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Þorsteins þáttr Stangarhǫggs, or “The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck” is an atypical piece of Norse short prose that likely originates from a mid-13th century oral tradition.1 Although the tale employs many of the common saga motifs, such as elaborate genealogies, and the plain prose of the genre, this perceived simplicity and objectivity is deceptive. Early 20th century scholars in particular, such as Vilhelm Grønbech, in their efforts to define the essence of the Icelandic Sagas, rightly identify numerous key themes in Icelandic literature but fail to acknowledge those themes as anything more than “aesthetic indulgence”.2 Such themes as honor, fate, and warrior heroism are likely more meaningful than Grønbech asserts in the sagas at large, but the way Þorsteins þáttr Stangarhǫggs and its indirect prequel, Vapnfirðingasaga, or The Saga of the Vapnfjord Men, wield the concepts of honor, masculinity, and warriorship directly challenges assertions in the vein of Grønbech. In these two stories, strong and respectable men seek parley; aggressive and warlike men meet disappointing ends; and heroes emerge from conflict without spilling a drop of each other’s blood. Þorsteins þáttr Stangarhǫggs diverts from common saga outcomes so sharply, that the notion that this eccentricity is meaningless seems nigh impossible. This þáttr, or tale, contains clear moral messages that reflect upon a society deeply wounded by cyclical violence and offers conscious and pragmatic alternatives to slaughter in defending one’s masculine honor.




South Dakota State University


© 2022 Noah R. Mincheff