You know the scenario. In a frontier settlement, far from the authority of central government, one man murders another. Then a friend or relative of the victim kills the slayer, and soon a range war sweeps across the land. Men must band together and ride out, to defend their homes and apply rough-and-ready justice.
It could be a western movie, but I was actually thinking of an Icelandic saga. There’s a rumor among saga enthusiasts (I’ve never actually seen it documented) that Hollywood script writers used to comb the sagas for plots, back in the days when the studios were churning out oaters the same way the federal government churns out food stamps today.
But though a saga may resemble a western, there are distinct differences. One of the classic tropes of the western is the appearance of the Mysterious Stranger, who drifts into town and takes up the cause of the side with the pretty girl. Nobody knows his story, but he’s a good man to have with you in a fight.
In a saga, there are no mysterious characters. You know not only who everybody is, but who their parents are, where their farms are, and (often) where their people came from back in Norway. The Icelanders cared intensely about families.
Modern writers, on the other hand (and I speak from experience here), tend to avoid extended families. Relatives just get in the way. In my own novels, several of them based on sagas, I prune the kinfolk back as far as possible, but I still have to add character lists to help the readers keep score.
Which is to say that since saga times, social reality has changed. To the Icelanders, kinship was a vital concern. Every saga was a conflict of families more than of individuals. My cousin’s actions are, by extension, mine. If your cousin killed my cousin, I might just kill you, because one kinsman is pretty much as good (or bad) as another. To us, this seems ridiculous. Not only do we not want to be responsible for our cousins’ actions, we don’t even want to sit next to them at Thanksgiving.
The Viking way seems barbaric to us — and it is. But in studying Viking culture, I’ve come to believe that (to use a formula scrounged from our liberal neighbors) “we have much to learn from our Norse friends.”
The central political value for the Norseman was freedom (at least for himself and his kinsmen). The defense of freedom is an issue that rises again and again in the history of the age, as an old system based on kinship and traditional law resisted a new system based on central monarchy and imported laws. And the central bastion of this freedom — the chief counterweight to the power of the state — was the family. The genealogies in sagas are long because the families were big. The more relatives, the more power and security a man enjoyed, and the more axes he had available to resist oppression.
Marriage was central to that system. Though a Viking woman could not (in theory, anyway) be forced into a marriage, marriages were more the alliance of two families than the union of two loving hearts. The dynamic of marriage was that it looked outward and forward — multiplying kinship ties, multiplying descendents through the generation of children.
One of the reasons Americans nowadays yell at each other so much over marriage is that we fail to understand this (or understand it and don’t care). Those whose idea of marriage looks back to this old model (which is not exclusively Norse, but almost universal in the world in one variation or another) argue with people whose concept of marriage is purely private.
It’s my observation that most of us on the traditional side do hear what the moderns are saying, though we disagree. But the other side doesn’t hear us at all.
The modern idea of marriage makes it purely a private matter. Children are an accessory, and often not an important one. In-laws are not only not an accessory, but (generally) a positive drawback. Where the old idea of marriage looked outward and multiplied relationships, the new model looks inward and isolates people in pairs.
Aside from my religious scruples (which I won’t get into here), my main concern in regard to the definition of marriage is that under the new model, the family is no longer the bastion of freedom. Family no longer looks out for family. Family no longer resists the king. The old kind of marriage was the original, best, and most organic social welfare system. You help a friend because you like him; you help family whether you like them or not.
It’s probably no accident that a certain prominent American liberal politician, who shall remain nameless, has a half-brother living in a third world country for whom he seems to feel no obligation at all. Blood may be thicker than water, but it doesn’t flow through the proper government channels.
For those who are happy to be clients of an all-powerful state, losing the family freehold is not a bug, but a feature.
For those of us who view expanding state power as a threat, the re-definition of marriage would seem to be a sign that the game is essentially over.