Applications 22. Handout.  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.    [heorot@sasktel.net]

1. Early recognition of the thematic significance of proverbs in the sagas:

Guðbrandur Vigfússon, in his commentary on Hrafnkatla, “These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play,” in Origines Islandicae. Oxford,1905 II, 492.

F. York Powell, “These idioms and saws, and laconisms . . . are the very life-blood of a true Saga.”
in his Introduction, The Tale of Thrond of Gate, commonly called Færeyinga saga. Oxford, 1896, xxxix. 

More recently, however:
Lars Lönnroth: “so far . . . very little has been said about the function of proverbs . . . in their narrative context.” Njáls saga. A Critical Introduction. Berkeley, 1976, 89.

2. Literary uses of proverbs in the sagas:

An example of thematic structuring:
Richard L. Harris, "'The Hand's Pleasure in the Blow is Brief’: Proverbs Escalating Danger in the Revenge Pattern of Njálssaga," Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship 18 (2001): 149-66.  “The dangers of small crimes and limited conflicts in the early chapters of Njála have escalated into vastly comprehensive and threatening enmities. The resulting bitter conflagration is indeed the result of blows incited by evil people with bad plans and struck with insufficient forethought. And this evil destruction, in the light of the recently effected Conversion, is clearly represented by the composer of Njála as detrimental to the spiritual welfare of those involved, dangerous to them in ways far more frightening than those attached to the fragility of our mortal condition. And much of this escalation is traced and enhanced and clarified by the carefully repeated use of such proverbs as those I have discussed here.” p.160.

3. Proverbial allusion in the sagas:

As 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’”
Collected Works of Erasmus. Adages Ii1 to Iv100
. Vol. 31. Tr. M. M. Phillips, ann. R.A.B. Mynors. Toronto, 1982, 18.

Archer Taylor on the incommunicable quality of the proverb:
“An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not.”
Archer Taylor, The Proverb. Cambridge, Mass., 1931, 3.

Shirley Arora identifies a set of linguistic markers the greater density of which in a text increases its chances of being perceived as proverbial in nature.  Her work clearly indicates that we have the grammatical competence to generate and to recognize strings whose structural and perhaps lexical features will signal that the content itself bears a burden of communal wisdom.  In fact, as Arora’s survey demonstrates, artificially manufactured proverbs, non-current texts containing the specified features, tend to be perceived as proverbs even when they are not so by virtue of use and currency.  Thus, the definition of those texts which we call proverbs need not require reference to currency, although we may naturally assume that they might be current, given their didactic value.  Rather the ‘internal definition,’ here by analogy to Ferdinand de Saussure and his distinction regarding linguistics as the ‘internal’ approach to language, involves the study of linguistic features which can be observed to accompany such texts.
Shirley Arora, “The Perception of Proverbiality.” Proverbium 1 (1984): 1-38.

Neal Norrick on the kernel and 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, 45.

Wolfgang Mieder on the flexibility of the proverbial text:
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, 7.

A. Proverbial allusion in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða.

Richard L. Harris, "The Proverbial Heart of Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða: ‘Mér þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert'." Scandinavian-Canadian Studies in Canada 16 (2006): 28-54.

1.  In a stereotypical saga scene where an individual, succumbing to the urgings of a character who does not have his best interests in mind, comments on the often mortally fateful inadvisability of the action he will nevertheless undertake, Sámralludes to proverbial wisdom in reluctantly acquiescing to his uncle Þorbjǫrn’s plea for legal support: “Ófúss geng ek at þessu. Meir geri ek þat fyrir frændsemi sakar við þik.  En vita skaltu, at mér þykkir þar heimskumn manni at duga, sem þú ert.” (ÍF XI. 3. 108.)
Hermann Pálsson discusses this passage among others in his section 24. “Heimska”, in Mannfræði Hrafnkels sögu og frumþættir.  Reykjavík, 1988, 74-75.

2.  Sámr has here referred to a body of wisdom pertaining to interaction with fools, articulated in the proverb, “Illt er heimskum lið at veita.” 
Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevi 8. 380.  NARR/fou/fool 8.Eigenschaften und Verhalten der Narren 8.6. Narren sind unverbesserllich 8.6.2. Narren lassen sich nicht belehren (hassen den, der sie belehrt)   Nord. 555 Stulto dogma dare fit vt aucam fonte rigare. -- At syæ daare raadh thet ær som at slaa kalt watn poo gaass Dem Narren Belehrung geben ist wie eine Gans mit Wasser begiessen. -- Dem Toren einen Rat geben, das is gleich wie kaltes Wasser auf eine Gans giessen Låle 1021. Illt er heimskum lid at veitaEs ist schwierig, Narren Hilfe zu gewähren Kålund 74 ( = JÓNSSON, ARKIV 172. JÓNSSON 69).

3.  While the proverb, “Illt er heimskum lið að veita,” is never explicitly formulated in the narrative of Hrafnkatla, its paroemial force is clearly present in Sámr’s reference to it at the start, and it comes to inform the thematic unity of the plot. Hrafnkell loses power because he exercises it foolishly, and Sámr wins only because he has benefit of the cunning and wisdom of the Þjóstarsynir.  Hrafnkell regains his position because he is clever and has a mind suitable for a goði, and Sámr loses, first, because he has foolishly granted life to his opponent, but more crucially because he lacks the character to support the challenges of the goði’s office.  Thus, we see that much of the misfortune in the story results from the foolishness of those who experience it and that Hrafnkell’s redemption is only accomplished when he discovers sufficient flexibility of vision to recognize the error of his ways and rather cunningly adopt more effective modes of behavior.  Those who would emphasize a moralistic lesson in the correction of Hrafnkell’s pride fall short in explaining how a chieftain whose pride is reformed could nevertheless undertake a fairly gratuitous vengeance killing of the sort he exacts on Eyvindr.  Most would acknowledge that the hero’s initial overweening pride is foolish, but it seems reasonable that the last killing is more closely related to the stark practicality of his desire to regain his position rather than being the result of pride or a rigid adherence to the maintenance of heroic honor.  A more persuasive common denominator would thus seem to lie in reference to the paroemia of foolishness than to the moral flaw of pride.

 [See the paroemial marginalia of the 16th-century MS AM. 604, 4to, in the hand of Tómas Arason, of Mosvellir, Önundarfjörður.  There, at the bottom of I.74.D.7. it completes a set of three proverbs on the dangers of association with fools, the other two, “Fátt er verra en vara heimskan,” and “Seint er heimskan at snotra,” occurring respectively at the bottom of pages 5 and 6.  Published, Kristian Kålund, Småstykker 6 (Kh 1884-1891), the collection of paroemes and other texts has remained relatively unnoticed until recently.  Kålund’s method, while accurate enough, did not represent the occasional conceptual continuity of the items. As Christine Schott points out in her Háskóli Íslands thesis, “The cynicism of the marginalia [in AM 604, 4to] is easily missed in referring only to Kålund’s edition, in which he breaks up paired items in order to classify each part by subject.” (“Footnotes on Life: Marginalia in Three Medieval Icelandic Manuscripts”, Defended September 2010, p. 30.)  For whatever reason, Tómas’ mind was clearly upon one topic where the marginalia of these pages are concerned.] 

B. Proverbial allusion in Fóstbrœðra saga.

Richard L. Harris, “‘Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð.’ Proverbial Allusion and the Implied Proverb in Fóstbrœðra saga,” accepted for publication in New Norse Studies, a volume in process of publication in the Islandica Series of the Fiske Collection, Cornell University: 

1. “Specifically, this paper is concerned with ways in which the traditional Old Icelandic proverb, ‘Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð. is illustrated and identified by allusion in Fóstbrœðra saga, imbuing that narrative as a whole with a paroemial force which embeds it in the communal wisdom of the sagaman's audience.”

 2. “Throughout the saga there are incidents in which reference is explicitly made to characters’ possession and assertion of their power to exercise their will to judge, to decide issues, to control others, frequently with the terms ráð, or ráða, and sometimes a form of ríki in the actual text, or at least with situational description in which that power is implied or contested.” 

3. “Indeed, a reader even partially familiar with the traditional Icelandic paroemial inventory cannot get very far in Fóstbrœðra saga  without the proverb ‘Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð.’ intruding upon the consciousness.  First attested for Old Norse in Bjarni Kolbeinsson's Málsháttakvæði, l. 89, (attr. Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, c. 1200) this proverb’s force is often implicitly celebrated in the Íslendingasögur.  The saga figures’ chronic obsession with asserting and maintaining the right to decide, to have control over their social environment, was carefully examined by Robert Cook in his 1971 paper for the First Saga Conference, “The Sagas of Icelanders as Dramas of the Will.”  “Borrowing the medieval division of the soul into three faculties – reason, emotions, will – we can say that the saga treatment of character centers almost exclusively on the will, to the neglect of the other two faculties. ” [Cook, 91.]  Recounting examples from a selection of several types of scenes in the sagas – whetting, requests for aid, trickery, persuasion of reluctant persons, warnings, obstinacy and wise refusals – Cook elucidates ways in which “saga characters express themselves, and relate to each other primarily on the level of will. ” [Cook, 94.] With the development of feud theory, especially in the decades succeeding Cook’s paper, we might now see his observations, apt in themselves, as having reference to the competitive behaviour of individuals in a society where resolution of conflict is sought in the processes of feud.  A pervasive social urge to control over territory would be understandably expressed in personal terms by one’s insistence upon having one’s way, in small matters as well as in larger ones.  ‘Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð’ would then express communal wisdom regarding the anticipated outcome of any feudal conflict.”

4. “Meulengracht Sørensen sees traditional Germanic heroism reinterpreted and valued in Christian terms at the same time as the violence of pre-Christian times is ridiculed: “Þorgeirr serves demonic powers after his death, and that is the saga-author’s final judgement on his conduct in this life.” (411.)  The ancient pagan wisdom of feud, that the more powerful decides, while remaining true in the secular, physical world, is translated into the Christian reality of the of God in his spiritual kingdom, rendering the final decision, that of the “hǫfuðsmiðr”, with vastly greater impact than that ráð which was of concern in old communal wisdom.”

TPMA 4. 460. GEWALT/pouvoir (subts.)/power1. 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).

4. The proverb and patterns of thought in the Old Icelandic sagas:

Walter J. Ong on the pre-literate repository of knowledge and its structuring of human thought:
“How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out?  The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts.  . . . you have to put your thinking into mnemonic patterns . . .  Your thought must come into being in . . . epithetic and formulary expressions . . . in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retension and ready to recall, or in other mnemonic form.  Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems.  Mnemonic needs determine even syntax. (Havelock 1963, pp. 87-96. 131-2. 294-6).” p. 34.
“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.” p. 35.
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. NY, 1982, 2002.

Some examples:

1. Egils saga.


In Chapter 78 of Egils saga Hákon jarl gave 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.) 

See Hávamál 35: “Ganga skal/skala gestr vesa/ey í einum stað;/ljúfr verðr leiðr,/ef lengi sitr/annars fletjum á.” 

Guðmundur Jónsson, Safn af íslenzkum orðskviðum. Reykjavík, 1830,410: "Þrínættr gestur þykir ve[r]str (þakkar stundum verst.)" Guðmundur also records a related but more expanded text: "Þrínættr gestr þykir nízkum ve[r]str, og þaðan af því leiðari, sem lengr dvelr."

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.” (uncited, but from Svend Grundtvig, Gamle Danske Minder i Folkemunde, 1854-61, III, 214, in a list of “Ordsprog og Mundheld”.)

TPMA 1.  446. BESUCH/visite/visit   2. Verschiedenes  Nord. 2 En þat var engi siðr, at sitja lengr en þrjár nætr at kynni Und dies war nicht Sitte, länger als drei Nächte zu Besuch zu weilen EGILS SAGA 78, 59 (vgl. GAST 2.1.2., WILLKOMMEN1).

2. Bjarnarsaga hítdœlakappi.

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.” 

“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.” (ÍF III. 11. 138.)
But see also Hávamál 91: “Bert ek nú mæli,/þvíat ek bæði veit;//brigðr er karla hugr konom;//þá vér fegrst mælom/er vér flást hyggjom://þat tælir horska hugi.” 

Taken out of its immediate context, as I think it is often valid to do with wisdom compilations, l. 3 is most apt as a text which would inform Þórdís’ thinking here.

3. Víga-Glúms saga.

1.  Glúmr reacted to Bjǫrn járnhauss, the berserk’s, 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.’” ( ÍF IX. 6. 19.)

2.  In Hrólfs saga kraka 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.

3.  When Bjǫrn made his way around Vígfúss’ hall challenging anyone to claim himself “jafnsnjallr”, the saga’s audience would have remembered part of a conversation between Sigurðr and the dying Fáfnir, who complains, “Ægishjalm/bar ek of alda sonum,/meðan ek of menjum lák;/einn rammari/hugðumk öllum vera,/fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.” (EK  I. Fáfnismál v. 16. 293.)  Sigurðr replies with a proverbially based text, “þá þat finnr,/er með fleirum kemr,/at engi er einna hvatastr.” (EK I. Fáfnismál v. 17. 294.) 

[Analogous to the sentiment, as well as the actual formula of Hrólfr’s utterance, is that of the hero Sigurður at the start of Mágus saga jarls, where the king asked him whether he did not think he and his court were more excellent than any other, “Sigurður mælti, kvað sannast hið fornmælta, að fátt væri svo ágætt, að eigi finnist annað slíkt.” (RS II. 1. 139.)  Continuing with his point, the king mentioned his three superior possessions, a hawk, a horse, and a sword, but Sigurður “kvað aðra gripi mega vel vera svo góða sem aðra,” while diplomatically allowing “að víða mundi hann kanna verða, og líkara, að eigi væri slíkir gripir jafngóðir í eins konungs ríki.”  The narrative is furthered when, disengaging himself from this conflict, he notices that the king’s excellence falls short in so far as he lacks a queen, and hence has no prospect of offspring to inherit the wealth and power he has acquired for himself and his people.  Thus, a bridal quest has its beginning in a conversation based on verbalized assessments which, I have suggested elsewhere, are derived from the traditional rhetoric of mannjafnaðr.]

TPMA 12. 326. WAGEN (Vb.) /oser/to dare 5. Verschiedenes Nord. 190, 191 Þá hann þat (FÁFNISMÁL: Þá þat) finnr, er með frœknom (FÁFNISMÁL: fleirom) kømr, At engi er einna hvatastrDann merkt er, wenn er auf kühne (andere) Männer trifft, dass keiner der Allertapferste ist8 HÁVAMÁL 64,4 (=JÓNSSON, ARKIV 192. JÓNSSON 80). FÁFNISMÁL 17, 4 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 192).  192 Hyggz vætr hvatr fyrir! Der Kühne sorgt sich nicht um sich LOKASENNA 15,6 (= JÓNSSON, ARKIV 192. JÓNSSON 80).

From the conclusion of this evening’s paper:

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 he 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 enabling artistic nuance among those composers whose job it was to transmit the Norse oral corpus into the world of the written narrative.

Return to In the Beginning.

Return to Applications, Concordance.