Applications 22.  In the Beginning was the Proverb: Communal Wisdom and Individual Deeds in the Íslendingasögur.
Presented at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 2013.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.    []

            This evening I am going to talk about how the Old Icelandic sagas, arising to whatever extent and by whatever means they do from oral tradition, bear compelling if uneven witness in the hands of their respective composers to a vast and in large part unexplorable paroemial inventory of shared communal wisdom possessed both by people of literate as well as those still of pre-literate cognitive development, in thirteenth-century Iceland.

            For some years now I have studied ways in which the composers of the Old Icelandic sagas used proverbs in their works.  Over a century ago, Guðbrandur Vigfússon had observed of them in his commentary on Hrafnkatla, “These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play,” and his friend, F. York Powell, writing about Færeyinga saga, remarked of its proverbs, “These idioms and saws, and laconisms . . . are the very life-blood of a true Saga.”  As Lars Lönnroth noticed, however, in his study of Njáls saga, there has been little critical pursuit of the significance of the paroemial element in this literature: “so far . . . very little has been said about the function of proverbs . . . in their narrative context.”  [HANDOUT]

            Although my first concern with this area lay in (1) how wisdom texts were employed for purely literary purposes, providing thematic clarification in these narratives, I later moved to an interest in the likelihood, as I saw it, (2) that the composers of some sagas referred to paroemially encoded wisdom by allusion within a literary context, bringing the whole force of a proverb to bear upon a passage, or indeed upon the thematic direction of a whole saga with as little as a single explicit reference to that proverb itself.  Work particularly with this latter process has led me to consider the proposition (3) that the proverbs which 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 the pre-literate culture.  In fact, it must in its immanent entirety have delineated those conceptual structures describing the behavioural expectations of the pre-literate society of Iceland and its inhabitants’ continental forebears.  Such a repository was so deeply embedded in the consciousness and of such profound psychic impact that it informed, at least in part, the very thinking even of the literate and in some cases highly educated composers of the sagas, as well as that of the characters whose utterances and undertakings they described. This paroemial cognitive patterning of the pre-literate saga mind, though so far of purely conjectured existence and with little clarity of form or content, may eventually prove useful to us in our effort to understand what the sagas, written as they were on the cusp of that society’s transition into literacy, were meant to be about.

            In our rather exclusively literate world it may be difficult for us to comprehend how this could be so.  For us the proverb as a text has an overt and at least loosely fixed form whose iteration we anticipate in conjunction with a narrative of which it is illuminative.  Walter J. Ong observes how different are our conceptions of wisdom texts from those of people in pre-literate cultures:  “Fixed, often rhythmically balanced, expressions of this sort . . . can be found occasionally in print, indeed can be ‘looked up’ in books of sayings, but in oral cultures they are not occasional.  They are incessant.  They form the substance of thought itself.  Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.” The internalized communal inventory of behavioural codes was thus a constant in that repertoire of standards by which individual conduct was initiated, governed, and judged.  The sagamen of thirteenth-century Iceland wrote with a consciousness deeply informed by this code arising through long paths of oral transmission in their pre-literate ancestral background.  Just as the fable and the proverb are so closely related that a fable can be seen as simply an extension of the proverb of which it is emblematic, so too episodes in sagas or in some cases the whole narratives of sagas are interpretable in paroemial terms, even where the proverb, if signalled at all, is noticed by nothing more than the briefest of allusion.

            The ability of saga composers to employ this background of communal wisdom for their literary purposes suggests the vigorous currency of this mnemonically reinforced and ultimately cognitive tool in the saga mind.  Persuasive evidence of the psychological reality of the wisdom text not merely as a building block of orality, but as a radical element in the origins of pre-literate thought, is found I think in seemingly incidental allusions to such wisdom, where there is no apparent literary thematic agenda.

1.            In Chapter 78 of Egils saga Hákon jarl gives the court poet Einarr Helgason a shield upon his returning to Iceland, on which var skrifaðr fornsǫgum, en allt milli skriptanna váru lagðar yfir spengr af gulli, ok settr steinum. (ÍF II. 78.271-2.)  Back in Iceland, Einarr went to visit Egill, who was away at the time.  The composer mentions that Einarr stayed for three nights, en þat var engi siðr, at sitja lengr en þrjár nætr at kynni.”  He then left, ok festi þar upp skjǫldinn þann in dýra ok sagði heimamǫnnum, at hann gaf Agli skjǫldinn.  (272.)  Finding the shield upon his return, Egill composed an ekphrastic poem celebratory of its artistry. The editors of both the Íslenzk fornrit and the Altnordische Saga-Bibliothek editions quote in association with the length of Einarr’s stay verse 35 of Hávamál: “Ganga skal/skala gestr vesa/ey í einum stað;/ljúfr verðr leiðr,/ef lengi sitr/annars fletjum á.”  In Old Icelandic sources we find no explicit attestation of a proverb quoted by Guðmundur Jónsson in his Safn af íslenzkum orðskviðum (1830), p. 410: “Þrínættr gestr þykir ve[r]str (þakkar stundum verst.)”  Einarr’s length of stay is remarked, however, in the TPMA, and E. O. G. Turville-Petre in his edition of Víga-Glúms saga cites, in connection with a similar passage there, a Jutish proverb, “en tredje dags gjæst stinker.”  Whatever paroemial form the composer of Egils saga may have had in mind at this point, it is clear that he referred here to an item of social wisdom current in medieval Nordic thought and attested as well in other parts of Germania.  That the wisdom is referred to in Egla, but without direct, explicit reference to a formulaic memorialization of the knowledge, suggests a pattern of thinking for which further evidence can be found elsewhere in the Old Icelandic corpus.

2.         Another and more subtle use of allusion to such proverbially encoded wisdom is found in Bjarnarsaga hítdœlakappi, where Þórðr Kolbeinsson has gained Bjǫrn Arngeirsson’s permanent enmity by marrying the latter’s betrothed, Oddný Þorkelssdóttir, having falsely informed her that her fiancé had died in Norway.  Their conflict over Þórðr’s perfidy formally resolved by King Óláfr Haraldsson, when Bjǫrn finally returns to Iceland, Þórðr decides to invite him to spend the winter with him and Oddný on the dubious pretext of ascertaining Bjǫrn’s commitment to the agreement they had reached in Norway, “ok vil ek reyna skap Bjarnar ok trúlyndi við mik.” (ÍF III. 11.136.)  Þórðr’s fair words of invitation arouse the ire of Bjǫrn’s mother, Þórdís, who candidly expresses her clear insight into his character: “Þat mun sýna, at ek mun ekki mjǫk talhlýðin. Hugðu svá at, Bjǫrn, . . . at því flára mun Þórðr hyggja, sem hann talar sléttara, ok trú honum eigi.”  The Fornrit editor assumes that Þórdís’ perspicacity, like Einarr’s social sensitivity, is reinforced by a passage in the primary Eddic source of traditional Norse wisdom: “Það er því líkast, sem þessi orð Þórdísar sé bergmál af Hávamálum (45. vísu). þar sem svo er að orði komizt: Ef þú átt annan,/þanns þú illa trúir,/vildu af hǫnum þó gótt geta,/fagrt skaltu við þann mæla,/en flátt hyggja/ok gjalda lausung við lygi.” (11.138.note 1.)  That the advice of Hávamál is often echoed in the wisdom which informs opinion and action in the Sagas of Icelanders suggests its value as the most comprehensive extant witness to that immanent oral corpus at the roots of paroemial cognitive patterning in the northern Germanic world.

3.            A more complex scene in which this process is apparent is found in Víga-Glúms saga, where a young Glúmr proved his maturity, gathering honor by visiting the home in Norway of his maternal grandfather, the hersir Vígfúss Sigurðarson of Vǫrs.  He gained his grandfather’s acceptance only when he challenged and defeated Bjǫrn the berserkr, who with his eleven fellows was a habitual, edgy, and dangerous guest at Vígfúss’ feasts.  Vígfúss warned his men that Bjǫrn would be looking for a fight and ordered that they “skyldi vel stilla orðum sínum,” a restraint that would involve less disgrace than if they did have to fight him. (18.)  When the unpleasant intruder made his way around the hall, asking people whether they considered themselves “jafnsnjallr” to him, their replies were suitably diplomatic -- until he reached Glúmr, who reacted to his insults by saying that he knew nothing of his “snilli . . . ok vil ek af því engu við þik jafnask, at út á Íslandi myndi sá maðr kallaðr fól, er þann veg léti sem þú lætr. En hér hefi ek vitat alla bezt orðum stilla.” (  ) He then beat Bjǫrn mercilessly until he ran away and later died.  While explicit formulaic wisdom definitive of this typical challenging scene is lacking in the saga, its inspiration is informed by awareness of a pertinent corpus on the part of the composer and his audience. 

            In Hrólfs saga kraka, its written version occurring much later than that of Víga-Glúms saga, Bǫðvarr bjarki irritated the king’s berserks by refusing to admit himself less jafnsnjallr than they.  Rather, he boasted “at hann teldist ekki jafnsnjallr, heldr snjallari!”  and proved it by nearly killing one of them, as did also his newly valorized companion, Hjalti, with another of the intruders.  The king then accompanied his settlement of the altercation with an observation that “þeir mætti nú sjá þat, at eigi væri neitt svá ágætt, sterkt eða stórt, at ekki mætti þvílíkt finna.”  (FSN I. 37. 71.)   In these remarks Hrólfr expressed a perception again echoing a passage in Hávamál: “ Ríki sitt/ scyli ráðsnotra hverr/ í hófi hafa;/ þá hann þat finnr,/ er með frœcnom kømr,/ at engi er einna hvatastr.” (EK I. Hávamál 64. 39. TPMA 12. 326.)  What the significance of Bjǫrn’s truculent search for a man willing to boast himself jafnsnjallastr rather than hvatastr might mean for the audience must await further interpretation, but the implicit analogousness of the response to the formulaic patterning of the Eddic witnesses is obvious when Glúmr proclaims himself unimpressed by the uninvited guest’s behavior, as well as by the king’s resolution of the dispute. 

            Where this wisdom was still much encoded in formulaic texts, as is most often the case with pre-literate or recently literate societies, a composer of a tale could present and control the impact of scenes by appealing to that communal awareness in his audience.  The composer of Víga-Glúms saga demonstrates in this passage the transition from pre-literate paroemially informed thinking to writing narrative where the composer relied upon the cultural literacy of his audience for conveying the meaning of his story.  And such examples mark the beginning of the process in which the phenomenon of paroemial cognitive patterning moves from a way of knowing in pre-literate culture to ways of expressing artistic nuance by those composers whose job it was to transmit the Norse oral corpus into the world of the written narrative.

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