By Teresa Gaille Puguon Teo
Simplicissimus: The Harvard College Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol.1:1 (2013)
Introduction: What sociocultural attitudes towards the intellectually disabled – commonly referred to as fools – were prevalent during the Viking Age? Within the first decade when disability studies emerged, scholars quickly noticed that “Norse society did not recognize disabilities as medical conditions or personal tragedies,” with “no hint of marginalizing pity or consequent charity.” The oldest Norse literature is therefore likely to treat disabilities in a fashion quite unlike that to which we are accustomed to find in modern literature; modern societies marginalize the disabled while archaic oral societies seem to have treated disabled people more positively, allowing them to fill more important social positions such as priests or shamans. This paper examines two psycho-social techniques – cognitive dissonance and character likability – that the storytellers of the old Icelandic tradition used to sustain audience interest in “Hreidar’s Tale,” a tale from 13th century Iceland commonly referred to as “The Tale of Hreidar the Fool,” before exploring the effect of those techniques on sociocultural attitudes toward fools like Hreidar.
Academics and literary critics have used interdisciplinary theories to engage critically with “Hreidar’s Tale.” Maria Eliferova, for instance, argues that Hreidar the fool surprises the king by having him stand up and publicly take off his cloak, an episode which ends in mutual fondness. Taking Eliferova’s point further, Jesse Byock points out that “modern friendship” is an inadequate translation for the relationship between King Magnus and Hreidar because the original Norse word for friendship, vinfengi, also includes the notion of a political union between equals. Both scholars assume that Hreidar is intellectually disabled beyond doubt before asserting that political authorities like kings and social contemporaries still treat him as an equal in society. In contrast, Ana Stefanova takes the opposite position by arguing that Hreidar feigns foolishness, yet she comes to the same conclusion that Hreidar enjoys admiration and respect as a “trickster.” Similarly to the three critics, I find positive sociocultural attitudes towards fools in “Hreidar’s Tale.” I argue that storytellers played on the lack of conclusive judgment on the nature of Hreidar’s foolishness to incite cognitive dissonance to maintain interest in the story as they told it. They then combined cognitive dissonance with another storytelling device – character likability. The combined effect is to encourage positive sociocultural attitudes toward the intellectually disabled. Although it is impossible to comprehend the psychology of heroes/ fools like Hreidar fully, humanity’s inability to delve into the inner recesses of an individual’s mind should not lead to the exclusion of mentally ill individuals as deserving of the audience’s respect.