The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

[312] ranks when they are drawn up against the Wolf and his brood. There is a deep-set plan at the bottom of his designing; he urges on the kings regardless of their private aims and ambitions, he leads them to the field of death with a fine unconcern for their friendships or enmities, with the object of filling his seats with the best men.

This spirit has found a magnificent expression in the Eiriksmál, a poem composed to the memory of Eric Bloody-axe. When he fought his last battle its din called up an echo in the hall of Odin so that the wainscots creaked again. There is a noise as if thousands of men thronged forward. Odin is roused from dreaming that the benches of Valhal are strewn with fresh rushes and the vats of ale are made ready for the welcome of heroes entering from the battle. A feeling of joyful anticipation tells him that famous warriors are on the way, it is the arrival of Eric that is announced by the thundering of feet. — Why do you expect Eric more than other kings, it is asked. — Because he has reddened his blade in many countries and carried his sword far and wide heavy with blood. — Why did you rob him of victory who was without blame? — Nobody knows what is coming, the grey Wolf is scowling at the seat of the gods. -- Eric makes his entrance surrounded by five kings, heading a mighty procession of followers, from the storm of swords into the seats of the god.

During their residence in the British Isles the Northmen came into touch with a religious system that differed in character from that of their fathers. No reader of the viking age literature can fail to discover that the poets have been impressed by the thought and imagery of Christianity and chiefly by its eschatology. But the Northmen were not carried off their feet in the stream of Christian ideas; so far from succumbing to the influence of English culture they gathered strength from contact with men of another creed. The history of that age is not made up of a series of piratical expeditions resulting in the establishment of a few short-lived kingdoms and an admixture of Scandinavian blood; with better reason it might be called a spiritual conquest which produces far-reaching effects in the [313] moral development of the conquerors and of the conquered as well. The invading Scandinavians did not content themselves with a wondering or a greedy look at the exteriors of the English churches, they entered upon an intercourse with the Christian men and acquired an intuitive comprehension of the new wisdom that was far from being superficial. It is a remarkable proof of their spiritual and moral strength and the originality of their minds that they were not overwhelmed by the rush of new ideas and images; they learned freely and as freely turned their learning to account according to their own need. Christian eschatology worked in them as an inspiration that crystallised their experience, and the emotions stirred up the comedy and tragedy of these troubled times into clear-cut ideas. The spiritual gain accruing from their contact with the culture of England was in the first place a liberal outlook on the world, an original vision of history and of the struggle of mankind. In reality the tenth century became an age of cultural expansion; the spirit quickened by the stir of events, moral as well as political, found vent in a literature of remarkable depth and beauty, which passed beyond the national boundary and took rank among the works belonging to the world.

III

In this literature the author of the Voluspá occupies a place of his own. His poem stands out from the other literary works of the same age by virtue of a master idea that knits the verses together as firmly as the links in a chain of reasoning, inspiring them at the same time with a poetry of tense, almost quivering force. In his view the course of history was determined by the entrance of unrighteousness and strife into the world. Life is tragical at the core, and the tragedy is of the gods' own provoking; the power of the gods is bought by deceit and violence and thus suffers from an inner weakness; since the first war life bears a secret burden of guilt that rolls on by its own impetus and irresistibly drives gods and men towards the abyss of death. For the sake of honour and luck the gods must again and again [314] resort to wiles and treachery, by their very regard for truth and right and beauty they are forced into the crooked ways of the tricksters; if the world is to be saved from falling into the clutches of the demons, they must meet insidious stratagem with subtle cunning.

By every victory won over the powers of darkness and brutality the gods sow the seed of destruction and death. The traditional scenes of mythology are arranged by the poet with a view to showing how the seed sown is sprouting and putting forth ears of corn to be reaped on the day of doom in the great Ragnarok.

The first shadow was thrown across the world when Odin flung his spear into the ranks of the Vanes and inaugurated the first war, and it deepened when the giant was cheated out of his reward; through these scenes the poet leads up to a vision of the world, in which mortal men are groping, blinded by the deeds of the gods. The fall of Balder is the prelude to a pandemonium in which men poison their souls by setting the holiest, most sacred laws, the very principles of life at nought. The shadows lengthen and gather at the horizon into a black cloud, and all of a sudden the flames from the demons' realm of death flare up behind the dark mass and transform it into a blaze of lurid red and yellow.

The poet does not end on a note of despair. He looks forward with strong hope to a day of regeneration, a new world of peace and righteousness. The curse burns itself out, gods and men enter upon a new life full of honour and luck and frith, and the life of integrity and goodwill calls down the mighty one from on high. Death is driven out of the world: the last vision passing before the poet's eyes is of the old dragon sinking into the gaping abyss.

This poet is not the man from the North expounding the faith of Thor and Odin, as a generation of romantic historians imagined; neither can he be numbered among the saints of the new creed. He preaches a religion neither Christian nor heathen; it keeps touch with the ideals and emotions of large circles among the Norwegians in the viking age, but it is of startling [315] originality, the confession of an individual soul. Probably the religion of the Voluspá never had more than one adherent, the man who saw the vision, but for all that he takes his place among the religious seers of the world.

The poet achieves his object by a masterly handling of ancient material. Through the greater part of the poem the composition consists of time-honoured legends reproduced simply in the form that was current among the author's contemporaries, but with a minimum of adaptation the poet suffuses his matter with new life by making it subservient to his own experience. The effect is brought about by a deliberate arrangement of the myths so nicely planned that a historical perspective emerges through their reaction on one another. Often the story acquires a novel significance by its very position in the series of visions, as is the case with the war of the gods or the birth of the wolves. Wedged in, as it is, between the ride of the valkyries and the opening of Hel's dark places, the death of Balder is vitally connected with the past and exhibited as a turning point in history; through the divine murder the corroding guilt that has eaten into the heart of life comes to the surface and darkens the whole world. Sometimes the poet puts a fresh point on his theme by a minute twist, as in the tricking of the giant: with a fine economy of art he effaces the note of triumph inherent in the myth and substitutes an anxious pondering on the price paid for victory: the claims that victory must necessarily entail on the conqueror, when he is compelled to buy his triumph at any cost. The great mass of the legends treating of the struggle with the demons is held over for the latter part of the poem to furnish material for the description of the day of doom, when the gods are overtaken by their tragic fate and a new world is to take the place of an earth that is filled with strife and stained with blood. With the sure touch of consummate art the poet dovetails some popular tale into the system with the result that it gives out a tone of horror: the verse depicting the giant singing merrily from his post of observation on the knoll, the crowing of cocks calling to one another from the world of the gods down into the realm of the dead, the barking of the hound — [316] compose a mosaic of current beliefs, but in the design of the poet these items picture the gathering tempest and the atmosphere tremulous with apprehension before the burst of the storm.

The details are chosen so carefully that no single trait is otiose; by means of a masterly composition each particular is absorbed into the vision and quickened by the underlying concept, so that it lights up the past as with a fierce light and at the same time throws ominous gleams far into the future.

IV

The force and grandeur of the Voluspá is largely due to the suggestive power of its imagery; sometimes the verses are like trees bowing and shrieking before the storm, at other times they are filled with softly descending light, as in the lines depicting the cascades leaping from the rocks and the eagle circling on outspread wings. But the poet never achieves his effect by elaborate description; the grip of his pictures, the visionary clearness and suddenness of his scenes result from a terse, allusive economy of words. He never unfurls the events of the drama; in a couple of bold strokes he conjures up a situation, and the story is told in the grouping and in the attitudes of the characters. But over and above this allusive, all but impressionistic vividness of effect there is an uncanny force in the choice of words and images that no analysis of the poet's art can attain to, still less explain. The reader who approaches the poem for the first time will probably grope his way through the verses feeling like a man who passes through a succession of dark places barely marked off from one another by streaks of light. The poet never tells his stories: “Who had filled the air with poison or given Oth's maiden to the giants? Thor struck the blow, oaths were broken”, this is his account of the dealings between the gods and the demon who built the walls of Asgard and got nothing but a broken head for his labour, and if we did not know the myth from other sources we should never be able to reconstruct the sequence of events or even the drift of the story. [317]

The poet handles his material with the skill of a master, but his art, perfect as it is, was prepared for him just as the material lay ready to his hands to be moulded into a perfect work of art; in fact, both were inseparable, for the art was inherent in the matter. There was no need for him to recount the stories; he could not only rely on his contemporaries knowing the ancient tales and being able to evoke them at the slightest allusion, he could draw upon their experience, on their having witnessed the events recounted in the legends. By his words he forced his listeners to see, and this power was given him because his own eyes and the eyes of his friends were filled with the throbbing life of the feast and viewed without effort the entire world concentrated in the scenes of the sacrificial drama. The overwhelming pathos of the poem springs from the visionary power of the images; a hint, a few glimpses suffice to call up not only a situation but a drama touching the depths of existence and reaching to the end of the earth. To feel the suggestiveness of his images we must try as far as lies in our power to realise the comprehensive fulness and the concentration of primitive drama, its religious i. e. vital connexion with the actual experience of life and its influence on material and moral welfare.

Modern playgoers may be moved, and moved deeply, by a new-born sympathy linking them up with strange personalities and destinies; whereas in the classical worshipper, every thought and every sentiment had its root in his holy drama or rather in his living through the events of the drama. The poet was not called upon to expose the significance of his visions, because his listeners were brought up with poetic ritual, images of cosmic or eternal import. When he strung the stories together they coalesced and made up a whole on the strength of a leading idea, in the same way as the dramatic incidents of the blot owed their coherence to an all-pervading theme that found expression in a religious formula: the antagonism between good and evil. His eschatological epic was constructed on ancient lines, with one essential difference, that his idea was startlingly new; he needed not to expound his gospel or to give an express statement of its novelty, as he could trust it to appear imme- [318] diately to minds which were prepared to understand the significance of things.

No wonder that the Vo!uspá is a difficult work. Though the hearing of it cannot fail to impress the listener with a vague feeling of awe, it scarcely admits of a translation, because it is bound up with ancient ideas and images to such an extent that modern words cannot exhibit the depth and power of its phrases. A paraphrase may bring out some of the salient points, but nevertheless it can do little more than indicate the way of approach to its mystery through a comprehensive sympathy with Norwegian culture in its totality.

V

When we have considered the Vo!uspá as a religious document and formed an estimate of its bearing upon the spiritual conflicts of its age, we have made it possible to read it as a contemporary description of the ancient feast. The poet does not present us with a photographic illustration of the drama or an index to the sequence of the ritual scenes; in his poem he paints an ideal view of the drama as it developed before the eyes of the sacrificers, and indirect!y but forcibly brings out not only the stirring life of its scenes but still more the poetry, the depth of feeling and poignancy of thought, the experience of a reality, more real than everyday life, which surged in the worshippers, when the gods moved on the stage of the altar.

Incidentally the poem adds some items of considerable interest to our knowledge of the sacrificial technique. The momentous undertakings of the gods are preceded by a ceremony, thus described in the verses: “Then all the gods went to their rök seats and consulted together” — there they discussed such questions as: how the heavenly lights should be named and arrayed in the heavens, who should take upon himself to create the dwarfs, whether the gods should pay tribute to the Vanes, who was the demon who had poisoned the air and caused the loss of the maiden to the giants. These verses delineate an episode of the blot feast: the ritual deliberation that must neces-

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