Bjarni, an important character from Pálsson’s “Thorstein the Staff-Struck,” has the unfortunate luck of having his dead servant Thord on his hands. When Bjarni realizes that Thorstein is the person who has murdered his servant, he begins to take up arms so as to prepare for a duel against him. Bjarni’s wife begins the dialogue which goads Bjarni into taking action against Thorstein.
Bjarni’s wife asks her husband, “What do you think everyone in the district is talking about these days?” This question gives the illusion that Bjarni’s wife is meaning to simply have a casual conversation with her husband. But the underlying purpose of her question is to rouse passion within her husband and force him to take a stand for their honor. Bjarni brushes off his wife’s question by simply saying “I couldn’t say…[i]n my opinion most people talk a lot of rubbish” (1377) Bjarni’s wife agrees that the talk is rubbish, but proceeds to go into intricate detail of the particular rubbish which has interested the community: how long Bjarni will let Thorstein live at peace after he has murdered three of his servants.
The conversation between Bjarni and his wife is similar to the dialogue between Thorstein and his father. The two dialogues contain a character that uses persuasive taunts and arguments in order to entice the other to violence. All the passion that is sought is to be used in the name of honor. Both Bjarni and Thorstein are caught in the throes of a society which values this abstract sense of honor over concrete life. Bjarni and Thorstein’s own personal version of honor (whatever that may be) cannot survive long in a society that condemns the individual for not upholding its social codes.
In order to reconcile the difference between personal belief and societal expectations, Thorstein and Bjarni agree to duel each other. Yet the dialogue between the two characters is striking in that they give the impression they are committing a pleasant, casual act between friends instead of engaging in a battle so that one regains his honor while the other loses his life. After they have fought for a time, Bjarni begins to complain of thirst. Thorstein’s reaction is to say, “Go down to the stream then and drink” (1378) and allow for Bjarni to take a break during the duel. This courtesy reflects how noble Thorstein is because he agrees to care for his enemy—a Christian theological belief that was often promoted during Medieval times.
Bjarni’s shoe tie becomes loose and points this out to Thorstein who tells him to “[t]ie it up then” (1379). Thorstein has the perfect opportunity to strike at Bjarni as he bends down to tie his shoe—but instead he returns to his house to grab another sword for his enemy because he realizes his sword is too blunt. Such consideration is contrasted with the language Thorstein uses. Thorstein, in each reply to Bjarni, uses the word “then” and replies in short sentences, thus suggesting that Thorstein has his mind set when it comes to his opinions.
Thorstein and Bjarni engage in dialogue between each other and therefore recognize that both men are honorable and can help each other out by calling a truce. It is only through dialogue that Thorstein and Bjarni reach an agreement which can begin the denouement of the story. The literary technique of dialogue was initially used to entice Thorstein and Bjarni to defend their honor on behalf of society—now dialogue is employed to release the pressure of society and provide the men with a means to retain their personal nobility.
Pálsson’s translation of “Thorstein the Staff-Struck” uses dialogue as its primary literary mechanism in order to propel the plot forward and to reveal the nature of the characters to the reader. “Thorstein the Staff-Struck” contains a wealth of dialogue which is indicative of the thirteenth century—dialogue was frequently used for argumentation. The characters in the short story engage in dialogue because they wish to defend their opinion of honor. Each individual character believes that his or her own argument is the most noble of them all. The main difference between the characters is if they stand for the honor society promotes or the personal nobility that each individual member of society can retain.
“Thorstein the Staff-Struck.” Trans. Hermann Pálsson. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Sarah Lawall. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2006. 1375–80. Print.