The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[60] sent secretly from him, that he may not find a way to fall upon you; otherwise “you will not conquer in the fight for the justice of your cause, for terrible is the heathen fury of Chlodevech” — as the poor annalist words the utterance, in order to get as much civilized meaning into it as possible.

But the position could also be viewed from another side. The giver has entrusted a lump of his soul to another, and should the receiver chance to be clever or powerful enough to use the chance thus given him, the original owner may come to feel a stab in his will. A Frank of the 6th century, one of those wild fellows who, apparently, feared neither God nor devil, nor knew good from evil, dared not renounce his gift-brother, or take any decisive steps against him, as long as the gift-pact was not broken. Gundovald, the pretender, had shut himself up in Convenæ, when his slender luck had grown so worn that even his faithful friends realised they must look out for a future elsewhere. Then one of them, Mummolus, persuaded Gundovald to sally out and give himself up to his enemies; but on the way, be gave the unfortunate claimant to the throne this friendly counsel: “Those yonder might perhaps think it presumptuous on your part to come striding up in that golden belt of mine; better put on your own sword and give me back mine.” Gundovald's answer is plain enough, even in Gregory's uncomprehending paraphrase: “I understand your words; that which I have borne out of love for you shall now be taken from me.”

The gift was an unmistakable manisfestation, or rather crystallisation, of the goodwill, and to make sure of the sincerity of the other party one might wish to see his cordiality step out into the light. When Magnus the Good stood forth at the Uplands thing and promised forgiveness and favour to all who had conspired against his father King Olaf if they would turn to him with goodwill and a whole mind, Thrond accepted the offer as spokesman of the people: “My kinsmen have been unfriends of the king's race, but I myself had no part in Olaf's death; if you will exchange cloaks with me, then I will promise and keep good friendship.” The king was willing. “And will you also exchange weapons with me?” Thrond continued. This too [61] the king agreed to do. And afterwards Thrond invited the king home to his house and gave a splendid feast.

One who has exchanged weapons with a stranger can lie down to sleep by his side; he can do no harm. One can even leave the other to keep guard against a third party, for the security produced by the gift is not restricted to a passive refraining from action. “As father to son, as son to father, thus the two now reconciled meet in all doings together where need shall arise,” runs the formula. What jurist or moralist would have hit upon the idea of painting those colours above all upon the ideal to make a difficult virtue more enticing? Noble forgetfulness may be idealised into a noble consideration, but to encourage enemies to be reconciled in order that they can help each other is only done when there is a reality behind to dictate the conditions. And the reality is this, that the gift comes dripping with memories and honour, and surrenders itself with friends and foes, gods and forefathers, past and future purpose. The will is bound, in the only way will could be bound in the old days, by having new contents and a new aim engrafted on it.

It is solely by virtue of these regenerating qualities that a gift is able to touch the wells from which feelings arise; it fosters not only unity of will, but also affection, joy and well-being in a relationship.

Marriage was founded on love, but according to the Germanic conception, there was no idea of love appearing before the marriage had been solemnised and married life commenced; all anticipation could be spared, since it was known that when all formalities were duly and properly carried out, affection would surely come. “And they soon grew to love each other,” say the sagas of happily married couples. But we know, too, at what tune affection grew and became strong between the two, it was on the morning of the second day, when the husband, by his gift, confirmed, or “fixed” the reality of their first embrace. The bride had her morning gift promised the day when their union was finally decided upon, most commonly perhaps, as in Sweden, on the day of the wedding, and it was due to her from the morning after the pair had slept one night together. These [62] two acts, the embrace and the gift, are the origin of love; and therefore they hold good — in lace of a law that only respects realities — as the two necessary conditions for true marriage, and therefore also they express all possibilities of warmth of feeling between man and woman. In a world where love is thus given and taken there is no room for sentimental longing and sighing; a lover feeding upon fond wishes is simply sick in mind, and would perhaps be well advised to consider whither such sickness leads. For healthy romanticism in the old days we should look to Margaret of Stokkar, and seek behind the simple words wherewith she bemoans her fate, when King Magnus, on his way through the place, wishes to share her couch: “Heavy it seems to me, first to find love for him and then to lose him.”

This utterance of the maiden who suffered at the thought of a morning which should not fuffil the promise of the night, together with the words of the Swedish Uppland Law anent the morning gift whereby a wife is “honoured”, furnish the explanation of the womanly element: the wife's anxiety, when she, dreams of danger and wakes to warn her husband, as well as the maiden's ambition, when she sits among her kin considering possible suitors according to their birth, their wealth, their fame — or their scanty sell-assertion; when she sends a lover away because he has proved himself hardly up to her standard in his dealings with his neighbours, she does so because she hungers for love in her marriage. It needs honour to wake her senses, for family fame and family wealth, clan traditions and ancestors' deeds make up the minds of women as well as of men. And the affection with which she regards her husband is frith: which is to say, that far from being a mere intellectual appendage to her spiritual life her love is instinct and energy that makes her fight for the one she loves, and it can never become so tender but that it will maintain its character as zeal. Let us take widowhood immediately beside wifehood, see that the widow's sorrow has the bitterness of an affront, that it is permeated with an active element which drives out all despair.. and all resignation, that it is healed by restitution, and then we are perhaps as near as we can ever get to feeling what the [63] love of those times really was — that love which gives Thurid the Great Widow her greatness. Then we may also come near to realising that love has its origin in taking over the honour of the husband, with all it contains of possessions and acquisitions, and that if the suitor can but get so far as to lay his gift in the maiden's lap, he has already won her favour. And in return, should the bargain be broken, the wife goes away without a lingering glance. The dissolution of an exchange of gifts causes a separation of the feelings so united, whereafter they seek back each to its original owner.

From this point of view, the old stories take on a different appearance. Much of that which seemed distorted will show forth in natural proportions, and much that slipped away from the modern conception as immaterial stands out with tragic force.

The old author of the Beowulf has a peculiar ring of rich experience in his voice: he thinks many thoughts about these Danes and Geats, and for the most part, his thoughts are melancholy. When he mentions Hrothgar's daughter, he cannot but remember that it was she who was to marry Froda's son Ingeld, to settle the old dispute between the two peoples, her Danes and his Heathobards. But luck was destined to fail her. When she went to her new home, it would be bitter for the warriors there to see her Danish retinue openly bearing trophies of old Heathobard weapons. Some grey-haired retainer, no doubt, will remember too well the day those weapons changed hands, and cry to Ingeld: “See, know you that sword, the precious one, that your father bore to battle for the last time, when the Danes defeated him and took the arms of the slain ?“ One day his words ring through, and the alien boaster pays forfeit with his life. Then all oaths are broken, hatred wells up in Ingeld's heart, and his love to the woman turns cold. There is something in this psychic catastrophe which we cannot bring out in our words; as soon as the bargain is broken and the Danes, who were thereby engrafted on the king's honour, torn out, there is no longer love in him.

It is the same immediate breach which makes Brynhild's story a test of our understanding of love among our ancestors, [64] and the despair of the writer who would express his understanding in a tongue smoothed to the needs of lyrical sentiment.

“I will tell you my wrath,” this is the portal of entry to Brynhild's confession. Her brooding is not the self-consuming turning and twisting that drives the musing of the bereaved farther and farther down into the soul, opening on to ever deeper and deeper sorrow. She ponders, her thoughts are turned forward, as she builds her plans for restitution or vengeance. As she lies there with the bed clothes drawn over her head, all know she lies there to think, and when she opens her mouth and speaks to her husband, the word is ready forged: “You shall lose both kingdom and goods, life and me, and I fare to my kin, if you will not slay Sigurd — and see to it that you do not let the whelp live after the wolf.”

Her rage is naturally directed towards Sigurd; she must be worst to him whom she loves best. Not because love is paradoxical in its being, but because it is rational. She had sworn to love only that man who had no peer and proved his prowess by leaping the flames with which her bower was encircled. This feat was achieved by Gunnar, and she welcomed him and loved him; but this Gunnar was in reality the dragon-slayer Sigurd, who had changed shapes with his sworn brother to help him to his heart's desire. One day Brynhild's eyes are opened, she is not married to the greatest hero in the world. She can claim that he has not played fair, in transferring his own feat to Gunnar; but the affront has its force in something else: Sigurd sins most unforgivably in being the greatest, greater than Gunnar; his crime is not less that he slew the serpent and took the gold, as Gunnar did not. We find the same undeserved fate when Brynhild's later personification, Gudrun Usvif's daughter, was led to hate Kjartan because Bolli had falsely spread the rumour that he had settled in Norway, and by that lie had taken her from the one with whom she had exchanged vows; Kjartan's crime lay in the fact that he came home, and by being unchanged himself, left her as the breaker of their compact, that she had thought herself freed from.

The misfortune in the life of these two women is not, as we [65] assume, baffled love, it is a feeling of guilt, a dishonouring of themselves; and Kjartan as well as Sigurd is — whether wittingly or unwittingly — the cause of the sin that their betrothed committed by marrying another husband. For our culture, which never accords responsibility more scope than circumstances grant it, the emphasis lies on the will to wrong; for us a Brynhild and a Gudrun become heroines in a tragedy of marriage. If on the contrary, it is experience of the effects of guilt that fill the soul, the question as to will and mischance and necessity is overshadowed by other problems, and to gain insight into the nature of passion and the right of passion, one must understand the logical calculation of ethical gain and loss which alone applies in the self-examination of our ancestors. The sternly cold definition of a promise is: not a pledge to truth or any similar third party, but a two-sided bargain between you and him. If the bargain be broken, your soul suffers thereby, because a part of it is fixed in the other party; and the damage is equally dangerous whether it be you or he that fails, or some accident that upsets the contract. Inevitably the disappointment glides in under ethical earnest, which, while knowing well enough the difference between a flaw from within and a breach from without, does not recognise the two as essentially opposites. A wrong for which one is oneself to blame is the nearer to dissolution of self in that there is nowhere to seek restitution; but to the ethical judgement it is no less a fault to suffer affront than to cause it, inability to preserve oneself is on a par with failing to do so. And before this feeling of responsibility, one's neighbour shall be judged: between him who prevents me from asserting myself and him who is the cause wherefore I cannot there is no distinction — both are guilty.

The soul-sickness which brings about the wreck of Brynhild consists in a sin against the sacredness of the word. She had by a solemn vow bound herself to wed none but him who should be greatest, and here she found her word broken; whether knowingly or unknowingly, whether she had acted in good faith or not, her honour, her self, was sundered. “Ill comes to those whose promises turn against them;” in this outburst

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