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Last Laughs: Torture in Medieval Icelandic Literature
By Stefan Thomas Hall
Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest, Volume 16 (2009)
Introduction: Medieval Icelandic literature is full of violence, calculated and reasoned violence, narrated in such a way as to focus largely on issues of personal honor and justice, less so on the spectacle of blood so common in the modem Hollywood action film. Fredrik Heinemann writes, “[B]revity is common in fight scenes in the sagas, counteracting the notion that they are merely tales of pugnacious farmers anxious to strike a blow for honor …. [S]aga authors appear far more interested in the motives of the fighters than in the details of the fight”. Heinemann’s observation is quite perceptive: Icelandic authors rarely dwell on blood and gore. So, for instance, in Hrafnkels saga Freysgooa, when Hrafnkell discovers his farmhand Einar has ridden his horse Freyfaxi despite Hrafnkel’s oath that he would kill any man who rode the horse, we are not given a description of how Hrafukel strikes Einar or even where the blade of his axe hits Einar. There is no blood on display: “Þa hljóp hann af baki til hans ok hjó hann banahogg” ‘Then Hrafnkel jumps off his horse and dealt him a death-blow’. The medieval Icelandic author immediately moves on from the death-blow to what Hrafnkel does next: “Eftir Þat riðr hann heim við sva buit a Aðalból ok segir pessi tiðindi” ‘After that he rides home with that done to Aðalból and announces the news’ (87). This killing scene is pretty typical of medieval Icelandic literature.
When a saga character has a grievance (in the Islendingasogur especially), he may announce his grievance and carry out his own justice, as swiftly as possible in the majority of cases. Capital punishment is exacted by the plaintiff-cum-judge-cum-executioner. This is perfectly in accordance with the wisdom in stanza 127 of the Havamal which advises, “[H]vars ðu bol kant, qveððu pat bolvi at, oc gefat pinom fiandom frið” ‘Where you feel grievance, announce that grievance, and do not give your enemies peace’. The events leading up to and following a killing in the majority of medieval Icelandic sagas receive the bulk of the narration. The actual killing, the moment when the spear or axe or sword meets human flesh, usually receives relatively few lines in the narration before the atithor focuses on consequences. Acts of torture involving detailed description of the torturer’s methods and the prolonged physical pain inflicted on the tortured subject are relatively rare in medieval Icelandic literature. The few torture scenes that do exist in medieval Icelandic literature, therefore, stand out, and while torture is not explicitly condemned by medieval Icelandic writers, the cultural statement these writers seem to make time and again is that nothing good comes to the torturer from his actions. Torture, it would seem, goes against the normal code of punishment. There are only a handful of torture scenes in the whole of the medieval Icelandic literary corpus, and I will try to touch upon as many of them as possible in this short paper. While acts of torture are no laughing matter, as a rule, ultimately, those tortured (or their friends or kinsmen) wind up having the last laugh at the expense of the torturer.