valhalla-risingAside from Wikipedia, aside from that one Neil Gaiman book American Gods, and aside from the show Vikings on the History channel, I know close to nothing about Odin. The other day, however, as we were watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie Valhalla Rising, it occurred to my wife that perhaps the one-eyed protagonist of the movie serves to reify Odin in the eyes of the young boy who accompanies him to a strange new continent. I elaborated on her reading, thinking that maybe the boy somehow manages to get home (not likely), and maybe he recounts the story of how Odin sacrificed himself in that alien place–a place the boy decides is Valhalla, due to the presence of so many powerful warriors.

Ultimately, my reading of the film doesn’t matter, but it has helped me to think through my own conception of Valhalla. I probably shouldn’t be appropriating Nordic religious motifs in the service of some crazy idea I have. But it’s too late! So, in reverence to an ancient metaphysical system I know very little about, I give the following disclaimer: my personal ideas of Valhalla in no way correspond to the Valhalla as represented in Norse mythology. I am not speaking of a “hall of the slain” in Asgard. I’m speaking of a different kind of place.

On Arcade Fire’s album Neon Bible, there’s a song called “No Cars Go.” It’s a very special song for me. Here are some of the lyrics:

We know a place where no planes go
We know a place where no ships go
No cars go

We know a place no space ships go
We know a place where no subs go
No cars go

Between the click of the light and the start of the dream…

I have no special insight into what Win Butler and Regine Chassagne meant when they were writing the song. For me, however, there’s no difference between the place where no cars go and Valhalla. Neither place exists in time or space. Nonetheless, I believe I’ve seen it.

I graduated from high school at the turn of the millennium (literally–I belonged to the class of ’00). During my tenure at Whitehouse High School in Texas, I made many friends. Several of these were close friends. Friends with whom I shared the inner workings of my heart. Four of us decided to go to college together. At our undergrad institution, a few of us decided to make some pretty ambitious plans for our future–plans we worked toward for almost seven years. I think it would be appropriate to call what we envisioned a collective dream. Alas, I had to withdraw from this dream. It absolutely broke my heart. Sometimes I still feel pangs from the emotional trauma of that moment. What I didn’t realize at the time was that all along we had something far more precious than any dream manifested in time and space. What we’d built in high school was a bedrock of friendship. This friendship remains something sacred to me, and I think the most important component of that friendship is a commitment to give each other the benefit of the doubt; to always act upon the most generous assumption. It helped, of course, that we always had a good time hanging out together. But ever since 2008, I’ve only seen any of those friends a handful of times. My closest friends from high school literally scattered themselves across the globe, from Switzerland to Peru. And yet, on the lucky occasion that I actually get to see any of them, it’s like nothing’s changed. In other words, this kind of friendship is capable of transcending time and space. It is precisely the place where no cars go. It’s like Valhalla, where there is always a seat in the great hall for warriors of renown.

Valhalla, however, can’t be reduced to friendship. A friendship can exist where one or both participants are not willing to grant the benefit of the doubt (henceforth, I’ll be referring to the benefit of the doubt using the ridiculous acronym BoD). These kinds of relationships, absent BoD, are contingent. They rely on both parties’ commitment to a set of norms dictated by their culture, their religion, their workplace, etc. As soon as (heaven forbid) one of the members of such a friendship violates these norms by virtue of being, well, a Human Being, the friendship is over, and most likely one or both will harbor bitterness over the ruin of their relationship. Granted, there are always limits to any relationship. Abuse, whether physical abuse, verbal abuse, or even the excessive abuse of substances is always a clear indicator that a relationship needs to end, regardless of how much BoD is involved.

But a relationship which values, above all else, some radical BoD is WAY more likely to withstand the protean norms we ascribe to. I believe these kinds of relationships instantiate Valhalla. Valhalla is the place you can go to laud your own victories. It’s also the place where you can go when things get messy. Speaking to friends who know you deeply and give you the BoD (thanks, acronym, for turning this sentence into something lewd) is nothing like a courtroom. You aren’t on trial in this place. It’s like having a confession booth, but instead of unburdening your soul to someone anonymized behind a screen, or speaking to someone like a therapist who is paid to listen, you are speaking to someone who, of their own volition, commiserates with you and lets you know that, given the exact same circumstances, they probably wouldn’t have handled it any differently.

That isn’t to say that hard truths can’t be spoken in Valhalla. But rather than assuming the posture of an enlightened being who is leveling a finger of shame, truth-telling in Valhalla is like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where one Human Being shows another, without any strings attached, where they find peace. BoD starts and ends with the assumption that the same forces that brought you into being are responsible for my own existence. Valhalla is a place of deep interconnectedness, the kind of connectedness that engenders mutual respect, and ultimately, love.

the wild hunt

As I said before, I’ve seen Valhalla. I’ve seen it ride through the clouds like the Wild Hunt over friendships I’ve had in Whitehouse, in Searcy, in Nacogdoches, and even now in College Station. I’m not by any stretch some kind of wise guru holding court on a mountaintop. I suspect that much of my willingness to grant BoD stems from some deep and complicated codependency issues. But like the young boy who witnessed Odin sacrifice himself among warriors of renown, I’m returning home to attest to the wonders I’ve seen. I’ve seen Valhalla rising. It is beautiful.