Applications 11 handout. Proverbs, Proverbial Allusion, and the Point of the Sagas.
Richard L. Harris, English Dept, U. of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada [ ]

“To my knowledge no one has asked what the point of a saga is.” [Theodore M. Anderson, “The Displacement of the Heroic Ideal in the Family Sagas,” Speculum 45 1970, 575-593.]

“No Saga of equal length is studded with so many wise and well-applied saws. These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play.” [Guðbrandr Vigfússon, his brief study of Hrafnkels saga in Origines Islandicae (1905 II, 492).]

1. Definitions:

From the Adagiorum collectanea, Erasmus includes the definitions of some Greek thinkers, and adds his own thoughts.

A proverb, according to Donatus, is ‘a saying which is fitted to things and times.’ Diomedes however defines it as follows: ‘A proverb is the taking over of a popular saying, fitted to things and times, when the words say one thing and mean another.’ Among Greek authors various definitions are to be found. Some describe it in this way: ‘A proverb is a saying useful in the conduct of life, with a certain degree of obscurity but of great value in itself.’ Others define it like this: ‘A proverb is a manner of speaking which wraps up in obscurity an obvious truth.’ I am quite aware that several other definitions of the word proverb exist in both Latin and Greek, but I have not thought it worth while to list them all here, . . . There is not one to be found which covers the character and force of proverbs so as to contain nothing unnecssary and leave nothing diminished in importance.
[Collected Works of Erasmus. Adages Ii1 to Iv100. Vol. 31. Tr. M. M. Phillips, ann. R.A.B. Mynors. Toronto, 1982. p. 3.]

Note: Erasmus’ latter remark seems echoed by Archer Taylor, The Proverb, Chicago, 1931. p. 3: The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking; and should we fortunately combine in a single definition all the essential elements and give each the proper emphasis, we should not even then have a touchstone.

But it is one thing to praise the proverb and show which kind is best, and quite another to define exactly what it is. I myself think (pace the grammarians) that a complete definition and one suitable to our present purpose may be reached by saying: ‘A proverb is a saying in popular use, remarkable for some shrewd and novel turn.’ [Adages, p. 4.]

Note: Again, Taylor has “Let us be content with recognizing that a proverb is a saying current among the folk.” [The Proverb, p. 3.]

N.B. Taylor’s key: An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not. [p. 3.]

A sub-category of the proverb: Erasmus on proverbial allusion:
Even if there were no other use for proverbs, at the very least they are not only helpful but necessary for the understanding of the best authors, that is, the oldest. Most of these are textually corrupt, and in this respect they are particularly so, especially as proverbs have a touch of the enigmatic, so that they are not understood even by readers of some learning; and then they are often inserted disconnectedly, sometimes in a mutilated state. . . . Occasionally they are alluded to in one word, as in Cicero in his Letters to Atticus: ‘Help me, I beg you; “prevention,” you know,’ where he refers to the proverb ‘Prevention is better than cure’ [I ii 40] [Adages, p. 18]

Norrick on proverbial allusion:
. . . for well known proverbs, mention of one crucial recognizable phrase serves to call forth the entire proverb. Let us designate this minimal recognizable unit as the kernel of the proverb. Hain shows that for common Proverbs the first half or the bare two or three word kernel suffices for a complete conversational turn. Proverbs bear much greater social, philosophical and psychological significance for speakers than do other idomatic units. They are "strongly coded" (Meleuc 1972: 281) and "overcoded" in Edo's (1972; 1976) terms.
Neal Norrick, How Proverbs Mean. Semantic Studies in English Proverbs Berlin, New York, 1985. p. 45.

Earlier scholars have overstated the fixity of proverbs. In actual use, especially in the case of intentional speech play, proverbs are quite often manipulated.
Wolfgang Mieder, Proverbs. A Handbook, Westport, CT, 2004. p. 7.

2. Passages.

EXAMPLE 1. Laxdœla saga in Íslenzk fornrit V. Laxdœla saga. Ed. Einar Ól Sveinsson. Reykjavík, 1950. (Abbrev. ÍF)
The Saga of the People of Laxardal, tr. Keneva Kunz. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, V. Ed. Viðar Hreinsson Reykjavík, 1997. (Abbrev. CSI)
Laxdæla saga, tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, 1969. (Abbrev. PC)
Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevi, ed. by the Kuratorium Singer. 13 volumes and Quellenverzeichnis. Berlin & New York, 1996-2002. (Abbrev. TPMA)
Finnur Jónsson, "Oldislandske ordsprog og talemåder," ANF 30 1913-14. (Abbrev. FJ)
65. When Guðrún reveals she has tricked him Þorgils realizes she has had the help of Snorri goði:
ÍF 195. Þá mælti Þorgils ok roðnaði mjök: “Görla skil ek, hvaðan alda sjá rennr undir; hafa mér þaðan jafnan köld ráð komit; veit ek, at þetta eru ráð Snorra goða.”
CSI 101. Thorgils then spoke, becoming very flushed as he did so. “Clearly do I see, where the current came from that sent this wave; they have generally been cold, the counsels that Snorri the Godi has sent my way.”
PC 65. 210. “I know all too well where this comes from, for I have always felt the brunt of cold counsels from that quarter: I know that this is Snorri’s doing.”
ASB 4. 65. 199. 19. 12. köld, “kalte”, d.h. feindliche.
FJ Proverb word 217. Page 103. kona – . . . (opt) eru köld kvenna ráð Nj 594, Gísl 34, Part 30. ‘Kolde (fjendtlige) er (ofte) kvinders råd (planer)’, Köld eru tíðum kv. r. Har GJ med en uægte tilföjelse.
TPMA 9. 187. RAT/conseil/advice 3. Schlechter Rat 3.1. "Kalter" (= schlechter) Rat2 Nord. 71 Frá mínom véom ok vöngom skolo þér æ köld ráð koma Aus meinen Tempeln und Tempelfluren3 wird dir allzeit unheilvoller Rat kommen LOKASENNA 51, 4. 72 Hafa mér þaðan jafnan köld ráð komit. Veit ek, at þetta eru ráð Snorra goða Von dieser Seite ist mir immer unheilvoller Rat gekommen. Ich weiss, dass dies die Anschläge des Goden Snorri sind LAXDŒLA SAGA 65, 19. 2Zur Verwendung von kalt in der Bed., 'unheilvoll', besonders in der Verbindung mit Rat, vgl. für das Altisl. CLEASBY 329 s.v. kaldr II, für das Mittelengl. MED II, 383 b s.v. cold 6: cold counseil, cold red, 'bad or unfortunate advice'. Zum Sprw. vgl. E. Kolb, Alemannisch nordgermanisches Wortgut, Beiträge zur schweizerdeutschen Mundartforschung VI, Frauenfeld 1957, 21f. 3Es spricht die Göttin Skaði.
Ed. note. Proverbial linkage to Eru köld kvenna ráð. See TPMA 9. 198. RAT/conseil/advice 6. Gute und Schlechte Ratgeber 6.6. Frauen als Ratgeber 6.6.1. Der Rat der Frau ist wertlos oder unheilvoll Nord. 288 Köld ero mér ráð þín Unheilvoll15 sind mir deine (scil. der Königin) Ratschläge VÖLUNDARKVIÐA 31, 6. 289.290 Ok eru köld (GÍSLA SAGA: opt köld) kvenna ráð Und die Ratschläge der Frauen sind (oft) unheilvoll NJÁLS SAGA 116, 16. GÍSLA SAGA 19, 10. 291 Kavlld erv iafnan kvenna rad, þviat þav erv favitr ok brad Die Ratschläge der Frauen sind immer unheilvoll, weil sie wenig weise sind und schnell PARTALOPA SAGA 30, 21. 292 Eigi þotti mer þa sem fyrr, at kolld ero kvenna rad Es dünkte mich da nicht wir früher, dass die Ratschläge der Frauen unheilvoll sind HEIL. M. S. I, 443, 20 (Malcus saga). 293 Consilium rere fore frigens in muliere. – Kalth ær qwinner raadh Glaub mir, dass der Rat einer Frau unheilvoll ist! – Unheilvoll ist Frauenrat LÅLE 153. 15Vgl. oben Anm. 2. 2Zur Verwendung von kalt in Bed., ‘unheilvol’, besonders in der Verbindung mit Rat, vgl. für das Altisl. CLEASBY 329 s.v. kaldr II, für das Mittelengl. MED II, 383 b s.v. cold 6: cold counseil, cold red ‘bad or unfortunate advice’. Zum sprw. vgl. E. Kolb, Alemannisch nordgermanisches Wortgut, Beiträge zur schweizerdeutschen Mundartforschung VI, Frauenfeld 1957, 21f.

[The Problem in Gísla saga:
ÍF VI. 19. 61. Börkr verðr við þetta ákafliga reiðr ok mælti: "Nú vil ek þegar aptr snúa ok drepa Gísla. En þó veit ek eigi," sagði hann,3 "hvatt satt er í þessu, er Þórdís segir, ok þykki mér hitt eigi ólíkara, at engu gegni, ok eru opt köld kvenna ráð.” 3en þó – hann: ok er nú ráð at dvala (dvelja Y) eigi við, (en 445) Þorkell (Þórdís Y) segir, at hann (hon Y), mun eigi við þat samþykkjask, – "ok veit ek enn eigi" 445, Y. Auðsjáanlega réttara en í E.
CSI II. 19. Bork, reacting to Thordis’s information about Gisli's killing of Thorgrim:
23. Bork became enraged at this, and said, "I want to turn back right now and kill Gisli. On the other hand, I can’t be sure,” he said, “how much truth there is in what Thordis says. It’s just as likely that there’s none. Women’s counsel is often cold.”
GJtr. 28. At this Bork becomes very angry and said: “I will turn back now and kill Gisli, and there is no sense in lingering.” But Thorkel says he cannot agree to that. “I am not sure how much truth there is in what Thordis has told us; it seems to me just as likely there may be nothing in it at all, and “women’s counsels are often cold.”
A linkage of some sort seems made by Guðmundur Óláfsson, Thesaurus Adagiorum, ed. Gottfrid Kallstenius. Skrifter utgivna av vetenskaps-societeten i Lund. 12. 1930. p. 96. 1965. Köld eru Kvenna Rád. [Ark. 30 s. 10313, Ark. 32 s. 101; jfr Laxd. 19912, 1908] E N.B.]

EXAMPLE 2. Fóstbrœðra saga in Íslenzk fornrit VI. Vestfirðinga sögur. Eds. Björn K. Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson. Reykjavík, 1943.
The Saga of the Sworn Brothers, tr. Martin S. Regal. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, II. Ed. Viðar Hreinsson. Reykjavík, 1997.
1. Chapter 1 (Present only in Möðruvallabók and R) The farmers, resigned to Þorbjörg’s use of her power to save Grettir from them:
ÍF 122 “Hafa muntu ríki til þess, at hann sé eigi af lífi tekinn, hvárt sem þat er rétt eða rangt.”
CSI 330 “Right or wrong, you have the power to prevent him from being executed.”
2. Hávarr responds to Vermund’s sentence that he must remove his family from Ísafjörðr:
ÍF 126 Hávarr segir: “Ráða muntu því, Vermundr, at vér munum ráðask í brott ór Ísafirði með fé várt, . . .”
CSI 332 Havar said, “Vermund, you have the power to make me leave Isafjord with all my belongings, . . .”
Ed. note. Proverbial reference to Ríkari verður að ráða.
ÍM 268. RÍKUR Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð. M[álsháttakvæði] ríkur: voldugur Ríkari verður að ráða. FJ Hinn ríkari verður ráð að segja. E[imreiðin 10. Árg. 1904]
FJ Proverb word 334. Page 181. ríkr (jfr heima) – jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð Mhk 23; jfr Eirspennill 47. ‘Altid er det den mægtigste (af to), der giver råd (?: med myndighed), hvis ikke segja ráð her er en blot omskrivning for ráða ‘råde’. Det samma findes i prosa således: hinn ríkari verðr at segja Clár 15 (247). Sammen hængen her taler bestemt for den sidst anførte opfattelse. = GJ: Ríkari verðr (hlýtr) að ráða.
GÓ 128. 2717. Rikare verda ad ráda. [GJ 27616]
TPMA 4. 460. GEWALT/pouvoir (subts./power 1. Der Mächtigere entscheidet (setzt seinen Willen durch) Nord. 1 En sá réð, Es ríkri vas Aber derjenige entschied, der mächtiger war SÓLARLJÓÐ 36, 4 (= GERING S. 11). 2 Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð Immer sagt der Mächtigere, was zu tun ist (wörtl.: die Beschlüsse) MÁLSHÁTTAKVÆÐI 23, 1 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 334. JÓNSSON 137). 3 Stare penes libitum satagit vis celsa quiritum. – Ee wil waaldh sijn wiliæ haffwæ Die hohe Gewalt der Quiriten will bei ihrer Willkür verharren. – Gewalt will immer ihren Willen haben LÅLE 1017. 4 Hinn ríkari verðr ráð at segja Der Mächtigere kann sagen, was zu tun ist (wörtl.: den Beschluss) CLÁRI SAGA 15, 5 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 334).
Ed. note. Conceptual linkage. FJ Proverb word 74. Page 76. dróttinn – dýrt er (mun verða; láta menn) dróttins orð Laxd 182, Bisk I 484, 803, II 51, Fms II 269, IV 175, Isls II 445, Alex 128 (honum væri dýrt látanda d. o.) DraumJ. 5, Mhk. 5. TPMA 6. 42. HERR/seigneur/lord 5. Eigenschaften des Herrschers 5.1. Der Herr hat Macht und Autorität 5.1.3. Die Worte des Herrn haben Gewicht 5. 1. 3. 1. Die Worte des Herrn gelten viel Nord. 214-222 Dýrt er drottins orð Das Wort des Herrn ist viel wert SNORRI, ÓLAFS SAGA HELGA 82 (® FMS IV, 175 [= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74]. SNORRI, HEIMSKRINGLA 248, 36 (Ólafs saga helga 85). 356, 13 (Ólafs saga helga 165). GROSSE ÓLAFS SAGA TRYGGVASONAR 235 (® FMS II, 269 [= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74]). BISKUPASÖGUR I, 484. I, 803. II, 51 (® JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74). DRAUMA-JÓNS SAGA 5, 48 (1. H. Jh. [® ZFDPH 26, 304 = JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74]). KJÁLNESINGA SAGA 15 S. 35. 223 Dýrt láta menn dróttins orð Man bezeichnet das Wort des Herrn als etwas Kostbares MÁLSHÁTTAVKÆÐI 5, 5 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74, JÓNSSON 31). 224 Dýrt mun mér verða dróttins orð Das Wort des Herrn soll mir gewichtig sein LAXDŒLA SAGA 47, 19 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74. JÓNSSON 31). 225 At honom vere sem auðrom dyrt latannda drottins orð Dass das Wort des Herrn für ihn ebensoviel bedeute wie für einen andern ALEXANDERS SAGA 128 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 74). 226 Jussio sueuit hero celsi sublimis haberi. – Høyt ær herræ bwdh Der Befehl eines hohen Herrn wird gewöhnlich hochgehalten. – Hoch steht (wörtl.: ist) das Gebot eines Herrn LÅLE 521.

Þorgeirr uses the arbitary imposition of his power to save the thief, Veglágr:
ÍF 188. Þá segir Þorgeirr: "Hvat sem yðr sýnisk rétt vera um þetta mál, þá mun yðr þó verða maðrinn dýrkeyptr í þessu sinni, ok eigi mun hann af lífi tekinn, ef ek má því ráða."
CSI 360. Then Thorgeir said, "Despite what you think is the right course of action, in this instance the man's price will be too costly for you. He will not be executed if I have any say in the matter."

EXAMPLE 3. Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða in Íslenzk fornrit XI. Austfirðinga so_gur. Ed. Jón Jóhannesson. Reykjavík, 1950.
The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, tr. Terry Gunnell. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, V. Ed. Viðar Hreinsson. Reykjavík, 1997.
Þorbjörn agrees reluctantly to help Sámr with the case against Hrafnkell:
ÍF 108. Þorbjörn svarar: “Þó er mér þat mikil hugarbót, at þú takir við málinu. Verðr at þar, sem má.” Sámr svarar: “Ófúss geng ek at þessu. Meir geri ek þat fyrir frændsemi sakar við þik. En vita skaltu, at mér þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert.”
CSI 267. Thorbjorn answered, “It will be a great consolation to me if you take on this case. We’ll just have to see what bargain comes out of this,” he said. Sam responded, “I go into conflict with Hrafnkel unwillingly. I do this mainly for the sake of my relationship with you. But you ought to know that I think I’m helping a fool.”
Ed. note. Illt er heimskum lið að veita. See Íslenzkir Málshættir, Bjarni Vilhjálmsson and Óskar Halldórsson. Reykjavík, 1982. p. 138, Illt er heimskum lið að veita. See Kålund, p. 154: 74. illt er heimskum lid at veita (D, 7). Det er vanskeligt at hjælpe tåben. Hos G. Jónsson forekommer ordsproget, dog med leggja for veita. See GJ 183. Illt er heimskum lið að leggja (holl ráð kenna). as well as Illt er að setja heimskum hátt 181.


An Ashanti chieftain, surrounded by his "linguists" who carry gold proverb weights with figures representing proverbs and proverb clusters, the treasured communal wisdom of the people.

Concluding thoughts:

I believe that an intimate paroemiological acquaintance with the Old Icelandic corpus can help us understand better the relationship of that literature to what Theodore M. Andersson termed the “oral family saga”, that vast and amorphous tradition, used as the primary source for the written page. [ “The Textual Evidence for an Oral Family Saga.” Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 80, 1966, 1-23. ] I also think that studying the ways in which composers of sagas use paroemial texts can contribute to our ongoing consideration of that question posed by Andersson in 1970, when he wrote “To my knowledge no one has asked what the point of a saga is.” [ “The Displacement of the Heroic Ideal in the Family Sagas,” Speculum 45 1970, 575-593. ] The proverbs used and the patterns of their occurrence can be most helpful as signals of composers’ specific intentions and also, more comprehensively, of the generic intentions of this narrative tradition.

Return to Proverbs, Proverbial Allusion, and the Point of the Sagas, Applications, Concordance.