Dream Gates

Dream Gates

Causing a bear: a belated response to Tolkien

posted by Robert Moss

- Hrólfr_Kraki's_last_stand

I once dreamed I met C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien in the New York Public Library. Tolkien told me, “You must study Scandinavian mythology.” Years later, when I was writing my Dreamer’s Book of the Dead, Lewis appeared in a kind of visitation. I asked him, “Where’s Tolkien.” Lewis said, “Tolkien won’t talk to you because you did not do what he told you to do.” I am no deep student of Scandinavian mythology, but here is my version of a wildly shamanic story from the Icelandic sagas. For my personal experience of “causing a bear”, please see my Dreamways of the Iroquois.


His name is Bödvar Bjarki, which means “Warlike Little-Bear”. He has a typical Scandinavian genealogy: his father Bjorn was a were-bear (as a result of a witch’s curse); his mother’s name, Bera, means “She-Bear”. He casts a long shadow through the sagas of the North. He is the perfect warrior, stronger and fiercer than the berserkers (“bear-shirts”) who are the champions and bodyguards of kings but must yield pride of place to Bodvar at the royal tables when he makes his entrance, often by knocking the door or wall down.

While berserkers whip themselves into the fighting frenzy of an angry bear, Bodvar causes a bear. While his father was condemned by sorcery to turn into a bear of uncontrollable appetites in in the daytime, Bodvar is free from the curse of the were-bear; he chooses when to project a second body, in the shape of a warrior bear.

This recalls the practice of Northern sorcerers who project fylgjur, “fetches” or shadow selves. The fylgjur are sometimes phantom figures, used to spy on adversaries or confuse their minds, but Bodvar’s bear is entirely physical to those who meet it, and invincible among men in battle.

Bodvar is the hero of the last chapters of the Icelandic Saga of Hrólf Kraki. He is now the champion of King Hrolf of Denmark. who is leading a tiny force into battle against a vastly larger army that has invaded his lands. As the battle rages, a great bear advances in front of Hrolf’s men. Always standing next to the king, the bear kills more of the enemy with a single sweep of its paw than five of the king’s best warriors can despatch with swords and axes. The bear seems impervious to blows and missiles. It crushes men and horses with its weight, and rips enemies apart with its teeth.

Against the odds, things are going well for King Hrolf until Hjalti – a boon companion of Bodvar – notices that his friend is missing from the field. He protests to the king that Bodvar should not be looking to his own safety in the midst of the fray. King Hrolf counsels that “Bodvar will be where he serves us best.”

Not grasping what this means, Hjalti runs back to the king’s chamber, where he finds Bodvar apparently “sitting idle”, or perhaps asleep. [1] Bodvar is in a state of shamanic trance. Not understanding, Hjalti seeks to rouse him, protesting that it is a disgrace that he is not fighting. “You should be using the strength of your arms, which are as strong as a bear’s.” In his outrage, Hjalti threatens to burn down the house, and Bodvar in it, unless his friend goes into battle.

With a deep sigh, Bodvar rises from his place and complies. After affirming that he is a stranger to fear, and fully aware of his obligations to the king, Bodvar cautions his friend that”By disturbing me here, you have not been as helpful to the king as you intended. The outcome of the battle was almost decided. You have acted out of ignorance…Now events will run their course, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. I can now offer the king far less help than before you woke me.[2]

When Bodvar goes into battle, the giant bear disappears. Now King Hrolf’s army is exposed to psychic as well as physical attack. When the bear was present, the dark arts of the invader’s witchy wife Skuld were useless. Now she is able to project her own monstrous animal, a hideous boar that shoots arrows from its bristles. Bodvar Bjarki fights furiously, mowing down enemy warriors like grass. Yet their numbers do not diminish, and he begins to suspect thad ghost warriors are fighting among the living. The champions fall, and after them King Hrolf. Because the bear shaman was torn from his trance when the bear was most needed.


I wonder whether Tolkien will talk to me now. And whether he was as disappointed with the movie version of The Hobbit as I was.


[1] In a paraphrase of the famous (but otherwise lost) poem Bjarkamal appended by Saxo Grammaticus to his Gesta Danorum Bodvar Bjarki (here called “Biarco”) is in a deep “sleep” from which Hjalti has great difficulty in rousing him.
[2] Quotations are loosely based on Jesse L. Byock’s translation of The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998).
Graphic: Bodvar’s fetch on the field of battle in the shape of a bear, in “Hrolf Kraki’s Last Stand” by Louis M. Moe (d.1945).

  • Melissa

    This is a great story….thanks for sharing.. perhaps my dream of a bear locked in a shed means that my time has not yet come!!!

  • Nina

    This is a great illustration of the often used phrase that mind is over matter, at least in the case of a shamanic mind.
    There is another example, not from the ancient history, but it´s a relatively recent story from the war in Vietnam. It talks about two hostile sides, Vietnamese soldiers on the one side of the river and American army on the other side, fiercely firing against each other. There is a bridge built across the river, where enemies fight. Unexpectedly a small group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in their typical saffron robes appears on the scene. Despite obviously life-threatening situation they enter the bridge and in a very slow and calm way walk over it, between two raging enemy camps. Soldiers on both sides stop shooting and it is said that on that day nobody continued fighting any more. It´s an extraordinary event but it shows a tremendous positive power of the peaceful enlightened mind and its transformative influence even in extreme life situations. And of course, those monks were real monks :-).
    Thank you a lot for sharing archaic wisdom of Northmen.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Melissa – If this were my dream, I would try to imagine what might happen if I let the bear out of the shed :-)

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Nina – Thank you for this fine account of “peace magic” in Vietnam. Alas, in the fierce Nortrhern sagas it’s usually war magic that is in play.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment T. Newson

    I was disappointed with the movie version of the Hobbit, too. Too Hollywood-video-game-commercial for me. However, I love the Icelandic Sagas. It’s been a few years since I read them, thanks for writing this synopsis!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shanon

    thank you Robert When I was In Mariposa, Ba doing massage and Reike with thomas Ahern Yiu were in my Awareness then, I so love story telling, grew up around a kitchen table at my Grams, she was Lakota. Thank you for the bear story, I imagine they will talk to you now. peace to you. Blessings, Mitakuye Oyasin

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