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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Beauty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Seminar Series - The Ethics of Ugliness: On Trolls and Other Ugly Customers

8th November 2011, 17:30 to 18:30, Seminar Room 1, History Department, North Bailey, Emeritus Professor John McKinnell (Durham University)

This is the third seminar in the IMRS Beauty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Seminar Series.

Ideas about beauty necessarily include its opposite, and descriptions of spectacularly ugly characters appear in many sagas which include elements that the writers themselves recognise as fantastic; this paper sets out to investigate the typical ethical meanings of these grotesque descriptions. Most male examples (usually giants, berserks or blámenn) are seen as unambiguously evil and exist only to be destroyed by the hero, but the female stereotypes are more varied: a giantess or hag may be killed by the hero, or he may spare her life after overcoming her by wrestling (after which she becomes his faithful ally), or she may be an enchanted princess who is released from a curse when he kisses or sleeps with her. My paper concludes with a brief consideration of three examples which seem more individual: the troll Qgmundr in Qrvar-Odds saga represents something much more formidable and sinister than most monstrous opponents of the hero; the hag Arinnefja in Egils saga ok Ásmundar seems to have acquired her ugliness by doing penance for her confessed misdeeds; and the ugly side of a parti-coloured man in Mágus saga jarls seems to reflect the moral evil of those who look at him rather than his own. 

John McKinnell is an emeritus professor in the Department of English Studies at Durham, where he spent his whole academic career before retiring in 2007. He is a medievalist whose two major research areas are Old Norse myth and legend and late medieval drama. In the first of these fields, his publications include three books: Both One and Many with Maria Elena Ruggerini Rome (1994); Runes, Magic and Religion with Rudolf Simek and Klaus Düwel, (2004); Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005). His recent publications on Old Norse legendary poetry and saga include: 'A Perilous Journey: the Structure, Origins and Theme of Svipdagsmál', in Stanzas of Friendship. Studies in Honour of Tatjana N. Jackson,(2011)  'Ynglingatal - A Minimalist Interpretation', Scripta Islandica (2009); '"Am I my brother's keeper?" Murderous Brothers in Ynglingatal and Elsewhere', in Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, (2009); 'The Fantasy Giantess: Brana in Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra', in Fornaldarsagaerne: Myter og virkelighed, (2009)

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