The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


self-respect — such an one may be likened to a king sitting on his throne in his nightshirt. The Germanic prince must be glad-minded, cheerful and gentle whatever the actual circumstances; when Grendel harries Heorot, Hrothgar is all the same the glad-minded Hrothgar, the good king, who in all his sorrow had nothing to reproach himself. A man must be eadig, steadfast in his luck; and when Hrethel dies of grief at his son's craven deed, the poet cannot divest him of the title of eadig, any more than Noah can cease to be the lucky man, when he lies besotted with wine and shamed before his son. It lies in the nature of healthy men to be victorious, and no peril can deprive them of their human characteristics. When the heroes of Israel are seated on the wall in fear of what the morrow is to bring, staring out at the threatening camp of the Assyrians, the Anglo-Saxon poet cannot but picture Judith as giving “the victorfolk good greeting”, and later calling out to them: “Ye heroes of victory, behold the head of Holofernes.” The decorum goes far deeper than all poetic or social etiquette. It is related to the massiveness of the persons themselves, which makes it impossible for them to adapt their behaviour to what a single situation may demand.

Modern poetry takes as its starting point the fragmentary in human manifestation; whatever men may be occupied with one towards another, whether discussing the deepest affairs of heart and passion, or carrying on an everyday conversation, whether they are fighting or making love, they show but a small illumined segment of the soul to each other; the greater part of their soul life lies in darkness, only divined, or lit in occasional glimpses by a fleeting light. But the heroes of old are invariably presented in the round. They are like those well-known figures in primitive paintings, standing side-on to the beholder, and yet looking at him with both eyes. They cannot trust us to understand a thing by implication only, because they are incapable of doing so themselves; the consciousness of their whole previous life, the obligations and privileges of their position, even of the whole past of their race, is ever in the foreground of their mind. When their speech one with


another touches such disproportionate depths, reaching back to family relationships and family history, going beyond all bounds of the situation which has brought them into converse, this is but one among many expressions of their sense of wholeness. When the king's retainers lead their lord's bride to the bridal chamber, they feel themselves as shield-bearing, even though their shields of linden wood are hung above their places in the hall. When men lay stone on stone and see the wall gradually rising, they feel none the less the grip of the sword-hilt in their hands; it is the sword-bearers who are building. When they sit down to eat and drink, they cannot for a moment lay aside their valour and renown, even in this common occupation of all mankind. Even though they take off all their armour and get into bed, it must still be the mail-clad, sword-wielding, horse-taming hero who snuggles down under the blanket. And whenever they strike a blow, the listeners must understand that there lies in that blow all the tradition of a race, the impetuosity of a hero, the untamable thirst for vengeance of a son, or more correctly, this weight in the blow forces the whole of the hero's title, with lather and forefather, into the verse.

It is not the men alone who thrust their entire personality upon the spectators at every step. Homer knows that the queen resting with her husband on the nuptial couch is sweeping-robed. When Judith leaves the Assyrians' camp bearing the head of her enemy, she strides forth in all her queenly dignity, as the wise, the strong in action, the white-checked, as the ring-bedecked; but neither she nor any other Germanic lady of high birth would ever appear otherwise, whatever her aim or errand. Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, walks gold-bedecked down the hall, greeting the men; the noble dame hands first the cup to the king, at last she comes, the ring-bedecked queen, the strong-souled, to the place where Beowulf sits, and greets the prince of the Geats wise in words.

And as men and women are, so is the world in and with which they live. The same massiveness is apparent in all that presents itself to thought or sense. The horse champing at its bonds stands there as the swift runner, and the horse that dashes


across the plain runs as the fair-maned, single-hoofed as it always is. Coming from afar, one sees not merely the door and front of a house, but at the same time the whole of its appointments, its splendour, and the life within. The castle which travellers approach is not only high-roofed — so that those seated on the benches need not feel the ceiling close above their heads —, it is not only wide — with bench room for a great host —; but it is alight with the glitter and reflection of weapons, and filled with gold and treasure. The wanderer espies from the road afar the high-walled burgh, sees — from the road in the distance — halls towering over treasures, sees houses vaulted over the red gold. It is not otherwise, we may take it, with the hills that stand as banks of blue upon the horizon; to one who knows them from having often wandered there, they would be, even when lost in mist, the many-sloped hills, the hills of shady paths. When thinking of his far-off country, the Northman would probably shape his words much as those of the Homeric hero: “between Troy and Phtia there are both shady mountains and a roaring sea.” When a man leaps down to the ground, or falls on his back, the spot his body covers is still: the earth of the many roads, the corn-bearing, the many-feeding, or the broad. So speak the Hellenes, and the Northmen say of the serpent that it be-creeps on its belly the broad earth.

This fulness and comprehensiveness of the idea does not belong exclusively to poetic speech; it is inherent in the language and leaves its mark on legal phraseology far into the Middle Ages. The lawyer who says turf must add green; murderers, thieves and such like folk shall be buried on the beach “where the sea meets the green turf”, as the Norwegian lawbook decrees. He cannot name gold without styling it red or shining, nor silver without adding white; in the precise language of law, day is bright day and night is darksome or murky night.

There are in Homer two strata, easily distinguishable one from the other. On the one hand, that represented by comparisons, the elaborate pictures introduced with a “like to.. .“: “As East and South in rivalry shake the dense woods in the clefts of the mountain, and beech and ash and slender-barked


cornel lash one another in fearsome noise with their projecting branches, while clamour of splintering trunks arises, so stormed the Trojans and Achæans together, and smote each other; none thought of flight”. The man who speaks thus has his mind full of a situation, a momentary picture; the scene before his inward eye expands to every side, and opens vistas round about to other visions again. The poet welcomes all associations of ideas, and pursues in calm enjoyment the broadest of those roads the situation opens to him. This is the modern spirit of experience. It is otherwise with the images contained in such expressions as “the foot-dragging oxen”, “the many-pathed earth”, “the blue wave”; these are not creatures of the moment, but on the contrary, a product of years of experience. Here, it is not the poet who pursues, but the idea which draws and compels him, being rooted far down in the depth of his soul. The metaphor is more ancient than the simile. It speaks of a time when the soul never lived on individual sense impressions, when it might perhaps, as wakefully as now, accept all that presented itself to the senses, yet without stopping at the isolated impression, rather churning its experiences together into a comprehensive idea. The man of metaphor may be said to remember with all his senses. But all his experiences of any given object exercise a mutual attraction one towards the other, and enter into an indissoluble unity. Each new observation is drawn up by those previously made and forms with them a unit, so that the images which live in the soul, with all their natural truth, their precision and strength, are not individual ideas, but universal ideals, as rich in content, as weighty and insistent as the heroes of poetry are.

This mode of thinking calls men to account at every moment for their actions and their being, recognising no distinction between different official and private selves, — such as we now enjoy. The figures we meet with in ancient poetry, and in ancient history, cannot be divided into the public and the private personality, the man of ordinary and the man of special occasion, into king, husband, man, judge, councillor, warrior. One cannot say “man” without thinking “armed”; and therefore, when


we pronounce the latter word, thought builds up the whole. There is thus nothing artificial in the expression of Cædmon: “the armed one and his woman, Eve”. It may strike strangely on our ears to hear Jesus called the “ring-giver” and his disciples referred to as the body-guard, the bold warriors. But to the Germanic mind it was impossible to avoid these expressions, as long as the ancient circle of thought remained unbroken. There was no actual thought of Jesus as sweeping across the country upon a viking expedition; the poet does not even say “ring-giver” because it was the custom to rhyme man with generosity. Jesus was the Lord, his disciples the men; Jesus was the man of luck, his disciples those who partook of his luck, and the relation between master and men could not be apprehended in the quality of a fraction; it must take up the idea of entirety, and enlist all words in its service.

The idea of a wolf or of an eagle is made up of all the experiences accumulated at different times anent the life and character, of the creatures named; their habits and appearance, their wills and propensities. And so the animal stands as an inseparable whole, living its life without regard to its place in a classificatory system, possessing its limbs and its qualities in a far more absolute fashion than nowadays. For thought was so completely dominated by the idea of entirety, that it lacks all tendency to take the world in cross-section, analysing, for instance, the animal kingdom into heads and bodies, legs and tails, or the forest into leaf, branch, trunk and root. The separate parts simply have not in themselves that independent reality needed to produce such word-formulæ as: leg or head. A head is only conceived as the head of a particular beast, it must be either a dog's head, or a 'wolf's head, or some other individual variety of head. Even a leap seen ahead on the path will have a particular character, it will be the haste of this or that animal, not a movement in general.

It is thus not the fairy tale alone which lives upon the art of conjuring up an entire organism from a single claw, a hair, a thread. The old proverb: “where I see the ears, there I wait the wolf”, held good among primitive men in a far more literal


sense than with us; at the first glimpse of those two ears, the wolf sprang up, rushed in, bringing with it a whole atmosphere, setting all senses to work, so that the eye saw its trot, its stealthy glance behind, the dirty yellow of its pelt; so that the nose scented it, the hand felt a tickling sensation as of bristly hair. And not only does it bring its atmosphere when it comes, but it spreads a whole environment about it. It enters on the scene as a character, and radiates its habits, its manner of life out into a little world of its own.

It is but rarely that we find, in the popular tongue, any mention of such generalities as “tree” or “beast”. The earth has its growths of oak, beech, ash, elm, fir; its inhabitants, wolf, bear, deer, eagle, raven, serpent. The curse of outlawry, in the Scandinavian, holds good “as far as fir grows”. The proverb to the effect that one man's meat is another man's poison runs, in its northern equivalent thus: “what is scraped off one oak is all to the good of another”. “The fir that stands alone will rot”, neither bark nor leaf can protect it. It is a good omen when the wolf is heard howling under the branches of the ash. The great world-tree is not called the tree of Yggdrasil, but the ash of Yggdrasil. And poetry retains, here as elsewhere, the old sense of reality. Sigrun sits waiting in vain by Helgi's burial mound: “Now he were come an he had in mind to come; there is no hope now, for the eagles sit perched already in the ash and sleep is in their eyes.” “Lonely am I now as the aspen on the bill” (when its fellows have withered one by one) — thus runs Gudrun's plaint.

In the language spoken on the steppes, the moorlands, in the forests, specific and classifying terms play but an insignificant part. The general terms fall completely into the background; they form but the shadow of reality, not the stem of reality itself, as they are with us. The individual manifestations stand so abruptly one against another, rise so independently out of the natural soil, that they can have no immediate contact with one another; and thus the systematical arrangement into animals and plants, into species and classes which to us is of primary interest, has no footing at all.


Wholeness and independence, these are the two main qualities of images in the simple mode of thought which still shows through in the offshoots of the heroic poetry, and to which we find parallels about us among non-European peoples. Our words are wide and vague, because we see and feel things loosely, and accordingly concern ourselves more with the interaction of phenomena than with actual objects. Our world is built upon generalities and abstractions, and the realities of life recede behind the colourless “facts”, as we call them, of cause and effect, laws and forces and tendencies. The words of ancient and primitive races are narrow and precise, answering to the experience of men who did not run their eyes over nature, but looked closely at every single object and took in its characteristics, until every item stood forth before their inner eyes in its fulness, as a thing unique. This definiteness of experience seriously hinders analysis and classification, but this does not mean that the spiritual life is kept down to a simple verification of the actual facts, or that ideas are merely acknowledgements of the impressions. On the contrary, ideas have, for these thinkers, a strength and influence which can at times lead strangers to regard the barbarians as philosophers all; the truth, however, is that they are distinct from the philosophers by the very force and power and reality of their ideas.

The conceptions that make up the body of our spiritual life, such as colour, beauty, horse, man, exist by themselves in the intervals between the things of the world, and our sensations are but the pegs on which they are hung. In the primitive mind, every idea is firmly connected with an object; the thing is seen in its perspective, as it were. Answering to the narrow scope of the word, we find a dizzying depth in its idea, since this in itself includes all that can be thought of the object named. The meaning is not restricted to cover only the body of things, but embraces their soul in the same degree. In the idea of “oak” lies all that one can think of quercus; from the oak itself as it rises before the eye, or can be felt with the hands, from its speech, its form, its peculiar manner of moving, its fertility, and the like, to “oakness”, the state of being oak, the quality


which makes one an oak tree. So comprehensive is the thought, and so intimately wrapped about reality. The full depth of the word is not reached until we arrive at the state of pure being, a being which in respect of spirituality has every claim to admittance among the company of the highest ideas, but which differs nevertheless from our venerable abstracts in having a marked character; a pure being, in which lie predestined the qualities of lobed leaves, gnarled branches, broad-crowned growth, edible shell-fruits.

Endeavouring now to track down these thoughts, it may be that the exertion we feel in the task involuntarily applies itself to our estimate of those old thinkers, and induces us to think of them as profound reasoners. And there is still greater danger that the motion of our thoughts may be transferred to the ideas we are following, so that we imagine primitive ideas as something complex or complicated. For us who endeavour to think again the strange thoughts of a stranger, the difficulty lies first and foremost in keeping firm hold of the unity and banning all suspicion of musing and profundity. Primitive idea is not created by a reflection whereby something is abstracted from reality, nor by an analysis loosing the separate elements from their connection and rearranging them in logical categories — on the contrary, it depends on a total view, the nature of which is inimical to all analysis. We call the primitive idea oak — oakness two-sided, but with only conditional justification, inasmuch as the ideas of primitive peoples do not contain anything which can properly be called dualistic. It points simultaneously out towards something spiritual and something material, but it has no seam in it where matter and spirit meet. Idea and reality, that which is perceived and that which is felt, are identical; are, so to speak, two opposite poles of the conception. We can begin with the concrete; with a wolf, a stone; and gradually, through its character and qualities, its evil nature and goodwill, its mobility and weight, arrive at the qualities of wolfness and stoneness, as subtle as any philosopher could spin it, and yet at the same time as strong in its reality as any sense impression. And we can commence with a “force”,


the force of being a wolf, a stone, and through the effects produced by that force arrive once more at the solid objects before us. We can move forward or backward from pole to pole, without any somersault, without even the least little hop. The connection is unbroken, because the thought never at any point loses hold of the idea of a limitation in character and form.

The things of our world are flat and silhouette-like to such a degree that they shade into one another and merge into such vague entities as “nature” or “world”. Primitive facts are all-round objects and shapes that stand out free of the background, and when our comprehensive phrase “the whole world” is translated into old Norse, it takes this form: “As far as Christian men go to church, heathen men worship, fire bursts forth, earth bears fruit, son calls mother, mother suckles son, men light fire, ship strides, shields flash, sun shines, snow drifts, fir grows, falcon flies the spring-long day when the wind is full beneath its wings, heaven vaults, earth is peopled, wind howls, water flows into sea, carles reap corn.”

Thus we are led to see that the primitive way of depicting life is realistic in the truest sense of the word. The epic formulæ, as we are apt to call them, paint the world as it is, but their world is very different from the place in which we move and have our being. Primitive men differ from Europeans not in theories about reality, but in the reality itself.

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