Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Mirthless Content of Skarphedinn's Grin

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Mirthless Content of Skarphedinn's Grin

Article excerpt

Facial expression is curiously absent in the sagas. Saga characters are dry and sparing of speech, and we imagine them as stony-faced, tight-lipped people. In times of stress, tears like hailstones might start fromPorhallr Asgrimsson's face, or Flosi's face might go through a rapid succession of colour changes, but while these somatic phenomena occur the underlying physiognomy remains unmoved. It is primarily through action and dialogue, and not by facial expression or emotive speech, that we approach saga characters and learn something of them. In Njals saga, Skarphedinn is no exception to this general rule, but that he grins. It is his distinguishing feature: at the Al*ing where the Njalssons stand trial for murder, Snorri gooi asks: 'Hverr er sa maor, er ... glottir vico tonn ok hehr oxi reidda um xl?' [ wno is y-WnO is mat man . Wno grin with his teeth and has an axe on his shoulder?'. We learn quickly what makes Skarpheoinn grin. The servant-killing competition between Hallgerar and Bergbora, for instance, gives rise to more than one grin. It is especially after the killing of HQskuldr Hvitanessgodi, however, that Skarphedinn's grins become remarkable. The novelty of this, and its repetition amid a sea of poker-faces, are so marked that by the end of the saga we are left with a sense that Skarphe*inn's grin is hovering by us in the manner of a malevolent Cheshire cat.

A behavioureme of some significance, Skarpheoinn's grin has recently Deen tne rocus ot scholarly attention.' Jacques Le Goff looks at it in relation to laughter in general in Nals saga,3 while William Ian Miller examines the grin in the context of emotional expressiveness in saga literature.4 The focus of the present study is the grin on the face of Skarphe*inn himself. I apply the adjective 'malevolent' above guardedly, for of course Skarpheiinn, along with Gunnarr and Kari, is one of the prominent hero-figures in the saga up to his death. He displays spectacular athletic prowess and has a finely developed sense of courage and family loyalty; yet there is something palpably sinister about his affect not just to us but also to the people around him. When his corpse is dragged from the cinders, there is general relief that he is less frightening in death than expected. Skarpheoinn's presence is fey and otnerworl(lly. He is like Heathcl fl and invites similar metaphors: while Heathcliff is an `arid wilderness of furze and whinstone', Skarphe6inn looks as though he might have emerged from a sea-cliff.5 His grin is an important indicator of this elemental and unsettling quality.

The word in question is glotta. Its Indo-European root is listed as * hld- in Pokorny' and is related to MHG glot.en and ME glouten, meaning `to gaze intensely'. The modern verbgloatprobably has this origin. Glotta is a verb which passes unchanged in form into modern Icelandic, Swedish and Norwegian, and all three reflexes are defined in de Vries's Altnordisches er etymologisches Worterbuch (i961) as hohnlacheln or `to smile derisively, to smirk'. In his edition of Snorri's Edda, Anthony Faulkes glossesglotta as `to smile ironically or derisively' and the phrase glotti um tQnn as `grin showing the teeth, i.e. insincerely' is used in a number of places to emphasize the toothy effect.7 In their Icelandic-English Dictionary (1957), Vigfusson and Cleasby define the same phrase as `to smile scornfully, sarcastically, so as to shew the teeth'. From the Old Icelandic,glotta is almost witnout exception translated as `grin'. The English word is quite appropriate, but its present usage is sufficiently ambiguous to warrant coment. In the New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (I g87),grin is defined as `to smile broadly, showing the teeth, in amusement, pleasure, pain, contempt tc', and the entry includes an example of its transitive use, `to grin one's ielight'. To go back half a century, and across the Atlantic, the Oxford English Dictionary (O933) reverses the order of emotions expressed, defininggrin primaly as `an indication of pain or anger'. …

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