long and attentive observation of an object, one begins
to feel the need of viewing it against its proper
background. The formal measurements of the thing itself
must be expressed in relative dimensions to make it part
of the reality of the world.
one who with unprejudiced mind re-experiences vengeance
as it was, re-experiences honour as a motive power among
men, brutal and sublime as it really was; to him our
forefathers will appear with new life. They will begin
to live and move, awakening in the observer a sympathy
far removed from the idealism wherewith a modern age
ennobles its poetical or political idées fixes; and
if we could attain to see these men, whose life in
honour and luck we have learned to know, as a part of
the world, and to regard luck as part and parcel of
men's ideas of life in general, the reality of men and
their luck would be enhanced.
— Anglo-Saxon Middan-geard, Old Icelandic Miðgarðr
-- was the name given to the world men live in, and it
extends far out on every side. Farthest out, where the
heavens merge into one with the earth men tread, or the
sea they fish in, there are the boundaries of this world
of men. The way thither is a longer one than the
stay-at-home generally believes. One may walk or sail
day after day, five days, or even more perhaps, before
reaching the mountains that shut men in, or the deep
hole where the waters pour down.
there, at the boundary of Middle-garth, is the meeting
place of ways from below and from above. One of them
bends steeply back, but whither it leads we can never
rightly learn. It would seem that none has ever passed
that way. For the bridge — the rainbow — now called
Bifrost, now Bilrost, stands all aflame—its colours
may be seen glowing from afar — and is
impassable to all save those who can move unscathed
through fire. But we take it that it leads to some
higher land, above the heads of men dwelling in Middle-garth.
the other side, a way leads down into the third world,
that which extends both outward from and in under
Middle-garth; the road lies through deep, dark valleys,
filled with the roar of icy, foaming torrents. It is
clammy and resounding in the depths, but the ground is
firm; the path will bear a mortal as well as dead men,
and is so often travelled that there is no need to be
ignorant as to whither it leads, and what is to be found
at the journey's end.
third world is, as far as we know, of endless extent.
There is nothing to hinder a bold adventurer, from
forcing his 'way ahead in the land that spreads out from
Middle-garth. and down into the frosty depth, as long as
he trusts his own courage to face the unknown, trusts
his own strength and wit to clear a way through perils
and difficulties and temptations all unlike those known
on earth. He will need to be a strong man, for strength
here is measured by a far higher standard — and
withal, however great his strength, it will only avail
him in lesser things; the rest he must win through by
craft and mother wit. Even here, however, the normal
human quota of wit will not suffice; for all that he
sees is of alien nature now; he needs to be a great
are hardly many who venture so far afield, and some of
those adventurers whom nothing affrights will doubtless
never return. But there were always enough of those who
did to give an eye-witness description of Utgard, or
Out-garth, as this world is called in the North.
eye-witnesses told that when the boundary of Middle-garth
was passed, the light which shines upon the earth
disappeared. Daylight gives place to a gloaming, with
errant gleams of light that dazzle and confuse without
banishing the darkness. The road leads over damp, rimy
hills, where icy winds come sweeping down; through
rivers turbulent with venom and with swords. Round about
sit monsters, creatures. neither man nor beast, with
eyes aglare. Their glance darts forth an uncanny light,
like a flame; their jaws emit dense clouds of acrid
breath, fierce enough to singe the hair of a man's head
and blind his eyes. And their claws are fleshed in
carrion where they sit. Farthest out is the haunt — so
it is said, for none would seem to have reached so far
— of the giant eagle Hræsvelgr, the devourer of the
dead; when he rises from one corpse to swoop upon
another, his pinions raise so violent a storm as to
sweep in upon earth itself.
is horrible, ill-boding, uncanny; pregnant with
deception for eyes accustomed only to human dimensions.
The quasi-human forms that move there in the mist and
gloom are so immense as to be hardly recognised as
living till it is too late. What seems perhaps a ravine
may prove to be the entrance of a house, with a giant's
legs bestriding the valley midway. Inside the cave, his
womenfolk sit tending a fire, grey, lank-haired, in a
pose that reveals the ugliness of every limb. The
streams a wanderer has to pass are of another character
than the waters of Middle-garth; stepping out into them,
he finds them rising about him, things living and
hostile of mind. And so it is with everything there, all
is instinct with an alien will. Nothing is what it
seems. All is dazzlement and illusion. Things seeming
dead turn living at a touch.
a genius of luck, able not only to edge and wind its
way, but also to discern the hidden qualities of what it
meets, and face it with a cunning of its own unearthly
wise; only this can avail to bring one safely through.
is the Northmen's account of their Utgard. Farther
south, in Denmark and Sweden, where the hills and the
mountains gave place to broad fields and all but
impenetrable woods, the world must have had a different
guise. I can imagine that in some places, it might be
compared to a vast clearing, with darkness rising all
about in trunk and branch, interwoven to a dense wall.
Beyond is the place where outlaws prowl about with the
wolves for company. There too is mist and gloom. And
there are paths that are no roads, being otherwise than
those trodden by the feet of men. Great marsh-waters are
there, under forests of enchantment and unease. Storms
rise from the lakes, when the wind lifts the waters and
flings them as boding clouds over the earth, darkening
the day. In Jarnvidr, the forest of iron, dwell the
misshapen she-giants with their spawn; creatures with
nose and claw as sharp as swords, and as keen to rend
human flesh. Brood on brood the creatures bear, wolves
and ogres together. In the marshy gloom, where every
branch is an iron claw that snaps at him who passes, a
man may stumble blindly, till he finds his end as food
for some foul beast. Cattle straying there return with
the marks of having been breathed upon, and are fit for
might guess at a third conception of Middle-garth
prevailing, perhaps, on the broad plains whose
boundaries were formed by earth and sky closing directly
in. The story of Hading and his visit to the underworld,
as retold by Saxo, may perhaps have come from a land
where the walls of the world were formed by the horizon.
A man would then go — as many have gone at other times
— through the verge of the heavens as through a dense,
dark cloud, a solid mass of blackness, and emerge into a
land of wide-spreading plains, where all was good and
pleasant to the eye. But if nothing here showed fearsome
and ill-omened, it was only that the peril was more
deeply hid. Common to all things of the underworld is
this quality of the incalculable, confusing eye and ear.
A branch turns to a serpent as one grasps it, and
strikes one dead. There are creatures that can twist the
neck of a stranger by a mere glance. Fruits and fluids
have power to maze a man's wits. There is no knowing the
nature of things, so as to avert ill consequences by
contrasted with the dread of this outland world is the
delight in Middle-garth. Here, men look out over the
fields with gladness in their eyes. We read, in the
Beowulf, of the world of men: “One who knew of far-off
things happening in the early times of men, he said,
that the Almighty had made the earth, the beauteous
fields, encircled by waters; the victorious God had set
sun and moon for a light to lighten the people of the
land, and decked the lap of earth with branches and
leaves,” in contrast to the domain of monsters, where
steep cliffs leave but room between for a single man to
pick his way, where unknown roads lead down over sheer
precipices, the haunt of trolls; a joyless forest growth
hangs over the grey rock; strange serpents move in the
waters, and trolls lie stretched upon the headlands.
These pictures in the Beowulf illustrate the Germanic
contrast between land and unland. In this connection, it
matters little that the poet characterises the
“land” in alien words, and glorifies its mildness by
describing it as founded in the will of a god beyond its
bounds, beautified by the reflection of his creative
will, — we are here only concerned with the
categorical distinction: the one place is waste, the
home of evil and unluck, the other the dwelling of the
host of the people, living in luck, in frith, in honour.
In place of the Anglo-Saxon poet's “fair fields and
bright” we may set, quite simply, the Northmen's
soberer term fjölnýt fold, “the much-useful
earth”. Of that other region, we read that even the
hart pursued by hounds in the forest yields up its life
rather than venture out into that water; for the place
was not heore. We may as well leave the old word
as it stands, for whatever modern substitute we choose
would need a load of explanation to give its proper
weight. The word heore, modern German geheuer,
old Icelandic hýrr, means that which is
mild, gentle, pleasant, safe; and the opposite unheore,
úhýrr is — not merely something harsh and
unpleasant, but — the uncanny, ill-boding; a place, a
state, an atmosphere lacking in all that human beings
need in order to live; it is the luckless air that
stifles them. Heore, in other words, is
“lucky” in the old sense, and what more need be
said? Yonder place is unheore; this place, the
dwelling of men, is the joyful site of their home. The
forest that hangs over the marsh is called joyless, void
of that delight which is the distinguishing mark of
enough, it might seem. For there was no lack of things
uncanny here in Middle-garth. Witch-folk and witchcraft
made themselves felt often enough. In the midst of the
fair earth, in its most joyous life, the greatest and
fairest of all kingly halls, where rejoicing rang
loudest, among the bravest of men, the greatest lovers
of life and scorners of death,— here, one day, is
thrust in the unheore in the shape of Grendel.
Here is witchery, devilment, all that brave men fear
before all else; death in dishonour, in craven terror,
in loathsomeness; to wit, without fight or burial.
ancients are right in their way when they declare that
the world is great, that a man must travel night and day
to reach the bourne of death and enchantment itself; but
they know, too, that these frontier powers are well able
to reach over into this world itself at times. Most
peoples have their Hell-farers, who ventured so far as
to be swallowed up in the land of the giants, returning
after to their own as from a strange land; the Northmen
were hardly the only Germanic people to relate such
journeyings of adventure. But the stories derive their
interest, and their reality, from everyday experience. A
man might learn the quality of yonder “unland” but a
league or so from his home; and the very fact that every
listener must have had some experience of uncanny
powers, enabled him to appreciate the verisimilitude of
the explorer's sober narrative.
needs more than simple imagination to place oneself in
the ancient world and feel at home there, with its
Middle-garth as the centre of the universe. We cannot
reconstruct a picture from the facts at our disposal, as
the numerous abortive attempts to chart the Northmen's
cosmos prove. True, the giants lived beyond the horizon
— but how are we to make this agree with their
stealing about at nights outside men's doors? Middle-garth
is properly only the world of day; once the sun has set,
and men have withdrawn into their houses, the earth is
given over to things harsh and wild. In reality, earth
is not the same by night as by day, any more than is a
man of unluck, who goes about in the daytime with a
human countenance, seemingly like his fellows, but
steals forth at night in the pelt of a wolf and runs
ravening abroad. All the unheore that by day is held
fettered and bound by the light, rises up as the sun
grows faint, to stride forth in its giant power. “All
dead ones of illwill grow stronger by night than in the
light of day”. We may perhaps try to clear the tangle
and uphold the system by holding on to the idea of the
world as stratified; Utgard — I use this late
Icelandic name for want of a better, since words such as
“desert”, “wilderness”, “realm of death”
each denote but one side of the unknown — Utgard
extends, as we know, under the earth, and can shoot up
into it through innumerable openings at any time. Here
and there in the middle of the fair fields are gateways
leading down into the home of monsters. It was perhaps
through one such way of entry that this or that bold
venturer penetrated to the innermost region of the realm
of death; one could at least get as far that way as by
the long way round through the horizon. But this home of
giants under our feet is not a province of the main land
out beyond the horizon. Can one go down into the earth
and then home round by the frontiers of earth — who
can say? No one denies it, for no one has declared it to
be so. If the question were put, it would certainly be
answered in the affirmative; but that affirmative is
born of the thoughts the problem calls forth, not given
of itself beforehand. The cave in the earth is Utgard
itself, identical with the place beyond the horizon. And
the lair of monsters does not owe its existence to any
subterranean communication with a world below. The
ancient view of the world will not fit in with our
geographical maps, in which the different countries lie
neatly side by side with linear frontiers, because the
ancient world was not measured with the eyes solely as a
mere external plane without depth.
It needs something more than imagination and something more than constructive power to place Middle-garth and Utgard in their due relation one to the other. Re-experience is needed. We have to build up the world anew, without regard to all we have learned, irrespective of atlas and topography. With us, the world is formed by setting observations in their place according to measuring tape and compass, but if we are to build up Middle-garth and Utgard as well, then we must take experiences as a weight — and bear in mind withal, that no scales and standard weights can here avail; all must be weighed in the hand. Experiences are too many and various to be expressed in numbers and measurements at all. They consist not only of the impressions produced by the external eye, but have also an inner reality. When we learn that the ancients imagined the limit of the world as situate close outside their village, we are apt to conceive their horizon as narrowed accordingly; but the decisive point in their view of the world lies rather in the fact that the contents of their horizon was far deeper than we think. How large is the village? Meeting the question in words of our own, but as near to the thoughts of the ancients themselves as may be, the answer must run; It houses ourselves, it is filled with honour, with luck, with fruitfulness — and this is equal to saying, that it is the world. Yes, the village is Middle-garth itself. How large, we may also ask, is the sacred tree that stands in the centre of the village, the tutelar tree of the clan? In virtue of its sacred character and power of blessing, it bears up the world with its roots and shades the world with its branches. And so, it is the world-tree, and what matter if the eye can take in its visible shadow at a glance?
The discussion of luck
and honour has given us the experiences of the ancient
Teutons; we need only to let them act upon us in their
full weight. On the one hand human beings and human
life, as deep as it goes in its intensity; on the other,
the giants, the luckless nidings, the luckless land.
That part nearest to us, the playground of men, is
impregnated throughout with luck, with heore, while
yonder unheore increases in density and ill-favour the
farther we move from the homes of men. Farthest out, it
fills all there is, until it becomes personified in
material shapes of mocking mimicry, such as one may find
at nights or in the forest. Who is there but knows the
boundary of his land, there where his luck ends? Who but
knows the boundary of the land of men, where all luck
ends? Do we not stand, at every moment, in the midst of
our luck, looking out to every side where the unheore
rises as a barrier against our honour and our will?
Despite all the power of demons and of Utgard, this truth still holds good, that Middle-garth belongs to men, and belongs to them because they are the strongest, the conquerors. When witchcraft ventures forth into the domain of the sun, it comes but to be crushed, and in its downfall glorify the light. The Beowulf was not written with a view to numbing poor victims for the sacrifice by filling them beforehand with a surplus of horror and dread. In the Germanic stories and songs, men make short work of witchcraft; they carve it small, burn it and bury it under solid cairns of stone, and rejoice at the fame accruing.
There is this momentous difference between the realm of the sun and the frosty dark, that in the former, men stand as those fighting on their own ground, with a host of allies about them; trees and stones, animals and weapons, the land itself is on their side. They know all they see, know that all is what it seems, know there is order in which they can trust; they have the secret of the things about them, and can thus force nature to furnish aid. If by some carelessness they stumble, they can rise to their feet again; they can find counsel and make good damage done, and in case of need obtain restitution; but out yonder, the slightest false step places them at the mercy of unknown powers. The tree-trunk against which they stumble holds them fast and throws them to the stone, the stone again to its neighbour, and this again casts them at the feet of some vampire, where they end as bloodless carrion, sucked dry. Out there, they move among a horde of wild beasts, never daring for a moment to lower their glance, and withal unknowing what danger threatens; here, nature bids them welcome at every step and puts itself at their disposal.
They know the nature of everything, possess its secret, or more: they hold its soul in their hand. They know their world right in to its innermost corners, are intimate with all creeping and walking things that live in its many dwellings. If a beast leaps across the path, they know with a fair degree of certainty whence it comes and where it is bound for, and why it took that road. Their knowledge is more a sort of personal familiarity than any lore of nature.
There are, of course, a host of things which a man must see and know as long as he stands face to face with nature, himself exacting tribute and taking what he needs. He must know, and does know, where to find the plants and animals that provide him with food and implements; he must be able to follow on the heels of the higher animals and outwit them by craft. And he must have a sure knowledge of nature's ways. and whims, so as to take his measures accordingly. A dearth of food is not uncommon among the poorest and the none too rich — the earliest gods gave man, among a wealth of other gracious gifts, the belt that could be drawn tight to assuage the pangs of a hungry belly — and had these strivers not been able to adapt themselves to nature, exploit its most secret sources of supply, and reckon out the rhythmical march of the seasons, their saga would soon have ended. Game laws and protective measures for instance, owe their origin undoubtedly to those same gods who gave the wonderful belt.
Naturally, however, they notice much more than is strictly needed for self-preservation. They are not content with superficial observation of the fact that certain insects have spotted wings; but they count the spots, after the manner of simple folk in the North, and note the difference in number as between different individuals, taking measures for the time to come according to the hint conveyed in the number of spots. The natural science that lives in these men knows no lacunæ, for their observations are not gathered at haphazard, but guided from the very first by tradition. The senses of youth are not only trained and attuned to yield their utmost, but are set to work in unity. Young men are taught not merely to lie in wait, but to go raiding themselves and capture the swiftest, the rarest creatures in flight. Naturally, the observer's knowledge of nature extends only so far as his eye and ear can reach; where observation ceases, there his knowledge ends abruptly. When the birds of passage fly away before the winter, and creeping things seek refuge underground, then only guesswork can help natural observation over the gap. Then man puts forward his hypothesis, and — forfeits all the prestige which his observations have gained with modern scientists. We come prepared by the ignorance of the town-dweller to admire the man 'who knows the nature that surrounds him, but also with a brain alert, from the fruits of hand- and text-book study, to pass judgement on the results of any knowledge, and so we are apt to misjudge the wisdom of primitive man. But though we may grant the truth that the hypotheses of the primitive observer of nature cannot compete with empirical science, yet it is no less true that his guesswork bears the mark of his familiarity with nature; and the more we emancipate ourselves from the authority of our age, venturing to regard its wisdom as relative, and not as the standard whereby all else must be judged, the easier we find it to respect the simple myths, and the relative and forward-pointing character they often show. Properly viewed, they hide within themselves a depth of knowledge and insight.
It must be so; primitive men — in the sense of people daily at grips with nature, not in the mythical sense accorded to the word in modern science — primitive men must know their surroundings thoroughly. Such people are not to be judged solely by their literary expressions of natural science. No doubt their familiarity with nature is clearly indicated by their stories and explanatory myths; as to whence the various birds have their particular cries, why one sort of creature brings forth a whole brood of young at a birth or lays a nest full of eggs, while another struts about with its one ugly offspring; in their riddles, as for instance that of the Northmen about the spider: a marvel with eight feet, four eyes, and knees higher than its belly, or of the ptarmigan: play-sisters that sweep across the land; white shield in winter time, but black in summer. But such myths and riddles float after all but on the surface of men's knowledge, and only exceptionally give any indication of the depth to bottom; they hint here and there at what was seen but give no clear showing of how men saw it. The hunting implements and hunting methods of a people, their sense of locality and their protective measures for game are evidence of their intimacy with the most secret ways of nature. Perhaps also their games. If we would realise the infinite sensitiveness of the “wild man's” brain, and how faithfully it can hold this medley of memory pictures clear and alive, the best way is to see him at play, giving mimic exhibitions of his surroundings; the gestures of bird and beast, their gait, their fear, their prudence, their parental cares — these he can reproduce with the highest art, or the highest degree of naturalness.
It is a cause of wonder to European observers that the intimacy of primitive man with nature's ways seldom, if ever, embodies itself in impressionistic description or representation. It seems as if the art of realistic narrative is rather an exception among the unlettered peoples of the earth whose songs and stories have been gathered up by the missionaries and ethnologists of modern times. And our supposition that man has been slow in acquiring the skill of painting things as they are seen, is confirmed by the epic poetry of races who, like the Greeks and the Teutons, have been able to turn their folk-poetry into literature before their thoughts were drawn into philosophical or theological channels. Judging from Homer, the Beowulf and the Edda we can, apparently, with perfect right declare our forefathers lacking in realistic spontaneity.
In folk-poetry we find no reflection of the changing and many-shaded life without; here, all is art, style. Earth may be called perhaps the broad, the far-pathed, and these epithets are then repeated with wearying zeal as often as earth is mentioned in the verse; day invariably dawns with the dawn-red spreading its rosy fingers out from the horizon. When our forefathers set about to describe their battles, they can find nothing better to say than that the wolf stood howling in anticipation toward the approaching warrior, the feaster of the grey beast; the raven fluttered in the air and screamed down to his grey brother, and at last came the hour when the bird of carrion swooped down upon its prey and the grey beast ran splashing about in blood. This schematic description is used without regard to the character or outcome of the fight. Wolf and raven stand for battle and slaughter, whether we have armies in collision and their leaders filling the beasts with food, or a couple of men descending upon a third “giving him to the wolves”; “there you can hear the ravens croak, eagles croak glad in their food: hear you the wolves howling over your husband”, — thus the poet announces the murder of Sigurd by his brothers-in-law. Folk-poetry exists upon regular, as it were coined formulæ for the various actions of life, hunting and battle, feasting and going to bed. Persons, animals, things are distinguished by standing epithets bearing the stamp of their qualities once and for all.
Oxen invariably come “dragging their feet”, whether the spectator have or have not any occasion to notice their gait —nay, they must drag their feet, even 'when they appear in a situation where it is impossible for them to move their legs; did not the suitors of Penelope waste the property of her husband by daily slaughtering his sheep and his foot-dragging cows? When a man rises in an assembly to speak, he stands there as the swift-footed, or the chariot-guiding hero. A man's ship is swift-sailing, seafaring, as well as curved, straight-built, many-thwarted; and he can, indeed, when he has drawn up his vessel on land, sit down beside the moorings of the sea-cleaving craft, and here receive the strangers who come walking down to his swift-sailing ship. It is as natural for Beowulf to fit out his sea-traversing ship as in Icelandic poetry for the horses of the rollers or props to gallop over the sea. The vessel that carried Scyld's dead body out to sea is called ice-clad, but if a modern reader should thence infer that this event occurred during wintry weather he would pretend to more knowledge than the poet of the Beowulf was possessed of.
An Old English poem gives a picturesque description of warriors hurrying to battle as follows: “The warriors hastened forward, the high-minded ones, they bore banners, the shields clanged. The slender wolf in the forest rejoiced, and the black raven greedy of slaughter; both knew that the fighting men had in mind to bid them to a feast of those doomed to death; at their heels flew, greedy of food, the dew-feathered, dirt-coloured eagle”. On closer examination, we find convention apparent in every single connection: thus and no otherwise is a poet required to describe the setting out of an army. The anticipations of bird and beast set forth as such length do not indicate that the battle is to be fiercer, the number of the slain greater than in other battles, — no, wolf and eagle are always looking forward to the coming feast. The eagle here is not “dew-feathered” because this particular battle opens in the early morning, it comes sweeping on dewy wings in the hottest noon; dew forms part of the picture where an eagle is concerned.
In the Icelandic, the “pine-perched watcher”, to wit, an eagle, can despite his lofty situation still tear the bodies of the slain if need be. Shaker of branches, or branch-scather, is the epithet aptly given to the wind in Gudrun's plaint over her loneliness, when she says: “Lonely I am left as an aspen in the grove, bereft of kin as fir of twigs, stripped of joy as the tree of leaves when the scather of branches comes on a sun-warm day”. But in the old days, there was nothing incongruous in referring to the wind by that same name of branch-scather, when it came tearing over the waters and raising the waves.
Among the Germanic people, the king is called ring-breaker, strewer of treasure or furtherer of battle, feeder of wolves; the men are ale-drinkers and receivers of rings, wearers of armour, and they are mailclad whether they happen to be wearing armour at the time or not. Thus we may find the “war-famous, treasure-giving king listening with delight” to Beowulf's offer to fight with Grendel, and another time we watch the “battle-urging lord” going to bed.
As the valkyrie says to Helgi: “Methinks I have other work to do than drink ale with buckle-breaking prince”, — so Helgi cries to his brother: “It ill behoves the ring-breaking princes to quarrel in words, even though they be at feud.” After the slaying of Fafnir, the tits in the bushes make remarks about Sigurd and Regin, and one says: “If he were wise, the clasp-wasting king, he would eat the serpent's heart”. And Gudrun, after the dreadful deed that she has wrought upon her sons, addresses the ill-fated Atli thus: “Thou, sword-giving king, hast chewed the bloody hearts of thy sons in honey... never more shalt thou see them, the gold-giving princes, setting shafts to their spears, clipping the manes of their horses and bounding away.” And the same poet who makes Gudrun utter these words, praises the coolness of Gunnar in the serpents' den, when he refuses to disclose the hiding place of the Niblung treasure, for “thus should a ring-spreading chieftain keep firm hold of his gold”.
No wonder readers of the present day glance round ironically with lifted brows and say: “Where is the much-lauded simplicity, the natural innocence we heard tell of once, and after which folk-poetry was named in contrast to the poetry of art? If there be anything of nature at all in these poems, then the qualities by which we generally recognise natural innocence must have been sadly crushed out of it.”
Style, or rather, convention, is the proper word for these poets and their technique. How, indeed, should one translate into any modern tongue the description in the Beowulf of the warriors returning to the king's hall? “They went thither, where they learned that the guardian of heroes, Ongentheow's bane, the young, the good warrior-chief, meted out rings in the midst of the burgh.” The reader must not draw from these words the coldly logical conclusion that an Anglo-Saxon chieftain sat all day in his high seat like a sower, in such wise that a stranger might find his way in by listening for the ceaseless tinkle of gold. Nor can the passage serve as basis for the hypothesis that Hygelac had recently returned from an expedition and was now distributing orders of merit, or that it was payday. On the other hand, the lines contain more than a poetic indication of the place where he was wont to exercise his generosity; they do actually imply that Hygelac is at the moment seated in his high seat in the hall. The sentence cannot be rendered in any other tongue than that in which it was written. The king is he who metes out rings, and the hall is the place where he binds men to him by gifts and hospitality.
And yet, looking long at the conventional in this old poetic speech, we cannot but perceive that there is something astir beneath it. Closer acquaintance gives one a strong impression that behind this conventional art there lies a rich experience fraught with life. These poems cannot be classed with the work of epigon schools living on a tongue in which literary acceptance takes the place of sense and force. We feel that the men who wrote thus had their eyes full of memory pictures. They possessed a wealth of imagination, but an imagination rooted in the senses. Their vocabulary shows signs that the users of the words lived their lives in experience at first hand. But neither do these men speak as artists, choosing and rejecting with conscious delicacy of taste from among the expressions of the language; they choose without knowing, being themselves in the power of their images of memory.
Anyone coming to Homer from Xenophon, and to the Edda. from the sagas, will probably always remember his first feeling of wonder — unless indeed he had the misfortune to make the transition upon a rather low school seat, where all Greek seems very much the same, as an arbitrary pattern of vocabulary words, whether the lines run out full length and are called prose, or break off short and become poetry. The moment he closed one book and opened the other, he crossed a mysterious boundary line, entering into a world altogether differently lit. The sagas and the works of the historians deal with kings and peasants and warriors; and they tell of these personages with just that familiarity and just that degree of strangeness we should expect from the length of time that lies between them and ourselves. But the others? Where shall we find the key that unites these scattered notes into a tonic system? It is not the contents that we find difficult, the soul of Homer is familiar enough to us. But the words have often something strange, almost mystical about them, as if they belonged to another age. Does not the novice feel that these rare words, some of unknown meaning, are merely the wreckage of a foundered tongue? He will hardly be aware that what leaves him at a loss is a feeling of heterogeneity: these archaic words call for an altogether different environment than that of the common and general Hellenic or Scandinavian out of which they rise; they point back to a time when they did not stand alone in an alien world, but had about them a circle of known and knowing kin, all bearing the stamp of that same ancient dignity and power. — The youthful reader goes about for a while with a feeling of internal schism, until habit eases the mind, and relieves him of his painful craving for an interpretation which should go beyond the ordinary limits of exegesis.
The young student did not know what his unrest meant, he could not translate it into questions, still less into thoughts. But none the less he was right when he felt the presence of spirits where his teacher apparently saw and heard nothing. Many of the words which checked him in wonder are actually relics of an age when speech was coined after another wise than now. With all respect for the majesty of accidental circumstance, we may safely assert, for instance, that the AngloSaxons would not have hit upon such an army of words for “sea” if they had not needed them. There is something imposing in such a series as: brim, egor, flod, flot, geofon, häf, härn, holm, lago, mere, stream, sund, sæ. Often enough, the poets are accused of creating a meretricious wealth by half illegal means, a craving for variety leading them to take words of poor content and make them stand for more than they properly mean. We may try to thin out the impressive phalanx by taking, let us say, stream, and saying, this is really a current, and only in a looser sense applied to sea; or we may say of brim, that it means, strictly speaking, breakers, and is only applicable as a last resource to sea. But such comfort is false. Each of the words had undoubtedly a meaning of its own, but only in the sense that it served to indicate a whole by emphasising some particular quality therein, or the whole viewed in the light of one such quality. The poets are not always as guilty as we make them, for their method can, even though it may degenerate into arbitrary æsthetic trick-work, yet claim the support of ancient tradition, and justification in the original character of the language. The old words invariably had a deep background. What we understand as the meaning proper has arisen by specialisation, a certain quality or side of a thing being torn away from the original whole, and set up as an abstract idea in itself. Roughly expressed in our differently attuned manner of speech, we may say that stream, for instance, did not stand for a current, but for the sea as moved by a current; the abstract idea of motion without a thing moved would not occur to the minds of the ancients.
This wealth of expression is evidence, inter alia, of the fact that in the old days, men had clear and precise ideas of the world and things therein, and could not speak of them save in sharply definitive words. Similarly, the characterising epithets in Homer bear witness to a definite and dominant mental imagery. He calls the oxen “foot-dragging” or rather, “the oxen, they who in walking press one leg in against the other”; and such an expression would hardly be used unless one were forced to use it, unless by the pressure of an idea within which shapes the words of itself. Like realism can be traced in the poetic vocabulary of the Northmen, and indeed of the Germanic peoples generally. Here in the North, there is a preference for substantive expressions, where the Southerners are lavish of adjectives: here we find mention of “the branchscather, the ring-breaker, the battle-wager”, whereas in the south, the prince would be referred to by name, and the quality given in an adjective. However significant this difference may possibly be as indicating the character of the language, and thus indirectly of the people concerned, it reveals at any rate no great dissimilarity in the mode of thought. In the foregoing, I translated purposely with adjectives, in order to call up something of that sensitiveness to the value of combinations which has been dulled by over-literal re-shaping of old Icelandic poems. Ring-breaker, ranger of hosts, for instance, are not titles, as we are led to believe. These words, like all the rest, degenerated under the abuse to which they were subjected by the scalds, but there is no reason to suppose that they stand in the Edda, or indeed in the works of the earlier court poets, without force of meaning. The variations themselves contradict such an idea; when we find, for instance, now hringbroti, “ring-breaker”, now hringdrifi, “he who scatters rings abroad”, now again other combinations, we have no right to accuse the poet of having an eye to prosody. And in any case, the words must once have had suggestive power.
With regard to the Germanic 'writers' poetic vocabulary, we can gather but an approximate idea. Its original wealth and force, its character generally, do not appear to the full in the somewhat late second-hand versions which now stand as sole representatives of the great poetic culture of northern Europe. Here in the North, we have often to search for the old word-pictures among a host of half misunderstood and altogether uncomprehended terms which have been included in some scaldic handbook or other, when the poems in which the words were living things have disappeared. Many an epical expression was only saved from oblivion by cleaving as a name to some mythical being. In Snorri's manual for courtly poets we find, for instance, the abrupt hint that the mode of referring to a buck may be varied by calling the animal hornumskvali, “the one that clashes its horns”, or “the one with backward-curving horns”. In the same way, a bear may be hinted at as iugtanni, which must imply some quality or other in the brute's teeth, or “blue-toothed”; another of his names is “step-widener”, which must be designed to indicate his characteristic gait, or his footmarks, in somewhat similar fashion as when he is spoken of as “wide-way”. We find the raven called “dew-feathered” and “early-flyer”, the hawk “weather-bleacher”— bleacher taken passively, or rather in a neutral sense, as with “step-widener” above. The same suggestive power is inherent in the name duneyrr applied to deer, meaning probably “the one who scuttles over pebbles with rattling hoofs”.
The keenness of
characterisation which lay in these old epithets is
something we can only partially appreciate nowadays. The
vocables of our dictionary are always too wide in scope
of meaning, compared with the verbs and substantives
which our forefathers had at their disposal. We have no
word precise enough to fit that skvali which was
used to denote a collision of horns, and this one
instance may serve to show how loosely all our
translations cover the original form of speech.
Etymology is too clumsy an expedient to render any help
as soon as the quest is extended beyond the dead
vocables into the living thought and feeling that once
inspired the language and filled the words with subtle
associations. We may lay down by analysis that the word slithherde
— applied to boar in Anglo-Saxon — can be
rendered “ferocious”, but the etymologist knows as
much and as little of its real life as the man who
merely hears the word pronounced. Our examples, then,
cannot be more than vague indications of a world rich in
things seen and heard and tasted, which is now closed
As this poetry speaks, so spoke the people out of whose midst the epic arose. The poetic images in which keen observation and the tendency to association of ideas are peculiarly combined, are not a product of style, but the inevitable expression of these distant men's mode of thought, mirroring the people's estimate of its heroes and of itself. Men's outward appearance, their dress, their way of moving, as well as their manner of expressing themselves, are, in heroic poetry, determined by a certain poetic decorum; a hero who does not utter forth his feelings in the traditional style, a hero ‚who suffers himself to be named without the title of armed or bold, or long-haired —all attributes which any free man must claim if he have any self-respect — such an one may be likened to a king sitting on his throne in his nightshirt. The Germanic prince must be glad-minded, cheerful and gentle whatever the actual circumstances; when Grendel harries Heorot, Hrothgar is all the same the glad-minded Hrothgar, the good king, who in all his sorrow had nothing to reproach himself. A man must be eadig, steadfast in his luck; and when Hrethel dies of grief at his son's craven deed, the poet cannot divest him of the title of eadig, any more than Noah can cease to be the lucky man, when he lies besotted with wine and shamed before his son. It lies in the nature of healthy men to be victorious, and no peril can deprive them of their human characteristics. When the heroes of Israel are seated on the wall in fear of what the morrow is to bring, staring out at the threatening camp of the Assyrians, the Anglo-Saxon poet cannot but picture Judith as giving “the victorfolk good greeting”, and later calling out to them: “Ye heroes of victory, behold the head of Holofernes.” The decorum goes far deeper than all poetic or social etiquette. It is related to the massiveness of the persons themselves, which makes it impossible for them to adapt their behaviour to what a single situation may demand.
Modern poetry takes as its starting point the fragmentary in human manifestation; whatever men may be occupied with one towards another, whether discussing the deepest affairs of heart and passion, or carrying on an everyday conversation, whether they are fighting or making love, they show but a small illumined segment of the soul to each other; the greater part of their soul life lies in darkness, only divined, or lit in occasional glimpses by a fleeting light. But the heroes of old are invariably presented in the round. They are like those well-known figures in primitive paintings, standing side-on to the beholder, and yet looking at him with both eyes. They cannot trust us to understand a thing by implication only, because they are incapable of doing so themselves; the consciousness of their whole previous life, the obligations and privileges of their position, even of the whole past of their race, is ever in the foreground of their mind. When their speech one with another touches such disproportionate depths, reaching back to family relationships and family history, going beyond all bounds of the situation which has brought them into converse, this is but one among many expressions of their sense of wholeness. When the king's retainers lead their lord's bride to the bridal chamber, they feel themselves as shield-bearing, even though their shields of linden wood are hung above their places in the hall. When men lay stone on stone and see the wall gradually rising, they feel none the less the grip of the sword-hilt in their hands; it is the sword-bearers who are building. When they sit down to eat and drink, they cannot for a moment lay aside their valour and renown, even in this common occupation of all mankind. Even though they take off all their armour and get into bed, it must still be the mail-clad, sword-wielding, horse-taming hero who snuggles down under the blanket. And whenever they strike a blow, the listeners must understand that there lies in that blow all the tradition of a race, the impetuosity of a hero, the untamable thirst for vengeance of a son, or more correctly, this weight in the blow forces the whole of the hero's title, with lather and forefather, into the verse.
It is not the men alone who thrust their entire personality upon the spectators at every step. Homer knows that the queen resting with her husband on the nuptial couch is sweeping-robed. When Judith leaves the Assyrians' camp bearing the head of her enemy, she strides forth in all her queenly dignity, as the wise, the strong in action, the white-checked, as the ring-bedecked; but neither she nor any other Germanic lady of high birth would ever appear otherwise, whatever her aim or errand. Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, walks gold-bedecked down the hall, greeting the men; the noble dame hands first the cup to the king, at last she comes, the ring-bedecked queen, the strong-souled, to the place where Beowulf sits, and greets the prince of the Geats wise in words.
And as men and women are, so is the world in and with which they live. The same massiveness is apparent in all that presents itself to thought or sense. The horse champing at its bonds stands there as the swift runner, and the horse that dashes across the plain runs as the fair-maned, single-hoofed as it always is. Coming from afar, one sees not merely the door and front of a house, but at the same time the whole of its appointments, its splendour, and the life within. The castle which travellers approach is not only high-roofed — so that those seated on the benches need not feel the ceiling close above their heads —, it is not only wide — with bench room for a great host —; but it is alight with the glitter and reflection of weapons, and filled with gold and treasure. The wanderer espies from the road afar the high-walled burgh, sees — from the road in the distance — halls towering over treasures, sees houses vaulted over the red gold. It is not otherwise, we may take it, with the hills that stand as banks of blue upon the horizon; to one who knows them from having often wandered there, they would be, even when lost in mist, the many-sloped hills, the hills of shady paths. When thinking of his far-off country, the Northman would probably shape his words much as those of the Homeric hero: “between Troy and Phtia there are both shady mountains and a roaring sea.” When a man leaps down to the ground, or falls on his back, the spot his body covers is still: the earth of the many roads, the corn-bearing, the many-feeding, or the broad. So speak the Hellenes, and the Northmen say of the serpent that it be-creeps on its belly the broad earth.
This fulness and comprehensiveness of the idea does not belong exclusively to poetic speech; it is inherent in the language and leaves its mark on legal phraseology far into the Middle Ages. The lawyer who says turf must add green; murderers, thieves and such like folk shall be buried on the beach “where the sea meets the green turf”, as the Norwegian lawbook decrees. He cannot name gold without styling it red or shining, nor silver without adding white; in the precise language of law, day is bright day and night is darksome or murky night.
There are in Homer two strata, easily distinguishable one from the other. On the one hand, that represented by comparisons, the elaborate pictures introduced with a “like to.. .“: “As East and South in rivalry shake the dense woods in the clefts of the mountain, and beech and ash and slender-barked cornel lash one another in fearsome noise with their projecting branches, while clamour of splintering trunks arises, so stormed the Trojans and Achæans together, and smote each other; none thought of flight”. The man who speaks thus has his mind full of a situation, a momentary picture; the scene before his inward eye expands to every side, and opens vistas round about to other visions again. The poet welcomes all associations of ideas, and pursues in calm enjoyment the broadest of those roads the situation opens to him. This is the modern spirit of experience. It is otherwise with the images contained in such expressions as “the foot-dragging oxen”, “the many-pathed earth”, “the blue wave”; these are not creatures of the moment, but on the contrary, a product of years of experience. Here, it is not the poet who pursues, but the idea which draws and compels him, being rooted far down in the depth of his soul. The metaphor is more ancient than the simile. It speaks of a time when the soul never lived on individual sense impressions, when it might perhaps, as wakefully as now, accept all that presented itself to the senses, yet without stopping at the isolated impression, rather churning its experiences together into a comprehensive idea. The man of metaphor may be said to remember with all his senses. But all his experiences of any given object exercise a mutual attraction one towards the other, and enter into an indissoluble unity. Each new observation is drawn up by those previously made and forms with them a unit, so that the images which live in the soul, with all their natural truth, their precision and strength, are not individual ideas, but universal ideals, as rich in content, as weighty and insistent as the heroes of poetry are.
This mode of thinking calls men to account at every moment for their actions and their being, recognising no distinction between different official and private selves, — such as we now enjoy. The figures we meet with in ancient poetry, and in ancient history, cannot be divided into the public and the private personality, the man of ordinary and the man of special occasion, into king, husband, man, judge, councillor, warrior. One cannot say “man” without thinking “armed”; and therefore, when we pronounce the latter word, thought builds up the whole. There is thus nothing artificial in the expression of Cædmon: “the armed one and his woman, Eve”. It may strike strangely on our ears to hear Jesus called the “ring-giver” and his disciples referred to as the body-guard, the bold warriors. But to the Germanic mind it was impossible to avoid these expressions, as long as the ancient circle of thought remained unbroken. There was no actual thought of Jesus as sweeping across the country upon a viking expedition; the poet does not even say “ring-giver” because it was the custom to rhyme man with generosity. Jesus was the Lord, his disciples the men; Jesus was the man of luck, his disciples those who partook of his luck, and the relation between master and men could not be apprehended in the quality of a fraction; it must take up the idea of entirety, and enlist all words in its service.
The idea of a wolf or of an eagle is made up of all the experiences accumulated at different times anent the life and character, of the creatures named; their habits and appearance, their wills and propensities. And so the animal stands as an inseparable whole, living its life without regard to its place in a classificatory system, possessing its limbs and its qualities in a far more absolute fashion than nowadays. For thought was so completely dominated by the idea of entirety, that it lacks all tendency to take the world in cross-section, analysing, for instance, the animal kingdom into heads and bodies, legs and tails, or the forest into leaf, branch, trunk and root. The separate parts simply have not in themselves that independent reality needed to produce such word-formulæ as: leg or head. A head is only conceived as the head of a particular beast, it must be either a dog's head, or a 'wolf's head, or some other individual variety of head. Even a leap seen ahead on the path will have a particular character, it will be the haste of this or that animal, not a movement in general.
It is thus not the fairy tale alone which lives upon the art of conjuring up an entire organism from a single claw, a hair, a thread. The old proverb: “where I see the ears, there I wait the wolf”, held good among primitive men in a far more literal sense than with us; at the first glimpse of those two ears, the wolf sprang up, rushed in, bringing with it a whole atmosphere, setting all senses to work, so that the eye saw its trot, its stealthy glance behind, the dirty yellow of its pelt; so that the nose scented it, the hand felt a tickling sensation as of bristly hair. And not only does it bring its atmosphere when it comes, but it spreads a whole environment about it. It enters on the scene as a character, and radiates its habits, its manner of life out into a little world of its own.
It is but rarely that we find, in the popular tongue, any mention of such generalities as “tree” or “beast”. The earth has its growths of oak, beech, ash, elm, fir; its inhabitants, wolf, bear, deer, eagle, raven, serpent. The curse of outlawry, in the Scandinavian, holds good “as far as fir grows”. The proverb to the effect that one man's meat is another man's poison runs, in its northern equivalent thus: “what is scraped off one oak is all to the good of another”. “The fir that stands alone will rot”, neither bark nor leaf can protect it. It is a good omen when the wolf is heard howling under the branches of the ash. The great world-tree is not called the tree of Yggdrasil, but the ash of Yggdrasil. And poetry retains, here as elsewhere, the old sense of reality. Sigrun sits waiting in vain by Helgi's burial mound: “Now he were come an he had in mind to come; there is no hope now, for the eagles sit perched already in the ash and sleep is in their eyes.” “Lonely am I now as the aspen on the bill” (when its fellows have withered one by one) — thus runs Gudrun's plaint.
In the language spoken
on the steppes, the moorlands, in the forests, specific
and classifying terms play but an insignificant part.
The general terms fall completely into the background;
they form but the shadow of reality, not the stem of
reality itself, as they are with us. The individual
manifestations stand so abruptly one against another,
rise so independently out of the natural soil, that they
can have no immediate contact with one another; and thus
the systematical arrangement into animals and plants,
into species and classes which to us is of primary
interest, has no footing at all.
The conceptions that make up the body of our spiritual life, such as colour, beauty, horse, man, exist by themselves in the intervals between the things of the world, and our sensations are but the pegs on which they are hung. In the primitive mind, every idea is firmly connected with an object; the thing is seen in its perspective, as it were. Answering to the narrow scope of the word, we find a dizzying depth in its idea, since this in itself includes all that can be thought of the object named. The meaning is not restricted to cover only the body of things, but embraces their soul in the same degree. In the idea of “oak” lies all that one can think of quercus; from the oak itself as it rises before the eye, or can be felt with the hands, from its speech, its form, its peculiar manner of moving, its fertility, and the like, to “oakness”, the state of being oak, the quality which makes one an oak tree. So comprehensive is the thought, and so intimately wrapped about reality. The full depth of the word is not reached until we arrive at the state of pure being, a being which in respect of spirituality has every claim to admittance among the company of the highest ideas, but which differs nevertheless from our venerable abstracts in having a marked character; a pure being, in which lie predestined the qualities of lobed leaves, gnarled branches, broad-crowned growth, edible shell-fruits.
Endeavouring now to track down these thoughts, it may be that the exertion we feel in the task involuntarily applies itself to our estimate of those old thinkers, and induces us to think of them as profound reasoners. And there is still greater danger that the motion of our thoughts may be transferred to the ideas we are following, so that we imagine primitive ideas as something complex or complicated. For us who endeavour to think again the strange thoughts of a stranger, the difficulty lies first and foremost in keeping firm hold of the unity and banning all suspicion of musing and profundity. Primitive idea is not created by a reflection whereby something is abstracted from reality, nor by an analysis loosing the separate elements from their connection and rearranging them in logical categories — on the contrary, it depends on a total view, the nature of which is inimical to all analysis. We call the primitive idea oak — oakness two-sided, but with only conditional justification, inasmuch as the ideas of primitive peoples do not contain anything which can properly be called dualistic. It points simultaneously out towards something spiritual and something material, but it has no seam in it where matter and spirit meet. Idea and reality, that which is perceived and that which is felt, are identical; are, so to speak, two opposite poles of the conception. We can begin with the concrete; with a wolf, a stone; and gradually, through its character and qualities, its evil nature and goodwill, its mobility and weight, arrive at the qualities of wolfness and stoneness, as subtle as any philosopher could spin it, and yet at the same time as strong in its reality as any sense impression. And we can commence with a “force”, the force of being a wolf, a stone, and through the effects produced by that force arrive once more at the solid objects before us. We can move forward or backward from pole to pole, without any somersault, without even the least little hop. The connection is unbroken, because the thought never at any point loses hold of the idea of a limitation in character and form.
The things of our world are flat and silhouette-like to such a degree that they shade into one another and merge into such vague entities as “nature” or “world”. Primitive facts are all-round objects and shapes that stand out free of the background, and when our comprehensive phrase “the whole world” is translated into old Norse, it takes this form: “As far as Christian men go to church, heathen men worship, fire bursts forth, earth bears fruit, son calls mother, mother suckles son, men light fire, ship strides, shields flash, sun shines, snow drifts, fir grows, falcon flies the spring-long day when the wind is full beneath its wings, heaven vaults, earth is peopled, wind howls, water flows into sea, carles reap corn.”
Thus we are led to see that the primitive way of depicting life is realistic in the truest sense of the word. The epic formulæ, as we are apt to call them, paint the world as it is, but their world is very different from the place in which we move and have our being. Primitive men differ from Europeans not in theories about reality, but in the reality itself.