The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER VIII

THE ART OF LIFE

No wonder, then, that life in Middle-garth seems so safe in spite of all perils and unforeseen happenings. Man stands firmly and self-confidently on his feet, undismayed in face of all those Utgard beings that now and again come roving about the earth; he is fighting on his own ground, and with a host of allies about him.

We saw man stumbling blindly outside the limits of his world; every step was the guessing at a riddle, riddles of the sort that giants propound, when life depends on their solution. Out there, a rarely gifted hero may manage to win safely through a few days and come safely home, but to live there is impossible. if Middle-garth had been so constituted that men were forced to feel their way thus blindly, then the giants would have ruled over earth to the end of all things.

There is no such stumbling now. Men know the soul of all things, know what there is in every being of will, both good and evil, they know the nature of hate and the nature of love, they can utilise goodwill and guard against the power to harm, they can turn aside at the proper place, and grasp a thing at the right moment. In virtue of their wisdom they can rule, and where power does not suffice they can lay their crafty plan with certainty, without fear of its missing its aim, as it 'would so often out in yonder land of demons. They can force the souls of things to serve them, by making them friendly. Plants that house a hostile will, and would infallibly eat up the ignorant from within become, for one who knows their

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soul, sources of strength and healing, if properly dealt with during growth, or wisely handled after they are plucked. Man has taken the stones into his service, made them into implements wherein all harmful and annihilating will is directed outward, and all goodwill inward toward the user, so that he can confidently wield them and attain his end. He is surrounded by tamed souls.

There is perhaps no soul that can testify more strongly to the wisdom of man than fire. What it has been, and what it still can be, we may learn from the names given it at times. It shares the name frekr with the wolf and is thus brought into company with the “shameless, voracious” beast; cruel and greedy, runs another of its characters. And now, what is the best thing in the world? “Fire is best among men's sons, and the sight of the sun, health and life without blame”— in such a series ending with the greatest thing in life, blameless honour, fire can hold its own. “Fire guards, or aids, against disease”, runs another ancient saw, and he who knows something of folk-life, and the part there played by fire in the welfare of men and cattle, knows the depth of significance covered by this little sentence. Fire is even the nourisher of life, says the poetic speech. And this transformation of the restless element is due to man himself; men are ever taming the flame anew and anew, consecrating it and devoting it to use in Middle-garth. The rites of this old consecration have been lost, but from later customs of the people we can at least form an idea of their character. On certain festivals, or when the decline of luck intimated that a renewal was needed, the fire was quenched on every hearth; the inhabitants of the town assembled and called new fire to life by means of the ancient and venerable fire drill that lets wood beget fire out of wood. And from the new-born flame blessing was spread to stall and barn, and new life kindled on the hearth.

But when all is said, the dwellers in Middle-garth are not dependent upon goodwill in the souls; they are not only the crafty ones who know how to exploit the weakness or generosity of another; they can force him to obey their will. The hunter

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can master the game he pursues, so that it does not escape him, but on the contrary, comes in his way of its own free will; bears him no grudge, and does not plan vengeance for his onslaught. It is a far cry from soul to soul, there is a great gulf fixed between man and the things around him, and none can, in virtue of the life that is in him, directly influence another being so as to raise up impulses and tendencies out of its soul. But the more easy, then, it is to steal into an alien soul, and set it in motion by its own limbs and of its own strength. Appearance and qualities are not, as we have seen, accidental results of nature, and therefore, by accepting one of the peculiarities of the soul, one gathers up the soul in its entirety, and makes it one's own will. If one can but establish connection with the soul on a single point, one has the whole; life is as fully inherent in a little torn-off fragment of the body as in the leaping, spying, willing organism, and can one assimilate that little section into oneself, by eating it or binding it to one's body, then- one sucks up the whole soul. But the end can be attained as effectively by spiritual means; by mimic reproduction of the ways and behaviour of the body, one acquires the nature, and becomes possessed of the whole great full-bodied soul — or draws it at least half way into oneself. One can enter into the nature of a beast by pursuing its aims with its gestures, by imitating its stealing out in search of prey, its cry, its leap, its mode of eating, perhaps even its mating. And one can then, from within, bend the beast to one's will. Indeed, the “idea” itself, as we would say, is really sufficient to gain one mastery over the soul, if one can but get the idea fixed in a form amenable to treatment. Possibly the name is such a true symbol in which the soul is enclosed; then it is a charm to overcome the enemy. Some dangerous being or other places itself in a man's way, opens its jaws to swallow him, glares at him as if to turn him to stone; but he flings out his “I know your name” against the monster, and if it be true that he masters its name, it sinks down impotently or steals away scowling. But mastery implies that he knows all which the name stands for: the ways of the

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beast, its ferocity and its dodging; mastering implies real knowledge and familiarity or, in other words, power.

But he who knows the nature of things and understands how to avoid conflict, can also take action himself and exploit the world. Not only can he bind and cow his surroundings for a time, he is also able to establish a lasting feeling of solidarity, so as to build up frith between himself and the beings around him. He can unite himself with a soul outside the circle of mankind, imposing on it certain obligations towards him, with a reciprocal responsibility in no wise inferior to the honour of the circle of kinsmen. This can, however, only be attained by his mingling mind, as the old phrase runs, with the animal. He engrafts upon himself soul of its soul, so as to bring about between the two kinds of life an identity similar to that which binds all individuals of the beast species together in bodily unity. Such union takes place by transference of soul-fragments, and where it occurs must bring about full and complete transference of the alien nature into the foster-brother. Man adopts the soul of his new kinsman, acquiring both right and power to use its luck when need arises. Among the Germanic peoples we find but a few scattered relics of the time when men united themselves with animals, but right down into historical times we find evidence of a feeling of foster-brotherhood, and that, moreover, a very strong one. In the neighbourhood of Eric the Red's homestead in Greenland, there appeared one winter a great white bear which ravaged around, and when Thorgils, then a guest at Brattahlid, slew the beast to save his little son's life, he gained the praise of all men. Only Eric was silent, and though he made no objection to the customary disposal of the body for useful ends, it was understood that he was incensed at Thorgils' deed. Some said that Eric had cherished “ancient faith” in the beast. And the saga hints that the relationship between the two men was from that day even cooler than before; indeed, Eric sought to lead Thorgils into peril of life.

The wolf was generally considered as an uncanny beast, unheore and belonging to Utgard, but as part of the battle

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the beast entered into the soul of the professional warrior. The language had need of two words, vargr (Anglo-Saxon vearg) and úlfr (Anglo-Saxon vulf); vargr is the demon beast, and no man could be vargr unless he was bereft of frith, given over to trolls and roving beastlike in the woods; wolf, on the other hand, is a friend of the king, and his name is often borne among men. To be true to the ancient sense, we had perhaps better say that language needed two words, because there were two beings, the animal that enters into league with man, and the wild beast of the trolls. The use of Wolf as a title of honour for warriors and as a man's name, and still more the existence of Ylfing or Vylfing as a family name, implies that men might contract alliance with the beast, overcome the strangeness of the animal and draw it into a firm alliance; such wolf-men surely had wolf-nature, the strength of a wolf and part of his habits. It is a fair guess according to the hints of the ancient literature that the Ylfings were real wolf-men, and possibly some phrases in one of the Eddie poems hark back to a half forgotten reality: In the Lay of Helgi the young prince who is a “scion of the Ylfings” once, when he went about in disguise, alludes to himself as the grey wolf. Ketil Hæing (the Salmon) belonged to a race of the Lofotens where people to a large extent depended on the bounty of the sea for their living. His name is accounted for by a myth in the family saga, a pretty sure sign that there was some inner relationship between the man and the fish. Perhaps we may also see a legendary reflex of everyday fact in the story of Otr, the fisherman, who was able to change himself into an otter to catch fish for his meals. The words in which the Volsungasaga describes the nature of this Otr are too discerning to seem wholly dependent on late romancing; probably the author is indebted to popular wisdom, if not to ancient tradition. “Otr was a great fisherman, more skilful than other men; he took the shape of an otter and dived in the river and caught fish with his mouth .... He had in great measure the habits of the beast, and used to eat in solitude with his eyes shut, lest he should discover how his food dwindled.” In the Ynglingasaga the author has accidentally inserted a queer

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fragment of a family legend regarding a sparrow man. We learn that King Dag was wise enough to understand the language of birds, and further that he possessed a sparrow that flew far and wide, bringing information back to his master. In one of its rambles the sparrow settled in a field to peck at the ears of corn, whereupon the peasant picked up a stone and killed it. When Dag found out in what land the bird had lost its life, he set out on an avenging expedition and harassed the country of the slayer cruelly.

By virtue of his dominance over nature, man can also combine souls, and engraft the essence of one upon another. Thus he inspires that which his hands have worked on, and equips his implements with qualities calculated to render them useful in their calling. When be fastens a bunch of feathers to his arrow, he gives its flight the accuracy of a bird, perhaps also something of a bird's force in swooping on its prey; as surely as he gives himself a touch of bird-nature by fastening feathers about his body. Or he may, in the strength of his artistic faculty, content himself with a presentment of nature. He chisels a serpent on his sword, lays “a blood-painted worm along the edge” so that it “winds its tail about the neck of the sword”, and then lets the sword “bite”. Or be may use another form of art, he can “sing” a certain nature into his weapon. He tempers it in the fire, forges it with art and craft, whets it, ornaments it, and “lays on it the word” that it shall be a serpent to bite, a fire to eat its way. So also he builds his ship with the experience of a shipbuilder, paints it, sets perhaps a beast at the prow, and commands that it shall tread sure-footed as a horse upon the water. Naturally, the mere words are not enough, if there is no luck in them; they take effect only if the speaker can make them whole. How he contrives to accomplish this is a question too deep to enter into here, but as we learn to know him, we may perhaps seize upon one little secret after another.

The poet is a great man of luck. He has more word-luck than other men — this is apparent not only in the ring of his words but also in their effect upon men and natures. We, in our one-

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sidedness, are inclined to see only the æsthetic side of his production; as if all his art consisted in describing how the battle serpent smote from the hand of the warrior and bit deep into the brain of his foe, how the war-flame shone as the hero swung it aloft, and bit its man to death at every blow, how the birds of battle flew singing from the bow, how the sea-horses, the wave-gangers, trod the fish-meads. Such images are not to be thus lightly dismissed. “Sea-horse” is not a comparison, the poet does not say the ship is like — no, the ship is the thing he says; the ship does not go over the waves as a horse trots along firm road, but the sea horse treads the wave with an unfailing step. The poetic portrayal of the warrior as the tree of battle, which serves as padding in every other line for the sedulous scald, seems to belong to the North; at any rate, there is no certain trace of the figure in the poetry of other Germanic peoples. But whether specially Scandinavian or not, it has the authority of age. Later poets take pleasure in the picture of warriors as trees, standing in the storm of battle and waving their arms wildly while the death-dew pours down the trunk; the paraphrase itself says no more than that the warrior is the thick-stemmed, fast-rooted tree that is able to withstand many a cut of the axe without toppling over. The description of the ash in the runic catalogue is perhaps the best commentary here; “firm in the ground, holding its place even though many men make onslaught”, words which take their light from the double play of thought between the tough ash as a tree and the invincible ashen spear. Undoubtedly, that poet was a great man of luck who first inspired his chieftain with a soul that had for its dominant quality the stubbornly swinging firmness of the ash. The beauty of the poetic figure lay in its truth; for if the metaphor failed to express a reality, it had no poetic justification.

Through innumerable kinships, natures are knit together this way and that, until the world hangs in a web of frith. So man draws souls into his circle. For the present age, the war-cry is: rule. Be master of the earth, subdue creation is

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