If England were swallowed up by the sea to-morrow, which of
the two, a hundred years hence, would most excite the love, interest, and admiration
of mankind, – would most, therefore, show the evidence of having possessed
greatness, – the England of the last twenty years, or the England of Elizabeth,
of a time of splendid spiritual effort, but when our coal, and our industrial
operations depending on coal, were very little developed? Well, then, what an
unsound habit of mind it must be which makes us talk of things like coal or
iron as consituting the greatness of England, and how salutary a friend is culture,
bent on seeing things as they are, and thus dissipating delusions of this kind
and fixing standards of perfection that are real!
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson. Cambridge, 1971. p. 51.
Readers today can still appreciate Matthew Arnold’s assessment of the
true quality of England’s greatness in this attempt to refine the values
and priorities of his countrymen while he responds to those crass Philistines
dissatisfied with the import his Essays in Criticism. And his primary question,
what really matters in terms of any entity’s greatness, is one which I,
at least, often apply in my discouragingly limited observations of the human
world and its struggles not merely to endure, but to surpass itself. Thus, when
we turn to Iceland and its hypothetical sinking beneath the waves, our mind’s
eye turns immediately to the PT7000 rows as they are designated in most libraries,
to our offices with a shelf of Íslenzk fornrit editions, maybe if we
are lucky the Altnordische saga-bibliothek, editions of the Elder Edda, collections
of skaldic verse. In other words, we associate Iceland’s greatness with
its vast monumental corpus of medieval literature, representative, it is true,
of the struggles of its own early humanity, but nevertheless existing on the
printed page far apart from that settling population whose endeavours and aspirations
it so variously and often mysteriously describes.
In many instances the product of scholars – historians, men knowledgeable 1. in law and 2. in precedents of its application – this literature began to be studied almost when it began being written! Not that anybody wrote books about the prose genres that we know of, but clearly some people were concerned over the truth [whatever that meant to them] of what was told or written, and some expressed opinions about the relative value of saga genres or sub-genres. Snorri Sturluson and others after him did indeed write about poetry and how to compose it. There was thus a strong literary tradition, and as well its creators were critically conscious of what they were doing, even though today we ourselves may have difficulty understanding properly the intent of their endeavours.
Numerous references in the literature make it clear that there was once an abundant oral tradition in the Germanic north and that this tradition flourished in Iceland, as it has done almost to the present day. Particularly the prose version of this tradition seems to have been concerned with feuding, and T. M. Andersson pointed out several decades ago that by far the greatest number of phrases in the Íslendingasögur which could be interpreted as evidence for an oral family saga occur in the context of this persistent and destructive preoccupation with inter- and intra-familial competition for dominance which seems to have marked the character of Iceland’s medieval existence. Thus, the core of that great literature which we now treasure can be seen as a series of records of feuds, although we would probably all agree that a literary critical approach based exclusively upon this perspective would do the Íslendingasögur a severe disservice and deprive our students and ourselves of much that these works have to tell us about the condition of humanity.
In the twentieth century, two great literary critical movements highlighted what seems to many the major problem in the interpretation of the Íslendingasögur – that is, 1. the extent to which our mss and printed pages represent the oral tradition upon which they draw, and 2. the particular ways in which they do so. Thus, the Free Prose theory in its extreme view assumed the sagas were the written version of texts preserved in their completed form in oral tradition through several centuries, and the Book Prose theory envisaged a literature created by conscious individual authors drawing upon written texts as well as upon oral materials with which they were familiar. Resolution of sorts emerged in the 1960s with Andersson and others arguing the one-time existence of a significant oral corpus of Icelandic narrative tradition – but then leaving more open the process by which that tradition somehow, obviously, made its way to the written page.
Macro-structural criticism of the sagas led to the discovery and examination of structures which might be seen as common to them all and indicative of what Icelanders had regarded, consciously or unconsciously, as the outline of a good story, but this process, so far as I know, ended with a conclusion that saga structure might well be dictated by the structure of the progression of feud itself, making it doubtful whether saga structure as it has been identified was an artistically imposed pattern or merely described a pattern of anthropologically interesting phenomena.
In recent years, I have become more interested, myself, in what some might call micro-structural studies of the sagas to which we were encouraged by Otto Springer in 1939, when he called for “a more systematic and scientific approach to aesthetic and artistic appreciation of Old Norse prose.” [O. Springer, “The Style of the Old Icelandic Family Sagas,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 38 (1939), 107-128, see p. 107.] Especially admirable in this regard is Paul Schach’s pursuit of “The Use of the Simile in the Old Icelandic Family Sagas,” [Scandinavian Studies, 24 (1952), 149-165.] a work which, though rather brief, must have required many long hours of close examination of texts for the production of its concise and useful results.
The oral background of the sagas seems to me a primary concern as I try to understand what was done with it in making the stories we read. All my students know that, for what it’s worth, I accept only the term “composer” in our essays and discussion of those who concocted the sagas as we read them, the composer differing from an author in that he composes rather than creates the story that he gives us – he composes what he is given from oral tradition, from written stories, from known historical events, for an audience that already knows at least something of the story – and many other stories related to it and its characters, – necessarily thus responding both to his sources and to those who will critically appreciate his work. Authors of stories, to my mind, are more exclusively intent upon the consultation of their own imaginations as they observe and describe our world with their words.
A concomitant of the oral tradition that a composer would consult was the rhetorical inventory of orality, and within that inventory, of course, lay the paremiological corpus. It should go without saying that a culture which is much given to oral entertainment will preserve among its people a richer selection of proverbial materials than is the case in societies where storytelling is an activity of lesser importance. Thus, Grigorii L’vovich Permiakov claimed to demonstrate in the 1970s and 80s that the typical Russian adult of that time on average knew “no fewer than 800 proverbs, proverbial expressions, popular literary quotations and other forms of cliches.” [“On the Question of a Paremiological Minimum,” Proverbium 6 1989, 91-102] – and this, of course, is for a culture still strong in its admiration of oral entertainment. On the other hand, previous studies of American students had produced seemingly far less impressive results. [Wolfgang Mieder, “Paremiological Minimum and Cultural Literacy,” in Creativity and Tradition in Folklore: New Directions, ed. S. J. Bronner. Logan, Utah 1992, pp. 185-203.] Presently unaware of cultural literacy studies for contemporary Icelandic society, I think we might nevertheless expect some rather high scores on paremiological awareness and retention, especially among the older generations. My landlady and dear friend in Reykjavik, many years ago, used to spend evenings teaching me proverbs and discussing them with me – a few of which have not, I notice, ever been recorded in recent or earlier compilations. In Iceland of the Settlement and the Commonwealth, when there seems to have been little non-oral entertainment other than physical competitions, dances, and some board games, the world of the proverb and the proverbial phrase might be assumed to have been very large indeed. It is only to be expected that a literature growing from the oral tradition of such a society would be paremiologically enriched, reflecting that feature of its oral background.
While proverbs are often the province of the learned, they are originally the property of the folk, [Archer Taylor] and while Herman Pálsson has sought ultimately continental literary sources for proverbs in the sagas, and the ideas that go with them – it would appear, successfully, in some instances – it is obvious that the oral family saga held much of the proverbial material which has found its way to the saga’s page. If we turn to Eddic verse, for instance, we often find there the phrases to which proverbs in the sagas refer, or at least with which they have significant resonance. The work of the Samuel Singer Kuratorium’s Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevi makes this abundantly and incontrovertibly clear. If we examine compilations of proverbs and related materials from the last century and a half, we find many examples of texts in current use which were used also by saga composers – and I speak here of texts which do not themselves demonstrably derive from the sagas in the first place.
Thus, it can be seen that the identification and study of proverbial materials in the sagas as we have them can lead, on the one hand, to a better understanding of the presence of those texts in the oral family saga, but on the other hand, to a fuller appreciation of 1. how and 2. for what purposes those materials are used by the composers of this large medieval corpus. It can be interesting to observe various places in the literature where a particular proverb is used, – but truly helpful to our understanding of the sagas as literature to see the different ways in which different composers have used these proverbial texts.
For instance, my own work in this field began a few years ago when my students helped me to notice how the composer of Njála has used some proverbs repetitiously to accentuate the thematic intention and structure of his careful work. This led to a cataloguing of all his proverbs I could find, and then an attempt to find out where and how else in Icelandic literature these proverbs were used. The slow – and many would say tedious – process of cataloguing then continued and spread, so that now I have at least some idea of the paremiological inventory of 28 or so of the Íslendingasögur, – all of the longer and more significant ones. I have also made scouting forays into the other saga genres and the Eddic poetry, but I leave reporting in that area until I feel that I have more completely described the inventory of the Íslendingasögur.
As I constructed the website, I considered using a database in order to enhance the versitility of retrieval, but I then decided this would be a cumbersome venture and that my immediate purposes were better served by simply listing data in text form, – saga by saga. I have recently learned that this was accidentally wise, since others are now pushing the technology of databases and data entry and in a few more years there will be software which will do most of that job for me. I do plan a simple list of proverbs by themselves, no surrounding material or information other than references to the articles where they can be found in the Concordance. And I will then construct an index to significant words in the proverbs of the list, thus providing maximum accessibility to the work through purely textual documents which can be downloaded easily and printed for individual purposes.
Using professional expertise external to our university – a decision about which I am very happy – I was able to start up a website which now flourishes in obscurity in an electronic world of which I understand nothing. Google offers links to my site because I wrote them and asked them to do so, and a Norse religious group with an oddly respectable website of its own has given me a link, as has Kiyo’s Norse Links. Otherwise, the response has been a bit slow, with no legitimate academic institution of which I am aware having yet given this work recognition among recommended sites. At the moment, then, it’s likely that if I myself were to sink beneath the waves I would not be remembered for the enlightening and inspirational qualities of this website, and thus – unlike Iceland and its sagas – I would not have achieved with this project Matthew Arnold’s vision of greatness. The idea that my Concordance might be useless never occurred to me as I undertook it and worked on it, however, nor does it now – I believe that the material I bring together is useful in its very compilation, and that eventually this will become more publicly apparent. Some scholars and critics are already coming to recognize its value to their own work, which is the only recognition that matters, I think, in what we do for a living. And if I am proven wrong about this, then when I sink beneath the waves I will in any case have read a lot of sagas very carefully and learned about proverbs in them and had some good fun doing it!