Why did Lifolf the cook cry?

Martyrdom of St Magnus, re-enacted, April 2017, Egilsay, Orkney, for Magnus 900.
Martyrdom of St Magnus, re-enacted, April 2017, Egilsay, Orkney, for Magnus 900.
Saint Magnus church, Birsay
Saint Magnus church, Birsay

Why did Lifolf the earl’s cook cry? Male tears and changing masculine ideals in Orkneyinga Saga.

Big Viking boys don’t cry

In saga literature, real men don’t cry. Not even as they are being assassinated, or their entire family are being burnt to death in their house. Mocking men for crying is a bit of a theme in Njal’s saga, which by many is regarded as the greatest saga ever.

The hero, Gunnar, is at one point the victim of a rumour claiming that he cried during an assault. This angers him so much that he seeks out the rumour mongers and launches an attack worthy of any action movie.

Towards the end of the same saga, there is a scene set in Orkney where some of Njal’s enemies are drinking Yule beer with the earl. One of the earl’s party asks how Njal’s eldest son, Skarphedin, bore up as his enemies burnt down Njal’s hall with the family inside. Their reply is: “He did well to begin with, but by the end he was crying.”

Crying is clearly regarded as incredibly unmanly, and merely being accused of crying is very effective slander on your character.

But the earl’s cook cried

But Lifolf cried. In the Orkneyinga Saga, there is a scene between the two rival earls, Hakon and Magnus. Hakon has Magnus cornered on the tiny island of Egilsay, and orders his execution. The saga says:

“Then, when the holy Earl Magnus was
thus doomed to death, Hakon ordered his banner-bearer, Ofeig, to slay the Earl, but he refused, with the utmost
wrath. Then forced he Llfolf, his cook, to be the slayer of Magnus, but he began to weep aloud. ” Weep not thus,”
said Earl Magnus, “for this is an honourable task. Be firm, and you shall have my clothing, according to theĀ  custom and laws of the men of old. Be not afraid, for you do this against your will, and he who forces you sins more
than you.”

When he had said this, he took off his tunic and gave it to Lifolf.”

Perhaps the saga doesn’t expect a lowly cook to display masculine virtues?

No, I think there is something else at play. A clash between two types of hero: A Viking hero and a Christian hero. Hakon is here drafted into the role of the old-fashioned Viking. (Though he seems to reform later in life — More on that another time.) Magnus is the Christian hero, and, of course, a saint. The saga is here paving his way for future sainthood.

Somehow, Lifolf manages to cry and get away with it – not just with his honour intact, but actually coming out of it looking good! Lifolf’s tears show that the saga’s internal ideals are changing with the changing times. In the earlier chapters, we meet good, old-fashioned Viking heroes who certainly don’t cry, such as Thorfinn the skull-splitter. But by 1117, when Magnus has his skull split, Christianity is firmly established, and new masculine ideals are starting to compete with the old.

In Christianity, tears wash away sin because only by true remorse can you approach forgiveness. Lifolf is given a role he doesn’t want: that of a killer, and thereby a sinner. But his tears counteract that sin, and Magnus assures him that he has forgiveness even before the act is done.

Lack of remorse is ultimate evil

In the Harry Potter novels, which have strong Christian themes, Voldemort is portrayed as the ultimate evil because he is incapable of remorse. Near the end, in the final showdown, Harry challenges Voldemort directly: “It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “and it’s all you’ve got left… I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise… Be a man… try… Try for some remorse…”

But Voldemort is incapable of remorse, and exits the novel as a satanic figure, forever symbolised by the snake. Dumbledore, on the other hand, who is in many ways a flawed hero, is seen to shed tears. Dumbledore, symbolised by the colour white, is on the path to sainthood. (More on the parallels between Dumbledore and Magnus another time, as well).

Orkney meets France

So Lifolf’s tears are a powerful and concrete sign that times are changing within the internal logic of the Orkneyinga Saga. And thirty-five years later, Magnus’s nephew Rognvald stops by France on his way to The Holy Land. Here, he meets a troubadour culture where men are not only permitted but downright expected to show feelings! He shows himself perfectly in tune with European culture by expertly combining Old Norse and troubadour aesthetics in the poetry he composes for the occasion. New times indeed!

You might also like

If you like this, you might also like a guided tour of Viking Orkney, a day of Viking Hiking, or a guided pilgrimage along St Magnus Way. Or perhaps some Orkney Viking chocolate? Coming in 2019 is also Orkney Viking Week – Dates and programme coming soon.

To read more like this, explore our blog.

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