The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


extension of the word, the man who can afford to feed his fellows and shuts his store against them is called a food-niding — a niding in regard to food. He was a niding, fully as much as the man who committed perjury. The King was generous —and so men are loud in his praises: he flung the gold about him, one could see from his men and women, with their gold-gleaming arms and breasts, how splendid a king they had; never was born such a king under the sun. But woe to the prince whom generosity forsook. Niggardliness was a sign among other signs that he was nearing his downfall. There is an ill-boding ring in the Beowulf's words about Heremod: “Bloodfierce thoughts grew in Heremod's soul; he gave not rings to his Danes, as was due. Joyless he bided the time when he gathered the harvest of his deeds: long-lasting war in the land.” A mysterious curse brooded over him, withering his will to give: Niding.

These barbarians can admire the extraordinary, as we see already here. Their words of praise leap high in the air. But the very passion of their acclaim has an oppressive effect on us. They raise a cheer for the king, as they would for the sworddancer who comes nearer and nearer to death the wilder and more skilful his dancing; a slip, and he will lie there under a mass of scorn and contempt. Through poems and sagas runs a murmur of applause, expressed or indicated in masterly wise, for the true hero's scorn of death; but anyone who is at all familiar with the spirit of these poems knows also that there is but one contrast to this praise, and feels instinctively what the verdict would have been if the hero had not laughed the pain to death. The poet of the Atlakvida, describing Hogni's defiant scorn when the heart is cut out of him, places the hero's contempt of death in relief by letting the executioners first show his brother the bloody heart of a slave as if it were Hogni's; but “then said Gunnar, king of men: “Here lies the heart of Hjalli the craven, unlike the heart of Hogni the brave; it quivers here, lying on the platter, but half that it quivered in the breast . . . “Here lies the heart of Hogni the brave, unlike the heart of Hjalli the craven; little as it quivers now lying on the platter, it quivered less in Hogni's breast”.” A


modern reader is at first moved by the poignancy of the scene, but at a second reading his admiration is likely to give way to a musing wonder at the manner in which the poet points the intrepidity of the hero by contrasting it with the abject fear of a slave. So poor in shades of distinction is the old valuation of men and manhood.

The Germanic morality cannot be arranged in a hierarchy of good qualities. There is not the slightest approach among the Teutons to a system in which one virtue is vaulted above another like a series of heavens. Such an order of precedence presupposes centralisation; all men must be united under the same condemnation before they can be classified. Neither has the Germanic mind any conception of a common moral Gehenna. Strictly speaking, evil, nidinghood, has no reality at all, but must be interpreted as a negative, a total lack of human qualities. Nidinghood is the shadow every “honour” casts according to its nature. Therefore the boundary line between admiration and contempt stands sharply, without transition stages, without any neutral grey. And therefore the boundary lies differently for different people. What makes a man a niding, a criminal and a wretch, depends on what made him a man of honour.

For the man of kingly birth, the limit was set very high. His honour consisted in having at his disposal as many men as his father had had, or more; to be called the greatest, the bravest, the quickest of wit, the most generous, within the horizon that had formed his family's sphere of power. And immediately outside that honour stood the death of a niding. This is the secret thought which sets its mark on all Germanic chieftains, determines their fate and predestines them to a certain way of life, and it has found typical expression in the Icelandic saga's description of that famous family council at Westfold, when Olaf — who later on was called the Saint —declared his intention of claiming Norway.

There are three persons present at the council. On one side of Olaf sits his stepfather, Sigurd Syr, the peasant king. He listens to the impetuous words of the young pretender, following in a long glance the bold plan as it rolls over Norway, measuring


the breadth of the road, the hardness of obstacles the enterprise must meet, and asking where are the hands to force it through the narrows. Sigurd cannot but feel that there is more youthful eagerness than foresight in the plan, but he sums up his considerations in these words: “I can well understand that a yeoman king such as I am has his way, and that yours must be another; for when you were yet but half a child you were already full of emulation and would be foremost in all you could... I know now that you are so set upon this that it will be fruitless to argue against it, and little wonder that such counsels should thrust aside all others in the hearts of daring men, when they see Harald's race and kingdom about to fall.” On Olaf's other hand sits the king's mother, Asta. She is now the dutiful wife of the peasant king, but she cannot forget that she is the mother of a descendant of Harald Fairhair. For so many years she has been forced to curb her ambition; now, her son loosens all bonds, and her pride of race stiffens and straightens her. Standing midmost in that honour which Sigurd surveys from without, she finds other words: “It is thus with me, my son, that I am happy in you and would be happiest to see your power the greatest; to that end, I will spare nothing that I can do; but there is little help to be had from me here. Better to be king over all Norway a little while, as Olaf Tryggvason, than live life to its end in easy ways, as can the petty kings here about.” And from the innermost of the race come Olaf's words: “You will not be so far from rising up to avenge this shame upon our kin, but that you will do your utmost to strengthen him who takes the lead in raising it.” Shame upon our kin, that, to the saga writer, is the salient point in Olaf's history. His race had been first in all Norway, and the honour of the family demands that he should maintain this position above all the clans of the country.

Having now considered the highest forms of honour, it is natural then to seek out the lowest degree. What was the scantiest amount of honour men could live on? In a way, the answer is given in the common denominator of what is human as expressed in the laws; we could reckon up a man's value


from the sum of those things he was declared justified in seeking reparation for; and indirectly, we have done something of the sort. To arrive at the right proportion, however, we must make the active side of honour somewhat stronger than is directly made out in the formalities of legal paragraphs. The Norse laws, as we have seen, will here and there set a man outside the law for lack of manhood, whether the weakness display itself in his failing to accept a challenge, or in his coming out second best; and they show that it is not a mere phrase of etiquette when a man holds it “better to die than be held a niding for having given way without fight.” In such case, pacifism eats as deeply into its man as does the dishonour he incurs by leaving his brother unavenged. But in ambitious races, or indeed in any healthy stock, honour could not content itself with standing still under cover of a shield — a man could not wait until the test was forced upon him, but must seek out an opportunity of showing himself off. There is a characteristic phrase in Old Norse for a young man who has shown himself a worthy descendant of worthy ancestors; he is said to have vindicated his kinship or, literally, “led himself into his kin”. When Glum the Icelander on his first voyage abroad came to the house of his grandfather Vigfus, and made towards the high seat where his kinsman sat “big and stout, playing with a gold-inlaid spear” to greet him and declare his kinship, he met with a very cool reception; the youth was given a seat at the far end of the lowest bench and had little attention paid him. The young man waited patiently, until one day an opportunity offered of distinguishing himself by killing a man. Then Vigfus suddenly thawed. “Now you have given proof that you are of our kin; I was but waiting until you should lead yourself into your kin by a show of manhood.”

The same expression is used by Earl Hakon to Sigmund Brestison, son of the Faroe chief, when, after the killing of his father, he seeks refuge among his father's friends in Norway. “I will not be sparing of food for you, but you must lead yourself into your kin by your own strength,” by healing the mortal wound dealt to your frith and your honour. When Vigfus uses


the word, there is thus something more behind it than the mere manifestation of ability; it means nothing less than entering into frith, the transition from the dangerous shadow-existence to life duly fortified in honour. And the saga is undoubtedly right in letting Vigfus express himself so solemnly.

The Icelanders have a characteristic term for a youth who has not shown that he feels his father's life as his spur and standard. They call him a verrfeðrungr, i. e. one who is worse than his father. The famous explorer Leif commenced his career with the vow that he would not be a verrfeðrungr. And in this lies a suggestion of the point of view for the bringing up of youth. The young man was drawn as early as possible into the common life of honour of the family, and led to feel himself as sharing in its responsibility. And the older members will hardly have lacked effective words wherewith to spur on a dullard. The opening chapters of the Vatsdoela picture how old Ketil Raum went looking at his son, shaking his head in increasing disapproval, until one day he could no longer keep silence, but began moralising: “Young men nowadays behave differently from what was their wont when I was young. Then, they were eager to do something for their own renown, either by going a-viking, or gaining goods and honour elsewhere in dangerous undertakings; but now they care only to sit with their backs to the fire and cool themselves with ale, and there is little manliness or hardihood to be looked for that way. . . . You have certainly nothing much either of strength or height, and the inner part answers no doubt to the outer, so you will hardly come to tread in your fathers' footsteps. In olden time, it was the custom for folk of our sort to go out on warlike expeditions, gaining wealth and honour; and that wealth was not handed down from father to son, — no, they took it with them to the burial mound, wherefore their sons must need find theirs by the same road . . . ." and so on for a long while. Unfortunately, the saga writer here seems to have something of that hectic admiration for the good old days which generally indicates that the good old days are irrevocably past. This goes naturally enough with his showing of old Ketil as something more rhetorically


gifted and more inclined to historical moralising than was usual in the chieftains of the ninth century. In the good old days, such a waking up would have been delivered in words less learned, but a great deal sharper. Nor is it probably quite good history when the saga lets a thoroughly romantic robber lie hidden in the woods so near to Ketil's homestead that Thor-stein, the son, can prepare a grand surprise for his father without giving himself away by lengthy and numerous preliminaries.

Later on in the Vatsdoela there is an everyday scene showing how a youth actually claimed his right to recognition, in the days when life had no romantic robbers to offer, but only its own brutal prose. The Vatsdoela clan, represented first and foremost by Thorgrim of Karnsá, is in danger of losing the headmanship of the district, and with it the traditional supremacy of the family. At the assembly convened to elect the headman, Thor-grim sits in the high seat, and in front of him, on the floor among the slave children, is the twelve-year-old Thorkel, his illegitimate son, whom he has never been willing to acknowledge. Thorkel comes up and stands looking at him, and at the axe he carries in his hand. Thorgrim asks whether he finds the axe so much to his liking that he would care to strike a blow with it; there was a man present in whose head it would fit nicely, and “then I should reckon you had yourself won your place among us Vatsdoela folk.” The boy loses no time in fitting the axe as suggested, and Thorgrim keeps his word, seeing that “the lad has led himself into his kin.”

The compiler of the opening chapters of the Vatsdoela is far inferior, both in understanding of the past and in point of art, to the master spirit who reconstructed the family council at Westfold. Fortunately, tradition in Iceland was strong, and it shows willingly through in the tirades of the saga writer. This father, waiting and waiting for some manifestation of his son's true kinship with the old stock, is a genuine figure. He is historically right in demanding that the son shall win his place for himself. There must come a time in the life of every young man when he placed himself among the older members. And the older ones waited, letting example work; but when the proof failed


to appear, the youngsters must be given to understand that there was danger in such an intermediate state as that of one who has not yet vindicated his kinship. And when the author lets his hero dwell on the obligation involved by the deeds and ways of one's forefathers, the authority of tradition speaks even through his flowery phrasing.

A curious point of etiquette among the Lombards, noted in Paulus Diaconus, seems also based upon the presumption that the young son of a princely house, before being seized of the privileges that were his due by birth, had to win his place by a certain demonstrative ambition. We read, that when the Lombard prince, Album, had distinguished himself in a battle against the Gepidæ, the warriors earnestly entreated his father to honour him with a seat at the royal table; but the king answered by referring them to the established custom which forbade a king's son to sit at his father's table before he had received arms from the prince of a foreign people. The scenes in the Beowulf appear almost as a pendant to this little story. There, the hero sets out to a foreign court, achieves great things, receives with delight the costly weapons and jewels as his reward, and returns with honour to his ancestral hall, to recount his doings to his kinsman in the high seat and lay his gifts of honour at his feet. And despite the fact that Beowulf, according to the first part of the poem, was already a hero of renown when he made his expedition to the hall of the Danish king, the words that close the description of his youth sound indisputably as if this act of prowess formed a turning-point in the hero's story: “Long he bore with slighting; the youth of the Geats counted him not good; and thus the king of men would not himself account him worthy to a place on the ale-bench; they surely thought that he was without courage, a feeble atheling; but the distress of the brave one was turned about.” And then his kinsman takes the opportunity of making him grants of land: “seven thousand, hall and ruler's seat, both had right by birth to the land, seat and inheritance, but the one before the other; to him, the better man, fell the kingdom.” This can, to my mind, only be taken as indicating that there was in the poet's mind a marked association

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