The Choice of the Valkyries
By Paul Donovan
Mund’s face wore a sombre expression and the still healthy dark brown hair was plunged back in a very becoming style. Mysterious fellow he was though, his eyes were brooding and melancholy as though plunged into some hidden sadness only he knew about. Mund was making his way slowly through his beer, though he had lost interest in it. He was staring at his hands and the glass in front of him, his eyes dull, as though deep in thought. Mund, who took pride in his appearance, was wearing expensive silver cufflinks, a pristine white shirt and a royal blue suit. He had not bothered to wear a tie on this occasion and the unbuttoned collar lent him and air of refinement, creating the impression of being well-dressed but not overstated.
The iPhone in his pocket buzzed and he checked his emails for the third time that hour, as though looking for something specific, but his anxious expression deepened upon the observation.
The bar was half full (or half empty, if you’re a pessimistic barkeeper, hoping for more patronage). The smell of beer and cigarettes irritated Mund, who gazed around the tavern; the smell and the atmosphere didn’t feel right.
His companion, Wotan, was at the bar ordering drinks.
I shouldn’t be here, Mund thought. Why do I still see this man? I used to think he was wise but now I feel he has outlived his usefulness. Mund was in his late twenties. Following a short stint in university where he dabbled in the black arts of whisky and undergraduate women he had remained fairly sober and kept his of sense of Christian integrity intact. The sunlight burst in through the windows to his right and he noticed the light green leaves on the plane trees and the chirping of birds through the large panels of glass that looked out over the street. The sounds of vehicles moving around the city he found unsettling but, as he was unable to mask the sound that intruded on his temporary solitude, he was moved to a feeling of disquietude. He knew this would be the last fresh burst of sunshine for the day, that night would soon be upon them and that the perception of life, warmth, and the joy of spring, would be as fleeting as his lustful youth.
Wotan returned with two bottles of beer and as he walked over from the bar. Mund, whose gaze was distracted by the sight of his companion returning, examined the fellow deliberately. Wotan’s eyes were stern and animated at the same time. They danced around with lively grace as though reflecting some mischief planned by their owner. The man had longish unkempt greying hair. He was balding a little on top and he had a rotund face that contained the beginnings of a neat moustache and whiskers in a Zen grin. As he watched Wotan return with the beers he was struck by the enigmatic look in his eyes.
There’s something I don’t trust about this character, thought Mund. They had met several years ago, in fact they day before he had met Linde, his wife. They were in a little Irish pub, you know, the quaint little variety that springs up here and there with shamrocks on the doors, with a couple of live musicians to play to the Anglo-Saxon beer drinkers, and which boast a menu befitting an impoverished Irish hovel.
‘Well me boy,’ said Wotan returning the smile on his face increasing as though he read the thoughts of the other.
He put the beer down gleefully.
‘Why so glum me boy?’ he asked.
‘What’s there to be happy about? I’m content enough but I’m not celebrating.’
‘Well, wey doncha celerbrayte den?’ Ters a lot ta be happy about me boy. Are ye supposed ta be a Christian an all.’
‘Yes I’m a Christian and I can enjoy food and drink in moderation but must not get led astray into rampant sensuality; I do try to restrain myself.’
‘There’s a worthy fella then,’ Wotan replied smiling even more broadly than before. ‘Knowing moderation, ‘tis a very wise man indeed. But tha good Lord’d want ya t’be enjoy’n yourself heartily here with me, a friend, a companion who bout ye a beer and ordered ye a nice lounch.’
Where did this Irish accent spring from, wondered Mund and why is it so beguiling? It’s like talking to a leprechaun.
‘Ah, dis be the loyfe,’ said the smiley man. ‘Christianity is great but there is nothing that warms the cockles of a man’s heart like some good hearty food and a fine drink.’
‘It is certainly most pleasing,’ replied Mund nonchalantly.
‘How’s that woman of yours?’
‘She’s fine.’ He remembered that one of the reasons he was so enamoured with Wotan was they had been together when he met Linde, as though he had somehow engineered the encounter.
‘Still enjoyin’ married life as much as you did?’
‘It’s okay.’ But then, in a sense he also blamed Wotan who had promised him so much happiness but had as often as not led him into misery.
‘Well as Schopenhauer said about women, well you know, I know you’ve been readin’ him again, I can tell by the look on your face–’
‘I know I know, they’re children their whole lives.’
‘Thet’s roight,’ he said laughing. ‘You still look so serious. You know you get a wife and you have some fine food and song and then you still look serious. What can a man do to cheer you up?’
‘I rejoice only in the Lord. Do not be content with too much bread and wine,’ Mund responded nervously.
‘That’s not even scripture, you’re slippin me boy, you used to be able to reel them off.’
He looked up with a scowl on his face.
‘I’m happy, don’t worry about me.’ Thinking back on his life over the past three years, each time happiness had been in his grasp, Wotan came along and offered fresh pleasures, fine clothes, promotions, extravagant riches. Yet it all seemed to vanish somehow.
‘You know what; you look bored that’s the problem. Too much prayer, too much sackcloth and ashes. God doesn’t want to you live like that After all, life is three times too short to be bored.’
‘That’s not scripture either, that’s Nietzsche.’
‘Ah, but you agree with me.’
‘Your Christian morality has hamstrung you; I can see it on your face. You know Schopenhauer also said that women should not be treated as ladies – it only puffs them up – and that men should marry many more than one. Marriage is a debt contracted in youth and repaid in old age. If you went out and enjoyed yourself a little more, found yourself a few women. You can’t argue with nature. I know when you were a young man you used to have two or three a night! Boy you were a ladies’ man.’
‘He who has found a wife has found a good thing.’
‘Ah there you go with your scriptures again and here am I trying to cheer you up. You’re simply incorrigible seein’ as your quotin’ scriptures, which it is evident you don’t believe in, well I can do the same too – a bitter wife is like constant dripping. Better to live on a rooftop than with a contentious woman.’
‘Alright, enough already.’
‘You’ll be comforted to know that most geniuses from Socrates onwards married she-dragons. So you’re in good company–’
‘-You’re calling my wife a she-dragon!’
‘Whoa steady on me boy, of course she’s not; of course she’s not; but they are the fairer sex, we all know you gotta have patience with them.’
‘Yes, lot’s of patience.’ He thought of one of his first meetings with Linde, before the fighting, before the love for her had turned into distaste and boredom, in days where he scoffed at Oscar Wilde’s, claim that ‘the only thing worse than not getting what you want, is getting what you want.’
He was dressed in black like a young poet that he saw himself as – a Keats or a Byron or someone like that; poets he had heard about but not read, though he had read some of the melancholy works of Shelly and whilst he found the poetry dull, he found the wailing melancholy alluring. He was 23 she was 19. Even though he knew about Schopenhauer’s definition of love, that it was simply a biological urge, the need to follow the universal Will, the Will that propagates the species, he was nonetheless enchanted by her. He walked past the tall rows of trees along the red dusty brown orange brick tiles, hands in the pockets of his dark jacket, the wind irritating his cheeks.
He know he was playing a type of game and that marriage was a debt contracted in youth and paid for in age; that love catapulted men and women together, yet within a few years they detested each other and each living day became a misery – days consumed by the failure to communicate, to understand one another, the lack of care and the desperate search for elusive love. He was impelled by a sexual desire, not love, despite whatever protestations of romance appeared to him, like the discordant sounds one hears in a fairground.
So they played at love like a game, a game where the partners seemed to know intuitively their assigned roles. He was in the paradoxical position of wanting something more than he had ever wanted anything before, yet remaining aloof at the same time; wary, cautious, cognisant of the complications of his liaison, but willing to carry on regardless of the consequences. This is how we continue to populate the earth, he thought.
She approached; her weary Asian eyes always betrayed a hint of nervousness when he saw them (perhaps it was true what they say, Asian people have no soul). The thin arms, the placid gait – as though walking on a cloud or as though moving her body from place to place was a mere formality, an inconvenience. Then he noticed her gentle smile, which made him start involuntarily, for he know that he would do anything for this smile, this wave of happiness she expressed for him, which, in turn filled him with immense satisfaction.
He had done badly in his exams. He knew he was drifting towards the life of a mediocre maths teacher the way his father had been. Destiny seemed to fall into place for him; moderate income, moderate family, moderate career; nothing would be in excess. The grand dreams that filled his mind from time to time crept away disillusioned by the minor failures, the recognition he was not as good as he thought – that his maths was not that good, that his honours degree would not gain a distinction. The threadbare clothes he despised would become his uniform in the real world, where he would not be able to afford anything better. He would come to be despised by students, seen as eccentric and vague – the arrogance of youth, the shield against the disappointments of the world would have vanished – whatever hopes of glory sunk in this sea of mediocrity.
Yet there she was, immortal beautiful like Helen; she appeared before him like an apparition, at once fearful and austere, wonderful, chaste and terrifying. She was a vision of immortality, as she represented neither herself – nor the love and lust she inspired in him – but the voice or a future generation crying out. Schopenhauer said that when men and women look at one another they look for that which will produce what represents the best chance of securing the future of the species. The man prizes beauty and health while the woman searches her prospects for intelligence, vigour and eminence, shunning the peak of male beauty, the teenage boy becoming the man.
Was he what she desired? Had he gained that eminence in his own eyes that she sought in them. He doubted himself and this troubled him. It seemed ever since his first meeting with Wotan, the longing eyes of love had yet to look upon him, though many a time his own longing had burned within.
‘I love you,’ she said after a while.
These words were meaningless, almost risible to him, but when you are sitting in a restaurant gazing into your beloved’s eyes or grasping their waist so you are tethered to them during a storm – and their caress sends shivers of ecstasy through your spine – then it is hard to play the philosopher. We fear losing the pleasure the moment brings us – this moment created by the voice of the next generation crying to be heard, drawing us together so that the moment of conception might occur.
Instead, with a tone more mocking than he intended, he intoned, ‘I love you too,’ echoing her lie.
Perhaps romance is love after a fashion, but why then had Jane Austen never portrayed a happy marriage in all her novels and the only joy being in the arms and heart of those seeking love? Novelists should not be allowed to talk about love. Instead of removing God from the novels, from Fielding onwards, they should have removed love. Only a philosopher or a scientist should discuss something so important. Love is feeding the poor. Love is watching a dying person, staying by their side through the night terrors. Love is working each day to provide for a family who neither thanks nor respects you. If you love me, keep my commandments. Love is keeping the commandments of God.
So when he held Linde, he was aware, like Marcus Aurelius, that a state of flux was the only thing he could take for granted and that, this too would pass; that whilst this was not love, a time for love would come.
He remembered Wagner’s words:
Laugh if weakness wears you down, he whispered as his arms enfolded her stomach, In your womb you carry the world’s most wonderful hero…
‘What was that?’ she asked dreamily, the sunlight casting a golden glow on her forehead like the fire surrounding Brünhilde.
‘Never mind,’ he said, pensively.
Laughing like hyenas, the valkyries ride amidst battle deciding who lives and who will die, the most fortunate of whom are transported on their winged steeds to the immortal halls of Valhalla, the abode of heroes. Perhaps they also choose who comes into this world – only those brave enough to pass through the fires of life.
He took another draught of beer. ‘Anyway Wotan, I’m tired of this conversation. When the joy of life goes all we have is duty.’
‘That’s why you should have some fun young man; you’re still young enough.’
‘I’ve had enough of your fun.’
‘My fun?’ he looked seriously at Mund and his eyes like two burning coals filled Mund with terror, ‘Just remember it was my ‘fun’ that brought you and Linde together, who gave you the great job you now despise, takin’ you from a scruffy undergraduate to become a fine ‘gentleman’ in your fancy clothes and you no dismiss this as fun, thinking you no longer need me. You think things are bad now, when you sit around with everything you could wish for and still complainin’. Things could get a whole lot worse for you, me boy.’
Mund had been listening carefully to the words of Wotan, a stern, concerned look darkening his features. He straightened up and with a shrug of his shoulders replied:
‘I’m going to return to my duty, even if it means no more pleasure this side of the eternal divide. I’ve come to realise, thanks to you and your tricks Wotan that happiness is not possible. Satisfying our desires only leads to less unhappiness. Chasing pleasure can lead to more pain and the only hope is a quite life. Leave Valhalla to someone else. I’m going back to my wife, we will have a kid and we will live miserably but tolerably in the world.’
I was inspired by the heroic passion of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and wanted to inject some of his epic heroism into a modern, mundane existence. We struggle with day to day concerns, beside which the epic battles in fantasy stories seem quite tranquil, but each small task, each burden we face as humans requires a degree of heroism and courage.
I am intrigued by the idea of Mephistopheles being a tempter to Faust and I injected some of that in the story. I cast Wotan as a mischievous, possibly god-like influence in the role of Mephistopheles. What I love about Wagner’s Wotan, the father of the Gods, is that he is a typical capricious, foolish, selfish embodiment of a deity. He continually brings curses upon himself and others by his actions and the misuse of power, which stems from his own frailties and weakness. I also liked the idea of Sigmund and Sieglinde rejecting Wotan’s offer of Valhalla so they could consummate their incestuous love. It was not so much the incestuous love but the bravery of this decision to reject eternal pleasure and glory for the sake of living as a suffering human, in a state of imperfection that I used as the theme of my story. This reminded me of Schopenhauer’s idea that love is such a strong motivating force as it is the voice of the next generation, whose will brings lovers together so inexorably. So I have that element of Mund rejecting Wotan, living in worldly unhappiness instead of a life of pleasure offered by Wotan.
As far as language is concerned I have alternate between a colloquial conversational style and formal language choices in my description. I have also attempted the use of an accent in one of the main characters to experiment with dialogue and to portray Wotan as an object of merriment as well as devilry – something like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.