Snorri Sturluson  
And His Noted Reply  

Snorri Sturluson was a thirteenth-century Icelandic politician-writer whose political instincts led to being dead in bed (unpleasantly) but whose writing has set the pace for many, from Churchill to Tolkien. His credits include the Prose Edda (a handbook for nordic poetry and myths), the Heimskringla (a history in terms of Norwegian kings), and, theoretically, Egil's Saga (a warrior-poet).

Within the Heimskringla is the saga of Harald the Tyrant (or Hardruler, to be a little more literal) who had the bad luck to invade England in 1066 before William the Conqueror (known as William the Bastard to Scandinavians: sore losers). Before the key battle in which Harald loses his life, one of Harald's retainers attempts to arrange terms between him and the English (or Saxon actually) King Harold. Harold's reply, as written by Snorri, has become a literary favorite:

Snorri, King Harald's Saga (Penguin; translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson):

King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.

The entire Heimskringla has been translated into English a number of times; it's available from Everyman and Dover (I believe the Dover is a reprint of the University of Texas Press edition).

Charles Dickens, A Child's History of England (Books, Inc.):

     "Seven feet of earth for a grave," replied the captain.
     "No more?" returned the brother with a smile.
     "The King of Norway being a tall man, perhaps a little more," replied the captain.

Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions (Touchstone):

He will give him six feet of English sod and since he is so tall, one more.

Now, I could swear that in an earlier printing of this book, it was "seven feet," and I suspect some zealous editor or proofreader decided that seven feet at the start was just too unlikely.

Thomas Carlyle, The Early Kings of Norway (Chapman and Hall):

Seven feet of English earth, or more if he require it, for a grave.

(You wouldn't think I could pick up a copy of the 1875 edition of Carlyle's book for $3, would you?)

Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain (Dorset):

The victorious Harold buried Hardrada in the seven feet of English earth he had scornfully promised him.

True, a paraphrase, but the thought is there.

Bulwer-Lytton, Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings (Everyman):

Seven feet of land for a grave, or, seeing that he is taller than other men, as much more as his corse [sic] may demand!

It's a natural that any discussion about England around 1066 will touch upon Snorri, but Borges approached it from an entirely different aspect. I regret I've but a few sources at present (at one time I kept a list); in any case, in time this will be extended.

Look Out!  |  Iceland