Applications 25.  Paroemial Cognitive Patterning in the Medieval North: Edda, Beowulf, and Saxo.
Presented at the 9th Annual Fiske Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies [Norsestock 9] Cornell University, May 2014.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.    []

            Among the cliches of Bēowulf study is the notion that before Tolkien’s uniquely famous essay on the monsters and the critics little thought was given to the poem as a work of literature.  Seamus Heaney’s introductory comments to his translation summarize the effect of this work in that it “took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered. . . .  Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.” (xi)  I believe we can see, though we seldom comment upon, parallel lines of development in literary critical approaches to Old English and Old Icelandic literature.  As Tolkien’s ideas made their way among readers of Bēowulf and other works from that culture, scholars such as Björn M. Ólsen were martialling their thoughts in the pursuit of the Old Icelandic sagas as consciously written works of literature, anticipating thus the sort of textual examination conducted on Hrafnkels saga by E. V. Gordon and by Sigurður Nordal.  Published nearly simultaneously in 1939 and 1940, respectively, and using respectively different sorts of evidence, both established it as a work of fiction and led towards a more systematic development over the next decades of what Heusler had first termed Book Prose Theory.  The many similarities between these two literatures, and the parallels of critical approaches to them leave much room, I think, for further consideration.

            For the last year or two, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the literary critical implications of the view 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 pertaining to the ethics and mores of pre-literate North Germanic culture. Such a repository was so deeply embedded in the consciousness and of such profound psychic impact that it informed the very thinking of the literate and in some cases highly educated 13th-century composers of the sagas, as well as that of the characters whose utterances and undertakings they described.

            The affinities of Bēowulf with the Old Icelandic corpus are too numerous to begin recounting here, but its characters and story are pretty well universally acknowledged as having at least analogous counterparts in the sagas and some of the northern Germanic poetry.  Like the Old Icelandic sagas it reached the written page in a time when its culture was still on the cusp of literacy, its audience and its composer undoubtedly aware of a broad, lively, and continuing pre-literate body of knowledge and narrative.  And so it seems to me reasonable that such a paroemially structured body of communal wisdom is used by the composer of Bēowulf, whether consciously or not, as he pursues the purposes of his narrative.  I am assisted in this endeavour, first, of course, by Susan Deskis’ book on overtly expressed proverbs in Bēowulf, and then also by the recent work of two of my proverbs seminar students, Aaron Thacker and Brendan Swalm, who read the poem last autumn with keen eyes, seeking points where an underlying paroemial pattern might be detected in the surface of the text.

            A proverb of sorts is uttered or perhaps alluded to by Bēowulf when, recounting for Hygelac his experiences at the Danish court, he declares the unlikelihood that the marriage arranged between Hrōþgār’s daughter Frēawaru and Ingeld of the traditonally hostile Heaðobards will still for long the enmities it is meant to resolve:  “But generally the spear/is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed,/no matter how admirable the bride may be.” (ll. 2029b-2031.) [HANDOUT] Saga readers will be reminded by the former part of his observation of two proverbs descriptive of the tendency to swift retribution for injury in feud culture:  On the one hand, most familiar from its inclusion thrice in Njáls saga, placed strategically at some point in each of that narrative’s generally recognized three parts, is the admonition, “The hand’s joy in the blow is brief.”  It is also found in Saxo Grammaticus’ account of the adventures of Ericus disertus when his brother Roller has killed the attacking figure Grep in the court of King Frothi. As readers might also recall, the immediate, visceral urge to vengeance is celebrated as well in Vatnsdœla saga, where Hrolleifr’s mother, when he tells her he has killed Ingimundr, warns him to get away fast, but to return later when things are quieter, because “Blood nights are hottest (bráðastr=swiftest, most sudden).” (c. 24) The composer here emphasizes the desperate post-homocide urgency to revenge: a predisposition to restraint is most easily overcome when emotions are strongest, although in other narrative contexts readers would appreciate a fierce determination to draw blood before peacefully inclined folk arrange a settlement that would discourage further violence.
            Of course, received wisdom on swift revenge varied with situations, as demonstrated when the very youthful Grettir, being restrained from killing his contemporary Auðun for striking him in a game, declares there’s no need to hold him like a mad dog — “Only a slave takes vengeance at once, and a coward never.”  Here Grettir reveals his early and oddly unrealistic admiration of aristocratic heroic sentiment and its dignified, deliberate style in the conduct of feud activity.  Clearly, then, a segment in the common Germanic gnomic inventory focussed upon the predictably immediate response to injury in feud circumstances, and Beowulf’s observations shared with Hygelac touch upon this area of thought. Such wisdom’s inclusion in this context by the composer highlights the tragic disappointment of the Freawaru-Ingeld alliance.  He clearly introduces it at the very start of his story where he notices its failure allusively by his anticipatory observation that Heorot, just completed, and representing the asdendency of the Danes and the epitome of this heroic society, awaits the fierce flames of vengeful fire, its destruction in the resumption of hostilities between Heaðobards and Danes after, and despite, the strategically arranged marriage—over the efficacy of which Beowulf later expresses his doubts in conversation with Hygelac, as we have noticed.

            In Bēowulf, as in Njáls saga, we see a central thematic notion that “blood vengeance is not a definitive resolution of conflict,” and in both narratives we find that attempts to heal rifts in society by arranged marriages lack lasting efficacy. (Cook, Intro, p.  )  One wonders how close Hrōþgār may come to at least one point of the poem when he assesses the real political and historical effects of Bēowulf’s accomplishment in killing the fantastic monsters of Heorot:  “What you have done is to draw two peoples,/the Geat nation and us neighbouring Danes,/into shared peace and a pact of friendship in spite of hatreds we have harboured in the past.” (ll. 1855-8)  Perhaps, in the poet’s mind, such gratuitously rendered deeds of courage take precedence in pragmatic value over the strategies of chronically tenuous marriage alliances in matters pertaining to the common peace between nations.  Where Njála seems to affirm in Christian terms the redemptive power of forgivenness with its concomitant relinquishing of social dependence on the maintenance of face, the Old English poem recommends the heroic virtue of aid where it is needed, a substantial gift in a society where relationships are affirmed through generosity.

            The composer of Bēowulf introduces into his poem the traditional Germanic reverence for the public, sacred oath, or boast promise, the bēot, with its Old Icelandic counterpart, the heitstrenging.  Thus at the start we read that Hrōþgār, once Heorot was built, did not forget his oath, but “dealt out rings, treasure and banquet.” (ll. 80-81.) Remembering and honouring one’s oaths is advocated as desirable, in fact absolutely necessary, in this world of aristocratic heroes.  The taboo of the broken oath is proverbially encoded in Sigrdrífumál, when the valkyrie warns Sigurðr, “that I advise you secondly, that you do not swear an oath unless it is truly kept; terrible fate-bonds attach to the oath-tearer; wretched is the pledge-criminal.” (v. 23.) It is to such injunctions in the oral inventory of the Eddic corpus that the composer of Hrafnkatla ironically makes his hero refer when he proceeds to kill the youth Einarr for riding the horse Freyfaxi.  Hrafnkell’s dedication of the horse to Freyr had included a sworn declaration that he would kill whoever rode it.  Taking a foolish oath seriously and acting upon it with an otherwise senseless killing places him in a vulnerable position—clearly, he has misconstrued or misapplied the wisdom of the Edda in this instance.

            No such irony challenges the seriousness of oath obligations in Bēowulf, however.  Instead, Hrōþgār, bemoaning his retainers’ failure to halt Grendel’s depredations upon his drinking hall, comments on how, when his “seasoned fighters got flushed with beer/they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot/and wait for Grendel with whetted swords,” while the next day, “the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted/would be slick with slaughter.” (ll. 480-4.) And Bēowulf, summoning his stength and resolve at a tough moment with Grendel recalls his evening speech, which included a boast promise to kill him, and continues thus with renewed vigour.  The full force of these sacred oaths is brought home to the reader when Bēowulf’s faithful retainer, Wīglāf, reminds the comitatus, hesitant to join in combat with the dragon: “I remember that time when mead was flowing,/how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,/promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,/make good the gift of the war-gear,/those swords and helmets, as and when/his need required it.” (ll. 2633-38a.) And when they return, shamed, from their hiding place, after the battle with the dragon has ended, he scolds them for dereliction of their oaths of loyalty:  “Anyone ready to admit the truth/will surely realize that the lord of men/ who showered you with gifts and gave you the armour/you are standing in . . . was throwing weapons uselessly away.” (ll. 2864-71.)

            As well as the obligatory value of the comitatus oaths, then, there is recognition in such heroic passages of the debt of loyal courage incurred by the chieftain’s gifts to his warriors.  Thus in Saxo, we find a near proverbial observation by Gøtar, “A man's gallantry in action is measured by his recollection of benefits received.” (p. 144.) At the start of Bēowulf, the composer observes the wisdom of young leaders’ generosity with those whose service they may wish to engage when they take up leadership: “And a young prince must be prudent like that,/giving freely while his father lives/so that afterwards in age when fighting starts/steadfast companions will stand by him/and hold the line.  Behaviour that’s admired/is the path to power among people everywhere.” (ll. 20-5.)  Wīglāf, it should be noticed, remembers gifts when he sees Bēowulf being tormented by the dragon: “he remembered the bountiful gifts bestowed on him,/how well he lived among the Wæmundings.” (ll. 2606-7.)  And later in the battle, contemplating possible annihilation, he declares, “I would rather my body were robed in the same burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body/ than go back home bearing arms,” by which he means, of course, those weapons given him by Hrōþgār.  (ll. 2651b-6a.)

            Further among the obligations of northern Germanic culture were those of kinship: the loyal support of, and the taboo against killing, relatives.  Most familiar is Grettir, in his death scene, reminding his brother Illugi of the traditional responsibilites of fraternal support: “Bare is the back of a brotherless man,” emplying a proverb found also in Saxo and used in Njáls saga by Kári Solmundarson to praise the courage of Bjorn the White, who helped him on his adventures of vengeance for the burning at Bergþórshvoll.  And Sigrdrífa warns Sigurðr, “That I advise you firstly, that towards you rkin/you should be blameless;/be slow to avenge although they do harm.” (Sigrdr. S. 22)  It seems consistent with such thinking when Bēowulf, dying, comforts himself that “because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind/need never blame me when the breath leaves my body/for murder of kinsmen.” (ll. 2741-3a.)  A part of Wīglāf’s obligation to stay with Bēowulf lies in their family relationship: “But within one heart/sorrow welled up: in a man of worth/the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” (ll. 2599b-2601.)  The comments of the poem’s narrator when describing Bēowulf’s transfer of Hrōþgār’s gifts to his own king seem especially pertinent: “‘So ought a kinsman act,/instead of plotting and planning in secret/to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange/the death of comrades.’” (ll. 2166b-69a.) 

            It is clear that such paroemially related admonitions took into account a strong current of internecine treachery in the real world of the audience, as well as in the narrative world of Bēowulf.  And Old Norse literature is not without recognition of similar flaws in family loyalties.  A proverb used in several sagas declares, “A man’s worst following comes from home,” or perhaps more accurately, “A man is without a bad following if he doesn’t bring it from home.”  This cynical response to more positive affirmations of the value of family loyalty is echoed in a number of passages in Bēowulf.  Readers are made aware at several points that Hrōþgār’s trusted retainer, Unferþ, killed his brothers. Bēowulf himself notably brings up this subject when the jealous counsellor has challenged his wisdom and skills over the business of the Breca episode—“You killed your own kith and kin,/so for all your cleverness and quick tongue,/you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.” (ll. 597-9.)

            And at the end of the “Finnsburh Episode,” with its tragedy of a failed marriage alliance and broken oaths, Wealhþēow, concerned that her husband might leave the kingdom to the foreign hero, comes to sit between Hrōþgār and Hrōðulf, “each of whom/still trusted the other,” with Unferþ, “admired by all for his mind and courage/although under a cloud for killing his brothers,” reclining nearby. (ll. 1164-5a.)  In this environment of dubious good will and incipient treachery she will then assure her husband, wrongly, as the audience knows, of their nephew’s continued loyalty to the family, “‘I am certain of Hrothulf./He is noble and will use the young ones well./He will not let you down. Should you die before him,/he will treat our children truly and fairly./He will honour, I am sure, our two sons,/repay them in kind when he recollects the good things we gave him once,/ the favour and respect he found in his childhood.’” (ll. 1180b-7.)  With the unsettlingly ambivalent figure of the brother-killer close by, she urges the aging Hrōþgār to place his trust where it should not be placed, the nephew who will eventually kill their son Hreðric, and the resultant dramatic irony is thus obvious to the poem’s audience.  By the end of Bēowulf the obligatory bonds of kinship, like the other values rhetorically prized in the poem, prove to be of little use in maintaining the order of the North Germanic pre-Christian world.

            The paroemially encoded communal wisdom built through successive layers of oral traditions in northern Europe, the observations that were most apt, the concepts that were most true, are tested by this poem and found wanting in the milieu the composer studies.  What affirmation can be found of the universal nobility of character may be observed when Bēowulf, when he urges Hrōþgār to consider sending his son, Hreðric, to stay with the Geats, commenting upon how “Foreign places yield more to the one who is himself worth meeting.” (ll. 1838b-39.)  This utterance upon the general positive reception of people of superior quality in this heroic milieu echoes thinking found in the Íslendingasögur, and sounds one of the more positive notes on humanity in the poem. When Hygelac dies, Bēowulf will support Heardred, his rightful heir, rather than trying to usurp the throne.  Only upon the latter’s death does he consent to take up leadership of the Geats.  Bēowulf’s praise of Hreðric and the universal appeal of his excellence is thus also the composer’s praise of the hero himself.  And yet, Bēowulf, with all his courage, integrity and magnanimity, eventually succumbs also to the flaws of the pre-Christian north Germanic human condition.  Pride and the anger it induces lead him, despite Hrōþgār’s forgotten warnings and a paroemial set of admonitions against such weakness, to unwise combat with the dragon, and the Geats suffer for this failed leadership in a man of otherwise acknowledged excellence, whose deeds of courage have brought together competing tribes as well as cleansing their societies of external evil.

Return to Applications, Concordance.