The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


epithet aptly given to the wind in Gudrun's plaint over her loneliness, when she says: “Lonely I am left as an aspen in the grove, bereft of kin as fir of twigs, stripped of joy as the tree of leaves when the scather of branches comes on a sun-warm day”. But in the old days, there was nothing incongruous in referring to the wind by that same name of branch-scather, when it came tearing over the waters and raising the waves.

Among the Germanic people, the king is called ring-breaker, strewer of treasure or furtherer of battle, feeder of wolves; the men are ale-drinkers and receivers of rings, wearers of armour, and they are mailclad whether they happen to be wearing armour at the time or not. Thus we may find the “war-famous, treasure-giving king listening with delight” to Beowulf's offer to fight with Grendel, and another time we watch the “battle-urging lord” going to bed.

As the valkyrie says to Helgi: “Methinks I have other work to do than drink ale with buckle-breaking prince”, — so Helgi cries to his brother: “It ill behoves the ring-breaking princes to quarrel in words, even though they be at feud.” After the slaying of Fafnir, the tits in the bushes make remarks about Sigurd and Regin, and one says: “If he were wise, the clasp-wasting king, he would eat the serpent's heart”. And Gudrun, after the dreadful deed that she has wrought upon her sons, addresses the ill-fated Atli thus: “Thou, sword-giving king, hast chewed the bloody hearts of thy sons in honey... never more shalt thou see them, the gold-giving princes, setting shafts to their spears, clipping the manes of their horses and bounding away.” And the same poet who makes Gudrun utter these words, praises the coolness of Gunnar in the serpents' den, when he refuses to disclose the hiding place of the Niblung treasure, for “thus should a ring-spreading chieftain keep firm hold of his gold”.

No wonder readers of the present day glance round ironically with lifted brows and say: “Where is the much-lauded simplicity, the natural innocence we heard tell of once, and after which folk-poetry was named in contrast to the poetry of art? If


there be anything of nature at all in these poems, then the qualities by which we generally recognise natural innocence must have been sadly crushed out of it.”

Style, or rather, convention, is the proper word for these poets and their technique. How, indeed, should one translate into any modern tongue the description in the Beowulf of the warriors returning to the king's hall? “They went thither, where they learned that the guardian of heroes, Ongentheow's bane, the young, the good warrior-chief, meted out rings in the midst of the burgh.” The reader must not draw from these words the coldly logical conclusion that an Anglo-Saxon chieftain sat all day in his high seat like a sower, in such wise that a stranger might find his way in by listening for the ceaseless tinkle of gold. Nor can the passage serve as basis for the hypothesis that Hygelac had recently returned from an expedition and was now distributing orders of merit, or that it was payday. On the other hand, the lines contain more than a poetic indication of the place where he was wont to exercise his generosity; they do actually imply that Hygelac is at the moment seated in his high seat in the hall. The sentence cannot be rendered in any other tongue than that in which it was written. The king is he who metes out rings, and the hall is the place where he binds men to him by gifts and hospitality.

And yet, looking long at the conventional in this old poetic speech, we cannot but perceive that there is something astir beneath it. Closer acquaintance gives one a strong impression that behind this conventional art there lies a rich experience fraught with life. These poems cannot be classed with the work of epigon schools living on a tongue in which literary acceptance takes the place of sense and force. We feel that the men who wrote thus had their eyes full of memory pictures. They possessed a wealth of imagination, but an imagination rooted in the senses. Their vocabulary shows signs that the users of the words lived their lives in experience at first hand. But neither do these men speak as artists, choosing and rejecting with conscious delicacy of taste from among the expressions


of the language; they choose without knowing, being themselves in the power of their images of memory.

Anyone coming to Homer from Xenophon, and to the Edda. from the sagas, will probably always remember his first feeling of wonder — unless indeed he had the misfortune to make the transition upon a rather low school seat, where all Greek seems very much the same, as an arbitrary pattern of vocabulary words, whether the lines run out full length and are called prose, or break off short and become poetry. The moment he closed one book and opened the other, he crossed a mysterious boundary line, entering into a world altogether differently lit. The sagas and the works of the historians deal with kings and peasants and warriors; and they tell of these personages with just that familiarity and just that degree of strangeness we should expect from the length of time that lies between them and ourselves. But the others? Where shall we find the key that unites these scattered notes into a tonic system? It is not the contents that we find difficult, the soul of Homer is familiar enough to us. But the words have often something strange, almost mystical about them, as if they belonged to another age. Does not the novice feel that these rare words, some of unknown meaning, are merely the wreckage of a foundered tongue? He will hardly be aware that what leaves him at a loss is a feeling of heterogeneity: these archaic words call for an altogether different environment than that of the common and general Hellenic or Scandinavian out of which they rise; they point back to a time when they did not stand alone in an alien world, but had about them a circle of known and knowing kin, all bearing the stamp of that same ancient dignity and power. — The youthful reader goes about for a while with a feeling of internal schism, until habit eases the mind, and relieves him of his painful craving for an interpretation which should go beyond the ordinary limits of exegesis.

The young student did not know what his unrest meant, he could not translate it into questions, still less into thoughts. But none the less he was right when he felt the presence of


spirits where his teacher apparently saw and heard nothing. Many of the words which checked him in wonder are actually relics of an age when speech was coined after another wise than now. With all respect for the majesty of accidental circumstance, we may safely assert, for instance, that the AngloSaxons would not have hit upon such an army of words for “sea” if they had not needed them. There is something imposing in such a series as: brim, egor, flod, flot, geofon, häf, härn, holm, lago, mere, stream, sund, sæ. Often enough, the poets are accused of creating a meretricious wealth by half illegal means, a craving for variety leading them to take words of poor content and make them stand for more than they properly mean. We may try to thin out the impressive phalanx by taking, let us say, stream, and saying, this is really a current, and only in a looser sense applied to sea; or we may say of brim, that it means, strictly speaking, breakers, and is only applicable as a last resource to sea. But such comfort is false. Each of the words had undoubtedly a meaning of its own, but only in the sense that it served to indicate a whole by emphasising some particular quality therein, or the whole viewed in the light of one such quality. The poets are not always as guilty as we make them, for their method can, even though it may degenerate into arbitrary æsthetic trick-work, yet claim the support of ancient tradition, and justification in the original character of the language. The old words invariably had a deep background. What we understand as the meaning proper has arisen by specialisation, a certain quality or side of a thing being torn away from the original whole, and set up as an abstract idea in itself. Roughly expressed in our differently attuned manner of speech, we may say that stream, for instance, did not stand for a current, but for the sea as moved by a current; the abstract idea of motion without a thing moved would not occur to the minds of the ancients.

This wealth of expression is evidence, inter alia, of the fact that in the old days, men had clear and precise ideas of the world and things therein, and could not speak of them save in sharply definitive words. Similarly, the characterising bookmark


epithets in Homer bear witness to a definite and dominant mental imagery. He calls the oxen “foot-dragging” or rather, “the oxen, they who in walking press one leg in against the other”; and such an expression would hardly be used unless one were forced to use it, unless by the pressure of an idea within which shapes the words of itself. Like realism can be traced in the poetic vocabulary of the Northmen, and indeed of the Germanic peoples generally. Here in the North, there is a preference for substantive expressions, where the Southerners are lavish of adjectives: here we find mention of “the branchscather, the ring-breaker, the battle-wager”, whereas in the south, the prince would be referred to by name, and the quality given in an adjective. However significant this difference may possibly be as indicating the character of the language, and thus indirectly of the people concerned, it reveals at any rate no great dissimilarity in the mode of thought. In the foregoing, I translated purposely with adjectives, in order to call up something of that sensitiveness to the value of combinations which has been dulled by over-literal re-shaping of old Icelandic poems. Ring-breaker, ranger of hosts, for instance, are not titles, as we are led to believe. These words, like all the rest, degenerated under the abuse to which they were subjected by the scalds, but there is no reason to suppose that they stand in the Edda, or indeed in the works of the earlier court poets, without force of meaning. The variations themselves contradict such an idea; when we find, for instance, now hringbroti, “ring-breaker”, now hringdrifi, “he who scatters rings abroad”, now again other combinations, we have no right to accuse the poet of having an eye to prosody. And in any case, the words must once have had suggestive power.

With regard to the Germanic 'writers' poetic vocabulary, we can gather but an approximate idea. Its original wealth and force, its character generally, do not appear to the full in the somewhat late second-hand versions which now stand as sole representatives of the great poetic culture of northern Europe. Here in the North, we have often to search for the old word-pictures among a host of half misunderstood and


altogether uncomprehended terms which have been included in some scaldic handbook or other, when the poems in which the words were living things have disappeared. Many an epical expression was only saved from oblivion by cleaving as a name to some mythical being. In Snorri's manual for courtly poets we find, for instance, the abrupt hint that the mode of referring to a buck may be varied by calling the animal hornumskvali, “the one that clashes its horns”, or “the one with backward-curving horns”. In the same way, a bear may be hinted at as iugtanni, which must imply some quality or other in the brute's teeth, or “blue-toothed”; another of his names is “step-widener”, which must be designed to indicate his characteristic gait, or his footmarks, in somewhat similar fashion as when he is spoken of as “wide-way”. We find the raven called “dew-feathered” and “early-flyer”, the hawk “weather-bleacher”— bleacher taken passively, or rather in a neutral sense, as with “step-widener” above. The same suggestive power is inherent in the name duneyrr applied to deer, meaning probably “the one who scuttles over pebbles with rattling hoofs”.

The keenness of characterisation which lay in these old epithets is something we can only partially appreciate nowadays. The vocables of our dictionary are always too wide in scope of meaning, compared with the verbs and substantives which our forefathers had at their disposal. We have no word precise enough to fit that skvali which was used to denote a collision of horns, and this one instance may serve to show how loosely all our translations cover the original form of speech. Etymology is too clumsy an expedient to render any help as soon as the quest is extended beyond the dead vocables into the living thought and feeling that once inspired the language and filled the words with subtle associations. We may lay down by analysis that the word slithherde — applied to boar in Anglo-Saxon — can be rendered “ferocious”, but the etymologist knows as much and as little of its real life as the man who merely hears the word pronounced. Our examples, then, cannot be more than vague indications of a world rich in things seen and heard and tasted, which is now closed for ever.


Homer is not folk-poetry, the Iliad and the Odyssey bear sufficiently evident marks of having passed through a complex civilization. The Edda and the Beowulf are by no means primeval Germanic poetry; we find in them both over-refinement and decadence. Undoubtedly there is in the former as in the latter a certain, not inconsiderable conventionality discernible, a necessary consequence of the fact that the form belongs to an earlier age than the contents. The style of the scalds, whether Anglo-Saxon or Icelandic, cannot be acquitted of mannerism, but their stiffness is nothing but the ancient poetical language carried to its utmost consequences, and thus exhibiting in high relief the natural tendencies of primitive thought. The rigour of style is an inheritance from earliest times, and the inner heterogeneity which we feel in Homer, and to a lesser degree in the Beowulf and some of the Eddic poems, is due to the interference of a later culture more realistic and impressionistic in its mode of experience. We should be greatly in the wrong were we to blame the rhapsodes of a later day for the contradictions in these images; the poetry which lies behind Homer and the Edda, that 'which created these expressions as its form, was not an iota more natural. It is questionable whether the poet of the Lay of Atli, who praises the “ring-spreader” for “keeping firm hold of his gold”, and calls Hogni “the bold rider” at the moment when he lies bound hand and foot, should be assigned to the epigon host for these lines.

As this poetry speaks, so spoke the people out of whose midst the epic arose. The poetic images in which keen observation and the tendency to association of ideas are peculiarly combined, are not a product of style, but the inevitable expression of these distant men's mode of thought, mirroring the people's estimate of its heroes and of itself. Men's outward appearance, their dress, their way of moving, as well as their manner of expressing themselves, are, in heroic poetry, determined by a certain poetic decorum; a hero who does not utter forth his feelings in the traditional style, a hero ‚who suffers himself to be named without the title of armed or bold, or long-haired —all attributes which any free man must claim if he have any

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