The Roman and the Teuton: The Forest Children

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Editor’s note: This is the first of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).

I wish in this first lecture to give you some general conception of the causes which urged our Teutonic race to attack and destroy Rome.  I shall take for this one lecture no special text-book: but suppose you all to be acquainted with the Germania of Tacitus, and with the 9th Chapter of Gibbon.  And I shall begin, if you will allow me, by a parable, a myth, a saga, such as the men of whom I am going to tell you loved; and if it seem to any of you childish, bear in mind that what is childish need not therefore be shallow.  I know that it is not history.  These lectures will not be, in the popular sense, history at all.  But I beg you to bear in mind that I am not here to teach you history.  No man can do that.  I am here to teach you how to teach yourselves history.  I will give you the scaffolding as well as I can; you must build the house.

Fancy to yourself a great Troll-garden, such as our forefathers dreamed of often fifteen hundred years ago;—a fairy palace, with a fairy garden; and all around the primæval wood.  Inside the Trolls dwell, cunning and wicked, watching their fairy treasures, working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange; and outside, the forest is full of children; such children as the world had never seen before, but children still: children in frankness, and purity, and affectionateness, and tenderness of conscience, and devout awe of the unseen; and children too in fancy, and silliness, and ignorance, and caprice, and jealousy, and quarrelsomeness, and love of excitement and adventure, and the mere sport of overflowing animal health.  They play unharmed among the forest beasts, and conquer them in their play; but the forest is too dull and too poor for them; and they wander to the walls of the Troll-garden, and wonder what is inside.  One can conceive easily for oneself what from that moment would begin to happen.  Some of the more adventurous clamber in.  Some, too, the Trolls steal and carry off into their palace.  Most never return: but here and there one escapes out again, and tells how the Trolls killed all his comrades: but tells too, of the wonders he has seen inside, of shoes of swiftness, and swords of sharpness, and caps of darkness; of charmed harps, charmed jewels, and above all of the charmed wine: and after all, the Trolls were very kind to him—see what fine clothes they have given him—and he struts about awhile among his companions; and then returns, and not alone.  The Trolls have bewitched him, as they will bewitch more.  So the fame of the Troll-garden spreads; and more and more steal in, boys and maidens, and tempt their comrades over the wall, and tell of the jewels, and the dresses, and the wine, the joyous maddening wine, which equals men with gods; and forget to tell how the Trolls have bought them, soul as well as body, and taught them to be vain, and lustful, and slavish; and tempted them, too often, to sins which have no name.

But their better nature flashes out at times.  They will not be the slaves and brutes in human form, which the evil Trolls would have them; and they rebel, and escape, and tell of the horrors of that fair foul place.  And then arises a noble indignation, and war between the Trolls and the forest-children.  But still the Trolls can tempt and bribe the greedier or the more vain; and still the wonders inside haunt their minds; till it becomes a fixed idea among them all, to conquer the garden for themselves and bedizen themselves in the fine clothes, and drink their fill of the wine.  Again and again they break in: but the Trolls drive them out, rebuild their walls, keep off those outside by those whom they hold enslaved within; till the boys grow to be youths, and the youths men: and still the Troll-garden is not conquered, and still it shall be.  And the Trolls have grown old and weak, and their walls are crumbling away.  Perhaps they may succeed this time—perhaps next.

And at last they do succeed—the fairy walls are breached, the fairy palace stormed—and the Trolls are crouching at their feet, and now all will be theirs, gold, jewels, dresses, arms, all that the Troll possesses—except his cunning.

For as each struggles into the charmed ground, the spell of the place falls on him.  He drinks the wine, and it maddens him.  He fills his arms with precious trumpery, and another snatches it from his grasp.  Each envies the youth before him, each cries—Why had I not the luck to enter first?  And the Trolls set them against each other, and split them into parties, each mad with excitement, and jealousy, and wine, till, they scarce know how, each falls upon his fellow, and all upon those who are crowding in from the forest, and they fight and fight, up and down the palace halls, till their triumph has become a very feast of the Lapithæ, and the Trolls look on, and laugh a wicked laugh, as they tar them on to the unnatural fight, till the gardens are all trampled, the finery torn, the halls dismantled, and each pavement slippery with brothers’ blood.  And then, when the wine is gone out of them, the survivors come to their senses, and stare shamefully and sadly round.  What an ugly, desolate, tottering ruin the fairy palace has become!  Have they spoilt it themselves? or have the Trolls bewitched it?  And all the fairy treasure—what has become of it? no man knows.  Have they thrown it away in their quarrel? have the cunningest hidden it? have the Trolls flown away with it, to the fairy land beyond the Eastern mountains? who can tell?  Nothing is left but recrimination and remorse.  And they wander back again into the forest, away from the doleful ruin, carrion-strewn, to sulk each apart over some petty spoil which he has saved from the general wreck, hating and dreading each the sound of his neighbour’s footstep.

What will become of the forest children, unless some kind saint or hermit comes among them, to bind them in the holy bonds of brotherhood and law?

This is my saga, gentlemen; and it is a true one withal.  For it is neither more nor less than the story of the Teutonic tribes, and how they overthrew the Empire of Rome.

Menzel, who though he may not rank very high as a historian, has at least a true German heart, opens his history with a striking passage.

‘The sages of the East were teaching wisdom beneath the palms; the merchants of Tyre and Carthage were weighing their heavy anchors, and spreading their purple sails for far seas; the Greek was making the earth fair by his art, and the Roman founding his colossal empire of force, while the Teuton sat, yet a child, unknown and naked among the forest beasts: and yet unharmed and in his sport he lorded it over them; for the child was of a royal race, and destined to win glory for all time to come.’

To the strange and complicated education which God appointed for this race; and by which he has fitted it to become, at least for many centuries henceforth, the ruling race of the world, I wish to call your attention in my future lectures.  To-day, I wish to impress strongly on your minds this childishness of our forefathers.  For good or for evil they were great boys; very noble boys; very often very naughty boys—as boys with the strength of men might well be.  Try to conceive such to yourselves, and you have the old Markman, Allman, Goth, Lombard, Saxon, Frank.  And the notion may be more than a mere metaphor.  Races, like individuals, it has been often said, may have their childhood, their youth, their manhood, their old age, and natural death.  It is but a theory—perhaps nothing more.  But at least, our race had its childhood.  Their virtues, and their sad failings, and failures, I can understand on no other theory.  The nearest type which we can see now is, I fancy, the English sailor, or the English navvy.  A great, simple, honest baby—full of power and fun, very coarse and plain spoken at times: but if treated like a human being, most affectionate, susceptible, even sentimental and superstitious; fond of gambling, brute excitement, childish amusements in the intervals of enormous exertion; quarrelsome among themselves, as boys are, and with a spirit of wild independence which seems to be strength; but which, till it be disciplined into loyal obedience and self-sacrifice, is mere weakness; and beneath all a deep practical shrewdness, an indomitable perseverance, when once roused by need.  Such a spirit as we see to this day in the English sailor—that is the nearest analogue I can find now.  One gets hints here and there of what manner of men they were, from the evil day, when, one hundred and two years before Christ, the Kempers and Teutons, ranging over the Alps toward Italy, 300,000 armed men and 15,000 mailed knights with broad sword and lances, and in their helmets the same bulls’-horns, wings, and feathers, which one sees now in the crests of German princes, stumbled upon Marius and his Romans, and were destroyed utterly, first the men, then the women, who like true women as they were, rather than give up their honour to the Romans, hung themselves on the horns of the waggon-oxen, and were trampled to death beneath their feet; and then the very dogs, who fought on when men and women were all slain—from that fatal day, down to the glorious one, when, five hundred years after, Alaric stood beneath the walls of Rome, and to their despairing boast of the Roman numbers, answered, ‘Come out to us then, the thicker the hay, the easier mowed,’—for five hundred years, I say, the hints of their character are all those of a boy-nature.

They were cruel at times: but so are boys—much more cruel than grown men, I hardly know why—perhaps because they have not felt suffering so much themselves, and know not how hard it is to bear.  There were varieties of character among them.  The Franks were always false, vain, capricious, selfish, taking part with the Romans whenever their interest or vanity was at stake—the worst of all Teutons, though by no means the weakest—and a miserable business they made of it in France, for some five hundred years.  The Goths, Salvian says, were the most ignavi of all of them; great lazy lourdans; apt to be cruel, too, the Visigoths at least, as their Spanish descendants proved to the horror of the world: but men of honour withal, as those old Spaniards were.  The Saxons were famed for cruelty—I know not why, for our branch of the Saxons has been, from the beginning of history, the least cruel people in Europe; but they had the reputation—as the Vandals had also—of being the most pure; Castitate venerandi.  And among the uncivilized people coldness and cruelty go often together.  The less passionate and sensitive the nature, the less open to pity.  The Caribs of the West Indies were famed for both, in contrast to the profligate and gentle inhabitants of Cuba and Hispaniola; and in double contrast to the Red Indian tribes of North America, who combined, from our first acquaintance with them, the two vices of cruelty and profligacy, to an extent which has done more to extirpate them than all the fire-water of the white man.

But we must be careful how we compare our forefathers with these, or any other savages.  Those who, like Gibbon, have tried to draw a parallel between the Red Indian and the Primæval Teuton, have done so at the expense of facts.  First, they have overlooked the broad fact, that while the Red Indians have been, ever since we have known them, a decreasing race, the Teutons have been a rapidly increasing one; in spite of war, and famine, and all the ills of a precarious forest life, proving their youthful strength and vitality by a reproduction unparalleled, as far as I know, in history, save perhaps by that noble and young race, the Russian.  These writers have not known that the Teuton had his definite laws, more simple, doubtless, in the time of Tacitus than in that of Justinian, but still founded on abstract principles so deep and broad that they form the groundwork of our English laws and constitution; that the Teuton creed concerning the unseen world, and divine beings, was of a loftiness and purity as far above the silly legends of Hiawatha as the Teuton morals were above those of a Sioux or a Comanche.  Let any one read honest accounts of the Red Indians; let him read Catlin, James, Lewis and Clarke, Shoolbred; and first and best of all, the old ‘Travaile in Virginia,’ published by the Hakluyt Society: and then let him read the Germania of Tacitus, and judge for himself.  For my part, I believe that if Gibbon was right, and if our forefathers in the German forests had been like Powhattan’s people as we found them in the Virginian forests, the Romans would not have been long in civilizing us off the face of the earth.

No.  All the notes which Tacitus gives us are notes of a young and strong race; unconscious of its own capabilities, but possessing such capabilities that the observant Romans saw at once with dread and awe that they were face to face with such a people as they had never met before; that in their hands, sooner or later, might be the fate of Rome.  Mad Caracalla, aping the Teuton dress and hair, listening in dread to the songs of the Allman Alrunas, telling the Teutons that they ought to come over the Rhine and destroy the empire, and then, murdering the interpreters, lest they should repeat his words, was but babbling out in an insane shape the thought which was brooding in the most far-seeing Roman minds.  He felt that they could have done the deed; and he felt rightly, madman as he was.  They could have done it then, if physical power and courage were all that was needed, in the days of the Allman war.  They could have done it a few years before, when the Markmen fought Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; on the day when the Cæsar, at the advice of his augurs, sent two lions to swim across the Danube as a test of victory; and the simple Markmen took them for big dogs, and killed them with their clubs.  From that day, indeed, the Teutons began to conquer slowly, but surely.  Though Antoninus beat the Markmen on the Danube, and recovered 100,000 Roman prisoners, yet it was only by the help of the Vandals; from that day the empire was doomed, and the Teutons only kept at bay by bribing one tribe to fight another, or by enlisting their more adventurous spirits into the Roman legions, to fight against men of their own blood;—a short-sighted and suicidal policy; for by that very method they were teaching the Teuton all he needed, the discipline and the military science of the Roman.

But the Teutons might have done it a hundred years before that, when Rome was in a death agony, and Vitellius and Vespasian were struggling for the purple, and Civilis and the fair Velleda, like Barak and Deborah of old, raised the Teuton tribes.  They might have done it before that again, when Hermann slew Varus and his legions in the Teutoburger Wald; or before that again, when the Kempers and Teutons burst over the Alps, to madden themselves with the fatal wines of the rich south.  And why did the Teutons not do it?  Because they were boys fighting against cunning men.  Boiorich, the young Kemper, riding down to Marius’ camp, to bid him fix the place and time of battle—for the Teuton thought it mean to use surprises and stratagems, or to conquer save in fair and open fight—is the type of the Teuton hero; and one which had no chance in a struggle with the cool, false, politic Roman, grown grey in the experience of the forum and of the camp, and still as physically brave as his young enemy.  Because, too, there was no unity among them; no feeling that they were brethren of one blood.  Had the Teuton tribes, at any one of the great crises I have mentioned, and at many a crisis afterwards, united for but three years, under the feeling of a common blood, language, interest, destiny, Rome would have perished.  But they could not learn that lesson.  They could not put aside their boyish quarrels.

They never learnt the lesson till after their final victory, when the Gospel of Christ—of a Being to whom they all owed equal allegiance, in whose sight they were all morally equal—came to unite them into a Christendom.

And it was well that they did not learn it sooner.  Well for them and for the world, that they did not unite on any false ground of interest or ambition, but had to wait for the true ground of unity, the knowledge of the God-man, King of all nations upon earth.

Had they destroyed Rome sooner, what would not they have lost?  What would not the world have lost?  Christianity would have been stifled in its very cradle; and with Christianity all chance—be sure of it—of their own progress.  Roman law, order, and discipline, the very things which they needed to acquire by a contact of five hundred years, would have been swept away.  All classic literature and classic art, which they learnt to admire with an almost superstitious awe, would have perished likewise.  Greek philosophy, the germs of physical science, and all that we owe to the ancients, would have perished; and we should have truly had an invasion of the barbarians, followed by truly dark ages, in which Europe would have had to begin all anew, without the help of the generations which had gone before.

Therefore it was well as it was, and God was just and merciful to them and to the human race.  They had a glorious destiny, and glorious powers wherewith to fulfil it: but they had, as every man and people has, before whom there is a noble future, to be educated by suffering.  There was before them a terrible experience of sorrow and disappointment, sin and blood, by which they gained the first consciousness of what they could do and what they could not.  Like Adam of old, like every man unto this day, they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and were driven out of the paradise of unconsciousness; had to begin again sadder and wiser men, and eat their bread in the sweat of their brow; and so to rise, after their fall, into a nobler, wiser, more artificial, and therefore more truly human and divine life, than that from which they had at first fallen, when they left their German wilds.

One does not, of course, mean the parallel to fit in all details.  The fall of the Teuton from the noble simplicity in which Tacitus beheld and honoured him, was a work of four centuries; perhaps it was going on in Tacitus’ own time.  But the culminating point was the century which saw Italy conquered, and Rome sacked, by Visigoth, by Ostrogoth, by Vandal, till nothing was left save fever-haunted ruins.  Then the ignorant and greedy child, who had been grasping so long after the fair apples of Sodom, clutched them once and for all, and found them turn to ashes in his hands.

Yes—it is thus that I wish you to look at the Invasion of the Barbarians, Immigration of the Teutons, or whatsoever name you may call it.  Before looking at questions of migration, of ethnology, of laws, and of classes, look first at the thing itself; and see with sacred pity—and awe, one of the saddest and grandest tragedies ever performed on earth.  Poor souls!  And they were so simple withal.  One pities them, as one pities a child who steals apples, and makes himself sick with them after all.  It is not the enormous loss of life which is to me the most tragic part of the story; it is that very simplicity of the Teutons.  Bloodshed is a bad thing, certainly; but after all nature is prodigal of human life—killing her twenty thousand and her fifty thousand by a single earthquake; and as for death in battle—I sometimes am tempted to think, having sat by many death beds, that our old forefathers may have been right, and that death in battle may be a not unenviable method of passing out of this troublesome world.  Besides, we have no right to blame those old Teutons, while we are killing every year more of her Majesty’s subjects by preventible disease, than ever they killed in their bloodiest battle.  Let us think of that, and mend that, ere we blame the old German heroes.  No, there are more pitiful tragedies than any battlefield can shew; and first among them, surely, is the disappointment of young hopes, the degradation of young souls.

One pities them, I say.  And they pitied themselves.  Remorse, shame, sadness, mark the few legends and songs of the days which followed the fall of Rome.  They had done a great work.  They had destroyed a mighty tyranny; they had parted between them the spoils wrung from all the nations; they had rid the earth of a mighty man-devouring ogre, whose hands had been stretched out for centuries over all the earth, dragging all virgins to his den, butchering and torturing thousands for his sport; foul, too, with crimes for which their language, like our own (thank God) has scarcely found a name.  Babylon the Great, drunken with the blood of the saints, had fallen at last before the simple foresters of the north: but if it looks a triumph to us, it looked not such to them.  They could only think how they had stained their hands in their brothers’ blood.  They had got the fatal Nibelungen hoard: but it had vanished between their hands, and left them to kill each other, till none was left.

You know the Nibelungen Lied?  That expresses, I believe, the key-note of the old Teuton’s heart, after his work was done.  Siegfried murdered by his brother-in-law; fair Chriemhild turned into an avenging fury; the heroes hewing each other down, they scarce know why, in Hunnish Etzel’s hall, till Hagen and Gunther stand alone; Dietrich of Bern going in, to bind the last surviving heroes; Chriemhild shaking Hagen’s gory head in Gunther’s face, himself hewed down by the old Hildebrand, till nothing is left but stark corpses and vain tears:—while all the while the Nibelungen hoard, the cause of all the woe, lies drowned in the deep Rhine until the judgment day.—What is all this, but the true tale of the fall of Rome, of the mad quarrels of the conquering Teutons?  The names are confused, mythic; the dates and places all awry: but the tale is true—too true.  Mutato nomine fabula narratur.  Even so they went on, killing, till none were left.  Deeds as strange, horrible, fratricidal, were done, again and again, not only between Frank and Goth, Lombard and Gepid, but between Lombard and Lombard, Frank and Frank.  Yes, they were drunk with each other’s blood, those elder brethren of ours.  Let us thank God that we did not share their booty, and perish, like them, from the touch of the fatal Nibelungen hoard.  Happy for us Englishmen, that we were forced to seek our adventures here, in this lonely isle; to turn aside from the great stream of Teutonic immigration; and settle here, each man on his forest-clearing, to till the ground in comparative peace, keeping unbroken the old Teutonic laws, unstained the old Teutonic faith and virtue, cursed neither with poverty nor riches, but fed with food sufficient for us.  To us, indeed, after long centuries, peace brought sloth, and sloth foreign invaders and bitter woes: but better so, than that we should have cast away alike our virtue and our lives, in that mad quarrel over the fairy gold of Rome.

(Continue to Lecture II: The Dying Empire)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


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