Applications 8. “To
his friend a man should be a friend.” Some Literary Uses of Proverbs of
Friendship and Enmity in the Old Icelandic Sagas.
Paper presented at a meeting of the Canadian Society of Medievalists, 10.15 29 May 2007.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan [email@example.com]
Few friends indeed has Hrappr Örgumleiðason of Njáls saga when he rows up to the trading vessel of Kolbeinn Arnljótarson in the East coast harbour of Gautavík asking for passage abroad. He says he’s killed Örlyggr Olvisson for whom the men of Vopnafjörðr will seek vengeance. “My guess,” says the reluctant Kolbeinn, with some prophetic wisdom, “is that whoever takes you will land in trouble.” “I am a friend to my friends, but when something bad is done to me, I pay it back.” When this traditional wisdom, from Hávamál str 42, is uttered by the foolishly violent Hrapp, the audience of Njála must be struck by the ironic contrast of speaker and source–Hrapp is a trivial character but potentially dangerous.
Only when he promises to pay passage generously does Kolbeinn take him on board. Once in Norway, however, Hrapp refuses to pay, gets in more trouble, and becomes a catalytic figure in the slowly unfolding tragic conflict of the whole story. As students of Njáls saga know well, Killer-Hrappr as he comes to be called, is used in the so-called Atlantic Interlude by the saga’s composer as a linking figure between the first and second parts of this complex narrative. In this linking episode two of Njál’s sons are humiliated by Hákon jarl Sigurðarson, who mistakenly suspects them of harbouring Hrapp, by now a fugitive from the jarl’s wrath for destroying his temple. The jarl’s real culprit, though, is in fact Þráinn Sigfússon, long hated by the Njálssons for his part in killing their beloved foster-father, Þorðr–and this wrongly inflicted humiliation at the hands of Hákon jarl provides them with the legal pretext for their next steps in this feud with the Sigfussons, which will lead to Þráin’s skull cloven and his teeth clattering out on the ice of Markarfljót. Þráinn meanwhile returns Hrappr to Iceland, where he joins those evil forces most inimical to the family of Njáll, and eventually responsible for their burning.
Hrappr himself at his introduction seems a humorously wicked figure, partly based on his namesake in Laxdœla saga, whose appearance there is brief, violent and ridiculous. Having injured or perhaps killed his employer, this small, brisk fellow with darting eyes eagerly joins an expedition of vengeance on Helgi Hardbeinsson. Leaping on the roof of the shieling housing the victim, he asks heroically ‘if the old fox is at home’. Helgi replies, “You’ll soon find out that the one who lives here can be savage enough and knows how to bite so close to his den.” and runs his spear through this earlier Hrappr, whose odd and inexplicably brief life in this narrative has lasted less than a page. The intertextual evidence of Laxdœla, even without the independent clarity of the Njála passage, attests to the initial humour, in the latter text, of this northern manifestation of the miles gloriosus, one of three such figures exploited by Njála’s composer.[Hrappr, Bjorn] It is ironic that Njála’s Hrappr should quote wisdom from Hávamál, which depending on one’s views of its composition might contain some of the earliest extant paroemial lore of the pagan North. It can thus be seen that the ways in which proverbial wisdom is referred to in the Old Icelandic sagas can be quite complex and accomplish various purposes in a narrative.
In the first place, proverbial wisdom reflects and affirms a society’s norms of behaviour and attitude, although texts from this originating corpus come to be used in many other ways, both in a culture itself and in its artistic undertakings. And friendship is a universal among the priorities of value. Erasmus, in his Adages, begins his collection with a study of the proverb, Amicorum communia omnia, Between friends all is common, used among Greeks as well as the Romans. “Since there is nothing more wholesome or more generally accepted than this proverb, it seemed good to place it as a favourable omen at the head of this collection of adages. If only it were so fixed in men’s minds as it is frequent on everybody’s lips, most of the evils of our lives would promptly be removed.” (29) Although the proverbs of friendship from the northern world occasionally take such a positive note, many of them reflect a community where interaction is fraught with danger and distrust and amicable relationship is only a moment of treasured but inevitably ephemeral refuge. If Erasmus had undertaken his Adages in this relatively chilly environment, it is easily possible that the advice of Hávamál reflected by the Viga-Hrappr of Njáls saga would have come first to his mind as he set forth upon his great compilation. [SEE HANDOUT.]
Positive notes on friendship in Hávamál –“a man is the joy of man” (47) for instance, are tempered and indeed far outweighed by such admonitions regarding the untrustworthy as “a friend no man should be to the friend of his enemy” (43) With a friend whom you don’t trust but from whom you want “nothing but good,/speak fairly to him but think falsely/and repay treachery with lies.” (45) Of one whose mind you suspect, “laugh with him and disguise your thoughts,/a gift should be repaid with a like one.” (46) “Laughter a man should give for laughter/and repay treachery with lies.” (42)
It is interesting that among the Íslendingasögur these cynically discouraging views of friendship and human trust are found most fully expressed in the latest member of that genre, Fljótsdœla saga, which dates from the end of the 15th century, apparently intended as a sequel to Hrafnkels saga. The composer of this narrative, who may have had particular issues with trust himself, employs paroemial material on rumor, its dangers and unreliability. “Your tongue could well get wrapped around your head,” (IV.11.396.)Thorir warns the malicious Thorgrim when he overhears him slandering Helgi Droplaugarson. With the saga´s audience, we remember Hávamál’s advice that “the tongue is the killer of the head.” The slander spreads, “word travels once it leaves the mouth” (IV.11.396.)–and Helgi tries to calm his mother over this incident: “Never build your mind on the words of a wretch” (IV.11.397.) he says to her, and “never put your faith in something no one else believes.” (IV.11.397.) Later in the same story Hallsteinn advises Bersi not to marry Droplaug, who wants his money, “There’s truth in the saying, that a man should trust nobody, because the one you’ve trusted most betrays you worst.” (IV.23.429.)
The most poignant example of such advice on trust and friendship in Fljótsdœla is found when the scandal monger Nollar is urging Bersi to stop Helgi’s mischievous wooing of Helga Þorbjarnadóttir, of whom Bersi is himself somewhat fond. “Helgi, your foster-son, has come out to Skeggjastead and means to seduce Helga, Thorbjorn’s daughter, away to Eyvindará and go to bed with her; 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.” (Haworth/Young 13.32.) Nollar’s ironic use of this proverb leads to its silent emendation by Guðmundur Jónsson in his Safn af Íslenzkum Orðskviðum (1830) (50.) to “Betra er viltum að vera, enn öllum að trúa” (“better to be betrayed than to trust all.”) and John Porter in his translation of the saga for The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, also silently improves the text: “it’s better to be betrayed than to trust anyone, because you have trusted him like yourself.” (IV.13.402.) but in fact it is clear that none of the actual manuscripts of the saga hints at any concern or lack of understanding among copyists over the ironic intentions of their source. The evil Nollar clearly says what the composer intended for him to say in this dark passage of malicious incitement. While the society of Fljótsdœla saga seems chronically paranoid, at least in the hands of its composer, the same sense of insecurity in relationship is found in much earlier sagas.
Among a number of proverbs in the Íslendingasögur whose place in the common paroemial stock of northern Germania is suggested by their inclusion in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum is one echoed in the observation of Erik the Eloquent that “He is deceived who wants a servant for his friend;/a menial often damages his master.” One is reminded immediately of the assassination of Hákon jarl Sigurðarson in 995 by his thrall, Karkr. Having lost popularity among Norwegians during the latter years of his reign by unrestrained greed and lechery, he stayed in his flight from Óláfr Tryggvason with a mistress who hid him in a hole under a pigsty. There with him, Karkr heard King Óláfr make a speech in which he promised to enrich the man who would kill Hákon. He thus stabbed and beheaded his master, a deed for which, as a slave, he was rewarded with death rather than wealth. Several other episodes in the sagas tell of similar treachery by slaves, who tend in these stories to be of Celtic background and are thus generally profiled as untrustworthy by Nordic story tellers, and are certainly not good prospects for productive friendship.
The proverb itself, “It’s bad to have a thrall for a special friend.” is used notably in two of the great sagas, those of Njáll and of Grettir. In the former it occurs at a crucial scene where Otkell and the maliciously dishonest Skamkell are off to consult with powerful men over a proposed peace settlement with Gunnar of Hliðarendi. Skamkell gets Otkell to return home and goes alone to the meeting whose results he misreports, sabotaging hopes for a peaceful settlement. When Hallbjörn learns of Skamkel’s initiative in excluding Otkell from this errand he is immediately suspicious of his motives and accurately assumes Skamkell will not act in the interests of a settlement with Gunnar. In fact, out of this misadventure come events that lead eventually to the hero’s death. “It’s bad to have a wretch for a best friend, and we will always be sorry that you turned back,” says Hallbjörn, “it’s not clever to send the worst liars on an errand which, we may say, will affect the lives of many men.” (IF XII.49.128. CSI III.49.60.) Otkell is limited not only in his eyesight, but also in his critical perception of people, and he has already allowed himself to come too far under the influence of the Skamkell. He would have done well to have recalled, as the audience of the saga no doubt did, that adage according to which “Wolves perform/devour another’s errand.” used in Laxdœla saga and attested as well in Faroese and in continental East Norse traditions.
The disadvantages of friendships with thralls are also recalled towards the end of Grettis saga where Þorbjörn Öngull climbs to the top of the island of Drangey and thus gains access to his outlaw quarry because Grettir’s thrall, Glaumr, has fallen into a sorcery-induced sleep and failed to pull up the ladder that enabled Þorbjörn’s ascent. When Glaumr, surprised from sleep by this intruder, reveals his master’s situation and vulnerable state, Þorbjörn laughs, “‘It’s a bad thing to have a slave for a friend.’ Your master may not be a good man, but you have betrayed him in the most shameful way.” It is not long after Grettir’s death that Glaumr too, having annoyed his captors with churlish complaining, is killed by them. “He wept terribly before he was killed.” it is reported as a final comment on the lack of character exhibited by this slave, again stereotypical of such figures in the medieval North, obviously a crucial factor making them unlikely as friends.
From the late 13th - early 14th centuries, long after the coming of Christianity to Iceland, the fornaldarsaga of Arrow Odd, tells of a Christian hero in pagan Scandinavia who destroys temples in a land called Bjalka and tells its priestess queen, “It’s bad to have Óðinn for a bosom friend, so we’ll do away with devil-worship.” (102) This use of a familiar proverbial syntactic structure but with a lexical shift from ‘thrall’ to ‘Óðinn’ emphasizes a Christian version of what was long familiar wisdom in the pre-Christian North, that Óðin’s friendship was easily and unpredictably withdrawn. It also, of course, places Óðin on a level with thralls where the trustworthiness of character is concerned and makes a rather insulting item of Christian propaganda at the same time as it is true to pagan experiences of this god in our sources.
While of thralls one might expect such behaviour, the trustworthiness of others was regarded as at first untested and therefore uncertain. Proverbial advice on reservation of judgment more generally is found in Hávamál (81): “At evening should the day be praised, the woman when she is cremated, the blade when it is tested, the girl when she is married, the ice when it is crossed, the ale when it is drunk,” which finds its light hearted modern counterpart in the cautious advice: “Praise the girl in the morning, the weather in the evening.” The trustworthiness of an individual was of grave concern in Iceland, where even today friendships are slow and cool in the making. “A man must be tested a long time.” says Þorfinnr when he returns to find that his unprepossessing guest Grettir Ásmundarson has saved his wife and family from those rowdy berserks led by Þorir Paunch and his brother Ögmundr, who had come in his absence intent upon spoiling his women and his property. Grettir’s good intentions and integrity of character have been well proven in this episode, and Þorfinn offers him friendship and fine hospitality, with a privileged place in his household.
This same proverb is used, on the other hand, in a case of negative assessment of character when in the C-text of Ljósvetninga saga Guðmundr the Powerful realizes that the chieftain Þorir Helgason has been holding back a herd of goats during a court of confiscation for one of his outlawed thingmen. “It takes time to know people,” says Guðmundur, who didn’t like him very much in the first place and now has an opportunity to outlaw him, “I thought you were an upright man.” While the differing manuscript texts of Ljósvetninga are at variance over Þorir’s degree of actual guilt in this transaction, all affirm that he received a sentence of three year’s exile and had certainly not come off well in Guðmund’s estimation. For Guðmundr, there is no question of forming a friendship with such a man–time seems to have proven him conveniently untrustworthy, affirming the value of the wisdom contained in this proverb.
From one Indo-European culture to another, awareness of the etymology of terms of friendship can be illuminating of concepts of relationship in their respective communities. As an example, ‘friend’ in Modern English is the replacement of the Old English ‘freond’, derived from the nominalization of the present participial form of the verb ‘freon’, meaning ‘to love’. The Old Icelandic cognate, ‘frændi’, is narrowed to use exclusively denoting family relationship. The etymology of ‘vinr’ the Old Icelandic equivalent in its usage of our ‘friend’ is less clear, but likely it is derived from ‘vina’ “a lost root verb,” says Guðbrandur Vigfússon, also related to ‘una’ which in the first place means ‘to dwell, to abide’ and then ‘to dwell on, to enjoy, be happy in, content with, a thing’ [Slavic?]. There could be a suggestion in this complex of terms that in the far North blood was crucially thicker than water, and the development of feud culture, particularly in Iceland could help to explain such views. In Icelandic as in other early Germanic cultures, moreover, the concept of friendship itself is made more complex by its potential legal implications and obligations. In Anglo-Saxon law the defendant might in some cases gain acquittal if a sufficient number of friends would swear to his character and innocence, a practice reflected in early Slavic law and perhaps lying in the background of legal process today in which there is some reliance on character witnesses. And in early Icelandic law the responsibilities of formal friendship, ‘vinfengi’, or less often ‘vinátta,’ were clearly more wide ranging. [Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 203-220: “Vinfengi: A Mechanism of Power”]. Thus to be popular, or ‘vinsæll’, that is, ‘fortunate in friends’, was an asset that could imbue one with real political power or legal advantage, rather than merely reflecting the social amiability of one’s character.
Although it is difficult to find proverbial texts in the sagas which reflect situations specifically arising from these circumstances, Hávamál str.62 offers pertinent advice immediately after giving directions for one’s preparations when riding to the Assembly: “The eagle snaps and cranes his neck when he comes to the sea, to the ancient ocean; so does a man who comes among the multitude and has few people to speak for him.” And strophe 64 admonishes “every man wise in counsel” to “use his power in moderation; for when he mingles with warriors he finds out that no one is boldest of all,” which seems to reflect that same insecurity of relationship so often referred to in the saga proverbs.
The uses of friendship proverbs in the sagas seem to reflect, only minimally, the legal and political exigencies of life in the milieu which produced them. More often, they are found to emphasize subtler aspects of generally rather tense and insecure relationships as well as defining the psychological contexts of situations and events in saga narrative.