Applications 24.  On the Decline of Paroemial Cognitive Patterning in Some Later Icelandic Sagas
Presented at the Old Norse Discussion Group, MLA Chicago, 10 January 2014.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.    []

            This evening I will consider how and to what extent Fljótsdœla saga, one of the latest of the Íslendingasögur, may show signs of differentiating itself from earlier members of this genre with respect to the way in which it makes use of that underlying cognitive matrix of communal wisdom pertinent to the pre-literate and pre-Christian behvioural code in a process I have called paroemial cognitive patterning.  Much of the past century of saga criticism has been concerned with how the sagas which we have traditionally regarded as relatively fixed texts made their way, to whatever extent they did, from the unknowable fluidity of oral tradition to the written page.  And our interpretations of the sagas’ meanings have depended in part upon our understanding of that transmission, especially since Theodore M. Andersson’s observation, in 1970, that to his “knowledge no one has asked what the point of a saga is” suggested the need to attempt a careful understanding of the composers’ likely purposes in recording the ancestral stories as they did.

            Now, these stories themselves originated within a pre-literate and in large part pre-Christian setting whose orally transmitted context of received wisdom is fragmentarily witnessed, for instance, in the Eddic Hávamál and Sigrdrífumál.  Frequently the sagas quote, though without attribution, or allude to paroemial passages from such works.  These poems, however, must represent only a small portion of what was once a much larger and more complex oral repository of formulas central to the ethics and mores of the ancestral Nordic culture.  These last years I have studied in various ways the occurrence and presumed compositional uses of proverbs in saga literature, occasionally employing this paroemiological research as a micro-textually focussed means of gaining insight into the content and workings of T. M. Anderson’s “oral family saga” and its refinement in Carol Clover’s theory of “immanent saga”.  Although extensive studies of the pre-literate saga background by Gísli Sigurðsson and Tommy Danielsson have not bred so promising a discipline as we initially hoped, this need not, I think, deter us from seeking other means of access to at least some aspects of what the Icelandic stories were like before they were written down. [HANDOUT]

            My adoption of the term paroemial cognitive patterning was meant to address perceived reflections of an ancient background of communal wisdom in particular passages of saga narraative, where there is neither utterance of, nor the least explicit allusion to its formulaic encoding in proverb texts.  Elsewhere, for instance, I have tried to show how the composer of the early 13th-century “Hreiðars þáttr heimska” conveys to his audience an anticipatory sense of those social deficiencies of his hero which are to be challenged in the tale of his visit to the Norwegian court by a simple descriptive phrase, “var hann heima jafnan” [ÍF XXIII. Morkinskinna I. 26. 152.]  Unlike his socially adept brother, Þórðr, Hreiðarr is among those whose personalities limit the likelihood of successful interaction in the robustly competitive milieu of warrior gatherings abroad, a type several passages in Hávamál discuss.  The dangers of such environments are emphasized in stanza 6: “. . . when a wise and silent man comes to a homestead seldom does shame befall the wary; for no more trustworthy a friend can any man get than a store of commons sense.”  North Germanic conventional wisdom, preserved in this poem, encouraged the isolation of individuals whose immature impulsiveness could give rise to scenes of conflict or violence in such settings.  “The fool gapes when he comes on a visit, he mutters to himself or keeps silent; but it’s all up with him if he gets a swig of drink; the man’s mind is exposed.” [St. 17]  “The foolish man in company does best if he stays silent; no one will know that he knows nothing, unless he talks too much; but the man who knows nothing does not know when he is talking too much.” [St. 27]  The proverb, “Engi er allheimskr, ef þegja má.” [Grettis saga, c. 88], though not found specifically in the extant verses of Hávamál, has clear resonance with such texts and would not be out of place among them.  In terms of traditional wisdom, then, Hreiðar’s trip to Norway with his brother would have seemed most inadvisable to the audience of this þáttr, as Þórðr’s first response to his proposal emphasizes: “Ekki þykki mér þér fallin fǫrin.” [ÍF XXIII. Morkinskinna 26. 152.]

            When Þórðr wishes to avoid these predictable troubles by leaving his brother in Iceland, Hreiðarr objects, “Everyone would get our money from me, since I don’t know how it should be managed properly.  And you will be no better off if I beat people up or get into some other difficulties with those who are looking for a chance to wheedle money out of me, or if in return I am beaten or injured for my actions.” [CSI I. 375-6.]  And later, when King Magnús tries to dissuade him from staying at his court with Þórðr, Hreiðarr argues, “to me it seems wise to be around someone who keeps an eye on me, like my brother Thord, even if there are a lot of people, rather than to be somewhere less crowded where there is no one to smooth things over.” [CSI I. 379.]  Hreiðar’s repeated, near-demagogic harping upon the moral responsibility of Þórðr to look after him as he moves ever further into situations where a heimskr maðr is proverbially unlikely to thrive suggest a sense of irony, a tendency to cynical manipulation, which readers might not have expected in the intellectual range of a man who, on the surface, appears socially inept.  And the audience would thus also have felt in these contexts the subversive invocation of the unspoken proverb, “Berr er hverr á bakinu, nema sér bróður eigi.”  Though, again, not itself in Hávamál, it was used by Saxo Grammaticus, who for his late 12th-century Gesta Danorum had Icelandic informants undoubtedly familiar with the traditional wisdom of their people.  In her Store of Common Sense, Carolyne Larrington adumbrated “a body of folk-wisdom, not yet in metrical form, a body of which can be sensed as a living, pulsing, gnomic background to all Germanic poetry.” [18]  One senses here and at some other points in “Hreiðars þáttr heimska” that background of communal wisdom to which she refers, of which Hávamál is a partial witness and which lies at the cognitive core of North Germanic poetry as well, I think, as its of prose forms.

            The oldest extant manuscript of Fljótsdœla saga is from the early 17th century and its text has been thought to have taken its form between 1450-1550, although Stefán Karlsson argued it is older, from the second half of the 14th century.  A relatively recent addition to the genre in any case, and incomplete in preservation, with its approximately 27,000 words it has about 30 paroemial texts.  Its composer knew a good deal of Old Icelandic literature of which we ourselves are aware, including in some form a number of sagas and þættir of the East Fjord tradition, Hrafnkels saga freysgoði and the much earlier Droplaugarsona saga among them, as well as Brand-Krossa Þáttr and Gunnars þáttr Þiðranda-bana.  Apparently intended as a continuation of Hrafnkatla, it contains intertextual allusion, whatever the details of that process may here have been, to problems raised in that saga over how leaders should treat their subjects, the chieftain Hrafnkell’s demise interpreted as the result of his proud and foolishly inflexible exercise of power over those under his dominion.  Thus, Ásbjǫrn Hrafnkelsson, true to his father’s early stringency of leadership, abruptly prosecutes and kills Ǫlviðr Oddsson for using his horses, saying he “would teach his inferiors not to attack independent farmers.”  Whereas in the next paragraphs the goði Þiðrandi inn gamli is “a powerful man but a popular one, because he was kind to his subordinates.” [381]  And Þorvaldr Þiðrandason, though deprived of the family goðorð by his unstable brother, Ketill þrymr, “was so popular that practically everyone would do whatever he wanted . . . in fact he made friends of everyone.” The composer even notices that he and his wife, Droplaugr, had a good married life “because each of them treated the other well,” despite the fact, mentioned twice, that she herself was imperious, proud-minded, and “more than usually reserved and haughty.” [390]  While on the one hand, the Fljótsdœla composer’s allusion to such political wisdom in social dealings and intimate relationships may indicate conscious reference on his part only to the background of cognitively pertinent stories about the robust leadership of the well-known local figure of Hrafnkell Hrafnsson, we are aware of a much broader background of thought on this subject in the pre-literate Germanic world.  In Beowulf, for instance, the song of the scop celebrating Beowulf’s early achievement with the monsters of Heorot begins with the similar opposition between the great king Sigmund and the Danish Heremōd, who is mentioned later in the poem as having “vented his rage on men he caroused with, killed his own comrades, a pariah king who cut himself off from his own kind.” [ll. 1711-12]

            A thematic element of more consistent paroemial concern in Fljótsdœla saga results from the opposition of such good people in the story, whose goodness, as noticed, is rather insistently celebrated, and people of evil nature or intention.  Thus Þiðrandi Geitisson cautions the impulsively violent Gunnstein Þorbjarnarson kóreks not to attack Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr, recalling an indisputably traditional “old saying, that bad things often come from bad people, and I don’t want you to deal with him.” [409]  And Bersi inn spaki Ǫzurarson councils the Droplaugarsons, whom he has fostered, “Don’t let scoundrels come between you and me, because you will not find that I fail to support you.” [409]  Repeatedly, the dangers of setting store by the untrustworthy are the subject of advice.  Her son Helgi waxes rhetorical in admonishing his mother Droplaugr not to take to heart the slander of Þorgrímr torðyvill:  “Never build your mind on the words of a wretch,” he exclaims, “never put your faith in something no one else believes.” [397]  The humorous irony of such persuasion on his part is remarked by his brother Grímr as they set out to kill Þorgrímr, “What was it you said to your mother last autumn? That she should not build her mind on the words of a wretch.  Don’t let the same happen to you.”  [398]
            The dangers of trust are reiterated elsewhere as well in this story.  When Bersi inn spaki councils Hallsteinn against marrying Droplaugr, who will eventually be complicit in his killing, Hallsteinn expresses his foolish anger, ironically, with two proverbs on the dangers of trust:  “There’s truth in the saying, that a man should trust nobody, because the one you’ve trusted most betrays you worst.” [429]  So many of the proverbs of Fljótsdœla saga examine the insecurity of relationships, the dangerous human potential for unreliability, that in another age of writing, and of criticism, we might have been tempted to contemplate the composer’s mental state.  The dangers of trusting people of doubtful character are emphasized far more in Fljótsdœla saga, both in situations and in proverbs, than seems justified by the background of traditonal wisdom as it is represented in Hávamál.  Most poignant in this regard, and perhaps most difficult of accurate interpretation, is a comment upon trust coming from the scoundrel Nollar as he attempts to stir the resentment of Bersi inn spaki against his foster son Helgi for the latter’s addressing his attentions to Helga Þorbjarnardóttir, of whom Bersi is also fond:  “Helgi, your foster-son, has come out to Skeggjastead and means to seduce Helga . . . and it’s come to this, as the saying goes, ‘It’s better to be betrayed than to trust no one.’ Because you have trusted him as you would yourself.”  Translators, as the handout notices, are at variance on how this line should read, but the Icelandic itself, uses only ongum, with no editorially recorded variants, so far as I can see.

            Reading Fljótsdœla saga, one cannot avoid a sense of the composer’s persistent preoccupation with distrust.  No other saga narrative dwells upon such insecurities in this seemingly obsessive way.  A reader might wonder what aspect of historical or contemporary reality these passages were meant to describe.  Jean Young’s Introduction to the Everyman translation notices how the saga “throws light on the manners and customs during a period as remote from its author’s lifetime as ours is from his.” [xiv]  The details of life which are described, however, are questionable in their authenticity.  It seems likely that they were included as a means of lending a sense of realism to the work, in the same way as the overly numerous formulas supportive of a background of oral tradition were probably meant to do.  The composer, as Paul Schach notices, was a man “thoroughly acquainted with the sagas contained in the codex Möðruvallabók.” [168]  He was a man who clearly had read a good many of the Íslendingasögur, as he no doubt felt was true too of his farmer, Hreiðarr, who “never went to bed before a third of the night was past, and [who] stayed there till midday.” [35]  In one episode, he “sat reading an ancient saga till dawn,” [36] which the composer himself may well have done but which was surely an anachronism in this tale.  It seems very much the case with this saga, that its composer wrote not so much with a significant background of oral tradition for his source as a literate awareness of narratives in relatively finished form.  And that paroemial background which seems to some readers to inform much of the thematic thrust and moral expectations, not just of the Old Icelandic sagas but also of medieval literature as a whole must have been replaced by a contemporary alternative to that wisdom along with the composer’s own interesting conceptions of what life was about and how it should be conducted.

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