Applications 30. The Phraseological Place of Bandamannasaga among the Sagas of Wealth and Power. Presented at the 11th Annual Fiske
Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies. [Norsestock 11] Cornell University 2-5 June 2016.

Richard L. Harris, University of Saskatchewan           
Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Materials in the Old Icelandic Sagas 

            It is still true today, as when observed by Sigurður Nordal in his commentary to the 1938 Íslenzk fornrit edition of Bandamanna saga, that little attention has been given specifically to this work and its place among the Íslendingasögur from a literary critical point of view. Aside from Magerøy’s 1957 Studiar and a few essays on its humor and approaches to its conflicts by students of socio-economic theory, most discussion occurs in introductions to, and accompanying commmentaries upon, its editions and translations. Nordal pointed out episodes in it which seem derived from passages in Ljósvetninga saga and Vatnsdœla saga, and subsequent editors and translators have noticed its narrative affinities with Hœnsa-Þóris saga and Hrafnkels saga. As well, the bias of editorial selection has placed it, with these latter two works, among the Sagas of Wealth and Power in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, along with Eyrbyggja saga, Hávarðar saga and some þættir. Bandamanna, Hrafnkatla and Hœnsa-Þórir are treated together by Theodore M. Andersson in his Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Saga under the chapter heading “Pondering Justice,” and although the settings of all three are some centuries earlier than their composition, they are viewed here and elsewhere as owing their inspiration to contemporary conflicts over power between the traditional leaders of the Commonwealth days and those who succeeded them as Iceland came under Norwegian rule.

            These three sagas pursue agendas variously critical of the old and decadent chieftain class, its heedless aristocratic arrogance on the one hand, and on the other, its unscrupulous greed, exacerbated by the gradual erosion of its traditional sources of power and wealth. While there is little doubt of such common ideological interests in the origins of all three [of these sagas], they differentiate themselves from one another respectively regarding the ethics of survival amidst the local tyranny and lethal hubris that each studies in pursuing its narrative purpose. Hrafnkatla, as I have shown elsewhere, warns of associations with foolish men, and Hœnsa-Þóris saga, with men who are bad. Both these sagas thus consider kinds of people with whom it is disadvantageous to have dealings. Both sorts of people are tainted by ógæfa, a trait of lucklessness recognized in the Saga World as harmful to its possessors and to those who take up with them. Bandamanna saga, no less than the former two, shares such concerns but, in particular with Hrafnkatla, considers the dangers of the goðorð when held by those who are naïve, politically inexperienced or otherwise unskilled.

            In contrast with Hœnsa-Þóris saga, whose subject is a socially ill-disposed and innately vicious self-made man, Bandamanna’s hero, Oddr Ófeigsson, though also amassing his own fortune, comes from faded and impoverished aristocratic stock, his father “a great sage and an excellent counsellor . . . in every way an outstanding person” yet “short of funds, though he owned plenty of land.” Lavish in hospitality, Ófeigr “always kept open house,” despite the “struggle he had to lay in enough supplies for the household.”  [HANDOUT] It is presumably this negligence of good husbandry in the interests of financially crippling aristocratic sociability, and the honor its attendance imbues, that runs against the grain of his son, Oddr, “a promising lad” who “showed plenty of ability at an early age,” but with “little inclination for work” on the farm, the produce of which was in any case insufficient for Ófeigr’s generous style of living. This alienation of father and son, superficially much different from that generation-gap noticed by Paul Schach, nevertheless may also be intended by this saga’s composer as the primary signal of their respectively differing values. While Oddr seems conscious and heedful of traditional social obligations, he is never said to incur upon himself financial hardship to please others. Starting poor, like the subject of Hœnsa-Þóris saga, with his personal character and family respectability he enjoys enough social support to raise capital for his business, to become wealthy, . . . wealthy enough to buy a farm at Mel, in Miðfjörðr, at the urging of his friends there who want him to settle among them. While the unpleasant Hœnsa-Þórir incurs social resentment with his success, which is the result of his individual efforts at peddling between districts, Oddr clearly comes from and flourishes in the embrace of the old wealthy aristocratic class, redeeming the fortune his father or those before him lost as changing economic realities depleted their wealth. In this state, while some might consider him vulnerable in his neglect of his father’s approval and company, no shadows fall upon the brilliance of his honor.

            But then one day, Óspakr Glúmsson, a nephew of Grettir Ásmundarson, says to him, “I’d like to join your household.” The composers of these sagas of Wealth and Power allow their significant figures to be explicitly inveigled into granting protection or otherwise taking responsibility for association with people of disadvantagous if not lethally harmful character—especially in Hœnsa-Þóris saga, those of the chieftain class, seduced by money, the temptation which proves their weakness also in Bandamanna. Oddr wisely moves to decline: “No one seems to praise you or like you, . . . You’re said to be a wily man, just like the rest of your family.” The audience here would recall the sort of wisdom operative in Hœnsa-Þóris saga, that bad things come from bad people. Saga readers will also think of a proverb used by Grettir when he realized that blame for an accidental conflagration, caused when he fetched fire for some merchants while stranded in a storm one night in Norway, would bring him harm, “it now turned out, as he feared, that they would repay him ill . . ., and he says it is bad to give help to unworthy people.”

            Óspakr moves to defend himself from Oddr’s encomplimentary observations by referring to the background of another area of traditional communal wisdom, using a cluster of proverbs about the dangers of unfairly biased social opinion: “Trust your own experience, and never the gossip of others, . . . things are seldom said to be better than they actually are.” While there are obviously contexts where such proverbs have positive value, here the composer puts them in the mouth of a bad person, making their use ironic in the narrative, coming as he does from a family with fairly troublesome members: stories about Óspakr are presumably true, and he is likely as bad as people say he is. Óspakr insists he only wants to stay with Oddr. He will provide his own food and presumably intends to work. Like other dupes of bad men in the Sagas of Wealth and Power, Oddr caves in here to the power of paroemially based rhetoric, though still vocally reluctant to do so: “You and your kinsmen can be stubborn and arrogant once you’ve made up your minds . . . but since you’re pressing me so hard to take you in, we might as well give it a try for one winter.” Óspakr is on his best behavior, a good, reliable worker, and Oddr comes to trust him, eventually much more than he should.

            Now, though no one is better off than Oddr, one thing still detracts from his honor: his lack of a goðorð, which he supplies by buying one and gathering supporters. In this transaction, his second mistake after Óspakr, he places himself in the same foolishly vulnerable position as Sámr in Hrafnkatla, undertaking a chieftaincy for which he has no preparation. The audience would recall that it is bad to elevate the positions of the foolish, and true to its common background of wisdom, this is the second step to his crisis, though not immediately apparent. The third occurs soon after when, deciding to go abroad, he chooses to leave his farm in the hands of Óspakr. Though the latter pretends reluctance, Oddr “said that he knew now from his own experience that no-one could or would look after his property better,” naively recalling Óspakr’s ironic earlier proverbial references to the value of experience over hearsay, and so it is agreed. Then in the moments of departure, Oddr leaves the goðorð in Óspakr’s care. Here the latter not only objects but offers wise advice, which he knows Oddr won’t take: “There’s nobody better fitted for the task than your father. He’s a very shrewd man, and a great lawyer.” “One should always take good advice, . . . no matter where it comes from,” says one of the less despicable chieftains later in the story, and in Bandamanna saga this proverb has applicability well beyond the immediate environment of its utterance. Oddr should take Óspakr’s advice, though insincerely meant, and rather than rejecting Ófeigr he should nurture his relationship with his crafty old father, far more skilled in traditional political wisdom than he is himself. Excellent in business, considerate in social relations, Oddr behaved unwisely in his association with, and delegation of, authority to Óspakr, and his neglect of his father’s value leaves him weakly positioned, in the event of legal conflict. The composer reinforces his view using the consensus of public opinion: “There was a great deal of talk about the new arrangement, and people thought that Odd had entrusted this man with too much power.” By this time, then, Oddr Ófeigsson, enterprising, popular and innately fortunate in the way of kings and some saga figures, has neglected the proverbially enforced wisdom of his society by taking up a goðorð for which he lacks the necessary skills if not also the requisite temperament, by associating himself with a bad man about whom there is thus an aura of ógæfa, that contagious quality of ill luck which is best avoided in the Saga World, and worst of all by leaving his farm and office in the hands of this unfortunate person during his absence from Iceland.

            The predictable results are dramatised first in the scene when he retrieves his goðorð at the edge of an axe blade raised over Óspakr’s and then when the latter steals forty of his sheep. Then the villain’s accidental killing of Oddr’s friend Váli, like the coincidental killing of Helgi Árngrímsson by Ǫrn the Norwegian in Hœnsa-Þóris saga, leads to Óspakr’s eventual death. Much of the saga’s humor, which is not my concern in this paper, lies in the complex proceedings by which Oddr ineptly seeks legal redress for the killing and in Ófeigr’s cunning plans and manipulations which save his son’s life and fortune, leading to his marriage to one of the most eligible women in the country, Ragnheiðr Gellisdóttir, granddaughter of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. And the composer’s humorous descriptions of Ófeigr’s astonishingly skilled arguments and dealings with the eight wily chieftains who would take advantage of his son’s vulnerable situation and legal naivete to grab his wealth provide unparallelled entertainment as they lead to the reconciliation of the improvident old aristocrat with his enterprising son. Where Sámr of Hrafnkatla is ultimately left unattend by the Þjóstarsynir when they determine that his lack of character for leadership makes further association subject to ógæfa for them, Oddr will continue to benefit from his goðorð because of support from his father.

            Hallvard Magerøy makes the point, which should in any case be obvious, that despite the insulting rhetoric of the saga’s flytings, and blunt revelations of the weaknesses of the conspiring goðar, Bandamanna should be taken as a “mocking attack not so much on the chieftain class in general as on unscrupulous and dishonest chieftains, and not so much on the procedures of justice in general as on naive and corrupt leaders.” (xxx.) As Ófeigr proceeds in his skewering of the conspiring goðar, awaiting his decision as to which of them will make self-judgement against his son and having discarded all of them but the reasonably honorable Gellir Þorkelsson, he comes last upon Egill Skúlason, “even less fair-minded than any of the others” he observes. “The same has happened to me as to the wolves, they devour one another and don’t know it till they come to the tail. I’ve had the choice of several chieftains. The only one left is generally thought to be a wicked man . . . he doesn’t care what he does for money, as long as he gets it.” As he laments the poverty of good choices among the great men in whose integrity Icelanders would ideally need to trust, his lupine imagery reminds readers of a passage in Hœnsa-Þóris saga where Gunnarr admits to having duped the chieftain Þórðr Gellir into joining the campaign against the burners of Blund-Ketill, “It’s a great thing now if you chieftains can test which of you is strongest, for you’ve long been at each other’s throats like wolves.” The confederated goðar of this saga, [like those of the other Sagas of Wealth and Power as well as of later 13th-century Iceland], are people whose badness and greed make them as dangerous of association as Óspakr proved to be, and the world of wolves suggested by this phraseology is not far from that described by the legal terms of Norse outlawry—in fact, Ófeigr uses the term vargr rather than úlfr as he laments the paucity of trustworthy choices of goðar, making the composer’s implications more pointed.

            This sagas of this group share common skeptical concerns, as Andersson noticed, about governance, specifically about the reliability of chieftains, since all three focus on the demise of chieftains.” [162] While the composer of Hrafnkatla seems more subdued in his criticism, through his protagonist’s behavior, of their blunt brutality and self-destructive arrogance, the composers of Bandamanna and Hœnsa-Þóris saga allow voices of their narratives to become desperately strident in their condemnation of excesses in leadership. 1. The phraseology of Bandamanna saga, and in particular the 2. paroemial background upon which it builds its characters and their story, 3. the proverbs it uses to signal explicitly its intended moral, that especially those who would lead, as well as maintaining compassionate integrity, must practice care in forming associations burdened with obligations which might affect their leadership, places it clearly within this group. Shared character and incident types, as well as shared paroemial inventory, would lead us to consider further the extent of connections in their respective backgrounds of composition.