Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Honor of Guthlaugr Snorrason and Einarr Yambarskelfir

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Honor of Guthlaugr Snorrason and Einarr Yambarskelfir

Article excerpt

A Reply

This note is about honor and emotions in early Norse-Icelandic society and is in response to two recent (juxtaposed) contributions to this journal: Thomas D. Hill's "Gudhlaugr Snorrason: The Red Faced Saint and the Refusal of Violence," Scandinavian Studies 67:2 (1995), 145-52, and Kari Ellen Gade's "Einarr Thambarskelfir's Last Shot," ibid., 153-62. The central importance of honor for ethical behavior and consequently for saga narrative has long been recognized, although our progress has been more recent in locating within the early value system the symbolic acts and words that impinge on personal honor for men and women as both subject and object. "Emotions in the sagas," in William Ian Miller's summary phrase, is an even more recently joined debate and here we are still at the initial stages of attempting to determine anatomy and causality, and whether we meet in the family, kings' and contemporary sagas human constants or cultural specifics. My brief contribution is intended as a reader's response to Hill's and Gade's notes, and does not purport to be an independent and thorough re-examination of either the specific incidents at the focus of their studies or the larger issues raised by them. Both notes are imaginative reactions to and readings of anecdotes that seem clearly "marked" as exceptional in their respective narratives. Both offer novel solutions when, to my mind, more quotidian ones will suffice (after a little stropping of Ockham's razor), and neither is free of flaws in reasoning.

Thomas D. Hill examines the incident in Heidharviga saga (Ch. 12) in which Snorri godhi encounters his son Gudhlaugr early one morning after church service, before Snorri leads a punitive foray against the killers of his father-in-law, Styrr. Gudhlaugr had been in private prayer, as was his custom, and his father asks whether he will accompany them.

Gudhlaugr replied that Snorri had such a large force he did not need his help, and that he had never taken part in killing. His father might decide, but he would prefer to remain at home. Snorri said, "Up to now I haven't spoken to you about your affairs. And from now on you shall govern them yourself. And I am well pleased that you go nowhere and practice your religious devotions." Snorri said about this [later] that he had never seen a man's face like that of Gudhlaugr, his son, when he met him in church. His face had been red as blood, and it seemed to inspire terror. (trans. Hill, acknowledging Schach)

Some years later Gudhlaugr, with his father's financial assistance, entered a monastery in England and led a virtuous life, regarded as an excellent cleric until his death.

Hill's objective is to discuss "the iconographic significance of the extraordinary appearance of Gudhlaugr as he leaves the church" (146) and, while "facial expression and 'reddening' are a significant sign of deep emotion in traditional saga narrative," Hill argues that "Gudhlaugr's appearance bears religious significance" (147). In short, evidence from the medieval Christian exegetical and iconographical tradition leads Hill to the conclusion that Gudhlaugr is portrayed as sanctified, since the color red is employed as the external expression of fervent caritas. "The purity and holiness of his saintly son are terrifying to a worldly and violent man such as Snorri. This explains Snorri's curiously mild reaction to his son's refusal to accompany him, a conspicuous departure from saga convention" (151).

Hill would have further bolstered his case, had he called attention not only to the break in the close-meshed linear advance of the narrative that is effected by the detail on Gudhlaugr's subsequent career, but also to the rare retrospective contained in Snorri's indirect statement that he had never before seen such a man's face. From within the native tradition this would seem to recall Grettir's retrospective comment on the terror inspired by Glamr's eyes during their struggle, a narrative loop that also occurs at a watershed in a human destiny (Ch. …

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