The Tale Of Thórarin Loftunga And His Poetic “Head Ransom”

A man called Thórarin, nicknamed Loftunga (or Praise-Tongue), was an 11th-century Icelandic skald who offered his poetic services to the prominent Scandinavian kings of the day. In particular, he was said to have loitered around the court of King Canute (or Knút) the Great—ruler of England (r. 1016-1035), Denmark (r. 1019-1035) and Norway (r. 1028-1035). Thórarin Loftunga’s relationship with King Canute was complicated. Although the poet was greatly skilled at his literary craft, his people skills, mannerisms and temperament were evidently lacking. These negative characteristics reportedly brought Thórarin into awkward situations within the court of King Canute. In one particular legend, King Canute and the skald somehow fell into heated disagreement over a short, refrain-less poem that Thórarin Loftunga had written.

To put it bluntly, King Canute did not like the poem’s length and style. Thórarin Loftunga’s response to the king’s criticism is unknown, but whatever the poet said, it did nothing to win over the king. Instead, so the story goes, the king lashed out at the poet, threatening that Thórarin would be executed if he could not produce a drápa—a long skaldic poem with refrains—that met with the king’s approval. Thórarin Loftunga accepted the challenge and was allegedly given only one day to write the poem. He retained the original short, refrain-less poem as the core of his new project, but he greatly expanded it with new stanzas and added in a refrain that complimented Canute. Ironically, the newly-added refrain was all that survived of this alleged high-stakes poem. Thórarin’s impromptu refrain was recorded by the Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), who quoted the verse in his Heimskringla. The poet allegedly bet his life on the following refrain:

“As Christ the heavenly kingdom,
Knút defends his country”
(Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 172)

This refrain, and the elongated poem that it was inserted into, evidently was enough to please King Canute. Thórarin was allowed to live, and he was given a reward of fifty marks of silver for the poem, which came to be called “Head Ransom,” due to the tense circumstances under which it had been written. Despite this alleged incident, Thórarin Loftunga decided to remain in Canute’s kingdom and continued writing poetry for the court.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Frithiofs frieri (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.

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