A man with two loves: porridge & mockery

To carry on with the theme of flyting, it’s worth a look at a dirty little story known as the Tale of Sarcastic Halli (Sneglu-Halli), found in Flateyjarbok.  As you might expect from the title, Halli’s a cheeky Icelander with a quick wit and a talent for verse.   He buddies up to King Harald Hardrada of Norway and slips out of a number of tough spots (like leaving the king’s parade to eat buttered porridge, or reciting a bawdy poem about the queen to her face) thanks to his ability to weave skaldic verses at the drop of a spoon.

Essentially the entire story is Halli making fun of someone or another, and a particular rivalry develops between him and Thjodolf, a fellow Icelander and the king’s chief poet.  After Thjodolf accuses Halli of not doing enough to avenge his father’s death, which was settled by lawsuit rather than feud, Halli relates the following remarkable tale about Thjodolf’s own family tree:

“[Thjodolf] ate his father’s killer.”

At this people set up an uproar, and it seemed to them that they had never heard of such a monstrosity.  The king grinned at this and ordered silence.

“Show that what you’ve said is true, Halli.”

Halli said, “I think that Thorljot was Thjodolf’s father.  He lived in Svarfadardal in Iceland, and he was very poor and had many children.  It’s the custom in Iceland that in the autumn the farmers assemble to discuss the poor people, and at that time no one was named sooner than Thorljot, Thjodolf’s father.  One farmer was so generous that he gave him a calf which was one summer old.  Then Thorljot fetched the calf and had a lead on it with a noose in the end of the lead.  When he got to his hayfield wall, he lifted the calf up onto the wall and it was extremely high and even higher on the inner side because the turves for the wall had been dug there.  Then he went over the wall and the calf rolled off the wall on the outside.  The noose at the end of the lead tightened around Thorljot’s neck, and he couldn’t reach the ground with his feet.  So each was hanging on his own side of the wall, and both were dead when people came up.  The children dragged the calf home and prepared it for food, and I think that Thjodolf ate his full share of it.”

“That would be very close to reasonable,” said the king.

Thjodolf drew his sword and wanted to strike Halli.  Men ran between them.

The king said that neither should dare do the other harm — “Thjodolf, you went for Halli first.”

Seems to me we’ve got Halli dropping an on-the-spot tripartite burn on poor Thjodolf, featuring a) a basic “yo’ poppa so poor” foundation, b) a less common “yo’ poppa so dumb he falls prey to simple but lethal Rube Goldberg devices of his own unwitting creation,” and finally c) the revelation that Thjodolf himself was such a ragamuffin that upon finding his embarrassingly dead father and a tasty young calf, his concern is getting dinner home pronto — all of which hits close enough to home that Thjodolf forgets about the flyting and goes for the real fight, a sure sign he’s lost.

Any flyting-artist worth his salt knows you have to do your research.

Any flyting-artist worth his salt knows you have to do your research.

Halli’s got another clever trick that you may want to be familiar with, should a similar situation come up for you.  He pays a visit to the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, and recites some pretty poor (by his own admission) doggerel, which Harold thinks is just swell; our storyteller doesn’t seem to think much of English taste.  When Halli reveals that he doesn’t intend to stick around and help build Harold’s rep, the king intends to repay him in kind, pouring silver over his head and letting him keep only what sticks — a doubtful exercise, whatever your grooming habits.  Unless you’re Halli, of course, who wanders outside on the pretext of visiting the john, finds some tar, and uses it as off-brand mousse to shape his hair into a filthy but profitable basin, thereby inventing the (now sadly inverted/perverted) bowl cut.

I am confident you will find a way to use this information.

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4 Comments

  1. mordicai said,

    October 14, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    In my game world (do I start all my comments that way?) rap battles are called “kennings” & dance-offs are called “stepping.” Rappin’ & square dancin!

  2. fleitasactual said,

    October 14, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Man, I want to play in one of your games SO BAD. Have I told you about mine?

  3. mordicai said,

    October 26, 2009 at 3:55 am

    Not in a while! I think you linked me to the wiki once?

    (I just got yelled by the website at for posting comments “too quick.” Sorry mom!)


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