The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


bandit legends, in which the exception claims a certain romance purely and solely by virtue of his exceptional position.

The greater, then, is the effect upon the reader of the discovery that the narrators cannot clear their heroes from the brand of Cain! So deeply rooted is the feeling that the transition to the state of outlawry is an alteration of character, that the Icelanders, even in the romantic days of epigon art, cannot hold a character unchanged through its passage beyond the boundary. No healthy Norseman behaves as Gunnar of Hlidarendi when he went about Iceland as an outlaw who had broken his own promises: he accepts Olaf the Peacock's invitation to seek safety at his homestead, and when the time comes, he remains at home, simply because he lacks the will to go; or, expressed in terms of literary history, no story-teller would think of ascribing to a man of luck the instability which was characteristic of the niding. And an admired popular hero like Grettir loses ethically — in the old sense of the word, of course — in the course of his outlawry. In the light of beautifying sympathy, the tragic element only appears more bitter, when a man enters upon base robbery and villainy with mingled feelings in which the two components: self-scorn and recognition of the futility of resistance, accentuate each other.

Self-assertion is only found where luck is, where there is an honour to fight for, and where the fight leads to an increase of honour. With the niding, who lives but a fiction of human life, battle and defence are but a blind biting and snapping and snarling as of a beast, or rather, as of certain beasts, the niding beasts. The more he toils, the greater dishonour he brings upon himself. Not even the last resource open to any living man, of gaining honour in defiance by his death, is here available; there is not sufficient honour in him to make him worthy of vengeance. To slay him is merely putting him out of mischief.

Without frith and without joy — here we have the end of the niding's saga; these two “withouts” fix the gulf between kinship and nidinghood. Without the life that consists in the feeling of kinship, in the tacit recollection of kin-luck's history in oneself and one's kin, in the family pride's faith in the future,


none can have the signs of life: the well-being of converse when stretched on the bench, and the half scornful, half rejoicing boisterous laughter, produced, apparently, by the mere movement, when a man “proud of his strength” breaks out into a run. A man cannot fill his lungs for a burst of laughter when the arteries close their valves. In the niding, the vital artery is sundered, and therefore, all power of joy rapidly ebbs away.

Death, rightly considered, means a state without luck. We must remember that the word is to be taken absolutely, so that there is no room for intermediate states and the thought of a transition form cannot find a way in. The poor men of low degree had but a very slender luck, so slender that seen from above it might perhaps be invisible altogether, but none could be called a man of unluck as long as he owned house and home and kin, and still felt himself as the defender of an honour. How poor a man might be without falling out of humanity I do not know; the boundary lay probably now higher, now lower, according to the state of things in society. But even the very poorest must, as surely as they were alive, possess a luck on which they lived, and which they cultivated with religious intensity. Not even thralls can be taken as a sort of transition form, for they are wholly and completely outside all forms of luck. They have no life in themselves, but are inspired by the power of their owner, and remain in equilibrium as long as it is suffered to act through them. There is no other intermediate state but that in which young men found themselves in the time intervening between the slaying of their father and the taking of vengeance; a period when they went about as shadows, in all the ghastliness of a shadow-life, making wide circles to avoid any meeting of men. The transition, which with the sureness and inevitability of time completes itself merely by being left to itself, is the only intermediate state between luck and unluck.

In the modern languages, misfortune has something positive about it. Our civilization has imbued calamity with a sort of nobility, or at least clothed it with a sentimental pathos. But in ancient times, unluck, or lucklessness, as the Icelanders call


it, was altogether evil, a denudation, and a negative where all ideality sank through without finding foothold. The fearfulness of death consists in its annihilating humanity and setting something else in its place. The niding is not a mere nothing which one can pass through unscathed, as one cleaves a spirit. To the Germanic mind he was abhorrent, the most contemptible of all beings, but he was even more feared than abhorred.

Mighty powers are let loose in him. He could not tame them if he would. But he will not. He who is bereft of honour has no will in the human sense; but then there is another sort of will, or rather an impulse, that holds him and rules him. Our forefathers found the opposite of will not in slackness and lack of will-power, but in something which must rather be called witchcraft, the meaningless, mad wickedness which is accompanied by mysterious powers of mischief. We know from the sagas what an atmosphere of dread environed these real wizards and witches; and we know that the devilish element in them lay not in such simple arts as that of acting at a distance, sending their will through the air, changing their shape and travelling through time as well as space. Whether their actions and movements are externally more or less akin to those of human beings is really immaterial, because they invariably take place in other dimensions than the human, and are inspired by other and alien motives. The characteristic feature of the wizard is the evil aimlessness that marks his whole mode of action, in contrast to the man who is conscious of his aim in all he does, whether for good or ill. A man's weapons may indeed have the peculiarity that no wound from them can heal; but it is luck which gives the power, and luck may be gained from the blood of the owner, when he is slain in revenge. A wizard, on the other hand, has poison of the soul both in his hand and in his weapons, and his blood is a pestilence that one should beware of touching with one's hands or one's clothes. This is why his eyes are so evil that a glance from them is enough to scorch away the fertility of a region, and it is this perverse nature of his soul which makes his mere presence give rise to optical delusions in


all bystanders. He can be exterminated, but poisonous as he is, his destruction must be prepared and carried out with the greatest care, so that one can go home afterwards with the assurance than none of his venom has been left in one's garments, and that he is altogether effaced from off the earth. Men try to burn him to dust, to pile a mound of stones upon him, transfix him with a stake to the ground, or drown him far out from land —no precautionary measure is too great.

The fear of the wizard, the nature of the hatred, the eagerness to have him exterminated — all these are applicable to the niding. The peasants have still retained their fear of the uncanny vagabonds in the human world, whose mere presence brings misfortune. When a thief, a murderer, a whore, a witch, that is to say, in the old tongue, nidings, look at the naked breast of an infant, the child will fall into a decline; or, still nearer the old mode of thought, if a whore strike a man, he will never after be able to defend himself against an enemy; all that is in him is poisoned by the pest. The curse of Hading lies not only in the fact that wherever he goes he carries with him misfortune that falls upon others by mistake, — he simply exhales pestilence. The infectiousness of the niding is the reality of life behind the law's anathema of the outlaw. None may have intercourse with him, sit or sleep in the same house with him, and this prohibition arises out of the deeper fact that people will not allow his company to poison their bread and sleeping place.

The distinguishing mark of the niding is that one never knows what he will do; in him appears the same unreliability that stamps the demoniac character of the giant. Nothing in him, nothing about him is what it seems, but always something else. Outlaw, or breaker of peace, and unheore are words that suggest one another when people talk. When the Anglo-Saxon poet comes to describe the fate of Ishmael, who was the opponent of his own kin, he calls him unheore and battle-wild. The man of unluck is regarded with the same mixture of hate, contempt and horror as the real giants of Utgard, for no other reason than that he belongs to the host of the monsters. An essential


change has taken place in him; the healthy blood has dried up, and dangerous fluids have taken its place; venom instead of blood flows in his veins, as with the giants.

It is related of a strong man called Thorstein Oxfoot, that he had a nasty tussle with a giantess, and after that time he was a little strange, with a touch of something uncanny about him. The narrator leaves it an open question whether his misfortune arose from his having swallowed some of her spittle during the fight, or if it was a sickness dating from his earliest days, when he was carried out to perish as a child. It is of interest to note that the state of a child who has not been regularly born into a clan is placed on a line with the powers that are abroad in the world of the night.

Utgard, then, is not only a power standing without and pressing upon human life; it thrusts itself into house and home if men are not careful. No wonder that the fight against a thing so horrible should be waged with the greatest force. If the evil one be a king, then so much the greater peril for his surroundings that he should lie at the very centre of luck like a venomous worm brooding over the treasure of kings. It is a matter affecting all when his luck is dissolved, and — as we read in Busla's curse over King Hring — “mountains stagger, the world is disturbed, the weather turns ill, and those things happen which should not.” To avoid being stifled in the breath that goes out from him, and seeing all possessions withered in frost and rime and barrenness, there is no other way but to efface him from the earth. And he was indeed torn up by the roots.

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