Applications 19.   On the Paroemial Delineation of Character in Grettis saga.                
The 6th Annual Fiske Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies [Norsestock 6]
Cornell University, June 2011   
                                    Richard L. Harris  heorot@sasktel.net

This paper is about how the composer of Grettis saga may have used paroemial materials to delineate the character of his subject.  Coming at the end of the Age of Saga Writing and considered one of the best in the genre, the extant version of this saga is thought to descend from one or two previous stories of Grettir.  It certainly contains three references to what we take to have been an earlier narrative of the outlaw hero written down by Sturla Þórðarson—a text now lost, if it ever existed, but which Árni Magnússon wrote of having once seen—and besides this putative written source the composer must also have had access to an abundance of accretions to this portion of the oral family saga of northern Iceland.  [HANDOUT] What Sturla’s supposed text was like is of course a matter of pure speculation, aside from the data the composer includes seemingly attributing it to this source, and we have no way at all of judging the degree to which the extant version’s proverbs are indebted to him.  Thus, for the purposes of this present study, it seems most productive to concentrate on the anonymous compiler of the saga as we have it and to consider what his purposes might have been in using paroemial materials in the places and ways that he did. In particular, it could be of interest to observe how proverbially punctuated utterances attributed to Grettir by the composer provide insight into his character and perhaps signal changes in it.

It should be remarked that the frequency of proverbs and related texts in Grettla is among the highest of any of the sagas in the Old Icelandic corpus, rivalled only by Njála.  Maybe the inclusion of such wisdom texts was regarded as more fashionable by the end of the 13th century, or then again their use may simply have suited the needs of composers writing at the time.  It might be pertinent to notice that these two works, among the latest to reach their respective extant forms, were also both seriously devoted to examination of character. We might then also observe that the sorts of proverbs placed in the mouths of saga figures can define them as surely as we reveal ourselves through our choices of words and formulaic texts in ordinary speech.  Saga composers, where they were not relying upon oral tradition, could use such texts in significant ways in their delineation and reinforcement of character.

In approaching the uses of paroemes in saga literature it is crucial to keep in mind their radical significance in any culture, particularly in those of a pre-literate nature.  It is not merely by chance that when people first began writing, proverbial wisdom was among their earliest subjects.  And Aristotle himself was of the opinion that proverbs constituted the pre-literate repository of ancient philosophy.  The canon of the Old Testament includes books of formulaically expressed wisdom, much of it not by any means religious in its nature, and early law codes incorporate proverbial admonitions.  Farther afield today, some African chieftains rule indirectly, by proverbial edict, interpreted for their people by an intermediate class of so-called ‘linguists’, and their litigation takes forms which include argumentation by proverbs and proverbial allusions.

In the first place, it is clear, the proverb constituted the basic linguistic form for the preservation and communication of communal wisdom.  So deeply embedded is this fact in our psyches that we recognize proverbial texts without necessarily understanding them—Bartlett J. Whiting said he could sense a proverb by a “tingling” in his fingers, and Archer Taylor, who doubted the possibility of defining a proverb, wrote neverthless of that ‘incommunicable quality’ by which we recognize a particular string as proverbial, both men referring to what is most likely our common recognition of a syntactic structure or set of structures by which we have long been accustomed to expression in this mode.

It should thus come as no surprise to us, given this universal traditional function of the proverb in society, that Guðbrandr Vigfússon wrote in his 1905 discussion of  the proverbs in Hrafnkatla, “These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play.”  In the sagas they are in the first place used as signals of value when uttered by respected figures, representing the communal wisdom on a subject, and thus presumably establishing the composer’s view of an incident or of a character’s behaviour in the narrative.  What seem to have been the traditional values of Iceland’s settlers and early society are questioned if not challenged in the later sagas, however, and wisdom texts can then be recruited as tools of subversion.  They come to be placed in the mouths of less respected or even untrustworthy people, voicing negative views, critical of society’s traditional values, and, in representing rather the interests of the disenfranchised, giving voice, in fact, to critical social commntary on the part of the composers themselves.

What we might term this ‘subversive mode’ of proverb use is found first in Grettis saga in the infant stories of the hero.  Recalling the infant gospel of Thomas in the Greek form, where Jesus uses his divine powers in very human immature ways, these stories reveal in Grettir’s behaviour the innate impulses of his early character.  Leading to those frequently expressed assessments of his lucklessness as he makes his way through life, these traits are painfully clear and still unmodified by those adult con/restraints which he to some extent developed and sometimes imposed upon himself in later years.  In a reader response-based study of Grettir’s character Robert Cook remarked that by the end of this passage “the reader is not certain whether he has met a tyrannous and unreasonable father, an incorrigible and sadistic ten-year-old, or a budding hero not content with menial tasks,” and I am not sure anyone has reached a happy conclusion in this matter so far.  It is interesting, though, to notice the proverbs Grettir uses in this series of confrontations with his father over his assignment of what the youth considers undesirable chores.


Having killed the goslings put into his care because he found them boring—the composer remarks of his limited emotional range that “he had a fairly short temper”—he grins at his father’s fury and celebrates this atrocity with half a lausavisa concluding, “and if the older ones are there as well/I can deal with them single-handed.” Readers could sense a threat of patricide in these lines, which might paint Grettir in too dark a shade.  When Ásmund proclaims that he won’t deal with geese anymore his son responds, “A true friend spares others from evil,” a proverb found in Hugsvinnsmál, the Icelandic rendering of the Distichs of Cato. Falling in a category descriptive of friendship obligations, it is of a type such that its use here might be viewed as mock-heroic in ironically placing Ásmund’s geese within his circle of friends.  Grettir’s utter lack of sympathy with his father’s efforts is underscored in the next lines when he’s told he’ll be given another task. “The more you try, the more you learn,” he quips, employing a wholesome if self-righteous sentiment, but obviously without the slightest intention either of trying or of learning anything at all!

Turned now to the task of massaging his father’s back by the fire of an evening, he is again chidden: “You ought to shake off that laziness of yours for once, you layabout.” “It’s a bad thing to goad the obstinate,” says Grettir, who then scratches his father’s back with a wool comb.  [Orms þáttr discussion] Here, Grettir again draws up on the language of heroes as he pursues conflict with his father, here actually attacking him physically, presumably inflicting some injury.

The story now escalates to Grettir’s destruction of Asmund’s favorite horse, Kengala, for whom his master has an unusually affectionate admiration, oddly reminiscent of Hrafnkel’s for Freyfaxi. The horse, whose abilities in Asmund’s eyes include weather prediction, refuses to go out after Grettir has flayed her back, and Asmund mistakes this for a sign of snow coming.  “Wisdom falls short where it is most expected,” comments Grettir—again, with a two-sided thrust—seemingly upon the wisdom of horse and master both!  When Asmund approaches Kengala concerned over the horses’ not having fed well that season he is confident in her health—“your back will be as firm as ever, Kengala”. Grettir says, “The foreseeable happens, and also the unforeseeable, too” and when the hide comes off from her back in Asmund’s hand, Grettir grins.  The latter part of this bi-partite type proverb is common in the Old Norse paroemial inventory, but the former seems the composer’s own, and one wonders what could have been the expected in this situation, other than Grettir’s lethal sabotage of his horse-keeping job. My students find this passage uncomfortably humorous, but humor, so culturally specific, reflects its society’s values, and the affection of Asmund and Hrafnkell for their respective equine friends seems to have provided a source of amusement for the composers and their audience, in this case with paroemial adornment.

If Grettir’s relations with his parents and the extent and cause of his propensity for ill-natured behaviour and conflict are a mystery, his sense of himself seems initally clear.  In near simultaneous publications, the translators of the 1974 Grettir’s saga, in their introduction, and Katheryn Hume, in JEGP, first treated him as an anachronistic hero, with the aristocratic warrior traits of his great-grandfather, Önund Tree-Foot, but caught in a Christian land, a settled society of farmers and merchants, where the hero at one point “sorely regretted not having anything to test his strength against and asked around for a challenge to take up.”  When, at the age of 14, he is restrained by adults from killing Auðun, a slightly older relative and playmate who he feels has humiliated him, he insists there’s no need to hold him like a mad dog: “Only a slave takes vengeance at once, and a coward never.”  The coldly murderous intent of this utterance, obviously related in concept to the now clichéd Sicilian proverb of the cold dish, is urgently blatant, and its speaker calls upon concepts of vengeance out of place in the context of Grettir’s youth and his surrounding family and the Christian setting.  Wherever the present critical view of Grettir as the aristocratic warrior hero born too late may have come from, it is so clearly and productively traceable throughout the entire narrative of his life that one must conclude it was also close to the point of this saga in the composer’s mind, even though that point seems still to elude us. 

Glaringly opposed to this tragic and idealistic self-image is the gradually dawning awareness of himself simply as an outlaw, a wolf among men, his hopes of legal redemption at the mercy of his cousin, St Olaf, dashed by a botched ritual ordeal and the king’s observation that it happened through his impetuousness:  “Rashness always breeds trouble. If any man has ever been accursed, it must surely be you.”  Later, as they lie in bed one morning, his brother Þorsteinn Drómundr, speaks of Grettir’s arms: “I have never seen any man with such arms.” “I would never have accomplished the deeds I have done if I weren’t stoutly built,” he answers.  “I would have preferred less muscle and more good fortune,” says Þorsteinn, to which Grettir comments, “No man is his own creator.” And his tragic awareness of himself as the ógæfumaðr of the Norse heroic world is poignantly apparent.

Perhaps the climax of his proverbial expression of this growing perception of himself as an outlaw rather than an aspiring hero can be found in the saga’s movable chapter 52, used also by the composer of Fóstbræðra saga as his first chapter, preludic there of his narrative’s long examination of how individuals use the powers God has given them.  In Grettla, this same incident, in which Þorbjorg the Stout saves Grettir from being hanged by local farmers annoyed by his depredations upon their neighbourhood, serves to emphasize the contrast between the outlaw hero’s nature and origins on the one hand and the unfortunate plight in which his ógæfa has landed him. “Grettir will be more than you men of Isafjord can handle,” she scolds his captors, “because he is a man of renown and great family, even though Fortune does not favour him.”  When she asks him how he came to be in the area, troubling her farmers, however, he answers with two consecutive and proverbially signficant strings: “You can’t provide for everything . . . I have to be somewhere.”  Guðni Jónsson, in his Íslensk fornrit edition of the saga, caught the allusion of the second sentence to the proverb, “Einhvers staðar verða vondir að vera.” 52. 169. [Bad guys have to be somewhere.], and thus Grettir tacitly accepts his status among the vondir menn of Iceland, no more the utterly independent warrior hero, but rather an outcast, self-isolated by temperament, seeking his home in the desert, followed in the moonlight only by his shadow, like Sigurðr Sigurðsson’s outlaw.

Readers have argued elsewhere over evidence of moral change or spiritual progression in the characters with which the Old Icelandic sagas are peopled, and the now discarded views of Jakob Burckhardt on the medieval theory of personality seem well challenged by at least some of the evidence, as is the case, I think, with the subject of this paper. Although it may be that, as I tried to show several decades ago, the composer of the extant Grettla ironically situates his tragic hero in the narrative pattern of a physical monster in his last scene on Drangey, he seem internally changed by the time of his death.  The misplaced aristocratic warrior in constant search of a challenge is much reduced, crippled personally by the curses of Glámr and Þúríðr, and physically by the latter’s sorcery.  His appearance is distorted by the gangrenous wound when he is confronted by his slayer in his eyrie refuge, and the saga’s composer employs the ultimate irony in having Þorbjörn Öngull attribute his success to Christ, as if proclaiming his victim a member of the tribe of Cain.

Yet it seems certain that at his death Grettir has progressed from the prickly son of a harsh father, imbued with the irritable impetuosity of his giant kin, to an adult aware of relational value.  As the translators of the 1974 English version observe, on Drangey he has treated Glaumr, “the despicable buffoon, with great tolerance.” And he has declared explicitly his familial dependence and thus, at last, his human vulnerability, when, wounded by Þorbjörn, he addresses Illugi, “Bare is the back of a brotherless man.”

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