“And the golden halls were dumb”: Norse Fatalism and Mourning in Matthew Arnold’s Balder Dead

  • Kim Zarins


For many Victorian readers, the medieval period was a spiritually rich age of faith, an aesthetic setting for knights and ladies, and an era with a paternal social order in which landowners sat at table with the men who tilled their land.1 Medieval Norse literature offered Victorian readers an experience more fraught with violence that exemplified a masculine yet uncorrupt culture of warriors. William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung celebrates a dragon slayer’s valor,2 and Thomas Carlyle includes Odin as his first hero in his On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History; such Victorian medievalists idealized Norse society’s manly integrity and vitality as a model for the more industrial, less innocent present. In Arnold’s Balder Dead (1855), the medieval past is not a model but a mirror of the present, a way for his Victorian audience to see and know themselves. For him, Balder’s death is a profound moment in a mythology otherwise bustling with empty heroic exploits. Arnold rejects his contemporaries’ idealization of Norse violence and Valhalla as a paradise for the bold of heart. Instead, he shows Heaven to be gaudy and joyless, Odin cold and despairing, the gods and heroes trapped in a life of daily death. As empty songs of strife, Valhalla’s poetry refreshes the soul as little as Valhalla’s banquets nourish the body. Balder, by contrast, is a poet and figure of light living in a darkened age. In Arnold’s adaptation, Balder’s new life in Hell is not tragic, for he finds comparative peace there with opportunities for contemplation and friendship and a role as poet and prophet of a new age of peace in which a true Heaven of light and love emerges from Valhalla’s ruins.3


Medieval Period Real Light Monotonous Violence Arthurian Romance Ancient Home 
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© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

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  • Kim Zarins

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