Applications 12. Proverbs and the Rhetoric of Feud in the Old Icelandic Sagas
CSM, Vancouver, 2 June 2008
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.    []

"He grudges me the same sky over my head as he has over his,” [CSI III. 60; ÍF XI. 12. 47. Geitir svarar: “Þat er helzt á mér orðit um ójafnaðinn Helga, at hann unni mér eigi at hafa himininn jafnan yfir höfði mér sem hann hefir sjálfr.] Geitir complains to Ölvir of the ójafnadarmaðr Brodd-Helgi in Vápnfirðinga saga, as he gives poignant if not also proverbial expression to the crux of feud motivation wherever that messy and inefficient method of conflict resolution is practiced in human society. Desire for territorial dominance is viewed by anthropologists as the ultimate underlying urge in this process, whatever pretexts are devised for its initiation and continuance. Although the sagas themselves seldom admit this motivation, expressing rather the determination of their heroes in terms of honour, injury and retribution, a no less poignant though more prosaic and unpleasant passage in Njáls saga illustrates the anthropologists' view with deadly precision. The heathen chieftain, Valgarðr inn Grái, returning from abroad to a now Christianizing Iceland finds his own goðorð somewhat neglected by his evil son, Mörðr, and fallen also to the territorial and political encroachments of Njál's newly made Hvítanesgoði, Höskuld Þráinsson. Reinforced by long-standing resentments over favours rendered his mother years before, this threat to Valgarð's territorial power is intolerable, and he finds ways of forcing his vaguely Christianized son into manipulating the sons of Njáll into killing the upstart chieftain, Höskuldr: "I've been riding far and wide in this district, and I can hardly recognize it as the same. I went to Hvitanes and saw many new booths and great changes. I went also to the place of the Thingskalar Assembly, and ther I saw all our booths falling apart. What's the reason for this scandal?" he demands, and when Mörðr answers feebly, he growls, "You've repaid me poorly, with your unmanly handling of the goðorð I turned over to you. Now I want you to repay them . . ." [Cook, 183] and it is with this that the plan is undertaken which leads to the death of Njáll and his family.

Until fifty years ago, the patterns of feud were not a matter taken into account in the study of saga narrative structure, although Andreas Heusler, among others, had examined the cultural phenomenon in this literature particularly from a legal-historical point of view. [Andreas Heusler, Das Strafrecht der Isländersagas, Leipzig, 1911; and Zum Isländischen Fehdewesen in der Sturlungenzeit, Berlin, 1912] In the mid-1960s, however, T.M. Andersson, in his seminal article, “Textual Evidence for an Oral Family Saga,” [ANF 1966 81: 1-23, see page 22.] remarked that “more than half of the total number of genuine references to oral tradition in the family sagas” occurred in discussions of feud conflict. He found that this clearly indicated that “the authors of the sagas disposed of traditional material about the feuds and litigation of the Saga Age.” In this period of saga criticism Andersson and others were urging a return to a revised Free Prose theory of saga composition, and his early work had found a six-part structure observable in written composition. [Andersson, The Icelandic Family Saga, 1967] Debate resulting from this supposition concerned itself in part with the possibilities of remembering such lengthy resultant narratives during those long centuries before they were written down.

Jesse Byock, however, suggested a rather drastic but eventually broadly accepted modification of this approach in Feud in the Icelandic Saga, 1982. Here he replaced Andersson's earlier posited literary structure with one resulting from "a simple compositional technique which enabled the sagaman to narrate in detail a specific instance of feud while preparing future conflicts and the involvement of other characters." [Feud, 8] "The method . . . likely grew out of oral compositional techniques that were not dependent upon memorization. The narrative elements form groups, which in turn link into longer feud chains. These groups . . . are arranged not by some mechanical process but according to the logic of Icelandic feud." "The sagas," he contended, "are constructed according to a shared narrative base and, in order to understand that base, we must consider the correlation and modeling between the society and its literature." [10] Thus, the narrative base of Andersson's 'oral family saga', evidence of which pointed to feud as one of its primary concerns, came in Byock's writing to have its very foundation in feud and its recounting. Although studies of saga literarature have extended beyond this rather narrow perspective today, literary criticism in the 80's and 90's was much consumed by feud patterns.

Still, the perception remains that the creative core of oral narration among the early Icelanders, then, was inspired partly by a primary and politically crucial interest in the circumstances and events arising from the transactions of feud, the conduct of which after all constituted much of Iceland's medieval political history. The preoccupation with such concerns is apparent in the phraseology of episodes pertinent to this subject. For some years now I have been studying the proverbs and more generally the paroemial micro-structures of the saga literature, and today I am interested in discussing with you some proverbs arising from the paroemial wisdom which grew within the parameters of that feud process by which Icelanders sought to come to terms and live with one another while pursuing their robust and often lethal competition for dominance.

In the northern pre-Christian world, where 'face' was of primary value in society's workings, the Eddic poem Hávamál describes one's desirable objectives in this life: "Cattle die, kinsmen die, we ourselves die," but "glory never dies for the man able to achieve it" and "one thing which never dies" is "the reputation of each dead man." [Hávamál, 76 & 77] [SEE HANDOUT] Thus Njáll wisely chooses a traditionally persuasive argument in advising his friend Gunnar to honor the temporary outlawry imposed on him at the Alþing when he prophesies in proverbial terms, "No one here will be your equal" --regarding Gunnar's stature after he returns from this banishment, though unfortunately even this enticement is insufficient to impel the hero to leave for a time his farm at Hlíðarendi. The practical force of Njál's advice includes, of course, what may predictably happen on Gunnar's projected journey--it will lead to Norway, the royal court, battles and feats of courage undertaken for the reigning monarch with resultant augmenting of his fortune and triumphant return when the term of banishment expires--Gunnar riding through his district in flashy new, coloured clothing, glittering weapons, a figure readily capable of arousing that lethal jealousy which comes so easily to the medieval Icelandic psyche. It is of such stuff that Old Icelandic version of honour is depicted, and there is extensive proverbial agreement upon the need for great courage in the acquisition of this material success. Icelandic phrases roughly equivalent to "Nothing ventured, nothing gained!" echo through saga pages [BSH IF 3. 118; BNS IF 5. 17; HSF IF 4. 114; KNS IF 4. 12.] "Better to die with a good reputation than live with shame" is the thrust of numerous proverbial sentiments, all no doubt recalling the stark wisdom of Hávamál with its sharply defined perception of the value of that which lives after us.

This pre-occupation with the good opinion of others is of a peculiarly local nature, however, little more than farm gossip in the tiny setting of medieval Iceland where, as W.P. Ker wrote, "nothing is of much importance except individual men, ... and all the chief men are known to one another. . . . The distant corners of the island are near to one another. There is no sense of those impersonal forces, those nameless multitudes, that make history a different thing from biography" in larger, continental contexts. [Ker, ] Thus, "word carries though mouth stands still" Thorgir of Fljótsdœla saga warns Thorgrim for suggesting that Helgi is the sone of a slave[IF 11. 242.], and the uncertainty of rumor is often a cause for insecurity of spirits: Skapti Þoroddsson bleakly advises his outlawed relative Grettir, "more people prefer the worse side of a story which has two versions," thus embellishing his truism that "one man tells half a tale." [ÍF 46. 146.] "Better when just one person knows," counsels the voice of Hávamál; "the world knows, if three know." [Hávamál 163. and 63.] On the other hand, in Hænsa-Þóris saga [CSI 6. 245.] the hero, , responds "I am not a word sick man" by which he means that words don't upset him. An explicit professed lack of concern for public opinion is found also a couple of times in Njála. Gunnar, for instance, responds with the same phrase as Þórir when his shepherd tells him of Skamkel's lying slanders [ÍF 54.136.], and Bergthora when beggar women report that her family is being slandered by Thrain Sigfusson, observes, "Few can choose what is said about them." [ÍF 92.231.] . Examination of the contexts in which these phrases occur might suggest that their speakers are moved by bravado, however, or that their professed unconcern in fact hides real motives far more sensitive and responsive to rumor than their words admit in a milieu where any word, uttered even by chance, can lead to damage of the flesh.
Where actions are motivated by the desire for face and where feud creates transactions in which face as well as life can easily be lost, individuals are observed keeping close track of gifts and honours rendered, as well as of injuries, a sort of balance sheet of both the positive and the negative factors of relationships. Such different kinds of payment have been touched upon in Gísla saga when its hero, speaking to the servant Geirmundr, who has been struck by his master, Þorgrímr, asks for help as he seeks a way to kill the latter: "A gift always looks to be repaid." Gísli reminds Geirmundr, "and I want you to unbolt three of the doors tonight"--thus leaving the way open for Gísli's vengeance incidentally to accomplish also the servant's desire to repay þorgrím´s violent unkindness. The phraseology of this request directs us again to Hávamál where, in the context of maintaining friendship, desirable psychologically, but on the other hand necessary for support in times of feud conflict, we are advised, "To his friend a man should be a friend/and repay gifts with gifts." The second part of the verse takes a less optimistic turn, however, "laughter a man should give for laughter/and repay treachery with lies." And verse 46, on dealing with a friend you don't trust, warns, "you should laugh with him and disguise your thoughts,/a gift should be repaid with a like one." By far the greater number of paroemial texts in this category dwell upon the obligations of negative giving--as the Killer-Hrappr of Njáls saga boasts in Eddic style to Kolbeinn, "I am a friend to my friends, but when something bad is done to me, I pay it back." And using a phrase not unique to his own saga, Grettir darkly threatens vengeance upon hearing of his brother's killing: "It's an old saying,' said Grettir, 'that one misfortune is overcome by suffering a greater one. There is greater consolation than money. . .'" [ÍF 47.153.]

Although Gísli's wife, Auðr, comments when offered silver by Eyjólfr who is seeking her husband's life, "Death's best consolation is wealth" she does so in a context not specifically related to feud, and far more common is the sentiment expressed in the latter part of Grettir's just quoted speech. "There is greater consolation than money," he adds, "and I expect [my brother] Atli to be avenged." This sanguinary preference is so dominant that a proverbial phrase has evolved disparaging of the acceptance of financial compensation for the death of kin, and Hjarrandi has said of Grettir's killing of his brother, "that he would never carry his brother's life around in his purse."[ÍF 24. 80.] And when Grettir's friend Þorfinn asks Sveinn Jarl for mercy over his eventual killing of all three brothers, he objects, "he has killed three brothers now . . . all of them so brave that none of them would carry another in his purse." [ÍF 24.84.] It is with this lower regard for financial settlement than for blood that Hildigunnr plays her famous scene of Njála, where, whetting her uncle Flosi Þorðarson to vengeance for the death of her husband, Höskludr Hvítanesgoði, she throws over Flosi's head the mute challenge of the blood-clotted cloak, saved from the killing--so that even when all of Iceland has contributed to a settlement, he must, in order to maintain face, find an excuse to refuse payment and then proceed to the burning of Njáll and his family.

This face-based urge to blood vengeance is much emphasized in saga narrative, and on several occasions characters speak of the need for immediate action, before the peacemakers of their society interfere and deprive them of that honour which, impelled by the values of feud tradition they want most to gain. "Blood nights are the most furious," warns Hrolleif's mother in Vatnsdœla saga, urging him swiftly to leave the district after he has killed its revered leader, Ingimundr the Old. [ÍF 24.64.] The same proverbial observance of this coldly pragmatic situation is found also in Víga-Glums saga, as well as once in the Biskupa sögur and in Málsháttakvæði, such frequency of occurrence thus leaving no doubt of the admiration with which lethal retribution was regarded, at least in the literature of medieval Iceland.

The proverbs also recognize the dangers of extremes, however, so that one too absorbed in honour may grow to arrogance and thus to his own ruin. In Hrafnkels saga farmers contemplating the hero's fall opine: "Short is the life of the proud." [ÍF 5. 122.] and Gestr Oddleifsson, in Gisla saga, correctly sees the pride of the Haukadalr men leading to the destruction of their friendship within three years. Norwegian kings are made to comment several times in Egils saga on the self-destructive pride of Kveld-Ulf's family, and Þorgeirr says of Grettir and his brother Atli, "They are both too proud for their own good." [ÍF 43. 140.] Similarly an injudiciously hasty response to a feud injury can be non-productive. "Only a slave takes vengeance at once, and a coward never," [ÍF 15. 44.] threatens a very young Grettir enraged by physical abuse he has received from Auðun. The ineluctable essence of feud vengeance can reassure the injured in times when patience is required for strategic advantage: "Vengeance there will be, whether sooner or later," Einar Konalsson reassures his friend, Guðmundr in ríki, when he complains of his enemies insults in Ljósvetninga saga. 'And I urge you to bear up under this. The longer the vengeance is drawn out, the more satisfying it will be." [ÍF 5.(13.) 20. A-M 168.] recommending thus the refined taste of patient administration.

Peace makers, too, frequently urge delay, but rather in hopes of reconciliation than of a more delicious killing. "Tend the oak if you want to live under it," Arinbjorn reminds his friend Egill, speaking of his own need to incur favour with the king before asking favours of him on his friend's behalf. [ÍF 68. 214.] And the hero´s own father, Skalla-Grímr, had once unsuccessfully tried to get his other son Þórólfr, to avoid further contact with the Norwegian royal family, with whom they were in an incipient state of feud: "better to drive a whole wagon home." [ÍF 38. 96.] he said, using a proverb found in several similar situations in the sagas. Olaf the Peacock, in the same vein, advises his son Kjartan, injured by Guðrún and her brothers, "Whole flesh is easier to dress than wounds, kinsman." [ÍF 46. 143.] In the interests of such reconciliation it is proverbial wisdom "not to turn down a good offer," as attested in Hœnsa-Þóris saga as well as the C-text of Ljósvetninga saga [ÍF 2.7; 7.(17.) 42. C-text]. So common is the phrase that the composer of Grettis saga makes ironic use of it, as he does of other proverbial wisdom, by placing it in the mouth of one from whom trustworthy wisdom might not be commonly expected. Here, the old witch, Þuriðr, foster-mother of Grettir's mortal enemy, Þorbjörn Öngull, comments on Grettir's and his brother's canny unwillingness to agree to leave the island where they have taken their last refuge: "there are few more certain ways to court trouble than to refuse what is good" [ÍF 78. 247.] she says, with all present, including the reading audience, knowing for certain the offer was ill-meant, with the subsequent killing of the two brothers as its purpose.

Proverbs reflect the fact that simple physical victory did not automatically imbue the protagonist with face. The forces joined had to be equal--men gain no honour, for instance, in fighting with women, men of stature gain little from killing social inferiors and stand to lose much more if they failed in the attempt, and kings insist they will contend only with equals. In addition, although it seems unheroic and indeed would be so in epic heroic terms, in the saga heroes in pursuit of face through the feud process share a common recognition that unequal power can honorably inhibit a man from undertaking confrontation. This is expressed with a proverbial phrase meaning "to pull at a rope against a strong man", and numerous texts advise against it, both in the physical and in the metaphorical senses. A similar assessment is represented by the proverb "Nothing can beat numbers," or "one can´t contend with a superior force" offered most generally as a forgiveable excuse when a hero falls or fails in his battle. "Always the stronger one has the upper hand" or "makes the decisions" is a phrase used paroemially in several places and, I think, alluded to in the motivation of action in a number of others, for instance in Sverris saga and in Fóstbrœðra saga. It, too, reminds saga characters that there are times and situations where it is best not to enter into open conflict with a potential opponent and that there will not be a significant loss of face in this perhaps temporary acquiescence.

Last year I spoke before this body, though then differently constituted, on "Proverbs of Friendship in the Sagas", and there I spent some time discussing paroemial reference to the necessity of support from friends and relatives if one is to succeed in the endeavours of feud. Today, because of limits on our time, I simply refer you to my handout for some textual evidence of that fact. Students of the Old Icelandic sagas cannot agree on the extent to which they reflect, --as is more likely,--the mores and values of the thirteenth century in which they were written, or speak rather nostalgically of a Golden Age of honour and integrity in which they might have preferred that their settling ancestors had lived. One way to examine this problem further would be to look beyond the confines of Old Icelandic literature to the broader expanse of early Germanic narrative, seeking analogous texts from other closely related cultures. But such an exploration lies outside the ambitions of this paper and of my own interests at this time.

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