These idioms and saws, and such laconisms . . . are the very life-blood of a true Saga; where they abound, they are the infallible tests of good traditions ripened on the lips of good narrators; where they are absent, the story is the work of the scribe writing from his head without the geniune impulses of the story-teller before his audience.
F. York Powell, Introduction, The Tale of Thrond of Gate, commonly called Færeyinga saga, Oxford, 1896, p. xxxix.
Over the last several years, while considering the literary uses of proverbs in the Old Icelandic sagas, I have come to see the need for a new and exhaustive listing of the paremiological materials found in this genre. Such a focussed compilation has been neglected now for nearly a century, although there have during that time been several useful collections of Icelandic proverbs partially inclusive of the medieval corpus. The present need is made more urgent, however, by the place we have reached in the progress and directions of literary critical saga research.
We stand at a point of departure, or perhaps departures, from several avenues developed in the later 20th century which themselves now seem fairly exhausted: discussions, on this continent at least, arising, first, from Theodore M. Andersson’s positing of a discernible literary structure in saga narrative and, second, from studies of structure determined less by literary considerations than by the process of feud itself, an anthropologically based approach to these narratives, pursued most notably by Jesse Byock, William Ian Miller, and, again, Andersson. Whereas the application of the Book Prose Theory to the preparation of editions in the Íslenzk Fornrit editions encouraged analysis of the sagas as originating in a literary rather than in an oral background, North American scholarship tended towards possible relationships of the preserved written word to what Theodore M. Andersson termed the oral family saga, the nature of which is succinctly described by Carol Clover as that “larger undertaking–the dramatic chronicle of the Icelandic settlement, . . .” [Clover, “Open Composition: the Atlantic Interlude in Njals Saga, in Sagas of the Icelanders: a book of essays, ed. J. Tucker (Boston, 1989), p. 290.], or in other words, all the stories all the Icelanders ever told about their ancestral heritage: the verses they recited, the brief episodes they recounted, and perhaps also the longer narratives of great families or famous heroes, occasional references to the oral presentation of which are indeed to be found in medieval Icelandic literature.
It is natural, then, that micro-structural studies of saga narrative, dealing for instance with how proverbs are used in these stories, should also be driven by these shifting critical views of the nature of the sagas’ origins. Thus, arising from the Book Prose end of the critical spectrum, Hermann Pálsson’s work with the moral philosophy of Hrafnkels saga [Siðfræði Hrafnkels sögu, Reykjavík, 1966], in which he remarked upon the continental conceptual background of the paremiological expressions of that work, led to his Úr hugmyndaheimi Hrafnkels sögu og Grettlu [Reykjavík, 1981], where he showed how the composers of both these sagas were familar with the continental background of medieval proverbial wisdom. His most focussed work in these interests was his Áhrif Hugsvinnsmála á aðrar fornbókmenntir [Reykjavík, 1985], in which he examined various literary relationships between Hugsvinnsmál, the 13th-century native rendering of the Distichs of Cato, and other early Icelandic writings.
It should go without saying that a culture which is much given to oral entertainment will preserve among its people a richer selection of proverbial materials than is the case in societies where storytelling is an activity of lesser importance. Thus, Grigorii L’vovich Permiakov claimed to demonstrate in the 1970s and 80s that the typical Russian adult of that time on average knew “no fewer than 800 proverbs, proverbial expressions, popular literary quotations and other forms of cliches.” [“On the Question of a Paremiological Minimum,” Proverbium 6 1989, 91-102] Studies of American students during the same era produced seemingly far less impressive results. [Wolfgang Mieder, “Paremiological Minimum and Cultural Literacy,” in Creativity and Tradition in Folklore: New Directions, ed. S. J. Bronner. Logan, Utah 1992, pp. 185-203.] Presently unaware of cultural literacy studies for contemporary Icelandic society, I think we might nevertheless expect some rather high scores on paremiological awareness and retention, especially among the older generations.
In Iceland of the Settlement and the Commonwealth, when there seems to have been little non-oral entertainment other than physical competitions, dances, and some board games, the world of the proverb and the proverbial phrase might be expected to have been very large indeed. A clear and objective assessment of its importance and uses in the corpus of the Old Icelandic sagas has yet to be reached.
Early in the 20th century Finnur Jónsson’s “Oldislandske ordsprog og talemåder,” comprising nearly one hundred pages with 494 individual word headings, and supplemented by Hugo Gering’s “Altnordische sprichwörter und sprichwörterliche redensarten” from his own, otherwise unpublished, collection, together with a brief, additional study by Vratny, formed the most central basis for any work to be done with proverbs in the sagas. [F. Jónsson, “Oldislandske ordsprog og talemåder,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 30 (1913-14), 61-217; H. Gering, “Altnordische Sprichwörter und sprichwörtlische Redensarten,” ANF, 32 (1915-16), 1-31. I haven’t seen K. Vrátny, “Noch einiges zu den altisl. Sprichwörtern,” ANF, 33 (1917), 58-63.] Other collections with Icelandic materials made both before and after this time sometimes included but were never exclusively devoted to the proverbs of the Íslendingasögur. Thus, Finnur Jónsson’s 1920 Íslenzkt Málsháttasafn, a self-admittedly armchair production, based on previous published and unpublished collections, includes the occasional proverb from a specific saga. In his helpful enumeration of those who had gone this way before, he cites the work of Peder Låle, with around 1200 proverbs translated into Latin, and meant as a text for teaching students in the latter language. [published as Östnordiska och latinska Medeltidsordspråk. Peder Låles Ordspråk och en motsvarande svensk samling, ed. Axel Kock and Carl af Petersens, Copenhagen, 1889-94] Finnur Jónsson makes extensive use of a list of proverbs purportedly compiled by Hannes Þorleifsson and included by Peder Syv at the ends of each volume of his two-volume Almindelige danske ordsprog (1682 & 1688) [ ] . He is also much indebted to Guðmundur Jónsson’s vast Safn af íslenzkum orðskviðum, [fornmælum, heilræðum, snilliyrðum, sannmælum og málsgreinum, samanlesið og í stafrófsröð sett af Guðmundi Jónssyni prófasti í Snæfellsnessýslu og presti í Staðarstaðarsókn Copenhagen, 1830], a work drawing upon, among other items, a number of unpublished sources described in its introduction. Finnur Jónsson uses also other collections such as that of Hallgrímur Scheving, published from Bessastaðir, 1843 and 1847, and a series, whose compiler was unknown, published in the Almanak of the Þjóðfélag, 1903-5 and 1907.
For more recent times, the definitive enumerative study of the subject is that of Bjarni Vilhjálmsson and Óskar Halldórsson, Íslenzkir Málshættir, its second edition appearing in 1982, professedly based on the 1920 Málsháttasafn, but both more comprehensive and more precise than the pioneering productions of Finnur Jónsson and some of his predecessors, taking cognizance of all the sources used by him but also going far beyond his own scope in drawing upon many works which had not yet been printed in his time or in which he did not take interest in his own work. In particular, Jonas Rugman´s Samling af Isländska Talesätt and the Thesaurus Adagiorum of Guðmundur Ólafsson, published by G. Kallstenius in 1927 and 1930, respectively, made available new material for the compilers. Thus, many of the Old Icelandic sagas, in their various sub-genres, are at least selectively taken into account, along with editions of poetry and purely historical works.
References to the sagas in Íslenzkir Málshættir, though more helpful than those of Finnur Jónsson’s Íslenzkt Málsháttasafn, and even his “Oldislandske ordsprog og talemåder,” are still rather sketchy, and much of the paremiological material of the Íslendingasögur remains unnoticed both by these earlier and the most recent compilers. I hope to amass over the next few years A Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Materials of the Old Icelandic Sagas, its initial focus to be on the 40 or so Íslendingasögur edited in the Íslenzk fornrit series and translated in the Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, whose texts and translations, respectively, will for the most part provide the main foundation of the Concordance. The proverbial texts thus established will then be augmented with any significant variant readings and annotative material from other editions, with supplementary information from lexicographical resources and whatever else may seem useful as the project proceeds.
I will soon expand the inventory of proverb texts beyond these first boundaries to include material, on the one hand, from such works as the konungasögur, Orkneyinga saga and Færeyinga saga, and on the other, from Völsunga saga and its related prose narratives. Since the influence of the Völsung material upon the Íslendingasögur is recurringly a matter of literary critical concern, the next step in this compilation will be in the direction of the legendary poems of the Elder Edda, and after that, of course, the poems of mythological background. Eventually, I hope to add to the collection from the riddarasögur and the fornaldarsögur, and the samtíðarsögur.
Of the twenty or so Íslendingasögur from which I have so far culled material, the results are quite various, a few works remarkably abundant, such as Brennu-Njáls saga, containing over fifty proverbs and proverbial phrases, but many, the skáldasögur, for instance, having few or none at all! Snorri Sturluson, as if aware long before the fact of that 1740s Neo-Classical sense of taste which inspired Lord Chesterfield’s admonishment to his son that “a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs or vulgar aphorisms,” has, I think, no more than eight proverbs in Egils saga and only a few in Heimskringla. The volume of editorial matter to be added to my articles on individual proverbs also varies from one saga edition to another, depending on who the previous editors were and the particular editorial standards according to which they published. Sagas, for example, in the Altnordische saga-bibliothek series, have much annotative material which has already found a useful place in the Concordance.
To other introductory essays:
Conceptual Background of Paremiology
Construction and Use of the Concordance
Back to Introduction, Concordance, and Bibliographies.