Applications 29. Proverbial Echoes and the Point of Hœnsa-Þóris saga: "Ek ætla þar vándum manni at duga sem þú ert."Presented at the First Annual Session of the Willard T. Fiske Icelandic Collection, Cornell University Library, 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, 12-15 May 2016.

            Hœnsa-Þóris saga is grouped by the editors of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders among several later and mostly shorter 13th-century narratives under the heading “Wealth and Power,” and although their settings are some centuries earlier than their composition, they have been much viewed as owing their inspiration to contemporary conflicts over power between the traditional leaders of the Commonwealth days and those who succeeded them as Iceland came under Norwegian rule. The saga I discuss today, along with Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða and Bandamanna saga, also included in this group, pursues agendas variously critical of the old and decadent chieftain class, its heedless aristocratic arrogance on the one hand, and on the other, its unscrupulous greed, exacerbated by the gradual erosion of its traditional sources of power and wealth. While there is little doubt of such common ideological interests in the origins of all three of these sagas, it is my contention here that the texts of the former two contain phraseological and other evidence of related composition and analogous agendas. Both consider kinds of people with whom it is disadvantageous to have dealings. Hrafnkatla, as I have shown elsewhere, warns of associations with foolish men, and Hœnsa-Þóris saga, with men who are bad. Both sorts are tainted by ógæfa, a trait of lucklessness recognized in the Saga World as harmful to its possessors and to those take up with them.

            The Saga of Hen-Thorir begins and ends its narrative speaking of Tungu-Oddr, a bad enough fellow to avoid, a powerful, bullying chieftain in Borgarfjörður of whom the composer humorously remarks, “Hann var kallaðr Tungu-Oddr; engi var hann kallaðr jafnaðarmaðr.” [IF3.3-4.ch1.] [HANDOUT] His authority is challenged early in the tale when Ǫrn, a Norwegian merchant newly arrived with goods to sell, refuses to be ruled by Oddr’s heraðstjórn, or traditional privilege of control over commerce in the district. Inflexibly insisting upon modern, continental trading customs of the free market, Ǫrn thus can’t sell in Iceland . . . until he is taken under the wing of Blund-Ketill, one of the best of men. Of him the composer speaks only well: “one of the richest men . . . he owned thirty tenant farms and was the most popular man in the district,” as Tungu-Oddr most obviously was not! [CSI5.240,ch.1:IF3.5.ch1.] The powerful chieftain is dangerously resentful of Ketill’s usurpation of his traditional office. Warned of the dangers his protection of Ǫrn may incur, though, Blund-Ketill dismisses them: “Since our case isn’t any worse than Odd’s, it could be that it will turn out well for us.” [CSI5.241,ch.3;] The latter’s authority had already been challenged by Ǫrn when he defied him, saying “We intend to set the price for our property, . . since you don’t own a penny’s worth of our goods. This time all you’ll be able to decide on is to talk.”
[CSI5.241,ch.2;] Oddr himself recognized the practical weakness of his position should he attempt to respond, and so he let matters lie: “. . . he is a man who is both well liked and ambitious. For now I’ll just let things stand as they are.” [CSI5.242,ch.3;] With Tungu-Oddr’s unpleasantly threatening character thus matched by the courageous benevolence of Blund-Ketill, the composer then moves on to the other decidedly bad figure in the story, the eponymous subject himself:

            Þórir, of impoverished origins so insignificant we are not even told his father’s name, created wealth by peddling goods between districts, a method of commerce generally not respected by established members of the community. Socio-economic theorists who examine this saga see a clash between the earlier, Commonwealth, traditions of commerce in which trade was maintained as an accompanying, honor-imbuing activity of the landed class and the new, free, profit-driven economy entering Iceland as that country fell under the power of the Norwegian crown in the 1260s. Much closer to the latter sort of businessman is Hœnsa-Þórir, or Hen-Þórir, his nick-name, surely not complimentary, said to derive from an expedition north with poultry which he sold there at good profit! Repeatedly noticing increases in his wealth, the composer simultaneously, and humorously emphasizes the persistence of his unpopularity. His dealings are for profit, and he displays no interest in those social interactions and niceties which his superiors admire. As the story develops, however, he becomes ever more clearly an ill-disposed individual, utterly unconcerned for the society in which he gains his wealth and with no kind regard for its members. In this saga there is keen awareness that popularity is a desirable if not indeed essential concomitant of power, whether financial or political in its origins, so Hen-Þórir’s life is not universally happy. Much weaker in his society than Tungu-Oddr, his badness and unpopularity render him vulnerable to attack, even to annihilation.

            The insecurity of this situation drives him to approach his goði, Arngrímr, and offer to foster his son, Helgi, in return for protection. Arngrímr, who is not a bad man, initially and wisely refuses, “It seems to me that there’s very little honour to me in having this fostering arrangement,” but he likes money, and he caves in easily when Þórir adds the gift of half his wealth to the boy in the bargain. [CSI5.240,ch.2] And at this point the composer ironically has the goði support his greed-based acquiescence with the misuse of traditional wisdom: “I think it’s a proven fact that one doesn’t turn down a good offer.” [CSI5.242,ch.2] Now, here he accesses the proverb, ‘It is bad to turn down what is offered well’ [TPMA 1.110].  Though the offer is lucratively generous, however, the burdens of support it entails could obviously prove damaging for Arngrímr, in fact ruinous, as indeed they do! And his previous comments critical of Hen-Thorir indicate that he certainly knows he is taking a big risk.

            And the audience surely recognized the composer’s intentional misuse by Arngrímr of this bit of wisdom from intertextual associations, to judge by extant witnesses. On the same grounds, for instance, Ǫrvarr-Oddr enters into blood brotherhood with a minimally disguised Óðinn, an arrangement which proves predictably unhelpful. Readers will recall also the scolding of Þúríðr, sorceress foster-mother of Þorbjǫrn Ǫngull in Grettla, when the outlaw spurns the false promise of safety if he leaves Drangey: “You have made them many kind offers but they turn them all down, and there are few more certain ways to court trouble than to refuse what is good.”—the problem here being that Þorbjǫrn’s offer, like Óðinn’s and Hœnsa-Þórir’s, is not a good one. Arngrímr and his audience both understand the flaw in his justification—he knows he is entering foolishly into a bargain with a bad man—as it turns out, to his complete undoing.

            Late in one lean winter Blund-Ketill tries to buy hay from Hœnsa-Þórir, who refuses to sell, though he has much in surplus. Ketill thus resorts to enforced purchase, leaving payment and enough hay for Þórir’s livestock. [1.] The latter chooses to treat this as theft, approaching first Arngrímr, who out of simple greed had earlier injudiciously rendered himself obligated to Þórir’s defense well beyond the ordinary responsibility of goði to þingmaðr, but who now sorely regrets the obligations he undertook: “I think to help a man like you is to help an evil man.” (því at ek ætla þar vándum manni at duga, sem þú ert.) [CSI 5:245,ch.6; ÍF 3:17, ch. 6] The syntactic structure of this phrase echoes that, in Hrafnkatla, of Sámr to Þorbjǫrn, who has sought his suppport in litigation over the killing of his son, for which he has most unwisely refused generous compensation: “I go into conflict with Hrafnkel unwillingly. I do this mainly for the sake of my relationship with you. But you ought to know that I think I'm helping a fool [in helping you]” (Ófúss geng ek at þessu.  Meir geri ek þat fyrir frændsemi sakar við þik. En vita skaltu, at mér þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert.) [CSI5.267,ch.6;ÍF11:108,ch.3], and interestingly, the construction is found nowhere else in the Íslendingasögur than these two instances. Saga readers will recall also a proverb used by Grettir when he realized that blame for an accidental conflagration caused when he fetched fire for some merchants while stranded in a storm one night in Norway would bring him harm, “it now turned out, as he feared, that they would repay him ill . . ., and he says it is bad to give help to unworthy people” [CSI 2:111, ÍF 7:131,ch.38.]

            [2.] Þórir then approaches Tungu-Oddr, who responds with predictable lack of sympathy, “I would have done the same thing if I had been in need.” [CSI5.245,ch.6] His third attempt to get help—in this narrative whose composer constantly presents things in threes—proves successful. [3.] Þorvaldr Tungu-Oddsson, newly returned from a sojourn abroad, still comfortably distant from, maybe feeling superior to, these petty quarrels of local Icelanders, succumbs readily when Þórir offers him half his wealth for support. The previous recipient of this favour, Arngrímr, twice warns him: “you are not helping a decent man in that one” and “I would advise you one more time, . . . against taking on this case . . . I suspect there will be grave consequences,” but the traveller insists, true to the contemporary values of his chieftain class, “I won’t say no to getting money.” [CSI5.246,ch.7.] Immediate disillusionment occurs when Þórir demands they go straightaway to summons Blund-Ketill for theft. Þorvaldr now admits his error, “it might turn out . . . you are not a man of good luck, and . . . something bad will happen because of you.” [CSI5.247,ch.7.] Disaster follows the summons when Ǫrn the Norwegian, naively insensed at his host’s humiliation, impetuously shoots an arrow at the visitors, killing the youth, Helgi Arngrímsson. Hen-Þórir, close by, pretends that, dying, Helgi whispered “Brenni, brenni, Blund-Ketill inni” upon which the bereaved Arngrímr comments, in traditional paroemial terms, “Bad things come from bad people” and “this matter started off badly, and it could be that it will end that way.” [CSI 5.248,ch.8.]

            When the flames begin to leap high and the popular farmer, Blund-Ketill, asks Hœnsa-Þórir if any might be spared, the answer, “there was no other choice than to burn” goes against Saga-World custom with such events as well as any imaginable human decency. [CSI5.248,ch.9.] When matters reach the Alþing, Þorvaldr receives three-year banishment, and Arngrímr outlawry for life. Back in the countryside, separate from this formal litigation, and at a personal level, Hersteinn, Blund-Ketill’s surviving son, beheads Hœnsa-Þórir and carries this trophy of the worst of men to the assembly, where he enjoys wide approval for his deed.

            Now, Hersteinn’s disillusionment with traditional leadership came when he and his foster-father had approached Tungu-Oddr for help following the burning. The chieftain reaffirmed his thorough-going greedy badness when, instead of helping, he came to the smoking ruins, took a burning timber from them, rode around claiming the property for his own, and left after thus acquiring this new piece of real estate! [CSI5.249ch.9.] His nature is similarly revealed in a final episode of the saga [replete with concidences more appropriate to light modern comedy] where his other son, Þóroddr becomes smitten by Jófríðr, the daughter of Gunnar Hlífarson, who had moved to Blund-Ketill’s farm after the burning. When Tungu-Oddr intends to attack the squatter and burn the house he had built there, Þóroddr preempts the undertaking by arriving first, swiftly arranging their marriage and then informing his newly arrived father of how his incendiary plans have been frustrated. The angry chieftain complains, “That is outrageous. Would you be any worse off by marrying the woman after we killed Gunnar, who has been our worst enemy?” [CSI5.259,ch.17.] The improbable brutality of this question humorously exaggerates the depressingly impoverished empathy of the chieftain, whose character was already devoid of redeeming features.

            This group of shorter, later sagas does not go beyond the simple development of characters’ surface traits, sometimes to the frustration of literary-critical readers, but in Hœnsa-Þóris saga, at least, those ethical values and personal qualities of which the composer disapproves are never in reasonable doubt. As Gunnarr remarks when admitting to having duped Þórðr Gellir into joining the campaign against the burners of Blund-Ketill, “It’s a great thing now if you chieftains can test which of you is strongest, for you’ve long been at each other’s throats like wolves.” The goðar of this saga, [like those of later 13th-century Iceland], are people whose badness makes them as dangerous of association as is Hœnsa-Þórir with his ill nature and insecurity. If ‘evil comes of evil men,’ then as this saga shows repeatedly, it is best, as with the foolish in Hrafnkatla, to avoid helping or even dealing with them. Stanzas 122-123 of Hávamál reinforce such advice, “you should never bandy words / with a stupid fool; // for from a wicked man you will never get a good return.” It is in the paroemial cognitive patterning of such ethical wisdom that the points of these two sagas find their origin and direction.