Application 14. On the paroemiological conundrums of Sturlubók chapter 142: earth-lice and hair on the tongue!
Norsestock '09 The Fiske Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies, Ithaca, May 30.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan email@example.com
Having received less than a fair share of attention, probably because of the largely uninspiring setting in which they are to be found, a number of episodes in Landnámabók, aside from being good short stories, are of real interest from a literary and cultural point of view. Coming sometimes from earlier, now lost versions of extant sagas or from oral traditions remaining otherwise without witness, these passages fall more widely than most of the Icelandic corpus among those medieval texts whose situations are so sparsely defined as to make a satisfying understanding of them and their composers’ purposes almost unattainable. Elsewhere in early Germanic literatures this is not an uncommon problem--a critical favorite is the Old English Wulf and Eadwacer. In Old Icelandic, however, a useful array of sources informative of the medieval Icelandic background is available to readers and critics when approaching the themes and meanings of literary texts, and of course there is a large corpus of saga literature itself. Still, even with such advantages, some interpolations in Landnámabók are so brief and so lacking in identifiable background as to remain enigmatic, and I will try to reach a fuller understanding of one of them in this paper.
Among these anecdotal insertions, which are found chiefly in Sturla Þórðarson’s Landnámabók, his chapter 142 describes a scene which does not occur in the extant Hávarðar saga but is conjectured to have been part of an earlier version whose text we do not have. Most noticeable in it are some prophetic details emerging from a visit paid by Gestr Oddleifsson of Hagi, on Barðaströnd, to Ljótr Þórðarson inn spaki at Ingjaldssand. Fredrik Heinemann, seeking a Germanic literary context external to Old English in which to place the ‘Cynewulf and Cyneheard’ chronicle story, describes S142 as a series of “narrative events follow[ing] each other like beads on a string, “ the narrator providing no help in determining their significance.” [Heinemann, 79] The point of the chapter, he finds, is the characterization of Ljótr inn spaki, “a settler to remember, a valuable ally and a ruthless enemy; perhaps a worthy kinsman, but assuredly a neighbour to be handledwith the utmost care and respect.” [79-80] Gestr Oddleifsson, then, enters this episode as its primary character in terms of dialogue. This forspár and often fairly benign early Christian convert is familiar to saga readers as a stock spokesman and occasional facilitator of the intentions of Fate. [Add also Landnáma IF I 195-6, dealings with an assassin] He is perhaps most famous among the Íslendingasögur as the interpreter of Guðrún’s dreams in Laxdœla saga, and here we always remember his honorably shed tears as he rides away from Olaf Peacock, contemplating the tragic future of the young men he saw swimming in Lax River. He is also at least complicit, upon the dissolution of Guðrún’s unhappy first marriage, in the process by which Þórðr Ingunnarson becomes her second husband. He is then instrumental in driving away the evil Kotkell and his family, who had used their sorcery to cause Þórð’s drowning. Much later, upon his death one winter, a miraculous wind drives apart the ice sheet on Breiðafjörðr long enough for a boat to take his body across for burial at Helgafell, a place for which Gestr himself predicts greatness and indeed the eventual site of an important monastery.
In Njála the composer uses Gestr only once, here as a prescient figure reassuring a disillusioned Þangbrandr, King Ólaf’s violently unsuccessful missionary to Iceland, of the slow but inevitable victory of Christianity over paganism, a reassurance enforced with the proverbial image of “a tree [that] does not fall at the first blow”.
The Gestr Oddleifsson of the mid-14th century Króka-Refs saga is a kind and sensitive protector of his nephew Refr, who after killing one Þorbjörn, a villainous, bullying encroacher upon familial land, is then sent by his mother, Þorgerðr, to her brother’s care. Characterized first as a coal-biter, thought of by others as a fool, Ref’s one redeeming feature upon his arrival at Barðaströnd is the determination with which he undertook killing Þorbjörn, though admittedly only upon his mother’s disturbingly vehement egging. More out of perspicacity than clairvoyance, Gestr recognizes his nephew’s fortunate nature and manual skills, and helps him begin his adult journey by assigning him the difficult task of building a ship, which he does with no help and no previous experience! Here, Gestr adopts a role similar to that of Böðvarr Bjarki when he turns the cowardly Höttr into the hero Hjalti at Hrólfr kraki’s court. This same kind of relationship is examined ironically in Njála where Kári Sölmundarson on his quest for vengeance engages the dubiously useful help of Björn hvíti, an Old Icelandic version of the miles gloriosus, whose services eventually earn the hero’s observation, “bare is his back who has no brother.” When Refr, aroused from adolescent stupor and emboldened by his carpenterial accomplishments, asserts himself further by killing a local ruffian who has insulted him physically, Gestr, proud of his nephew’s metamorphosis, outfits him for his escape and this finally enables his career as a brilliantly aggressive builder-adventurer.
The very late, 15th-century, version of Hávarðar saga which has come down to us is so troubled by inaccuracies of genealogy and so flawed in topographical information as to render it unreliable as a text in any sense reflective of the people and events it claims to describe. Gestr Oddleifsson is here also a wise and well-intentioned individual, but without explicitly clairvoyant gifts, who allows his sister to be married to a local bully, Þorbjörn Þjóðreksson, on condition that he “leave off his unjust acts and wrongdoing, give everyone his due, and abide by law and order.” [CSI V. 319] In ways similar to his namesake of Króka-Refs saga, Þorbjörn threatens the well being of his weak and vulnerable neighbour, here, the feeble old Hávarðr, eventually killing his son. When Gestr then retrieves his sister and tries to force Þorbjörn at last to compensate the pitiful father, the complex results lead to a humorously treated rejuvenation of the old hero, who unbelievably kills his bullying adversary. His changes for the better in some ways recall the improvements of character found in Höttr, in Króka-Refr and, ironically, in Njála’s Björn hvíti, and among Gest’s anticipated roles in the oral family saga, that of the mentoring hero imparting valor to a weak individual and initiating him into aggressive manhood must certainly have had some currency. It is clear from the examples given so far that Gest’s interactions with his fellows are of two sorts in the later sagas, one involving his heightened sensitivity to people and to Fate, the other a less remarkable yet admirable wisdom and benign concern for those within his circles of familial and friendship obligations.
Early in Gísla saga, however, Gest’s clairvoyant observation upon the underlying lack of unity among the inhabitants of Haukadalr is what leads that story’s hero, reacting to [mælt mál] “somebody’s real words,” to propose the foredoomed declaration of blood botherhood among his friends and in-laws, and later in the same text he is cunningly instrumental in enabling the young sons of Vésteinn to take vengeance upon Þorkell for their father’s killing, an accomplishment remarkable given their youth. In Gísla saga he is a less benign figure, rather one predicting doom and facilitating vengeance.
There is also a more sombre aspect to much of his presence in today’s passage. Here Gestr can be seen exercising five functions, at least four of them prophetic, and two of those are accompanied by proverbs, constituting thus half the paroemial inventory of Landnámabók, and making this a rather novel interpolation.
1. In the first, brief, non-prophetic episode, Gestr seems to be approached for help as a wise man, or maybe even a healer. Egill Völu-Steinsson asks him how his father can recover from his grief over the death of his son, Ögmundr—and “Gest composed the beginning of Ögmundar drápa,” intending that the father would complete it. In modern reading an instance of the therapeutic artistic response to grief or depression, in heroic Icelandic society it could as well have been a process of healing through the re-establishment of one’s honour, the rebuilding of face. [Helgason, Fortællinger, p.95: faderen skal så fortsætte det påbegyndte digt, for på den måde at overvinde sin sorg. Jfr. Egils saga kap. 78.] The most famous instance in Old Icelandic is the episode in Egils saga leading to the composition of Sonartorrek. [Other scenes in which face improves his mood: 1. With Æðelstan, upon the death of Þórólfr. 2. Upon acquiring Ásgerðr, his deceased brother’s widow!]
2. The next two functions are paired, in that in both of them Gest’s host asks unsuccessfully about the future of his son, Þorgrímr gagarr. Both times he is put off with observations instead on the welfare of first one and then the other of two fostersons. In the first instance, Gestr says that an otherwise unidentified Þórarinn would be the more famous of the two, but “he bade that [he] take care, lest the hair that lay on his tongue should coil about his head.” Guðni Jónsson [Formáli, LXXXVIII] records a suggestion that this may have been Þórarinn loftunga, a skáld in the court of King Knútr inn ríki, who endangered himself by composing an insufficient praise poem, a flokk, for his patron. Threatened with death if he did not produce a drápa for the king by meal time the next day, he succumbed creatively to this inspiring moment and was then rewarded with 50 marks of silver for the poem, which was termed a höfuðlausn. [Ólafs saga Helga, Ch. 166]
This admonition regarding Þórarin’s potential for self-endangerment is rendered especially striking by its peculiar modification of a proverbial phrase which finds use in three extant sagas, all of them rather late among the Íslendingasögur.
In Njáls saga, the whole point of which seems in part the necessity for restraint in the dealings of people in society, as Robert Cook puts it, “that blood vengeance is not a definitive resolution of a conflict,” [p. 324, note to ch. 91, “the effect of every action is two-sided.”] Úlfr Uggason the poet rejects the attempts of Thorvald the Sickly to get him to attack and kill the annoyingly persistent missonary Þangbrandr: “I don’t intend to be his puppet,” he said, “and he’d better take care that his tongue doesn’t twist itself around his neck.” [ÍF.XII.102.263-4. CSI III.102.124.]
Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar, though quite brief, shares in its text three paroemial passages with Njála, to which it is otherwise also closely related. In one of its episodes the character Þórhaddr is describing a series of dreams to Steinn. Of his eighth dream he says it “was like this. My tongue seemed to be so long that I appeared to hook it round my neck and back into my mouth from the other side.” Stein answered, “It is clear that your tongue will soon wrap itself round your head.” In Fljótsdæla saga, too, considered to be late in its extant form [end of the 15th century], though with content related to that of the rather early Droplaugarsonasaga [early 13th century], the phrase is used when Þórir of Mýness admonishes the habitually slanderous Þorgrímr torðyfill for suggesting that Helgi Droplaugarson is the son of a slave. Striking Þorgrímr across the ear with a stick, he tells him “not to say a word more. ‘Your tongue could well get wrapped round your head. And I ask all of you here, if you think you owe me more than you owe Þorgrím, that nobody should spread these words.’” [CSI IV. 11. ÍF. XI.11.242.] The reader of such passages must be reminded of the similar imagery used by the body of advice in Hávamál pertaining to the desirability of oral restraint most poignantly epitomized with the observation, “tunga er höfuðs bani” [73/4?.]
In Sturla’s account Ljótr regards Gest’s reply as óvirðing, or dishonour, disgrace, and aside from the annoyance of having a man who is forspár avoid answering his question by means of gratuitous digression, it is obvious that the warning remark has something about it that offends. Whereas the usual, anticipated phrase has the tongue wound about the head, here Gestr mentions the hair lying on Þórarin’s tongue, and it is this that will do the winding! So far, I have not been able to find sources or analogues, medieval or modern, for this innovation. A native Icelandic informant has written me as follows: “I suspect that the hair as a (somewhat uncomfortable) alien object on a tongue signifies some kind of defect, mockery or dirt, on the tongue of the poet which makes him somehow less of a poet.” However we interpret the phrase, it is offered in a way that excites Ljót’s negative emotions, and here Gestr resembles himself more in Gísla saga than in the relatively benign character as he appears in other, later narratives.
3. The second time he avoids Ljót’s question about his son, Gestr responds that Úlfr, Ljót’s nephew and the son of Óspakr Ósvifsson, also being fostered at Ingjaldssand, will be the more famous of the two. The contemporary audience undoubtedly knew that Úlfr Óspaksson became a stallari, or marshall, in the court of Haraldr Harðráði, confirming as usual that accuracy of Gest’s predictions, which was clearly an expectation of his role in the saga world.
4. Angered, Ljótr persists in questioning his unforthcoming prophetic guest but in a new vein, “How will my death come about?” Gestr answers, but with the reluctance typical of a clairvoyant who encounters questions touching upon real and immanent catastrophe, that Ljótr should be kind to his neighbours. “Will those earth-lice, the sons of Grímur Kögur cause my death?” asks his host, obviously knowing well where the greatest enmity lies : “A hungry louse can give a nasty bite,” observes his respondent. Chapter 142 of Sturlubók includes at its end the death of Ljótr inn spaki at the hands of these two “small, puny” men, just a few lines on from Gest’s oblique prediction. Jakob Benediktsson notices that the term “jarð-lýsnar” is a hapax legomenon and wonders if it designates a particular sort of louse. Modern Icelandic dictionaries recognize jarð-lús as “skortítuteg. af skjaldlúsaætt (orthezia cataphracta) † e-t skórkvikindi.” [cicada-type of insect]
The proverb itself, so far as I have been able to find, occurs elsewhere in the medieval North only in Sverris saga, portions of which at least were composed in Norway by the Icelander Abbot Karl Jónsson, who wrote under the king’s direction, presumably in the 1180s, when he was at the Norwegian court. In Iceland he was Abbott of Þingeyraklaustur, where several royal biographies were produced, and where he lived before and after his sojourn with King Sverrir. The Flateyjarbók version of Sverris saga adds that the priest Styrmir (Reykholt, d. 1245) followed Abbott Karl’s book when he wrote, and that Magnús Þorhallsson, the writer of this part of the present manuscript, followed the version of Styrmir. Proverbs had such currency in oral tradition that it is probably not meaningful to the existence of the hungry lice in S142, regarded in any case as an addition by Sturla Þórðarson, that both works went through the hand of Styrmir Kárason--but it is an interesting coincidence. Late medieval and early modern East Norse collections show several analogous texts, [as recorded in the Handout].
5. As Gestr rides away from Ingjaldssandr he is accompanied by a Norwegian staying with Ljótr, who loves his misused daughter, Ásdís, mother of the aforementioned Úlfr stallari. Having steadied Gestr on his horse when it stumbled, he is rewarded with a prediction of good fortune: “You are now in luck [a state of fortune, chance, happ], and soon you will be again; be careful that the second does not bring you misfortune.” Shortly after this the Norwegian becomes the victim in the folk tale of the found and lost treasure. Although a story unto itself in magic-land, in Icelandic society he not only loses a fortune but is severely fined by Ljótr, apparently for having failed to report his discovery legally in the first place. This last interaction doesn’t seem positive, and as in Gísla saga, the severity of Fate is reflected in the blunt severity of Gest’s pronouncement, as is the case throughout most of S 142.
Heinemann sees this chapter as accounting for the disposition of the family of Ljótr inn spaki, and in a sense this is likely the case. But it is interesting that the composer of the episode uses Gest’s visit as an articulation of the patterns of Fate realized among the friends and relatives of this local leader. In the same way as his role is to anticipate the rift of the Haukdœlir in Gísla saga and the complex of tragedies in Laxdœla saga, his rather mechanically enumerated prophecies are here used by Sturla or his source as a very compact summarization of what the future holds for people at Ingjaldssand. It is a future of which his contemporary audience was much more clearly aware than we can be with whatever imperfect knowledge we are able to bring to the text. And for them such information could be treated pleasingly in a narrative like this by means of those obscurely stylized and allusive prophetical sentences which challenge our present understanding.
Jakob Benediktsson, like others before him, assumes that chapter 142 of Sturlubók was not in Styrmisbók, and that since Haukr Erlendsson was following the latter in the preceding chapters, he omitted it. If he is correct, as is most likely, then Sturla Þórðarson derived the passage from sources external to the Landnámabók tradition, and most probably a version of Hávarðar saga earlier and more reliable than the one extant. Readers often noticing the flaws in the extant Hávarðar saga have attributed them to the fact that the saga’s principal characters moved from Ísafjörðr north and east to Svarfaðardalr to escape inimical forces in their neighbourhood. There, at a distance from the people and places of their original settlement, traditions of their past could be kept alive only imperfectly. The version of the saga upon which Sturla is supposed to have drawn for these chapters, an earlier form, presumably came from Ísafjörðr and its more immediately authentic oral family saga.
For a student of proverbs in the sagas, however, it is interesting to notice what may again be a coincidence, that of the fewer than a dozen paroemial phrases in the extant saga, there is one which occurs nowhere else that I know of except in Sverris saga. In chapter three two men of Þorbjörn, Hávarð’s enemy, argue over the worth of Hávarð’s son, Ólafur, whom Þorbjörn will eventually kill—one of them, Brandr, rather sympathetic towards Ólafur and answering the arrogant and unjust accusations of his fellow, Vakr, observes, “þú ert mestr í málinu sem refirnir í hölunum” a proverbial phrase attributed also to King Sverrir as he encourages his men to go into battle, claiming the enemy are overconfident—“eru þeir í málum mestir sem refr í halanum.” [Þorleifur Hauksson: þeir guma meira en þeir eru menn til að standa undir.][In their talk they are very tall, as a fox is long in the tail.] These two proverbs one from the old saga and the other from the newer version, shared in common only with Sverris saga, may well be only coincidental in these occurrences. But it’s good to keep such textual peculiarities in mind in case further similarities should be noticed later and begin to suggest reassessment of the oral and perhaps written backgrounds of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings.