LUCK IS THE LIFE OF THE CLAN
is the ultimate and deepest expression of man's being,
and that which reaches farthest. We cannot get behind
it; however far we may go into the human soul, we can
never get sight of luck from behind. First and foremost,
the feeling of kinship is an outcome of luck, and when
illwill and villainy break forth, these disorders prove
that the heart of that family is ruined, and we can then
with absolute surety foretell that the one villainy will
be followed by others, and the work of that race be
barren. Thus naturally the people argued in the case of
Sigurd Slembi, when, after having killed his brother, he
claimed the title of king: “If you are truly a son of
King Magnus, then your birth was unlucky (and iflboding,
úgiptusamligr), and thus too it has fallen out,
if you have murdered your brother.” The unluck is by
no means a consequence that comes halting along in the
wake of misdeeds or dishonour. The Germanic mind
actually counts on the fact that unluck sooner or later
will arise in the place where dishonour has manifested
its appearance, for the very reason that the
concatenation of events was not dependent on God's
keeping a strict balance. Fault and retribution are not
connected by an intermediate link, that may perhaps be
then, is the power that inspires a man and emanates from
his person, filling his words and his deeds; it
comprises all the requirements of the family, its powers
and possibilities, its accomplishments and its hope, its
genius and character. Luck contains the very existence
of the clan; the family is called kynsæll,
in kinship, when kinsmen are numerous and new members
are constantly being born to fill the places falling
vacant. In Anglo-Saxon, the same idea is expressed by tuddorspéd,
which means luck in offspring and power of cohesion.
In luck there lies, moreover, existence from the social
point of view, the outward esteem in which the family is
held. Prosperous kinsmen are said to possess man-luck (mannheill),
i. e. the luck to have the friendship and affection
of others, and luck of fame (orðheill), so that
people speak well, both in goodwill and with respect, of
them. In the Anglo-Saxon Genesis, God promises Abraham's
son freondspéd, luck in friends, or, as we might
equally well translate it, a wealth of friends. — Finally,
luck involves honour, both that which shines out in the
splendour of renown, and that which lies compressed to a
power of tension in the human soul.
sets its stamp upon a man outwardly. Whence had the
Northmen their keenness of vision, which enabled them to
apprize a man at a glance? At the first meeting they
would say either: he is a man promising luck and honour (sæmligir
and hamingjusamligr), one luck is to be
expected of (giptuvænligr), or: he bears the
mark of unluck (úgiptubragð). Partly on the
strength of intuition, as we say — or, as the ancients
put it, because the mind of the beholder told him what
to think of the stranger, — but partly on
external criteria; luck manifested itself openly in the
newcomer's mien, gait, behaviour, bearing, and not least
in his well-nourished appearance, his health, his dress,
and his weapons. Only a family of wealth and speed is
able to send its youngling out in many-coloured clothes
and with a splendid axe, an “heirloom” of a weapon.
Njal's Sons with their friends made their famous round
of the booths at the Al-thing to gather supporters for
the decisive suit, Skarphedin managed to stifle the
dawning goodwill of one great man after another, because
he could not repress his ironical smile and bitter words
of scorn. The keen-sighted chieftain Snorri Godi
discovered the secret of Skarphedin's failure when he
said: “Doughty you look, Skarphedin, but your luck is
near its end, and I should think you have but little of
life remaining.” At earlier times, when the words
still retained their original force, a man's doom was
contained in the single sentence: Luck forsook him.
luck — or in another word, hamingja — comprises all,
body and soul, that made up a man's humanity; and to
gather the full value of the term, we must bear in mind
that this hamingja constitutes a whole, homogeneous
throughout. Even though it may manifest itself in
different forms, according as it makes its way out
through eyes, hands, head, through cattle or weapons, it
is one and indissoluble. Behind the visible man, or more
correctly, behind the visible circle of kinsmen, there
is a spiritual sum of force, of which the kinsmen are
representatives. In a trial of strength, the whole
hamingja is at stake, and in the result, it emerges,
either stronger and more handsome in all its limbs, or
is this compact strength which makes king's luck so
invincible to ordinary men. “You have not luck to
measure yourself against the king,” one may say; and
this means, you have not kinsmen enough, not wit,
courage, war-speed enough; your power to victory is too
slight, your gift of fertility too weak. While you
sleep, the king's hamingja will take yours by surprise,
blind it and confuse it; his hamingja will pit itself
against yours in other men's minds and cripple it, and
before you come to face each other in open fight, you
will be a paralysed man. The Northmen have an
expression, etja hamingju, literally, to urge
luck with a man, just as one might urge a horse with
him, let one's war stallion bite and try its strength
against his. Indeed, every trial of strength between men
was a strife between two powers of luck, a spiritual
conflict. The result of the fight depended to a great
extent upon the man's quickness and agility, just as the
luck of a horse depended on its owner's ability to
support it and urge it on; but there was still something
stronger which filled the scene, the struggle between
the combatants was only part of a contest fought in a
larger field of battle by powers who never slept.
have not luck to measure yourself against the king,”
said Kveldulf to his son Thorolf, when the relations
between the king and the young chieftain drew nearer and
nearer to open conflict. But long before that time, the
old man had warned his sons against having anything
whatever to do with Harald:
mind tells me that we kinsmen will not have luck with
this king, and I will not fare to meeting with him.”
The saga lets Thorolf's brother make use of the same
expression in his explanation to the King, when the
latter is half forcing him into his service: “Thorolf
was a far more notable man than I, and he had not luck
to serve you. I will not serve you, for I know that I
have not luck to yield you such service as I should
wish, and as might rightly be expected.” The fact was,
that these big yeomen had not the aptitude for such a
position, or, which comes to the same thing, they had
not the will to adapt themselves to it.
here we come to a deep-rooted peculiarity in the
psychology of the ancient character. The idea that if
one but earnestly wills, then the power will come, or vice
versa, that the power perhaps may be there, but the
will be lacking, had no validity for the Northman. All
his peculiarities were due to the nature of his luck;
obstinacy as well as courage, pride as well as
inclination to serve the greater man, violence and
intractability as well as fearlessness. Luck is the
nature of the mind, the character and will. With our
ideas as to the reciprocal effects of desire and will,
we must again and again in these old sagas find
ourselves face to face with insoluble riddles. It often
seems as if men would gladly relinquish destructive
undertakings, as if they would gladly clear away
misunderstandings and enmity, but something invisible
leads their endeavours to miss the mark. We may say:
they cannot because they will not, or they will not
because they are not able, for both sentences are
equally true. When we, in such cases, call in the idea
of trust in fate and servitude to fate, it is easy to
lose sight of the true reason why these men cannot
resist fate, viz, that they will their own fate.
It is the will in them that forces them up against
desire and calculation and brings their most serious
plans to naught, because the will has its nature, and
cannot act beyond the limits drawn for it by its own
character. The luck of Kveldulf's Sons was once and for
all of such a character that it could not fit in with
the king's; and therefore it was best to keep them
apart. It was not so much the difference in strength
which determined the relations of men one with another
in the world, but quite as much the dissimilarity in
character between them.
luck of the chieftain was of a far different volume from
that of the peasant. “You are rich in luck” (lit.
your luck goes a long way), “and all turns out well in
your hand,” says Sæmund characteristically to the old
Vatsdoela magnate Ingimund, when he himself can no
longer manage his headstrong kinsman Hrolleif, and begs
Ingimund to receive him. The secret of the chieftain's
power to achieve the impossible lies, however, not in
the bulk of his luck, but in its distinctive character.
peculiarity of luck constitutes the natural foundation
of a Germanic king's authority and influence. He has
very little formal power, or hardly any; whether men
will obey his commands or not depends on their
inclination at the moment.
Southerners observed the anarchy that displayed itself
in the Germanic hosts, and gave up all attempt to find
any common sense in the Teutons' monarchical principles.
These barbarians, say the classical writers, show no
respect to their prince, they do not salute him; if the
king's decision displease them, then they surround his
tent and force him with loud cries to alter his plans;
they bring matters to war where he wishes peace, and
peace when he desires war; it may happen, that in a fit
of dissatisfaction with him, they simply drive him out.
— Behind the words of the Romans we seem to catch an
ironic question: what on earth do such creatures want
with a king at all? We have no reason to discredit the
observations of our authorities; they are for the most
part made with the intelligence that comes of a cultured
mind, and with the cultured mind's watchful interest in
barbarians pressing ever closer on the frontiers of
civilization. It is another matter, that the observer
only saw the outward movements, and by his very culture
was prevented from perceiving the nervous system that
produced them. These statements must stand in some
relation or other to the no less undeniable fact that
the Germanic royal families possessed a remarkable
toughness. We find tribes drifting vagabond fashion
about over the greater part of Europe, now fighting for
their lives, now sitting comfortably at ease in
conquered territory, but always, century after century,
under the same race of kings.
gives a priceless narrative of the Herules' fidgety
experiments in kingship, wherein both the front and the
reverse of barbarian loyalty are portrayed with the
keenness of caricature. The Herules, he says, one day
hit upon the idea of trying what it was like to live
without a king; accordingly, they took their only royal
personage and slew him. No sooner had they tasted the
sweetness of freedom, however, than they discovered that
it did not agree with them. Regretting what they had
done, and feeling that they must get back the old state
of things at any cost, they sent an embassy from the
Mediterranean countries up to the North, to fetch them a
king of the old stock. The ambassadors go trapesing
through Europe, and find a prince in Scandinavia;
unfortunately, he dies between their fingers on the way.
Undismayed, they turn back for a new specimen, which
they manage to bring safely through to the south.
Meanwhile, the others at home, having plenty of time to
reflect, took it into their heads that in a matter of
such importance it would be wrong not to consult
Justinian; and surely enough, the emperor happened to
know a native Herule living at the court of Byzantium,
whom he could-therefore highly recommend. But just as
everything is going well, comes a message to the effect
that the Scandinavian previously requisitioned is on the
way. The Herules, having put Justinian and his good men
to such inconvenience, can do no less than show
themselves worthy of the confidence shown in them; they
follow their ruler with enthusiasm into the field, ready
to put the late-corner to the right-about.
Unfortunately, they have a quiet night to think matters
over, and this they utilise to go over to the side of
the traveller from afar, leaving the Imperial candidate
to find his own way home to Byzantium.
most curious history, this, but one bearing the stamp of
verisimilitude. Such kaleidoscopic characters are only
to be equalled in the accounts given by Europeans of
what they themselves have seen among savage and
barbarous peoples. The analogy with the researches of
modern ethnologists increases the likelihood that
Procopius is merely relating simple notorious facts, but
this comparison also suggests the possibility that
Procopius has missed some hidden principle guiding the
acts of the barbarians. The explanation lies partly in
the political relations between the Herules and the
emperor of Byzantium, partly, and chiefly, in the
people's spiritual dependence upon the right king; king
by the grace of God, as we might say, or by the grace of
luck, as the Herules might have said. Jordanes has
formulated the monarchical principle in his simple, mediæval
manner: The Goths regarded their noble families as more
than human, as demigods, “those in whose luck they, as
it were, conquered.”
Sweden, the king and his people lived an open and honest
life together, without any illusions. The fundamental
paragraph in the part of the Westgöta law treating the
king's rights and duties, runs: The Upper Swedes are to
take the king, and to drive him out. And if we compare
this pregnant maxim with the description given by the
historian Snorri of the thing-meeting at Upsala, we may
find here a powerful historical illustration of the
rule. On this occasion, Thorgny the Lawman addresses the
angry king as follows: “Now we yeomen will that you
agree with Olaf the Thick and marry your daughter to
if you will not have it as we say, then we will all go
against you and kill you, and not suffer you to disturb
the law and the peace of the land. Thus our forefathers
did aforetime; they cast down five kings into a well
because they were swollen with overweening pride, as you
are now to us. Choose then at once what terms you
There is nothing very splendid about a royalty whose representative must suffer such a form of address. But when the lawman gives historical precedent for such obedience on the part of the king, he is unwittingly presenting the relation between king and people from another side. Thorgny gives King Olaf to understand what sort of ancestors were his, men who every summer went out on forays and subjugated the eastern lands: the earthen strongholds they raised over in Finland, Esthonia and Courland are still to be seen; these heroes, he goes on, were not too proud to listen to the advice of other men. Thorgny is perfectly right. But if the miserable Olaf of Sweden had taken after his ancestors, he could safely have asked for advice from other men, without fear of being forced into a peace that went against his will. Unfortunately, we know hardly more about these forefathers of Olaf's than Thorgny here tells us; thus much, however, is fairly certain: it was not the peasants who planned those forays and ravagings outside the country; it was the king. Eric the Victorious, Bjorn, and these conquering rulers of Sweden whatever they were called, gained both honour and advantage from the wars; the peasants no doubt got their share of honour, and possibly also their share of the booty, but the advantages of territorial acquisitions can never be so fully exploited in the work of a farm as they can at the king's court. The king neglected nothing of his work at home by being away on expeditions, but the peasants might well have work enough of their own to keep them busy during the summer. It might be, then, that other men listened well enough and willingly enough to what those kings said.
This trial of strength between the peasants' spokesman and the Upsala king rises to the position of a symbol of the Germanic kingship, in which its peculiar strength and its peculiar weakness are each sharply defined. Here, as everywhere among the peoples. of the North, it is the king's initiative that furnishes under takings for the people. He stands, and not to the eye of the alien chronicler alone, as the conqueror, from whom plans emanate,. and emanate in the form of commands. He commands, but he has nothing beyond what we should call his personality to rely upon for the enforcement of his commands. There are no statutes, no royal prerogatives to support him when he begins to show himself “redeless”. All his power lies in the firm grip of superior luck; if that fail but a moment, then the people come forward with their: “we will not suffer injustice at your hands”, and there is little then that the king can do that will not naturally be included under the heading of injustice. But as long as the king's plans are put forward 'with the effectiveness of luck, men will follow his call, carry out his plans, submit without audible protest to arbitrary acts and interference with their liberties. Then there is little that cannot be included under the heading of “law” or justice.
At a hasty glance, it might seem as if the kingly power were something floating loosely over the life of the people. And yet the truth is, that kingship is an institution which no revolutions, let alone momentary fancies, can shake. He who sits in the king's seat has it in his power to make himself the state, and on the other hand, he can make himself a powerless shadow of the state; but he cannot efface himself. While rights may wax and wane, the chieftainship stands fast, because the one family represented by the king or the chieftain, possesses a luck of altogether egregious character, not only stronger and more manifold, but in its essence fundamentally different from that of all others.
When the people sweep the king aside, then the reason is that they feel the decline of his “speed”, his power to victory, but the luck itself, that family luck from which his personal influence wells up, is a thing they cannot do without. They know there is danger in thrusting him out: he has something peculiar in him that is not to be found anywhere else in the land, a luck to which they trust, and that with a faith rooted deep down in the lower strata where lie not only vital courage but vital fear. The individual holder of the title may degenerate — but the people of the land will keep to his stock nevertheless. They must have a representative of the superlative hamingja with them in the fight, or all their courage will be in vain. A child could accomplish more than a host of courageous and skilful warriors. Little King Ingi, poor child, was at the age of two wrapped in a fold of Thjostolf Mason's cloak, and carried under the banner in the forefront of that battle which was to decide his right to Norway. Luck was evidently in him, for the men carrying him in their midst won the day; but it was too frail to stand all the hard knocks; his legs and back were never sound thereafter.
In the same way the Frankish queen Fredegunde used her little son Chlotar as a shield against misfortune. She had had her husband Chilperich killed in order to set her son in his stead. Now the avenger comes upon her, in the person of Chilperich's nephew with numerous allies. Fredegunde staked all on a single throw, ventured an attack at dawn, and gained the victory; but indeed she had herself carried little Chlotar on her arm in the midst of the army throughout the battle.
But in thus emphasising the peculiar position of the king's luck, we moderns, whose thoughts always group themselves in categories, invariably lump the Teuton kings together as a species, and register the king's luck as an item in Germanic culture, and thus we lose sight of the true secret that every king's luck was a thing apart from all else, and owed its influence to individual powers of its own.
The history of the Norwegian kingship, its centuries of conflict with the old chieftainship, as represented by the “hersirs” or petty kings, may serve as a grand illustration of the individuality of king's luck. The kings of Norway were famed for their power and authority. Olaf Tryggvason ruled, apparently, as a sell-constituted despot: he “forced Norway to Christianity”; those who would not as he willed, he mutilated, killed, or sent headlong out of the country; be could set out upon the strange expedition against the Vends followed by the chieftains of Norway and their fleets. But in the sagas, Olaf by no means always appears as triumphing over the will of the people and their leaders.
As soon as the king ventures into countries not in the strictest sense his by inheritance, the local chiefs come out against him as his equals, and offer terms. When Olaf Tryggvason appears in the Gula-thing with his proposal for conversion, he is given this answer by Olmod the Old: “If it is your mind to force us, and encroach upon our law (i. e. the state of law we live in) and make us subject to you, then we will resist with all our might, and let victory decide. But if you will make it worth while for us kinsmen, then you might gain our services.” They price their loyalty at nothing less than a matrimonial alliance with the house of Norway, and demand the king's sister for their kinsman Erling Skjalgson. And the king at once sees the honour of such a proposal. Olaf then holds another meeting with the peasants to discuss the question of religion, and when Olmod and Erling Skjalgson, Olaf's new brother-in-law, with all the circle of their kin, support the king's proposal, “no man dared to speak against it, and all the people were made Christians.” It was on this occasion that Erling Skjalgson declined the offer of an earldom with the famous words: “My kinsmen have been hersirs.” — Later, Olaf the Saint was similarly obliged to come to an agreement with Erling, and what this agreement meant appears as plainly as could be desired on a later occasion, when Erling actually raises an army and comes at the head of a couple of thousand men to claim his rights.
What we here see is the trial of strength between the old petty kingships and the new sovereignty of the country as a whole. And the minor princes are, where they stand on their own ground, the stronger. The people followed them, as it would seem, blindly, “wishing no other thing than they said”, setting their shoulders firmly to the demands put forward by the chieftain, and often actually maintaining them — for the men did what they did in full confidence in the luck that inspired their chief. The yeomen trusted to his luck, because they had felt its force in themselves. These princes belonged to a race that had for generation after generation formed the centre of the life of their district; the family had had luck, and wealth enough to take up solitary adventurers and give them a place at its board, and inspire them with strength to fight its battles; it had had power enough to radiate luck over those who tilled the soil and herded cattle on their own account. Fertility and ripening oozed from its fields to those of the others, in the wake of these kinsmen others could sail with a full wind, in the strength of these highborn men they conquered, in their luck and wisdom they were agreed. The hersir was no more a despotic ruler than was the king of the country, perhaps even less so; he had but little power to command. But actually, he was more powerful than a despot. The luck of his race was interwoven with the most commonplace actions of the other families, in their peaceful occupations and their internal bickerings. He judged between them, and he could do so, because the traditional word of the law and its spirit were a living force within him. He was the personification of the social spirit, as we might say; but we feel now distinctly that this modern formula is too fiat to embrace the whole of his influence; it must be replaced by the old saying: he had law-speed in him. He was the object of a dependence so deep that it lay rooted in the sell-reliance of his dependants.
Harald Fairhair had made Norway one kingdom, and conquered the local princes. But to crush them was more than he or his successors could do; the luck of the usurpers did not even succeed in piercing through that of the hersirs, so as to find root in the people itself. The old relationship between the villagers and their chieftains was a thing the successors of Harald had to leave untouched, so that in reality, as far as regarded a great part of Norway, they ruled only indirectly. For a long while Norway continued to be an assembly of lands, and the “peoples” retained the old intercourse with their chiefs, and only through them did they come into contact with the sovereign. Again and again we find a touch of something foreign, even of indifference, in their attitude towards the “outland” king. What was he to the peasants? They could not feel his luck moving the ground beneath them, whereas the luck of their hersir manifested itself in their harvests.
It is not easy to exaggerate the feeling of independence in the lands and the peoples under Harald and his dynasty, right down to the period of the great struggles for the throne. But the more we emphasise it, the keener the light we throw thereby on the power of a king like Olaf Tryggvason. His victorious march through Norway and his expedition to Vendland to secure the dowry of his queen appear in their true magnificence against such a background. Differently, but no less conspicuously, the puissance of the monarch reveals itself in the battle of Stiklestad, in which the sovereignty, despite the fall of the king, despite the victory of the peasants, celebrates its apotheosis. Comparing this meeting between chieftains and king with that other scene between Olaf Tryggvason and Erling at the Gulathing, we cannot but see that the political status of Norway is changing; the great event is not to be understood without regard to the growth of the royal power under the influence of European history. But Olaf's superiority is of far greater weight than any generation can build up, even though, with the haste of a period of transition, it heap revolution upon revolution. To be firmly established, the historical interpretation of these years must be based on a sympathetic understanding of the people's instinctive veneration for the luck of the sovereign, and the sovereign's unreflecting confidence in his own luck. Through the interaction between these tendencies and religious and political ideas coming from abroad, Norway. grows from a Teutonic kingdom into a mediæval and Christian state. The death of Olaf constitutes a turning point in Norwegian history, because all the currents of the time, national as well as cosmo-political, find their confluence in Olaf and lift him into royal saintship.
Snorri Sturluson's description of the conflict between Olaf and the peasants is a worthy counterpart to his picture of the scene at Westfold. The words and the events of those memorable days have a weight that reaches far out beyond the moment, as if the great powers that carry history onward were here finding expression through men and masses of men. The description combines inner truth, such as could only be prompted by spiritual intimacy, with correctness in external facts, such as only a faithful report can preserve. The first thing that strikes us is the complete helplessness of the peasants and their leaders; the men run hither and thither, questioning, fumbling, none of the chieftains dares take the lead, one thrusts the responsibility upon the other. Olaf's party, on the other band, bears throughout the stamp of calm, confident waiting, order, and sense of unity. Olaf possesses that unifying inspiration which carries the whole army in an elastic grip, the opposing chieftains are lacking in assurance, and feel their weakness acutely. In the peasants' army, the flow of luck threatens every moment to come to an end. Individually, each of the petty chiefs might be stronger than the king, but together, they cannot prevail against him. At home in their districts they are equal to anything, but they count for very little outside. Here the secret of Olaf's descent comes to light; the luck of the sovereign had such an extensive character that it could radiate out over the whole of Norway and could be distributed among a whole army without ebbing. The luck of Olaf was not dependent on a certain soil or an individual body of men, but could be victorious wherever the king showed himself.
It seems a contradiction that the king's luck should embrace the whole of Norway, but suddenly lose its force when applied to a limited district. But the contradiction exists only for us, who judge the two lucks according to strength, and do not see that the decisive difference lies in their character. The luck of the 'local chieftain was absolute, but could only answer to the soul of the valley, the district, and the people; it might, of course, also extend to the fishing grounds outside the village territory, or seafaring expeditions undertaken by the villagers themselves; but in order to cover other lands and other communities it had first to undergo a transformation by drawing up the alien power into itself and assimilating it. Every luck is of its own sort. To go out fishing with a cattle-breeder's particular luck would give the same result as if one tried to catch cod with a ploughshare; to rule and give fertility in the East with a luck that pertained to the West was no less topsy-turvy; to defend or conquer Norway called for the luck of a Harald. Earl Hakon, of a powerful stock residing at Hladi, near Drontheim, at the end of the tenth century, had, when Harald's dynasty was on the wane, succeeded in usurping the kingship of Norway, and he used his power with a great deal of insolence and overbearing, which exasperated the people. His grip on Norway was insecure, because it depended on his personal shrewdness and force of character; but despite all inclination to revolt, the Norwegians were nevertheless practically forced to wait the hour when Olaf Tryggvason set up his luck as a worthy opponent to that of the earls of Hladi. When Olaf came to Norway, he was received, the saga says, by the peasants with these words: “... we thought, after the fight with the Jomsburg vikings, that no chieftain could compare with Earl Hakon in war-speed and many other qualities he had to make him a chief; but... all are now grown so weary of his insolence, that he shall lose both kingdom and life as soon as we find him. We believe that this will come about with your help and luck, such a man of luck as you are who got a hold of his son Erlend at the first attempt. Therefore we pray you be leader for this host.” In the sentence: “we believe that this will come about with your help and luck,” we can all but read the explanation of a century or so of Norway's history. And if we are to determine more precisely what constitutes the luck of Harald's house, we have nothing to say but this: The hamingja of a Norwegian king consists in being king of Norway, able to sit now at Viken, now at Drontheim, able to gain the victory with an army of Drontheim warriors as well as with an army of Viken warriors, able to march over Norway from one law-thing to another on a kind of peaceful conquest, as his ancestor once did in full warlike earnest, when he broke the petty kings to his will. And the only explanation of this luck is the history telling how Harald created it and his sons maintained it.
This faith in the individual luck as something that is at once a will and an impulse, a necessity and a talent, appears with peculiar splendour in the last great representative of that dynasty. Sverri, the unknown priest from the Faroes, had a double fight to wage, when he landed in Norway to claim the crown on his unsubstantiated pretension that he was descended through his father, Sigurd Mund, from Harald Fairhair. The submissive faith which went out to every pretender if he could only declare himself a descendant of Harald, had in this case to be built up among the people by the usurper himself. By his victories, he had to create, layer by layer, a conviction in the minds of the hesitant that the luck which upheld him must be the one decisive, Olaf's own. His genius is shown in the fact that he by every means of eloquence, artifice, guile, nay, deceit, manages to force the testimony of facts as far over to his own side as possible, and hammer it firmly into the mind of the people. And this spiritual fight is the more impressive, insofar that it never clearly comes to the consciousness, but is waged between instinctive feelings in the king as well as in the people. Whether Sverri himself believed in the traditional luck, or only worked upon the potential belief that he knew was dormant in the people, is an idle question. In the history of every faith there comes a time when it can be used as a weapon by strong characters, such as are keen-sighted enough themselves not to be fettered down by its limitations; the secret of their influence lies in the fact that they are able to rise above their fellow-men in their reasoning and at the same time draw strength from a belief that is as instinctive and positive in its way as the blind confidence of the mass. Such a man was Sverri.
Sverri is the most interesting character in the history of Norway, because he translates the old idea of the king's luck into modern theories of the rights and nature of kingship. His character as the spokesman of an age of transition reveals itself in the contrast between his explicit reasonings and their underlying logic. As soon as he sets out to justify his claims, he drifts into an interpretation of the Psalms of David as prophetic foretellings of his own fate; he calls himself the messenger of God, sent out to strike down the insolents who have seated themselves on the throne without being kingly born; it is only in the theory of the king's eternal predestination in God's counsel, his call and his obligation to answer the call, his prospect of having some day to account to God for the talent entrusted to him, that he finds sound foothold, for himself. But beneath this theorising, there is the conviction that every possessor of king's luck has, not the right, but the duty to demand his share of the kingship, and that all right and law in the land must give way to the kingly born's need of rule. “Olaf's law” is the symbol of his kingly pretensions. In other words, Sverri's life still centres about the presumption that there is in every descendant of Harald or Olaf a power that forces him to be king of Norway or die. Kingly birth is not a will or a duty, nor is it a will and a duty, but at once a duty with the elasticity of will in it, and a will with the mercilessness of a duty. Kingly birth is a nature as essentially urgent as that which forces a plant to fix its roots in the earth, save that the plant can fulfil its destiny in many sorts of soil, whereas luck knows but one place to live. The kingly will, according to Sverri, cannot be imagined save as the outcome of a power that strews kingly actions about it, actions of sovereign dimensions, that cannot be carried out by any but the one, the descendant of Harald.
The priest from the Faroes forced the people to say: “Sverri is quick of wit, Sverri is a conqueror”, and in return the opposing party could not say: “many are quick of wit, many are conquerors”, they had to fall back on a denunciation of his religion, saying: “It is by power of the devil that he lays his plans and fights his battles.”
Harald's kingship shows us the essence of luck and its qualities, emphasised in the light of history, its absolute individuality, which cannot be explained, or characterised, otherwise than by inheritance; that which we have derived from our kinsmen of old; that which they had power to be and to do. The difference between rich and poor consisted, not in the fact that the latter had been given only a small sum of luck, but that their luck was poor and inelastic, with but few possibilities, and those limited and weak. The luck of a well-to-do yeoman was like himself, broad and safe, rich in cattle and crops, shining with splendid clothes and weapons; that of the chieftain added hereto the greater authority, love of magnificence, the power of conquest. But this does not give us the essential point, to wit, that the luck of every yeoman, every chieftain, was a character, with its peculiarities, its strength and weakness, its eccentricities, and linked throughout to a certain property. Again we have to dismiss the singular form, with its tacit assumption of community in things human, and instead of luck, use the plural form lucks, in order to emphasise the fact that these characters are not emanations of any primeval principle.
Or, we can, in place of the word inheritance, set the word honour. In honour, we have distinctly that which luck can and must be able to effect in order to maintain itself. The family has derived its renown from its ancestors, from them it has its ideals, the standard of all behaviour: how bold, active, firm, noble, irreconcilable, generous, how lucky in cattle, in crops, in sailing, the kinsmen are to be. From them also, the family has inherited that part of luck which is called friendship and enmity. Honour, and therewith luck, constitutes, as we have said, an image of the world of the family. In the quality of esteem and social position, it contains symbols of the family's surroundings, seen as personifications of the kinsmen's friendship and hate, their condescension and dependence. But these personifications are not characterless types, they resemble to the last degree the enemies and friends of the family. The luck reproduces the sharply defined features of its environment.
The sentence, that kinskip is identical with humanity, which at first sight seemed a helpful metaphor, has now revealed itself as nothing but the literal truth. All that we find in a human being bears the stamp of kinship. In mere externals, a man can find no place in the world save as a kinsman, as member of some family — only the nidings are free and solitary beings. And the very innermost core of a man, his conscience, his moral judgement, as well as his wisdom and prudence, his talents and will, have a certain family stamp. As soon as the man steps out of the frith and dissociates himself from the circle into which he was born, he has no morality, neither any consciousness of right, nor any guidance for his thoughts. Outside the family, or in the intervals between families, all is empty. Luck, or as we perhaps might say, vitality, is not a form of energy evenly distributed; it is associated with certain centres, and fills existence as emanations from these vital points, the families.
The power to live comes from within, pouring out from a central spring in the little circle, and thence absorbing the world. In order to fill his place as a man, the Germanic individual must first of all be a kinsman. The morality, sense of right and sense of law that holds him in his place as member of a state community, as one of a band of warriors, or of a religious society, is dependent upon his feelings as a kinsman; the greater his clannishness, the firmer will be his feeling of community, for his loyalty cannot be other than the sense of frith applied to a wider circle.
A comparison at this point between ancient culture and the civilization of our time will bring out the nature of luck, making for expansion as well as for concentration. We, on our part, must always be human beings before we can be kinsmen. Our happiness in the narrowest circle depends on a wider life outside, and we have to go out into the world to find food for our home life. We cannot get on in the world at all, neither pursue our occupation nor cultivate our egoism nor our family prejudices so as not to come into conflict with the rest of mankind, unless we assimilate ourselves to a certain extent with what we call humanity. Among us, a life of kinship is only possible when the individual drags home the riches of humanity and sets the family stamp upon them, and it is the mark of an egoistical nature to collect thoughts and ideals in the larger field of society and hurry home to transform them into family blessings. In our culture, the one-sided family life involves a limitation and a consistent lowering of every spiritual value; it cannot but lead to poverty of ideas and dulness in all feelings. Thus family egoism is a vice, for the simple reason that it is impossible in itself; it can only lead a parasite existence. Its doom lies within itself; for a logical carrying out of its principles leads to suicide, in the same way as a state of amazons or a state of chaste men would annihilate itself.
For the ancient clansman, the course lies in an opposite direction. It is frith that shapes his character, and an intensifying of frith means a deepening of his character. A strengthening of the personal maintenance of honour and family involves a greater depth and greater tension in moral feelings and moral will, because it means an enrichment of the conscience. The more self-centred and sui generis a kinsman is, the stronger his personality and the greater his worth as a man.
Clan-feeling is the base of all spiritual life, and the sole means of getting into touch with a larger world. The same power which makes the Germanic individual a kinsman prevents him from becoming a limited family being and nothing more. The strength and depth of frith and honour mould the clans together in alliances, and call larger communities into existence. The thing-community for judging and mediating, and the kingdom or state for common undertakings, are institutions necessitated by the nature of luck. He who has felt the strength and depth of these men's frith and honour will not be in danger of misjudging the family in his historical view; but then again, he will not be tempted to set it up as the unit in existence, as the secret that explains everything in the society and the life of our forefathers.