It is said that analysts of the fighting in World War Two, concerned at the apparent reluctance to participate or even fire their weapons of so many of the Western armies’ combat soldiers, tried to figure out what characteristics marked the born warrior. Were they big macho types? Little guys overcompensating? Well-educated men with a strong belief in their cause? Or hooligans like the ‘dirty dozen’? The only feature they could find which seemed to have strong predictive power was that effective fighters had a strong sense of humour. And that is one of the really distinguishing features of Old Norse poetry, legend and saga: grim gallows humour. It is always a bad sign in a saga when someone cracks a joke.
Tom Shippey at the LRB