Applications 3. The
Proverbs of Vatnsdœla saga, the Sword of Jökull and the Fate
of Grettir: Examining an Instance of Conscious Intertextuality in Grettis
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan [email@example.com]
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 the products of this industry are, of course, Vatnsdœla saga and Grettis saga, both concerned with members of that early leading family of Vatnsdalur first associated with the farm of Hof. Walther H. Vogt, in the Altnordische Saga-biblithek edition (1921) of Vatnsdœla, notices, though denying a closer relationship, affinities of thematic concern between these two works: “Grt. und Vd. sind die beiden sagaschöpfungen, die eine idee ausgesprochen über ihre handlungen legen, jene die ógæfa, dieser die hamingja. (ASB, XXXII) Today, I want to examine what I see as further affinities between Grettla and Vatnsdœla, showing how the meaning of the former is partially derived from or enhanced by a background of oral tradition that is emphasized and indeed celebrated by the composer of Vatnsdœla saga.
The composer of Grettis saga, who finished his work around 1325, is thought to have based it on an earlier version by Sturla Þórðarson (d. 1284), refers explicitly to a number of other sagas. Without citing sources, he employed portions of Landnámabók for his first eight chapters and of Fostbrœðra saga for chs 25-27, and he made further less extensive use of ten or so other Icelandic works, including Vatnsdœla saga. This learned composer was probably a man of the cloth, living near and perhaps associated with the northern monastery of Þingeyraklaustur, that noted medieval Icelandic center of learning, which lay at the mouth of Vatnsdalr, 20 kilometers north of Hof, seat, as we’ve said, of the leading family of Vatnsdalr, descendants of the founding settler, Ingimund the Old, who was himself also among the ancestors of Grettir. [SEE HANDOUT]
A. U. Bååth remarked that of all the family sagas, Vatnsdœla saga distinguishes itself by being exclusively about the family for which it is named, concerned as it is with their history from around 890 down to about 980.(20) This saga was composed around 1270 and is probably comprised of two major parts, the former telling of Ingimund the Old’s settlement in Vatnsdalr and his life there. The latter part, following the lives of Ingimund’s descendants after his death, is considered inferior in style to the former, episodic in structure, recounting mostly disparate events in which the Vatnsdalers devote much energy to cleansing their valley of unclean spirits and unsavory beings. These main portions of the narrative are preceded by an introductory segment, legendary in nature and style, on the founding of the family. In it, Þorsteinn Ketilsson, of Raumsdalr in Norway, initiates the role of cleansing hero in the narrative by ridding the neighboring forest of a dangerous highwayman, Jökull, who turns out to be the son of Ingimundr Jarl and who extracts Þorstein’s promise to marry his sister Þórdís after his death. It is their son, eventually known as Ingimund the Old, offspring of this odd union, who with some relatives and friends makes his way to the valley in the North of Iceland, where the subsequent adventures of the family unfold.
These Vatnsdœlers find success and affluence in their community, enjoying a good quantity of luck, or hamingja, a term occurring with some frequency in the earlier chapters of the saga. This good fortune seems designed for them by fate, or forlög, to which a series of interestingly applied proverbs refer in the former major part of the narrative. ‘All of this is recounted after the manner of Herodotus,’ wrote Guðbrandur Vigfússon in 1878, ‘and the mainspring of the whole is one of his most characteristic maxims, to wit, no man may withstand his fate.’ Aside from the rather beautifully tragic death of Ingimund the Old, little detracts from the positively fated success of this aristocratic family, whose story is thought the work of a composer also connected with the neighbouring monastery of Þingeyraklaustur and intent upon the happy idea that, as Andrew Wawn puts it, ‘ nobility and goodness will always defeat malevolent forces.’ (Wawn, p. 188)
Yet a flawed thread does seem to run through the luck of these Vatnsdœlers. Jökull Ingimundarson jarls, who dying confided to his killer Þorsteinn that he had been planning to give over his erring ways, was not a fortunate son. And another Jökull, the grandson of Þorsteinn, is the hot-headed member of his family, strong, impetuous and arrogant, a physically heroic foil to his brother Þorsteinn, who is clever, deliberate and a peace-maker possessed of forethought. His grandson was still another Jökull, son of Bárðr, and he makes an appearance in Grettis saga as the hero’s maternal uncle, ‘a strong man, and exceptionally arrogant. . .a man of considerable importance.’ However important he may have been, his aristocratic background did not save him from being executed, according to Snorri Sturluson in Óláfs saga helga, for taking the side of Óláfr Haraldsson. The factors, then, of universal fate and of individual or family luck prove more complex and more interestingly mixed in the story of this great family than one might first expect.
The causal relations between prophecy and its fulfillment are, as often in the sagas, unclear when Ingimund’s ire is aroused by a Lapland prophetess who predicts he ‘will settle in a land which is called Iceland; it is as yet not widely settled. There you will become a man of honour and live to great age. Many of your kinsfolk will be noble figures in that land.”(Wawn, 205) “That is all very well,” he unenthusiastically responds, “seeing that I have made up my mind never to go to that place, and I won´t be a successful merchant if I sell my many fine ancestral lands and head off to that wilderness.” But the prophetess has caused a silver amulet of Freyr, a gift from King Harald Fairhaired, to vanish from Ingimund’s purse and has projected it to the place where he must settle in the new country. His friend, Grímr Ingjaldsson, included also in this prophecy, is less recalcitrant than Ingimundr, observing that “there was nothing to be gained from fighting against fate.”(Wawn, 205) Ingimundr exclaims to his close friend, “This will be the parting of the way for us.” But Grímr answers, “It would not surprise me if we were to meet each other in Iceland, because it is not possible to fly from fate´s decree.”(Wawn, 206)
The ultimate respectability of this settling family is emphasized in a conversation between Ingimundr and King Haraldr in which the former announces his intentions of seeking a second shamanistic opinion about his Icelandic future. The king replies, “I think that you will end up in Iceland, and it is a matter of concern whether you go with my blessing or keep the decision to yourself, which is very much the fashion nowadays.”(Wawn, 207) “It would never be the case that I would go without your permission.” the obviously royalist subject assures him.(45) With much-boasted hard work, these alternative Lapps find his amulet, planted off there in the north of Iceland, “where three fjords open up to the north-east,” but are unable to retrieve it, “so it is you yourself that must go there.”(Wawn, 208) Ingimund then acquiesces, declaring it “useless to fight against this.” The king, when this is reported to him, observes it´s no surprise “and that it was difficult to go against the way things must be.” Defeated, Ingimundr responds, “I have now tried every way.” Meeting with friends and chieftains he announces his decision: “I am thinking of going to Iceland, more because of destiny and the decree of mighty forces than out of any personal desire.” The general response, that it was the greatest pity for such a man to go away, was ameliorated by the simple observation, “there are few things more powerful than destiny.”(Wawn, 208))
His legendary status among the jarls enhanced by a marriage arranged by King Haraldr to Þórdís, daughter of Earl Thorir the Silent, the respectability of his continued royal friendship assured, unusual for an Icelandic settler, Ingimundr, compelled only by fate, sails to his new home, where his friend Grímr greets his arrival with the delighted assurance, “so it is here with you now that as the saying goes, it is very hard to fly in the face of fate.”(Wawn, 210) “It cannot be resisted, foster-brother,” agrees Ingimundr. Exploring for settlement, he recognizes the lay of the land from the alternative Lapps’ description: “This must confirm the Lapps´prophecy, for now I recognize the lie of the land from their description; this must be the place intended for us, . . .” he exclaims.(Wawn, 211) Digging holes for the temple high seat pillars, they find his Freyr amulet in the ground. Ingimundr then concludes, “Though it is true to say that one cannot fight against fate, yet we may now settle here in good spirits. This farm will be called Hof.”(Wawn, 212) Subtlety is thus not required of a reader seeking the motivation for Ingimund’s move to Vatnsdalr. And the generally laudatory terms in which the family’s settling with royal approval and progress in Iceland are described leave little doubt of the intentions of fate or, for that matter, of Ingimund’s own personal quantity of good luck, or then again, of the composer’s purpose in pursuing these subjects.
But it is here, with personal luck, that matters become further mixed. We must return to that introductory segment of legendary style in which the dying Jokull Ingimundarson jarls charges his killer Þorsteinn Ketilsson with the peculiar task of seeking out and marrying his sister Þórdís--“And if you or your boys are blessed with sons, do not allow my name to die out--it is from this that I hope to derive some benefit, and I want this in return for sparing your life.” (Wawn, 193) Einar Ól. Sveinsson remarked in his 1939 edition of Vatnsdœla that various critical interpretations have been voiced about such requests. Often enough, benefits might be expected from such naming--the honour and longevity of the name itself might be enhanced, for instance. A number of scholars have suggested that the impulse derived from a belief that a person might thus arrange for his reincarnation through his namesake. Max Keil, in Altisländische Namenwahl (Leipzig, 1931) held that this custom arose from men’s desire to protect and preserve the individual good luck of particular ancestors. Einar Ól. favours the latter view, though allowing that hopes of reincarnation may also have been sometimes a factor in the giving of a name, and we will follow his thinking here.
At the birth of Ingimundr himself, his father, Þorsteinn Ketilsson, declared, “This boy will be named Ingimund after his mother´s father, and I expect that he will enjoy good fortune because of his name.”(Wawn, 197-8) In the context of this scene, and in a saga much given to the subjects of fate and of luck, the flawed thread in the history of the Vatnsdœlers would surely be explainable in terms of that quality of personal luck which might be expected to accompany the name Jökull when given to commemorate the entity of Jökull Ingimundarson jarls. Thus when Ingimund’s second son is born, he observes, “This boy is hefty and sharp-sighted. If he survives, few will be his match, and he will be no great shakes at controlling his temper; . . . Our kinsman Jokul must be remembered, as my father requested me, and he will be named Jokul.” (Wawn, 209) It was this Jökull who, at the distribution of their deceased father’s fortunes, received the sword Ættartangi, which had come into Ingimund’s possession in the first place through an oddly ignoble, out-of-character trick which he played upon a visiting Norwegian sea captain. (Wawn, 215) Hrafn, the victim of his ploy, relinquished the sword without much objection or even a curse, as might have been expected based upon traditions surrounding forcibly or deviously obtained weapons in other saga narratives. “Your other dealings do you more credit” (Wawn, 215) he accurately observes. But the narrator continues, “Father and son owned this sword for as long as they lived, and they called it Ættartangi.”
This is thus a sword of two-edged value which Grettir’s mother, Ásdís Barðardóttir, granddaughter of Jökull Ingimundarson the Old, great-great granddaughter of the outlaw Jökull, the son of Ingimundr jarl, presents to her son Grettir in chapter 17 of his saga at the family farm of Bjarg, located 30 kms from Hof and 35 kms from Þingeyraklaustur, when he prepares to go abroad adventuring. Grettir’s father, who doesn’t particularly like him, has given him little of goods for his journey and no weapon at all. Speaking like a true Vatnsdœler, Ásdís complains, “‘You are not as lavishly fitted out, my son, as I should wish so well-born a man to be. What is most lacking, I think, is that you have no weapon which could be of any use, and my heart tells me that you will need one.’ Then she took from under her cloak an inlaid sword, a most valuable weapon, and said, ‘This sword belonged to my grandfather Jokul and to others of Vatnsdale in the past, and it brought them many victories. Now I want to give it to you , and may it serve you well.’”(31-32) While the noble legacy of his family, perhaps even some aspects of its luck, could be seen as accompanying this sword by a Grettla audience familiar with the stories of Vatnsdœla, they would as well be much aware of the mixed luck of this family, the tragic associations with relatives called Jökull--even Ásdís’ brother, Jökull, had, as we recall, died a violent death a few years after a fateful meeting with Grettir in which he gave his nephew good but unheeded advice. And they might also remember the humorous but less than admirable means by which the otherwise honourable Ingimundr the Old had obtained the weapon for himself and his family. In Grettis saga this sword, which all editors assume is the same one as Ættartangi in Vatnsdœla, comes to be called Jokulsnautr, which of course means Jökul’s Gift.
It might, however, seem odd to some readers that a sword acquired in a humourously devious way but not by force or violence nor attended by a curse should bear so much ill luck with it. The negative fortunes of the family are mentioned by Gwyn Jones in comments on his translation of Vatnsdœla concerned with a prophecy uttered by Jökull Ingimundarson in his dying conversation with Þórsteinn: “It may be that terrible killings would lie in store for your kith and kin, and men would lose their innocent kinsmen.” (Wawn, 193) Jones notices (16) how Landnámabók records that “Jokul the highwayman had said that unlucky slaying should long hold in their family.”(223) [þat sagði Jökull stigamaðr, at lengi mundu glapvíg haldask í ætt þeiri. Vatnsd. has hormungarvíg instead. See ÍF 8, p. 73 for an addition in Landn.]
Jones mentions controversy over the word Ættartangi itself, the second element of which is peculiar for a sword name. “It is more likely that the name is preserved from some forgotten, or neglected twist in the saga which may justify the robber Jokul’s prophecy.”(135) The sword Ættartangi in Vatnsdœla, however, does not appear until a considerable time after Jokul’s killing and so cannot itself be logically connected in this text with the ill luck of the aristocratic highwayman and his slaying and attendant prophecy.
Instead, it might be useful to consider further the sword which Ásdís gives to the young Grettir about to go abroad. Not long after its presentation, it is referred to for the first time as Jökulsnautr. And yet it is not the gift of her grandfather Jökull, but rather an heirloom, presumably the Ættartangi of Vatnsdœla which her great grandfather had extracted from an unwilling Norwegian visitor. The name attached to the sword of Grettla, however, makes much better sense if it is seen as the sword with which Þórsteinn killed Jökull Ingimundarson in the forest in those tragic events which were the making of the Vatnsdalr family. This killing follows closely the patterns of giant-killing more typical of fantastic Icelandic narrative tradition. Þórsteinn observes the large man remove his sword as he prepares for sleep. “Thorstein regarded this sword as a great treasure and very likely to cut well, and he felt that the weapon would serve his purpose if he could get hold of it.” (Wawn, pp. 191-2) Having tried the sleep of his intended victim the three requisite times for such stories, he “drew the short-sword and thrust at the mighty man’s chest and dealt him a deep wound. . . .so strongly had Thorstein struck him that the sword-tip was stuck in the bed.” (Wawn, 192) It is not said in Vatnsdœla saga that Þorsteinn takes anything with him from Jökul’s lair other than a gold ring Jökull gives him as an identifying token for the visit to his victim’s family.
If, however, he did in some earlier version of this story take the sword, then it’s far more likely that Ásdís gives IT, rather than a renamed Ættartangi, to Grettir. The second element of the name, -nautr, is often used ironically, not meaning a voluntary gift, but rather an object of which someone has been forcibly or deviously deprived. Other swords in Grettla, for instance, are Kársnautr, which Grettir took from the grave of the not altogether dead Kárr the Old, and Grettisnautr, which his own killer Þórbjörn öngull took from Grettir when he killed him, cutting off Grettir’s hand to get it to relax its grip on the hilt.
The shaper of the extant Vatnsdœla saga, whose primary purpose was clearly the historical glorification of the district’s founding family, did not want to create a scene between Þórsteinn and Jökull that would suggest the family’s hero had taken anything in the way of a trophy from his mortal victim with whom he parted on such otherwise friendly terms. So although Jökulsnautr was current in oral or in some other written tradition, it did not emerge in extant literature until its presentation to Grettir by his Vatnsdalr mother--in a saga composed for purposes far different from those which motivated the composer of Vatnsdœla. And it is this blade, two-edged and doubly sharpened with the ill luck which Gwyn Jones senses, and of which he speaks, but which he never quite pins down, as accompanying the descent of a family sword. The sword that belonged to Jökull and was used to kill him and then taken from him after his death easily carries with it the fate he predicted, descends through several generations of Vatnsdœlers, and comes into the hands of a still hopeful young Grettir, who in his own turn falls a victim of fate and of personal ill luck
When, in Chapter 69, with all avenues of social redemption closed to him and with help nowhere to be found, Grettir prepares to wait out his end with his younger brother Illugi on Drangey in Skagafjörðr, their mother speaks to them for a last time: “Now you are going, my two sons, and you are fated to die together, and no one can escape the destiny that is shaped for him.” Hard to say whether the common proverbial form which her last speech takes was meant to remind the early audience of Grettis saga of the remarkably dense proverbial references to fate in the former portion of Vatnsdœla saga, the stories of her settler ancestors, but the ancestral context of the dilemma in which her sons now find themselves cannot possibly have escaped those who read or listened to this story.