Above is an illustration by Christian Krohg (c. 1852-1925), which captures a supposed scene from the life of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028). Although best known as a painter, Christian Krohg produced a series of black-and-white scenes in 1899 for a reproduction of the Heimskringla, an ambitious text by the historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). It traced the history of Norway from mythical times up to the reign of King Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184) through a series of saga-biographies. The illustration featured above is located well into the text, taking inspiration from chapter 85 of Saint Olaf’s Saga in the Heimskringla.
To set the scene for the illustration, King Olaf II was staying at Túnsberg (now Tønsberg), Norway, when a prominent Icelandic merchant named Thórarin Nefjólfsson arrived in the vicinity. The merchant was an intelligent, eloquent and candid individual, yet he was unfortunately known quite famously for another quality—ugliness. Due to Thórarin’s wealth, influence and good character, he was invited to personally stay with King Olaf for the remainder of his stay in the city, even having the honor of being able to sleep in the same hall as the king and his close entourage.
During this regal sleep-over, however, Thórarin Nefjólfsson faced a fair bit of jesting over his ugliness. King Olaf II shared in these jokes about the merchant’s appearance, giving him a particularly hard time about his feet. One morning, while the members of King Olaf’s party were beginning to rise from their bunks in the hall where they slept, the king spotted one of Thórarin’s bare feet sticking out from under his covers. Seizing the moment, King Olaf II lightheartedly proclaimed for all to hear in the hall that Thórarin’s foot was the ugliest foot in all of Túnsberg. The merchant, for his part, disputed the king’s claim that the uncovered foot was the ugliest in the town. To prove his point, Thórarin Nefjólfsson brought out his other foot—the one that was hitherto still covered—and waved it around for his audience in the hall. The new foot had a toe or two amputated for some reason or other, and therefore the merchant claimed it was uglier than the first. This triumphant presentation of the second foot is what Christian Krogh captured in the above illustration.
For a fuller account of this tale and King Olaf’s response, read about it HERE.
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.