Application 26.  On Paroemial Cognitive Patterning in an Old Icelandic þáttr. Presented in Panel Discussion: "'Most Evident,' or 'Most Tricky'? Toward a Methodolocy for the Paroemiological Study of Medieval Literature and Culture" sponsored by the Early Proverb Society, 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI 14-17 May 2015.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan                           heorot@sasktel.net

A reconsideration in the latter decades of the twentieth century of some elements of the Free Prose Theory of saga composition accompanied a rebirth of interest across several fields of medieval literatures and cognitive linguistics in the processes of oral composition as well as of the intellectual workings of the pre-literate mind.  Of much importance for saga studies was Theodore M. Andersson’s concept of “oral family saga,” the nature of which came to be clarified most usefully by Carol Clover’s theory of “immanent saga,” that “larger undertaking—the dramatic chronicle of the Icelandic settlement,” or, in other words, those innumerable stories, in whatever form, the Icelanders told about their ancestral heritage.  These developments moved critical thinking away from the earlier tenets of the Book Prose Theory with its literary emphasis towards a consensus that left the saga composer selecting content more widely from oral background.  Attempts to access more precise information about this diversely existent source have not proven so successful as might have been hoped.  However, I think a more fruitful approach to the pre-literate narrative lies in phraseological study, the micro-textual detail of how the story was told rather than the shaping of the story’s content.

            Among the formulas of oral saga narrative proverbs and their associated devices, gnomes, aphorisms, and the various array of other wisdom texts, constitute an inventory of relatively fixed phrases which served as the building blocks, can be culled from extant sources, and can then be studied both for literary critical purposes and yet also for the insights they may provide into the customs and methods of pre-literate saga narrative.  Over the past decade of my work with proverbs in the sagas, I have progressed from studying composers’ inclusion of wisdom texts for the delineation of thematic structuring to their likely use of paroemial allusion as a way of emphasizing the point of their stories.  Most recently, though, and with particular reference to Clover’s development of “immanent saga,” I have come to the view that the proverbs we notice in the Íslendingasögur might be studied more accurately as partially extant evidence of the early existence of a much larger and more complex oral repository of wisdom formulas central to the ethics and mores of pre-literate Nordic culture.  This repository must have been so widely embedded in the consciousness that it informed the very thinking even of the literate and in some cases highly educated saga composers, as well as the characters and utterances they described. As Walter J. Ong wrote of pre-literate society, proverbs “form the substance of thought itself. Thought . . . consists in them.”[35 ][HANDOUT]

            Elsewhere I have studied how our awareness of PCP may enhance our reading of the þáttr, or short story, of Hreiðarr heimski, or Hreiðarr the Fool.  The hero of this story is not mentally deficient, but is described rather as being “always at home,” in consonance with his nickname, whose etymological roots have to do with qualities suitable at home but not abroad in society.  My handout cites proverbial advice from Hávamál on the treatment of such people, and it is reasonable to regard that poem as the primary witness to the background of traditional wisdom operative in PCP.  Thus, the contemporary audience, learning of Hreiðarr’s condition, automatically sought reference in this area of communal paroemial thinking in forming its expectations of Hreiðarr, his limitations and his likely behavior, as well as any dangers attendant upon his being released from the environment in which he was protected.

            In this story the reader’s sympathy is engaged by Hreiðarr’s insistently seeking escape from the limited circumstances of his homely existence, which might even be seen as a proverbially noticed partial cause of the undeveloped state of his personality. As the narrative progresses, his bumptious good natured surface gives way to a more complex and cunning potential.  As he argues with and manipulates people who have power over him, his surface naivety is clearly seen to be accompanied by a shrewd sense of strategy suggesting a more astute character in process of growth. 

            A scene where he inveigles his socially adept and protective brother, Þórðr, into taking him along to the Norwegian court begins with his exclamation, “Wake up, brother, the slug-a-bed is slow to learn! I’m onto something and have just heard a strange sound.”  Although the proverb he uses is not found elsewhere in Old Icelandic, our handout shows passages of Hávamál witnessing a body of paroemial wisdom upon which he draws and which instructs his thinking and argument.  And with this introduction he elicits from Þórðr the explanation of the sounding of the trumpet for an official meeting, upon which he insists on coming along for the experience.

            Hreiðarr’s use of the proverbial background of thinking is most persistent and most obvious when he persuades his brother to take him first to Norway, and then to the king’s court.  Demanding to leave Iceland with Þórðr, who would prefer to leave him behind, he warns he may get into more trouble alone in Iceland than with his brother abroad: “Your part will be no easier if I come to blows with men or am otherwise embroiled with those who are after my money and try to steal it away from me.” [171] And when he wants to heed the signal of the trumpet, he objects to his brother’s demand that he stay behind: “We should go together. It will not turn out better for you if I go alone, and you’re not going to talk me out of this trip.” [172]  King Magnús wants to have Þórðr with him at court, but with Hreiðarr staying elsewhere: I think you would be lodged better where there are fewer people.” [174]  With reference to communal wisdom on the dangers of gossip, he responds, “there are never so few people that word of what is said doesn’t get around, especially when it seems amusing . . . It might happen that people are angered at my words and mock me and make too much of what I have said in jest.” And he then returns to his favorite theme, “it seems to me wiser to be near someone who cares for me, like my brother Þórðr, rather than to be where there are few people and none to take a hand on my behalf.” [174]  By this time even a reader possessed of the most basic familiarity with the paroemial inventory of Old Icelandic culture will have felt in his rhetoric the impact of the proverb, “Bare is his back who has no brother,” which, though not in Hávamál, occurs in two of the later Íslendingasögur and is found also in Saxo, who had Icelandic informants for narrative materials known from their country. One might recall here Carolyne Larrington’s observation upon that “living, pulsing, gnomic background” of which Hávamál provides partial witness and which lies at the cognitive core of old North Germanic prose forms as well as its poetry.

            We can see how, in Hreiðars þáttr heimska, a composer can use the traditional Nordic wisdom of which Hávamál is the primary extant encoded manifestation for quite various narrative purposes.  On the one hand, he refers to the early Icelandic perception that some individuals are better off at home than in public assemblies or a continental court.  On the other, he lets his hero use the psychologically persuasive power of this wisdom to get his way with those whom we would expect rather to have power over him.  While we might anticipate that proverbial knowledge originates, instructs, and is maintained without being subverted by the unwise or the disingenuous, or subjected to the third eye of ironic reflection, such proves not to be the case in our reading of the Old Icelandic corpus, expecially works of later composition.  Though sentential strings arise from, and in their linguistic marking signal, their origin in the human impulse to encode and to impart the limits of productive social behavior, these formulaic admonitions can be and are used creatively by those whose purpose it is to describe the human condition with all its capacities for behavior, including those which lie far outside the normative ways which proverbs were originally used to delineate.  In the hands of the saga composers, what was in the first place a body of instruction in wisdom becomes another rhetorically based tool for defining meaning and refining nuance in their narrative descriptions of the whole range of the human potential and aspiration.

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