Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod

The Sons of the North Wind

Down thro' the Northlands
Come the White Brothers,
One clad in foam
And one mailed in water---
Foam white as bear-felt,
Water like coat of mail.
Snow is the Song of Me,
Singeth the one;
Silence the Breath of Me,
Whispers the other.

So sings a Swedish poet, a lineal descendant of one of the Saga-men whose songs the Vikings carried to the ends of the world of that day. The song is called "The Sons of the North Wind," and the allusion is to an old ballad-saga common in one form or another throughout all the countries of both the Gall and the Gael . . . from Finland to the last of the island-kingdoms between Ultima Thule and the Gaelic West. The White Brothers are familiar indeed, though with us they come oftener clothed with beauty than with terror, with strange and beautiful new life rather than with the solemnity and dread aspect of death.
Among the Gaelic hills we have a prose variant of "The Sons of the North Wind," which I suppose is still told to children by the fireglow on winter evenings, as, when a child, the present writer was told it and retold it by the fireglow on many a winter evening when the crackling fall of icicles from fir-sprays near the window could be heard, or the sudden shuffle of snow in the declivities of the steep glen hard-by. The story is generally told as a tale, but sometimes the teller chants it as a duan or poem. For it is more a poem than a prose narrative on the lips of Gaelic speakers.
The North Wind had three sons. These Sons of the North Wind were called White-Feet and White-Wings and White-Hands. When White-Feet and White-Wings and White-Hands first came into our world from the invisible palaces, they were so beautiful that many mortals died from beholding them, while others dared not look, but fled affrighted into woods or obscure places. So when these three sons of the Great Chieftain saw that they were too radiant for the eyes of the earth-bound, they receded beyond the gates of the sunset and took counsel with the Allfather. When, through the gates of dawn, they came again they were no longer visible to men, nor, in all the long grey reaches of the years, has any since been seen of mortal eyes. How are they known, these Sons of the North Wind? They were known of old, they are known still, only by the white feet of one treading the waves of the sea; and by the white rustle and sheen of a myriad tiny plumes as the other unfolds great pinions above hills and valleys, woodlands and garths, and the homes of men; and by the white silence of dream that the third lays upon moving waters, and the windless boughs of trees, upon the reed by the silent loch, upon the grass by the silent tarn, upon the bracken by the unfailing hill-stream hanging like a scarf among the rock and mountain-ash. We know them no more by their ancient names or in their immortal body, but only thus by the radiance of their passing, and we call them the Polar Wind, and Snow, and Ice.
It is at this season, in all northern lands, that the miracle of the snow-change, the new beauty of the snow-world, is transcendent. Truly, it is miraculous, that change: that new world, what a revelation it is, showing us the familiar as we have never known it or have of it but a dream-like remembrance, showing it to us at times as we can hardly conceive it. To the continual element of surprise much has to be attributed, in our country at least. In lands like Scandinavia and Russia the periodicity and uniformity of the snow-raiment of earth take much from this element of surprise. Hardly have the inhabitants grown used to the greenness of grass and sprouting grain and fluttering leaf, after the long months of a silent whiteness become dreadful as a shroud, when a grey pall is spun out of the east once more and out of the north comes the wind of death, and the leaf is gone away on the polar air, the grain is gathered or withered, the sere grass fades like wintry grey-green seas fading into continual foam.
Not so with us, who have those visitors, who can be so dread even here, for so short a time. The dark sword-thrust of the ice, compelling moving waters to silence and the blue rigour of steel, may reign for weeks in the Anglian fen-lands. Dense mantles of snow may cover the hills of the north for months, and the foreheads of Nevis and Schichallion be white from the autumnal equinox till cuckoo-cry: for weeks the hillfox and the mountain-hare may not drink at the frozen tarns, the moor-pastures may be lost to deer and sheep, and only the ptarmigan survive in the waste white places: for a week or two the boughs of the oak and chestnut, the plumes of the spruce and hemlock, them tresses of the larch and birch, may bend with the unmelting snowfall. But, at the worst, it is never long before a wind out of the south, or from the wet mouth of the west, breathes upon the fens, and the silence is become a faint stir, a whisper, a rustle; till the moveless steel is become a film, to be gathered some noon, like May-dew from the thickets, the autumn-frost from the wbin and gorse. It is never long till the meh-ing of the sheep is again a sweet lamentation upon the hillpastures, or till the fox dusts the last snow from his root-roof in the wintry glen, or till the jay screams in the woodlands as from firplume and oak-bough slip or fall with heavy thump their unloosened burthens. True, the Sons of the North Wind, as in the Highland West and North we know so well and often to such bitter cost, may come to us with suddenness of tempest, raging in their mysterious wrath, and may long endure, trampling upon life, as, in the old legend, the gigantic phantom-men of the Northern Lights trample the souls of the dead condemned to Ifurin, theGaelic hell. Every year there is sorrow upon some strath, grief in the glens, lamentation by hillside and moor. From the Ord of Sutherland to Land's End there may be a tale of disaster. Snow-drift, snow-storm, snow-fog may paralyse communications and bring deep anxiety or irremediable grief to an incalculable number. Yet, we must admit that even our severest winter is but a fierce reminder of times long past for us, the times of the mail-coach, the rude cart, the motintain-pony, that the worst we ever have is tolerable beside the bleak wretchedness of Pomerania, the frightful cold of Esthonia, the death-in-life of Muscovy---to say nothing of lands still more wild and remote.
One cannot say, here is snow at its loveliest, here is ice in a unique beauty. Frozen lochs by moonlight, frozen fens under the pale azure of cloudless noons, dark winding rivers, lifeless seemingly in the grip of frost, traversed by starshine under overhanging boughs, lagoons where the dark-blue or steel-blue ice mirrors the drifting cloud or the flying skater, village-ponds, canals, the water-ways of towns and cities. in all, in each, the radiant miracle is evident. Like moonshine, this beauty of ice or snow may be omnipresent. if it inhabits the wilderness, it is fulfilled also in the streets of cities. Who has not looked out on the sordid thoroughfares of a town, and seen the poor ignoble disarray of chimney-tops and slated roofs and crude angles and ornamentations take on a new and entrancing aspect, so that even the untidy shops and tawdry dwellings assume a crown of loveliness, and the long, dull, perspectives of monotonous roads might be the trampled avenues about the gates oi fairyland? The most sordid hamlet in the dreariest manufacturing-region may, suddenly, awake to a dawn so wonderful in what it reveals that the villagers might well believe, as in the old folktale, that Christ had passed that way in the night and left the world white and husht, stainlessly pure.
But, of course, we have each of us our preferences. Some love best to see the long swelling reaches of ploughed lands covered with new fallen snow not too heavy to hide the wave-like procession of the hidden furrows. Some love best to look on wide interminable wolds, a solitude of unbroken whiteness, without even the shadow of a cloud or the half-light of a grey sky: some, upon familiar pastures now changed as though in the night the fields had receded into the earth, and the fields of another world had silently sunk into their place: some, upon mountain-slopes, on whose vast walls the shadows of wheeling hawks and curlews pass like pale blue scimetars: some, on woodlands, where from the topmost elm-bough to the lowest fir-plume or outspread bough of cedar the immaculate soft burthens miraculously suspend. For myself-after the supreme loveliness of snowy mountain-ranges at dawn or sunset or moonglow-I am most entranced by snow in a pine-forest. The more so if, as in one my mind recreates for me as I write, there are glades where I can come to a rock whence an overleaning white bill may be seen as though falling out of heaven, with white mountains beyond, white shoulders lapsing on white shoulders, white peaks rising beyond white peaks, white crests fading into further snowy crests, and, nearer, it may be, glens sinking into glens, no longer a sombre green, but as though stilled avalanches awaiting a magician's unloosening spell.

Once, just there, in just such a place, I saw a wonderful sight. The January frosts had gone, and February had come in with the soft sighing of a wind out of the south. The snows faded like morning-mists. But after three days the north wind came again in the night. At dawn it veered, and a light snow fell once more, then thick and moist and flaky, and by noon had changed to rain, But an hour or so later the polar breath once more came over the brows of the hill, and with midwinter intensity. The rain was frozen on every bough, on every branch, on every spray, on every twig, on every leaf, on every frond of bracken, on every spire of reed, on every blade of grass. The world had become cased in shining ice, crystalline, exquisite in radiant beauty, ineffable, as in a trance, the ecstacy of the Unknown Dreamer. At sundown the vast orb of blood-red flame sank over the glens and burned among the aisles of the forest. Looking at the ice-mailed wilderness of bole and bough and branch between me and the sun I saw a forest of living fire, wherein, as a wind stirred and threw sudden shadows, phantoms of flame moved to and fro, or stood, terrible children of light, as though entranced, as though listening, as though looking on Life or on Death. When at last the flame was all gathered up out of the west, and an aura of faint rose hung under the first glittering stars, an extraordinary ocean of yellow spread from the horizons serrated with immense mauve peninsulas and long narrow grass-green lagoons. But the mass of the western firmament was yellow, from the orange-yellow of lichen and the orange-red of the dandelion to the faint vanishing yellows of cowslip and primrose. How lovely then were the trees which had been set on fire by the unconsuming flames of the sunset: what a fairyland, now, of delicate amber and translucent topaz. What mysterious colonnades, what avenues of lovely light! And then, later, to turn, and see the chill-grey blue ice-bound trees behind one filling slowly with moonshine, as the immensity of ocean fills, wave after wave, at moonrise, when a cloud is slowly uplifted by mysterious withdrawing airs! Then, truly, was Dreamland no longer a phantasy of sleep, but a loveliness so great that, like deep music, there could be no words herewith to measure it, but only the breathless unspoken speech of the soul upon whom has fallen the secret dews.

CONTENTS