Thorodd Snorasson, an Icelander, reportedly was kept as a political hostage by King Olaf II of Norway between the years 1025 and 1028. When he finally returned home from his time abroad, he made sure to have some exciting tales ready to tell his friends and family. Thorodd apparently did only one task of note during his stay in the Norwegian court, yet he did the best with what he could, narrating this errand as a wild adventure, filled with treachery, arson, and even monsters.
To set the scene, Thorodd Snorasson’s adventure was said to have occurred near the end of King Olaf’s reign (r. 1015-1028). At that time, Olaf’s centralization of power and forced religious conversions had made him many enemies among the chieftains and jarls. By 1027 and 1028, discontentment was rampant, and a growing movement in Norway was forming that wanted to dislodge King Olaf by inviting Canute the Great (King of England since 1016 and King of Denmark since 1019) to add the Kingdom of Norway to his large realm. Canute, of course, was more than happy to add a third kingdom to his résumé. To stop this incoming usurpation, King Olaf II needed to raise money and levy troops, yet this was easier said than done when regional pockets of Norway were openly hostile to Olaf.
Needful king; dangerous task; hostile lands—cue the Icelandic hostage Thorodd Snorasson. As the story goes, while tax collectors and levy organizers around the kingdom were being assassinated here and there, Thorodd stepped up to offer his services. King Olaf was said to have accepted the offer, and sent Thorodd Snorasson to accompany eleven other men on a mission to collect taxes in Jamtaland. Most of these men, however, would not return.
When Thorodd Snorasson’s party arrived at their destination in Jamtaland, they were initially received peacefully. The king’s agents were welcomed into the town, an assembly was called, and the king’s request was expressed to the people of the region. Unfortunately, the assembly did not go well for the tax collectors. When deliberations began, the people of Jamtaland made it abundantly clear that they were not fans of King Olaf II. By the end of the meeting, Jamtaland’s inhabitants had decided to withhold their taxes and manpower from the king. Along with retaining these resources, the Jamtalanders also decided to hold Olaf’s agents. Thorodd Snorrason and his eleven companions were allegedly divided up into groups of two and were kept captive in different houses in the region.
Thorodd Snorrason and the other tax collector imprisoned with him reportedly escaped one time, only to be tracked down by dogs. Back in custody, the Icelander and his Norwegian companion were unceremoniously thrown into a pit. After that experience, Thorodd decided to take more time masterminding an elaborate escape plan. He waited until the Yule holiday season came along, when most residents of his captor’s house went away to other homes to celebrate, leaving behind only minimal guards, who, as it turned out, drank themselves into a stupor. Seizing the moment, Thorodd and his partner supposedly ripped up their garments and turned the materials into a rope, which they used to climb out of the pit. Once they were free, Thorodd and his friend stole new clothes from their captor’s home and decided to set the place on fire for good measure. Yet, before they put the property to the torch, the two allegedly grabbed some deer pelts and attached hooves to their feet, so that any tracks they left behind during their escape would look like those of deer instead of man.
If the tale seems outlandish, it will only become more so from here on. After fleeing from the burning home in Jamtaland, Thorodd Snorasson and his companion raced off into freedom, only to eventually journey onto the homestead of a family of outlaws. These outlaws, however, were quite friendly. As it turned out, the nearby town in Jamtaland had expelled this family from the community. Therefore, the outlaws did not care about what the local assembly had decided in regards to King Olaf, and they similarly paid no mind to Thorodd and his companion being fugitives. Instead, the household gave the new arrivals food, a place to sleep, and even a guide back to King Olaf. The formidable guide who was tasked with leading Thorodd and the other tax collector back to friendly territory was reportedly a man named Arnljot Gellini. Arnljot, a hulking figure, was apparently a man of great skill, excelling in abilities as diverse as skiing and monster-slaying.
When morning came, it was time for the group to leave. Once outside, the new guide showed his followers how they would be traveling. Imagine large Arnljot Gellini standing atop an oversized pair of skis. Next, imagine Thorodd and the other tax collector awkwardly standing behind Arnljot, their feet standing on the same skis as the hulking hero. After the two fugitives hopped up and held on tight to the guide, Arnljot worked his legs and his ski poles to set the encumbered boards in motion. The trio traveled in this comical fashion until they arrived at a communal shelter, where the tale would take another odd turn.
Despite the campground and shelter being a place known widely to merchants and travelers, it was also a place of great danger. Arnljot, according to Thorodd’s outlandish tale, had some inkling of the threat that the group might face, for he gave the party strict instructions. Do not leave out any scraps of food; do not wander away from the rest of the party; do not sleep anywhere except for a high loft. Thorodd and the tax collector followed this advice and were safe. Yet, a different group that was staying the night in that communal shelter did not heed Arnljot’s advice. Their negligence, so the tall tale claims, invited a monster to attack. Thorodd Snorasson’s fellow Icelander, the scholar Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), narrated the peculiar story:
“Shortly afterwards there came twelve men into the house. They were merchants who were travelling to Jamtaland with their wares. Now when they entered the house they were noisy with cheerful merriment and kindled big fires. And when they ate they threw all the bones away. Then they got ready to sleep and lay down on the dais by the fire. When they had slept but a short time, a big troll woman came to the house, and when she entered it, she swiftly swept up everything together, bones and everything she thought edible and devoured it. Then she grabbed the man lying nearest to her, ripped him to pieces, and threw him on the fire. Then the others awoke as if from a bad dream, and jumped up; but she killed one after the other, so that only one survived. He ran in under the loft and shouted for help if there was anyone up there who could help him. Arnjlot reached down, grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled him up into the loft. Then the troll woman turned to the fire and took to devouring the men who were roasted” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 141).
As has been said several times, Arnjlot Gellini was reportedly a large, strong and hulking figure—a natural monster slayer. Now was his time to shine. Arnjlot reportedly picked up a spear, jumped down, and stabbed the troll through the back so that the spearpoint protruded out from the front of the chest. The troll, however, was supposedly still very much alive. Yet, it also had no will to stay and fight. Instead, the wounded creature let out a screech and charged out through the doorway, breaking the frame as it fled. Given a moment of peace, Arnjlot, Thorodd and the tax collector rummaged through the goods of the slain merchants. Afterwards, Arnjlot informed his companions that he would not continue leading them—recovering his spear from the troll was apparently more important.
Thorodd Snorrason and his companion were able to make do without Arnjlot Gellini. They could back-trace the tracks left by the slain merchants, which led to the nearest town, or perhaps they had come far enough that the surroundings were now familiar. Whatever the case, Thorodd Snorrason soon found himself back in the court of King Olaf II. The king, apparently, was impressed or entertained by the debriefing he heard. Thorodd Snorrason was allowed to return home to Iceland as soon as summer arrived. Such is the odd tale that Thorodd, or storytellers in his family, spun about his years as a hostage in Norway.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Frithiofs återkomst (ur Frithiofs saga), painted by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Sweden).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.