The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

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CHAPTER I

FRITH

The historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had one great advantage; they felt themselves as citizens of the world. They were never strangers to their subject matter, and knew nothing of that shyness which the stranger always feels. They felt themselves at home throughout the inhabited world, at any rate, so long as they remained in their own country, or the lands immediately adjacent, in a bodily sense, and made all further journeyings in the spirit alone. They did not sit fumbling over their material, but went straight to the persons concerned, whether men of the immediate past or those of earliest ages; whether Romans or Greeks, French, English, Hindus, Chinese or Indians. The historian stepped forward without formality and took his hero cordially by the hand, spoke to him as friend to friend, or let us say, as one man of the world to another. There was never any fear, in those days, that differences of language, or of circumstances in a different age, might place obstacles in the way of a proper understanding. Men were inspired with faith in a common humanity, and by the certainty that if once the human element could be grasped, all the rest would work out of itself. All mankind were agreed as to what God was, what good and evil were; all were agreed in patriotism and citizenship, in love of parents and of children – in a word, agreed in all realities.

If ever this straightforward simplicity, that sought its rallying point in things of common human interest, were justified in any case, it would be in regard to the Germanic peoples.

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We find here a community based upon general unity, mutual self-sacrifice and self-denial, and the social spirit. A society, in which every individual, from birth to death, was bound by consideration for his neighbour. The individuals in this community show in all their doings that they are inspired by one passion: the welfare and honour of their kin; and none of the temptations of the world can move them even for a moment to glance aside. They say themselves, that this passion is love. What more natural then, than that we, who from our own lives know love and its power, should begin with what we have in common with these people we are considering? Given this agreement on the essential point, all that appears strange must surely become simple and comprehensible.

Bergthora, wife of Njal, was a true woman of the old school, strict on the point of honour, inflexible, unforgiving. The key to her character, we might say, is given in the famous words: "Young was I given to Njal, and this I have promised him, that one fate shall come upon us both". There is something of common humanity in the words, something we can appreciate at its true value. On the male side, we have an even more old-fashioned figure to set up as a model : Egil Skallagrimson, the most typical representative in viking times of love of kin. See him, as he rides with the body of his drowned son before him on the saddle, carrying it himself to its last resting place, his breast heaving with sobs until his tunic bursts. It is all so direct in its appeal, so obvious and natural, that one feels involuntarily as if one could read Egil's whole soul in this one episode. Life standards and customs of society, morals and self-judgement derived from such elementary emotion can surely not be hard to understand?

We can easily put it to the test.

In the history of the Faroe Islands, we find two women, Thurid and Thora, wife and daughter of Sigmund Brestison, occupying a prominent place. Both are strong, resolute characters, like Bergthora, and both are guided in all their actions by love of Sigmund and his race. Sigmund was an ideal chieftain of the Christian viking period: strict on the point of honour,

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never relinquishing a shred of his right, and always able to gain his cause, frank, brave and skilful – altogether a man to admire and remember. After a life of ceaseless fighting for the supreme power in the Faroes, he is murdered, having barely escaped from a night surprise. Time passes, and one day, Thrond of Gata makes his appearance in Thurid's house, asking Thora in marriage for his fosterson Leif. Thrond was a man of different stamp, one of those who are ready enough to strike, when first they have their victim safely enmeshed by intrigue: one of those who can plot and plan with all the craft of evil, and always find others to bear the danger and disgrace of carrying out their schemes; a Christian by compulsion, and an apostate, not only practising the rites of the old faith in his daily life, but even dabbling in black magic. Thrond had been Sigmund's bitterest opponent; it was he who had arranged the killing of Sigmund's father, and the surprise attack which ended in Sigmund's death was led by him. Yet Thora holds out to her suitor the prospect that she will accept his offer, if he and his fosterfather give her an opportunity of avenging her father. And she keeps her promise; she marries Leif, and has her reward in seeing three men killed in honour of her father.

Once more these two women appear in the history of the Faroe nobles. It happens that a son of Sigmund's cousin has been slain while staying in the house of Sigurd Thorlakson, a kinsman of Thrond's. Sigurd had at once struck down the slayer, and these three being the only ones present at the fateful moment, some shadow of suspicion attaches to the host. The mere possibility that one of Sigmund's kinsmen lies slain and unavenged is enough to keep Thurid and Thora in a state of unrest day and night. Poor Leif, who will not or cannot take any steps in the matter, hears nothing but scornful words about the house. When then Sigurd Thorlakson, in his blindness, asks on behalf of his brother for Thurid's hand, her daughter wisely counsels her as follows: "If I should advise, this must not be refused; for if you are minded to vengeance, there could be no surer bait". And she adds: "No need for me to set

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words in my mother's mouth". The plan proceeds. Sigurd is invited to have speech with Thurid. She meets him outside the homestead and leads him to a seat on a tree trunk. He makes as if to sit facing the house, but she seats herself resolutely the other way, with her back to the house, and her face towards the chapel. Sigurd asks if Leif is at home – no, he is not; if Thurid's sons are at home – yes, they are at home; and in a little while, both they and Leif appear, and Sigurd goes off mortally wounded.

These two were Thurid, ''the great widow", and Thora, ''whom all held to be the noblest of women". Their greatness lay not so much in the fact of their loving truly and faithfully, as in their understanding of what that love demanded, and their fulfilling its demands in spite of all. The question asked of us here is, not what we think of these two, but if we are able to accept the appreciative judgement of their love as it stands, without reserve.

On a closer scrutiny of Egil's love and sorrow we find, too, some characteristic features that are likely to trouble our serene faith in a common humanity. It is related, that having made provision for his son in the hereafter, by setting him in a burial mound that might content him, the old champion himself was minded to die; but his quick-witted daughter, Thorgerd, artfully brought back his interest in life by reminding him that nobody else would be able to honour the youth with a laudatory poem, and thus enticing him to make a lay of his loss.

And fortunately for us, this poem in which Egil laid down the burden of his sorrow, has been preserved.

There is a depth of meaning in the fact that the most beautiful poem remaining to us from ancient times is a poem of kinship and love of kin, and that it should be Egil himself, the oldest-fashioned of all the saga heroes, who made it. Unfortunately, our understanding and enjoyment of this confession are hampered in a very high degree by the difficulties of its form. Egil was not only a man of considerable character; he was also what we should call a poet, whose soul found direct expression in verse. The kennings, or metaphors, which were

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part and parcel of the ancient poetry, fell from Egil's lips as images revealing the individual moods and passions of the poet. But so strange to our ears are the poetical figures of the ancient scalds, that it needs a great deal of work on our part before we can approach him from such a position that his picture-phrases appear with life and significance. Given the patience, however, to acquire familiarity with the artificial metaphors of the scald, enough to realise what it is that forces itself through the poet's mind in this cumbersome form, we can feel the sorrow of this bereaved father dropping heavily, sullenly from verse to verse.

He complains that sorrow binds his tongue. "Little chance is here to reach forth Odin's stolen goods; heavy they are to drag from their hiding of sorrow – thus it is for one who mourns". Egil applies the parallel of Odin, who with great pains brought the poet's cup – the mead of inspiration – from the giant's cave, to himself in his struggle to force a way to expression through the walls of his own sorrow.

"The sea roars down there before the door where my kinsman's Hel-ship is laid.

"My race bends to its fall, as the storm-lashed trees of the forested(?) ....

"Cruel was the hole the waves tore in my father's kin-fence; unfilled, I know, and open stands the son-breach torn in me by the sea.

"Much hath Ran (the queen of the sea) stolen from me. I stand poor in love-friends. The sea hath sundered the bonds of my race; torn a close-twisted string out of myself.

"I say to you; could I pursue my cause with the sword, there should be an end of the ale-maker (Ægir, the king of the sea). If I could .... I would give battle to that loose wench of Ægir's (the wave). But I felt that I had no power to take action against my son's bane. All the world sees emptiness behind the old man where he strides along.

"Much the sea hath stolen from me – bitter it is to count up the fall of kinsmen – since he that stood, a shield among the race, turned aside from life on the soul-ways (?).

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"I know it myself, in my son grew no ill promise of a man....

"Ever he maintained that which his father had said, ay, though all the people thought otherwise. He held me upright in the home, and mightily increased my strength. My brotherless plight is often in my mind. When the battle grows, I take thought, peer about and think what other man stands by my side with courage for a daring deed, such as I need often enough....

"I am grown cautious of flight now that friends are fewer".

These are words that of their great simplicity can be repeated in all times – or at least as long as life is still a struggle; and it would be hard to find higher praise for such a poem.

The following verses consist – as far as we are yet able to understand them – of variations on these fundamental thoughts: No one can be relied on, for men nowadays lower themselves and are glad to accept payment instead of revenge for the blood of brothers. He who has lost a son must beget another – none else can replace the lost scion. My head is drooping, since he, the second of my sons, fell beneath the brand of sickness; he whose fame was unsmirched. I trusted in the god, but he was false to his friendship to me, and I have little heart now to worship him. – In spite of his bitterness, however, he cannot but remember that he has himself the art of the poet, and a mind able to reveal the plans of enemies, and he cannot forget that this mastery of words, the comfort of many ills, is a gift from the god who has betrayed him.

Darkly he looks towards the future: I am strongly beset, death stands on the cape, but blithely, unruffled by fear I will wait for Hel.

The first part of the poem is properly independent of time; the reader has no need to look into a distant age and a distant culture in order to understand it. It is the form, and that only, which binds it to Egil and scaldic poetry, and the exegesis of the learned. Even Egil's passionate outburst against the high powers that have usurped the mastery of the world hardly appears to us as strange. On the contrary, we might perhaps approve the words as thoroughly human, and even award them honourable mention as being ''modern'' in spirit.

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Our weakness for all that savours of titanic defiance however, must not blind us to the peculiar form of expression in which it is voiced by Egil. His verses do not express instinctive defiance of fate, but an earnest longing for vengeance and restitution; he is lamenting that he is unable to pursue his cause, or in other words, uphold his right. Is it really to be understood that Egil only relinquishes plans of revenge because he stands alone in the world, without followers or kin? If one lacks in oneself the courage to take arms against a god, can it mend matters greatly to march up with a few staunch friends and kinsmen at one's back? So we may, or must, ask and in the asking of this question our sympathy gives place to a vague poetic feeling that is equivalent to giving up all attempt at understanding.

Sorrow can always drive a man to such extremes of his being that his words run into apparent contradictions, but the inconsistency of passion never sets meaning at defiance; it has its explanation in the fact that the opposites have their point of intersection somewhere in the soul. At times the feelings are exalted to such a degree that they appear irreconcilable, but the sympathetic listener feels he has no right of criticism until he has followed the lines to their meeting-point. In Egil, the cohesion between the apparent contradictions is no doubt very firm. There is an inner contact between defiance of the gods and the outburst of helplessness at sight of one's solitary plight; but we can ponder and speculate as much as we please, a true understanding of Egil's thought here – that he would feel himself master of death if he had a strong circle of kinsmen about him – is not to be won by mere study of these lines; we cannot get at it unless Egil himself and the men of his time give us the real solution. Egil appears to regard life in the light of a process at law, where the man with a strong circle of kinsmen wins his case, because he is backed by a crowd of men ready to swear on his side, and whose oaths carry weight enough to crush his opponent. Let us imagine that this idea of his is not merely a piece of poetic imagery, but that life itself, with all its tasks, appeared as a lawsuit, where a man with many

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