The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


to wait the hour when Olaf Tryggvason set up his luck as a worthy opponent to that of the earls of Hladi. When Olaf came to Norway, he was received, the saga says, by the peasants with these words: “... we thought, after the fight with the Jomsburg vikings, that no chieftain could compare with Earl Hakon in war-speed and many other qualities he had to make him a chief; but... all are now grown so weary of his insolence, that he shall lose both kingdom and life as soon as we find him. We believe that this will come about with your help and luck, such a man of luck as you are who got a hold of his son Erlend at the first attempt. Therefore we pray you be leader for this host.” In the sentence: “we believe that this will come about with your help and luck,” we can all but read the explanation of a century or so of Norway's history. And if we are to determine more precisely what constitutes the luck of Harald's house, we have nothing to say but this: The hamingja of a Norwegian king consists in being king of Norway, able to sit now at Viken, now at Drontheim, able to gain the victory with an army of Drontheim warriors as well as with an army of Viken warriors, able to march over Norway from one law-thing to another on a kind of peaceful conquest, as his ancestor once did in full warlike earnest, when he broke the petty kings to his will. And the only explanation of this luck is the history telling how Harald created it and his sons maintained it.

This faith in the individual luck as something that is at once a will and an impulse, a necessity and a talent, appears with peculiar splendour in the last great representative of that dynasty. Sverri, the unknown priest from the Faroes, had a double fight to wage, when he landed in Norway to claim the crown on his unsubstantiated pretension that he was descended through his father, Sigurd Mund, from Harald Fairhair. The submissive faith which went out to every pretender if he could only declare himself a descendant of Harald, had in this case to be built up among the people by the usurper himself. By his victories, he had to create, layer by layer, a conviction in the minds of the hesitant that the luck which upheld him must be the one decisive, Olaf's own. His genius is shown in the fact


that he by every means of eloquence, artifice, guile, nay, deceit, manages to force the testimony of facts as far over to his own side as possible, and hammer it firmly into the mind of the people. And this spiritual fight is the more impressive, insofar that it never clearly comes to the consciousness, but is waged between instinctive feelings in the king as well as in the people. Whether Sverri himself believed in the traditional luck, or only worked upon the potential belief that he knew was dormant in the people, is an idle question. In the history of every faith there comes a time when it can be used as a weapon by strong characters, such as are keen-sighted enough themselves not to be fettered down by its limitations; the secret of their influence lies in the fact that they are able to rise above their fellow-men in their reasoning and at the same time draw strength from a belief that is as instinctive and positive in its way as the blind confidence of the mass. Such a man was Sverri.

Sverri is the most interesting character in the history of Norway, because he translates the old idea of the king's luck into modern theories of the rights and nature of kingship. His character as the spokesman of an age of transition reveals itself in the contrast between his explicit reasonings and their underlying logic. As soon as he sets out to justify his claims, he drifts into an interpretation of the Psalms of David as prophetic foretellings of his own fate; he calls himself the messenger of God, sent out to strike down the insolents who have seated themselves on the throne without being kingly born; it is only in the theory of the king's eternal predestination in God's counsel, his call and his obligation to answer the call, his prospect of having some day to account to God for the talent entrusted to him, that he finds sound foothold, for himself. But beneath this theorising, there is the conviction that every possessor of king's luck has, not the right, but the duty to demand his share of the kingship, and that all right and law in the land must give way to the kingly born's need of rule. “Olaf's law” is the symbol of his kingly pretensions. In other words, Sverri's life still centres about the presumption that there is in every descendant of Harald or Olaf a power that forces him to be king of


Norway or die. Kingly birth is not a will or a duty, nor is it a will and a duty, but at once a duty with the elasticity of will in it, and a will with the mercilessness of a duty. Kingly birth is a nature as essentially urgent as that which forces a plant to fix its roots in the earth, save that the plant can fulfil its destiny in many sorts of soil, whereas luck knows but one place to live. The kingly will, according to Sverri, cannot be imagined save as the outcome of a power that strews kingly actions about it, actions of sovereign dimensions, that cannot be carried out by any but the one, the descendant of Harald.

The priest from the Faroes forced the people to say: “Sverri is quick of wit, Sverri is a conqueror”, and in return the opposing party could not say: “many are quick of wit, many are conquerors”, they had to fall back on a denunciation of his religion, saying: “It is by power of the devil that he lays his plans and fights his battles.”

Harald's kingship shows us the essence of luck and its qualities, emphasised in the light of history, its absolute individuality, which cannot be explained, or characterised, otherwise than by inheritance; that which we have derived from our kinsmen of old; that which they had power to be and to do. The difference between rich and poor consisted, not in the fact that the latter had been given only a small sum of luck, but that their luck was poor and inelastic, with but few possibilities, and those limited and weak. The luck of a well-to-do yeoman was like himself, broad and safe, rich in cattle and crops, shining with splendid clothes and weapons; that of the chieftain added hereto the greater authority, love of magnificence, the power of conquest. But this does not give us the essential point, to wit, that the luck of every yeoman, every chieftain, was a character, with its peculiarities, its strength and weakness, its eccentricities, and linked throughout to a certain property. Again we have to dismiss the singular form, with its tacit assumption of community in things human, and instead of luck, use the plural form lucks, in order to emphasise the fact that these characters are not emanations of any primeval principle.

Or, we can, in place of the word inheritance, set the word


honour. In honour, we have distinctly that which luck can and must be able to effect in order to maintain itself. The family has derived its renown from its ancestors, from them it has its ideals, the standard of all behaviour: how bold, active, firm, noble, irreconcilable, generous, how lucky in cattle, in crops, in sailing, the kinsmen are to be. From them also, the family has inherited that part of luck which is called friendship and enmity. Honour, and therewith luck, constitutes, as we have said, an image of the world of the family. In the quality of esteem and social position, it contains symbols of the family's surroundings, seen as personifications of the kinsmen's friendship and hate, their condescension and dependence. But these personifications are not characterless types, they resemble to the last degree the enemies and friends of the family. The luck reproduces the sharply defined features of its environment.

The sentence, that kinskip is identical with humanity, which at first sight seemed a helpful metaphor, has now revealed itself as nothing but the literal truth. All that we find in a human being bears the stamp of kinship. In mere externals, a man can find no place in the world save as a kinsman, as member of some family — only the nidings are free and solitary beings. And the very innermost core of a man, his conscience, his moral judgement, as well as his wisdom and prudence, his talents and will, have a certain family stamp. As soon as the man steps out of the frith and dissociates himself from the circle into which he was born, he has no morality, neither any consciousness of right, nor any guidance for his thoughts. Outside the family, or in the intervals between families, all is empty. Luck, or as we perhaps might say, vitality, is not a form of energy evenly distributed; it is associated with certain centres, and fills existence as emanations from these vital points, the families.

The power to live comes from within, pouring out from a central spring in the little circle, and thence absorbing the world. In order to fill his place as a man, the Germanic individual must first of all be a kinsman. The morality, sense of right and sense of law that holds him in his place as member of a state community, as one of a band of warriors, or of a religious society, is


dependent upon his feelings as a kinsman; the greater his clannishness, the firmer will be his feeling of community, for his loyalty cannot be other than the sense of frith applied to a wider circle.

A comparison at this point between ancient culture and the civilization of our time will bring out the nature of luck, making for expansion as well as for concentration. We, on our part, must always be human beings before we can be kinsmen. Our happiness in the narrowest circle depends on a wider life outside, and we have to go out into the world to find food for our home life. We cannot get on in the world at all, neither pursue our occupation nor cultivate our egoism nor our family prejudices so as not to come into conflict with the rest of mankind, unless we assimilate ourselves to a certain extent with what we call humanity. Among us, a life of kinship is only possible when the individual drags home the riches of humanity and sets the family stamp upon them, and it is the mark of an egoistical nature to collect thoughts and ideals in the larger field of society and hurry home to transform them into family blessings. In our culture, the one-sided family life involves a limitation and a consistent lowering of every spiritual value; it cannot but lead to poverty of ideas and dulness in all feelings. Thus family egoism is a vice, for the simple reason that it is impossible in itself; it can only lead a parasite existence. Its doom lies within itself; for a logical carrying out of its principles leads to suicide, in the same way as a state of amazons or a state of chaste men would annihilate itself.

For the ancient clansman, the course lies in an opposite direction. It is frith that shapes his character, and an intensifying of frith means a deepening of his character. A strengthening of the personal maintenance of honour and family involves a greater depth and greater tension in moral feelings and moral will, because it means an enrichment of the conscience. The more self-centred and sui generis a kinsman is, the stronger his personality and the greater his worth as a man.

Clan-feeling is the base of all spiritual life, and the sole means of getting into touch with a larger world. The same power which makes the Germanic individual a kinsman prevents him


from becoming a limited family being and nothing more. The strength and depth of frith and honour mould the clans together in alliances, and call larger communities into existence. The thing-community for judging and mediating, and the kingdom or state for common undertakings, are institutions necessitated by the nature of luck. He who has felt the strength and depth of these men's frith and honour will not be in danger of misjudging the family in his historical view; but then again, he will not be tempted to set it up as the unit in existence, as the secret that explains everything in the society and the life of our forefathers.

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