I have recently started a PhD, and now find myself catapulted into a world of fantastic stories. As I surround myself with ancient legends and far-off romances (the medieval kind), I find it difficult to ignore a childish sense of glee. I am reading and writing about the best kind of stories – stories about giants, trolls, kings and knights – and this is my day job.
After a term, just over two months, spent immersing myself in many Old Norse-Icelandic and Middle English romances, I have a few favourite characters. Here are three of them.
1. King Arthur
You are probably familiar with Britain´s legendary king. Hollywood has done a good job of perpetuating his image: recklessly brave, wise, incredibly handsome. Arthur is the king who will return to save England from the Saxons, the Normans, Brexit. But the Arthur of Middle English romance is quite different. In fact, his most famous characteristic is that he falls asleep a lot. In one story, Arthur bails on his own Christmas feast because he is feeling sleepy, and his knights continue the party while keeping watch outside his bedroom door.
This is by far the creepiest giant in Norse sagas. Surtr lives by the sea shore, somewhere far to the north, and hunts human beings. Even more terrifying, he catches them, salts their flesh, and keeps their bodies in huge storage pits which he has dug out of the beach. These pits are also filled with the flesh of whales, walruses, seals, polar bears, and fish. Meeting Surtr would be terrifying, and enough to put anyone off meat for life.
3. Guinevere’s mother
I love the character of Guinevere’s mother because she is incredibly grisly. One day, while out hunting, Guinevere and Gawain stop by a lake, and a corpse rises out of it. Dripping wet, covered in pond slime and burned black by hell fire, the corpse of Guinevere´s mother speaks to the legendary queen, warning her to cease her sinful ways. Guinevere´s mother is terrifying. Her flesh has burned from her bones, and there are frogs living in her skull. This image must have been enough to terrify a medieval audience into behaving well.