Take a bunch of trolls. Add a haunch of human. Set to rest in a cave. Boil until well cooked. Old Norse myths serve readers with a literary feast of man-eating monsters and some very grisly recipes. We chatted with Rebecca Drake, on the back of her recent Postgraduate English article, about cooking, witty monsters, and why you should never wrap human meat in cloth.
Putting it bluntly, your article is about how monstrous giants and trolls cook people in Old Norse sagas. Sounds gross! What gave you an appetite for this material?
I grew up reading epic fantasy, which is primarily what influenced my interest in medieval literature. During my English literature degree at York I took a fantastic module which studied Tolkien’s medieval sources, and this really inspired me to look closer at Norse material.
I began reading the family sagas, called in Norse the Íslendingasögur, or the sagas of the Icelanders. There are some great monsters in these – Glámr in Grettis saga is a particular favourite of mine – but when you get to the legendary sagas, called fornaldarsögur in Norse, you find monsters at the turn of every page. Of course, once you start studying the legendary sagas’ troll-women, giants, and other strange creatures, it’s difficult to stop!
Of particular interest to you are two tales in the Hrafnistumannasögur. If you had to write the blurb on the dust jacket what would you say these are about?
Örvar-Odds saga is the story of a three-hundred-year-old man who is always running away from his fate. Raised in the arctic lands of Norway, he is stronger and braver than any of his peers. One day, however, a seeress visits his homestead and prophesises his death, which will be caused by his prized horse. Odd buries the horse and runs far away from the land of his birth, travelling far and wide, and becoming famous in the courts of kings and earls. But, however far he travels, he is haunted by the memory of his homeland, to which he must, eventually, return to confront death and the passage of time.
Ketils saga hængs tells the story of Ketil, chieftain of the Isle of Hrafnista, a remote island in the North of Norway. Descended from trolls, Ketil is the biggest, strongest, and bravest man in all of Hrafnista. Everybody in the Arctic knows this because he is always going about killing monsters, and bringing back their treasure. When famine strikes Hrafnista, it is up to Ketill to travel far to the north for fish and butter, but he must fight for them against fearsome troll-women and man-eating giants.
These sound pretty tough tales, and full of death already. Where do monsters with a taste for human flesh come in? What takes these tales to the next level of grisliness?
Monsters in these sagas are always joking that they want to eat humans. In fact, early on in Ketils saga, Ketill meets a troll-woman called Forað who can´t decide if she wants to eat him or kiss him.
But monsters very rarely have the opportunity to follow through on their threats before they are killed by heroes. So it is especially disturbing when Ketill finds a giant, called Surtr, who has hunted, salted, and stored human flesh. The author uses a specific word here: mannakjöt. The meaning of this is very specifically “human meat”. It also suggests that these corpses have been hunted and butchered, exactly as if they were animal corpses. This is really what makes the episode where Ketill finds Surtr’s stores of human meat so horrific.
Odds saga is more typical of legendary sagas. Odd befriends a giant, called Hildir, who shares with him his boiled meat. Characteristically, trolls and giants cook meat, which is often human meat as well as horse meat, by boiling it in a big cauldron over a fire (always in a cave). The author playfully suggests that Hildir is sharing human meat with Odd, although they never actually reveal that this happens.
These are hardly recipe books, then, but is there any detail about how to cook human beings?
Preferably, humans should be cooked in a large cauldron, which should hang over a fire in a cave. It is acceptable to add horse meat to thicken the stew. Some giants have been known to salt human meat instead. It should be noted, however, that human law codes, as can be found in Grágás, do not permit the consumption of human flesh. In fact, this is greatly frowned upon, and any human who eats human flesh risks becoming no better than an animal. If you are human, you should always cook meat (but never human meat) properly: that is, by roasting it, or by boiling it. It should be noted, however, that monsters are in the habit of wrapping meat in cloth and pretending that it is “boiled”; this type of boiled meat should be avoided.
Earlier you mentioned Tolkien, and talking of man-eating monsters reminds of the famous scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the dwarves are about to be eaten by the trolls, who can’t decide how to kill and eat them. Given Tolkien was himself a scholar of medieval literature, are there any similarities between these original monsters and Tolkien’s trolls?
Tolkien’s trolls and the saga trolls, giants, and ogres (all of which names can mean the same monster) are quite similar.
For one thing, they are all masters of wit. While the company of dwarves are hanging about the cooking fire, Tolkien’s trolls are arguing over whether to roast them and eat them later, boil them in a large black cauldron, or squash them and eat them now. Their witty exchange is arguably the best comedic passage in the novel. Hildir, Odd’s giant companion, is introduced to readers of Odds saga through his dry humour. Regarding the theft of his boiled meat by a giant eagle, Hildir exclaims, “Ætlaða ek þá annat, er ek tók yxnin frá konungi, en fugl þessi skyldi hafa þau.” (“I had another plan, when I took oxen from the king, than that this bird should have them.”) This seems quite a roundabout way of saying that he fancied a bit of beef.
Although Tolkien’s trolls have a more varied repertoire than the saga trolls, their key similarity comes down to the fact that they all sit around a cauldron, as trolls are wont to do. For both, boiled meat is on the menu.
These texts are over 500 years old, trolls don’t exist, and clearly we don’t do bake offs with human flesh. Nevertheless, are there any ways in which the themes and moral issues these stories raise, even if not the precise methods, are still relevant to society today?
At their core, these texts explore what it means to be human, part of which is acting like a human. There are strict codes for how a human should act – for example, they should cook their meat in a certain way. What is important is that, in these texts, monsters can also cook like humans, and humans have the potential to act in ways that are monstrous.
These texts complicate the idea of Us and Them, showing that these two things can never really be separate. In this sense, they are just as relevant today, amid issues of nationhood and multiculturalism, as they were in the Middle Ages.
Rebecca Drake’s article on the human as meat in Ketils Saga Hængs and Örvar-Odds Saga can be read free in our open access Postgraduate English journal. She tweets as @drakesdoodles