Applications 9. Proverbs in Saxo and in the Sagas.
Words and Things in the Germanic North: Lexical and Semantic Studies, Session 27.   Medieval Academy, 83rd Annual Meeting. Vancouver, 4 April 2008.

     This paper is actually about the proverbial eloquence of Ericus disertus in Book V of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and the extent to which that repertoire can be associated with proverbial materials of the Eddic poems and the Old Icelandic sagas. Its purpose is to contribute to our understanding of the Danish historian’s awareness of contemporary Icelandic literature and especially the cultural wisdom it contained.

     I am compiling an online database on Proverbs and Proverbial Materials in the Old Icelandic Sagas. An intimate paroemiological acquaintance with the Old Icelandic corpus can help us understand better the relationship of that literature to what Theodore M. Andersson, in 1966, termed the “oral family saga”, or what we might more generally think of as the “oral saga’, all those stories the Icelanders ever told, that vast and amorphous tradition, used as the primary source for the written page. [“The Textual Evidence for an Oral Family Saga.” Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 80, 1966, 1-23.] Proverbs are among the building blocks of oral narrative, and the ways in which they were brought to the extant text can provide clues as to the nature of that oral tradition lying at its roots. I also think that studying the ways in which composers of sagas use paroemial texts can contribute to our ongoing consideration of that question posed by Andersson in 1970, when he wrote “To my knowledge no one has asked what the point of a saga is.” [“The Displacement of the Heroic Ideal in the Family Sagas,” Speculum 45 1970, 575-593.] The proverbs used and the patterns of their occurrence can be most helpful as signals of composers’ specific intentions and also, more comprehensively, of the

Over four hundred years of scholarship leave us still without the definitive answer to the question, “What is the point of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum?,” nor is my paper intended to augment this long debate. He himself attributes the undertaking to the insistence of Absolon, Archbishop of Lund, who “had always been fired with a passionate zeal to glorify our fatherland.” “Other nations are in the habit of vaunting the fame of their achievements and joy in recollecting their ancestors” and the archbishop, not wanting Denmark “to go without some noble document of this kind,” delegated the task finally to Saxo, -- “the least of his retinue,” the writer remarks humbly – that “the representation of our people should not lie forgotten under ancient mould; but be blest with a literary memorial.”

      Concepts of what constitutes history and of how that content, once defined, should be rendered in its recounting vary, of course, from age to age, and a simple, clear and unbiased narration of events was certainly not Saxo’s intention for his literary memorial to Denmark’s glory. Thus, one view of the work has it in four parts, [SEE HANDOUT] of four books each, devoted to four periods of Danish history. Kurt Johannesson regards the first four books as illustrative of the four cardinal virtues, particularly fortitudo; each succeeding four presenting, respectively, examples of temperantia; iustitia, in the form of pietas; and last, prudentia. Much debate over Saxo’s use and shaping of his sources on this rhetorical stage, “where everything illustrates or denotes something else” [Eric Christiansen, SG, 34] lies with the uncertain extent to which he allowed “his underlying philosophical principles [to] determine what he wrote.” [EC, SG, 30] Eric Christiansen sees him as “beginning with a collection of narratives and then refashioning them in the way that would evoke the greatest number of intellectual repercussions,” [EC, SG, 37] and it is surely this preoccupation with artfully contrived complexity that

     In describing his method of historical scholarship, Saxo himself states, perhaps only rhetorically, that he derives his Danish history from runic inscriptions engraved on rocks and from “compositions of a poetical nature.” “Adhering to these tracks as if to some ancient volumes,” he says, he has “assiduously rendered one metre for another” attempting to produce “a faithful image of the past” rather than “a flashy exhibition of style.” Although his subsequent text seems to belie several of these claims, he goes further in this portion of his Preface, as elsewhere, to emphasize the primitive methods of his own people in recording their achievements.

      For by contrast, the Icelanders, “the barrenness of whose native soil allows no self-indulgence,” “devote all their time to improving our knowledge of others’ deeds, compensating for poverty by their intelligence.” “Regarding it as pleasure to commemorate the achievements of every nation,” they find it “as elevating to discourse on the prowess of others as to display their own.” Saxo says he has thus “scrutinized their store of historical treasures,” “copying their narratives” for a “considerable part” of his work, “not scorning, where I recognized such skill in ancient lore, to take these men as witnesses.”
Axel Olrik in particular developed an intricate series of logically sequential conjectures over the likely sources of Saxo’s stories, their West or East Norse provenance and their original forms, reaching rather questionable conclusions that much of the material related to Icelandic analogues or from texts seemingly Icelandic in their apparent nature came in fact from Norway. Bjarni Gúðnason, however, defends direct Icelandic influence, recalling the presence in the court of Archbishop Absolon of one Arnaldus Tylensis, mentioned in Book 14 by Saxo – “learned in ancient sagas and told them well,” he wrote – perhaps to be identified with an Arnhallr Þorvaldsson, placed by Skáldatal in the court of Valdimar the Great (1157-82).[See also A. Olrik, ] He finds it unlikely that Saxo had only this one native informant for Icelandic traditions, and this chance reference to one Icelander within Saxo’s circle certainly can not exclude the possibility of unnamed others. The fact that Saxo describes himself as “copying their narratives” might Bjarkamál]

      Advocates of a written source for the story of Ericus disertus debated over its being either: a) a brief, þáttr-like narrative, of a clever or otherwise remarkable commoner on a visit to a king’s court, of which we have over forty preserved in association with the konungasögur, or sagas of the Norwegian kings, or b) perhaps instead a more complex composition of several parts, including a bridal quest and of a generally exotic and fantastic nature, similar to the fornaldarsögur, or sagas of ancient times. The tone and content of this genre seems consistently echoed in the first books of the Gesta, as Powell and others have noticed.

      Although proverbial material is by no means alien to the latter genre, only a couple of extant fornaldarsögur revel in it [(Mágus saga jarls), Bósa saga, Hrólfs saga kraka], and none so much as some of the later Íslendingasögur, or Family sagas, do [Grettla, Njála]. Since Saxo, from Johannesson’s plausible point of view, wrote Book V at least partially with the idea of exemplifying temperantia through the wisely considered eloquence of Ericus, it is most likely that he would have augmented the paroemial component of any narrative he had borrowed for the core of his hero’s adventures. Certainly the density of occurrence of proverbs in Book V is much higher than that in any other part of the Gesta, and most of them are in the speeches and advice of the eloquent hero. Others, long before today, have noticed Saxo’s recourse to Latin rhetorical figures in telling old Germanic stories – here, I will discuss some proverbs which seem of northern Germanic stock, or which at least demonstrably found their way into the northern paroemial repertoire, assimilated then by

I. Fools. The wisdom formulas of the sagas frequently echo passages in the Elder Edda, and particularly portions of Hávamál. Presumably composers, their characters and their audience regarded the Eddic corpus as their primary repository of traditional wisdom, and reference to it would have added weight to expressed opinion as well as helping establish the priorities and assumptions of value of the narrators. Saxo seems also aware of paroemial material which we find in the Eddic poems. Eric’s entrance into Frothi’s court is inhospitably received – a hide is pulled from under him, causing him to fall. Frothi is scolded by his wife for this humiliation of a guest, “a king should not be allowed to play such tricks,” [PF 129] perhaps with Saxo thinking here of Hávamál’s injunction “never hold up to scorn or to mockery/ a guest or a wanderer.” [Hávamál v. 132]. The king responds by criticizing Ericus’ “foolishness in not watching for a trap.” [PF 129] The trick was excusable, he argued, because Eric had been careless. This oddly perverse reasoning might seem more acceptable in light of the first advice of Hávamál: “All entrances, before you walk forward,/you should look at,/you should spy out;/ for you can’t know ”[Hávamál v. 1]

      Frothi’s court at the time of Eric’s arrival is in disarray because of the corrupting influence of the sons of Vestmar, one of whom, Grep, goes down to the coast to meet the newly arrived hero. Like Unferth at the court of Hrothgar, Grep challenges the newcomer, calling him a fool, questioning his “silly errand.” Ericus responds, “A blockhead, unrestrained and unseemly in his emotions, cannot conduct his affairs with due moderation.” [PF, V. 127.] Calling upon this same inventory of traditional sayings about fools, Grep complains, “It is hard to bring a case against a buffoon” who uses “words without expressing a meaning.” “Brainless talk . . . rebounds on the head of him who uttered it” and “words poured forth with too little wit return to plague the deliverer.” answers Ericus.

      A closely related passage is the warning of Sigrdrífa to Sigurd in the poem named for that valkyrie, “That I advise you, that at the Assembly/you do not contend with a fool;/for the stupid man often permits himself to say/worse words than he knows.” [Sigrdr. v. 24.] Elsewhere I have tried to show how north Germanic proverbial wisdom about fools may be central to our understanding of the purpose of Hrafnkels saga, and recent compilations of Icelandic málshættir make it clear that this topic has remained of interest even in the phraseology of modern Iceland.

II. Wolves. In responding to Grep’s attack by emphasizing the danger of the presence of such a person in Frothi’s court, Ericus refers, within 15 lines of the poem, to two Eddic admonitions regarding the dangers of close dealings with metaphorical wolves: “As soon as we first detect a pair of suspicious wolf’s ears,/we believe the creature itself is lurking near,” he observes in his intuitive understanding of Grep’s nature–and we of course recall that in the medieval North the word vargr, which originally meant wolf, was used of outlaws in legal texts. And with reference to Grep’s evil influence on Frothi – “Whoever nurses a wolf in his home is generally thought/to be fostering a thief, a murderer of his own household.” The former of these is found in Fáfnismál, verse 35, where Sigurd is listening to the birds’ warning him of the need to kill the greedy and deceptive Regin after the slaying of his dragon brother. And the latter is used by Brynhild, in Sigurðar kviða in skamma, verse 12, when she forces Gunnar to undertake killing not only Sigurd, but also his son by Guðrun. And both these passages are used in prose by the composer of Völsunga saga. Again, the valkyrie Sigrdrífa advises Sigurd, “never trust/the oaths of a wrongdoer’s brat,/whether you are his brother’s slayer/or you felled the father;/the wolf is in the young son,/though he seems to be gladdened by gold.” [Sigrdr. v. 35.]

     It is no surprise that wolves suffered a fairly unsavory reputation among medieval Europeans, more vulnerable to natural predators than we are today. The TPMA has a full twenty pages of data from medieval European literature on proverbs using the figure of the wolf, citing a number in the OI sagas, and interestingly the sometimes courtly narrative Laxdœla saga (which incidentally I have noticed shares with Sverris saga an unexpected taste for paroemial texts employing images from nature) has two, “a hungry wolf is bound to wage a hard battle” and “when one wolf hunts for another he may eat the prey.” We see Saxo, however, using two proverbial images of the wolf, both closely analogous to texts in the legendary Eddic poems of the Völsungs, and occurring within a short distance of each other in his own text, leading us to conclude that he was aware of at least some of the poems of Sigurd. A third citation is found later in Book V when Ericus makes his way into the camp of Olimar, the Hunnish king of the East, to spy on this enemy of Frothi. Confronted by Olimar, he declares, “Frothi never waits at home, lingering in his halls, for a hostile army. . . . Nobody has ever won victory by snoring, nor has any sleeping wolf found a carcase.” [PF, V. 145.] In this passage Saxo has Ericus recall almost verbatim verse 58 of Hávamál: “He should get up early, the man who means to take/another’s life or property;/the slumbering wolf does not get the ham,/nor the sleeping man victory.” Here, as with the Völsung analogues, there seems little doubt of Saxo’s awareness of this passage which we find now in the Eddic poem. The currency of the former part of this text in Old Icelandic narrative tradition is attested by Hreiðar the fool in his þáttr, found in Morkinskinna, embedded in the saga of Magnus the Good, when he awakens his brother upon hearing the king’s trumpets calling a meeting [Mork., FJ 15. 425.] “Wake up brother! A sleeping man’s an ignorant man too!” Here the text is used with dramatic irony, since it is Hreiðar who is puzzled by the trumpet sound.

III. Feud. The Íslendingasögur in particular have been thought to have their origins partially in the custom of recounting and remembering feud and its accompanying litigation, and there is a large repository of paroemial wisdom associated with this activity. Early Germanic narratives outside of Icelandic attest to this was a preoccupation elsewhere as well. [Beowulf, Hildebrantslied]

1. Reciprocity. Ericus answers the emissaries of the Norwegian king Gøtar, seeking peace “It’s a shameless robber who is the first to ask for a truce or ventures to offer one to blameless men. Those who long for possession must struggle for it; blow must be pitted against blow, hatred repel hatred.” [PF, V, 144] Davidson points to an analogous sentiment in Grettis saga [47]: where the hero, learning of his brother’s killing, is confident of vengeance being exacted: “It is an old saying,” said Grettir, “that one misfortune is overcome by suffering a greater one. There is greater consolation than money, and I expect Atli to be avenged. As for me, many people will be pleased to escape from me in one piece.”

2. Restraint and seemly delay. Roller kills Grep when the latter rushes to attack his competitor, Ericus, after the latter has revealed before the Danish court Grep’s infidelity with the Queen. King Frothi comments threateningly upon this killing: “The assassin’s pleasure will often be short-lived and the joy of his hand brief once it has struck.” [PF 130] The composer of Njáls saga has chosen to place this proverb successively in the mouths of three different characters, once in each of the three parts of his work, I think as a way of marking the thematic thread of his story, the conflict between impulsiveness and careful restraint among relatively innocent inhabitants of a world in which a very small handful of evil people work determinedly towards destructive ends. Thus, after the burning at Bergþórshváll to which he had been forced by the rash goading of others, Flosi Þórðarson seeks help in the ensuing resolution of the conflict from Hall of Síða, one of Iceland’s first Christian converts, who is developed in this last part of the saga as one of the most spiritually receptive to the new teachings. "Hall said, ‘It’s turned out just as the saying goes, that the hand’s joy in the blow is brief. The very men in your company who were once pushing for trouble are now hanging their heads. But I´m duty bound to lend you my support in any way I can.’"

     The moment for open combat in feud must be chosen carefully, and when Gunvara, betrothed to Ericus by a trick he played on her brother Frothi, warns him that his life at court is in danger – she declares “they must flee; it would be a distinct advantage if they could return safely while the wagon was still sound.” [PF 134] After a chase and ensuing battle, the brothers save Frothi from drowning, gain his trust and become his men, a more productive ending than would have occurred if Ericus had not followed Gunvara’s advice to flight. The proverbial admonition to preserve the wagon whole is found in several of the kings’ sagas and also in Egils saga, where Skalla-Grímr, attempting to persuade Þórólfr not to return to Norway because of his tragic intuitive awareness of the danger the royal family represented to his own kin, observes, it is good to take a whole wagon home – “Your travels have earned you a great reputation, but there’s a saying ‘when travels are many, experiences are mixed’.” This advice is meant to address the importance of knowing when to avoid situations that could lead to violent confrontation, like Olaf the Peacock’s advice to his son Kjartan in Laxdæla saga, when the latter has become violently outraged by the injuries of Guðrún and her brothers – “‘Whole flesh is easier to dress than wounds, my son,’ he said.” [PC 166] hoping to keep Kjartan

     Another aspect of the finesse required for successful feud is inherent in the advice of Frothi to Grep when the latter, enraged by his unsuccessful verbal sparring with Ericus, wants to destroy him immediately. Wait, says Frothi–“hasty schemes often misfired” – “the clever individual was one who could throw a curb on his rage and interrupt his violent impetuosity in time.” [PF 128]The advantage of vengeance served cold, in the style of the familiar Sicilian proverb, is addressed by the young Grettir when men hold him back from killing the youthful Auðun who has treated him roughly–“Only a slave takes vengeance at once, and a coward never.”

3. Support. The hostile climate of feud is to some extent ameliorated by loyal friends and relatives. Indeed without such loyalty, life becomes mortally precarious. As Ericus approaches Frothi’s palace for the first time, he asks his brother to follow close behind him. When royal servants cause him to trip, he remarks that “a brotherless man has a bare back.” [PF, 128] This proverb is used by Grettir in the last tragic scene of his life, as he makes a final appeal to Illugi for help. It is used also in Njála, but with some irony, by Kári Solmundarson of his miles gloriosus style helper, Björn the White – a not altogether auspicious nickname, sometimes associated with cowardice – whom he takes with him in the first episode of vengeance for the burning of Njáll and his family. Similar to Böðvar Bjarki and his remaking of the cowardly Höttr into the hero Hjalti in Hrólfs saga kraka, Kari is instrumental in the partial remaking of Björn, whose wife despises his boasting ways. To her questioning whether Björn was any use to him, the avenging hero responds, “Bare is the back of a brotherless man. . . .He was supportive to me in every way he could be.” [RC 293]

4. (Unsuitable) friends. Conflict resolution by feud in Iceland required not only the support of relatives but also a broader political base relying on friendship, and early Germanic law recognized too the value of friends’ oaths as evidence of one’s innocence of a crime. Proverbs concerning the value of friends are so universal as to make their consideration here useless, but restrictions on the choice of reliable friends is another matter. If early north Germanic society held a clear and intricate vision of the responsibilities for vengeance and the places where help might be sought, it also showed proverbial awareness of where such trust was unsafe. In his first heated exchange with Grep, Ericus accuses him of his faithlessness in serving Frothi and his wife: “He is deceived who wants a servant for his friend;/a menial often damages his master.” [PF V, 127] The same sentiment is ironically expressed by Þorbjörn Öngull when Grettir’s thrall, Glaumr, reveals his master’s situation to his determined killer, “This proves the old saying, that old friendships are the last to break and also, in your case, that a slave makes a poor friend, Glaum.” [CSI II, 82] And in Njáls saga when Hallbjörn finds that his gullible brother Otkell has let the scoundrel Skamkell go to powerful men for advice in their conflict with Gunnar of Hlíðarendi, he knows Skamkell will cause trouble rather than work for a resolution – “It’s bad to have a scoundrel for a best friend, and we will always be sorry that you turned back” he scolds Otkell – it’s not a clever move to send the worst of liars on an errand on which, it may be said, men’s lives depend.” [RC 85] Distrust of thralls is expressed also in Konungs Skuggsjá, the Norwegian version of the King’s Mirror, and of course there is the memorable example of Hákon jarl, slain by his thrall, Karkr, as they lie buried in a pigsty, hiding from Olaf Tryggvason, who has loudly promised a reward for his head.

5. Equality of opposing forces in feud. The stark recognition that the advantages of conflict reside with superior force, and the concomitant decision as to whether or not confrontation is fair or advisable finds expression at several points in Book V, as well as in the sagas. Thus, when Eric defeats Westmar in a tug-a-war conflict, Frothi declares, “I think it is difficult to tug the rope against a strong man.” [PF 133] Used in several sagas, this original consideration of physical inequality comes to be applied abstractly in Njáls saga, where Gunnhild advises her son, Harald Grey-Cloak not to obstruct Hrútr Herjólfsson from returning to Unnr in Iceland, commenting with this fixed phrase not on the Icelander’s physical strength, but rather on his strong will. [Ól. S., Hrólfs s. K., Vatnsd. Kjalnes.]  Grep’s hostile response to Ericus when the latter wins their initial battle of words is tempered by Frothi’s advice, that “it was improper for a few men to be attacked by a great swarm.” [PF 128]  Later in the chapter, when Ericus visits the court of the Huns the king has him seized, intending retribution for the hero’s defamation of his daughter’s reputation before her husband, Frothi “. . . but Eric pointed out how unsuitable it was for one creature to be manhandled by many.” [PF 145] This “allayed the king’s temper, and he pardoned Ericus.” It is with the same phrase in mind that the composer of Völsunga saga has Sigmund respond to his recognition of overwhelming odds in his mortal battle with King Lyngvi after he has been deserted by Odin: “The king did not seek to protect himself and fiercely urged his men on. Now it is as they say: no one is able against many.” This observation is found also in eight or so other sagas and is clearly integral to feud mentality.

      In his study of Saxo’s Icelandic sources, Bjarni Guðnason remarks upon references to Icelanders in the introductions to several contemporary histories–Saxo, who wrote the Gesta over a period of several decades, would have had “access to most Icelandic works that touched on Danish history.” He could have used the archiepiscopal library of Lund, where Icelanders had been visiting intermittently through the previous century. Although the wisdom of Ericus disertus bears no clear independent connection to any of the Íslendingasögur, which in any case are mostly thought to have reached the written page after Saxo’s work was done, it draws upon that same proverbial repertoire as those sagas do. There is some likelihood of his familiarity with a text of Hávamál, and there are close connections between the phraseology of Book V and the paroemial thinking of the heroes of some of the fornaldarsögur. There are, I think, good reasons to pursue further the relation of the proverbs of Saxo to those of the sagas and other early Icelandic literature.

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