Applications 18.  “Jafnan segir in ríkri ráð.” and the Point of Fóstbrœðra saga.  
The 5th Annual Fiske Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies [Norsestock 5] Cornell University, June 2010                                                     Richard L. Harris

Today I want to talk about ways in which a traditional Old Icelandic proverb, "Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð." is illustrated and identified by allusion in  Fóstbrœðra saga, imbuing that narrative as a whole with a paroemial force an awareness of which may aid us in our reading of this work.  I do this conscious of the obvious, that neither this nor any other single analytic formula will comprehend the whole of so complex a saga, whose ethos is ostensibly Christian yet whose narrative world is also stubbornly pagan, with eccentric ruffians admiring a code of violent Germanic heroic behaviour and with sorceresses whose power derives from resilient sparks of heathendom.  The blatantly repetitious patterns, paralleled episodes and characters, though of no concern here, probably hint at a comprehensive narrative agenda which so far escapes the literary critical eye.  Reading Fóstbrœðra with reference to a background of traditional communal wisdom, translated as it seems to be into ideals of Christian spiritual understanding may nevertheless help us to clarify what the saga meant to its composer or composers, as well as how portions of its first audience would have received it.

"Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð" is first attested for Old Norse in Bjarni Kolbeinsson's Málsháttakvæði, l. 89, (attr. Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, c. 1200).  A few decades later its inclusion in Sólarljóð in altered form, “En sá réð, Es ríkri vas,” confirms its familiar currency in 13th century Iceland.  This proverb’s force is often implicit in the conflicts of the Íslendingasögur.   The saga figures’ chronic obsession with asserting and maintaining the right to decide, to have control over their social environment, was examined by Robert Cook in 1971:  "Borrowing the medieval division of the soul into three faculties – reason, emotions, will – we can say that the saga treatment of character centers almost exclusively on the will, to the neglect of the other two faculties." [91]  Cook elucidates ways in which "saga characters express themselves, and relate to each other primarily on the level of will." [HANDOUT]

With the development of feud theory especially in the decades immediately succeeding Cook's paper, we might now see his observations, apt in themselves, as having reference to the competitive behaviour of individuals in a society where resolution of conflict is sought in the robust processes of feud.  A pervasive social urge to control over territory would be understandably expressed in personal terms by one's insistence upon having one’s way, in small matters as well as in larger ones.

1.  Chapter 1 of  Fóstbrœðra comprises an episode now regarded as an original and integrated scene of the narrative, its center of attention, Grettir Ásmundarson, a figure whose image haunts some later passages of the saga.  Here, the outlaw is saved from execution at the hands of some poor farmers in Ísafjörður by intervention of the aristocratic Þorbjörg digra Óláfsdóttir, who rules the district when her chieftain husband, Vermundr Þorgrímsson, is absent from home.  The episode is recounted also in Chapter 52 of Grettis saga, where it was long thought to be the more original of the two variants.  The situation of Vermundr and his wife is established more fully in Fóstbrœðra.  In addition, as Þorbjörg takes up her viceroyal duties here, she has first learned of the impending event at home, rather than more or less stumbling upon the gallows scene as she does in Grettla.  Furthermore, in the latter saga she argues against his execution on the grounds that Grettir, like Þorbjörg herself, is of aristocratic background, and that he is in any case more than they can handle, both physically and socially.   Nothing in this text shows Þorbjörg explicitly imposing her will upon the farmers—rather, she extracts a promise from Grettir to cause no more trouble and take no vengeance upon his captors.  He agrees and is immediately released. 
In Fóstbrœðra, though, she warns the farmers, ". . . he comes from a high-ranking family and is greatly respected for his many physical accomplishments. His kinsmen will take his death badly, even though he is regarded as overbearing by many." (330)   She thus warns of likely repercussions extending beyond their meagre powers of control if they go though with the hanging.  And then she asserts her authority, "His life will not be forfeit on this occasion if I have any say in the matter"   "Right or wrong, you have the power to prevent him from being executed."   As Þorbjörg makes clear to her farmers that it is not her will that they execute Grettir, and as they in turn acknowledge her power to impose her will upon them, rightly or wrongly, the practical force of this unspoken proverb, "Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð", is obvious.  And that force is repeatedly echoed in successive events and relationships treated by the composer through the rest of Fóstbrœðra saga, even though the proverb itself is never used in the narrativeThroughout the saga there are incidents in which reference is explicitly made to characters' possession and assertion of their power to exercise their will to judge, to decide issues, to control others.  Frequently we find at such moments the terms ''ráð', or 'ráða', and sometimes a form of 'ríki' in the actual text, or at least descriptive narrative in which the power is implied or contested, and thus we see repeated lexical or situational allusion to the proverb of interest in this paper.

2.  The second chapter of the saga develops this theme as it introduces the two heroes, Þorgeirr, and Þormóðr, described early as “alike in temperament.  On the basis of the likelihood that both would die violently, they undertake the here emphatically pagan ritual of declaring blood brotherhood.   The narrator clearly disapproves of this from a Christian perspective, “Though people called themselves Christians in those days, Christianity was a new and very undeveloped religion and many of the sparks of heathendom still flickered, manifesting themselves as undesirable customs.”  (331) Their subsequent aggressive behavior in the neighborhood leads to complaints, and Vermundr exercises his power by banishing Þorgeirr‘s family from Ísafjörðr.  Hávarr’s acquiescence is expressed in terms recalling the proverb whose kernel is apparent in Chapter 1 as he remarks, with some truculence, “Vermund, you have the power to make me leave Isafjord with all my belongings, but I expect Thorgeir will want to decide for himself where he stays.” (332)  Vermundr thus has the power to force Hávarr´s household from Ísafjörðr, but the wayfarings of Þorgeirr are another matter, for him at ráða as he wills, and thus beyond anyone’s control, with the predictable results, “he was an unwelcome guest at most places he visited.”

3.  In the next episode the chieftain Jöðurr, who has “authority in the district, but [is] ambitious,” is the initiator in a horse-borrowing conflict, with Þorgeirr’s father, Hávarr, allowing him to take along one of his horses on a flour buying trip, providing he return it on the way home.  Jöðurr agrees but then inexplicably reneges, despite the warning of his companions: “I won’t trouble with that now.  I’ll use the horse to carry back its load and return it to him when it’s served my purpose.”  “You can do that if you wish, but Hávarr has never looked kindly on broken agreements.” (332)  As expected, Hávarr objects, “I don’t want the horse to go any farther.”  And Jöðurr asserts his own will, answering, “We shall have the horse with or without your consent.”  “That remains to be seen.” comments Havarr, who, proceeding to attack Jöðurr, is then killed by him.  When Þorgeirr comes visiting, Jöðurr advises him that he doesn’t pay compensation for his slayings.  Þorgeirr responds, “It’s for you to decide how much you pay, and it’s for me to decide whether I accept it or not.” (334)  and kills Jöðurr in vengeance.  And Þorgeirr’s mother, Þórelfr, can keep him only a night, since “Tomorrow men will come here looking for you and we don’t have the strength to protect you against a large party.” (335) 

4. The composer now employs one of those controversial passages of Fóstbrœðra slipping into learned ecclesiastical rhetoric as he at first seems to praise the young Þorgeirr, “And yet it was no great wonder since the Almighty Creator had forged Thorgeir’s breast such a strong and sturdy heart that he was as fearless and brave as a lion in whatever trials or tribulations befell him.  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.” (336)  Here, referencing the Christian doctrine of Free Will, the composer calls God the “höfuðsmiðr”, the chief builder, the architect, the most powerful being, who exercises his power to give all people free will, so they in turn may exercise their power to choose good or evil for themselves and be rewarded accordingly.  The composer thus comes forth, declaring what some take be the point, or one of the points, of his whole story.

Preben Meulengracht-Sørensen, for instance, studies the saga composer’s intentions at this moral level, pursuing the idea that the oddly learned, ecclesiastically flavoured passages of the saga are ironically humorous.  Referring to Halldórr Laxnes’ 1952 satirization of this saga, he observes “It can be said that since the appearance of Gerpla it has been difficult not to see parody in Fóstbrœðra.” [396]  As Þorgeirr’s courage is explained in high parodic style, then, there is also the ironically implied criticism we expect of this mode.  Powerful and courageous because of God’s gifts, he becomes ever more amoral in his unrestrained violent actions, whereas Þormóðr’s behaviour is ameliorated with time and the influence of King Óláfr.  [410]  The king’s twice voiced determination that Þorgeirr is not in every respect a lucky man can be interpreted at a spiritual level when he seems not altogether dead after he is killed.  “Þorgeirr serves demonic powers after his death, and that is the saga-author’s final judgment on his conduct in life.” [411]   Thus, Meulengracht-Sorensen notices, the traditional Germanic heroism is reinterpreted and valued in Christian terms.  The inevitability of the old pagan wisdom of feud, that the more powerful decides, remains true indeed in the secular, physical world, but the Christian assumption of faith in God and his spiritual kingdom presents another moral plane at which such decisions take place, and the final decision, that of the höfuðsmiðr”, has immensely greater impact than those secular ones with which the old communal wisdom was solely concerned.  It seems very likely then that, although this saga has no introductory segment precisely identifiable as a Norwegian prelude, its narrative up to the stylistically remarkable and critically much noticed passage on Free Will is preludic in a thematic sense.

5.  Among the assertions of physical power in subsequent episodes are executions carried out by one or both fóstbrœðir at the behest of members of society seeking arbitrary justice.  Thus, together they dispatch the obnoxious Ingolf and his son Þorbrand at the urging of Sigrfljóð, who like others has been troubled by their bullying and thievery.  And individually they carry out acts of vengeance when serving King Óláfr.

6.  Þorgeirr in particular, however, engages repeatedly in gratuitous violence demonstrating that amorality observed in him by P M.-S.  In this phase he is outlawed for the whale-fight slaying of Þorgils of Lækjamót and then is rejected by his fóstbróðr for voicing interest in the outcome of a hypothetical confrontation between the two, an ideation not altogether wholesome in a member of such a martially committed  relationship.  “I wasn't really speaking my mind,” he claims, but as Þórmóðr observes, that is exactly what he was doing.  The feckless killing of Torfi [böggull] Bundle, who unknowingly failed to respond to his greeting, and the beheading in Flateyjarbók of a tired shepherd sitting with head stretched forward “poised for the blow,” are only a bit more reprehensible than a horse-borrowing episode echoing that in which his own father was killed.  Bjarni Skúfsson, like the young Einarr of Hrafnkatla, needs a ride to search for some stray ewes and so borrows Þorgeirr’s mount.  “I must insist that you ride it no farther,”   Þorgeirr says before driving his spear through the rider’s chest, “dead when he fell from the horse.” (346)  His killing, finally, by henchmen of the Greenlander Þorgrímr Trolli and Þórarinn the Overbearing of northern Iceland seems inevitable and depressingly anti-climactic.  Occurring even after a peace pact astutely sought by Þorgeirr when gauging their superior forces, it is motivated by Þorarinn’s discovery that  Þorgeir just killed his unpleasant relative Gautr Sleituson, in turn a grudge-bearing relative of Þorgils Másson, whom Þorgeirr had dispatched in the whale fight for which he was outlawed.

7.  His vengeance by Þormóðr occurs with the implicit blessing of King Óláfr, always protective of his men, in a lengthy Greenland episode.  Killing not only Þorgrímr Trolli but also his male relatives, he is later complimented by the king,  “It will be a long time before the ground you have scorched begins to grow again.” (392)   As P.M.-S. observes, Þormóðr, unlike his fóstbróðr, subjects his God-given physical power to the royal interests, and in that situation he dies with his king at Stiklastaðr.  There, in both the Hauksbók and Flateyjarbók traditions, a well-known conversation occurs in which Þormóðr asks to die with King Óláfr.  In both versions, the king grants him this, provided he has the power to decide, and the phrase is much the same as when used in other contexts in Fóstbrœðra saga, “ef ek má [nökkuru um H.] ráða [F.]”

8.  There is insufficient time today to approach in any detail other uses of the phraseology of the power to decide events and and to control situations in Fóstbrœðra saga.  An area that would be productive, however, would lie in episodes where sorceresses in typically humble positions use their magic to assert control over their superiors and thus influence the course of events.  Of special interest might be the Greenlandic Gríma’s protection of Þormóðr in hiding when he’s killed  Þorgrímr and his nephews.  In an ironically laden conversation, she denigrates the very powers she uses to hide the slayer.  When Þórdís bluntly challenges her hypocrisy, the sorceress chides her for her lack of spiritual discipline.  People still influenced by the old sparks of heathendom are not treated so harshly in this saga with its later Christian setting as in some other saga narratives.  And it’s hard to tell how seriously the composer judges the fóstbrœðr in their morally various uses of those powers derived from God—humour at a cultural distance is always difficult to detect, let alone assess for its serious intent.  Throughout Fóstbrœðra saga however, the composer has made numerous allusions to the proverb, "Jafnan segir inn ríkri ráð," and his interest in doing so lies quite certainly in the power that is divine as well as in the uses humans choose to make of it in this world.

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