The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



Without honour, life is impossible, not only worthless, but impossible to maintain. A man cannot live with shame; which in the old sense means far more than now, — the “can not” is equal to “is not able to”. As the life is in the blood, so actually the life is in honour; if the wound be left open, and honour suffered to be constantly oozing out, then follows a pining away, a discomfort rising to despair, that is nothing but the beginning of the death struggle itself.

Humanity itself is dependent on the pulsing in the veins of a frith-honour. Without it, human nature fades away, and in the void there grows a beast nature, which at last takes possession of the whole body. The niding is a wolf-man.

There was no difference. All human life (human life of course did not include slaves and suchlike creatures) was subject to the same necessity. All agreed that shame must be wiped out, honour upheld. And yet, on coming to the question of what constituted shame, what was the honour which it was kinsmen's duty to maintain, there would at once be differences manifest between men. An injury was an injury, and produced the same effect in peasant and chieftain. But men of high birth were more tender on the point, more sensitive than common folk, as for instance in regard to being indirectly slighted. And the people respected their right, or rather their duty to feel so. The difference lay not so much in the fact that they regarded certain things as constituting insult, where baser natures might ignore them, but rather in that their natures were finer, their


skin more delicate; they felt an insult where the coarser breed would feel nothing. Still more sharply, perhaps, is the dissimilarity apparent on the positive side of honour. Men of standing were expected to have a keener sense of what was fitting; those of inferior degree might edge their way through life with little lapses here and there, and be none the worse for that. But to formulate the difference correctly, we must enter on a close examination of the nature and contents of honour.

The first part of Egil's saga is built up over the contrast between Thorolf Kveldulfson, the chieftain at Torgar, and the sons of Hilderid, wealthy yeomen, but of no great standing, from Leka. In Thorolf, the saga writer has drawn the northern ideal of a well-to-do freeman: active, courageous, fond of magnificence; affectionate in friendship; true and frank towards those to whom he has promised loyalty, but stiff with those towards whom he feels no obligation. In face of intrigues and calumny he is almost blind, that is to say, he sees but little, and that little he does not care to see. If the king will not be persuaded of his open dealing, he exhibits a nonchalant defiance and obstinacy: when his fiefs are taken from him by the king, he manages to live his life as a man of position, by trading voyages and viking expeditions, answering the king's confiscations by harrying along the shores, and holding on his course undeviatingly full into combat with the king of Norway. Hilderid's sons are named after their mother, and this gives an indication of their story. Their mother, the beautiful but lowborn Hilderid, once found favour in the eyes of the old Bjorgulf; he married her, but the wedding took place in such careless fashion that the family found pretext therein to deprive the late arrivals of their birthright. In vain the young men endeavour to obtain recognition and claim their inheritance from Bard, grandson of Bjorgulf and their coeval kinsman. After Bard's death, Thorolf, having married his widow, becomes the representative of Bjorgulf's inheritance. He, too, scornfully dismisses the “bastards”, offspring of a “ravished woman”. Then they decide to make their way at court; they arouse Harald's suspicions in regard to the splendour of Thorolf's household, and


cunningly obtain a transfer of Thorolf's fiefs to themselves, under the pretext that the lands can be made to yield more revenue to the king's coffers; lay the blame on Thorolf when their fine promises fail, and finally bring about the fall of the rebel himself. But the miserable wretches have no time to enjoy their hard-won victory before retribution is upon them. Thorolf's friends take a very thorough vengeance.

Calmly and objectively the saga writer tells these happenings, but through his sober words judgement is passed with surety upon these men. Thorolf could not act otherwise, for he was of high birth; he could serve the king as long as his service brought him nothing but honour, but he could not allow anyone, even a king, to dictate to him how he should spend his honour, how many housecarles he might have about him, how splendidly he might equip himself and his retainers; he could not bow so low as to stand on a level with an accusation, a calumny, and offer his defence; he could see no better than that the king's interference with his affairs was an insult which justified him in taking his own measures accordingly. The king has seized his trading vessel — well and good: “We cannot lack for anything now, since we share goods with King Harald”, and he promptly falls to harrying the coast of Norway. The craftiness of Hilderid's sons, their lies and calumnies, their time-serving and power of accomodation were natural and inevitable traits of character in men descended, on their mother's side, from the sly, wealthy, lowborn Hogni of Leka, who had “raised himself by his own wits”.

The contest between Thorolf and his lowborn brothers-in-law discovers a fundamental principle in Teutonic psychology: high birth and nobility of character mean one and the same thing. But though these words are a fair translation of Teutonic wisdom, the sentence has lost its precise import by being transferred into modern surroundings; the play of colour and shade in the words is changed, because our modern culture sees them in a different light.

When the story is rendered into our tongue, it treats of a hero, who stumbles over his own nobility, whom fate, so to


speak, masters by his own virtues; his noble frankness is changed to blinkers that blind him to calumny, his fondness for the straight road becomes a bit in his mouth, his independence a rein he must answer, and thus fate drives him proudly straight on, straight down, to his fall. On the other hand, we have two ignoble strugglers, who, when once the disaster has been sufficiently established, are trodden out on the ground as a sacrifice to justice. One is loth to find oneself giving way to this sort of æsthetic indulgence. But can the reading be otherwise? Our interest in these intriguing parvenus ends, in reality, with their part as villains of the piece.

We are here face to face with an essential difference between “ancient” epic and “modern” reproduction of the conflicts of human life in poetic form. Our epic is based on an arbitrary judgement disguised as morality, or as an idea, or an artistic principle; before ever any of the characters have entered the world, the author's ordering mind has twined their fate, predestined some to being glorified in the idea, and others to glorifying the idea by their downfall. So thoroughly has it become our nature to demand this sense of a poetic providence in, or rather over, the subject matter, that we unconsciously arrange the old poetry accordingly for our enjoyment. We put all the interest on one side of the conflict, and thereby break off what was the point of the story for the original hearers. The ancient poetry knows nothing of a higher point of view, an absolute, predetermined result only worked out in the story to prove it. The balance lies always much nearer the middle between the two parties than our æsthetic and moral sense will allow of. The “moral” does not appear until the collision and reckoning between the two factors. It is often impossible to say on which side the poet's sympathy lies, in a narrative of family feuds, because the interest of the story is not sifted into sympathies and antipathies. Anyone who has read Icelandic sagas with a fairly unprejudiced mind, will again and again have noticed in himself an after-effect of this equilibrium --perhaps with a certain surprise, or even dissatisfaction. The Icelandic sagas are poor, desperately poor, in villains — Njal's


saga, sentimentally overdone as it is, may be left out of the question; as a whole, it belongs to another world. But just because the epos gives a contest between men, and not a mere exhibition with its end planned beforehand, the triumph comes still more crushingly and brutally. It follows on a combat, a victory, where the right of the one strikes down the right of the other and shatters it to fragments. However difficult it may be for us to understand; the old poetry was for its hearers a piece of reality, of the same tangible reality as that which took place under their personal participation.

The contrast, then, between Thorolf and Hilderid's sons becomes a real conflict. The character of the former is predetermined by his honour; his nobility sets definite bounds to his freedom of action; he cannot lie, cannot choose a crooked way, cannot be a time-server. If he were to reduce his magnificence and dismiss the half of his retainers, to let them go about telling that Thorolf of Torgar no longer dared to maintain as many men as before, if he would bring his disputes with men of lower rank before a court, with the obligation to submit 'to its decision, if he, trusting in the justice of his cause, would face his petty accusers, humbly offering proofs of his honesty — then he would have fallen away from his nobility and be subject to the condemnation of honour.

The character and behaviour of the two brothers are equally a necessary consequence of their birth, whence it follows, that they have the right to be as they are. They are fighting for their — and their mother's — honour; their actions are dictated solely by a sense of human dignity. They have no other means of achieving their righteous vengeance than the means they employ, and the saga writer cannot deny them the share of appreciation they deserve in face of their high-born, highminded opponent, who from the constitution of his blood, fights and must fight with other weapons. Nevertheless, the saga describing their doings contains a condemnation of the baseness they display. Necessity does not imply justification; on the contrary. They are in the right, but in and by the conflict to which honour forces them they become villains by their right.


We have here a dilemma which forces us to look far and wide when seeking to estimate a people's honour and its ethics. Our task is not accomplished until we have reached so deep down that this contrast ceases to be a contradiction.

A high-born, high-minded man must show his nobility, not only in the way he deals with an injury, and in care for his behaviour, but also by taking up the affairs of others. A man in difficulties would turn confidently for help to the great man of his district. An Icelander who had lost his son, and 'could not see his way to take vengeance, or win his case at law, by himself, went to the headman of his district and said: “I want your help to gain my right in this matter”, and he gave grounds for his demands as follows: “It touches your honour also, that men of violence should not have their will in these parts.” The headman had then to take up the matter himself. If there was wizardry abroad, then the chieftain must “see to the matter”, otherwise he could ill “hold his honour”. Nay more, apart from having to deal with living miscreants, a man who aspired to leadership over his fellows might be called upon to exorcise a ghost, on the ground that here was a task his honour required him to undertake. The man would be obliged to meet any claim so made on him, and that out of regard to his own weal or woe. An applicant for aid could, if needed, threaten to let himself be cut down where he stood, with consequent dishonour to the man whose door was closed against him.

It touched the chieftain's personal honour, his honour as a man, if he failed to devote all his energies to the fulfilment of such obligations as went with his position. He had not an official honour to spend first; if he failed to live up to his duties as a leader of men, his chieftainship sank at once to nidinghood, without stopping on the way at the stage of ordinary respectability. A man born to chieftainship and looked up to as a chieftain must needs keep open house for all who sought protection. He had no right to enquire into the worthiness of the applicant and his cause; the fact that the man had sought refuge with him was enough to bind his honour in the eyes of the world. If the great man gave up the fugitive, instead


of undertaking the intricate and complicated business which a guest of this sort often brought with him, his action would be stamped, not merely as weak, but as dishonourable.

This oneness throughout is a true characteristic of the old honour; it knows no shades of distinction, no more or less vulnerable points, no circles each with its relatively independent life — it is itself throughout, from the very innermost core of manly feeling to the very outermost periphery of a man's social influence. There is not a grain of difference between what a man owes to his ordinary human dignity and what his position as one of high standing adds of further obligations. He cannot, then, throw away his social prestige without perishing morally as well.

A nobleman's reputation is a great, well-grown honour. There lies in the appeal to a man's chieftainship nothing less than an appeal to “honour”, rendered more poignant by the suggestion of a more than common sensitiveness in his particular honour. “Be you every man's niding, if you will not take up my cause”, says the applicant for help, with the same weight as when another says: “Go your way as a niding, if you do not take vengeance”

The word virtue contains in brief a history of culture. It meant in ancient times as much as “to be good enough, to be what one should be”; in Anglo-Saxon, duguth, “virtue”, is a derivative of the verb dugan, “to avail, to be able to”. Virtue in the modern sense presupposes a liberation of moral forces for an æsthetic purpose, so to speak. Against the background of an average morality, which any man can attain, and any may find worth his while, the superior form unfolds its full magnificence. The barbarians know no virtues, because they have no minimum of morality. However high a man may rise above the common level, he never gets beyond his duty; for his duty grows with him. In the Icelandic, we may read of a hospitable yeoman: “He was so gallant a man, such a þegnskaparmaðr, that he gave any free man food as long as he would eat”; but curiously enough, the word here used in his praise, þegnskapr — thaneship — means simply that manly honour, or conscience, invoked by every man on taking oath before a court of law. And just as naturally, without any symbolical

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