A prominent Icelandic merchant named Thórarin Nefjólfsson happened to be in Túnsberg (now Tønsberg), Norway, at a time when King Olaf II Haraldsson (r. 1015-1028) was residing in the city. Thórarin reportedly was an intelligent, eloquent and candid individual. Yet, unfortunately for the Icelander, he was best known for another quality—ugliness. The Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) colorfully claimed, “Thórarin was exceedingly ugly, and particularly his limbs. He had big and misshapen hands, but his feet were uglier even by far” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 85). Thórarin Nefjólfsson, for his part, embraced his own ugliness, and was the kind of person who enjoyed poking fun at his own features. Due to his endearing nature, his wealth, and his prominence, Thórarin was invited by King Olaf II to stay with the royal party for a time. The Icelander reportedly even had the honor of sleeping in the same hall as the king, along with other people that the monarch trusted.
As the story goes, one morning while King Olaf II was lying awake in his bed, not yet willing to get up, the king procrastinated by observing the bunks of the people around him, and in doing so, Olaf caught sight of something he thought to be truly grotesque. As the other occupants of the room began to stir, the king directed their attention to the horrific sight, and they all agreed it was one of the worst visual experiences they had ever witnessed. What had caught their attention, of course, was their Icelandic guest, specifically the sight of a single bare foot belonging to Thórarin Nefjolfsson that had popped out from the man’s bed covers during the night. According to Snorri Sturluson, King Olaf mused aloud to his comrades, “I have been awake for a while, and I have seen a sight which seems to me worth seeing, and that is, a man’s foot so ugly that I don’t think there is an uglier one here in this town” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 85).
Thórarin Nefjolfsson soon woke up and realized that everyone in the hall was staring at his foot. King Olaf, with the boldness of a king, and the knowledge that Thórarin was a good sport about his appearance, spoke plainly to the Icelandic merchant and explained that they were all amazed by the ugliness of the man’s foot. Furthermore, according to Snorri Sturluson, King Olaf went on to proclaim, “I rather warrant you that there isn’t an equally ugly foot to be found, and I would even be willing to bet on that” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 85). Hearing this assertion, Thórarin Nefjolfsson took the king up on his bet, and the two set their stakes for the wager. Thórarin Nefjolfsson, if he won, wanted to be officially invited into the king’s retinue, while Olaf’s request was for the Icelander to do a royal errand. With the bets set, Thórarin began planning how to find an uglier foot in the city of Túnsberg.
As the story goes, Thórarin Nefjólfsson did not have to look far for his answer. He did not have to leave the hall, nor even his bunk, for the winning exhibit. With a triumphant flourish, Thórarin popped out his other foot from under the bed covers and displayed it for all to see. His second foot was just as ugly as the first, yet the big toe on this newer foot had been amputated for some reason or other, causing it to be all the more ghastly.
Olaf II was on the verge of losing his bet, and everybody knew it, so the king had to think up a witty response to bring the wager back into his favor. After assessing the Icelander’s second foot, the king proclaimed that the amputated toe was a mercy, as there was one less horrendous digit to look at. According to Snorri Sturluson, the king further explained his reasoning by saying “The first foot is uglier because there are five toes on it, whilst this one has only four” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 85). Thórarin Nefjólfsson did not dispute Olaf’s math and conceded victory to the king. Ultimately, however, both participants in the bet received what they wanted. The Icelander was named a member of King Olaf’s retinue, and Thórarin Nefjólsson completed an errand for the king by transporting an exiled Norwegian to Iceland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Thorarin Nefjolfsson and King Olaf II illustrated by Christian Krohg (1852–1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.