse source material only depicts norns busy at one textile task (that of plying single threads together to fashion a more resilient örlögþáttr, or fate-thread, in stanzas 2-4 of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I), the metaphor of fate-as-weaving or fate-as-spinning is latent in Norse myth. It lurks in the language:

The relationship between “text” and “textile” goes far beyond the etymological link between the terms; there is a significant semantic overlap, too. Notions of speaking, reciting and determining connect closely to textile work… [I]t is perhaps telling that, in terms of etymology, “text” is a later development than “textile”; the woven textile came before the written text and weaving before writing. However, this also indicates that both can be forms of narrative. …[W]ords can be strung together, an epic may be interlaced with shorter tales, an unfortunate poet may lose his thread and perhaps have to fabricate; spinning a yarn means to make up an unbelievable story and a spell is something that can be woven as well as spoken…. A different way of combining text and textile occurs in Guðrúnarkviða II 14-16… What Guðrún is doing is essentially creating a visual form of poetry… The description brings to mind ancient textiles such as the Oseberg…all of which clearly consist of narrative elements and can therefore be “read”. The vocabulary in Guðrúnarkviða features the verb bóka used for “embroider” and the noun skript for “picture”, both of which highlight the intertwining of text and textile, words and weaving, because bók also means “book” and “textile” is also found in the term þáttr, which has the double meaning of “thread” and “short tale”…[9]

This intertextuality laid under English and Norse reminds me of a Borre-style “gripping beast” replica I own. While James Graham-Campbell describes the original 10th century pendant as “formed from a single beast with its…ribbon-shaped body…in an arc beneath the mask-like head,”[10] my first impression was that the bronzework I possess showed a skeleton dismembered and bound upon a wheel. As that binding gnawed further upon my subconscious, I later discovered a link between Old Norse words for physical fetters and the family ties of kinship and obligation.

A bondsman she saw lying under Hveralundr:
The cord shall tear and the greedy-wolf run.[11]

It seemed to me, then, that the ragna rök — the doom, ground, origin or history of the gods — was bound up in the ties that bind us, one to another, kith to kin. Stray too far and bonds break, the starving wolf within is unmasked, the kinslayer becomes keen.[12], [13]

Brothers shall become each other’s slayers,
Cousins shall commit incest;
Hard it is in the world:
An axe-age, a sword-age, shields are cloven,
A wind-age, a wolf-age, until the world is overthrown;
None shall offer hospitality.[14]

Against this fate, the ourobouros bends backward to bite its tail. Knotwork arms interweave, hands clasp, teeth clench. The wheel of the world holds us in thrall, yet keeps us from drowning.


Do we sing up, or dare we sein down, as we haul the sea of souls across time-calloused hands to finger the frets in wyrd’s weaving? What context holds us? What spells become us? Whither do we run from stock to stone? How keen shall we hone what once was ours?

the weir, the web, the womb

to run out the edge,
chasing a dream

to die, drowning

to remember

to wake

there is no other
but the self
(in the mirror mouthing
back at you)

we are no wisps in thought
dancing to tunes with words unspoken
now woven
into tablets on the tongue

such spells sing the soul’s desire
do not step into the ring
nor bow to unseen partners
nor remove your hood
as a guest
(a ghost)
the host of past and future
bliss unremembered

to wake
to dream
to dismember

let the rudder go,
shove off the shores,
i ween,
and there, beyond help
or hindrance, where the tide
runs low and all hope draws out,
i deem,
you’ll find your borrowed self
all lone upon the wrack

hook it down
(take them up!)
wear that second skin
of voices now returning,
of wings and fleet foam burning,
of whispers amidst withers
running on, ever on,
to words wound
up upon that beam
of memory yet undone

I will point only to one fact which connects The Lord of the Rings to Old Norse heroic and mythical literature. It is deeply sad, almost without hope. The story is not a quest, about finding something, it is an anti-quest, about throwing it away. The price of throwing it away is extinction. The elves will disappear. So will the ents, and the hobbits. Frodo, the hero, is incurably wounded. He is taken away across the sea, but only to die. The dominating word of the last page of the story is “grey,” as the other characters ride back unspeaking on “the long grey road” from the “grey firth,” and the “grey sea,” and the “grey rain-curtains,” and the Grey Havens. Something has gone out of the world, and it will not come back. And that is how things have always been.[15]

Never have I sailed the fjords of Norway, nor stood at Þingvellir, nor dwelt among the downs and verdent barrows of England. My home has been the woodlands and wetlands of North Carolina, with its summer thunderstorms and winter rains. But my mind knows the language of another land, my heart roves the hard-twisted words of those whose lives were handed down from one tongue to the next. I ken what I can. Myth becomes dead reckoning for the soul, singing us back from where we’ve wandered — even from the marches of the uncontested lands of the dead.

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.[16]

Memory is the map speaking the spell. What words are woven tell only the times that they remember. It is not for us to impose order on that which has its own. Only to learn the routes through hard-won truths, plumbing the depths as we go.

The Swan Road (the Loch of Stenness, Orkney, with the isle of Hoy peeping up in the distance)

[1] After lines 9-11 and 15 of The Wanderer: “Nis nu cwicra nan / þe ic him modsefan minne durre / sweotule asecgan. … Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan.”.
[2] After lines 37-9 of The Seafarer: “monað modes lust mæla gehwylce / ferð to feran, þæt ic feor heonan / elþeodigra eard gesece.”.
[3] Verlyn Flieger. A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie. Kent State University Press, 2001.
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Two Towers. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982. 235.
[5] After lines 9-11 and 15 of The Wanderer: “Nis nu cwicra nan / þe ic him modsefan minne durre / sweotule asecgan. … Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan.”.
[6] After lines 37-9 of The Seafarer: “monað modes lust mæla gehwylce / ferð to feran, þæt ic feor heonan / elþeodigra eard gesece.”
[7] Schizoaffective disorder is characterized by a mixture of schizophrenic symptoms and mood imbalances, such as depression or mania. It is not schizophrenia, per se.
[8] Hávamál 138. Eddukvæði: Sæmundar-Edda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Heimskringla: Norrøne Tekster og Kvad. 2005.
[9] Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1874. Germanic Lexicon Project. 2004.
[10] Hávamál 111. Eddukvæði: Sæmundar-Edda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Heimskringla: Norrøne Tekster og Kvad. 2005.
[11] Karen Bek-Pedersen. The Norns in Old Norse Mythology. London: Dunedin Academic Press, Ltd. 2011. 150-153.
[12] James Graham-Campbell. The Viking World. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields. 1980. 136.
[13] After lines from Völuspá 35 and 44: “Haft sá hon liggja und Hveralundi” and “festr mun slitna en freki renna.” Völuspá. Eddukvæði: Sæmundar-Edda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Heimskringla: Norrøne Tekster og Kvad. 2005.
[14] Dan Campbell. “The Bound God: Fetters, Kinship, and the Gods.” Idunna 89, Autumn 2011. 24-29.
[15] Dan Campbell. “Feeding the Wolf: the Theme of Restraint, and its Lack, in the Mythology of Fenrir.” Idunna 91, Spring 2012. 20-24.
[16] After Völuspá 45. ibid.
[17] Tom Shippey. “Tolkien and Iceland: the Philology of Envy.” Tolkien, Laxness, Undset. 13 Sep 2002. de-vagas em hy-brazil. .
[18] “The Creation of Éa.” In: Ursula K. LeGuin. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam Books. 12th printing. 1979.

DanCampbellphotoDan Campbell‘s work has appeared in Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, Niteblade, Fantastique Unfettered, Mythic Delirium, and Daily Science Fiction. He edits poetry for Bull Spec magazine in Durham, NC and ruminates on LJ at