Friday, May 29, 2009

Musing on the One Footed

I've mentioned previously that I'm working my way slowly through the readings in E. V. Gordon's An Introduction to Old Norse. I know a few Tolkienistas occasionally check in here who are not otherwise medievalists, so I'll mention that just in case the Gordon name rings a bell that he was a friend, colleague, and collaborator with Tolkien. Gordon was tutored by Tolkien in 1920, and then followed Tolkien to Leeds where together they formed a reading group for undergrads in Old Norse at Leeds. There's more, but this is about the one-footed, so if you're curious, the best place to look is here. reading Throfinn's saga I've come to the spot where Thorvald, Erik's son is killed by a Einfoetingr, a one-footer, who shoots Thorvald with an arrow and then outruns his Viking pursuers and gets away. In a footnote, Gordon remarks on how historically there is no such being, and that the Einfoetingr are not native to Norse folklore but borrowed from Latin. The "monocoli" from Greek monokwloi, the one-legged, make an appearance in Pliny's Natural History who says, citing a Greek author Ctesias, "...he speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodæ: because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet." Isidore of Seville takes up the tale and passes it on to the Middle Ages where these chaps live on in folklore.

Its an interesting intrusion into the Eirik Saga. It is likely that if Thorvald's death were real by arrow, that a native got him from behind a tree, and that is something that the saga writers have no difficulty reporting. I have no real answer as to why these mythical beings show up in the saga and there may be no answer.

Attentive readers will have noticed that Pliny's and Isidore's Monopods or Monocoli are the source for C. S. Lewis' Dufflepuds in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Umberto Eco in Baudolino also has a monopod character.

Anyway, there you have it, at least as far as I've gone at the moment. Narratively I can't think of how the Einfoetingr adds to the tale in any way. The other version of Thorvald's death in the Greenland Saga simply has him die in a skirmish with the Skraeling, the word used to describe the North American peoples the Vikings encounter. Here, he is killed not in a skirmish, but by being shot in the groin with an arrow by the Einfoetingr. Now, if we apply some notions of "the other" we can interpret and look at the Norse encounters with the North Americans as a series of encounters with the "monstrous" and with "outcasts". Thus, I'm told many have thought that the intrusion of the Einfoetingr into the story is a later embroidery and likely motivated by reducing the North Americans to a level with other strange and outlandish tribes and beasts who dwell in unknown, uncolonized, borderplaces. Of course, the attraction to this approach is that one need not dwell overlong on the question of historicity...did a one-legged man kill Thorvald. (Not to be confused with the One-Armed man of The Fugitive).

My thought is that coupled with the distance that they note as they chase the One-Footer (the mountains look like those of Hop, too far from their winter quarters), Thorvald's comment as he lay dieing that they've found a land of plenty that they'll never be able to utilize, seems an etiology for why they did not settle permanently in North America, the "otherness" of the One-Footer adding versimilitude to the excuse. Interesting stuff though.

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