The Ash-Road and Sorcery in the Grimnir Saga

There’s much talk in fantasy circles about “systems” of magic. By system, I think writers and creators mean the codified elements of magic: where does it come from, how do you access it, how is it learned, what is its cost. It makes me think of science: “if you have access to W and know X, if you spend Y then Z will be your outcome.” I think this view of magic reflects role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or video games. Magic as a slot on a character sheet, where points are expended to gain an effect.

In the Grimnir Saga, sorcery is primal and primeval, wild and chaotic. Not even those who practice it know precisely where it comes from – whether it’s from the earth, from the Gods, or from some other source. It simply is. Like oxygen or gravity. There are hints throughout the Saga that sorcery used to be more prevalent. It infused every rock, leaf, branch, and twig. Every stream and every tree had its guardian spirit. As time marched on, though, that influence waned. By the time A Gathering of Ravens takes place, however, sorcery is rare and unpredictable. The spirits have fled, or otherwise gone dormant, and their power can only be accessed via transaction – this for that – if it can be accessed at all.

The Ash-Road is a perfect example of this. It’s the link that weaves between the worlds sheltering under the boughs of Yggðrasil, an interconnected web of passageways that could transport those with the skill and knowledge to access it across worlds, times, or locations. We first see it in A Gathering of Ravens, when Grimnir is seeking passage along Yggðrasil’s branches to continue his quest for vengeance.

A bit of trivia: Grimnir knows sorcery, but he rarely practices it. He knew how to open the Ash-Road, but he lacked confidence in his ability to get where he wanted to go. As we see in the book, it requires concentration and focus to get the connecting threads right. And one misstep can result in a gap of centuries. But, there is a hint at the end of the book that he used the Ash-Road to escape Ireland after Clontarf. That journey back to Denmark is a tale in itself . . .

How does one open the Ash-Road? That depends on who you are. The dvergar, for instance, require one of their shrines:

The woven wall of trunks towered above Étaín’s head.  It was impossibly ancient, a fortress of gnarled trees and interlaced branches.  Slender birches coiled around the boles of mammoth yew trees, while oaks that were young when Christ was a boy erupted in a profusion of tangled shoots and branches that wove in and out among the hawthorn and the beech.  Along the edges, like guards tasked with keeping a crowd at bay, stood countless ash trees, from tender saplings to hoary old gray-barks that must have seen the dawn of the world.  Étaín hesitated on the threshold of the gate, shivering at the thought of what might lay beyond.  Was it truly Yggðrasil, the mythical World Tree?  Or was it just some bit of heathen mummery that flourished in the shadows, where the Word of God did not yet reach?

“Go on.”  Grimnir’s hand thrust her across the threshold.  She gasped.  But, despite the cold knot of apprehension in her belly, Étaín marveled at the sublime beauty that existed inside the tree-garth.  It was a cathedral, of sorts, a heathen shrine made from living wood.  Dwarf-wrought lamps, like fantastic beasts hammered from copper and bronze, cast pools of silver or gold or red light.  They illuminated an intricate pattern on the floor, a labyrinth of knotted roots that made their footing treacherous.  At the heart of the garth grew a primeval ash tree.

– A Gathering of Ravens

At the very least, to conjure the opening to the Ash-Road calls for an ancient ash tree, enough stones to make the outline of a doorway, knowledge of runes, and an offering of blood. The incantation is a simple affair, chanted in the deepest tone the caster can manage.

Vakna!

Landvættir, hark! | rouse thee, ash spirit,
Yggðrasil’s kin, | shake off thy torpor!
Late is the hour, | and dark is the road
Beyond Miðgarðr.

The Gray Path I seek, | scion of giants,
Through dvergar gates; | where tread the Æsir
And the bright álfar, | the far-seeing Vanir
And the sly troldvolk.

Landvættir, hark! | hear me, Strife-lord,
Yggðrasil’s seedling, | a fire have I made!
Ringed in stone it is, | and marked by
The Allfather’s runes.

Blood, I bring thee, | lord of branch and bole!
The rich red broth, | the cup-stream of wolves;
This be weregild | for thee, to open
The dwarf-forged gates.

Vakna, landvættir! | Wake and remember!
Mighty Yggðrasil, | who gave thee life;
Nine worlds you know, | the nine in the tree,
And the Road between.

Vakna, Yggðrasil!

– Unpublished Short Story

Once all the elements are in place and the offering is made, the first sign of success is a shivering in the earth, as though the tree’s roots moved. Then:

Still holding Étaín by the scruff, he pulled her with him to stand before the stone bordered doorway, covered now in a rime of frost.  The blackness beyond writhed and roiled like a living thing.  Sounds came forth, distant and phantasmal: the clash of steel, the roar of voices, music, harsh laughter, the cries of the dying, howling and monstrous grunting and tearing – the din of the Nine Worlds echoing through the roots of Yggðrasil.

– A Gathering of Ravens

And, once a practitioner of sorcery knows the basic forms, especially the transactional quality of the Art, they can tinker with incantations to achieve different effects. Here’s a bit from The Doom of Odin, where a desperate skrælingr uses the same basic theory behind the Ash-Road in an attempt to summon Odin’s ravens:

“Muninn, hark! | rouse thee, Memory,
Huginn’s kin, | shake off thy torpor!
Late is the hour, | and dark is the road
Beneath Niðafjoll.”

“Huginn, hark! | hear me, Thought,
Muninn’s companion, | a lamp have I made!
Forged in gold it is, | and marked by
The Hanged One’s runes.”

“Mímir’s wisdom I seek, | Raven-lords
Through dvergar gates; | where tread the Æsir
And the bright álfar, | the far-seeing Vanir
And the sly troldvolk.”

– The Doom of Odin

In retrospect, there probably is a system to the sorcery of the Grimnir Saga, though I’ve never sat down and defined it. And this lack of definition is a feature rather than a bug: it allows me to create new uses for the magic without having to worry about previously agreed-upon rules . . .

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3 thoughts on “The Ash-Road and Sorcery in the Grimnir Saga

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  1. I am a few chapters from the end of Gathering of Ravens, having picked it up when you made somw blog posts back in early October. I am glad I did! Excellent Howardian prose and a spooky setting perfect for autumn reading. One of my favorite bits was the “dwarves” and their use of magic (as well as other magic shown elsewhere). Really good stuff throughout and you’ve earned another fan as I will immediately move on to the next in the series.

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