The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[12] joyfully accepts them. When a poem, or a piece of music has been heard to its end, it appears, not as a series of individual details, but as a total impression, the character of which depends on the art of the producer; it lies with his phrasing to determine whether the correct rhythmical proportion shall be given, between that which in the creator's mind was yearning, pointing forward, and sinking, dissolving; whether its arsis and thesis have that balance which they ever had in his ear as he wove them together, and made them so nearly of equal weight that they could reinforce each other. What is the rhythm in the Beowulf, or rather, what was the rhythm to those hearers? One thing is certain; the scene in the hall, where the gold is given and received, is no less weighty than the episodes in which the reward is earned. The old listeners would not let themselves be cheated of any of the excitement of the fight, they demanded that all horror and dread should be shewn dark and threatening as they were; but they would also enjoy calmly and at their ease the spectacle of the hero, as he stands in the firelight with the necklace on his breast and sword in hand. The portrayal of the feast in Heorot after the fight, when the “happy” ones moved to their benches and took their fill of the laden board, when cups of mead unnumbered passed around, when Hrothgar gave Beowulf war-treasures, helmet and mail and far-famed sword – and the helm was encircled by a finely wrought curl – when the queen gave him arm rings and neck rings – and these were the finest the world had ever seen since the famous Brosings' necklace was brought home – this description is at any rate no coda where the past excitement is gently resolved, and thoughts given back to the daily routine. The rejoicing in the hall – the hall dream – and the joy of gold are the keynote which unites the different scenes into one whole. For us moderns, accustomed to seeing the poetry of a narration come to an end at the point where the hero has set his foot on the last of his foes, or the last of the demons, it is strange to see how in the old days – and not only in the north of Europe – men could swoop down upon the sense of victory, create therefrom a counter-tension no weaker than the tension [13] of the fight, and write half the epic on the themes of triumph and feasting and games.

And the poet is true to himself, even in little things. He surrenders himself with emotion to the story of gold and treasures, of men who give and men who receive, and the same transport shows through again and again in his images and phrases. Through the poetic formula of which the Beowulf, in epic wise, is composed, gold rings audibly and unceasingly, the king is always ring-breaker, meter of treasures, his men are gold-cravers, and the hall is the place where the prince of battles is heard handing out rings amid the cries of men: and the meaning is not less sincere because these images belong to the traditional speech of the poets.

Yes, the heart of the Northman or the Greek laughed in his breast when he received a copper kettle or a bracelet. Odysseus' first waking thought, after he has been brought ashore sleeping by the Phæacians, is to count his copper vessels, and see if they have honestly given him all his gifts: “And then he counted all his splendid tripods and cauldrons, the gold and the woven magnificent garments, and lo, there was not one lacking; then he sighed for his homeland.” The Germanic people have even more heroic expressions for the dependence upon gold. Beowulf, at the hour of death, wishes to look his fill upon treasures he has won: Full well he knew that his days' burden of earth-luck was borne to the end, ended the number of his days, death trod upon his heels . . . Run with speed, Wiglaf, beloved, to the serpent stone, where the treasure is hid; haste thee swiftly that the treasure of eld, the brand of the gold, the gleam of the stones, may fill mine eyes, and life and rule pass away more gently for the treasure.

This heroic tendency to care for gold and bronze and heap them up in roomy vaults and halls beats through the souls of men, without, however, involving any apparent effacement of all great feelings, or any withering of the mind. Egil, perhaps the deepest, and certainly one of the most wholly human personalities of old time, this Egil has in the fragmentary verses he left behind him, given us a Song of Songs upon the theme [14] of greed. Love of gold lends expression to the feeling of friendship, as when Egil pours his intense sorrow at the fall of Arinbjorn into the little verse: Scattered and thin shine now the men who flamed as a fire in the light, they who strewed the embers of the gold far apart. Where shall I know seek men quick to give, as those who sent the snow of the melting-pot (silver) hailing down over my hawk-seat (i.e. the arm of the hunger).

If greed assumed heroic proportions, its opposite, generosity, was no less grandly framed. In a king, this quality must necessarily prevail to such a marked degree that no one could ever make any mistake as to who was meant by the “giver of treasures”. The worst that could ever be said of a prince was that he was sparing his gold. The sons of Eric made themselves generally hated and despised throughout Norway by keeping their money buried in the earth “like peasants of no account”. Part of the king's luck was the will and power to strew “Frodi's meal” about in the light of day, and thus the men in the Beowulf could from the miserliness of the king conclude that lucklessness was eating him up from within. In the monarchical Norway, it might perhaps be a suspicious usurpation of a royal prerogative to exert this power to its full extent, but to a certain degree, openhandedness was necessary in any great man. It amounted to a proud self-declaration, indicating that a man reckoned his luck roomy enough to shelter others under his wing.

These two opposite traits in the Northmen's view of gold and treasures, cannot be smoothed over by individual psychology. Each of them can be separately developed to a degree of perfection almost unknown to us, without cancelling each other or limiting each other's justification; generosity did not involve blame or illwill towards fondness for gold, even where the latter amounts to what we should call positive greed. When the radii run so near the parallel, the centre must lie deep indeed. The sharpest contrasts in human life mark the deepest unity.

There is hardly a sorrow in the world that gold has not power to cure. In the Volsungasaga we find the might words: [15] “Giver her gold, and soften thus her wrath.” So Gudrun, weeping, to Sigurd, when Brynhild sits kneading her plans of vengeance firmer and firmer, and all are waiting with dread for the end. But Brynhild was beyond the measure of women, and her indignation beyond all woman's pain, and therefore, and for that alone, gold was powerless to move her. In gold, Egil could find comfort and forget his better sorrow at his brother's death. After the battle of Winheath, he sat stern and wrathful in Æthelstan's hall, did not lay aside his weapons, but smote his sword up and down in its sheath, while his eyebrows worked convulsively; he would not drink when drink was offered him – until Æthelstan took a great and good ring from his own arm and passed it across the fire; then his eyebrows settled into their place, and he could enjoy the drink. Æthelstan added thereto much silver, and then Egil began to be glad. He broke out into the enthusiastic verse, that bears the poet's marked features in every line: The overhanging cliffs of the eyelids hung down in anger. Now I found him who could smooth the furrows of the brow. With an arm ring the prince has thrust open the barring rocks of the face. Dread is gone from the eyes.

But no less surely can a gift plough up hatred of the giver in him who receives it, when it does not come at a fitting time. We, too, feel, perhaps, somewhat offended if a mere casual acquaintance seeks to honour us with gifts presuming that his warmth of feeling is absolutely sufficient to produce a reciprocal warmth in us. But here there is something more, a flare of anger, exhibiting hatred and bitterness outwardly, and fear within. The illwill finds its most violent expression the case of unwelcome gifts from a king. When Kjartan, on his first meeting with Olaf Tryggvason, was given his cloak as a present, his friends expressed their marked disapproval of his having so freely demeaned himself, placing himself in the king's power and under his friendship. On another occasion, the recipients of kingly gifts are scornfully called thralls. But the king too could flare up when any dared to show him a challenging honour by offering him a “gift of a friend”.

The two poles in the effect of a gift are united in the story [16] of Einar Skálaglam and Egil. The promising young poet once visited his famous brother artist, and not finding him at home, left as a present a splendid shield. But Egil was wrath. “Ill-fortune fall on him, “ he exclaimed, and by way of doing what he could towards the fulfilment of the wish, he proposed to ride after him and slay him. Einar, however, had gone too far for the matter to be thus easily settled; what then was to be done? Egil sat there with the gift, could not get rid of it, and – “the friendship between Egil and Einar lasted as long as they lived.”

It is not the treasure which causes fear or anger in the receiver; it is something in it which he timorously feels clutching at his arm as he touches it.

Such transfer carries with it more than the mere passing of property in externals; the gifts has an inner value in proportion to the giver, something which is expressed in the name which goes with weapons and valuables. In Iceland, the name is generally formed by combination with nautr; this suffix is derived from the verb njota, to enjoy or to be able to use, and expresses a spiritual connection between the thing and the original possessor, and the deeper meaning involved is made clear by such expression as the Anglo-Saxon wœpna neólan (in the verse of “the Battle of Maldon”), to make good use of his weapon. Andvaranautr is the name given in the saga to the fateful ring which Loki took from Andvari; Konungsnautr was the name given in real life to weapons or garments received from the king's hand.

A gift carries with it something from the former owner, and its former existence will reveal itself, whether the new possessor wishes it or not. A king's gift has not only a more than usually sharp point, a particularly finely worked hilt – it strikes with luck. In order to know with what feelings the gift was received, we must go to the gift while it was in the possession of the clan itself, and see what it counts for there. When Glum took leave of his mother's father, Vigfus, in Norway, the latter gave him a cloak, a spear and a sword, with the words: “I feel that we shall never meet again, but these valuables I will give you [17] and while you own them, I am sure that you will not lose your good fame; but if you part with them, I have great fears for your future.” And Glum and his kinsmen are not alone in their faith in these heirlooms. When he, later in life, presents them to his best friends by way of thanks for valuable assistance in one of his many difficult affairs with his neighbours, his opponents consider that the time is ripe for a successful action against him. They are not mistaken; for the first time it happens that Glum is overmatched. And with this, his luck is really at an end once and for all, at any rate, he never again became the great man he had been. Hoskuld, on his deathbed, gives his illegitimate son, Olaf the Peacock, the gold ring called Hakon's nautr and the sword King's nautr, and with them his own luck and that of all his kin: “and this I do not say as being unaware that the luck of the family has taken up its dwelling with him.” The murmur of the eldest son shows how significant Hoskuld's disposition was considered in those times.

The new ting of unreality – symbolism – that is almost imperceptibly beginning to creep into Hoskuld's and his sons' relations with the gifts in question can be seen growing up even in the saga times. The transition had set in, whereby “it means” imperceptibly thrusts itself forward in front of the more robust “it is.” Nevertheless, there is no lack of clear reminders that the gift retained throughout its relation to a certain circle of people. In the words of the saga of Grettir: “the sword was their treasure, and had never been out of the family,” there lies an understanding of what such a sword really was, and how sacred, and as long as the unity between kinsmen still draws on the old customs, reverence for the heirlooms as such preserved something of the old conviction. The axe which Thorgrim Helgason, in 1450, gave Olaf Thorevilson “in full and complete reconciliation”, was not an ordinary weapon, it had been the axe of Olaf's family, -- as the contracting parties find it worth putting down in the legal document.

Right down to the late traditions, the connection between the family and its possession has retained its value as the poetic essential. In Denmark, we read of the Rautzau family, that [18] its fortunes were bound up with certain heirlooms, a golden spinning wheel and a golden sabre – or, according to other sources, a handful of gold pieces – which a countess of the blood had once been given by the folk from underground in return for aiding one of their women in childbirth. A variant of the legend has the peculiar addition that those branches of the family which carefully preserved their part of the inheritance always threw out fresh shoots, while others, less punctilious, became extinct. Family treasures are more often met with in local legends, as in the case of the wild boar's pelt that guards the manor of Voergaard in Jutland against fire and other mishap. Whether these legend be the direct outcome of ancient family tradition, or perhaps are localised folk-tales, the idea is the same as that which once inspired the Icelandic pictures of real life.

Poetic symbolism and experience meet in strange wise in the story of Sigmund the Volsung and his treasured weapon. He goes through life with victory and luck residing in the old sword, Odin's gift. The last battle is struck from his hand by the god himself, meeting him in the midst of the affray and shattering the sword with his spear. When the battlefield is searched, and he is found bleeding, he refuses to have his wounds bound up: “Many indeed have kept their lives where hope seemed slight; but luck has deserted me.” But in his son, the broken luck is to become whole again; when he grows up, the fragments of the weapon are to be forged together. “He will wield the sword and do many a mighty deed, and his name shall live while our world stands.” His wife, Hjordis, carefully preserves the pieces, and when the time is come, Regin forges from them the famous Gram, wherewith Sigurd slays the serpent Fafnir. The poet refines his reflection almost into profound wit in emphasising the parallel between the human and its image; but the profundity is of that warm sort that rather feels than thinks its way to a result.

Beside the Volsungasaga, the saga of Hord appears as the stay-at-home beside one versed in the ways of the world. There, the thought comes simply and naturally, in a form which has not been polished by any clever poet. Before her hated marriage

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