Applications 5. “Mér
þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert.”
Paremiological Sub-categories and the Íslendingasögur;
Some Applications of the Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Materials
in the Old Icelandic Sagas [www.usask.ca/english/icelanders].
Paper for the AASSC Meeting, Winnipeg, presented 30 May 2004.
Today I am going to talk about some ways
in which a proverbial sub-category, the proverbial reference, is used by composers
of the Íslendingasögur.
Compilers of proverb collections have traditionally voiced concern over the true proverbiality of their data, a problem dependent in the first place on the way in which one chooses to define the term, PROVERB. This in itself is no easy matter, and over centuries there have been numerous and varied opinions. Once a compiler arrives at whatever conclusions can be reached in this regard, however, there is then the problem of the rigidity with which the definition will be enforced as the selection of includable items proceeds. The first major compiler of Icelandic paroemiological data, Guðmundur Jónsson, entitled his published work Safn af íslenzkum orðskviðum, fornmælum, heilræðum, snilliyrðum, sannmælum og málsgreinum [Kaupmannahöfn, 1830]. In its Icelandic introduction, he comments on the wide diversity of selection apparent in one of his sources, a vast compilation by Ólafur Gunnlaugsson í Svefneyjum (1688-1784) :
I grant that on this score this book contains many items which are in fact neither old nor common proverbs;
but it is difficult to establish a clear boundary between so-called proverbs and common truths, especially
when they are clothed in proverbial form, and also many of them seem deserving of being included among
proverbs, since they contain useful instructions, cautions and prudent precepts. [GJ, Safn, Formáli, p. 17.]
Finnur Jónsson, too, in the Formáli to his 1920 Íslenzkt Málsháttasafn, voices awareness of the difficulties of maintaining the purity of the inventory in such compilations, and in the Formálsorð to Íslenzkir Málshættir [Bjarni Vilhjálmsson & Óskar Halldórsson, Reykjavík, 1982] there are also signs of critical concern. There, Guðmundur Jónsson’s Safn is accused of containing many sentences that are “in no way to be accounted proverbs, rather various sorts of phrases and idioms” a flaw the writer detects in all older proverb collections. And he later remarks that, although Finnur Jónsson saw the problem, he didn’t go far enough in weeding out such impurities as he gathered data from previous works: “In our judgement he was not sufficiently severe in these matters, and in this edition we have omitted a great deal that FJ allowed to float along in his collection.” [p. xxv]
The resultant parameters of selection based on whatever definition the compiler has chosen to recognize, however, eventually tend to blur in the interests of including in one’s data all that can be found in a narrative in the way of the proverb and its immediate rhetorical relatives. For instance, though they can by no means be accounted proverbs in any rigid sense, the vast range of proverbial phrases, which Archer Taylor treats in his valuable final chapter of The Proverb [Cambridge, Mass., 1931, 184-200], can’t be neglected if one is interested in the whole paremiological element of a society’s collective cultural literacy. Thus, I’ve begun to wonder recently whether the distinctions we try to make between what some call “true proverbs” as opposed to other entities of paremiological note, such as gnomes, aphorisms, and maxims, are not properly considered in the realm of surface structure, – with a more basic notion of proverb, or paroemia, common to all in their deep structure – but that would be a matter better undertaken at another time.
During the years since I began working on my Concordance to Proverbs in the Sagas, I have become interested in several variations in paremiological occurrences in this literary genre, one of which is the proverbial allusion– an English example could be found in a hypothetical mystery story beginning: “It was an ill wind that blew that night.” The allusion, of course, is to the proverb, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” and thus indicates that nothing at all good came of anything that happened on the night here referred to in my hypothetical mystery story – in fact, it sounds as if bad things happened! Such references are first mentioned, so far as I know, by Erasmus, who in the Preface to his Adages remarks that their use in literature necessitates a comprehensive knowledge of proverbs in their base form in order to be able to understand more fully what one is reading:
Even if there were no other use for proverbs, at the very least they are not only helpful but necessary
for the understanding of the best authors, that is, the oldest. Most of these are textually corrupt, and
in this respect they are particularly so, especially as proverbs have a touch of the enigmatic, so that
they are not understood even by readers of some learning; and then they are often inserted disconnectedly,
sometimes in a mutilated state. . . . Occasionally they are alluded to in one word, as in Cicero in his
Letters to Atticus: ‘Help me, I beg you; “prevention,” you know,’ where he refers to the proverb
‘Prevention is better than cure’ [I ii 40] [Collected Works of Erasmus. Adages Ii1 to Iv100. Vol. 31. Tr. M. M.
Phillips, ann. R.A.B. Mynors. Toronto, 1982. p. 18]
Certainly it seems most likely that competence
in a culture’s proverbial inventory is the best way to be prepared for
an awareness, or understanding, of such allusions.
One example of this process that is at first striking but perhaps upon reflection tenuous occurs in Laxdœla saga, and is spoken about Snorri goði. Snorri is presented in Laxdœla as both friend and relative of Guðrún, who with her family have much support from him. [Ch. 36 [p. 100. Hann var frændi Ósvífrs ok vinr; áttu þau Guðrún þar mikit traust]]. Saga lovers are familiar with his assessment in Njála, “the wisest man in Iceland, not counting those who were prescient; a reliable friend, but a ruthless enemy.”[Ch. 114] And of course, the composer of Eyrbyggja in his rather full description of Snorri goði attributes to him prescience, besides: “He was a wise man and prescient in many matters.” [“Hann var vitr maðr ok forspár um marga hlúti.” [Ch. 15]] Several episodes of the latter half of Laxdœla fall clearly within the range of material demonstrative of his near Óðinnic cunning in his dealings where there are matters of conflict, but the most vicious example is certainly his plan for using Þorgils Hölluson.
The respective family lines of Snorri and of Þorgils Hölluson are not mutually inimical in saga tradition, the latter being a maternal grandson of Gestr Oddleifsson the prescient, another of Guðrún’s relatives and supporters. [Laxdœla, Ch. 33, 88. Guðrún kom til laugar ok fagnar vel Gesti, frænda sínum.] Eyrbyggja, however, has Þorgils aligned with the enemies of Snorri even in the latter’s old age, possibly with reference to an oral tradition from which that episode was drawn which is included in Laxdœla. Here, Þorgils is in any case described as annoying, – “tall and handsome but arrogant, and not called a fair man.”[Ch. 57 [p. 170.Þorgils var mikill maðr ok vænn ok inn mesti ofláti; engi var hann kallaðr jafnaðamaðr.]] “Often there was coolness between him and Snorri goði; Thorgils seemed to Snorri meddlesome and showy” remarks the composer, who has clearly introduced him into the narrative of Laxdœla as a dupable suitor of Guðrún in her second widowhood and readiness for a fourth husband, – just when Snorri is seeking a likely instrument to exact a little strategic vengeance for the killing of her husband.
To spearhead the project he chooses Þorgils, an admirer of Guðrún who has already said he would seek vengeance in her interests if she would marry him, a proposal she has refused. To renew the vengeance negotiations with Þorgils, Snorri first sends abroad Þorkell Eyjólfsson, a better match for Guðrún, and then has her promise Þorgils she will marry no other man in this country than Þorgils, – Þorkell being at that time in Norway. Þorgils, better known for his impulsiveness than his shrewdness, jumps at the lure and leads Snorri’s chosen avengers to the killing of Helgi Harðbeinsson, memorable for the scene in which he wiped upon Guðrún’s blue sash the bloody 18-inch spear blade, with which he had run her husband through. A short time later, when Þorgils visits Guðrún to report the killing and ask her to fulfil her part of the bargain, she responds “I don’t think I am destined to become your wife. I believe I would be keeping to every word of our agreement if I marry Thorkel Eyjolfsson, for he is not here in this country at present.” [Ch. 65] Þorgils rages, “I know all too well where this comes from, for I have always felt the brunt of cold counsels from that quarter: I know that this is Snorri’s doing.” “An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not.” says Archer Taylor, and certainly here the reader’s eye is caught by the turn of phrase, even without the help of the TPMA citations.
The phrase köld ráð, which seems imbued with proverbial status by TPMA [p. 187] under Schlechter Rat [bad, wicked, poor] is used in Óláfs saga helga and in Haralds saga harðráða and occurs once in Eddic poetry, in Lokasenna. The coldness of women’s counsel – (which is mentioned once by Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Nunnes Preestes Tale) – is celebrated once also in the Eddic material, in Völundarkviða, used by Niðuð of his wife’s advice which led to the killing of their two sons and the rape of their daughter by the vengeful Völundr. Here, the köld ráð of the king’s wife is seemingly based not on evil or vicious intention but rather on a lack of wisdom, so that it is merely poor advice, even though with horrendously tragic results. In Njála there can be no doubt that the proverb is situated so as to emphasize the viciousness of Hildigunnr’s schemes, whereas in Gísla saga various interpretations might be attached, depending partly upon whom we choose to identify as the speaker.
Of course the more familiar manifestation is the one found in Njála and in Gísla saga, Eru köld kvenna ráð. – in manuscript traditions of the latter work placed variously in the mouths of three different persons, in the former spoken by Flosi Þorðarson when his niece Hildigunnr has thrown upon him the cloak of Höskuldr Hvítanes goði, whose dried blood pours down around him as she demands he seek vengeance for her husband. “You are the worst monster and want us to take the course which will be worst for us all. Cold are the counsels of women.” he exclaims [Ch. 116]
The linkage of Þorgils’ utterance to the proverb of Njála and of Gísla saga is tenuous at best, and perhaps it is only the importance today’s ideologically harried readers attach to the coldness of women’s counsel in the sagas that makes them think of this proverb when they read the passage in Laxdœla – hard to know, whether the medieval audience felt a connection, maybe a slur on Snorri’s manhood as the impulsive rather than clever Þorgils attempts to exercise his version of anger management. It is interesting, though, that Kallstenius in his notes to Guðmundur Óláfsson's 17th century Thesaurus Adagiorum connects the phrase in Laxdœla with the proverbs in Njála and in Gísla saga.
For an example where the processes of reference are much more clear, I’m turning now to Fóstbrœðra saga, the version in Möðruvallabók (found also in and R), chief source of our editions of many great sagas, noted for its tendency to shorten their narratives a bit. In this instance, however, the copyist is thought to have added an episode. This first scene of the saga, derived from material found also in The Saga of Grettir, ch. 52, tells how the difficult outlaw was saved from lynching by some irate farmers from whom he had been stealing in the Ísafjörðr area. Their intentions were thwarted when Þorbjörg the Stout intervened, the daughter of Óláfr Peacock, the wife of Vermundr Þorgrímsson, powerful goði of Ísafjörðr. The presence of this apparent interpolation here does seem puzzling, since the rest of the saga has almost nothing to do with Grettir Ásmundarson. The scene ends, though, 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 let him go wherever he wished.[p. 330] I think 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 Þorbjörg was a woman of firm character,” the narrator concludes, in case the audience has not understood what his scene was about.
This critically rejected episode about Þorbjörg’s arbitrary exercise of her power seems more integral to Fóstbrœðra when we view a passage with verbal similarities shortly following. Here Vermundr decides Hávarr must leave the Ísafjrðr district with his family because of the depredations of his son, Þorgeirr, one of the Sworn Brothers – and “Havar said, ‘Vermund, you have the power to make me leave Isafjord with all my belongings . . .’”[p. 332] Both this and the former passage, though not proverbial in themselves, have clear reference to the proverb, “Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð,” as we find it in Bjarni Einarsson’s Málsháttakvæði, and with variations elsewhere.
The paremiological thrust of these two episodes is echoed somewhat later in the narrative when Þorgeirr saves the life of Veglágr, whose thievery has rendered him justifiably liable to execution. “Despite what you think is the right course of action,” declares the bullying hero, “in this instance the man’s price will be too costly for you. He will not be executed if I have any say in the matter.”[p. 360.] Illugi responds, “You are a great defender of thieves, but this one will cause you grief,” yet informal local banishment is all that Veglágr suffers with such a champion on his side. Thus, Þorgeirr exercises arbitrarily and unfairly his power over others in a way similar to the cases of interference by Þorbjrg the Stout and by Vermundr.
This test of the good or evil impulse in the exercise of power is studied through much of the rest of Fóstbrœðra – humorously, for instance, 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 Reykjaholar, 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 because of the ways he uses the power God has given him.
In so far as the copyist of Möðruvallabók acted as composer of the narrative in his inclusion of the interrupted lynching scene at the beginning of Fóstbrœðra saga, IF it was indeed he who did this, then he seems to have intended it as a thematic signal, the force of the proverb to which he refers having applicable significance throughout much of the rest of the narrative. In fact, if we seek a unifying theme for Fóstbrœðra, I think we do better to seek it here than in the loyalty of the hero to St Olaf, as suggested by Kurt Schier and others, [Kurt Schier, Kindlers Literatur Lexikon, 4, 1964, 3634-5] since such a thematic focus neglects large portions of the story, whereas Jafnan segir enn ríkri ráð says it all.
My third example of proverbial reference today is taken from Hrafnkels saga. There, the realistic but unflattering observation of my paper’s title [ÍF XI. Hrafnkels saga 3. 108.], with which Sámr accompanies his reluctant agreement to help his foolish old uncle, Þorbjörn á Hóli, seek redress from Hrafnkell Freysgoði for the slaying of his son, Einarr, may seem to the casual reader of sagas nothing more than the fatalistic pessimism with which a man sometimes undertook to help an unpromising relative or carry out some obviously ill-fated errand. Sámr and the audience know, after all, that Þorbjörn has already rejected an offer generous, given the conditions and the perpetrator of the slaying, and not to be sought for again, given the arrogance with which this poor farmer has turned down the unprecedented magnanimity of the local horse-loving tyrant of Hrafnkelsdalr. Though wronged and irate, Þorbjörn by any account is nothing here but a heimskr maðr, a fact made ever more obvious as the suit progresses. At the happy outcome of legal proceedings and their follow-up, however, it is Sámr himself who proves foolish when he oddly grants Hrafnkell life for banishment from his farm: “I can’t understand why you’re doing this. You’ll have good reason to regret you’ve spared Hrafnkel’s life.” [p. 59. “Muntu þessa mest iðrask sjálfr, er þú gefr honum lif.”] warns Sám’s mentor, Þorgeirr Þjóstarson of Þorskafjörðr. [ÍF XI. Hrafnkels saga 5. 121.] At the end of the saga, a rehabilitated and again dominant Hrafnkell reinstates himself at Aðalból after first killing Sám’s brother. When Sámr seeks help from his powerful friends in Þorskafjörðr, he is kindly rebuffed by Þorgeirr, who observes, “We urged you to have Hrafnkel killed – that seemed the sensible thing to do – but you insisted on having your own way.” [“Fýstum vit þik, at þú skyldir Hrafnkel af lífi taka, en þú vildir ráða.” [p. 70. ÍF XI. Hrafnkels saga 10. 132-3.]] “We’ve no wish to have anything more to do with your bad luck and we are not so eager to clash with Hrafnkel again that we want to risk our position for the second time.” [p. 70 “Megum vit ekki hafa at þessu gæfuleysi þitt.”] he adds, emphasizing the folly of pursuing further the development of Sám’s original undertaking, upon the folly of which the latter himself had commented at the commencement of the project. Although the proverb, “Illt er heimskum lið að veita.” [Íslenzkir Málshættir, p. 138, from the Málsháttasafn ed. Kr. Kålund, Småstykker, Kh., 1884-91, who cites also Guðmundur Jónsson, Safn, p. 183, “Illt er heimskum lið að leggja (holl ráð kenna).”] is never explicitly formulated in the narrative of Hrafnkatla, its paremiological force is clearly present and indeed informs the plot. Hrafnkell wins after losing because he is clever, and Sámr loses because he is unwise in his granting life to his opponent and could never have outwitted Hrafnkell in the first place without the help of the aristocratic chieftain brothers of Þorskafjörðr, a fact underscored by another unspoken proverb, but one to which there is no clear proverbial reference in the narrative: “Illt er að setja heimskum hátt.” [Guðmundur Jónsson, Safn, p. 181.]
It is frequently hard to assess with confidence the importance of paroemiological material in what has been called the oral family saga, and some might see the endeavour itself as pointless. In extant written texts, however, proverbs in their various categories and sub-categories have varying significance, depending on the quality of the narrative in question and the intentions of its composer. The composer may use proverbial materials for the expression of his own views, or of views most important to him and his tale, and it makes good critical sense to pay some attention to their occurrence.
Any comprehensive identification of proverbial references in a literature whose language lies outside one’s native competence is, however, indeed a challenge: – one to which I could never hope to rise myself with the medieval Icelandic corpus. But where I stumble upon such references in the Íslendingasögur, or where others kindly point them out to me, I am convinced their citation will also prove a useful addition to the Concordance and that they will eventually enable readers of the sagas to approach some of these narratives in ways more sensitive and critically productive than they would otherwise do.