The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[66] of Brynhild's lies the whole curse of self, from its ethical humiliation, to the dread of the future as a storm of misfortune gathering round the breach of troth committed and driven forward by the nidinghood that lurks behind an irreparable act.

The catastrophe comes in a moment. Brynhild married Gunnar, and the two soon grew to love each other. This we may safely add, even though the story itself had not both directly and indirectly given us to understand that there was nothing unusual to remark about that marriage; healthiness was a patent of greatness and nobility, and Brynhild was greater than all women, therefore her greatness must show itself in the fact that what was healthy and natural was eminently present in her. But the moment the truth is made manifest, her love is transformed and fastened upon Sigurd; and yet, change and transformation have little to do with men and women whose passion is ever to maintain their inner continuity and whose ethical hatred is directed against the offender, who seeks to effect a breach in the personality of another. She gave herself the day she bound herself with an oath of loyalty to the man who should penetrate into her fastness of fire; not Gunnar, not Sigurd, nor another, but him, and the unity in herself is based on the fact that the vow is her love, and the day Sigurd stood forth as the rightful claimant to Gunnar's place in the world, it was him she loved — and thus it was he who had offended her.

There is the conflict, in the insoluble opposition between two realities each of which excludes the other. Sigurd has the promise, and Gunnar has the love, as the consequence of marriage. The modern tragedy of love will come to centre round the misfortune that a passion should exist which can never attain to fulfilment; Brynhild perishes from the impossibility of being the woman she is. When Gudrun twits her with possessing only the next best hero in the world, she points in proof to the ring on her own arm; Brynhild looks at the treasure and recognises it: it is the ring she gave Sigurd in exchange the day he came to her through the flames. In the gift, he and Brynhild have [67] mingled mind, and only now does she learn that she has broken their interchange of soul.

The poet who now in full earnest re-experienced and recreated the intensity of this old love, would in and by his work have ostracised himself from the culture of his age; and despite all the laudatory words that have been lavished on the Davids and Jonathans of the past, the old friendship is likewise a dead glory which cannot be resucitated in modern words, because words can only express that which exists. We are incapable of reconstructing the ancient harmony. Friendship in the ancient sense implied cool calculation of interest and unreserved loyalty, and so far from limiting one another, sell-assertion and self-oblivion grew in the same proportion; friendship is not maintained by affection; on the contrary, the bond of union gives growth to and upholds affection; its joy is the loving converse in words mingling mind with mind, and nevertheless, the complete surrender which we feel germinating through spiritual intercourse was then the primary condition of confidence. In the story of the foster-brothers Thorgeir and Thormod, we learn what friendship will enact of its votaries. When Thorgeir was slain, the slayer fled beyond the sea to Greenland; Thormod followed, disguised himself as a beggar, suffered himself to be hunted like a wild beast, lay stricken with wounds in eaves and desert places, and returned home with the lives of five men in his axe as vengeance for his friend. And yet there is not a whit of sell-sacrifice, only honour. Friendship is will all through, but a will that has its roots in the unconscious regions of the mind scorning the inclination or lack of inclination of the moment, yet the affection is at an end when the gifts have been returned. To us who see only the elements at play, and laboriously try to reconstruct the harmonious feeling of frith that fired the souls, friendship will probably leave an impression of something cold and intellectual, and yet friendship is filled with emotion almost to overflowing.

The devotion of the warrior is one of the oldest and best established virtues of the Germanic character. Half astounded, half impressed, the civilized Roman looked upon the chieftain's [68] guard, that fought as long as their leader fought, or voluntarily shared his captivity, and to his conservative Roman mind the whole-hearted devotion of the barbarian warriors was a splendid manifestation of duty. Tacitus understood that this self-devotion was unreserved, and could thus hardly choose his words otherwise than with a predominant idea of duty; but those who have themselves experienced the rejoicing of an army hardly see the duty for the enthusiasm that holds the will supple. In history, a hundred years may sometimes be as a single day, and the feeling has hardly changed much from the generations which shook the first centuries to and the Christian poet who interpreted the loyalty of disciples in German, in the words of St. Thomas:

"It is a man's pleasure to stand fast by his Lord, and willingly die with him. This will we all; follow him on his way, counting our lives of little worth, and die with the King in a strange land.” And again; the lapse of time which separates the Heliand from Hallfred the Wayward Scald is as nothing in spiritual history, so differently do the centuries run in Germany and the North. To Hallfred, King Olaf's fall is a heart-felt sorrow, the only sorrow that could ever bring him to his knees. “The northlands are left waste on the death of the King, all joy is faded on the fail of Tryggvason, the shunner of flight,” so he makes his plaint, and the plaint awakened sympathy in all listeners. Even his opponent, Gris, dull everyday fellow as he is reckoned, realises most keenly Hallfred's plight, merely because he himself has served kings. The saga relates that on the day when these two men were to settle their painful differences by single combat, came the news of Olaf's death, and Hallfred went off as if stricken by a stone and took to his bed. When Gris heard words of scorn sent after him, he said: “Nay, nay, not so; I myself never attained to such honour in the service of the king of Gardariki as did Hallfred with Olaf, and yet I have never known such heavy tidings as of my chieftain's fall.”

But this exstacy, which welcomed death at the master's death as a boon, can find no explanation of its own being but this: he gave, and I received; he, the gold-breaker, I, the receiver of treasure. [69]

Wiglaf spake, the son of Weohstan, —mournful he looked on those men unloved:

“Who sooth will speak, can say indeed that the ruler who gave you golden rings and the harness of war in which ye stand

— for he at ale-bench often-times bestowed on hall-folk helm and breastplate, lord to liegemen, the likeliest gear which near or far he could find to give, —threw away and wasted these weeds of battle, on men who failed when the foemen came!. . .“

Equally pure is the note again in the youngest of all heroic poems in the Anglo-Saxon, the Battle of Maldon, written, so to speak, upon an historic battle-ground. First of the traitor:

“First turned to flight Godric, and left the lord who had given him many an horse,” then of the faithful: “All saw they, hearth-fellows, that their lord was dead; eagerly they hasted forward with courage, all would perish or avenge the dear one,” and finally, the bravest of the brave: “Then he had won that he vowed to his chieftain, uttered aforetime in the ring-giver's hall, that they twain should ride to the burgh, home with whole limbs, or both should lie weary with wounds on the field. Like a true warrior, he lay by the side of his lord.”

The poem of allegiance par excellence in the Nordic, the Bjarkamál, is only preserved in the Latin paraphrase of Saxo. We can form no true idea as to its ring in the old language, but the matter of Saxo's meandering verse tells on the other hand plainly enough of his general adherence to the spirit of the original; all that lay outside his culture and therefore outside his power of conception can only have been taken from his source. The poem runs through the entire soul-gamut of the body-guard, from the coolest assurance of will to self-forgetfulness in another, and the king's man returns again and again to the joy of gold, in order to be certain of himself. Here the poem takes its first flight:

“Gladly we render again to the prince his gifts, gladly we grasp the sword and harden our blade's edge in honour. The swords, the helms, the rings Hrolf strewed among his men, the [70] byrnies reaching to our heels, these whet our hearts for the fight. Now is the time come, now is the honour, that we with good blows give worth again for what was given us when we stretched our limbs in frith upon the bench...

“All these vows we made above the cup with the ale to our lips, each one an oath sworn by the high gods, those we now fulfil. Greatest of Danes is my Lord...

“The King is fallen, and with his fall their day was come, those who were none so craven as to let their blows fall upon earth, so little battle-wont as to fear to avenge their chieftain, flinging away honour, the prize of the bold...

“Go we forward now as Hrolf taught us. Hroerek he slew,. the miser king, the heaper-up of treasures to rust in dishonour, whose hall grew void of honour-loving men. Hrolf slew him; plundered his closets and made his friends to shine in the bright gear of the niding. Never a thing so fair to him but he strewed it abroad, never too costly to clothe a henchman. His years he reckoned by harvest of honour, not by store of gold...

“Naught withstood him whereas he strode, blazing with boldness, no meaner in strength than mighty to see. As the river foams into the sea he flung himself into the fight; hasting to battle as the hart leaps over the land.

“I see him, the atheling of Frodi, stand laughing in the wave-clash of battle, sower of gold, upon the Sirtvold. We too are filled with joy, with firm steps following our splendid father down the road of fate . . . . There is fame after death. What boldly men built in time of might no time shall destroy...

“Shields behind! Let us fight with bared breast. Make heavy the arms with gold, hang rings upon the right, that blows may fall the harder. In, under the swords, to avenge our loved lord. Him I name happiest, who with the sword heaps up the slain in payment...

“Honour receive us as we fall before the eyes of the King. The little time left, let us use to spread our death-place with renown. By my chieftain's head will I suffer myself to be stricken to earth; at his feet fall thou stumbling to thy death; that they who search among the slain may see how we repaid our lord [71] his gold. . . Thus it behoves us athelings, the war-fain, to fall, close to our king, one in our death and in fame.”

Thus it goes on, verse after verse. Again and again the mighty feeling gathers itself together in preparation for a fresh outburst, with new images, new expressions, to make the strong stronger yet. The poem is inspired throughout with the complete fusion of the warrior with his lord. So completely do the king and the king's honour fill out the whole horizon for his faithful men that his fall means night over all. The ecstatic rejoicing in common death concentrates in itself all the passions of the warrior: joy in his own fame, thirst for vengeance, zeal for the praises of posterity have their life in devotion to a master, and are nourished by memory, flaming up about those moments of the past where he is seen at his highest. But one thing is always uppermost whenever enthusiasm gathers to a fresh culmination:

gold. The need of repaying the king's generosity is the moral incentive in the appeal, yet no gratitude, not even the most exalted, could shed that splendour about him, if it were not gratitude for the gift of life, and life in the old, full meaning it was that he gave his men, through the rings and weapons old. The moment the man feels his master's ring on his arm, or his weapon in his hand, then the king's honour, ancestors, aims, pride, flow up through the arm of the receiver; at once he feels and lives the contents of the ring. He is re-born, as one could be in those days, and the union with the giver is completed in conditions of life as well as in thoughts. The followers of the king are called by the same appellation as his clan, Scyldings, because they have been incorporated in the hamingja of the house they served.

By long and difficult detours we must struggle forward to that which was the direct experience of the men of those days. But the road which was their only way of entry into friendship, that of the gift, leads also us best to experience of what that feeling meant, and thus to the experience of its nature. In Bjarki's cry: “Make heavy the 'arms with gold. . . that blows may fall the harder,” lies the test that is to show whether we have understood or not.

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