The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


and powerful kinsmen could further his aims and fortunes, materially and spiritually, gaining power over his surroundings, not only by battle, but by oath, in virtue of that power of race which he and his possessed. Let us further imagine, that this faith in the power of kinship and kinsmen's help is great enough to reach out beyond life, and embrace death itself within its scope, believing itself capable of summoning and outswearing the gods, ay, shaking heaven and earth. Egil's words have then a new significance; they lose nothing of their weight, but they become anything but "modern". The titanic defiance disappears – or almost disappears – and in its place we have the despairing cry of a suffering human soul. The paradox then, lies not where we at first discerned it, but in quite another direction.

And reading now from these words backward and forward, the other verses, that at first flowed so glibly from our tongue, will have gained a strange power and violence – both where he speaks of a string torn out of him, a breach, and also where he calls to mind his son's help, and reveals his own discouragement when he looks about him in the fight for one to aid him. It would be strange if we did not now feel, in place of the confident enjoyment of the words, a sense of uncertainty, that makes us hesitate at every line. The words have become vague, because we have lost our own ground and failed to get a new foothold. Torn out! Our fancy flutters doubtfully away from the metaphorical meaning, which at first appeared the only one the words could have, and hovers about the idea of an actual bleeding to death – but without finding anything to hold by.

And our uncertainty cannot but increase when we discover that Egil's image of the family as a fence, built up of stake by stake, of death as a breach in the family and those left – that these images are common, everyday illustrations, one is tempted to say, part of the technical stock-in-trade. We cannot give ourselves up to the mighty feeling of the poem until we have grasped exactly what it is this breach, this wound, consists of; what precise meaning lies in the word "help". We begin to perceive that we must learn the meaning of every word anew.


Here our trust in primeval, common feeling as a means of communication between men of different cultures breaks down for good. We cannot force our way into understanding through mere sympathy or intuition; there is no other way but to turn round, and proceed from externals inward to the generally human.

Briefly: we must begin with the kin, the race or family; a gathering of individuals so joined up into one unit that they appear incapable of independent action. As to the feeling which so unites them, this we must leave till later; the point here is, that the individual cannot act without all acting with and through him; no single individual can suffer without affecting the whole circle. So absolute is the connection that the individual simply cannot exist by himself; a slight loosening of the bond, and he slips down, the most helpless of all creatures.

We cannot gain speech of the individual human being. Here lies the difference between Hellenic and Germanic culture. The Hellene is nearer to us, for we can go straight to him, speak to him as man to man about the life of man, let him introduce us into the strange world – as it seems to us – in which he lives, let him show us the aims that determine his daily thought and actions; and from his utterance and expression form an idea as to how he reacts in face of what he meets. The barbarian does not move. He stands stiffly, uninvitingly. If he speaks, his words convey no meaning to us. He has killed a man. "Why did you kill that man", we ask. "I killed him in revenge". – "How had he offended you?" – "His father had spoken ill words to my father's brother, therefore I craved honour as due from him to us". – "Why did you not take the life of the offender himself?" – "This was a better man". – The more we ask and pry, the more incomprehensible he becomes. He appears to us as a machine, driven by principles.

The Hellene exists as an individual, a separate person within a community. The Germanic individual exists only as the representative, nay, as the personification of a whole. One might imagine that a supreme convulsion of the soul must tear the individual out from that whole, and let him feel him-


self, speak as for himself. But actually, it is the opposite that takes place; the more the soul is moved, the more the individual personality is lost in the kin. At the very moment when man most passionately and unreservedly gives way to his own feelings, the clan takes possession of the individual fully and completely. Egil's lament is not the lament of a father for his son; it is the kin, that utters its lament through the person of the father. From this breadth of passion springs the overpowering pathos of the poem.

If we want a real understanding of such men as Egil, we are driven to ask: what is the hidden force that makes kinsmen inseparable? First we learn that they call each other "friend" (frændi in Icelandic, freond in Anglo-Saxon), and a linguistic analysis of this word will teach us, that it means those who love (each other); but this brings us no farther, for etymology tells us nothing of what it is to love. We can perhaps get a little nearer by noting the etymological connection between the word "friend" and two others that play a great part in the social life of those days: "free" and "frith". In "frith", peace, we have the old kinsmen's own definition of the fundamental idea in their inter-relationship. By frith they mean something in themselves, a power that makes them "friends" one towards another, and "free men" towards the rest of the world. Even here, of course, we cannot take the meaning of the word directly for granted, for the centuries have not passed unscathing over that little word. Words such as horse and cart and house and kettle may remain more or less unaltered throughout all vicissitudes of culture, but terms used to designate spiritual values necessarily undergo a radical change in the course of such spiritual transformations as have taken place in the souls of men in the North during the past thousand years. And the nearer such a word lies, in its origin, to the central part of the soul, the more sweeping changes it will undergo.

If ever word bore the mark of the transforming influence of Christianity and humanism, it is this word "frith". If we look closely into the older significance of the word, we shall


find something sterner; a firmness that has now given place to weakness. The frith of earlier days was less passive than now, with less of submissiveness and more of will. It held also an element of passion which has now been submerged in quietism.

But the word tells us indisputably that the love which knit these kinsmen together is not to be taken in a modern, sentimental sense; the dominant note of kinsmanship is safety, security.

Frith is the state of things which exists between friends. And it means, first and foremost, reciprocal inviolability. However individual wills may clash in a conflict of kin against kin, however stubbornly individual heads may seek their own way according to their quota of wisdom, there can never be question of conflict save in the sense of thoughts and feelings working their way toward an equipoise in unity. We need have no doubt but that good kinsmen could disagree with fervour, but however the matter might stand, there could – should, must inevitably – be but one ending to it all; a settlement peaceable and making for peace – frith.

A quarrel had no lethal point. Two kinsmen could not lift a hand one against the other.

The moment a man scented kinship, he lowered his arms.

The ending of Bjorn the Hitdale Warrior's saga has a touch of something heroic-comic about it, from this very fact. Bjorn fell, after a brave fight, by the hand of Thord Kolbeinson and his companions. The grounds of enmity between the two were numerous and various, but we may safely say that Bjorn had done all in his power to interfere with Thord's domestic bliss.

Among the opponents, Thord's young son, Kolli, takes a prominent part. Then says Bjorn – at the moment when he was beaten to his knee and at bay –: "You strike hard to-day, Kolli". "I do not know whom I should spare here", answers the youth. "True enough: for your mother has surely urged you not to spare me; but it seems to me that you are not wisest in the matter of knowing your kin". And Kolli answers: "It is late in the day you tell me of it, if we two are not free to fight". And with these words he withdraws from all further participation in the battle.


Even in the Icelandic sagas from the period of dissolution we find very few instances of men entering into combinations which might lead to family conflicts. The by no means lovable Faroe chieftain Thrond of Gata is offered money to take sides against his cousins; but before accepting, he pays tribute to the sense of what is right by saying to the tempter: "You cannot mean this in earnest". On another occasion, when we read that a certain man must have been sorely blind to take part in a fight where his own sons were on the other side, there rings through the words a mixture of wonder and repugnance, which speaks louder than the sharpest condemnation, for this wonder springs from the thought: how can he do such a thing?

It is hard to get at a true impression of the fundamental laws in human life that provide the very essence of a conscience; harder still to render such an impression living to others. They are not to be illustrated by noteworthy examples. In books of great and good deeds, a quality such as frith will never be represented in proportion to its importance; it goes too deep. It does not find direct expression in the laws; it underlies all accepted customs, but never appears in the light itself.

If we would seriously realise what is strongest in men, we must feel through their daily life, with all its inhibitions and restraints in little things. But once our eyes are opened to the unbroken chain of self-restraint and self-control that constitute the inner connection in the life of working human beings, we may find ourselves almost in fear of the power that sits innermost in ourselves and drives us according to its will. When one has worked through the spiritual remains of our forefathers, one must, I think, infallibly emerge with a constraining veneration for this frith. The Northmen are ever telling of war and strife, quarrels and bickerings – dispute now over a kingdom, now an ox; now some piece of arrogance on the part of an individual, now a merciless combination of accidents by the hand of fate, leading men into a chaos of strife; – but we notice that even in the most violent turmoil of passion, all alike are ever amenable to one consideration; every single happening stands in some relation to frith.


And behind every law decree there is perceptible a fear – a sacred dread – of interfering with one particular thing, to wit, the ties of kinship. We feel, that all law paragraphs are based upon an underlying presumption that kinsmen will not and cannot act one against another, but must support one another.

When the church began to exercise its supervision in matters of legislation, it noticed first of all an essential failing in the ancient code: namely, that it knew no provision for cases of killing between kinsmen. This crime therefore came within the clerical jurisdiction; the church determined its penal code, just as it provided terms for the crime by adaptation of words from the Latin vocabulary.

When the lawgivers of the Middle Ages gradually found courage to come to grips with this ancient frith, in order to make room for modern principles of law, the attacks had first to be made in the form of indulgences: it was permitted to regard a kinsman's suit as irrelevant to oneself; it was declared lawful to refuse a contribution towards the fine imposed on any of one's kin. It took centuries of work to eradicate the tacit understanding of this ubiquitous frith principle from the law, and establish humanity openly as the foundation of equity.

Strangely enough, in the very period of transition, when frith was being ousted from its supremacy as conscience itself, it finds definite expression in laws, to wit, in the statutes of the mediæval guilds, a continuation, not precisely of the clan, but of what was identical with clanship, to wit, the old free societies of frith or communities of mutual support. The guild laws provide that members of the guild must have no quarrels between themselves; but in the regrettable event of such quarrel arising between two of the same guild, the parties are forbidden, under pain of exclusion in disgrace, to summon each other before any tribunal but that of the guild itself; not even in a foreign country may any member of a guild bring suit against a fellow-member before a magistrate or court.

The Frisian peasant laws of the Middle Ages also found it necessary to lay down hard and fast rules for the obligations


of kin towards kin, and decree that persons within the closer degrees of relationship, as father, son, brother, father's or mother's brother, father's or mother's sister, may not bring suit one against another before the court – they must not sue or swear against one another; but in cases where they cannot agree in a matter of property or the like, one of their nearest of kin shall be appointed judge.

The guild statutes are as near to the unwritten law of kinship as any lifeless, extraneous provision can be to the conscience that has life in itself. And they give us, indeed, the absolute character of frith, its freedom from all reservation, in brief.

But they cannot give the very soul of it; for then, instead of insisting that no quarrel shall be suffered to arise between one brother and another, they would simply acknowledge that no such quarrel ever could by any possibility arise. In other words, instead of a prohibition, we should have the recognition of an impossibility. The characters in the Icelandic sagas are in this position still – though we may feel that the cohesion of the clan is on the point of weakening. They have still, more or less unimpaired, the involuntary respect for all such interests as may affect the clan as a whole; an extreme of caution and foresight in regard to all such enterprise as cannot with certainty be regarded as unaffecting the interest of all its members.

Even the most reckless characters are chary of making promises or alliances if they see any possibility of prejudicing a kinsman's interest. They go in dread of such conflicts. The power of frith is apparent, in the fact that it does not count as a virtue, something in excess of what is demanded, but as an everyday necessity, the most obvious of all, alike for high and low, heroic and unheroic characters. And the exceptions, therefore, show as something abhorrent, uncanny.

Clanship was not the only form of relationship between individuals, and however wisely and cautiously a man might order his goings, he could never be sure of avoiding every painful dilemma. He may find himself in a position where, apparently, the power of frith in himself is put to the test.

Thus, for instance, with Gudrun. Her husband, Sigurd,

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