The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


business deals. Then he bethought himself of going to King Swein Forkbeard and proposing partnership. When he appeared before King Swein with his plans for trading, the king's men spoke strongly against the idea of entering into partnership with a man so notoriously unlucky in his dealings; but Hroi retorted confidently: “The king's luck is more powerful than my ill-fortune”, and the king himself was too far-seeing not to give this argument more weight than all objections. From that day forward, wealth sought out Hroi: on peaceable trading expeditions he harried the coasts of the Baltic for gold, and never once lost a cargo at sea; he shared his spoils with the king, thus turning his friendship into affection. And to crown all, he won the princess, for though his bride was of no higher birth than the daughter of a Swedish grandee, she was at any rate as good as the average princess.

It is the criterion, in fact, of the king's luck, that it overflows and fills others with its abundance. On the field of battle, the king's luck sweeps like a storm out over the enemy; opens a road for those who follow after him, and whirls them on to victory; but beneath this stormy power there runs a quiet, unbroken stream of luck that can bear, and actually does bear, the people up, inspiring its work with blessing, and making it thrive. We chance upon a piece of information from the Burgundians, to the effect that they gave their kings the credit for good harvests in the land, and in return, made them suffer when the harvest failed. The Northmen judged in precisely the same fashion. According to mythical history, the Swedes even went to the point of “sacrificing” their king, Domaldi, “for good harvest”, a persistent famine having occurred during his reign. At the introduction to Norway's history stands Halfdan ársæli, the greatest harvest-giver the people had known, as a kind of prototype of Harald Fairhair's dynasty. For a long time, it looked as if the luck of the Halfdan family were broken; in the time of the sons of Eric, there were years of great dearth, and the longer they ruled over the country, the harder grew the general distress, and we are expressly told, that the people “laid the bad harvests to the charge of these kings”. Then arose


a new race of rulers, in whom the blessing was full and whole. During the reign of Earl Hakon, such a change took place in the harvests, that not only “did the corn grow up wherever it had been sown, but the herring came up all round the land”. But with the other branches of the old stock Halfdan the Harvest giver rose up again, and in Olaf the Saint his heritage was canonised: “God's man gives all men harvest and peace,” thus sings the poet Thorarin Loftunga in honour of the sainted king.

We must not, however, rush to the conclusion that Teutonic kingship rested upon certain persons' magic power of styling themselves magicians. From a modern point of view, a king might seem sufficiently tasked in having to govern sun and moon and an element or so besides, and any demand beyond such metereological aptitude would be thought excessive; still, other qualities were needed to raise a man to chieftainship under the old conditions. To appreciate the genius of the Teuton king, we must walk round and look at him from the social point of view as well, and our understanding will depend on our ability to combine the knowledge gained on these two sides.

We need not seek far and wide to ascertain what the king looked like; both ideal pictures and actual portraits have been handed down to us. In Harald Fairhair's race, the type appears as follows: Tall (taller than the most of men), strong, handsome (the handsomest of all men), forward in the fight; skilful above all others in the use of weapons; an all-round athlete, archer, swimmer. Among the kings of Norway Olaf Tryggvason is the perfect realisation of the ideal; he could strike equally well with both bands, throw two spears at once, and walk on the oars while the men were rowing, juggling with three swords in the air.

Ambitious and ever watchful that none should in any respect outstep him; never content with the honour gained as long as there was more to gain.

Deep and far-seeing in his plans; clever to use all means that could further the end in view; eloquent and persuasive, so that men wished no other thing than what he proposed.

Glad, cheerful, generous to his men, winning, so that all young brave men were drawn to him.


Rich in counsel and faithful; stern towards his enemies and those of his friends; a perfect friend to him who was his friend.

This is the Germanic type of king that inspires the innumerable encomiums in Teutonic literature. It is reflected in the description of Offa by the poet of the Beowulf: “the spear-bold man, praised far and 'wide for gifts and war; wisely ruling the land of his heritage”. It is elaborated over and over in the Nordic songs and sagas. Tall, handsome, brave, skilful, generous, these words indicate the totality of virtues which no king could do without; lacking one quality he would lack all.

The praises really indicate a demand, a formulation of what was required of the king. Not only the king who ruled over wide lands must fulfil the requirements of the ideal, but even the chieftain, whose sphere was restricted to a small district, had to possess a certain, not insignificant portion of all these qualities. This comprehensive perfection, moral and physical, belonged to the nature of chieftainship. Even a petty village leader was expected to stand firmly by the rights of his friends, and see that none encroached on them; he must be so respected that outsiders were loth to interfere with them. Any man in the village had the right to bring an injury he was unable himself to repair to the door of the chief, and if it were left there unavenged, it brought down infallibly nidinghood upon the chieftain's whole race. It needed strength to take up such an heritage. And when disputes arose within the district itself, the chieftain was the proper person to put matters right, to solve the difficulty, so that “all were content with his decision”. When we call to mind that the king, in such a case, found himself placed between two "honours", both equally susceptible and equally indispensable, we may presume that he would need to be gifted with a very high degree of craft and ingenuity — and generosity withal, so that he was not afraid of sacrificing something of his own in order to heal a wounded honour. We can provide a background for our supposition by considering how an Icelandie chieftain, Thorkel Krafla, behaved on one occasion, when a man had been killed at the law-thing. With a party ready for vengeance he went to the booth where the slayer was. In the doorway


he was encountered by the man's mother, who had a claim on Thorkel, having once saved his life; she tried to make her influence felt, but he met her intervention with the words: “Matters stand differently now than when we last spoke together; but go you out, that you need not see your son stricken down.” She immediately acted on the hint, dressed her son in her own clothes and sent him out with the women, and when Thorkel had seen him safely out, he placed himself in the doorway and talked sense: “It is not fitting that we should kill our own neighbours and thing-fellows, it were better at least to come to an agreement.” This is an episode from the late saga times, but an episode of the sort that occurs frequently enough on the steppes and in the mountains, where the tribe still lives in ancient fashion under the rule of a chief.

It was no sinecure to inherit royal dignity. Kingship required genius and great gifts, but these qualities were included in the royal character. That the born leader could achieve such great things, could procure his subjects right and honour and, what was still more difficult, maintain their honours in their proper relation one to another, is due to the very depth and might of his luck. It was easier for him than for others to bring men to agree, and get men to follow him; the young men looked up to him, wished naught but what he willed, the older men brought their difficulties to him, — because he was vinsæll, i. e. had the luck or gift of friendship, because he had mannheill, the gift of dealing with men. It can also be said in explanation of his popularity, that he gained affection early “by his beauty and his gentleness in speech” (bliðlæti). Of another king it is spoken, that he won the love of his men for being mighty and wise and a great harvest-giver; the word translated by “wise” is a very expressive term denoting craft, quickness of 'wit, adroitness, in other words, diplomacy. His friend-luck depended on various factors. Not the least part of it was due to his power of strewing gold about him; youth did not flock to the court of a niggardly king. But all these gifts enter into the king's luck, diplomacy as well as generosity, and beauty as well as eloquence. There


is no separating the qualities which we should call natural, from the gifts of healing and fertility.

It would be foolish to regard the superiority of the king's body-guard over the peasant army as due to a superstitious panic for the king's person, and deny that the fatal significance of his fall to the outcome of the battle stood in natural relation to his importance as leader of the fight. And this was well known: such words as “leader of the host”, “ranger of battles” were often used as epithets for a chieftain.

There is not the least reason to regard these honourable titles as of late origin, and accuse the other Germanic peoples of lacking insight as to the king's generalship. Surely as the king could and should bring about victory, radiating strength and courage into those who came near him, and darkening the eyes of his enemies till they stumbled over their own plans, so surely was it also of great importance to him to possess a well disciplined army, and be able himself to take advantage of the tactical opportunities with a corps that in a way hung together of itself. All these: the discipline of the army, the generalship of its leader, the force of his blow, his power of compelling victory, are part of the king's luck. Whether we say: the king had luck in learning the use of weapons and the art of war, to remain unwounded in the midst of the fight, — or we credit him with a gift for the profession of arms, a gift which made lethal weapons fall harmlessly from him, it comes to the same thing. The king was the luckiest, that is to say, inter alia, the bravest, most skilful, wisest and most ingenious of warriors.

To sum up, luck, in the view of the Teutons, is not a thing that comes from without, setting the seal upon abilities and enterprises.

Every day we encounter instances of the great differences between men's fortunes. Poor folk have “but one luck, and that a slender one”; they may strive and struggle as much as they will, they gain no more than the minimum reward for their pains. With others, “luck hangs about them like dirt”, as the proverb runs in Jutland; they simply cannot get rid of it. But the Teuton did not draw the inference from this experience


that will and result, ability and luck come from different sides of existence and play blind-man's-buff with one another. He did not lay down inefficiency as the prime principle in human life and appoint fate or gods to keep all the strength and bear all the blame for evil results.

A man's luck of harvest is the power that inspires him to watchfulness, restless work, letting his arms wield the pick with good effect, which sets pace and force in his actions; it leads his pick so that he does not strike vainly in a stubborn, defiant soil, but opens pores for fruitfulness; it sends the corn up out of the ground, sharpens the young shoot to pierce the earth above it, saves the naked, helpless plant from freezing to death, and the grown corn from standing unsusceptible to sun and rain and turning to nothing out of sheer helplessness; it follows the crops home, stays with them through threshing and crushing, and gives the bread or the gruel power of nourishment when the food is set on the board.

The luck of harvesting and sailing and conquering are equally two-sided according to our notions. A man is blessed in his cattle when the animals grow fat and heavy with what they eat, when their udders swell full with milk, when they multiply, when they go to their summer grazing without scathe of wolf or bear, when they come home full tale in the autumn; but his luck is equally apparent in his power to seek them out and find them, should they stray, in places where no other would think to look.

Sailing implies manoevring, conquering implies valour and shrewdness, luck in wisdom implies skill “in making plans when needed”. The sons of Ingimund, before referred to, were men of great luck: “It is hard to stand against the luck of the sons of Ingimund”; men feared Jokul's courage and baresark violence, but not less the “wit and luck” of his elder brother, Thorstein. This luck displays itself in his always knowing or guessing beforehand what his opponents had in mind; he saw through every artifice of war, even when wrought by witchcraft, so that it was never possible to take him and his brothers by surprise. Their luck shows itself in the fact that they could wait, let time


go on, make preparations, or strike on the instant without hesitation; the blow always fell at the right moment for them. When their father had been killed in their absence, and the slayer, Hrolleif, had got away safely to his kin, Thorstein restrains his brother by saying: “We must seek him out by craft, and not rush wildly on.” He then pays a visit to the man who had concealed Hrolleif, and by dexterous handling gets him to give up the unlucky one and send him away from the homestead. “It matters nothing what you may say”, Thorstein quietly argues, “he is undoubtedly here; it is more to your good that he should be rendered harmless, such ill as he does against your will; it is not only for my father's sake that I am after him, he has wrought too much mischief that we can sit still now; we can take him outside your boundaries, so that no shame falls to you in the matter; only tell him yourself that he is not safe here; and a hundred in silver I can well spare.” And as calmly as Thorstein has argued his case here, so too be stays on as a guest till the following day, and on the way back from the homestead, informs his brothers that Hrolleif must surely have gone home to his mother, the witch-wife, and must be taken there before she has time to work her arts over him. By hard riding they were able to surprise the party in the midst of their preparations for the black magic by which the old hag intended to make her son hard against perils; they managed things so cleverly that she did not acquire power over them by catching sight of them before they had seen her. They saw through all dazzlement, and recognised the old woman herself in spite of all her tricks, and she was indeed right when she said: “I was near to having revenged my son; but these sons of Ingimund are men of great luck.”

Thus it fell out with all who had matters outstanding with Thorstein; however they might set their plans, whether they had recourse to witchcraft or simple cunning, they always found him ready for them. He saw through everything from a distance; and when he arrived on the spot no optical illusions “could avail, for he saw all things as they were”; in their true nature, as another saga has it.

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