Snorri and His Death: Youth, Violence, and Autobiography in Medieval Iceland
Jakobsson, Armann, Scandinavian Studies
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. Porvaldr is a bully and file killer of the saintly Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson. He persecutes the sons of Hrafn, who in the end kill him, not only to avenge their father but also because he has continued to be overbearing toward them. The sons of Porvaldr take his place as chieftains even though the younger, Snorri, is only fourteen years old. They somehow are convinced that Sturla Sighvatsson was the evil nemesis of their father and behind his burning, and Pordr rejects his offers of peace. Snorri Sturluson constantly sends emissaries to the brothers giving rise to constant rumors. In the year 1229, shortly after Christmas, the brothers gather a small army of fifty of "peim monnum ... er peim pottu roskvastir" (1:325) ["those men they thought boldest" (1:223)]. They ride down to Sturla's home, Saudafell, hoping to catch Sturla at home and kill him. However, Sturla has gone north to act as an intermediary in a dispute. They arrive at night and attack the people in their beds killing and maiming women and laborers and leaving fifteen wounded; blood ran through the house and everything was pillaged or destroyed. This vicious assault is condemned by all, and a great deal of mocking poetry is composed about the slaying of an old woman named Porbjorg ysja, who was among the three who died in the attack.
Having failed to kill Sturla, the brothers find themselves at a disadvantage and end up paying Sturla a huge compensation for the assault. Two years later, Snorri Sturluson remains uneasy about the matter and invites his brother Pordr, the father of the historian Sturla who wrote the saga, and Sturla Sighvatsson to a party at which he and Sturla shake hands in an agreement not to kill the Vatnsfirdings. Soon thereafter--in March of the same year (1232)--the brothers from Vatnsfjordr ride south to Dalir to meet Snorri Sturluson. Their path leads them past Sturla Sighvatsson's abode at Saudafell where they meet their fate. Sturla seizes the opportunity to avenge himself for the attack on his farm and threat to his wife. He also claims to have reasons to fear the brothers.
The depiction of the killing of the brothers is as brutal and sordid as the Saudafell raid. The brothers never stand a chance; rocks are thrown, and one hits Pordr Porvaldsson rendering him incoherent. In this state, he gives up and throws himself on the mercy of Sturla, who has none. Pordr is made to lie on the ground, and his executioner makes three strikes before successfully cutting his head off. Snorri refuses to give up and relinquish his weapons, but while he is resting, one of Sturla's companions takes him by surprise and cuts his leg off. Having watched his brother's shabby execution, he is next to be killed. Whereas heads roll quickly in some sagas, in this instance, the blow almost took off the head, but it remained attached by no more than the thickness of a rope. The gritty realism of such details is far removed from the customary world of the Sagas of the Icelanders and cannot have failed to shock an audience used to cleaner saga killings (sec Armann Jakobsson, "Sannyrdi" 49-54).
The brutality of each scene makes each in turn stand out in the Islendingasuga. The Saudafell raid and the killing of Vatnsfirdings were not major incidents in the wars that led to the demise of the Icelandic Commonwealth, not in comparison to many other battles in which more people took part and many more lives were lost. And yet Sturla Pordarson dedicates about 7 percent of what is left of his Islendinga saga--twenty pages of 305 in the edition used here--to this relatively minor incident. In addition, he takes much care in the composition of this scene, which is elevated to a kind of a parable with exemplary significance for the whole of his narrative about the age of the Sturlungs. Even his own detailed narration of his life and times could never aspire to be an extensive account of the brutal age through which he lived. Sturla was, therefore, forced to choose his examples with care so that each and every one would capture the spirit of the age. In the two scenes about the Vatnsfirdings, he conveys the essence of the age of the Sturlungs and perhaps of war in general. His major themes are youth, death, and waste.
THE FRENZY OF THE YOUNG
The first factor revealed in the narrative of the Saudafell raid is planning: a small army sets out in an organized way against one of the mightiest magnates of Iceland. We are told that the brothers' band spent some time beforehand in the fields of Saudafell preparing the attack. A second characteristic of the attack is determination: "Var pat pa aetlan peira at veita atgongu, hvart er Sturla vaeri fyrir famennari eda fjolmennari, ok saekja med vapnum baeinn, ef kostr vaeri, eda med eldi" (1:326) ["Their intention was to attack, whether Sturla had few or many men with him, and to overcome the place with weapons, if that were possible, or with fire" (1:224)]. And yet in his ensuing statement, the author humanizes the group by stressing their eagerness: "Sva var flokkr sa akafr, at hverr eggjadi annan. Engi var til latanna. Ok er peir komu heim a hladit, vard gnyr mikill af for peira" (1:326) ["The band was so enthusiastic that every man kept urging on the next. None held back. And when they came up to the paving in front of the house, there was a great din from their advance" (1:224)].
There is also veiled irony in the dry authorial statements about the planning of the attack. Even though it is organized to the last detail, the brothers somehow overlooked the most important fact of all: Sturla Sighvatsson is not at home. These men are not professional killers, nor are they cold-blooded in their determination. In fact, they rather resemble a juvenile gang--inexperienced and clumsy--and when it comes to the point of action, each has to urge the other on in order to strengthen his own resolve. In hearing this description, readers might recall that one of the leaders of the band is Snorri Porvaldsson, who is only fourteen or fifteen, a mere boy. His brother, Pordr, may well be in his teens as well. And it seems possible that their "army" is nothing but a band of youths. Their eagerness and anxiety certainly suggest it.
Although he draws our attention to the youthfulness of the attackers, the author is not sympathizing with them. In fact, the bluntness of his description of the raid that follows leaves no room for mitigating circumstances although there is no outright condemnation either (see Gunnar Karlsson 1988). In addition, the narrative offers some insight into the mind of the perpetrator. Evil is not presented as superhuman in strength and resolve, but rather as weak and frightened. Throughout the narrative, the author pricks the sensitivities of the reader with examples of the vulnerability of the attackers mixed with unrelenting accounts of their brutality.
This army swarms over the farm like locusts. We are told that there are two attack parties as well as two smaller groups that guard the doors and the escape routes to the church and also up to the roof with a man. The elaborate organization fails only in terms of the most important detail: Sturla is not at home, only women, children, and the laborers are present. Its clumsy overzealousness might suggest that the brothers are in fact frightened of Sturla. At least they do not give him or anyone else any chance to defend himself. What follows is no fair fight. The marauders meet with no resistance, and their assault, therefore, seems all the more vicious: "Nu gengu peir if skalann med hoggum ok bloti ok hjuggu pa allt pat, er fyrir vad, ok ruddu hvarum tveggja megin lokrekkju, ok urdu engir menn til varnar med vapnum" (1:326) ["They now ran into the hall with blows and curses and fell upon everything that was in front of them; they tore up both the central women's bedclosets and encountered no armed men defending them" (1:224-5)].
It is explicitly stated that there were no weapons used to resist them. The cursing by the attackers is another important small detail revealing their youthful lack of restraint. Since the days of Cicero, ferocity rather than discipline has been associated with youth--and swiftness rather than gravity (Fraschetti 70, 74). But ferocity may originate in fear. These are frightened men, who have had to egg each other into a frenzy and then lash out in fear against whoever may be in the way. They have no pity for their victims, who are not their equals, as Sturla Pordarson uses every opportunity to stress: "Par var aumligt at heyra til kvenna ok sarra manna" (1:326) ["It was piteous to hear the women and the wounded men" (1:225)]. When the party of Pordr Porvaldsson does not find Sturla in his bed, they become even more frenzied and attack a priest who defends himself with cushions--another small and seemingly insignificant yet revealing detail--until a man with an ignoble nickname, Snorri saurr [Snorri the shit], interferes and tells them to leave the priest alone, at which point they attack him instead and wound him severely.
The din of the attack has already been vividly described and is reiterated when the point of view moves to Sturla Sighvatsson's wife and mother-in-law, who awaken: "Paer Solveig husfreyja ok Valgerdr, modir hennar, voknudu i stofunni ok raeddu um, hvart fit myndi at heyra vedurgnyr eda myndi ofridr at kominn" (1:327) ["Solveig, the mistress of the house, and her mother Valgerdr woke up in their quarters, asking one another whether they heard the sound of a storm outside or whether an attack had been launched" (1:225)]. In contrast to the frenzied youths, the two noble women seem calm and not prone to panic. They send a man to find out what has happened, and when he returns severely wounded, a woman goes in his stead. The calm determination of their actions is striking. It is only when Pordr and his men enter that Solveig is thrown off balance:
Ok er peir bradr Pordr pottust vita, at Sturla vat eigi i skalanum, gengu peir i stofu med logbrondum ok rannsokudu badi klefana ok stofuna. Peir gengu at hvilu Solveigar med brugdnum ok blodgum vapnum ok hristu at henni ok sogdu, at par varu pau vapnin, er peir hofou litat lokkinn a honum Dala-Frey med. En af ollu saman, skapraun hennar ok sjukleika, pa bra henni nokkut vid slik ord. (1:327) When Pordr and his brother were convinced that Sturla was certainly not in the hall, they went into the main room with their burning brands and ransacked both the closets and the room. They went up to Solveig's bed-closet with threats, shook their bloody weapons at her, and said that these were the weapons with which they had colored Dala-Freyr's locks. And as this aggravation came on top of her condition, she was a little startled by these words. (1:225)
The contrasts are stark: on one side, the bed of the noblewoman who has just given birth; on the other, the naked and bloody weapons of the marauders, which they "shake at her" while they compare her husband with the god Freyr and claim to have killed him. Even though Solveig knows Sturla is away, she has just been awakened by the noise, is lying in the dark of an Icelandic winter, and is suddenly confronted with bloody weapons. Thus when the author claims that she is a little startled, he is actually emphasizing her courage, which is not exaggerated beyond believability and yet is an incredible exercise of restraint.
Her mother, Valgerdr, seems on the other hand to be completely undaunted and confronts the brothers with the wickedness of their deed: "er pat mitt hugbod, at til meira dragi um ydur skipti, adr letti, en pott per hafid her unnit a konum ok verkmonnum" (1:327) ["it's my guess that in the end you will bring on yourselves greater disasters than any you have inflicted here on women and servants" (1:226)]. This aged woman scolds the assailants like naughty children encouraging us to regard them likewise. This reaction is even more remarkable in light of the fact that the gang has already wounded several women. There is, however, a difference between striking out in blind frenzy mad deliberately attacking a noble widow like her. Valgerdr's words thus draw our attention to the unthinking violence we have witnessed. The gang has managed to kill and wound in a mindless frenzy, but it takes more to attack a person with whom one has spoken, and there obviously is a limit to the determination of these men.
After this grim scene, the raiders pillage and break all they can, a fact the author emphasizes by mentioning a few items that were preserved. The rings of the two women are saved by a woman who asks one of the invaders not to take the shrine since it contains ointment: "Hon sagdi ok konu pa, er brjostin baedi varu af hoggvin, yfrit pungt at tekna, pott pau naedi smyrslum peim, er til vaeri. Let hann pa af hendr ok lezt eigi vita, hvat hon segdi" (1:328) ["She also said that the woman, both of whose breasts were hewn off, would have suffered enough, even if she were able to get the salve which was in the chest. Then he let go of the chest and said he didn't know what she was talking about" (1:226)]. The grim image of the woman with her breasts cut off is probably mentioned to emphasize the viciousness of this raid. Yet the exchange between the woman and the attacker demonstrates the vulnerability of the invading party. The woman actually has the upper hand and salvages the rings by appealing to the man's conscience. His reaction is remarkable. He withdraws and says that he does not know what she is talking about thus denying responsibility for the mutilated breasts. The ferociousness of the assault thus stands in contrast to the attackers' vague and nervous reactions to their victims who dare to address them. It is implied that the viciousness lacks confidence. Fear may be the root of their brutality.
When the attackers leave, it is stated again that they "raentu ollu pvi, er peir komu hondum a" (1:328) ["ransacked everything they could get their hands on" (1:226)], and the author/narrator sees fit to repeat the comments made by the general public about the affair:
Pat var malt, at peira hybyla vari mestr munr, hversu gnoglig varu ok god fyrir klada sakir ok annars, adr peir komu um nottina, ok hversu orakilig ok fatok varu, er peir foru a brott. Flaut blod um oll hus, en nidr var steypt drykk ollum ok spillt ollu pvi, er peir mattu eigi med komast. (1:329) People said then that there had never been greater alteration in any household than from one so well supplied and so notable in the way of apparel and the like, before the enemy came in the night, to one so disordered and ravaged when the enemy left. Blood ran through the whole house, all drink had been poured out, and everything the enemy could lay hand on was destroyed. (1:228)
Thus no pain is spared in demonstrating the wickedness of this deed: wealth is turned to poverty, drink is spilled, and the beautiful, rich, and orderly house is named into bloody chaos.
Pordr Porvaldsson again visits Solveig before he leaves and continues to threaten her saying that he has only two regrets: he did not find her husband, and he could not take her with him. The interest Pordr takes in Solveig suggests that sexual jealousy may have played some role in the raid. The brothers have previously suggested this possibility by barging into her room and prematurely announcing the death of Sturla using a deragotary nickname that likens Sturla to the god of fertility. Freyr is not a soldier but a farmer and a husband (see Gudrun Nordal, "Freyr fifldur"). Though not perhaps a Freudian slip, the mention of Dala-Freyr suggests that Pordr is not only thinking of Sturla as a chieftain but as a husband, the husband of Solveig. Even if Pordr may only wish to take Solveig with him as a trophy or as a means to spite Sturla (a hazardous and foolish undertaking), it seems more likely that he is genuinely attracted to her. She is after all a glamorous woman, who has charmed not only her husband: Snorri Sturluson himself was at one time her suitor. She would thus arouse some passion in this brutal youngster, who may well have been raised on tales about mature kings, young knights in their service, and a flirtatious queen who by adultery becomes the link between the two men (see Marchello-Nizia; Burrow 160, 165-77). Perhaps Pordr feels that he himself would be a more worthy lover for Solveig, or he sees her only as a link to Smrla, who himself was a noble and handsome man and worthy of imitation. It seems like a cynical understatement that there "varu engar vinattukvedjur at skilnadi" (329) ["were no friendly exchanges at the parting" (1:226-7)], but perhaps it is necessary to emphasize that the emotions are entirely on one side.
But whether because of blindness caused by passion or lack of experience and maturity, the Saudafell raid proves to be a complete failure. In spite of the careful planning, Sturla Sighvatsson is not home. What appeared at first to be an organized crime is really a bungled attempt by overzealous juveniles, who may be heroes in their own dreams but not in the real world. The attack is no less vicious and brutal, however, for being a clumsy attempt at revenge rather than clever and calculated. The nature of brutality has to be reconfigured: it is much more haphazard than we may think.
YOUTH AND WAR
Through his conversations with Solveig, Pordr Porvaldsson is fore-grounded, but Snorri remains elusive throughout the raid. We are told that the brothers both went into Solveig's chamber with bloody swords. This move, indeed, seems an immature and juvenile act, not least on part of Snorri who seems to have no special interest in Solveig but would rather be following his brother like a dog, imitating his crude--and probably warrior-like, from Snorri's point of view--behavior. Clearly Snorri was a full fledged participant even though the author does not wish to place him in the foreground of the scene. And in fact the whole attack would seem to be more in the spirit of Snorri than Pordr. While the latter is perhaps partly motivated by jealousy of Sturla and interest in Solveig, its spirit is more like an exercise in knightly behavior. While the overt purpose of the attack is revenge, the way it is carried out makes it seem like a youthful attempt at a great coup. The band is trying to be daring and heroic in attacking a powerful personality, but they only succeed in being vicious and cruel. The Saudafell raid is a bungled attempt at heroism, and this difference between ideal and reality makes it tragic in more than one sense.
Georges Duby's description of the mentality of aristocratic youths in north-western France during the twelfth century might apply equally well to Icelandic youths during the tumultuous days of the thirteenth century. Even though Iceland was without a formal aristocracy, youths like Pordr and Snorri would have perceived themselves as aristocrats coming from a line of potentates. Duby defines the "youth" as "a man, an adult. He is part of the warrior group; he has received his arms;.... He is a knight" (198). The "youth" was a wanderer, passing through a stage of life typically understood in terms of "a period of quest--for glory and reward in war or, even more, in tournament" (199). He would spend his time with his friends of the same age. They would be the most important people in his life, and his strongest emotional attachment would be to them. In a band of youths, "joy reigned supreme. The leader spent freely and delighted in sex, gambling, players, horses, and dogs. Morals were loose. The band's business, however, was fighting" (200). According to Duby, "the companies of youth thus formed the cutting edge of feudal aggressiveness" (200). They were devoted to violence, formed the organ of aggression and tumult in the body of chivalric society, and constantly confronted danger. As Duby notes, "such was the aristocratic 'youth' of twelfth-century France: a pack let loose by noble houses to relieve their surplus of expansive power--off to conquer glory, profit, and feminine pre)" (206). These French youths were a very dangerous crowd lacking in restraint and prone to excessiveness in emotions and behavior. And there was no shortage of tales of adventures demonstrating to them that war was noble and beautiful and the world a place full of perils where riches and glory could be sought. To these youths, nothing would be as contemptible as family life, small comforts, and the unglamourous toil of farmers.
In the literature of England and France, clear expressions of juvenile tastes and morality, which sometimes appear as impatience with the older generation and even aggressiveness toward the more mature, abounds (see Burrow 165-77), This pattern of behavior is not so overt in the narrative of the Saudafell raid, which is written in a dry, factual style, but a strong youthful presence pervades, and it is no surprise that this mentality permeates Iceland of the 1220s.
The sons of Porvaldr were not juvenes in the same sense as their French counterparts. But as Marchello-Nizia has so aptly put it,
Not every young man in the Middle Ages was necessarily a brave warrior like Roland or a courtly lover like Lancelot or Tristan. But he would have heard the names, and possibly the stories, of these epic, courtly heroes whose adventures pervaded the entire Middle Ages. For even in churches their stories were represented, in the stained glass windows and on the capitals of columns. And they were always portrayed as young men, or at least men who possessed the qualities of youth. (120)
To Roland and Lancelot, we might add the names of Sigurdr Fafnisbani, Kjartan Olafsson, Gunnar of Hlidarendi, and others from Old Norse literature.
Chivalric literature and ideology had reached Iceland when the sons of Porvaldr were growing up both influencing and being influenced by the traditional literature that the Icelanders preserved with much more vigor than their neighbors: the heroic poetry of the Edda and ancient tales of northern kings and champions, which had for some decades co-existed with the wonderous tales of courageous saints who suffered endless torture with fortitude. Given the twelfth-century French aesthetic posture reflected in the literary exaltation of violence and war and called by some "a poetics of joyful genocide" (see Marchello-Nizia 144), what could then be said of the peaceful society of Iceland with its abundance of ancient and violent tales, which welcomed with equal eagerness the romantic tales of feudalism and the religious heroics of saints?
The pervasiveness and potency of literature are very much at the heart Of Sturla Pordarson's narrative of the Saudafell raid (see Meulengracht Sorensen 329). We are not told anything about the literature that may have prompted the brothers' bungled attempt at heroics. It is not really necessary for in the raid itself we may discern something of the spirit behind it. However, after the raid is over, the poet steps forward, and the narrative ends in ten skaldic stanzas of ten lines. Three are mock verses that celebrate the fortitude and courage of the killers of Porbjorg ysja. She seems to have been an old servant woman and one of the three killed ha the attack. The use of poetry to call attention to the slaying of such an insignificant and defenseless woman and to manipulate public respect leaves the would-be heroes with much less honor than they sought. Literature has proved to be an uncertain ally and has turned against them. The importance of poetry in the narrative also gives a clear indication of how life is frequently affected by sagas and poetry. Its power to dominate the thinking of people in this community can hardly be overestimated.
Teenagers are, of course, difficult in every day and age. Adolescence is a period of hormonal change and new sensibilities, of new interests, of growing impatience with dependency, of peers replacing parents as the acknowledged authority, of restlessness, and of a strong desire to abandon the past and make something new instead. Even in a peaceful unarmed society, teenagers are feared and believed to be the source of instability and loose morals, both today as well as during the Middle Ages (Hanawalt 124-8). Snorri Porvaldsson is just such a teenager, but armed to the teeth with actual weapons and an ideology of feudal warfare, he is able to do far more mischief than a modern Icelandic teenager. Equally immature in some ways as today's adolescents but nourished on tales of war and adventure, such young men's wanting to seek glory in war is not surprising. The raid on Saudafell demonstrates how futile such dreams could be. The reality of violence is grim and sordid. In spite of planning, the raid is a disaster. Throughout the narrative, the inexperience and vulnerability of the killers shine through. Their viciousness appears to originate in part in fear and lack of confidence. A similar combination of naive idealism and lack of any real organization is exactly what leads to the downfall of the brothers from Vatns09rcSr three years later.
THE UGLY FACE OF DEATH
Pordr and Snorri have no alternative but to seek reconciliation with Sturla and pay him compensation for their assault. Nevertheless, many friends of Sturla encourage him to settle the score in blood, but he remains aloof. Three years later, when the brothers are on their way to visit Snorri Sturluson, they are warned against traveling through the region without first going to Sturla as a sign of their friendship toward him. Pordr chooses not to go as he is worried about what people will say if they change their travel plans. His brother Snorri, now eighteen, offers no advice but "eigi munum ver leynast urn Dali" (1:34-8) ["we aren't going to sneak through the Dales" (1:24-9)]. He sounds like the noble and heroic Kjartan Olafsson from Laxdoela sang and probably intends to speak like a hero from the sagas (see Meulengracht Sorensen 331). But his heroic ease is contrived. The next morning, he seems nervous and has to be encouraged to continue by his brother: "urn morgininn snemma stodu Vatnsfirdingar upp i Hjardarholti, ok kvad Snorri margt hafa fyrir borit um nottina. Pordr kvad ekki marka skyldu drauma ok bad pa rida" (1:348) ["early in the morning the Vatnsfirdings rode up to Hjardarholt and Snorri said he had dreamed greatly during the night. Pordr said he shouldn't pay any attention to dreams and bade him ride on" (1:249)]. In spite of the boldness of Snorri's retorts, he had not slept well that last night of his short life. The audience cannot fail to notice this discrepancy and note the fact that the boy is still a mere teenager and probably no less frightened than at Saudafell three years earlier, though definitely less angry.
The same uneasiness shines through the talk of the brothers' party as they ride past Sturla's abode: "Isfirdingar toludu um, er peir ridu fyrir nedan baeinn, at par vaeri allt kyrrligt ok famennt vaeri heima" (1: 349) ["the men from Isatjordr talked about how quiet everything was and how few men were at home" (1:250)]. This nervous debate invites comparison with their bravado three years earlier when they attacked this same farmstead at a time when an equally small number were asleep. This time their contrived courage is evidently gone, and their fear of Sturla does not make them murderous, merely weak and indecisive.
When Sturla begins following the brothers, they notice him from afar but fail to react. We see them debating what these men behind them could possibly want, but they never reach a conclusion. Sturla, however, is past debating and knows exactly what he wants:
Peir tala um vid stakkgardinn, hvart mannafor vari upp med fjallinu.... Peim bradrum vard margtalat um mannaferdina.... En Pordr lagdi pat til, at Snorri ridi undan inum bezta heyti,--kalladi ser pat vanst til grida, ef hann bari undan. En er peir toludu petta, bar pa Sturlu at til hlidarinnar fyrir ofan gardinn. For pa sem jafnan, at peim verdr seint um tiltekjur, er or vondu eigu at rada. En hina bar skjott at, er oruggir varu i sinni atlan, en skundudu po ferdinni. (1:350) They talked there by the stackyard, wondering who might be the group of men up there along the mountainside.... The brothers talked a good deal about the men going past.... But Pordr suggested that Snorri ride away on the best horse; he said that their chance for a truce was best if he got away. As they were discussing this, Sturla (and his men) came to the hillside above the yard. Matters were taking a familiar course: those who were in a tight spot were slow to make up their minds, but those who knew what they wanted acted swiftly. (1:250-1)
The small group demonstrates no more aggression than had the people at Saudafell three years earlier. If their swift action then proved inefficient in the end, they now demonstrate another kind of inefficiency. They talk, discuss, and debate but cannot make up their mind as to what to do. Pordr demonstrates his affection for his young brother by wanting him to escape, and he certainly has a point in that Snorri, if still alive, might well be his best life insurance ha terms of the possibility of revenge. However, Snorri's heroic ethics do not admit of this course of action: no self-respecting young warrior can run from a fight.
The ensuing battle is no more heroic than the Saudafell raid itself. The brothers and their small group are not offered clemency, do not stand a chance, and get nothing from Sturla but a priest to hear their confession. In fact, he treats them more as prisoners soon to be executed than opponents in a fair fight. Snorri Porvaldsson was in the background during the Saudafell raid, but now the author takes the opportunity to describe him at length:
Snorri var atjan vetra. Hann var vann madr ok ljoss d har ok rettharr ok vel vaxinn ok kurteiss i ferd, har medalmadr at jofnum aldri ok fraknligr, heitfastr ok fagrordr ok kalladi mjok sinn pa, er hann taladi vid, ohlutdeilinn, en ef hann lagdi nokkut til, vard hann at rada, vid hvern er hann atti, ella fylgdi ber ohafa. (1:351) Snorri was then eighteen years old. He was a handsome man with straight, fair hair, well-grown and courteous in conduct; a man of more-than-average height for his age; valiant, true to his word, and fair-spoken; he called many to whom he talked "my"; he was a man who kept free of most affairs, but if he did make a suggestion, his suggestion had to prevail, or calamity would ensue. (1:251-2)
In spite of his obvious faults, he is certainly a handsome young man with considerable charm. Pordr is equally agreeable with large eyes but an ugly nose and said to be gentle and well-spoken--not characteristics we would deduce from the butchery at Saudafell. Some of their companions are handsome, but others stocky, nearsighted, short, or with a protruding mouth. These somewhat unflattering descriptions serve to highlight the realism of the whole narrative. If those present are not all splendid and beautiful, we have more faith in the balanced but agreeable description of Snorri Porvaldsson.
In the battle, Snorri Porvaldsson defends the spot most difficult to attack, and therein Pordr's concern for him is revealed once more. He and Pordr behave with dignity but again spout sentences from the mouth of Kjartan Olafsson: "Peir vildu med engu moti upp gefast, sogdu, at pa vaeri litit til frasagnar" (1:352) ["not on any account would they surrender; they said that would not make a very good tale" (1:252)] (see Meulengracht Sorensen 329). Snorri Porvaldsson is impatient and tries to goad Sturla Sighvatsson into attacking at once saying that they are ready and waiting. In this, he betrays his nervousness and in fact he keeps talking throughout the battle, which is not a sign of a calm and level-headed fighter. He calls Sturla Dala-Freyr again defiantly repeating the sexual insult from the Saudafell raid but, when offered the chance, he refuses to rise to the challenge and fight the young Hallr Mason in single combat. In contrast, Pordr Porvaldsson is quiet and composed and seems far more mature than he had been at the raid three years earlier. At that time, he was in the foreground, but now the focus is on young Snorri.
Sturla Sighvatsson seems a sinister figure throughout the scene, makes jokes, and appears rather to enjoy his revenge. His cruelty is less vicious than that of the brothers at the Saudafell raid, but on the other hand more deliberate and calculated. He refuses Pordr Porvaldsson's offer to go into exile much to the chagrin of many of his men, who say it is noble to accept such a handsome offer from good and valiant men. In answer, Sturla keeps silent at first but then recites a verse chiding one of his men for speaking of such things.
Pordr Porvaldsson surrenders after having been hit on the head with rocks. His execution is even more sordid since it involves a wounded man. He and all his men--except for the youngster Snorri--surrender: "Eftir pat gafu peir upp vornina i gardinum ok seldu af hondum vapnin allir nema Snorri Porvaldsson. Harm let ser mjok ogetit at, er peir gafust upp" (1:356) ["And after that those inside the yard gave up their defense and all their weapons, apart from Snorri Porvaldsson, who acted as if their surrender had nothing to do with him" (1:257)]. For someone of Snorri's mentality, surrendering is impossible. He acts and speaks as if he is none other than Kjartan Olafsson defending himself against an army of attackers by killing and wounding a large number of them with his fine sword. But even if it had been gratifying for a young man to identify himself with the heroes of romance or saga, these literary traditions turn out to have mainly a compensatory nature for such a youth (see Marchello-Nizia 163). In reality, young Snorri has killed no one and only manages to hurt two with a rock, a weapon Kjartan and other saga heroes rarely used (see Armann Jakobsson, "Sannyrdi" 49-54). His stance is more pathetic than heroic.
In place of a saga hero, we see a callow and frightened eighteen-year-old who knows how to speak "heroese" but in reality his greatest feat has been to attack a farm hill of defenseless people at night. He now faces a humiliating execution rather than a heroic defense against greater numbers.
And the scene gets even uglier:
Snorri Porvaldsson settist a hornit gardsins med vapnum sinum. Pa gekk Hermundr at ok sveifladi til hans med oxi, ok kom a kneit, sva at nar tok af fotinn. Harm hratadi af gardinum ok kom nidr standandi, ok vard undir honum sa hlutr fotarins, er af var hoggvinn. Hann preifadi til stufsins ok leit til ok brosti vid ok malti: "Hvar er nu fotrinn minn?" Pordr, brodir hans, sa til ok malti til Pordar Heinrekssonar: "Gakk pu til sveinsins ok ver i hja honum." Hann bles vid ok for eigi. Halldorr molti i pvi, er Hermundr hjo: "Illt hogg ok omannligt." Sturla svaradi: "Pat var gott hogg ok drengiligt." Sturla bad Pord pa nidr leggjast. (1:356) Snorri Porvaldsson sat on the corner of the yard with his weapons. Hermundr went up to him and swung his axe at him; he struck the knee so that the leg nearly came off. Snorri tumbled down from the wall feet first, but beneath him was the piece of his leg which had been struck off. He felt the stump with his hand, then felt about, smiled, and said: "Where is my foot now?" His brother Pordr looked at him and said to Pordr Heinreksson: "Go to the lad and stand near him." He snorted but did not go. Halldor broke out just as Hermundr struck: "A poor, unmanly stroke? Sturla replied: "It was a good and manly stroke." Then he bade Pordr lie down. (1:257)
Sturla Pordarson does not spare his audience. Having carefully displayed the youthful idealism of Snorri Porvaldsson and his eagerness for heroics alongside his fears and worries, he now shows him resting from the exhaustion resulting from an exercise in rock throwing. Even though he has not formally surrendered or laid down his weapons, the assault comes when he is past fighting rendering it indeed an evil and inhuman blow.
Then we are presented with a variety of reactions. Snorri's smile is most striking. Even though it is possible that the pain had not yet overtaken him, this reaction is astounding and, ironically, heroic. It is impossible for an audience reared on the sagas not to see this as a last-minute victory for the young man, who finally snatches some heroism from the jaws of humbling defeat. Against this background, we observe his older brother's obvious concern for the "lad" as he calls him, thus reminding both those present and the audience of Snorri's youth. It has been strongly implied that at this stage Pordr must be almost fully incapacitated by the last blow to his head, and yet his thoughts are of his brother. Juxtaposed to this concern is the indifference audible in the snort of his companion who apparently is not wounded and whose life is not threatened. We have the intellectual response of Halldor of Kvennabrekka who makes his saga-like judgment on the blow and the cool cruelty of Sturla, whose comment defies the code of saga literature. He subsequently goes from bad to worse by ordering his humbled opponent to lie down and await execution. Three blows are needed to end Pordr's life, further evidence of Sturla's brutality.
Pordr's execution must be a kind of torture to his teenage brother. Pordr's concern for Snorri has emerged dearly in the scene. In the raid on Saudafell, Snorri seemed to follow his lead, and the brothers are usually spoken of together. The author has thus used a variety of small signs to imply a close and loving relationship making Snorri even more heroic in the end as he manages not to react to the grotesque execution of his brother:
Snorri, brodir hans, sa a pessa atburdi ok bra ser eigi vid. Par stod alpyda i hja, er Pordr var veginn. Hermundr snaradi pa fyrir gardshornit med reidda oxi ok par at, er Snorri sat. Hann bra upp hendinni ok malti: "Hogg pu mik eigi, ek vil tala nokkut adr." Hermundr hafdi it sama ridit ok hjo a halsinn, sva at nar tok af hofudit, sva at eigi helt meira en reipshaldi. Annari hendi hjo hann til. (1:357) Snorri, his brother, watched this event and did not show any reaction. A lot of people stood nearby, while I'6rtr was killed. Hermundr turned about in the corner of the yard with raised axe and moved toward Snorri, who lifted his hand and said: "Don't kill me, for I have something to say first" At the same instance Hermundr struck at his neck, so that it nearly took off his head, which was held on by no more than the thickness of a rope. He struck with one hand. (1:257-8)
Snorri's own execution is no less brutal and grotesque with its graphic details about how the head dangled from the body (see Gudrun Nordal, Ethics and Action 205-8). Most remarkable are Snorri's restraint and his ignored wish to speak. One must assume that this speech would have been in the language of heroes. The lack of respect for the last wish of the condemned man leaves Sturla in even worse light than before even though he did not actually instruct Hermundr to do it as he did--especially since Snorri has been carefully portrayed as a youngster, almost a minor. Interestingly, however, the promptness with which Snorri is killed makes his dying words strangely similar to those of his famous namesake and ally, Snorri Sturluson, some years later.
After the death of the Vatnsfirdings, Solveig remarks that the brothers should have been able to recall their own cruelty at Saudafell. Snorri Sturluson is annoyed but nevertheless makes up with Sturla and then goes on to make Vatnsfjordr his own dependency. Thus the sons of Porvaldr depart from the saga.
This ugly scene of death is so meticulously drawn by Sturla Pordarson that it has an effect similar to slow motion in a film (see Meulengracht Sorenen 329). With the Saudafell raid narrative, it completes a couplet in the Islendinga saga and may also be juxtaposed to Sturla Sighvatsson's own tragic death at Orlygsstadir later in the saga (see Armann Jakobsson, "Sannyrdi" 61-71; see also Ulfar Bragason, "Hetjudaudi"). A comparison of the two scenes reveals a shift in the authorial sympathy. If the description of the Saudafell raid seems sympathetic to the victims, one senses an equally strong sympathy toward the Vatnsfir6ings when they themselves are slain. Even though Sturla Sighvatsson strikes us as villainous at the slaying of the Vatnsfirdings, the situation is different when it comes to the battle at Orlygsstadir. On that occasion, he himself is equally slow to take action as the Vatnsfir6ings in their dying hours, and he is subsequently killed with equal brutality.
Islendinga saga is, of course, a story of war. In the saga generally and in particular in the narrative concerning the Vatnsfirdings, we are faced with both the ideology and the reality of war and of chivalry. In spite of the chivalric ideal, which ennobled the chivalric way of life, the business of knights was nevertheless war, which is perhaps best illustrated in the fact that knights played war games whenever they were not fighting. Violence and death were thus very much a part of the life for a medieval European warrior. And perhaps because of the proximity of youth and death, this was a time of emotional excess. Crying and fainting, merriment and pity, which went hand in hand with rage, aggressiveness, and violence, abounded. Medieval warriors often behaved with some of the abandon commonly associated with youths and indeed were scolded for it by some clerical authors. A warrior was expected to ignore death, at least that of others, and to enjoy life all the more. But according to this warrior ideology, excessive cruelty was not only for outlaws but a necessary part of the makeup of a professional killer (Elias 157-76, Huizinga 9-11 and 22-5; see also Jaeger). In spite of the restraint of Sturla F6rtarson's narrative, the same excesses can be noted in the depiction of the killings at Saudafell and the subsequent revenge of Sturla: on one hand, sympathy for the victims and on the other, an obsession with the details of their humiliation and death almost to a sado-masochistic degree (see Cohen 152-66; Gade). The scene may be colored by the mentality of the Vatnsfirdings themselves: in the absence of authorial comment, the audience must draw its clues from the behavior of the people involved. But perhaps some of the young Sturla Pordarson shines through in the old Sturla's writings. It is not impossible that he once sympathized with and admired the Vatnsfirdings.
Snorri's youth is the crux of this scene. His death is all the more striking for his being a restless young man, and his youthful attempts at heroics, his anxiety, his impatience, and his aristocratic pride, along with his habit of saying "my" to his interlocutor combine to make him seem more vivid than anyone else portrayed. He is at the same time pathetic in his vulnerability, comic in his attempts at heroic grandeur, and all too human in his anxiety and his restlessness. The audience is made to feel both superior to him and yet akin at the same time as he fails to conceal his emotions behind his aristocratic haughtiness. Thus the pathos of the scene is maximized. We cannot but take part in Snorri Porvaldsson's death and die with him at the stockyard near Saudafell.
NARRATING A LIFE AND AN AGE
Youth has many faces, some of which are presented to us in medieval sagas. In Flores saga ok Blankiflur, we meet innocent, thoughtless, and triumphant young love that disregards parental authority and chooses its own path (see Armann Jakobsson, "Uppreisn aeskunnar"), whereas the protagonist of Gunnlaugs saga may be interpreted as an immature problem-child in love (see Sverrir Tomasson). In many of the sagas of the Icelanders, we see a younger generation revolting against parental authority and finding their own values (see Schach)--in the case of Hallfredar saga only to discover a new father figure in King Olafr Tryggyason (see Kalinke). There are examples of rebellious children (see Armann Jakobsson, "Troublesome Children") and, more commonly, of young men whose values and attitudes are different from their parents. In the episodes about the sons of Porvaldr in Islendinga saga, we meet youth at war. We see the cruelty and viciousness, which arise from lack of confidence combined with fear, lack of restraint, and the ill-fated and senseless quest for saga-like heroics. But we are also faced with the vulnerability of youth, and finally we witness the end of a dream: these Icelandic upper-class young men want to be a band of chivalric warriors who are brave and courteous and perform heroic deeds, but the only kind of heroics available to them is to smile at the ugly face of death. As Meulengracht Sorensen observes, the cause of death is hearing too many heroic tales.
There are other cases of youths taking part in the battles of Sturlungaold. Apart from Snorri, Gudmundr Ormsson in Svinfellinga saga is portrayed vividly. He seems an amiable young man who is drawn into the feud of his brother Saemundr and his foster-father Ogmundr Helgason. When he is fifteen, Gudmundr intervenes in a dispute between them asking Saemundr to stop harassing his fosterfather. Shortly after, he is asked to a social gathering at Svinafell. His aunt, Steinunn, ogmundr's wife, asks him not to go, but he does so anyway, and Saemundr speaks to him at length at this party. Shortly thereafter, Gudmundr leaves his fosterfather and the next winter takes part in an attack at Kirkjubaer in spite of the protestations of his mother. The attack fails, and Gudmundr speaks to his foster-father in a way that indicates that the he is completely under the spell of his older brother.
Saemundr pays compensation for the raid. Nevertheless, after the death of Steinunn, Ogmundr ambushes the brothers and executes them. Saemundr is executed first, but Gudmundr sings psalms in the meantime and "farm engi madr, at harm brygdi ser nokkut vid pessi tidindi--annan veg en hann kvad nokkut hardara at ordunum en adr. Pa var hann atjan vetra" (2:100) ["no one could discern that he was in any way affected by these events, except that he spoke the words somewhat more firmly than before. He was then eighteen years old" (2:339)]. Like Snorri Porvaldsson, he tries to act like a hero in death even though he had been a villain in fife, and he even smiles when he lies down to be executed. And yet, again like Snorri, he has a moment of weakness and asks his foster-father to spare him: "Gott vaeri enn at lifa, ok vilda ek grid, fostri" (2:100) ["it would be good to five on, and I ask for clemency, foster father" (2:339)]. As when the Vatnsfirdings were killed, there are some who show their disapproval at the killings.
Even if Gudmundr has not had a propensity to use "my" he behaves so much like Snorri Porvaldsson as to allow us to speak of the warrior youth as a type. Like Snorri, Gurmundr is the author of his own misfortunes although his is a clearer case of the manipulation of an impressionable young man by a brother. And even if we see him both as aggressor and victim, he enjoys considerable sympathy. The message might be that in spite of the ideals of these callow warriors, war is really no place for teenagers.
This impression is strenghtened by other episodes in Islendinga saga. The sons of Gizurr Porvaldsson are killed at the burning of Flugumyri just after a wedding. They are mere teenagers, and Sturla uses their youth to emphasize the viciousness of the assault. The oldest, Hallr, who has just become Sturla's son-in-law, is killed while trying to escape from the fire. It is explicitly stated that he is "faklaeddr" (1: 491) ["not fully clothed" (1:400)] and that the cold entered his wound. The youngest, Ketilbjorn, only fourteen years old, has his hand struck off before he perishes in the fire. The second, Isleifr, has been seen at the wedding feast with Hrafn Oddsson, who later betrays Gizurr: "drukku af einu silfrkeri ok minntust vid jafnan um daginn, er hvarr drakk til annars" (1:483) ["they drank from the same silver goblet, saluting one another with a kiss as each drank to the other" (1:392)]. Later we see Isleifr carried out of the fire: "Pa var borinn ut a skildi Isleifr Gizurarson, ok vat hans ekki eftir nema bukrinn steiktr innan i brynjunni" (1:494) ["Isleifr Gizurarson was borne out on his shield, and there was nothing left of his body except the torso, roasted inside his byrnie" (1:403)]. Gizurr cries hailstones when he sees this tragic end. It is not least the youth of the sons of Gizurr that makes their death so tragic. Sturla Pordarson is again making the same point: youth is life, and war is death, and the two should not be conjoined.
Young men are thus mainly presented as victims of the war in Sturlunga saga. Even though the Vatnsfirdings are the aggressors in the Saudafell raid, they, too, are later perceived as victims. Their behavior at the raid may suggest that they always were victims of their own dream. It has been argued that Sturla Pordarson's Islendinga saga and some other sagas of the Sturlunga compilation, such as Porgils saga ok Haflida and Svinfellinga saga, demonstrate the folly of war and the need for peace (see J6n J6hannesson; Gunnar Karlsson; Gudrun Nordal, "Eitt sinn skal hverr deyja"; Armann Jakobsson, "Sannyrdi"; Tranter; Sverrir Jakobsson). The point becomes very clear when we are presented with young men who misguidedly seek war. Some obviously seek the kind of glory exalted in sagas and poetry, but find out that there is no glory in war, even if courage in death is possible. Snorri Porvaldsson does not manage to perform a single heroic deed except to smile and joke when his foot is cut off from under him. That is his tragedy, and not only his, but also that of his country, his age, and his generation. Snorri is representative of a "lost generation" of Icelanders including the author of Islendinga saga, Sturla Pordarson, who wasted their whole youth in a futile war.
Sturla Pordarson spent most of his adult life trying to be a magnate in the Commonwealth, until fate drove him as King Hakon's enemy to Norway, where he managed to turn the tables on fortune and became the leading official of the new regime. In his old age and as a royal official, be composed Islendinga saga (see Armann Jakobsson, "Sannyrdi" and "Hakon Hakonarson"). This is a story of his own age and is of necessity semi-autobiographical although Sturla is dispassionate, seems at first objective, and always refers to himself in the third person (see Ciklamini; Ulfar Bragason, "Sturla Pordarson"). When describing Snorri Porvaldsson and his fate, the narrative is close to Sturla himself. Snorri may have been the first of Sturla's peers who turned to war as well as the first to be killed. The brutality of the event must have both stunned and fascinated the young Sturla, when he first heard the tale of the death of the Vatnsfirdings, which he was to cast in a literary context almost fifty years later.
It was Sturla Pordarson's fate to grow old in the service of the king of Norway, while Snorri Porvaldsson remained forever young and vivid in the memory of Sturla the historian, who recalls and tells us how he spoke to others (perhaps even to Sturla himself). To the old Sturla, his ugly death epitomized the waste of an age of war, and his life becomes a parable of eager, idealistic, vicious, and stupid youth. Thus Snorri's death remains both beautiful and horrible at the same time, like the age depicted in the Sturlunga saga.
(1) In this article, the English text used is the translation of McGrew, but I have made some minor changes wherever the translator is to my mind too liberal or has misinterpreted the text.
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Publication information: Article title: Snorri and His Death: Youth, Violence, and Autobiography in Medieval Iceland. Contributors: Jakobsson, Armann - Author. Journal title: Scandinavian Studies. Volume: 75. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2003. Page number: 317+. © 1999 Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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