Applications 4. Some Uses of the Apophthegmatic Scene in the Old Icelandic Sagas
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan   []

In the thirty or so years since T. M. Andersson observed that to his “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) 576 of 575-93.] considerable industry has been devoted to answering this unasked question from various critical points of view. Four years previous to the publication of the article containing this remark, he had reopened and restated questions left behind with the gradual literary critical submergence of the free-prose theory of saga composition. In ‘The Textual Evidence for an Oral Family Saga’ [ANF 81 (1966) 1-23.] Anderson examined and evaluated the usefulness of a large number of formulaic phrases culled from the Íslendingasögur suggestive of the oral background of that genre, demonstrating thus the feasibility of critical discussion of what he termed the oral family saga.

Commenting on this “return to traditionalism in saga studies” suggested by such writings, Carol J. Clover, 1974, attributed its energy in part to the recent work of folklore formalists on the nature of traditional oral narrative. The resulting compositional theory recognized structural units in the sagas’ episodic narrative, “the most common . . . a kind of miniature, visual drama which most commentators call a scene.” [Clover, “Scene in Saga Composition” ANF 89 (1974) 57 & 58 of 57-83.] This idea of saga scene corresponds roughly to W.P. Ker’s much earlier image of ‘a series of pictures rising in the mind, succeeding, displacing and correcting one another.’ [Ker, p. 237]

Saga scenes critically envisaged by the movement in which Clover participated are tripartite in form with preface, dramatic exchange or encounter, and conclusion. Preface and conclusion are deemed alike in that both are given to telling rather than to showing the story, to narration rather than to dramatic exchange or encounter, Clover observes, [p. 61] and the form of both parts is to some extent predictably patterned. Thus, the preface sets the scene and conditions of the action with attendant formulas to identify persons, time, place and situation.  And the conclusion leaves the action at a point of rest, or more often of temporary rest, making way for the initiation of a succeeding but not necessarily directly related scene. (Parataxis digression, if time.) Conclusions, like prefaces, are of rather fixed standard types, with generally unsurprising formulas.

While, as Clover observes, ‘scenic narration is clearly the saga man’s modus operandi, and the tripartite scene is clearly a normative image,’ this does not preclude pronounced variations on the anticipated structure or its execution. Scenes may be long or short, explosive or reflective, varying with the composer’s conscious, intentional narrative flow, with such variations indeed a part of his artistic refinement. Of potential paremiological interest, though, is a structural variation producing what Clover calls the apophthegmatic scene, a term borrowed from the language of Biblical formalism developed by Rudolf Bultmann in his History of the Synoptic Tradition.[Clover, p. 64; R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, tr. J. Marsh (1963).] Here, the conclusion is missing, the narrative closing on a spoken line of apophthegmatic nature. Such scenes “mark a structural departure from the norm,” and their closing quotations are often “the weighty and ‘significant’ phrases which resonate through the work.” These concluding phrases are, like proverbs in the sagas more generally, put in the mouths of the grander figures of the stories. The speakers of proverbs generally, and of those sententious conclusions to apophthegmatic scenes more specifically, tend to be people we can trust and whose thoughts we should take seriously, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is likely we can sometimes use such material in our search for the point of a saga.

There is, however, a crucial difference in the respective composers’ motivations for including proverbially supported scenes in the sagas on the one hand, and in the Biblical narrative on the other. The most avid lover of Old Norse literature would probably hesitate to argue that what lessons there are in the sagas equal in weight and value the didactic import of the scriptural message, and Rudolf Bultmann’s apophthegm is ‘a saying of Jesus set in brief context,’[Bultmann, pp. 62-3] that context being in turn ‘a formulaic structure, a formal frame into which narrative material is fitted and shaped.’[Clover, p. 79] Thus in the gospels there is a strong tendency to compose situational contexts for and around reported sayings of Jesus, the driving purpose being to instruct rather than to entertain.

While the motive in saga narration, then, may frequently have been to provide a setting for a particularly memorable saying, which may in some cases have been attributed to a specific figure in the saga world, the use of such devices for the focused and consistent exposition of a didactic text would surely have been much less common in the sagas. Instead proverb and apophthegmatic scene would have been used to establish value, or to provide thematic focus or dramatic emphasis in the artistic process of saga entertainment. Again, like the verses of the skalds, memorable proverbial statements might sometimes have served a mnemonic purpose in oral tradition.

To judge by the assumptions and conclusions of Bultmann’s form criticism, then, it seems further likely that in the oral backgrounds of the Icelandic sagas there were indeed scenes of an apophthegmatic nature, where actions, speech and concluding pithy saying were all focused on the saying’s narrative theme, or dramatic import and where the scene and its apophthegmatic ending were of mutual mnemonic reinforcement. In addition, such scenes as they were structured would have had considerably dramatic narrative impact. A skillful composer, then, might use them to emphasize or clarify the point of his saga, what his story was really about.

Let’s consider Fóstbrœðra saga, set in the Westfirth district, Borgarfjörður, Denmark, Norway and Greenland, traditionally dated very early, about 1200, although more recent analysis suggested a date around 1270-1300. The first scene, which is derived from material found also in Grettis saga, ch. 52, tells how this outlaw was saved from being lynched by some irate farmers from whom he had been stealing in the Ísafjörður area. Their intentions were thwarted when the rather formidable Þorbjörg the Stout intervened, the daughter of Óláfr Peacock and wife of Vermundr Þorgrímsson, the powerful goði of Ísafjörður. Absent from some manuscripts of Fóstbrœðra, the passage is regarded as an interpolation here, and its presence seems initally puzzling, since the rest of the saga has almost nothing to do with Grettir Ásmundarson. However, 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, we are told, gave him his life and told him to go wherever he wished. [p. 330] 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 Þorbjrg was a woman of firm character,” the narrator concludes, in case the audience had not quite understood the point of his scene.

And a bit later in the saga, the Fóstbrœðir, or Sworn Brothers, begin to encroach on Vermundr’s territory in vigorously aggressive ways, having “whatever they desired of the locals, all of whom were as frightened as lambs are of the lion when it prowls among them.” This proverbial phrase of obvious biblical background emphasizes the unrestrained predatory power of the Sworn Brothers, and in doing so it also defines their relationship with most of the people over whom they exercise their power in this story.

The thrust of another apophthegmatic scene, in which one of the Sworn Brothers, Þorgeirr Hávarsson, succeeds in avenging the death of his father on the killer, Jöðurr Klængsson, seems initially more sympathetic to the young trouble-maker. “Everyone who heard these tidings,” observes the narrator, “thought it remarkable that one young man on his own should have slain such an experienced fighter and chieftain. . .” Þorgeir’s courage is attributed to a strong and steady heart, “And as all good things come from God, so too does steadfastness, and it is given unto all bold men together with a free will that they may themselves choose whether they do good or evil. Thus Jesus Christ has made Christians his sons and not his slaves, so that he might reward all according to their deeds.”[p. 336] The apophthegmatic value of this conclusion, though not condemnatory of Þorgeirr at this point, places his God-given power and that of his Sworn brother, Þormóðr, and indeed of all strong figures in this saga, in a situation of trial--how is their power used?

This is examined further and humorously in Þorgeir’s whimsical killing of a shepherd at Hvassafell, 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, of Reykjahólar, who has just bought a share in a ship so Þorgeirr can escape the gathering forces of justice, 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 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.

It is clear, too, that the composer of the narrative, although he celebrates the courage and the strength of the Sworn Brothers, is concerned for the welfare of the society over which they range in their violent pursuits. On the way from Norway to Greenland, Þormóðr Bersason, the other of the Sworn Brothers, and a mysterious Oðinnic passenger called Gestr are at odds with each other to the point of violence. This scene concludes when the captain pacifies them with these words: “On board a trading vessel in the middle of the ocean is not the right place for men to have differences. Indeed, it may cause harm, for seldom will a voyage go well if the men are at odds. Now, I’m going to require both of you to refrain from fighting while you are at sea.” [p. 372] They both complied, says the narrator, and the audience may be led to consider that what is true at sea is also true on land.

Among the other apophthegmatic scenes of Fóstbrœðra the most interesting as well as most significant takes place in ch. 23 when Þormóðr, now in Eiríksfjorðr, in Greenland, is being magically hidden from those seeking vengeance for his killing of Þorgrímr Einarsson, who had in turn by this time killed his Sworn Brother, Þorgeirr. Þormóðs sorceress savior is Gríma, “a good healer and quite well versed in ancient arts.” Þórdís, Þorgrím’s sister, and Þorkell, son of Leifr Eiríksson, visit Gríma’s farm seeking their quarry, whom Gríma hides magically by having him sit very still in a chair with a figure of Thor carved into its arms [p. 384] Search scenes, where the object is magically or very cleverly hidden, generally run in three steps, the first two at least, obviously invariably unsuccessful. Here the searchers notice only the antique pagan chair, but not Þormóðr sitting in it, and Þórdís remarks, “Gríma still keeps to some of the old ways. She has a figure of Thor carved on the arms of her chair.” In a passage that becomes increasingly ironic, Gríma protests her Christian loyalties, saying she knows “the Creator . . . of all things visible and invisible. . .is far superior to Thor, so that no man may vanquish his power.” Þórdís persists, voicing her suspicion that Gríma knows where Þormóðr is. “Guessing often leads to error” Gríma responds proverbially, “and if a man’s time has not come, something will save him. What you sorely lack is a holy guardian so that the devil lead you not into the evil you are contemplating. It’s excusable when people guess and are mistaken, but there’s no excusing the man who rejects the truth once it’s proven.” They part company, says the narrator, after these paremiologically enriched words, and the reader cannot mistake the ironic value of the emphatically apophthegmatic close--despite Gríma’s Christian protestations, she uses occult or pagan powers to hide Þormóðr from those seeking to cleanse their society of his presence. Þórdís and Þorkell, contrary to Gríma’s claim, cannot truthfully be said to be contemplating evil in attempting to cleanse society of Þormóðr. God, on the other hand, has made Þormóðr brave and strong, but Þormóðr himself, using his own free will, has chosen with these gifts ways that lead him into a world neither Christian nor good.

It could be stimulating to consider this scene, further, with respect to parallels between it and the final scenes of the outlaw Grettir’s life, on Drangey. The early 14th century composer of the extant narrative of Grettla sympathetically presents Grettir as a victim, not of the strength or righteous purpose of his killer, Þorbjrn ngull, but rather the sorcery of which his adversary makes such dishonourable use. Þorbjrn’s sorceress foster mother, Þuríðr, as she places a curse on Grettir, opines proverbially, “There are few things which lead more certainly to disaster than not to want what is good.” [p. 160] Her voice here seems close to Gríma’s and her ironically offered spiritual advice to the frustrated seekers of Þormóðr. One realizes, of course, that there is nothing good about Þuríðr, or her powers, or her intentions. Mortally injured by her sorcery, Grettir asks Þorbjrn, come to kill him, “Who guided you to this island?” and Þorbjrn replies, “It was Christ who guided us here.” Grettir insists instead it was “that evil old woman, your nurse, . . . and you are sure to follow her advice.” “It will make no difference to you who our guide has been.” concludes Þorbjrn in desperate cynicism as he prepares, finally, to kill Grettir after the frustrating dishonour of so many earlier failed attempts.

The saga of another skógarmaðr, Gísli Súrsson, composed in the early 13th century, uses apophthegmatic scenes mostly to emphasize with considerable dramatic impact the adverse influences of external Fate on this outlaw hero, who is not a bad man and who has himself done little that is wrong in the context of early Commonwealth Icelandic society. In ch. 6, attempting to overcome a prophetic utterance by Gestr Oddleifsson to the effect that those proud family members: Gísli, his brother Þorkell, their brother-in-law the goði Þorgrímr Þorsteinsson and Gísli’s brother-in-law, Vésteinn, will fall out within three years, Gísli initiates their going into blood brotherhood together. The ceremony proves a failure. “It has gone as I thought it would,” says Gísli, apophthegmatically closing the scene, “what we have done will be of no use; and I think fate will have its way over this.” [p. 8] The covert hostility between in-laws and between Gísli and his brother obliquely referred to here is brought to a head by a conversation between Gísli’s wife, Auðr, and his brother Þorkel’s wife, Ásgerðr, overheard by Þorkell, and revelatory of Ásgerð’s marital infidelity. When Auðr tells Gísli of this tragic turn, he concludes the scene thus: “I can see nothing to be done about it that will help; and yet I cannot blame you, for ‘Fate’s words will be spoken by someone.’ and what is to follow will follow.” [p. 12]

As tensions build, Þorkell, who has done little meanwhile but brood on his wife’s affair with Vésteinn, moves to his friend, Þorgrím’s neighbouring farm at Sæból. Never having been helpful anyway, and clearly by now a negative presence at Hóll, Þorkell in departing is said at the closing of the scene to have incurred “no such loss” . . . “that the farm was any the worse for it.” [p. 13] At the Winter Nights feasting Auðr expresses to Gísli her one desire, that her brother Vésteinn should also be there to celebrate with them. “‘I think differently about it, because I would willingly give money to have him not come here now.’ And with this their talk came to an end.” [p. 14] Vésteinn, despite Gísli’s desperately urgent efforts to halt his journey, arrives and wants to give some tapestries to Þorkell, who understandably if ungraciously refuses them. The composer reports: “Gísli goes home now, and it seems to him that everything is tending the same way.” [p. 17]

These apophthegmatic scenes, which the composer has used only in the first part of Gísla saga, and which all point towards the narrative’s tragedy, the first violent step of which will soon be the murder of Vésteinn, are clearly used not for explanation or instruction in the point of the composer’s work. Rather they serve to create dramatic emphasis on the tension building in the narrative and the inevitability of its denouement, almost entirely informed by that external Fate which the composer of Gísla sees as primary to his narrative.

Bultmann´s identification of the apophthegmatic scene in narrative materials dependent to varying extent upon underlying oral tradition seems, like the rest of his structural study of the synoptic gospels, to have mixed success. When critical attention is drawn to the structure of this particular scenic variation in our own discipline, there is a concomitant obligation to examine the literary uses of this structure by the saga composer. And this may lead to productive literary critical observations. But there were many saga composers, some artistically brilliant, others less so, and their uses of scene appear most individual, making it unlikely that their narratives usefully reflect directly the surface of Andersson’s oral family saga. Clover says “it is scene which is a fundamental point of contact with oral tale-telling,” [p. 82] but the presence of identifiable scenic structure must not be taken as evidence of a passage’s specific oral origins. Interestingly she notices, “the degree or kind of ‘scenicness’ is emphatically not related to genre as it is conventionally distinguished.” Nor is it affected by the point in time when the word took form on the page. The saga composers, aware of the usages of oral tradition, made their own conscious choices when they used the orally developed methods of scene, wherever and whenever they wrote. We should remember, too, that Rudolph Bultmann’s form criticism and its search for the oral origins of and spiritual intentions behind the written texts of the synoptic gospels failed when it was applied with with too great stringency and too little sensitivity or flexibility to the Gospel of St John.

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