Applications 21. Handout.  “. . . við it fyrsta hǫgg.”: Some Thoughts on the Episode of Ámundi the Blind in Brennu-Njáls saga.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan   [heorot@sasktel.net]

Comments on proverbs in the Old Icelandic sagas:

Powell. “These idioms and saws, and such laconisms . . . are the very life-blood of a true Saga; where they abound, they are the infallible tests of good traditions ripened on the lips of good narrators; where they are absent, the story is the work of the scribe writing from his head without the geniune impulses of the story-teller before his audience.” (Introduction, xxxix)
                                                
Vigfússon. “These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play.” (II, 492)

Allen. Proverbs are placed in the mouths of “reliable spokesmen whose pronouncements on events and persons indicate what ought to be thought of them.” (107)

Lönnroth.  Notices that “wise community spokesmen . . . tend to state their views in brief but succinct speeches, where they can make use of legal quotations, proverbs, and other kinds of generalized statements often highlighted by their rhetorical form.” (88-89)

And Ong, on the pre-literate thought process:   “Fixed, often rhythmically balanced expressions of this sort and of other sorts can be found occasionally in print, indeed can be ‘looked up’ in books of sayings, but in oral cultures they are not occasional.  They are incessant.  They form the substance of thought itself.  Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.” (35)

The Problem:  Ámundi’s qualified vow of compensation or vengeance, his gift of sight, and its retraction:

ÍF XII.  106. 273. “Eigi skil ek, . . . at þat muni rétt fyrir guði, svá nær hjarta sem þú hefir mér hǫggvit; enda kann ek at segja þér, ef ek væra heileygr báðum augum, at hafa skylda ek annathvárt fyrir fǫður minn fébœtr eða mannhefndir, enda skipti guð með okkr!” When Ámundi then suddenly gains his sight he praises God: “Lofaðr sé guð, dróttinn minn! Sér nú, hvat hann vill.”  And, seeming to conclude thus that God condones vengeance, he kills Lýtingr and again loses his sight.

A.  Paroemial reflection upon the slow and complex reception of the Christian world-view:  “at eigi fellr tré við it fyrsta hǫgg.”

1. Gestr Oddleifsson in conversation with Þangbrandr Vilbaldús son on the legal and popular reception of Christianity in Iceland:
ÍF XII. 103.268-9.  “Flutta ek á þingi,” segir Þangbrandr, “ok varð mér þar erfiðligast um.”  “Þú hefir þó mest at gǫrt,” segir Gestr, “þó at ǫðrum verði auðit í lǫg at leiða.  En þat er sem mælt er, at eigi fellr tré við it fyrsta hǫgg.”
ASB 13.   103. 243. 14. 14.15. eigi – hǫgg, ein sprichwort, das. c. 138, 29 nochmals vorkommt.
FJ Proverb word 411. Page 192. tré – eigi fellr tré við hit fyrsta hǫgg Nj 544. 741. ‘Ikke falder træ for det første hugg’. Aasen: “Det fel ikkje tre med fyrste hogg’. GJ (var.: eik).
TPMA 10.   111. SCHLAGEN/battre/to hit 1. Der erste Schlag 1.1. Auf den ersten (einen) Schlag fällt die Eiche (der Baum) nicht1 Nord. 35 En þat er sem mælt er, at eigi fellr tré við et fyrsta hǫgg Und es verhält sich, so wie gesagt wird, dass ein Baum nicht auf den ersten Schlag fällt NJÁLS SAGA 103, 14 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 411). 36 Eigi fellr tré við et fyrsta hǫgg Ein Baum fällt nicht auf den ersten Schlag NJÁLS SAGA 138, 29 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 411). 37 Primitus inflictum non corruit arbor ob ictum. – Træ faller eij aff førsthe hwgh Durch den zum ersten Mal geführten Schlag fällt der Baum nicht zu Boden. – Übers. wie 17 LÅLE 829.

2. Hallbjǫrn in sterki as he cynically prepares to persuade Eyjólfr Bǫlverksson to undertake the virtually suicidal task of the defense of the Burners:
ÍF XII.   138. 367. Hallbjǫrn sterki þreif til hans ok setti hann niðr6 í millum þeira Bjarna ok mælti: “Eigi fellr tré við it fyrsta hǫgg, vinr,” segir hann, “ok sit hér fyrst hjá oss.”     6hjá sér b.v. í RK.

B.  The varied reception of Christian teaching:

1. Hildigunnr Starkaðardóttir.
Whetting Flosi Þórðarson to vengeance for the slaying of her husband, rejecting his Christ:
ÍF XII.  116.291. “ek sœri þik fyrir all krapta Krists þíns ok fyrir manndóm ok karlmennsku þína, at þú hefnir allra sára þeira, er hann hafði á sér dauðum, eða heit hvers manns níðingr ella.” (116.291.)

2. Hǫskuldr Þráinsson.
Pre-Christian restraint.
ÍF XII. 94.236-7.  “Veiztú,” segir Njáll, “hvat fǫður þínum varð at bana?”  Sveinninn svarar: “Veit ek, at Skarðheðinn vá hann, ok þurfu vit ekki á þat at minnask, er sætzk hefir á verit ok fullar bœtr hafa fyrir komit.”  “Betr er svarat,” segir Njáll, “en ek spurða, ok munt þú verða góðr maðr.”

A Christian death.
ÍF XII. 111.280-1.  En er Hǫskuldr sá hann, vildi hann undan snúa; þá hljóp Skarpheðinn at honum ok mælti: “Hirð eigi þú at hopa á hæl, Hvítanessgoðinn” – ok høggr til hans, ok kom í hǫfuðit, ok fell Hǫskuldr á knéin.  Hann mælti þetta: “Guð hjálpi mér, en fyrirgefi yðr!”

3. Síðu-Hallr.
Explicit willingness to forego maintenance of face in the interests of reconciliation.
ÍF XII. 145.408.  Hallr af Síðu stóð upp ok kvaddi sér hljóðs, ok fekkst þegar.  Hann mælti: “Hér hafa orðit harðir atburðir í mannalátum ok málasóknum.  Mun ek nú sýna þat, at ek em lítilmenni: vil ek biðja Ásgrím ok þá menn aðra, er fyrir málum þessum eru, at þeir unni oss jafnsættis.”  Fór hann þar um mǫrgum fǫgrum orðum.

ÍF XII. 145.411-2.  Hallr af Síðu mælti: “Allir menn vitu, hvern harm ek hefi fingit, at Ljótr, son minn, er látinn.  Munu þat margir ætla, at hann muni dýrstr gǫrr af þeim mǫnnum, er hér hafa látizk.  En ek vil vinna þat til sætta at leggja son minn ógildan ok ganga þó til at veita þeim bæði tryggðir ok grið, er mínir mótstǫðumenn eru. Bið ek þik, Snorri goði, ok aðra ina beztu menn, at þér komið því til leiðar, at sættir verði með oss."

4. Njáll, on the fortunate approach of Christianity.
ÍF XII. 99.255.  Njáll sagði þá: “Svá lízk mér sem inn nýi átrúnaðr muni vera miklu betri, ok sá mun sæll, er þann fær heldr.  Ok ef þeir menn koma út hingat, er þann sið bjóða, þá skal ek þat vel flytja.”

On Ámundi’s slaying of Lýtingr:
ÍF XII. 106.274.  “Ekki má saka þik um slíkt,” segir Njáll, “því at slíkt er mjǫk á kveðit, in viðvǫrunarvert, ef slíkir atburðir verða, at stinga eigi af stokki við þá, er svá nær standa.”1     1stinga eigi af stokki við e-n: bægja einhverjum frá, varna manni; stokkr líkl. setstokkur; orðatiltæki þetta mun upphaflega merkja: hrinda manni úr sæti. – Í öndverðu voru þeir synir einir arfgengir, sem skilgetnir voru, en það smábreyttist (sbr. Grág. III, 583-4); hér í sögunni verður vart skilnings á málstað óskilgetinna (sbr. E. Ó. S.: Sturlungaöld 67; Um Nj. 60).

On God’s mercy:
ÍF XII. 129.328.  Njáll mælti til þeira: “Verðið vel við ok mælið eigi æðru, því at él eitt mun vera, en þó skyldi langt til annars slíks.  Trúið þér ok því, at guð er miskunnsamr, ok mun hann oss eigi bæði láta brenna þessa heims ok annars.”

On his unwillingness to continue living when  his sons are unavenged:
ÍF XII. 129.330.  “Eigi vil ek út ganga, því at ek em maðr gamall ok lítt til búinn at hefna sona minna, en ek vil eigi lifa við skǫmm.”

C.  An Assortment of Scholarly and Literary Critical Views on the Ámundi Episode, taken mostly from Hamer, pp. 124-133:

Hamer:  “It will here be argued that, if the author treats the old ideology of vengeance sympathetically, as it operated within the pre-Christian world, he reveals in his portrayal of events during the first period after the Conversion his feeling that that ideology has no place in a Christian society.” (124-5)  “. . . an obvious ethical problem in God’s apparently performing a miracle—the granting of sight to a man blind from birth—in order that he may commit a revenge killing.”  (125)

Finnur Jónsson.  Ámundi’s triumphant cry praising God, “ist nach unserem gefühl eine blasphemie; die ganze (selbstverständlich erdichtete) geschichte sieht aus wie eine misslungene nachbildung einer legende.” (248)

Einar Ól. Sveinsson.  “We recall how Ámundi blindi was miraculously given sight, exactly as it occurs in legendary works—and the phraseology of the passage indicates the nature of its source—so that Ámundi can perform such an unchristian act as to take blood vengeance on his father’s slayer.”   “. . . the expression ‘Christian influence’ may be somewhat ambiguous.”  (178 & 179)

Ian Maxwell.  “Our sympathies are with Ámundi” . . . “the symmetry of poetic justice links Lýtingr’s killing of Njálls son with Ámundi’s vengeance on Lýtingr.” (38)

Lönnroth.  “In the case of Ámundi, the laws of the Indepencence era did not give him any automatic right to receive compensation since he was an illegitimate son of Hǫskuldr Njálsson.  Yet, in the author’s opinion, Natural Law gives him such a right and when Lýtingr refuses to recognize this, he justly becomes—through God’s intervention—the victim of Ámundi’s revenge.”  (145)

T. M. Andersson.  “Is it a miracle, or the mockery of a miracle?”  (198)

D. The Central Theme Brennu-Njáls saga, expressed in the proverb “at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin”The pre-Christian ideal of judicious restraint in the conduct of the feud system of reconciliation under the Old Law, evolving under the New Law of the Christian Conversion into the proposition that only forgiveness provides the ultimate resolution of conflict:

1. Rannveig’s iteration (to Sigmundr Lambason, on the slaying of Þórðr Sigtryggsson “leysingjason”):
ÍF XII.  42. 109. Rannveig mælti, móðir Gunnars: “Þat er mælt,5 at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin, enda mun hér svá; en þó mun Gunnarr leysa þik af þessu máli. En ef Hallgerðr kemr annarri flugu í munn þér þá verðr þat þinn bani.”6     5Sigmundr b.v. í S. 6Gunnar viðhefur sama orðtæki, þegar hann ávítar Sigmund (111. bls.), sbr. gína flugu í vísu Úlfs Uggasonar í 102. kap. Orðtækið er dregið af því, þegar menn veiða lax eða silung með flugu.
ASB 13.   42. 96. 9. 13.14. skamma – fegin, ein allit. sprichwort, das in der saga noch zweimal (c. 99,9 u. 134,3) angefürht wird. Vgl. auch Saxo gramm. (ed. Holder) 13726: nec diu manum ictu exhilarari solere.
FJ Proverb word 196. Page 99. hǫgg – . . . skamma (stutta) stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin Nj 178. 521. 703, K. ‘Stakket stund glæder hånden sig ved (sit) hug’ (ti hævnen kommer hurtig). Almindelig i brug.
Gering 9. hǫgg (nr. 196b). – Zu den dreimal in den Njála überlieferten sprichwort: skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin vgl. Saxo (ed. Holder) 13726: nec diu manum ictu exhilarari solere. S. auch Rosenberg, Nordb. aandsliv 1, 245.
TPMA 10.   120. SCHLAGEN/battre/to hit 16. Die Hand freut sich nicht lange am Schlag Mlat. 217 credo euenturum uobis, quod uulgo dici assolet, ferienti interdum breue percussionis gaudium fore, nec diu manum ictu exhilarari solere Ich glaube, es wird für euch herauskommen, was man allgemein zu sagen pflegt, dass für den, der schlägt, manchmal die Freude des Schlagens kurz sei und sich die Hand nicht lange am Schlag zu freuen pflege SAXO GRAMM. 137, 25. Nord. 218 Þat er mælt, at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin Das wird gesagt, dass die Hand sich (nur) kurze Zeit am Schlag freut NJÁLS SAGA 42, 9 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 196. JÓNSSON 82). 219 Mun hér sannaz þat sem mælt er, at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin Das wird sich hier deutlich zeigen, was man sagt, dass die Hand sich (nur) kurze Zeit am Schlag freut NJÁLS SAGA 99, 9 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 196). 220 Nú er svá orðit, sem mælt er, at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin Nun ist es so gesprochen, wie es gesagt wird, dass die Hand sich (nur) kurze Zeit am Schlag freut NJÁLS SAGA 134, 3 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 196). 221 Stutta stund verdur hond hoggi feigenn (Nur) kurze Zeit freut sich die Hand am Schlag KÅLUND 88 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 196).

2. Hǫskuldr Þráinsson’s iteration (to Lýtingr of Sámstaðir, on the slaying of Hǫskuldr Njálsson):
ÍF XII. 99.253.  “Slíks var þér ván,” segir Hǫskuldr, “þú fórt rasandi mjǫk. Mun hér sannask þat, sem mælt er, at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin, enda þykki mér nú sem þér þykki ísjávert, hvárt þú munt fá haldit þik eða eigi.”

3. Hallr of Síða’s interation (to Flosi Þórðarson, on the burning of Njáll and his family):
ÍF XII.   134.349. Hallr mælti: “Nú er svá orðit, sem mælt er, at skamma stund verðr hǫnd hǫggvi fegin. Ok er sá nú allr einn í þínu fǫruneyti, er nú hefr eigi hǫfuðs, ok hinn, er þá fýsti ins verra.4 En liðveizlu mína em ek skyldr at leggja til, alla slíka sem ek má.”   4hefja hǫfuðs sbr. hefja handa KdeS 22913; – er þá fýsti ins verra Y, Gr K? (eggjaði . . .); er þá eggjaði ins verra (versta verks R), er eigi var fram komit RSv.

Bibliography:

Allen, Richard F.  Fire and Iron. Critical Approaches to Njáls saga. Pittsburgh 1971.
Andersson, Theodore M.  The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280). Ithaca 2006.
Brennu-Njáls saga. Ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Íslenzk fornrit XII. Reykjavík 1954.
Brennu-Njáls saga. Ed. Finnur Jónsson.  Altnordische Saga-Bibliothek XIII. Halle 1908.
Clark, George. "Beowulf and Njálssaga," in Proceedings of the First International Saga Conference, U. of Edinburgh. 1971 66-87.
Hamer, Andrew.  Njáls saga and its Christian Background: A Study of Narrative Method.  Doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen, 2008.
http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/arts/2008/a.j.hamer/?pLanguage=en&pFullItemRecord=ON
Harris, Richard L. Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Materials of the Old Icelandic Sagas, a website, at http://www.usask.ca/english/icelanders/
_____________ .  “‘The Hand’s Pleasure in the Blow is Brief’: Proverbs Escalating Danger in the Revenge Pattern of Njálssaga,” Proverbium 18 2001 149-166.
Lönnroth Lars. Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction. Berkeley  1976.
Maxwell, Ian.  “Pattern in Njáls saga,” Saga-Book 15 1957-61 17-47.
McCreesh, Bernadine .  “How Pagan are the Icelandic Family Sagas?” JEGP 79 1980  58-66.
__________________ .  “Structural patterns in the Eyrbyggja saga and other sagas of the Conversion,” Mediaeval Scandinavia 11 1978–79  271-280.
Miller, William Ian. “Justifying Skarpheðinn: Of Pretext and Politics in the Icelandic Bloodfeud,” Scandinavian Studies 55 1983 316-44.
Ong, Walter J.  Orality & Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word.  New York 1982
Powell, F. York. The Tale of Thrond of Gate, commonly called Færeyinga saga, Oxford 1896.
Sveinsson, Einar Ól. Njáls Saga: A Literary Masterpiece, ed. & tr. Paul Schach. Lincoln 1971.
Vigfússon, Guðbrandur, and F. York Powell, trs. & eds. Origines Islandicae. A Collection of the More Important Sagas and Other Native Writings Relating to the Settlement and Early History of Iceland. 2 vols. Oxford 1905.

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