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

Today I am going to talk about some ways in which a proverbial sub-category, the proverbial allusion, is used by composers of the Íslendingasögur. In oral narration proverbs may have served a mnemonic function, but rendering such material into written narrative, a composer would found literary uses for paroemial texts. Although initially indicators of that communal wisdom on the basis of which objective views of characters and deeds might be established, proverbs could be used for more sophisticated purposes, particularly for ironic effect in several of the sagas. And in some instances, although a known proverb is never quoted, its impact is felt on the implicitly accepted world-view that gives an episode or whole story its intended perspective. Such proverbial allusions are probably first discussed by Erasmus, who in the Preface to his Adages remarks that their use and appreciation in literature necessitates a comprehensive knowledge of proverbs in their base form in order to understand more fully what one is reading:

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] [Collected Works of Erasmus. Adages Ii1 to Iv100. Vol. 31. Tr. M. M. Phillips, ann. R.A.B. Mynors. Toronto, 1982. p. 18]

“Earlier scholars have overstated the fixity of proverbs,” observes Wolfgang Mieder: “In actual use, especially in the case of intentional speech play, proverbs are quite often manipulated”. He refers us to Norrick’s comments in How Proverbs Mean, where—speaking of the didactic quality of proverbs—the latter notices that “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 … Proverbs bear much greater social, philosophical and psychological significance for speakers than do other idiomatic units.” The semantic density of proverbial material thus impresses such texts on our consciousness. “Consequently a speaker can call forth a particular proverb for his hearer with a brief allusion to its kernel”.

1. One example of this process occurs in Laxdœla saga, and is spoken about Snorri goði. Snorri is presented in Laxdœla as both friend and relative of Guðrún, who with her family have much support from him. [ Ch. 36 [p. 100. Hann var frændi Ósvífrs ok vinr; áttu þau Guðrún þar mikit traust] ]. In Njála, “the wisest man in Iceland, not counting those who were prescient; a reliable friend, but a ruthless enemy.” [ Ch. 114[] ] And in Eyrbyggja “a wise man and prescient in many matters,” [ “Hann var vitr maðr ok forspár um marga hlúti.” [Ch. 15] ] several episodes of the latter half of Laxdœla fall clearly within the range of material demonstrative of his near Óðinnic cunning. The most vicious example is certainly his plan for using Þorgils Hölluson to take conclusive vengeance for the killing of Guðrún’s husband, Bolli Þorleiksson.

The respective family lines of Snorri and of Þorgils Hölluson are not mutually inimical in saga tradition, the latter being a maternal grandson of Gestr Oddleifsson the prescient, another of Guðrún’s relatives and supporters. [ Laxdœla, Ch. 33, 88. Guðrún kom til laugar ok fagnar vel Gesti, frænda sínum. ] Eyrbyggja, however, has Þorgils aligned with the enemies of Snorri even in the latter’s old age, possibly with reference to an oral tradition from which that episode was drawn which is included in Laxdœla. Here, Þorgils is in any case described as annoying, – “tall and handsome but arrogant, and not called a fair man.” [Ch. 57 [p. 170.Þorgils var mikill maðr ok vænn ok inn mesti ofláti; engi var hann kallaðr jafnaðamaðr.] ] “Often there was coolness between him and Snorri goði; Thorgils seemed to Snorri meddlesome and showy” remarks the composer, who has clearly introduced him into the narrative of Laxdœla as a dupable suitor of Guðrún in her second widowhood and readiness for a fourth husband, – coincidentally, just when Snorri is seeking a likely instrument to exact a little strategic vengeance for the killing of her third husband.

To spearhead the project he chooses Þorgils, an admirer of Guðrún who has already rejected his offer to seek vengeance in return for her marriage to him. To renew the vengeance negotiations with Þorgils, Snorri first sends abroad Þorkell Eyjólfsson, a better match for Guðrún, and then has her promise Þorgils she will marry no other man in Iceland than Þorgils, – Þorkell being at that time in Norway. Þorgils, better known for his impulsiveness than his shrewdness, jumps at the lure and leads Snorri’s chosen avengers to the killing of Helgi Harðbeinsson, memorable for the scene in which he wiped upon Guðrún’s blue sash the bloody 18-inch spear blade, with which he had run her husband through. Vengeance accomplished, Þorgils reports the killing to Guðrún and asks her to fulfil her part of the bargain. She responds “I don’t think I am destined to become your wife. I believe I would be keeping to every word of our agreement if I marry Thorkel Eyjolfsson, for he is not here in this country at present.”[ Ch. 65[] ] Þorgils rages, “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.” “An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not.” says Archer Taylor, and certainly here the reader’s eye is caught by the turn of phrase, even without the help of the TPMA citations.

The phrase köld ráð, actually a kernel of the proverb "Cold is a woman's counsel," has proverbial status in TPMA [p. 187] under Schlechter Rat [bad, wicked, poor] and is used in Óláfs saga helga and in Haralds saga harðráða and occurs as well in Lokasenna. The coldness of women’s counsel – (which is mentioned once by Geoffrey Chaucer, in "The Nunnes Preestes Tale") – is celebrated also in Völundarkviða, used by Niðuð of his wife’s advice which led to the killing of their two sons and the rape of their daughter by the vengeful Völundr. Here, the köld ráð of the king’s wife is seemingly based not on evil or vicious intention but rather on a lack of wisdom, so that it is merely poor advice, even though with horrendously tragic results. In Njála there can be no doubt that the proverb is situated so as to emphasize the viciousness of Hildigunnr’s schemes, whereas in Gísla saga various interpretations might be attached, depending partly upon whom we choose to identify as the speaker. [SEE HANDOUT]

Of course the more familiar and noticeable fixed form is the one in Njála and in Gísla saga, Eru köld kvenna ráð. – in manuscript traditions of the latter work placed variously in the mouths of three different persons, in the former spoken by Flosi Þorðarson when his niece Hildigunnr has thrown upon him the cloak of Höskuldr Hvítanes goði, whose dried blood pours down around him as she demands he seek vengeance for her husband. “You are the worst monster and want us to take the course which will be worst for us all. Cold are the counsels of women.” he exclaims. [ Ch. 116 ]

The linkage of Þorgils’ utterance to the proverb of Njála and of Gísla saga may seem tenuous, and we may be tempted to assume it is only the importance today’s ideologically harried readers attach to the coldness of women’s counsel in the sagas that makes them think of this proverb when they read the passage in Laxdœla. On the other hand the medieval audience likely felt a connection, maybe a slur on Snorri’s manhood as the impulsive rather than clever Þorgils attempts to exercise his version of anger management. It is interesting, though, that Kallstenius in his notes to Guðmundur Óláfsson's 17th century Thesaurus Adagiorum connects the phrase in Laxdœla with the proverbs in Njála and in Gísla saga.

2. For an example of proverbial allusion having potentially crucial impact on interpretations of a work, I’m turning now to Fóstbrœðra saga, the version in Möðruvallabók, chief source of our editions of many great sagas, noted for its tendency to shorten their narratives a bit. In this instance, however, the copyist is thought by some to have added an episode. This first scene of the saga, derived from material found also in The Saga of Grettir, ch. 52, tells how the difficult outlaw faced lynching by some irate farmers from whom he had been stealing in the Ísafjörðr area. Their intentions were thwarted when Þorbjörg the Stout intervened, daughter of Óláfr Peacock, and wife of Vermundr Þorgrímsson, the powerful goði of Ísafjörðr. The initial presence of this episode in Fóstbrœðra is puzzling, since the rest of the saga has almost nothing to do with Grettir Ásmundarson. The scene ends, though, when Þorbjörg insists “His life will not be forfeit on this occasion if I have any say in the matter.” The farmers give in: “Right or wrong, you have the power to prevent him from being executed.” Then Þorbjörg had Grettir released, we are told, gave him his life and let him go wherever he wished. [ p. 330 ] I think the conclusion of the irritated farmers, that right or wrong (clearly wrong, from their point of view) Þorbjörg had the power, both personally and by virtue of her association with Vermundr goði, to save Grettir, sets the primary idea or theme of Fóstbrœðra: that people who have power of one sort or another, using their free will, exercise that power with varying amounts of wisdom and restraint, depending on their spiritual character. “It can be seen from this incident that Þorbjörg was a woman of firm character,” the narrator concludes, in case the audience has not understood what his scene was about.

A passage with verbal similarities to this prefatory episode follows shortly after it. Here Vermundr decides that Hávarr must leave the Ísafjrðr district with his family because of the depredations of his son, Þorgeirr, one of the Sworn Brothers – and Hávarr responds, "‘Vermund, you have the power to make me leave Isafjord with all my belongings . . .’” [ p. 332 ] Both this and the former passage, though containing no fixed formulas, have clear reference to the proverb, “Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð,” as we find it in Bjarni Einarsson’s Málsháttakvæði, and with variations elsewhere. [Sverris saga, as explanation of the usurper's (whom people follow because he's able to be powerful) bowing to the will of God in giving up the priesthood for the throne]

The paroemial thrust of these two episodes is echoed somewhat later in the narrative when Þorgeirr saves the life of Veglágr, whose thievery has rendered him justifiably liable to execution. “Despite what you think is the right course of action,” declares the bullying hero, “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.” [ p. 360. ] Illugi responds, “You are a great defender of thieves, but this one will cause you grief,” yet informal local banishment is all that Veglágr suffers with such a champion on his side. Thus, Þorgeirr exercises arbitrarily and unfairly his power over others in a way similar to the cases of interference by Þorbjrg the Stout and by Vermundr.

This test of the good or evil impulse in the exercise of power is studied through much of the rest of Fóstbrœðra – with dark humor, for instance, in Þorgeir’s whimsical killing of a shepherd at Hvassafell, a scene found only in Flateyjarbók: “. . .the shepherd was tired. Thus he was rather hunched over, with his tired legs bent and his neck sticking out. When Thorgeir saw this he drew his axe in the air and let it fall on the man’s neck. The axe bit well and the head went flying off. . .” [ p. 347 ] Learning of this, Þorgils Arason, of Reykjaholar, who has just bought a share in a ship so Þorgeirr can escape the gathering forces of justice in Iceland, asks why he killed the shepherd: “If you want to know the truth, I couldn’t resist the temptation--he stood so well poised for the blow.” Þorgils concludes the scene apophthegmatically, saying “One can see from this that your hands will never be idle.” Though no value is explicitly attached to this observation, the ironic implications are clear and suggest a discouraging prognosis for Þorgeir’s spiritual welfare because of the ways he uses the power God has given him.
In so far as the copyist of Möðruvallabók acted as composer of the narrative in his inclusion of the interrupted lynching scene at the beginning of Fóstbrœðra saga, IF it was indeed he who did this, then he seems to have intended it as a thematic signal, the force of the proverb to which he refers having applicable significance throughout much of the rest of the narrative. In fact, if we seek a unifying theme for Fóstbrœðra, I think we do better to seek it here than in the loyalty of the hero to St Olaf, as suggested by Kurt Schier and others, [ Kurt Schier, Kindlers Literatur Lexikon, 4, 1964, 3634-5. ] since such a thematic focus neglects large portions of the story, whereas Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð or Ríkari verðr at ráða. says it all. [ Other internal reason to suppose the episode is integral to Fbr--trolls at the door]

3. My third example of proverbial reference today is taken from Hrafnkels saga. There, allusion is found in the realistic but unflattering observation with which Sámr accompanies his reluctant agreement to help his foolish old uncle, Þorbjörn á Hóli, seek redress from Hrafnkell Freysgoði for the slaying of his son, Einarr, "I think I am helping a fool in helping you." [ “Mér þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert.” ] This may seem to the casual reader of sagas nothing more than the fatalistic pessimism with which a man sometimes undertook to help an unpromising relative or to carry out some obviously ill-fated errand. Sámr and the audience know, after all, that Þorbjörn has already rejected an offer generous, given the conditions and the perpetrator of the slaying, and not to be sought for again, given the arrogance with which this poor farmer has turned down the unprecedented magnanimity of the local horse-loving tyrant of Hrafnkelsdalr. Though wronged and irate, Þorbjörn by any account is nothing here but a heimskr maðr, a fact made ever more obvious as the suit progresses. At the happy outcome of legal proceedings and their follow-up, however, it is Sámr himself who proves foolish when he oddly grants Hrafnkell life for banishment from his farm: “I can’t understand why you’re doing this. You’ll have good reason to regret you’ve spared Hrafnkel’s life.” [ p. 59. “Muntu þessa mest iðrask sjálfr, er þú gefr honum lif.” ] warns Sám’s mentor, Þorgeirr Þjóstarson of Þorskafjörðr. [ ÍF XI. Hrafnkels saga 5. 121. ] At the end of the saga, a rehabilitated and again dominant Hrafnkell reinstates himself at Aðalból after first killing Sám’s brother, Eyvindr. When Sámr then again seeks help from his powerful friends in Þorskafjörðr, he is kindly rebuffed by Þorgeirr, who observes, “We urged you to have Hrafnkel killed – that seemed the sensible thing to do – but you insisted on having your own way.” [Fýstum vit þik, at þú skyldir Hrafnkel af lífi taka, en þú vildir ráða.” [ p. 70. ÍF XI. Hrafnkels saga 10. 132-3.] ] “We’ve no wish to have anything more to do with your bad luck and we are not so eager to clash with Hrafnkel again that we want to risk our position for the second time.” [ p. 70 “Megum vit ekki hafa at þessu gæfuleysi þitt.” ] he adds, emphasizing the folly of pursuing further the development of Sám’s original undertaking, upon the folly of which in turm the latter himself had commented at the commencement of the project. Although the proverb, “Illt er heimskum lið að veita.” [ Íslenzkir Málshættir, p. 138, from the Málsháttasafn ed. Kr. Kålund, Småstykker, Kh., 1884-91, who cites also Guðmundur Jónsson, Safn, p. 183, “Illt er heimskum lið að leggja (holl ráð kenna).” ] is never explicitly formulated in the narrative of Hrafnkatla, its paroemial force is clearly present and indeed informs the plot. Hrafnkell wins after losing because he is clever, and Sámr loses because he unwisely grants life to his opponent and could never have outwitted Hrafnkell in the first place without the help of the aristocratic and politically sophisticated chieftain brothers of Þorskafjörðr, a fact underscored by another unspoken proverb, but one to which there is no clear proverbial reference in the narrative: “Illt er að setja heimskum hátt.” [Guðmundur Jónsson, Safn, p. 181. ]

It is frequently hard to assess with confidence the importance of paroemial material in what has been called the oral family saga, and some might see the endeavour itself as pointless. In extant written texts, however, proverbs have widel -- and sometimes analyzable -- varying significance, depending on the quality of the narrative in question and the skill and the intentions of its composer. The composer may use proverbial materials for the expression of his own views, or of views most important to him and his tale, and it makes good critical sense to pay some attention to their occurrence in saga texts.