Applications 10.  Phraseological Approaches to the Composition of Sverris saga.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
  [heorot@sasktel.net]

Sverris saga, the royal biography of King Sverrir of Norway [1151 (1177(84)- 1202], is oddly mixed in content. Born in Norway, to one Gunnhildr and a comb-maker or smith, around 1150 and coming at age 5 to the Faroes to be fostered by his paternal uncle, Hrói, bishop of Kirkjunes, Sverrir Unásson, [or Uni, from Latin source?] as he was first known, was clerically educated and ordained to the priesthood before his mother supposedly told him of his royal parentage as a son of King Sigurðr munn. His journey to the throne, beginning after this revelation in 1176 and finally accomplished in 1184 with the death of King Magnús Erlingsson, was succeeded by the almost immediate challenges of other claimants, and when these were quelled his energies were taken up with the defense of the crown's rights of power against the encroachments of the church, an endeavour in which Sverrir, as a son also of that institution, made an unusually knowledgeable and articulate royal opponent. At his death, he remarked, "The kingdom has brought me labour and unrest and trouble rather than peace and a quiet life. But so it is that many have envied me my rank, and have let their envy grow to full enmity. May God forgive them all; and let my Lord now judge between me and them, and decide all my cause." [Sephton, 231-2. "Hefi ei meira starf, ófrið ok vandræði haft í ríkinu en kyrrsæti eðr mikit hóglífi. Er svá at minni virðingu sem margir hafi verit mínir öfundarmenn, þeir er þat hafa látit ganga fyrir fullan fjándskap við mik, sem nú fyrirgefi Guð þeim þat öllum. Ok dæmi Guð milli vár ok allt mitt mál."]

The extant narrative of his life is preserved in four parchment manuscripts and some fragments [See Handout]. It is a chaotic assortment of episodes: prophetic dreams, political manouvres, but mostly action--strenuous marches through Norway seeking support to the throne, naval expeditions, battles on sea and on land against his royal opponents, the building and subsequent loss of ships and fleets and fortresses. His clerical background is stressed in scenes where the biographer shows his Christian magnanimity with defeated enemies, and his speeches, attributed by its most recent editor to the invention of the saga's primary composer, are so authentic in tone and incisive in argument that some scholars have taken them for interpolations of the king's own writing. The Prologue to Sverris saga in AM 327 4to, a Norwegian manuscript from around 1300, leaves no doubt as to its partial authorship by Abbot Karl Jónsson of Þingeyraklaustur, nor of the fact that the subject himself oversaw its composition – "which Abbot Karl Jónsson first wrote but King Sverrir himself sat over him and decided what should be written" [“er fyrst ritaði Karl ábóti Jónsson, en yfir sat sjálfr Sverrir konungr ok réð fyrir hvat rita skyldi”]. Since both men were educated ecclesiastics in the first place, it is not surprising that the king's purported speeches demonstrate remarkable rhetorical skill and training which, on Sverri's part, should have promised a good future in the church if he had not chosen his secular career instead.

Responsibility for the whole extant text is another matter, however, since the first part of the saga, about Sverri´r's ascent to power, composed under the king's eye, they called Grýla after the Norse monster of that name. [ “kölluðu þeir þann hlut bóku fyrir því Grýlu” ]. and the prologue adds, "That portion was not brought along far -- [ “er sú frásögn eigi langt fram komin.” [ÍF XXX, Reykjavík, 2007, 3] ]  The composer of the remainder is not specifically identified in this earlier manuscript – nor, however, does the wording preclude its also having been written by the Abbot. Its sources are said to be derived from "the relation of those who remembered what happened, having actually seen or heard it, and some of them had been with King Sverrir in battles. Some of these stories were fixed in memory, having been written down directly the events occurred, and they have not been altered since." [Sephton 1]

While the intention of this earlier account is obviously to affirm the accuracy of the narrative, a more detailed passage in the Prologue to Sverris saga in the late 14th-century Flateyjarbók expands upon the saga's composition: "Priest Styrmir, the historian, followed that book [Karl's] when he wrote, and Priest Magnus Thorhallsson [one of the writers of Flateyjarbók] wrote this Saga of Sverrir following that book [of Styrmir's]" [239] [ “eftir þeira manna frásögn er minni höfðu til svá at þeir sjálfir höfðu sét ok heyrt þessi tíðendi, ok þeir menn sumir höfðu verit í orrostum með Sverri konungi.” [ÍF XXX, 285]] Ironically, these details are included with the explicit intention of further authenticating the text: "The narrative therefore cannot have become corrupted by passing from mouth to mouth." [[Sephton, 239] “Má því eigi þetta mál í munni gengizk hafa.” [IF, 285]]

Much of the scholarship of Sverris saga has thus been concerned with the extent of Abbot Karl’s composition and of the subsequent hand of Styrmir inn fróði or perhaps others in its production. From an early textual perspective, the abbot’s part ended with the conclusion of Grýla, that point in the text then also debated, but in any case with Styrmir writing the continuation to the end of the saga. Guðbrandur Vigfússon, however, proposed another view, that the entire work was Abbot Karl's. “The whole saga is of one cast, precluding any reasonable thought of a double authorship, least of all by men so far removed as were Karl and Styrmir.” [Prolegomena to Sturlunga saga, Oxford, 1878, I, lxxi] This view, with some variations among succeeding textual critics, has become the dominant one, with general but not unanimous agreement that Grýla ends with chapter 100, following the death of King Magnús and its aftermath. Today I will consider a few points of phraseological evidence regarding this puzzle of composition – proverbial allusions, humorous phrases of an almost formulaic nature, proverb clustering at some critical locations in the text, as well as repeated proverbs. In agreement with Vigfússon’s pronouncement, these items indicate a single hand at work, at least intermittently, through the entire text, but with the voice of the king intruding upon or combining with that of the abbot. In this collaborative process a narrative was created whose depths have yet to be analyzed definitively.

The combative rhetoric with which Sverrir was execrated by his enemies, particularly those emanating from the church, identifies in political terms that institution´s objection to his reign. Calling him a guðníðingr, a perpetrator of sacrilege, because as an ordained priest he should never have undertaken the secular office of kingship, let alone given up his sacerdotal duties, they made it clear that, whatever his claim to the Norwegian throne, he had discarded prior and more urgent spiritual commitments. It is in the light of such ideological opposition that the polemical intent of his dreams, as he and his biographer have constructed them, becomes more clear. Thus chapter 42 reports a complex dream Sverrir had before the Battle of Nidaros, where Erlingr Jarl was killed. A man leads him to a roasted male corpse and tells him to eat. Regarding the meal as unclean, the hero demures, but his dream man commands him to obey, for it is God's will: "You will eat and you shall eat; thus wills he who decides/governs all." [ "Þú vilt eta ok þú skalt eta; svá vill sá er öllu ræðr." ] Finding the meal unexpectedly enjoyable as he comes to the head of the corpse, he is admonished by his guide to stop, "and thus he had to leave off " says the Old Norse text. [ "ok varð þá við at skiljask." [IF 30. 42. 66.] ] Sverrir's interpretation of his dream included the death in battle of Erlingr Jarl and his most powerful barons, but also the escape of King Magnús, the leftover roasted head, in this instance. The import of this passage for the audience, however, is best understood in the context of a proverbial allusion established in the reference to God as one who rules, or decides, all. The traditional Old Norse proverb, with its origins in the wisdom of feud interactions, "Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð" (die Beschlüsse) MÁLSHÁTTAKVÆÐI 23, 1 [R.Cook, "Sagas as dramas of the will"] is operative here and is invoked to emphasize Sverrir's contention throughout his biography that he has undertaken the pursuit of monarchy in deference to God's will rather than following his own. The sensitivity of the English translator to this situation is apparent in his loose rendering of "varð þá við at skiljask." with an explicit allusion to this proverb: "the stronger man had his way." Thus, at the same time as this dream engagingly admits Sverri's joy in conquest, it supports his contention that he was not in fact a guðningr but an initially reluctant follower of God's overwhelming will, a point which is made often in the course of the narrative.

The biography, or autobiography, of King Sverrir emphasizes consistently the monarch's adherence to the principles of his ecclesiastical background. He prays on his knees before battle--and in the midst of one where the results are crucial but uncertain he ceases fighting, falls on his knees and prays heroically for divine intervention. To the defeated and to those who throw themselves voluntarily upon his mercy he is unfailingly forgiving. Concomitant with what were meant to be viewed as signs of respect for his training and faith, however, critics for almost two centuries have remarked the presence of a dark and malicious humour, whether exercised by the nebulous biographer or represented by him as coming from the king's own mouth, or resulting from the collaborative dynamic of king and abbot in recounting the adventure. The very idea of titling the account of his ascent to power Grýla, after a monster -- a traditional personified embodiment of that which threatens accepted social order, perhaps even the order of the universe -- casts a viciously humorous light upon his long journey to power.
Aggressive humor at the expense of his enemies emerges with impressive frequency and rhetorical flourish at some points in the text, most notably in his speech following the death of Erlingr Jarl at the battle of Nidaros. He sneers at the promises of Archbishop Eystein to King Magnus's men that "all who die fighting for [him] , their souls will enter Paradise before their blood is cold upon the ground." He acknowledges that battle survivors who stand in sorrow now would have been happy had they been attending his own funeral instead! Senseless to grieve, given the promises of the Archbishop! "Rejoice!" he encourages his defeated enemies at their master's grave, for the "abundance of glorified saints in the town at this moment." --although, he thoughtfully adds, the newly deceased have as yet to perform any miracles. However, and his tone changes from ironic to admonitory, if "as my heart tells me" "all the fine promises . . . are unfulfilled" then "better to pray for the souls of those departed, and also for Erlingr jarl whose arrogance caused him to have the title of king given to his son." [Sephton 50-51.]

In numerous other places this jubilantly vicious humor is exercised, often adorned with proverbial support. On three occasions, the narrative proverbially compares the threat of the Birkibeins to "trolls", "at the door", or "between outhouse and home" humorously emphasizing the powerfully destructive potential of the insurgent forces. The narrator allows both sides to use such expressions of one another's situations, at several points likening the Birkibeins at disadvantage to "sheep in pens" awaiting slaughter, and their foiled pursuit of Erlingr Jarl leaves them "whistling after his track". But Sverrir's men fight so aggressively that "the sooner a man got away the happier he was" And when rebelling peasants' are disappointed in their attack, they are said to have discovered "they had a smaller steak on their spit than if they had had the king on it." "A hungry louse bites hard," exclaims King Sverrir in victory over Magnús, ironically comparing the desperate aggression of his finally successful warfare to the proverbial ferocity of the hungry wolf. No illusions trouble him in this victory--on two occasions the narrator speaks proverbially of his unpopular dominance with sharp irony: "Many a man kisses the hand that he would like to see chopped off." And yet, whatever his right to the throne, his hard-won de facto possession of it is presented always as the will of God, who decides all things -- among many examples, his pre-emptive attack on Thorgrim of Heidmork who was planning to ambush him is explained "their meeting was of another kind than Thorgrim had expected. For God ordered between them that the nobler man had the upper hand." And it is this appeal to God's ultimate power, surely the means to power for the upstart from the Faroes, that rings through his epic quest for Norway's throne. Any arguments de jure must be in defensive response to criticism that only his mother's word supported his royal descent, and that it had never been tried by ordeal--a process which was in any case officially abandoned by the church in 1215, a few years after the pretender's death.
This uncannily effective reliance upon inspiration, whether or not it comes from God, seems depicted in Sverrir's speech to his men before the battle of Íluveller in 1180: there he admits they face overwhelming odds--"the task of hewing timber in the woods is not like yours". But he then shares with them the advice of a farmer sending his son to battle. "Renown lives longest after one," says the farmer, quoting the pre-Christian wisdom of Hávamál, "Nought may send a man to his grave if his time is not come" and "if he is doomed to die, nought may save him." "To die in flight is the worst death of all." When the chips were down, Sverrir appealed to his soldiers with rhetoric of an earlier, heroic era, a rhetoric with which they remained familiar, despite the incursions of southerly, Christian ideologies. The Íslendingasögur also celebrate this proverbial wisdom, using it to recall the worldviews of a pre-Christian age. This whetting speech was truly a work of genius, whether from the teller or the king, nevertheless presenting the latter as an inspired leader, easily able to strike resonant heroic cords in the hearts of his warriors.

P. E Mueller remarks that the composer "does not avoid various episodes which for the attentive reader may cast a large shadow over the king's character." [Sagabibliothek, III, 424.] The king who prayed during battles and seemed to show Christian charity in giving quarter to all repentent enemies reveals flaws not only in that humor which must be attributed in part to him. Mueller remarks "It is certain that Sverrir permitted fraud in the falsification of a papal bull, and there are strong grounds for suspicion that he was the instigator of the murder of Eirik the King's brother, his family and the returning emissaries from Rome." [Sagabibliothek, III, 425.] Whatever this troublesome Grýla may really have believed of his own paternity, it is clear that his right to the throne stemmed practically from his competence in military and political strategy, his skill in showmanship, his gifted rhetorical accomplishments. His primary response to aspersions cast by King Magnus and his party on Sverrir's royal paternity was to insist that Magnus himself had claims only of maternal descent--a logical conclusion could be drawn from this that, if neither of them had ancestral right to the crown, then its possession was ultimately a matter of which contender had power to seize and maintain it. If the description of his death speech is accurate, then even at that moment he must have continued to embrace the ultimately persuasive Old Norse adage, Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð. Practically speaking that was all that ever mattered in his career.

The biography of King Sverrir, explicitly a project of collaboration in its inception and early stages, contains a voice difficult to distinguish as belonging either to the writer or to the teller who sat over him. The Flateyjarbók Prologue attempts to explain the title Grýla from the fact that "Many declared that fear and dread did their full work in the war and great strife, since all probability seemed to point to the quick downfall and utter annihilation [of Sverrir], because of the strength and overwhelming odds against him." [240] This opinion of the title's origin and meaning was stated at the end of the 14th century, and the writer adds that Sverrir could never have succeeded without divine intervention in his long and harsh campaign. The persistent voice of Sverris saga, however, reinforced by the tone of its phraseology, seems to revel in the fear which the Grýla-like intruder and his army struck among the Norwegians. Abbot Karl and his king present his great undertaking as a threat to established society, but one justified (1) by his success, unexpected and brilliant, as if from God, and (2) by his accomplishments in the position he took with cunning force from the family of Sigurðr Jorsalafari, Magnússon. The large shadow which Mueller perceived in 1820 is as clear in the language of this saga as it is in those crimes of Sverrir's to which the teller alludes, but upon which he does not elaborate. The collaborative voice of Sverris Saga described a starkly practical king, not overly scrupulous of conscience, yet a diversely skill leader. the God who rules all would seem to have chosen his royal servant wisely.

Return to Applications, Concordance.