The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


tions towards non-kinsmen can penetrate so as to give rise to any inner tragedy, any conflict of the soul. Signy, to take her as a type, was driven to do what she would rather have left undone; the thrilling words: "there was joy in it; but it was hateful to me also," are undoubtedly applicable also to her state after the consummation of her revenge. So near can the Northmen approach to tragedy, that they depict a human being who suffers by taking action. But there is no question of any inner conflict, in the sense of her considering, in fear, what course she is to choose. The tragic element comes from without; she acts naturally and without hesitation, and her action whirls her to destruction. When first dissension between kinsfolk is consciously exploited as a poetic subject, as in the Laxdoela account of the two cousins driven to feud for a woman's sake, we find ourselves on the threshold of a new world.

The Laxdoela plays about the tragic conflict in a man's mind, when he is whirled into enmity with his cousin by the ambition of a woman. The strong-minded Gudrun is never able to forget that once she loved Kjartan and was jilted, and when she marries Bolli, Kjartan's cousin, she makes him a tool of her revenge. At last the day of reckoning has arrived: Kjartan is reported to be on a solitary ride past Bolli's homestead. Gudrun was up at sundawn, says the saga, and woke her brothers. "Such mettle as you are, you should have been daughters of so-and-so the peasant – of the sort that serve neither for good nor ill. After all the shame Kjartan has put upon you, you sleep never the worse for that he rides past the place with a man or so..." The brothers dress and arm themselves. Gudrun bids Bolli go with them. He hesitates, alleging the question of kinship, but she answers: "Maybe; but you are not so lucky as to be able to please all in a matter; we will part, then, if you do not go with them." Thus urged, Bolli takes up his arms and goes out. The party placed themselves in ambush in the defile of Hafragil. Bolli was silent that day, and lay up at the edge of the ravine. But his brothers-in-law were not pleased to have him lying there keeping look-out; jestingly they caught him by the legs and dragged him down. When Kjartan came


through the ravine, the fight began. Bolli stood idly by, his sword, Foot-bite, in his hand. "Well, kinsman, and what did you set out for to-day, since you stand there idly looking on?" Bolli made as though he had not heard Kjartan's words. At length the others wake him to action, and he places himself in Kjartan's way. Then said Kjartan: "Now you have made up your mind, it seems, to this cowardly work; but I had rather take my death from you than give you yours." With this he threw down his weapon, and Bolli, without a word, dealt him his death-blow. He sat down at once, supporting Kjartan, who died in his arms.

This: yes – no; I will – I will not, lies altogether outside the sphere of frith; in these chapters there is a touch of the mediæval interest in mental problems; but the old, heartsick, and therefore at bottom ignoble melancholy still rings through.

There is less of tragedy than of moral despair in Bolli's words to Gudrun when she congratulates him on his return home: "This ill fortune will be long in my mind, even though you do not remind me of it."

Frith, then, is nothing but the feeling of kinship itself; it is given, once and for all, at birth. The sympathy we regard as the result of an endeavour to attune ourselves to our neighbours, was a natural premise, a feature of character.

Compared with the love of our day, the old family feeling has a stamp of almost sober steadfastness. There is none of that high-pressure feeling which modern human beings seem to find vitally necessary to love, none of that pain of tenderness which seems to be the dominant note in our heart-felt sympathy, between man and man as well as between man and woman. The Christian hero of love is consumed by his ardour, he is in danger of being sundered himself by his own need of giving out and drawing up in himself. The people of old time grew strong and healthy in the security of their friendships; frith is altogether balance and sobriety.

It is natural, then, that security should form the centre of


meaning in the words which the Germanic people are most inclined to use of themselves, words such as sib and frith. Security, but with a distinct note of something active, something willing and acting, or something at least which is ever on the point of action. A word such as the Latin pax suggests first and foremost – if I am not in error – a laying down of arms, a state of equipoise due to the absence of disturbing elements; frith, on the other hand, indicates something armed, protection, defence – or else a power for peace which keeps men amicably inclined. Even when we find mention, in the Germanic, of "making peace", the fundamental idea is not that of removing disturbing elements and letting things settle down, but that of introducing a peace-power among the disputants.

The translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry is faced with innumerable difficulties, because no modern words will exhaust the meaning of terms like freoðu and sib, indicating "frith". If he content himself with repeating "peace" again and again in every context, he will thereby wipe out the very meaning which gives sense to the line; and if he attempt to vary by different interpretations, he can only give the upper end of the meaning; he pulls off a little tuft of the word, but he does not get the root. The energy of the word, its vital force, is lost. When in one place enemies or evildoers beg for frith, the word means fully: acceptance in a pardoning will, admission to inviolability; and when God promises the patriarch in Genesis frith, it bears the full meaning of grace, the earnest intention to be with him and protect him, fight for him, and if need be, commit a wrong for his advantage. And it is not only men, but also, for instance, places, strongholds, which can furnish those in need of frith.

And frith is the mutual will, the unanimity, gentleness, loyalty, in which men live within their circle. According to the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Genesis, the state in which the angels lived with their Lord, before they sinned, has frith; it was this frith that Cain broke by his fratricide "forfeiting love and frith." So also Mary says to Joseph, when he thinks of leaving her: "You will rive asunder our frith and forsake my love."

When Beowulf has killed both Grendel and his mother, the


Danish King in grateful affection says: "I will give you my frith as we had before agreed," and he can give nothing higher than this. But there is the same entire sense of affection and obligation when the two arch-enemies Finn and Hengest, after a desperate fight, enter into a firm alliance in frith – even though the will gives way soon after.

But the sense of the words is not exhausted yet. They denote not only the honest, resolute will to find loyalty; implicit trust forms the core, but about it lies a wealth of tones of feeling, joy, delight, affection, love. A great part of the passages quoted above, if not all, are only half understood unless that tone is suffered to sound as well. In the Anglo-Saxon, sib – or peace – ranges from the meaning of relief, comfort – as in the saying: sib comes after sorrow – to love. And when the Northmen speak of woman's frith or love, the word glows with passion.

We need not doubt but that the feeling of frith included love, and that kinsmen loved one another, and that deeply and sincerely. It is love between one and another that has drawn the little Old-Scandinavian word sváss, Anglo-Saxon svæs, away from its original meaning. It means, probably, at the first, approximately "one's own, closely related" but in Anglo-Saxon poetry it shows a tendency to attach itself to designations for kinsmen, and at the same time its content has become more and more intense; intimate, dear, beloved, joyous. In the Scandinavian, it has concentrated entirely about this sense and is there, moreover, a very strong word for expressing dearness. From all we can see, the relation between brothers, and also between brothers and sisters, was among the Germanic people, as generally with all peoples of related culture, one of close intimacy. The brotherly and sisterly relationship has a power unlike any other to intensify will and thoughts and feelings. The kinship has possessed both depth and richness.

Besides love there is in frith a strong note of joy. The Anglo-Saxon word liss has a characteristic synthesis of tenderness and firmness that is due to its application to the feelings of kinship. It denotes the gentleness and consideration which friends feel for one another; it indicates the king's favour towards


his retainers; in the mouths of Christian poets it lends itself readily to express God's grace. But then liss is also joy, delight, happiness; just that pleasure one feels in one's home, among one's faithful friends. These two notes – which were of course really one – rang through the words of Beowulf: "All my liss is in thee, but few friends have I without thee;" thus he greets his uncle Hygelac as if to explain the offering of his trophies to his kinsman. "All frith is ruined by the fall of fearless Tryggvason," these simple words disclose the boundless grief which Hallfred felt at the death of his beloved king.

Gladness was a characteristic feature in a man, nothing less than the mark of freedom. "Glad-man" – a man of happy mind – a man must be called, if the judgement were to be altogether laudatory. The verse in the Hávamál, "Glad shall a men be at home, generous to the guest, and gentle," indicates what is expected of a man, and this agrees with the spirit of the following verse from the Beowulf: "Be glad towards the Geats, and forget not gifts for them," as the Queen adjures the King of the Geats. In fact, just as bold or well-armed are standing epithets of the man, glad must be added to indicate that nothing is wanted in his full humanity; so when the Beowulf tells us, that Freawaru "was betrothed to Froda's glad son", the poet does not intend to explain the disposition of the prince, but simply describes him as the perfect knight.

Gladness was an essential feature in humanity, and thus a quality of frith. The connection between joy and friendly feeling is so intimate that the two cannot be found apart. All joy is bound up with frith; outside it, there is not and cannot be anything answering to that name. When the poet of the Genesis lets the rebellious angels fall away from joy and frith and gladness, he gives, in this combination of words, not a parallel reckoning up of the two or three most important values lost to them by their revolt, but. the expression in a formula of life itself seen from its two sides.

Our forefathers were very sociable in their gladness. Intercourse and well-being were synonymous with them. When they sit about the board, or round the hearth. whatever it may be,


they grow boisterous and quick to laughter – they feel pleasure. Pleasure, of course, is a word of wide scope of meaning in their mode of speech, extending far beyond the pleasures of the table and of converse, but pleasure is properly society; in other words, it is the feeling of community that forms the basis of their happiness. Mandream, delight in man's society, is the Anglo-Saxon expression for life, existence, and to go hence is called to "give up joy", the joy in mankind, joy of life, joy of the hall; it is to forsake delight in kinsmen, in honour, in the earth, one's inheritance, the joyful site of home.

Now we are in a position to understand, that gladness or joy is not a pleasure derived from social intercourse; it draws its exhilarating strength from being identical with frith. The contents of joy are a family privilege, an heirloom. The Anglo-Saxon word feasceaft means literally: he who has no part or lot with others, the outlaw who has no kin, but the word implies the meaning of unhappy, joyless; not, as we might believe, because one so driven out must come to lead a miserable existence, but because he turned his back upon gladness when he went away. "Gladness'' must be taken in an individualizing sense, as of a sum of gladness pertaining to the house, and which the man must leave behind him in the house when he goes out into the void. There is no joy lying about loose in the wilds. He who is cast out from gladness of his own and those about him has lost all possibility of feeling the well-being of fullness in himself. He is empty.

Kinship is an indispensable condition to the living of life as a human being; and it is this which makes the suffering occasioned by any breach in a man's frith so terrible, without parallel in all experience; so intolerable and brutal, devoid of all lofty ideal elements. To us, a conflict such as that which arises in Gudrun when she sees her "speech-friend" slain, and her brothers as the slayers, might seem to present the highest degree of bitterness; a thing to rend the soul asunder. But the Germanic mind knew that which was worse than tearing asunder, to wit, dissolution. A breach of frith gives rise to a suffering beneath all passion; it is kinship itself, a man's very humanity, that is stifled, and


thence follows the dying out of all human qualities. What the wretch suffers and what he enjoys can no longer produce any real feeling in him. His very power of joy is dead. The power of action is killed. Energy is replaced by that state which the Northmen feared most of all, and most of all despised: redelessness.

"Bootless struggle, an overarching sin, falling like darkness over Hrethel's soul" says the Beowulf of the fratricide; in these words is summed up the helpless, powerless fear that follows on the breaking of frith.

This places a new task before us. Joy is a thing essential to humanity. It is inseparably attached to frith; a sum and an inheritance. But this joy, then, contained something in itself.

In the Beowulf, the hero's return from strife and toil is sung as follows: "Thence he sought his way to his dear home, loved by his people, home to the fair frith-hall, where he had his battle-fellows, his castle, his treasures." What did these lines mean to the original listeners? What feelings did the words "dear", "loved" and "fair" call forth in them? What we have seen up to now teaches us approximately but the strength of these words – and what we are not to understand thereby.

What were the ideas attaching to this joy?

The answer is contained in the old word honour.

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