The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


has been slain by her own brothers, Gunnar and Hogni. She voices her resentment in stirring words. In the Lay of Gudrun we find it thus: "In bed and at board I lack my friend to speak with – this wrought Gjuki's sons. Gjuki's sons have brought me to this misery, brought about their sister's bitter weeping". The poems of the north also make her utter words of ill-omen; it sounds like a curse when she says: "Your heart, Hogni, should be torn by ravens in the wild places, where you should cry in vain for aid of man". But there is no place in the saga for even the least act on Gudrun's part to the prejudice of her brothers. She seeks by act and word to hinder Atli's plans for vengeance against Gunnar and Hogni, and when all her warnings are in vain, she makes Atli pay dearly for the deed. The northern poets, while laying stress on her sorrow, keep it throughout inactive – they do not even attempt to soften the contrast by any kind of inner conflict in her soul; there is no hesitation, no weighing this way or that. Frith was to them the one thing absolute. The poet lets Hogni answer Gudrun's passionate outburst with these deeply significant words: "If the ravens tore my heart, your sorrow would be the deeper".

The Sigurd poems are fashioned by northern hands dealing with ancient themes; they give us Germanic thoughts as lived again in Norse or Icelandic minds. Altogether Icelandic, both in theme and word, is the tragedy which leads to Gisli Surson's unhappy outlawry. The two brothers, Gisli and Thorkel, are depicted by the writer of the saga as widely deferent in character, and in their sympathies they take different sides. Thorkel is a close friend of Thorgrim, their sister's husband; Gisli is warmly attached to Vestein, brother to his own wife, Aud. Relations between the two half-brothers-in-law have evidently long been strained, and at last Vestein is slain by Thorgrim. Gisli takes vengeance secretly by entering Thorgrim's house at night and stabbing him as he lies in bed. Thorgrim's avengers, led by a natural suspicion, pay a visit to Gisli before he is up; Thorkel, who lives with his brother-in-law and is of the party, manages to enter first, and seeing Gisli's shoes, full of snow, on the floor, he thrusts them hurriedly under the bed. The


party is obliged to go off again without having accomplished anything; later, however, Gisli, in reckless verse, declares himself the culprit, and a party rides off to summon him to account. Thorkel is with them as before, but once more he manages to warn his brother. On the road the party comes to a homestead where he suddenly remembers there is money owing to him, and takes the opportunity of dunning his debtor. But while his horse stands saddled outside the house and his companions imagine him counting money within, he is riding on a borrowed mount up into the woods where his brother has hidden. And when at last he has settled his various money affairs and taken to the road again, he is overtaken by little accidents on the way, sufficient to delay the progress of the party considerably.

Gisli's blow was a serious matter for Thorkel. He says himself to Gisli: "You have done me no little wrong, I should say, in slaying Thorgrim, my brother-in-law and partner and close friend". The great obligations which use and custom laid upon friends one towards another are evidence of the seriousness with which such intimacy was regarded, and how deeply the parties engaged themselves and their will in the relationship. Thorkel's position is therefore more bitter than immediately appears. But friendship must give way to frith; it is not a matter of choice on Thorkel's part. Here again we have the same contrast as in the Gudrun poems. Thorkel's bitterness and his frith can have no dealings the one with the other; they cannot come within reach of each other so as to give rise to any conflict; for they belong to different strata of the soul. To us, perhaps, it may seem as if there was a link missing from the sober statement of the story; but the words as they stand are good Icelandic psychology.

This frith is something that underlies all else, deeper than all inclination. It is not a matter of will, in the sense that those who share it again and again choose to set their kinship before all other feelings. It is rather the will itself. It is identical with the actual feeling of kinship, and not a thing deriving from that source.

Thorkel has his sorrow, as Gudrun has hers; but the pos-


sibility which should make that sorrow double-edged, the mere thought that one could take sides here, is out of the question. Thus there can never be room for any problem. The fact of kin siding against kin is known to poetry only as a mystery, or a horror; as the outcome of a madness or as something dark, incomprehensible, something that is not even fate.

From early times, men's thoughts have hovered about this fact, that a man could come to slay his kinsman. In the picture of father and son, each unknown to the other, meeting in battle and shedding each other's blood, the sad possibility has even been treated poetically. A magnificent fragment – unfortunately but a torso – of these poems is found in the German Hildebrand Lay, where the father, returning home after long absence in foreign lands meets his son, who forces him, much against his will, to engage in single combat. We find the pair again in Saxo, as two brothers, Halfdan and Hildiger. In the Hildebrand Lay, it is the scepticism of the son in regard to the father's declaration of kinship, that brings about the disaster; the father must accept the challenge, or stand dishonoured. In Saxo, the inner force of the conflict is weakened by the fact that Hildiger, for no reason, keeps his knowledge of their kinship to himself until he lies mortally wounded. Saxo's story, however, is evidently derived from the same situation as that preserved in the German lay. Hildiger tries by craft to escape from fate, declaring in lordly fashion that he cannot think of engaging in single combat with an unproved warrior; but when Halfdan, undismayed, repeats his challenge, and strikes down one set of antagonists after the other, Hildiger, who sees his own fame thus threatened by Halfdan's prowess, cannot endure any longer to refuse. An Icelandic version, preserved in the saga of Asmund Kappabani, agrees throughout so closely with Saxo's account that we are forced to presume a close relationship between the two; one of the brothers here has still the old name, Hildebrand, the other has been assimilated with Asmund, the hero of the saga. The difference between the more natural presentment in the Hildebrand Lay, and the dramatic artifice in the northern


variants, is mainly due to the saga writers' anxiety to preserve as much effect as possible for the final plaint.

The story of the fatal meeting between two kinsmen is, as an epic theme, not specifically Germanic; we can follow it to the west, among the Celts, and to the southward, as far even as Asia. Possibly, or we might say probably, it has its origin, as a matter of literary history, in the south; but it is more important to note how the theme has been reborn again and again, among one clannish people after another; a proof that the same thoughts were everywhere a weight upon the mind. Men pondered and speculated over this mystery in the ordering of life, that a man could be driven against his will to harm his kin. In the Germanic, the case is clearly and simply stated; frith was inviolable; but honour too had its own absolute validity, so that the two could collide with such force as to destroy both on the impact, and the man with them. The close of the Hildebrand Lay is unfortunately lost, the very part which must have given us the united plaint of the two combatants over what had passed. The loss is the more serious, since this was the dominant point of the whole poem. Saxo's reproduction, and still more the modernised elegy of the Icelandic saga, give but a faint echo. But even in these later, imitative works we seem to find a pathos of an altogether different nature from the usual; not the merciless seriousness of death, but a wonder, rising to horror; not a confident appeal to fate with a sense of comfort in the conviction that there is reparation for everything, and that reparation will be made for this as well, if those that remain are of any worth; but only helplessness and hopelessness. And the same note is struck elsewhere, as in Hervor's saga, where Angantyr, finding his brother's body on the field of battle, says: "A curse is upon us, that I should be your bane; this thing will be ever remembered; ill is the doom of the Norns." The words express his sense of being a monster; so desperately meaningless is his fate that it will force the thoughts of posterity to hover about it, that "he will be a song for coming generations". The close of Hildebrand's complaint runs, in Saxo's paraphrase, approximately as follows : "An evil fate, loading years of mis-


fortune on the happy, buries smile in sorrow and bruises fate. For it is a pitiful misery to drag on a life in suffering, to breathe under the pressure of sorrow-burdened days, and go in fear of the warning (omen). But all that is knit fast by the prophetic decree of the Parcæ, all that is planned in the council of high providence, all that has once by forevision been fixed in the chain of fates, is not to be torn from its place by any changing of worldly things."

There is nothing corresponding to these lines in the saga. The first part of the poem expresses the same as Saxo's paraphrase: "None knows beforehand what manner of death shall be his. You were born of Drot in Denmark, I in Sweden. My shield lies sundered at my head; there is the tale of my killings; there" – presumably on the shield – "lies the son I begot and unwilling slew'' – what this refers to we do not rightly know. And then the poem closes with a prayer to the survivor, to do "what few slayers have any mind to", namely, wrap the dead man in his own garments, a termination which sounds altogether foreign, in its romantic sentimentality, to the northern spirit. Saxo has here undoubtedly worked from another version, nearer the original. His portrayal of the evil days lived through in fear fits more or less accurately to the old thought: such a deed buries all hope for the future and spreads among the survivors an everlasting dread. How the words originally stood in the northern version it is futile to guess, but Saxo's omen in particular seems to hold a true northern idea, that such a deed forms an ill-boding warning. For the rest, fate rules; what is to come will come; but here is a thing breaking out beyond fate; one can, and could really, say that the fate of the kinsmen was burst asunder.

The same hopeless keynote rings through the description, in the Beowulf, of the old father's sorrow when one of his sons has by chance slain his brother. The poet compares him to an old man who sees his beloved son dangling, still young, in the gallows – a desperate illustration for a Germanic poet to use –: "Then he lifts up his voice in a song of anguish, as his son hangs at the ravens' pleasure, and he cannot help him; old and burdened


with days, cannot save him. Always he remembers, morning after morning, his son's passing; an heir in his stead he cares not to wait in the castle... Sorrowing he sees his wine-hall waste, the chamber wind-swept, empty of joy, in his son's house. The gallows rider sleeps, the hero in his grave. No sound of harp, no pleasure now in the homestead, as there was once.

He takes his way to the couch, sings a sad chant, lonely over the lonely one; everywhere, in the fields as in the home, there is too wide a space. So raged sorrow in the prince of the Weders, sorrow for his son Herebeald; in no wise could he gain payment for that killing through the life of the slayer; nor by rewarding the young hero with bitter doings towards him; though he had no love for him. Misery held him fast, from the day that the wound was dealt him, until he passed out from the joyous world of men."

But frith demands more than that kinsmen should merely spare each other.

Thorkel Surson was a weak character. He was content to place himself in an equivocal position when he kept his place among his brother-in-law's avengers. He says to Gisli: "I will warn you if I come by news of any plans against you, but I will not render you any such help as might bring me into difficulties." Gisli evidently regards such caution as a dishonest compromise with conscience. "Such an answer as you have given me here I could never give to you, and I could never act in such a way," he retorts. A man will not ride in company with his kinsman's adversaries. A man will not lie idle while his kinsman's suit is in progress, and the fact that this same kinsman has nailed his brother-in-law fast to his bed by night is plainly of no weight in Gisli's judgement. A men does not sneak round by a back way to offer his kinsman a trifle of help – no, when the latter is finally outlawed he must at least be able to count on support – this seems in all seriousness to be Gisli's idea.

And Gisli is in the right. Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them


to support one another's cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another. Our words are too dependent for their strength on sentimental associations to bear out the full import of clan feeling; the responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another's deeds.

The guild statutes provided as follows: "Should it so happen that any brother kills any man who is not a brother of the Guild of St. Canute (i.e. of our guild) then the brethren shall help him in his peril of life as best they can. If he be by the water, they shall help him with a boat, oars, dipper, tinder box and axe... Should he need a horse, they are to provide him with a horse..."

"Any brother able to help, and not helping...he shall go out of this guild as a niding."

"Every brother shall help his brother in all lawsuits."

That is to say, if one brother has a lawsuit, twelve brethren of the guild shall be chosen to go with him to its hearing and support him; – the brethren are also to form an armed guard about him, and escort him to and from the place where the court is held, if need be. And when a brother has to bring oath before the court, twelve members of the guild shall be chosen by lot to swear on his side, and those so chosen are to aid him in manly wise. A man failing to support his brother by oath, or bearing testimony against him, is subject to heavy fines.

There are two kinds of cases. Two kinds of killing, e.g. 1. a guild-brother kills a stranger, 2. a stranger kills a guild-brother. In the former case, the brethren of the guild see that the slayer gets away in safety on horseback or by ship. In the latter case, the rule runs as follows: No brother eats or drinks or has intercourse with his brother's slayer, whether on land or on ship. The guild brethren shall aid the dead man's heirs to vengeance or restitution.

It is difficult, perhaps, to realise that this double-valuation had its place in a community of citizens, and not in some free-booters' camp; it stands valid as the supreme law for decent, conservative, enlightened men; men who in those days represented, so to speak, progress in historic continuity. This partisan

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