Applications 13.   Proverbial Allusions in Sverris saga and in Fóstbrœðra saga: Some Considerations.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon AASSC Vancouver, 3 June 2008 []

In June of 1179 Sverrir Sigurðsson made an boisterously triumphant speech over the new corpse of Erlingr Jarl, father and political mentor of King Magnús, whose demise he would also bring about, in 1184. 28 years old and victorious after long struggles, he stood before Erling's defeated host at Nidaros to deliver an oddly menacing funeral oration. "Times are greatly changed" he exclaimed, " . . . when one man stands in the place of three -- of King, of Earl, of Archbishop -- and I am that one." He continued with ironic derision of the promises of Erling's henchman, Archbishop Eystein, that "all who die fighting for King Magnús and defending his land . . . their souls will enter Paradise before their blood is cold upon the ground." Remarking that "many now present here at this grave sorrowing . . . would have been filled with joy if they stood over my own grave," he pretended to find their sorrow senseless! "We may here rejoice at the sanctity of many men who have become saints." Noting slyly that "we cannot yet rejoice at any miracles wrought by them". . . "yet there must be an abundance of glorified souls in the town at this moment."

And here the ascendant king's mood turns to sombre admonition: for, if "as my heart tells me" the promises of Archbishop Eystein were empty, then better to "Pray rather for those who have departed." "Pray that Erlingr Jarl may be forgiven all the sins he committed," and "pray for the souls of all those who have come to the death . . . in this wrongful trouble." This abrupt shift towards a seriousness of spiritual bent reflects much in the origins and background and intentions of the speaker. Born in Norway in 1151 to a comb maker, he was taken to the Faroes at 5 to be fostered by his paternal uncle, Bishop Hrói of Kirkjunes, in his care he was educated and ordained to the priesthood. Aggressive by nature, "rather unruly" says the writer, and not suited to the priesthood, it must have been with some relief to have received from his mother, as he claimed to have done, the news of her confession to the pope that he was in fact the son of King Sigurðr Munn. Contemplation of this discovery and of several peculiarly contrived dreams which he used to portend his future greatness, sent him at 25 to Norway on the path that led him to his oration for Erlingr Jarl. It was a destructive path that led to the deaths of many men before the death of King Magnús which left Sverrir, the priest-king, for a time sole ruler of this country towards the end of a century-long period of civil wars.

The Prologue to Sverris saga in AM 327 4to, a Norwegian manuscript from around 1300, confirms its partial authorship by Abbot Karl Jónsson of Þingeyraklaustur, with the subject himself overseeing 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 theological training which, on Sverri's part, should have promised a good future in the church had it not been for the secular career he claimed to have had divinely thrust upon him.

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] ] Composition of the remainder is confused by the late 14th-century Flateyjarbók Prologue's remark: "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]]

Despite critical uncertainty over the interpretation of this passage, Guðbrandur Vigfússon's view, that the entire work was Abbot Karl's, has become the dominant one, with general but not unanimous agreement that Grýla ends with chapter 100, following the death of King Magnus and its aftermath. A single hand, then, that of the Abbot of Þingeyraklaustur, is perceived 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 church, objected to Sverri's rule, 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. Whatever his claim to the Norwegian throne, he had discarded prior and more urgent spiritual commitments. In the light of such ideological opposition the polemical intent of his dreams, as he and his biographer constructed them, becomes more clear. Thus in chapter 42 before the Battle of Nidaros, where Erlingr Jarl was killed, Sverrir dreams 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 told by his guide to stop, "and thus he had to leave off ." [ "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 [found in Málsháttakvæði 23, 1 and in Clárus saga [and see R.Cook, "Sagas as dramas of the will"]] is operative here, emphasizing Sverrir's contention throughout his biography that he has undertaken the pursuit of monarchy in deference to God's will, not 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, this dream 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 stressed 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. Concomitant with what were meant to be viewed as signs of respect for his training and faith, however, critics 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. This jubilantly vicious humor is freely exercised, often adorned with praroemial 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. 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, comparing with ironic self-deprecation the desperate aggression of his finally successful warfare to the proverbial ferocity of the hungry wolf. [HANDOUT]

No illusions of a loyal populace trouble him in this victory--he jokes about how many people hate him, and 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 thus: "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 ostensible public enabler for the upstart from the Faroes, that rings through his epic quest for Norway's throne.

P. E Mueller remarked, in 1820, that the composer of Sverris saga "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 made a show of Christian charity in giving quarter to all repentent enemies reveals flaws not only in his humor. 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, he clearly saw that his right to the throne stemmed practically from his competence in military and political strategy, his skill in showmanship, his rhetorical eloquence. 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 royal descent. And 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, whether or not the king himself believed such power came from God.

Another work in some ways associated with Þingeyraklaustur, though of uncertain date and by an unkown composer, exhibits a tone reminiscent of Sverris saga, as well as some of its phraseological elements. Fóstbrœðra saga tells the story of a pair of sworn brothers, Þorgeirr and Þormóðr, remarkable for their exuberant violence, the former particularly so. In Möðruvallabók, chief source of our editions of many great sagas, the Fóstbrœðra copyist has been thought by some to have added an episode. This first scene of the saga, derived from material found also in The Saga of Grettir, ch. 52, tells how the difficult outlaw faced lynching by some farmers in the Ísafjörðr area irate with his stealing. Their intentions were thwarted when Þorbjörg the Stout intervened, daughter of Óláfr Peacock, and wife of Vermundr Þorgrímsson, the powerful goði of Ísafjörðr. The initial presence of this episode in Fóstbrœðra is puzzling, since the rest of the saga has almost nothing to do with Grettir Ásmundarson. The scene ends when Þorbjörg insists “His life will not be forfeit on this occasion if I have any say in the matter.” The farmers give in: “Right or wrong, you have the power to prevent him from being executed.” Then Þorbjörg had Grettir released, and let him go wherever he wished. [ p. 330 ] I think the conclusion of the irritated farmers, that right or wrong (clearly wrong, from their point of view) Þorbjörg had the power, both personally and by virtue of her association with Vermundr goði, to save Grettir, sets the primary idea or theme of Fóstbrœðra: that people who have power of one sort or another, using their free will, exercise that power with varying amounts of wisdom and restraint, depending on their spiritual character. “It can be seen from this incident that Þorbjörg was a woman of firm character,” the narrator concludes, in case the audience has not understood what his scene was about.

A passage with verbal similarities to this prefatory episode follows shortly after it. Here Vermundr decides that Hávarr must leave the Ísafjörðr district with his family because of the depredations of his son, Þorgeirr, one of the Sworn Brothers – and Hávarr responds, "‘Vermund, you have the power to make me leave Isafjord with all my belongings . . .’” [ p. 332 ] Both this and the former passage, though containing no fixed formulas, have clear reference to the proverb, Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð, as we find it in Bjarni Einarsson’s Málsháttakvæði, and as I have found it referred to also in passages of Sverris saga which explain the usurper's success in terms of the overwhelming power of God, the ultimate ally.

The paroemial thrust of these two episodes is echoed somewhat later in the narrative when Þorgeirr saves the life of Veglágr, whose thievery has rendered him justifiably liable to execution. “Despite what you think is the right course of action,” declares the bullying hero, “in this instance the man’s price will be too costly for you. He will not be executed if I have any say in the matter.” [ p. 360. ] Illugi responds, “You are a great defender of thieves, but this one will cause you grief,” yet informal local banishment is all that Veglágr suffers with such a champion on his side. Thus, Þorgeirr exercises arbitrarily and unfairly his power over others in a way similar to the cases of interference by Þorbjörg the Stout and by Vermundr.

This test of the good or evil impulse in the exercise of power is studied through much of the rest of Fóstbrœðra – with dark humor, for instance, oddly reminiscent of that found in Sverris saga, in Þorgeir’s whimsical killing of a shepherd in a scene found only in Flateyjarbók: “. . .the shepherd was tired. Thus he was rather hunched over, with his tired legs bent and his neck sticking out. When Thorgeir saw this he drew his axe in the air and let it fall on the man’s neck. The axe bit well and the head went flying off. . .”[ p. 347 ] Learning of this, Þorgils Arason, who has just bought a share in a ship so Þorgeirr can escape the gathering forces of justice in Iceland, asks why he killed the shepherd: “If you want to know the truth, I couldn’t resist the temptation--he stood so well poised for the blow.” Þorgils concludes the scene apophthegmatically, saying “One can see from this that your hands will never be idle.” Though no value is explicitly attached to this observation, the ironic implications are clear and suggest a discouraging prognosis for Þorgeir’s spiritual welfare because of the ways he uses the power God has given him.

The inclusion of this interrupted lynching scene at the beginning of Fóstbrœðra saga, seems intended as a thematic signal, the force of the proverb to which the composer refers having applicable significance throughout much of the rest of the narrative. In fact, if we seek a unifying theme for Fóstbrœðra, surely we do better to seek it here than in the loyalty of the hero to St Olaf, as suggested by Kurt Schier and others, [Kurt Schier, Kindlers Literatur Lexikon, 4, 1964, 3634-5.] since such a thematic focus neglects large portions of the story, whereas Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð or Ríkari verðr at ráða. comprehends it all. [Other internal reason to suppose the episode is integral to Fbr--trolls]

At the opening of his Formáli to the Íslenzk fornrit edition (1939) of Vatnsdœla saga Einar Ól. Sveinsson surveys the history of literary activity in the Húnavatn district of medieval Iceland, showing “hve glatt hefur brunnið eldur menntanna í þessu héraði enn í lok 14. aldar.” [ÍF, XIV] Among writers at the monastery of Þingeyraklauster itself, he mentions Eiríkr Oddsson, the composer of Hryggjarstykki, Oddr Snorrason and his Latin biography of Olafr Tryggvason (1190), and Gunnlaugr Leifsson, verse translator of the Prophecies of Merlin (1200), who also wrote a life of Olafr Tryggvason--and to him also is attributed a Latin life of St Jon biskup Ogmundarson. Abbot Karl wrote also in this house, and Prof. Einar described the influence of intellectual activity here spreading itself through the district. Among the products of this industry are, of course, Vatnsdœla saga and Grettis saga, both concerned with members of that early leading family of Vatnsdalr first associated with the farm of Hof and both originating in or near Þingeyraklaustur. Heroes of the former are devoted to cleansing their neighborhood of undesirable elements, whereas Grettir, himself a famous cleansing hero, becomes in his outlaw status rather undesirable himself and is ultimately killed as if he were one of those very creatures from whose destruction he gained his heroic fame. As for Fóstbræðra saga and its awkward heroes, its date, if there even is a single one, and origins have been the subject of much discussion. Jonas Kristjánsson demonstrated the likelihood of its having been written in some form much later than the earlier accepted time of around 1200. And his stylistic evidence could point to some very late periods of influence, if not composition. Though its composer seems familiar with the area of Borgarfjörður, there is agreement that its history lies in part with Þingeyraklauster, [IF VI LXXV. Líklega hefir Fóstbræðrasaga verið skrifuð upp oftar en einu sinni af Þingeyramunkum milli 1210 og 1380.] the extent and depth of this connection however undetermined. How the paroemial content of Fóstbræðra and its implications crossed paths with the narrative of Sverris saga is a subject in need of further study.

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