historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
had one great advantage; they felt themselves as
citizens of the world. They were never strangers to
their subject matter, and knew nothing of that shyness
which the stranger always feels. They felt themselves at
home throughout the inhabited world, at any rate, so
long as they remained in their own country, or the lands
immediately adjacent, in a bodily sense, and made all
further journeyings in the spirit alone. They did not
sit fumbling over their material, but went straight to
the persons concerned, whether men of the immediate past
or those of earliest ages; whether Romans or Greeks,
French, English, Hindus, Chinese or Indians. The
historian stepped forward without formality and took his
hero cordially by the hand, spoke to him as friend to
friend, or let us say, as one man of the world to
another. There was never any fear, in those days, that
differences of language, or of circumstances in a
different age, might place obstacles in the way of a
proper understanding. Men were inspired with faith in a
common humanity, and by the certainty that if once the
human element could be grasped, all the rest would work
out of itself. All mankind were agreed as to what God
was, what good and evil were; all were agreed in
patriotism and citizenship, in love of parents and of
children – in a word, agreed in all realities.
ever this straightforward simplicity, that sought its
rallying point in things of common human interest, were
justified in any case, it would be in regard to the
wife of Njal, was a true woman of the old school, strict
on the point of honour, inflexible, unforgiving. The key
to her character, we might say, is given in the famous
words: "Young was I given to Njal, and this I have
promised him, that one fate shall come upon us
both". There is something of common humanity in the
words, something we can appreciate at its true value. On
the male side, we have an even more old-fashioned figure
to set up as a model : Egil Skallagrimson, the most
typical representative in viking times of love of kin.
See him, as he rides with the body of his drowned son
before him on the saddle, carrying it himself to its
last resting place, his breast heaving with sobs until
his tunic bursts. It is all so direct in its appeal, so
obvious and natural, that one feels involuntarily as if
one could read Egil's whole soul in this one episode.
Life standards and customs of society, morals and self-judgement
derived from such elementary emotion can surely not be
hard to understand?
can easily put it to the test.
the history of the Faroe Islands, we find two women,
Thurid and Thora, wife and daughter of Sigmund Brestison,
occupying a prominent place. Both are strong, resolute
characters, like Bergthora, and both are guided in all
their actions by love of Sigmund and his race. Sigmund
was an ideal chieftain of the Christian viking period:
strict on the point of honour, never relinquishing a
shred of his right, and always able to gain his cause,
frank, brave and skilful – altogether a man to admire
and remember. After a life of ceaseless fighting for the
supreme power in the Faroes, he is murdered, having
barely escaped from a night surprise. Time passes, and
one day, Thrond of Gata makes his appearance in Thurid's
house, asking Thora in marriage for his fosterson Leif.
Thrond was a man of different stamp, one of those who
are ready enough to strike, when first they have their
victim safely enmeshed by intrigue: one of those who can
plot and plan with all the craft of evil, and always
find others to bear the danger and disgrace of carrying
out their schemes; a Christian by compulsion, and an
apostate, not only practising the rites of the old faith
in his daily life, but even dabbling in black magic.
Thrond had been Sigmund's bitterest opponent; it was he
who had arranged the killing of Sigmund's father, and
the surprise attack which ended in Sigmund's death was
led by him. Yet Thora holds out to her suitor the
prospect that she will accept his offer, if he and his
fosterfather give her an opportunity of avenging her
father. And she keeps her promise; she marries Leif, and
has her reward in seeing three men killed in honour of
more these two women appear in the history of the Faroe
nobles. It happens that a son of Sigmund's cousin has
been slain while staying in the house of Sigurd
Thorlakson, a kinsman of Thrond's. Sigurd had at once
struck down the slayer, and these three being the only
ones present at the fateful moment, some shadow of
suspicion attaches to the host. The mere possibility
that one of Sigmund's kinsmen lies slain and unavenged
is enough to keep Thurid and Thora in a state of unrest
day and night. Poor Leif, who will not or cannot take
any steps in the matter, hears nothing but scornful
words about the house. When then Sigurd Thorlakson, in
his blindness, asks on behalf of his brother for
Thurid's hand, her daughter wisely counsels her as
follows: "If I should advise, this must not be
refused; for if you are minded to vengeance, there could
be no surer bait". And she adds: "No need for
me to set words in my mother's mouth". The plan
proceeds. Sigurd is invited to have speech with Thurid.
She meets him outside the homestead and leads him to a
seat on a tree trunk. He makes as if to sit facing the
house, but she seats herself resolutely the other way,
with her back to the house, and her face towards the
chapel. Sigurd asks if Leif is at home – no, he is
not; if Thurid's sons are at home – yes, they are at
home; and in a little while, both they and Leif appear,
and Sigurd goes off mortally wounded.
two were Thurid, ''the great widow", and Thora,
''whom all held to be the noblest of women". Their
greatness lay not so much in the fact of their loving
truly and faithfully, as in their understanding of what
that love demanded, and their fulfilling its demands in
spite of all. The question asked of us here is, not what
we think of these two, but if we are able to accept the
appreciative judgement of their love as it stands,
a closer scrutiny of Egil's love and sorrow we find,
too, some characteristic features that are likely to
trouble our serene faith in a common humanity. It is
related, that having made provision for his son in the
hereafter, by setting him in a burial mound that might
content him, the old champion himself was minded to die;
but his quick-witted daughter, Thorgerd, artfully
brought back his interest in life by reminding him that
nobody else would be able to honour the youth with a
laudatory poem, and thus enticing him to make a lay of
fortunately for us, this poem in which Egil laid down
the burden of his sorrow, has been preserved.
is a depth of meaning in the fact that the most
beautiful poem remaining to us from ancient times is a
poem of kinship and love of kin, and that it should be
Egil himself, the oldest-fashioned of all the saga
heroes, who made it. Unfortunately, our understanding
and enjoyment of this confession are hampered in a very
high degree by the difficulties of its form. Egil was
not only a man of considerable character; he was also
what we should call a poet, whose soul found direct
expression in verse. The kennings, or metaphors,
which were part and parcel of the ancient poetry, fell
from Egil's lips as images revealing the individual
moods and passions of the poet. But so strange to our
ears are the poetical figures of the ancient scalds,
that it needs a great deal of work on our part before we
can approach him from such a position that his
picture-phrases appear with life and significance. Given
the patience, however, to acquire familiarity with the
artificial metaphors of the scald, enough to realise
what it is that forces itself through the poet's mind in
this cumbersome form, we can feel the sorrow of this
bereaved father dropping heavily, sullenly from verse to
complains that sorrow binds his tongue. "Little
chance is here to reach forth Odin's stolen goods; heavy
they are to drag from their hiding of sorrow – thus it
is for one who mourns". Egil applies the parallel
of Odin, who with great pains brought the poet's cup –
the mead of inspiration – from the giant's cave, to
himself in his struggle to force a way to expression
through the walls of his own sorrow.
sea roars down there before the door where my kinsman's
Hel-ship is laid.
race bends to its fall, as the storm-lashed trees of the
was the hole the waves tore in my father's kin-fence;
unfilled, I know, and open stands the son-breach torn in
me by the sea.
hath Ran (the queen of the sea) stolen from me. I stand
poor in love-friends. The sea hath sundered the bonds of
my race; torn a close-twisted string out of myself.
say to you; could I pursue my cause with the sword,
there should be an end of the ale-maker (Ægir, the king
of the sea). If I could .... I would give battle to that
loose wench of Ægir's (the wave). But I felt that I had
no power to take action against my son's bane. All the
world sees emptiness behind the old man where he strides
the sea hath stolen from me – bitter it is to count up
the fall of kinsmen – since he that stood, a shield
among the race, turned aside from life on the soul-ways
he maintained that which his father had said, ay, though
all the people thought otherwise. He held me upright in
the home, and mightily increased my strength. My
brotherless plight is often in my mind. When the battle
grows, I take thought, peer about and think what other
man stands by my side with courage for a daring deed,
such as I need often enough....
am grown cautious of flight now that friends are
are words that of their great simplicity can be repeated
in all times – or at least as long as life is still a
struggle; and it would be hard to find higher praise for
such a poem.
following verses consist – as far as we are yet able
to understand them – of variations on these
fundamental thoughts: No one can be relied on, for men
nowadays lower themselves and are glad to accept payment
instead of revenge for the blood of brothers. He who has
lost a son must beget another – none else can replace
the lost scion. My head is drooping, since he, the
second of my sons, fell beneath the brand of sickness;
he whose fame was unsmirched. I trusted in the god, but
he was false to his friendship to me, and I have little
heart now to worship him. – In spite of his
bitterness, however, he cannot but remember that he has
himself the art of the poet, and a mind able to reveal
the plans of enemies, and he cannot forget that this
mastery of words, the comfort of many ills, is a gift
from the god who has betrayed him.
he looks towards the future: I am strongly beset, death
stands on the cape, but blithely, unruffled by fear I
will wait for Hel.
first part of the poem is properly independent of time;
the reader has no need to look into a distant age and a
distant culture in order to understand it. It is the
form, and that only, which binds it to Egil and scaldic
poetry, and the exegesis of the learned. Even Egil's
passionate outburst against the high powers that have
usurped the mastery of the world hardly appears to us as
strange. On the contrary, we might perhaps approve the
words as thoroughly human, and even award them
honourable mention as being ''modern'' in spirit.
Sorrow can always drive a man to such extremes of his being that his words run into apparent contradictions, but the inconsistency of passion never sets meaning at defiance; it has its explanation in the fact that the opposites have their point of intersection somewhere in the soul. At times the feelings are exalted to such a degree that they appear irreconcilable, but the sympathetic listener feels he has no right of criticism until he has followed the lines to their meeting-point. In Egil, the cohesion between the apparent contradictions is no doubt very firm. There is an inner contact between defiance of the gods and the outburst of helplessness at sight of one's solitary plight; but we can ponder and speculate as much as we please, a true understanding of Egil's thought here – that he would feel himself master of death if he had a strong circle of kinsmen about him – is not to be won by mere study of these lines; we cannot get at it unless Egil himself and the men of his time give us the real solution. Egil appears to regard life in the light of a process at law, where the man with a strong circle of kinsmen wins his case, because he is backed by a crowd of men ready to swear on his side, and whose oaths carry weight enough to crush his opponent. Let us imagine that this idea of his is not merely a piece of poetic imagery, but that life itself, with all its tasks, appeared as a lawsuit, where a man with many and powerful kinsmen could further his aims and fortunes, materially and spiritually, gaining power over his surroundings, not only by battle, but by oath, in virtue of that power of race which he and his possessed. Let us further imagine, that this faith in the power of kinship and kinsmen's help is great enough to reach out beyond life, and embrace death itself within its scope, believing itself capable of summoning and outswearing the gods, ay, shaking heaven and earth. Egil's words have then a new significance; they lose nothing of their weight, but they become anything but "modern". The titanic defiance disappears – or almost disappears – and in its place we have the despairing cry of a suffering human soul. The paradox then, lies not where we at first discerned it, but in quite another direction.
And reading now from these words backward and forward, the other verses, that at first flowed so glibly from our tongue, will have gained a strange power and violence – both where he speaks of a string torn out of him, a breach, and also where he calls to mind his son's help, and reveals his own discouragement when he looks about him in the fight for one to aid him. It would be strange if we did not now feel, in place of the confident enjoyment of the words, a sense of uncertainty, that makes us hesitate at every line. The words have become vague, because we have lost our own ground and failed to get a new foothold. Torn out! Our fancy flutters doubtfully away from the metaphorical meaning, which at first appeared the only one the words could have, and hovers about the idea of an actual bleeding to death – but without finding anything to hold by.
And our uncertainty
cannot but increase when we discover that Egil's image
of the family as a fence, built up of stake by stake, of
death as a breach in the family and those left – that
these images are common, everyday illustrations, one is
tempted to say, part of the technical stock-in-trade. We
cannot give ourselves up to the mighty feeling of the
poem until we have grasped exactly what it is this
breach, this wound, consists of; what precise meaning
lies in the word "help". We begin to perceive
that we must learn the meaning of every word anew.
Briefly: we must begin with the kin, the race or family; a gathering of individuals so joined up into one unit that they appear incapable of independent action. As to the feeling which so unites them, this we must leave till later; the point here is, that the individual cannot act without all acting with and through him; no single individual can suffer without affecting the whole circle. So absolute is the connection that the individual simply cannot exist by himself; a slight loosening of the bond, and he slips down, the most helpless of all creatures.
We cannot gain speech of the individual human being. Here lies the difference between Hellenic and Germanic culture. The Hellene is nearer to us, for we can go straight to him, speak to him as man to man about the life of man, let him introduce us into the strange world – as it seems to us – in which he lives, let him show us the aims that determine his daily thought and actions; and from his utterance and expression form an idea as to how he reacts in face of what he meets. The barbarian does not move. He stands stiffly, uninvitingly. If he speaks, his words convey no meaning to us. He has killed a man. "Why did you kill that man", we ask. "I killed him in revenge". – "How had he offended you?" – "His father had spoken ill words to my father's brother, therefore I craved honour as due from him to us". – "Why did you not take the life of the offender himself?" – "This was a better man". – The more we ask and pry, the more incomprehensible he becomes. He appears to us as a machine, driven by principles.
The Hellene exists as an individual, a separate person within a community. The Germanic individual exists only as the representative, nay, as the personification of a whole. One might imagine that a supreme convulsion of the soul must tear the individual out from that whole, and let him feel him-self, speak as for himself. But actually, it is the opposite that takes place; the more the soul is moved, the more the individual personality is lost in the kin. At the very moment when man most passionately and unreservedly gives way to his own feelings, the clan takes possession of the individual fully and completely. Egil's lament is not the lament of a father for his son; it is the kin, that utters its lament through the person of the father. From this breadth of passion springs the overpowering pathos of the poem.
If we want a real understanding of such men as Egil, we are driven to ask: what is the hidden force that makes kinsmen inseparable? First we learn that they call each other "friend" (frændi in Icelandic, freond in Anglo-Saxon), and a linguistic analysis of this word will teach us, that it means those who love (each other); but this brings us no farther, for etymology tells us nothing of what it is to love. We can perhaps get a little nearer by noting the etymological connection between the word "friend" and two others that play a great part in the social life of those days: "free" and "frith". In "frith", peace, we have the old kinsmen's own definition of the fundamental idea in their inter-relationship. By frith they mean something in themselves, a power that makes them "friends" one towards another, and "free men" towards the rest of the world. Even here, of course, we cannot take the meaning of the word directly for granted, for the centuries have not passed unscathing over that little word. Words such as horse and cart and house and kettle may remain more or less unaltered throughout all vicissitudes of culture, but terms used to designate spiritual values necessarily undergo a radical change in the course of such spiritual transformations as have taken place in the souls of men in the North during the past thousand years. And the nearer such a word lies, in its origin, to the central part of the soul, the more sweeping changes it will undergo.
If ever word bore the mark of the transforming influence of Christianity and humanism, it is this word "frith". If we look closely into the older significance of the word, we shall find something sterner; a firmness that has now given place to weakness. The frith of earlier days was less passive than now, with less of submissiveness and more of will. It held also an element of passion which has now been submerged in quietism.
But the word tells us indisputably that the love which knit these kinsmen together is not to be taken in a modern, sentimental sense; the dominant note of kinsmanship is safety, security.
Frith is the state of things which exists between friends. And it means, first and foremost, reciprocal inviolability. However individual wills may clash in a conflict of kin against kin, however stubbornly individual heads may seek their own way according to their quota of wisdom, there can never be question of conflict save in the sense of thoughts and feelings working their way toward an equipoise in unity. We need have no doubt but that good kinsmen could disagree with fervour, but however the matter might stand, there could – should, must inevitably – be but one ending to it all; a settlement peaceable and making for peace – frith.
A quarrel had no lethal point. Two kinsmen could not lift a hand one against the other.
The moment a man scented kinship, he lowered his arms.
The ending of Bjorn the Hitdale Warrior's saga has a touch of something heroic-comic about it, from this very fact. Bjorn fell, after a brave fight, by the hand of Thord Kolbeinson and his companions. The grounds of enmity between the two were numerous and various, but we may safely say that Bjorn had done all in his power to interfere with Thord's domestic bliss.
Among the opponents,
Thord's young son, Kolli, takes a prominent part. Then
says Bjorn – at the moment when he was beaten to his
knee and at bay –: "You strike hard to-day, Kolli".
"I do not know whom I should spare here",
answers the youth. "True enough: for your mother
has surely urged you not to spare me; but it seems to me
that you are not wisest in the matter of knowing your
kin". And Kolli answers: "It is late in the
day you tell me of it, if we two are not free to
fight". And with these words he withdraws from all
further participation in the battle.
It is hard to get at a true impression of the fundamental laws in human life that provide the very essence of a conscience; harder still to render such an impression living to others. They are not to be illustrated by noteworthy examples. In books of great and good deeds, a quality such as frith will never be represented in proportion to its importance; it goes too deep. It does not find direct expression in the laws; it underlies all accepted customs, but never appears in the light itself.
If we would seriously
realise what is strongest in men, we must feel through
their daily life, with all its inhibitions and
restraints in little things. But once our eyes are
opened to the unbroken chain of self-restraint and
self-control that constitute the inner connection in the
life of working human beings, we may find ourselves
almost in fear of the power that sits innermost in
ourselves and drives us according to its will. When one
has worked through the spiritual remains of our
forefathers, one must, I think, infallibly emerge with a
constraining veneration for this frith. The Northmen are
ever telling of war and strife, quarrels and bickerings
– dispute now over a kingdom, now an ox; now some
piece of arrogance on the part of an individual, now a
merciless combination of accidents by the hand of fate,
leading men into a chaos of strife; – but we notice
that even in the most violent turmoil of passion, all
alike are ever amenable to one consideration; every
single happening stands in some relation to frith.
When the church began to exercise its supervision in matters of legislation, it noticed first of all an essential failing in the ancient code: namely, that it knew no provision for cases of killing between kinsmen. This crime therefore came within the clerical jurisdiction; the church determined its penal code, just as it provided terms for the crime by adaptation of words from the Latin vocabulary.
When the lawgivers of the Middle Ages gradually found courage to come to grips with this ancient frith, in order to make room for modern principles of law, the attacks had first to be made in the form of indulgences: it was permitted to regard a kinsman's suit as irrelevant to oneself; it was declared lawful to refuse a contribution towards the fine imposed on any of one's kin. It took centuries of work to eradicate the tacit understanding of this ubiquitous frith principle from the law, and establish humanity openly as the foundation of equity.
Strangely enough, in the very period of transition, when frith was being ousted from its supremacy as conscience itself, it finds definite expression in laws, to wit, in the statutes of the mediæval guilds, a continuation, not precisely of the clan, but of what was identical with clanship, to wit, the old free societies of frith or communities of mutual support. The guild laws provide that members of the guild must have no quarrels between themselves; but in the regrettable event of such quarrel arising between two of the same guild, the parties are forbidden, under pain of exclusion in disgrace, to summon each other before any tribunal but that of the guild itself; not even in a foreign country may any member of a guild bring suit against a fellow-member before a magistrate or court.
The Frisian peasant laws of the Middle Ages also found it necessary to lay down hard and fast rules for the obligations of kin towards kin, and decree that persons within the closer degrees of relationship, as father, son, brother, father's or mother's brother, father's or mother's sister, may not bring suit one against another before the court – they must not sue or swear against one another; but in cases where they cannot agree in a matter of property or the like, one of their nearest of kin shall be appointed judge.
The guild statutes are as near to the unwritten law of kinship as any lifeless, extraneous provision can be to the conscience that has life in itself. And they give us, indeed, the absolute character of frith, its freedom from all reservation, in brief.
But they cannot give the very soul of it; for then, instead of insisting that no quarrel shall be suffered to arise between one brother and another, they would simply acknowledge that no such quarrel ever could by any possibility arise. In other words, instead of a prohibition, we should have the recognition of an impossibility. The characters in the Icelandic sagas are in this position still – though we may feel that the cohesion of the clan is on the point of weakening. They have still, more or less unimpaired, the involuntary respect for all such interests as may affect the clan as a whole; an extreme of caution and foresight in regard to all such enterprise as cannot with certainty be regarded as unaffecting the interest of all its members.
Even the most reckless characters are chary of making promises or alliances if they see any possibility of prejudicing a kinsman's interest. They go in dread of such conflicts. The power of frith is apparent, in the fact that it does not count as a virtue, something in excess of what is demanded, but as an everyday necessity, the most obvious of all, alike for high and low, heroic and unheroic characters. And the exceptions, therefore, show as something abhorrent, uncanny.
Clanship was not the only form of relationship between individuals, and however wisely and cautiously a man might order his goings, he could never be sure of avoiding every painful dilemma. He may find himself in a position where, apparently, the power of frith in himself is put to the test.
Thus, for instance, with Gudrun. Her husband, Sigurd, has been slain by her own brothers, Gunnar and Hogni. She voices her resentment in stirring words. In the Lay of Gudrun we find it thus: "In bed and at board I lack my friend to speak with – this wrought Gjuki's sons. Gjuki's sons have brought me to this misery, brought about their sister's bitter weeping". The poems of the north also make her utter words of ill-omen; it sounds like a curse when she says: "Your heart, Hogni, should be torn by ravens in the wild places, where you should cry in vain for aid of man". But there is no place in the saga for even the least act on Gudrun's part to the prejudice of her brothers. She seeks by act and word to hinder Atli's plans for vengeance against Gunnar and Hogni, and when all her warnings are in vain, she makes Atli pay dearly for the deed. The northern poets, while laying stress on her sorrow, keep it throughout inactive – they do not even attempt to soften the contrast by any kind of inner conflict in her soul; there is no hesitation, no weighing this way or that. Frith was to them the one thing absolute. The poet lets Hogni answer Gudrun's passionate outburst with these deeply significant words: "If the ravens tore my heart, your sorrow would be the deeper".
The Sigurd poems are fashioned by northern hands dealing with ancient themes; they give us Germanic thoughts as lived again in Norse or Icelandic minds. Altogether Icelandic, both in theme and word, is the tragedy which leads to Gisli Surson's unhappy outlawry. The two brothers, Gisli and Thorkel, are depicted by the writer of the saga as widely deferent in character, and in their sympathies they take different sides. Thorkel is a close friend of Thorgrim, their sister's husband; Gisli is warmly attached to Vestein, brother to his own wife, Aud. Relations between the two half-brothers-in-law have evidently long been strained, and at last Vestein is slain by Thorgrim. Gisli takes vengeance secretly by entering Thorgrim's house at night and stabbing him as he lies in bed. Thorgrim's avengers, led by a natural suspicion, pay a visit to Gisli before he is up; Thorkel, who lives with his brother-in-law and is of the party, manages to enter first, and seeing Gisli's shoes, full of snow, on the floor, he thrusts them hurriedly under the bed. The party is obliged to go off again without having accomplished anything; later, however, Gisli, in reckless verse, declares himself the culprit, and a party rides off to summon him to account. Thorkel is with them as before, but once more he manages to warn his brother. On the road the party comes to a homestead where he suddenly remembers there is money owing to him, and takes the opportunity of dunning his debtor. But while his horse stands saddled outside the house and his companions imagine him counting money within, he is riding on a borrowed mount up into the woods where his brother has hidden. And when at last he has settled his various money affairs and taken to the road again, he is overtaken by little accidents on the way, sufficient to delay the progress of the party considerably.
Gisli's blow was a serious matter for Thorkel. He says himself to Gisli: "You have done me no little wrong, I should say, in slaying Thorgrim, my brother-in-law and partner and close friend". The great obligations which use and custom laid upon friends one towards another are evidence of the seriousness with which such intimacy was regarded, and how deeply the parties engaged themselves and their will in the relationship. Thorkel's position is therefore more bitter than immediately appears. But friendship must give way to frith; it is not a matter of choice on Thorkel's part. Here again we have the same contrast as in the Gudrun poems. Thorkel's bitterness and his frith can have no dealings the one with the other; they cannot come within reach of each other so as to give rise to any conflict; for they belong to different strata of the soul. To us, perhaps, it may seem as if there was a link missing from the sober statement of the story; but the words as they stand are good Icelandic psychology.
This frith is something that underlies all else, deeper than all inclination. It is not a matter of will, in the sense that those who share it again and again choose to set their kinship before all other feelings. It is rather the will itself. It is identical with the actual feeling of kinship, and not a thing deriving from that source.
Thorkel has his sorrow, as Gudrun has hers; but the possibility which should make that sorrow double-edged, the mere thought that one could take sides here, is out of the question. Thus there can never be room for any problem. The fact of kin siding against kin is known to poetry only as a mystery, or a horror; as the outcome of a madness or as something dark, incomprehensible, something that is not even fate.
From early times, men's thoughts have hovered about this fact, that a man could come to slay his kinsman. In the picture of father and son, each unknown to the other, meeting in battle and shedding each other's blood, the sad possibility has even been treated poetically. A magnificent fragment – unfortunately but a torso – of these poems is found in the German Hildebrand Lay, where the father, returning home after long absence in foreign lands meets his son, who forces him, much against his will, to engage in single combat. We find the pair again in Saxo, as two brothers, Halfdan and Hildiger. In the Hildebrand Lay, it is the scepticism of the son in regard to the father's declaration of kinship, that brings about the disaster; the father must accept the challenge, or stand dishonoured. In Saxo, the inner force of the conflict is weakened by the fact that Hildiger, for no reason, keeps his knowledge of their kinship to himself until he lies mortally wounded. Saxo's story, however, is evidently derived from the same situation as that preserved in the German lay. Hildiger tries by craft to escape from fate, declaring in lordly fashion that he cannot think of engaging in single combat with an unproved warrior; but when Halfdan, undismayed, repeats his challenge, and strikes down one set of antagonists after the other, Hildiger, who sees his own fame thus threatened by Halfdan's prowess, cannot endure any longer to refuse. An Icelandic version, preserved in the saga of Asmund Kappabani, agrees throughout so closely with Saxo's account that we are forced to presume a close relationship between the two; one of the brothers here has still the old name, Hildebrand, the other has been assimilated with Asmund, the hero of the saga. The difference between the more natural presentment in the Hildebrand Lay, and the dramatic artifice in the northern variants, is mainly due to the saga writers' anxiety to preserve as much effect as possible for the final plaint.
The story of the fatal meeting between two kinsmen is, as an epic theme, not specifically Germanic; we can follow it to the west, among the Celts, and to the southward, as far even as Asia. Possibly, or we might say probably, it has its origin, as a matter of literary history, in the south; but it is more important to note how the theme has been reborn again and again, among one clannish people after another; a proof that the same thoughts were everywhere a weight upon the mind. Men pondered and speculated over this mystery in the ordering of life, that a man could be driven against his will to harm his kin. In the Germanic, the case is clearly and simply stated; frith was inviolable; but honour too had its own absolute validity, so that the two could collide with such force as to destroy both on the impact, and the man with them. The close of the Hildebrand Lay is unfortunately lost, the very part which must have given us the united plaint of the two combatants over what had passed. The loss is the more serious, since this was the dominant point of the whole poem. Saxo's reproduction, and still more the modernised elegy of the Icelandic saga, give but a faint echo. But even in these later, imitative works we seem to find a pathos of an altogether different nature from the usual; not the merciless seriousness of death, but a wonder, rising to horror; not a confident appeal to fate with a sense of comfort in the conviction that there is reparation for everything, and that reparation will be made for this as well, if those that remain are of any worth; but only helplessness and hopelessness. And the same note is struck elsewhere, as in Hervor's saga, where Angantyr, finding his brother's body on the field of battle, says: "A curse is upon us, that I should be your bane; this thing will be ever remembered; ill is the doom of the Norns." The words express his sense of being a monster; so desperately meaningless is his fate that it will force the thoughts of posterity to hover about it, that "he will be a song for coming generations". The close of Hildebrand's complaint runs, in Saxo's paraphrase, approximately as follows : "An evil fate, loading years of misfortune on the happy, buries smile in sorrow and bruises fate. For it is a pitiful misery to drag on a life in suffering, to breathe under the pressure of sorrow-burdened days, and go in fear of the warning (omen). But all that is knit fast by the prophetic decree of the Parcæ, all that is planned in the council of high providence, all that has once by forevision been fixed in the chain of fates, is not to be torn from its place by any changing of worldly things."
There is nothing corresponding to these lines in the saga. The first part of the poem expresses the same as Saxo's paraphrase: "None knows beforehand what manner of death shall be his. You were born of Drot in Denmark, I in Sweden. My shield lies sundered at my head; there is the tale of my killings; there" – presumably on the shield – "lies the son I begot and unwilling slew'' – what this refers to we do not rightly know. And then the poem closes with a prayer to the survivor, to do "what few slayers have any mind to", namely, wrap the dead man in his own garments, a termination which sounds altogether foreign, in its romantic sentimentality, to the northern spirit. Saxo has here undoubtedly worked from another version, nearer the original. His portrayal of the evil days lived through in fear fits more or less accurately to the old thought: such a deed buries all hope for the future and spreads among the survivors an everlasting dread. How the words originally stood in the northern version it is futile to guess, but Saxo's omen in particular seems to hold a true northern idea, that such a deed forms an ill-boding warning. For the rest, fate rules; what is to come will come; but here is a thing breaking out beyond fate; one can, and could really, say that the fate of the kinsmen was burst asunder.
The same hopeless keynote rings through the description, in the Beowulf, of the old father's sorrow when one of his sons has by chance slain his brother. The poet compares him to an old man who sees his beloved son dangling, still young, in the gallows – a desperate illustration for a Germanic poet to use –: "Then he lifts up his voice in a song of anguish, as his son hangs at the ravens' pleasure, and he cannot help him; old and burdened with days, cannot save him. Always he remembers, morning after morning, his son's passing; an heir in his stead he cares not to wait in the castle... Sorrowing he sees his wine-hall waste, the chamber wind-swept, empty of joy, in his son's house. The gallows rider sleeps, the hero in his grave. No sound of harp, no pleasure now in the homestead, as there was once.
He takes his way to the
couch, sings a sad chant, lonely over the lonely one;
everywhere, in the fields as in the home, there is too
wide a space. So raged sorrow in the prince of
the Weders, sorrow for his son Herebeald; in no wise
could he gain payment for that killing through the life
of the slayer; nor by rewarding the young hero with
bitter doings towards him; though he had no love for
him. Misery held him fast, from the day that the wound
was dealt him, until he passed out from the joyous world
Thorkel Surson was a weak character. He was content to place himself in an equivocal position when he kept his place among his brother-in-law's avengers. He says to Gisli: "I will warn you if I come by news of any plans against you, but I will not render you any such help as might bring me into difficulties." Gisli evidently regards such caution as a dishonest compromise with conscience. "Such an answer as you have given me here I could never give to you, and I could never act in such a way," he retorts. A man will not ride in company with his kinsman's adversaries. A man will not lie idle while his kinsman's suit is in progress, and the fact that this same kinsman has nailed his brother-in-law fast to his bed by night is plainly of no weight in Gisli's judgement. A men does not sneak round by a back way to offer his kinsman a trifle of help – no, when the latter is finally outlawed he must at least be able to count on support – this seems in all seriousness to be Gisli's idea.
And Gisli is in the right. Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another's cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another. Our words are too dependent for their strength on sentimental associations to bear out the full import of clan feeling; the responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another's deeds.
The guild statutes provided as follows: "Should it so happen that any brother kills any man who is not a brother of the Guild of St. Canute (i.e. of our guild) then the brethren shall help him in his peril of life as best they can. If he be by the water, they shall help him with a boat, oars, dipper, tinder box and axe... Should he need a horse, they are to provide him with a horse..."
"Any brother able to help, and not helping...he shall go out of this guild as a niding."
"Every brother shall help his brother in all lawsuits."
That is to say, if one brother has a lawsuit, twelve brethren of the guild shall be chosen to go with him to its hearing and support him; – the brethren are also to form an armed guard about him, and escort him to and from the place where the court is held, if need be. And when a brother has to bring oath before the court, twelve members of the guild shall be chosen by lot to swear on his side, and those so chosen are to aid him in manly wise. A man failing to support his brother by oath, or bearing testimony against him, is subject to heavy fines.
There are two kinds of cases. Two kinds of killing, e.g. 1. a guild-brother kills a stranger, 2. a stranger kills a guild-brother. In the former case, the brethren of the guild see that the slayer gets away in safety on horseback or by ship. In the latter case, the rule runs as follows: No brother eats or drinks or has intercourse with his brother's slayer, whether on land or on ship. The guild brethren shall aid the dead man's heirs to vengeance or restitution.
It is difficult, perhaps, to realise that this double-valuation had its place in a community of citizens, and not in some free-booters' camp; it stands valid as the supreme law for decent, conservative, enlightened men; men who in those days represented, so to speak, progress in historic continuity. This partisan solidarity in frith is their strong attachment to the past, and the cultural worth of this partisan spirit is revealed by the fact that it lies behind the reform movements of the Middle Ages as their driving force. As the brethren here in the guilds, so kinsmen also were filled to such a degree with "love", so eager to help, that they could not well find any energy left for judging of right and wrong. They were not by nature and principle unjust, partisan; faith and the sense of justice can well thrive together; but they belong, to use a phrase already used before, to different strata of the soul and thus miss contact with each other.
The uncompromising character of frith is strikingly illustrated by the last appearance of grand old Egil at the moot-place. It happened one day, when Egil was grown old and somewhat set aside, that a quarrel arose between his son Thorstein and Onund Sjoni's son Steinar, about a piece of land. Steinar defiantly sent his herd to graze there; Thorstein faithfully cut down his herdsmen. Steinar summoned Thorstein, and now the parties were at the law-thing. Then the assembly perceives a party riding up, led by a man in full amour; it is old Egil with a following of eighty men. He dismounts calmly by the booths, makes the needful arrangements, then goes up to the mound where the court is held and calls to his old friend Onund: "Is it your doing that my son is summoned for breaking the peace" "No indeed,'' says Onund, "it was not by my will, I am more careful of our ancient friendship than to do so; it was well you came..." "Well, let us see now if you mean anything by what you say; let us two rather take the matter in hand than that those two fighting cocks should suffer themselves to be egged on against each other by their own youth and the counsels of other." And when then the matter is submitted to Egil's arbitration, he calmly decides that Steinar shall receive no indemnity for the slaves killed; his homestead is confiscated, and he himself shall leave the district before flitting day.
There is a touch of nobility about Egil's last public appearance, the nobility of a greatly simple character. He accepts the office of arbitrator, and decides the case – as we can see, against all reasonable, likely, justified expectation – as if only his own side existed, and does so with a cool superiority, which leaves no sort of doubt that he acts with the full approval of his conscience. Here again Egil stands as a monumental expression of a dying age.
The same naïveté is seen directly in another oldfashioned character, Hallfred, called the Wayward Scald. On one occasion, when his father with rare impartiality has judged against him, he says: "Whom can I trust, when my father fails me?"
The straightforward simplicity, taking one view as a matter of course, places Hallfred, as it does Egil, outside all comparison with great or small examples of selfishness or injustice, and makes them types; more than types of their age, they are types of a form of culture itself. So thought, so acted – not the exceptions, the marked individualities, not the men who were somewhat apart from the common – but men generally. The idea of frith is set so deeply beneath all personal marks of character and all individual inclination, that it affects them only from below, not as one inclination or one feeling may affect another. The characters may be widely different, but the breach in character does not reach down to this prime centre of the soul. Egil was a stiff-necked man, hard to deal with at home and abroad, he would be master in his house, and a treaty of peace in which he did not himself dictate the terms he would not be disposed to recognise. Another man might be more easy-going, peaceable, ready to find a settlement, quick to avoid collision, and eager to remove causes of conflict, – but he could never be so save on the basis of frith and kinship.
Askel, the right-minded, peace-making chieftain of the Reykdale, is perhaps rather too modern a character to go well in company with Egil; but his story, as we find it in the saga of the Reykdale men, gives us at any rate a graphic picture of the principles of reconciliation. Askel is so unfortunate as to have a sister's son whose character is such that strife seems a necessity to him, and Askel's task in life is to follow on the heels of this Vemund and put matters right again after him. He carries out his task faithfully, is ever on the spot as soon as Vemund has had one of his great days, to effect a reconciliation, and make good the damage done by his kinsman. Vemund's achievements in the greater style begin with his joining company with a wealthy but bad man, Hanef of Othveginstunga, whom he knits closer to himself by accepting an offer of fostering a child. Hanef naturally makes use of these good connections to carry on his rascally tricks to a greater extent than before. He steals cattle. In spite of earnest representations from Askel, Vemund takes up his friend's cause, and even craftily exploits his uncle's respected name to gather men on his side. The result is a battle in which Hanef and two good men fall on the one side, and on the other, a free man and a slave. Askel comes up and makes peace between the parties, judging Hanef and the slave as equal, likewise man for man of the others slain, leaving the opponents to pay a fine for the remaining one. Thus judges the most impartial man in Iceland, when it is a question of making good what his kinsman has done ill. Vemund's next achievement of note is cheating a Norwegian skipper to sell him a shipload of wood already sold to Steingrim of Eyja fiord. Steingrim retaliates by having Vemund's slaves killed, and his part of the wood brought home to himself. Askel has to go out and settle matters again, and when Vemund finds that this intervention has not procured him reparation for the slaves, Askel offers him full payment for them out of his own purse. This Vemund refuses to accept, tacitly reserving to himself the right to settle accounts in his own fashion when opportunity offers. He tries in vain to make things balance by stealing a couple of oxen Steingrim has bought – his disinterestedness in the affair is shown by his offering them to Askel as a gift – but he gets no real result out of this either, only a couple of killings and a settlement, the last, of course, being Askel's work. The only objection Vemund has to this settlement is, that Askel has once more left the killing of the slaves in the earlier affair out of consideration. He now tries another way, hiring a wretch to insult Steingrim in a peculiarly obnoxious fashion, and this time Askel's attempt at peacemaking fails owing to the bitter resentment of the other party; not until an attempt at vengeance has led to the killing of Vemund's brother, Herjolf does the right-minded chieftain succeed in effecting a settlement whereby – Herjolf is to be paid for, two of Steingrim's companions are to be exiled for ever, and two others for two years. Thus the game goes on, with acts of aggression on Vemund's part, – always as mischievous as ever – and intervention on the part of Askel – always in full agreement with the principles of frith, until at last the measure is full; and when Steingrim with his following place themselves in the way of Askel and Vemund and their men, Askel accepts the combat, without enthusiasm, but also without demur. And that was the end of Askel and Steingrim.
Smartness and diplomacy were not forbidden qualities according to the old usage. Any man was free to edge and elbow his way through the world, even in matters directly concerning his relationship to brothers and kin. He could take little liberties with the frith as long as he was careful not to effect any actual breach, however slight. But he must always be prepared to find it rising inflexibly before him. It was quite permissible to let one's kinsmen know that one personally preferred another way of life than that they had chosen to follow, and that one would be happier to see them adopt one's own principles – this at least could be done in Iceland at the period of the sagas, and I do not think this freedom was then of recent date – but frith stood firm as ever. As for disowning the action of one's kinsmen and taking up a personal, neutral standpoint, such a thing was out of the question.
A man is brought home, lifeless. The question of what he has done, of his antecedents generally, fades away into the dimmest background. There is the fact: he is our kinsman. The investigation has for its object: slain by the hand of man, or not? wounds? and of what sort? Who was the slayer? And thereupon the kinsmen choose their leader, or gather round the born avenger and promise him all assistance in prosecuting the case, whether by force of arms or at law. The kinsmen of the slayer, on their part, are well aware of what is now to be done; they know that vengeance is on their heels. So simple and straightforward is the idea of frith. It reckons with facts alone, taking no count of personal considerations and causes which led to this violent conclusion.
Throughout the whole of the old Nordic literature, with its countless killings, justified or not, there is not a single instance of men willingly refraining from attempts at vengeance on account of the character of their kinsman deceased. They may be forced to let him lie as he lies, they may realise the hopelessness of any endeavour to obtain reparation; but in every case, we can apply the utterance occasionally found : "I would spare nothing could I be sure that vengeance was to be gained." It is certainly saying a great deal to assert that there is not a single instance; there might be, and probably were, cases of homicide, the further course of which we do not know. The positive testimony lies in the fact that the saga writer rarely fails to emphasise the bitterness of despair which fell to the lot of men forced to relinquish their revenge. And the bitterness of this enforced self-denial is also apparent in the prohibitions which had occasionally to be issued in the southern as well as in the northern parts of Teutonic territory, against taking vengeance for an offender lawfully judged and lawfully hanged.
On the other hand, the slayer comes home and states, simply and briefly, that so-and-so has been killed "and his kinsmen will hardly judge me free of all blame in the matter." The immediate effect of these words is that his kinsmen prepare for defence, to safeguard themselves and their man. It in the course of their preparations, they let fall a word or so anent the undesirability of acting as he has just done, it is merely an aside, an utterance apart from the action, and without any tendency to affect it; it serves only to enhance the effect of determination.
An Icelander greets his kinsman in the doorway with the earnest wish that he would either turn over a new leaf and live decently, or else find some other place to stay – which said, the two go indoors and discuss what measures are now to be taken in regard to the visitor's latest killing. Or the offender may answer, as Thorvald Krok – who was guilty of simple murder – answers the reproach of his kinsman Thorarin: "It is little use to bewail what is now done; you will only bring further trouble on yourself if you refuse to help us; if you take up the matter, it will not be hard to find others who will aid." And Thorarin replies: "It is my counsel that you move hither with all of yours; and that we gather others to us...."
A crude, but not altogether unique instance of the compelling power of frith is found in the story of Hrolleif of the Vatsdoela. This ne'er-do-well ships to Iceland with his witch of a mother, makes his appearance at the farm of his uncle Sæmund and claims to be received there in accordance with the bond of kinship between them. Sæmund shrewdly observes that he seems regrettably nearer in character to his mother than to his father's stock, but Hrolleif brushes the reproach away with the simple answer: "I cannot live on ill foretellings." When life with Hrolleif in the homestead becomes unendurable, and Sæmund's son Geirmund complains of him as intolerable, Hrolleif opines that it is shameful thus to rail over trifles, and discredit one's kin. He is given a holding, kills a man, for which killing Sæmund has to pay the fine, and when at last he has crowned his record by killing Ingimund, Sæmund's foster-brother, who on the strength of their friendship had given Hrolleif land of his own, he rides straight to Geirmund and forces the latter to protect him, by the words: "Here I will suffer myself to be slain, to your disgrace." We find it hardly remarkable that Sæmund, when a neighbour calls with well-founded complaints against his nephew's doings in the district, should give vent to a sigh: "It were but good if such men were put out of the world," – but what does the neighbour say: "You would very surely think otherwise if any should attempt it in earnest." Here lies the great difficulty: Sæmund is obliged to hold by Hrolleif as far as ever possible; not merely to cover him, but further, to maintain his cause in face of his opponents.
Here is a scene from
Vallaljot's saga, where Ljot's words are particularly
characteristic. There have been killing and other
matters between Ljot and his kinsmen on the one hand,
and the two sons of Sigmund, Hrolf and Halli, on the
other. All dissension has now been buried by a fair
reconciliation, thanks to the right-minded intervention
of Gudmund the
There is a sounding echo of the active character of this frith in the old German's paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount; in germanising Christ's command as to unreserved self-denial, "If thine eye offend thee, thy hand send thee, cast them from thee," he says, "Go not with the kinsman who leads to sin, to wrong, though he be never so closely thy kinsman; better to cast him aside, to abhor him, and lay waste love in the heart, that one may rise alone to the high heaven."
Personal sympathies and antipathies again, can of course never stand up against the authority of frith. Relations between Thorstein and his father had never been very cordial; to Egil's mind, this son of his was ever too soft, too easygoing a man. Egil could not thrive in his house, but went in his old age to live with a step-daughter; but his personal feelings towards his son could not make him stop a single moment to consider whether or not he should interfere.
The Bandamanna saga has a little story based on this theme, of a father and son who never could get along together, but are drawn together by their common feeling against all outsiders. The son is Odd, a wealthy man; Usvif, his father, is poor. Odd gets entangled in a lawsuit, which his ill-wishers take advantage of to squeeze him thoroughly. They have sworn together not to let him go free till they have stripped him. Then artful old Usvif comes along, and under cover of his notorious illwill towards his son, goes about among the conspirators, opening the eyes of a few of them to the hazardous nature of their undertaking. "As purely as my son has money in his chest, so surely also has he wit in his head to find a way when that is needed... do you properly know how much of the booty there will fall to each, when there are eight of you to share?... For you need not think my son will sit waiting at home for you; he has a ship, as you know, and save for homestead and land, a man's wealth will float on water, that much I know... nay, but what a man has gotten, that he has." And here the old man is near letting fall a fat purse hidden beneath his cloak, the price he had demanded of his son beforehand for his help. Thus he went unhesitatingly about the work of frith as he understood it, and took a hearty pride in his and his son's success in settling the matter.
All must give way to frith, all obligations, all considerations of self, everything, down to the regard for one's own personal dignity – if such a thing could be imagined as existing apart from the feeling of kinship.
The great heroic example of daughterly and sisterly fidelity is Signy. The Volsungasaga tells, presumably based throughout on older poems, how a disagreement between Volsung and his son-in-law, Siggeir, Signy's husband, leads to the slaying of the former. Volsung's only surviving son, Sigmund, has to take to the woods, and there he ponders on revenge for his father. Signy sends one after another of her sons out to aid him, and sacrifices them mercilessly when they show themselves craven and useless. At last she herself goes out, disguised and unrecognisable, to Sigmund's hiding place, and bears her own brother a son, an avenger of the true type, instinct with the feeling of clanship. "The war-skilled youth closed me in his arms; there was joy in his embrace, and yet it was hateful to me also," runs the stirring Old English monologue. And when at last the long-awaited vengeance comes, and the fire blazes up about King Siggeir, she throws herself into the flames with the words: "I have done all that King Siggeir might be brought to his death; so much have I done to bring about vengeance that I will not in any wise live longer; I will die now with Siggeir as willingly as I lived unwillingly with him."
To such a length is she driven by frith. She cannot stop at any point, in face of any horror, so long as her sisterly love is still unsatisfied. She is carried irresistibly through motherly feeling and the dread of incest. For there is not the slightest suggestion in the saga that Signy is to be taken as one of those stern characters in whom one passion stifles all others from the root.
One is tempted to regard this episode as a study, a piece of problem writing, as a conscious attempt to work out the power of frith upon the character. The suggestion has, I think, something to justify it; the story as it stands has its idea. Consciously or unconsciously, the poet, and his hearers, were concerned to bring it about that the frith on one side and that on the other – a woman's relationship to her husband is also a sort of frith – were so forced one against the other that the two showed their power by crushing human beings between them. Signy must take vengeance on her husband for her father's death, in despite of humanity itself, and she must take vengeance on herself for her own act; her words : "So much have I done to bring about vengeance that I will not in any wise live longer," do not come as an empty phrase, they ring out as the theme of the poem. Gudrun may sorrow for her husband, but she cannot take action against her brothers; Signy must aid in furthering vengeance for her father, even though it cost her her husband, and her children, and something over.
The frith of the guild statutes, which requires the brethren to take up one another's cause, considering only the person, and not the matter itself, is thus no exaggeration. And the frith of kinship has one thing about it which can never find expression in a paragraph of laws: to wit, spontaneity, necessity, the unreflecting "we cannot do otherwise".
And whence comes this "We cannot do otherwise", but from depths that lie beneath all self-determination and self-comprehension. We can follow the idea of frith from its manifestation in man's self-consciousness, down through all his dispositions, until it disappears in the root of will. We dimly perceive that it is not he that wills frith, but frith that wills him. It lies at the bottom of his soul as the great fundamental element, with the blindness and the strength of nature.
Frith constitutes what we call the base of the soul. It is not a mighty feeling among other feelings in these people, but the very core of the soul, that gives birth to all thoughts and feelings, and provides them with the energy of life – or it is that centre in the self where thoughts and feelings receive the stamp of their humanity, and are inspired with will and direction. It answers to what we in ourselves call the human. Humanity in them bears always the mark of kinship. In our culture, a revolting misdeed is branded as inhuman, and conversely, we express our appreciation of noble behaviour by calling it genuinely human; by the Teutons, the former is condemned as destroying a man's kin-life, the latter praised for strengthening the sense of frith. Therefore the slaying of a kinsman is the supreme horror, shame and ill-fortune in one, whereas an ordinary killing is merely an act that may, or may not, be objectionable according to circumstances.
Down at this level of spontaneity there is no difference between me and thee, as far as kinship reaches. If frith constitutes the base of the soul, it is a base which all kinsmen have in common. There they adjoin one another, without any will or reflection between them as a buffer. Kinsmen strengthen one another; they are not as two or more individuals who add their respective strengths together, but they act in concert, because deep down in them all there is a thing in common which knows and thinks for them. Nay, more; they are so united that one can draw strength to himself from another.
This peculiarity of man is well known by the bear, according to a saying current in the North of Sweden. "Better to fight twelve men than two brothers" runs a proverb ascribed to the wise animal. Among twelve men, a bear can pick off one at a time in rational fashion; but the two cannot be taken one by one. And if the one falls, his strength is passed on to his brother.
This solidarity – as exemplified in the laws of revenge – rests on the natural fact of psychological unity. Through the channel of the soul, the action and the suffering of the individual flow on, spreading out to all who belong to the same stock, so that in the truest sense they are the doers of one another's acts. When they follow their man to the seat of justice and support him to the utmost of their power, they are not acting as if his deed were theirs, but because it is. As long as the matter is still unsettled, all the kinsmen concerned are in a state of permanent challenge. Not only the slayer stands in danger of perishing by the sword he has drawn; vengeance can equally well be attained by the killing of one of his kin, if the offended parties find such an one easier to reach, or judge him more "worthy", as an object of vengeance. Steingrim's words have a most natural ring, when he comes to Eyjolf Valgerdson and tells that he has been out in search of Vemund, but being prevented, took instead his brother Herjolf (who, from the saga, does not appear to have had any share in Vemund's doings). "Eyjolf was not well pleased that it had not been Vemund or Hals (another brother of Vemund's); but Steingrim said, they had not been able to reach Vemund – "though we had rather seen it had been him". And Eyjolf likewise had no objection to this." The ring of the words, the passionless, practical, matter-of-fact tone in which the speeches are uttered, tells us at once, better than much roundabout explanation, that we have here to deal with a matter of experience, and not a reflection or an arbitrary rule. In another saga a man has to pay with his life for the amorous escapades of his brother. Ingolf had caused offence to Ottar's daughter by his persistent visits to her home, and her father vindicated the honour of his daughter by having Ingolf's brother, Gudbrand, killed. Ingolf himself was too wary to give the girl's protectors a chance upon his life, and so they had no choice but to strike at him through the body of his kinsman.
Similarly, all those united by one bond of kinship suffer by any scathe to one of their clan: all feel the pain of the wound, all are equally apt to seek vengeance. If a fine be decreed, all will have their share.
Thus the kinsmen proclaim their oneness of soul and body, and this reciprocal identity is the foundation on which society and the laws of society mast be based. In all relations between man and man, it is frith that is taken into account, not individuals. What a single man has done binds all who live in the same circle of frith. The kinsmen of a slain man appear in pleno as accusers. It is the clan of the slayer that promises indemnity; the clan that pays it. It is the clan of the slain man that receives the fine, and the sum is again shared out in such wise as to reach every member of the group. The two families promise each other, as one corporation to another peace and security in future.
When a matter of blood
or injury is brought before the tribunal of the
law-thing, the decree must follow the line of
demarcation drawn by kinship. The circle of frith
amounts to an individual, which cannot be divided save
by amputation, and its right constitutes a whole which
no judgement can dissect.
We have been taught from
childhood to regard the story of the bundle of sticks as
an illustration of the importance of unity. The Germanic
attitude of mind starts from a different side
altogether. Here, unity is not regarded as originating
in addition; unity is first in existence. The thought of
mutual support plays no leading part among these men;
they do not see it in the light of one man after another
coming with his strength and the whole then added
together; but rather as if the force lay in that which
unites them. For them, then, the entire community is
broken, and the strength of its men therewith, as soon
as even one of the individual parties to it is torn up.
And thus they compare the group of kinsmen to a fence,
stave set by stave, enclosing a sacred ground. When one
is struck down, there is a breach in the clan, and the
ground lies open to be trampled on.
Such then, is the frith which in ancient days united kinsmen one with another; a love which can only be characterized as a feeling of identity, so deeply rooted that neither sympathy nor antipathy, nor any humour or mood can make it ebb or flow.
No happening can be so powerful as to reach down and disturb this depth. Not even the strongest feelings and obligations towards non-kinsmen can penetrate so as to give rise to any inner tragedy, any conflict of the soul. Signy, to take her as a type, was driven to do what she would rather have left undone; the thrilling words: "there was joy in it; but it was hateful to me also," are undoubtedly applicable also to her state after the consummation of her revenge. So near can the Northmen approach to tragedy, that they depict a human being who suffers by taking action. But there is no question of any inner conflict, in the sense of her considering, in fear, what course she is to choose. The tragic element comes from without; she acts naturally and without hesitation, and her action whirls her to destruction. When first dissension between kinsfolk is consciously exploited as a poetic subject, as in the Laxdoela account of the two cousins driven to feud for a woman's sake, we find ourselves on the threshold of a new world.
The Laxdoela plays about the tragic conflict in a man's mind, when he is whirled into enmity with his cousin by the ambition of a woman. The strong-minded Gudrun is never able to forget that once she loved Kjartan and was jilted, and when she marries Bolli, Kjartan's cousin, she makes him a tool of her revenge. At last the day of reckoning has arrived: Kjartan is reported to be on a solitary ride past Bolli's homestead. Gudrun was up at sundawn, says the saga, and woke her brothers. "Such mettle as you are, you should have been daughters of so-and-so the peasant – of the sort that serve neither for good nor ill. After all the shame Kjartan has put upon you, you sleep never the worse for that he rides past the place with a man or so..." The brothers dress and arm themselves. Gudrun bids Bolli go with them. He hesitates, alleging the question of kinship, but she answers: "Maybe; but you are not so lucky as to be able to please all in a matter; we will part, then, if you do not go with them." Thus urged, Bolli takes up his arms and goes out. The party placed themselves in ambush in the defile of Hafragil. Bolli was silent that day, and lay up at the edge of the ravine. But his brothers-in-law were not pleased to have him lying there keeping look-out; jestingly they caught him by the legs and dragged him down. When Kjartan came through the ravine, the fight began. Bolli stood idly by, his sword, Foot-bite, in his hand. "Well, kinsman, and what did you set out for to-day, since you stand there idly looking on?" Bolli made as though he had not heard Kjartan's words. At length the others wake him to action, and he places himself in Kjartan's way. Then said Kjartan: "Now you have made up your mind, it seems, to this cowardly work; but I had rather take my death from you than give you yours." With this he threw down his weapon, and Bolli, without a word, dealt him his death-blow. He sat down at once, supporting Kjartan, who died in his arms.
This: yes – no; I will – I will not, lies altogether outside the sphere of frith; in these chapters there is a touch of the mediæval interest in mental problems; but the old, heartsick, and therefore at bottom ignoble melancholy still rings through.
There is less of tragedy
than of moral despair in Bolli's words to Gudrun when
she congratulates him on his return home: "This ill
fortune will be long in my mind, even though you do not
remind me of it."
Frith, then, is nothing but the feeling of kinship itself; it is given, once and for all, at birth. The sympathy we regard as the result of an endeavour to attune ourselves to our neighbours, was a natural premise, a feature of character.
Compared with the love of our day, the old family feeling has a stamp of almost sober steadfastness. There is none of that high-pressure feeling which modern human beings seem to find vitally necessary to love, none of that pain of tenderness which seems to be the dominant note in our heart-felt sympathy, between man and man as well as between man and woman. The Christian hero of love is consumed by his ardour, he is in danger of being sundered himself by his own need of giving out and drawing up in himself. The people of old time grew strong and healthy in the security of their friendships; frith is altogether balance and sobriety.
It is natural, then, that security should form the centre of meaning in the words which the Germanic people are most inclined to use of themselves, words such as sib and frith. Security, but with a distinct note of something active, something willing and acting, or something at least which is ever on the point of action. A word such as the Latin pax suggests first and foremost – if I am not in error – a laying down of arms, a state of equipoise due to the absence of disturbing elements; frith, on the other hand, indicates something armed, protection, defence – or else a power for peace which keeps men amicably inclined. Even when we find mention, in the Germanic, of "making peace", the fundamental idea is not that of removing disturbing elements and letting things settle down, but that of introducing a peace-power among the disputants.
The translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry is faced with innumerable difficulties, because no modern words will exhaust the meaning of terms like freoðu and sib, indicating "frith". If he content himself with repeating "peace" again and again in every context, he will thereby wipe out the very meaning which gives sense to the line; and if he attempt to vary by different interpretations, he can only give the upper end of the meaning; he pulls off a little tuft of the word, but he does not get the root. The energy of the word, its vital force, is lost. When in one place enemies or evildoers beg for frith, the word means fully: acceptance in a pardoning will, admission to inviolability; and when God promises the patriarch in Genesis frith, it bears the full meaning of grace, the earnest intention to be with him and protect him, fight for him, and if need be, commit a wrong for his advantage. And it is not only men, but also, for instance, places, strongholds, which can furnish those in need of frith.
And frith is the mutual will, the unanimity, gentleness, loyalty, in which men live within their circle. According to the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Genesis, the state in which the angels lived with their Lord, before they sinned, has frith; it was this frith that Cain broke by his fratricide "forfeiting love and frith." So also Mary says to Joseph, when he thinks of leaving her: "You will rive asunder our frith and forsake my love."
When Beowulf has killed both Grendel and his mother, the Danish King in grateful affection says: "I will give you my frith as we had before agreed," and he can give nothing higher than this. But there is the same entire sense of affection and obligation when the two arch-enemies Finn and Hengest, after a desperate fight, enter into a firm alliance in frith – even though the will gives way soon after.
But the sense of the words is not exhausted yet. They denote not only the honest, resolute will to find loyalty; implicit trust forms the core, but about it lies a wealth of tones of feeling, joy, delight, affection, love. A great part of the passages quoted above, if not all, are only half understood unless that tone is suffered to sound as well. In the Anglo-Saxon, sib – or peace – ranges from the meaning of relief, comfort – as in the saying: sib comes after sorrow – to love. And when the Northmen speak of woman's frith or love, the word glows with passion.
We need not doubt but that the feeling of frith included love, and that kinsmen loved one another, and that deeply and sincerely. It is love between one and another that has drawn the little Old-Scandinavian word sváss, Anglo-Saxon svæs, away from its original meaning. It means, probably, at the first, approximately "one's own, closely related" but in Anglo-Saxon poetry it shows a tendency to attach itself to designations for kinsmen, and at the same time its content has become more and more intense; intimate, dear, beloved, joyous. In the Scandinavian, it has concentrated entirely about this sense and is there, moreover, a very strong word for expressing dearness. From all we can see, the relation between brothers, and also between brothers and sisters, was among the Germanic people, as generally with all peoples of related culture, one of close intimacy. The brotherly and sisterly relationship has a power unlike any other to intensify will and thoughts and feelings. The kinship has possessed both depth and richness.
Besides love there is in frith a strong note of joy. The Anglo-Saxon word liss has a characteristic synthesis of tenderness and firmness that is due to its application to the feelings of kinship. It denotes the gentleness and consideration which friends feel for one another; it indicates the king's favour towards his retainers; in the mouths of Christian poets it lends itself readily to express God's grace. But then liss is also joy, delight, happiness; just that pleasure one feels in one's home, among one's faithful friends. These two notes – which were of course really one – rang through the words of Beowulf: "All my liss is in thee, but few friends have I without thee;" thus he greets his uncle Hygelac as if to explain the offering of his trophies to his kinsman. "All frith is ruined by the fall of fearless Tryggvason," these simple words disclose the boundless grief which Hallfred felt at the death of his beloved king.
Gladness was a characteristic feature in a man, nothing less than the mark of freedom. "Glad-man" – a man of happy mind – a man must be called, if the judgement were to be altogether laudatory. The verse in the Hávamál, "Glad shall a men be at home, generous to the guest, and gentle," indicates what is expected of a man, and this agrees with the spirit of the following verse from the Beowulf: "Be glad towards the Geats, and forget not gifts for them," as the Queen adjures the King of the Geats. In fact, just as bold or well-armed are standing epithets of the man, glad must be added to indicate that nothing is wanted in his full humanity; so when the Beowulf tells us, that Freawaru "was betrothed to Froda's glad son", the poet does not intend to explain the disposition of the prince, but simply describes him as the perfect knight.
Gladness was an essential feature in humanity, and thus a quality of frith. The connection between joy and friendly feeling is so intimate that the two cannot be found apart. All joy is bound up with frith; outside it, there is not and cannot be anything answering to that name. When the poet of the Genesis lets the rebellious angels fall away from joy and frith and gladness, he gives, in this combination of words, not a parallel reckoning up of the two or three most important values lost to them by their revolt, but. the expression in a formula of life itself seen from its two sides.
Our forefathers were very sociable in their gladness. Intercourse and well-being were synonymous with them. When they sit about the board, or round the hearth. whatever it may be, they grow boisterous and quick to laughter – they feel pleasure. Pleasure, of course, is a word of wide scope of meaning in their mode of speech, extending far beyond the pleasures of the table and of converse, but pleasure is properly society; in other words, it is the feeling of community that forms the basis of their happiness. Mandream, delight in man's society, is the Anglo-Saxon expression for life, existence, and to go hence is called to "give up joy", the joy in mankind, joy of life, joy of the hall; it is to forsake delight in kinsmen, in honour, in the earth, one's inheritance, the joyful site of home.
Now we are in a position to understand, that gladness or joy is not a pleasure derived from social intercourse; it draws its exhilarating strength from being identical with frith. The contents of joy are a family privilege, an heirloom. The Anglo-Saxon word feasceaft means literally: he who has no part or lot with others, the outlaw who has no kin, but the word implies the meaning of unhappy, joyless; not, as we might believe, because one so driven out must come to lead a miserable existence, but because he turned his back upon gladness when he went away. "Gladness'' must be taken in an individualizing sense, as of a sum of gladness pertaining to the house, and which the man must leave behind him in the house when he goes out into the void. There is no joy lying about loose in the wilds. He who is cast out from gladness of his own and those about him has lost all possibility of feeling the well-being of fullness in himself. He is empty.
Kinship is an indispensable condition to the living of life as a human being; and it is this which makes the suffering occasioned by any breach in a man's frith so terrible, without parallel in all experience; so intolerable and brutal, devoid of all lofty ideal elements. To us, a conflict such as that which arises in Gudrun when she sees her "speech-friend" slain, and her brothers as the slayers, might seem to present the highest degree of bitterness; a thing to rend the soul asunder. But the Germanic mind knew that which was worse than tearing asunder, to wit, dissolution. A breach of frith gives rise to a suffering beneath all passion; it is kinship itself, a man's very humanity, that is stifled, and thence follows the dying out of all human qualities. What the wretch suffers and what he enjoys can no longer produce any real feeling in him. His very power of joy is dead. The power of action is killed. Energy is replaced by that state which the Northmen feared most of all, and most of all despised: redelessness.
"Bootless struggle, an overarching sin, falling like darkness over Hrethel's soul" says the Beowulf of the fratricide; in these words is summed up the helpless, powerless fear that follows on the breaking of frith.
This places a new task before us. Joy is a thing essential to humanity. It is inseparably attached to frith; a sum and an inheritance. But this joy, then, contained something in itself.
In the Beowulf, the hero's return from strife and toil is sung as follows: "Thence he sought his way to his dear home, loved by his people, home to the fair frith-hall, where he had his battle-fellows, his castle, his treasures." What did these lines mean to the original listeners? What feelings did the words "dear", "loved" and "fair" call forth in them? What we have seen up to now teaches us approximately but the strength of these words – and what we are not to understand thereby.
What were the ideas attaching to this joy?
The answer is contained in the old word honour.