Snorri and His Death: Youth, Violence, and Autobiography in Medieval Iceland

Article excerpt

A SINGLE DETAIL CATCHES OUR ATTENTION in a somewhat conventional description of a young warrior who has a minor role in a medieval saga. This detail is unexpected and indeed unique in saga literature. "Harm ... kalladi mjok sinn ba, er harm taladi vid" (Sturlunga saga 1:351) ["he addressed many to whom he spoke as 'my'" (1:252)]. (1) The person described referred to those to whom he was talking as "Sturla minn," "Pordr minn" "Gizurr minn," etc. [my Sturla, my Pordr, my Gizurr], a form of endearment still used by many Icelanders, Nowadays, and in all probability in the thirteenth century as well, the use of this term would automatically give the audience an idea of what sort of a person he is. Today it suggests sentimentality and perhaps even over-familiarity, a pleasant and yet aggressive person who tries in a kindly manner to dominate and even possess his interlocutor.

The person thus described is in fact a brutal and ruthless killer whose main claim to fame is having taken part in a nocturnal assault on a quiet farm killing and wounding women, youngsters, and laborers. In light of that fact, his use of endearments when speaking to others creates an element of surprise since it is bound to counter the previous impression of the man. In addition, this person is a teenager: he is just eighteen years old. The aggressive familiarity of the endearment suggests self-confidence that would be atypical in a modern Icelandic teenager. We have no way of knowing whether the same conclusion can be drawn with regard to medieval Iceland, but, lacking evidence to the contrary, we might consider it likely. We also do not know exactly what to make of the phrase "bann er hann taladi vid." Does that include everyone? Or did our hero spend most of his time among his peers? It would be unusual for a modern teenager to address adults outside of his immediate family in such a way. Even addressing his grandmother as "aroma min" [my granny] would suggest a happy and confident teenager, accustomed to conversing with adults. In such a situation, it would imply equality. Using the term when speaking to those outside the inner circle of close friends and immediate family, e.g. someone one's own age whom one is meeting for the first or second time, would seem rather aggressive and imply a certain superiority on the speaker's part.

This trivial detail thus suggests various character traits. It establishes our eighteen-year-old warrior as a pleasant and outgoing person with perhaps a hint of arrogance and aggressiveness. But most importantly, it is intimate. It suggests someone the narrator knew personally. This conclusion can be deduced even without knowing that both the saga author and the person he is describing were born in 1214, raised in the same part of Iceland, linked by marriage, and may both have attended Snorri Sturluson's Christmas party in 1226. By including this intimate detail in his description of the young Snorri Porvaldsson just before his early death, the author of Islendinqa saga, Sturla Pordarson (1214-1284), is subtly drawing the attention of the audience to himself. He is using the detail to convey the fact to us quietly that he knew this man personally.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE VATNSFIRDINGS

This minor detail suggesting familiarity highlights the description of Snorri Porvaldsson and, metonymically, the surrounding episode: the killing of the two brothers from Vatnsfjordr [the Vatnsfirdings]. The sentence might bc described as a punctum, to borrow a term from Barthes: "[a] sting, speck, cut, [or] little hole" (27). Like a punctum, it disturbs and "pricks" the audience and has "a power of expansion" (45). This quality is in no way diminished by the paradoxical nature of the clause: a youthful but brutal killer was nevertheless prone to use endearments in his speech.

The brothers from Vatnsfjordur--Pordr and the aforementioned Snorri--are the sons of Porvaldr Snorrason, an aging magnate from the Vestfirdir region, who in his advancing years becomes Snorri Sturluson's son-in-law. …