The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Grettir is one of the last of the great Icelandic sagas, set down at the end of the fourteenth century by an unknown author, some 350 years after the events it describes. The sagas are divided into categories and Grettir belongs to the ‘Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), heroic prose narratives written between the 12th and 14th centuries about deeds of the great settler families of Iceland from the period 930 to 1030, the period actually known as the söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history.

Grettir is not mythical; it references to no Norse gods. Instead it is firmly rooted in historical events and mentions many historical figures: the historical jarl (earl) Eirik sails off to join his brother-in-law Knut, who was king of England from 1016 to 1035; three real bishops are mentioned (Fridrik, Isleif, Thorlak) who, along with references to churches and mass and priests, demonstrate the diffusion of  Christianity throughout Icelandic society only a few years after its arrival in 1000 CE; late in the book Grettir journeys to petition Olaf, king of Norway 1015 to 1028, and so on. Instead of myths, the narrative is overwhelmingly made up of small-scale fights and feuds, ambushes and long-harboured grudges. Which makes the two key moments in the narrative – Glam’s curse half way through, and the sorceress’s spell at the end of the saga – powerfully compelling irruptions of the supernatural into the otherwise wholly naturalistic.

Editions I read the Everyman edition which consists of the 1913 translation by G.A. Hight garnished with a 1965 introduction and notes by Peter Foote. The Hight translation is available online. Hight wrote: “My aim has been to translate in the colloquial language of my own day, eschewing all affectation of poetic diction or medievalism,” and he succeeds very well. Hight’s prose is brisk and clipped:

The following summer jarl Eirik the son of Hakon was preparing to leave his country and sail to the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England, leaving the government of Norway in the hands of Hakon his son, who, being an infant, was placed under the government and regency of Eirik’s brother, jarl Sveinn. Before leaving Eirik summoned all his Landmen and the larger bondis to meet him. Eirik the jarl was an able ruler, and they had much discussion regarding the laws and their administration. It was considered a scandal in the land that pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws. Thorfinn the son of Kar of Haramarsey, being a man of wise counsel and a close friend of the jarl, was present at the meeting.

Or take this specimen of dialogue when Thorhall, son of Grim, hires big Glam to be his shepherd:

‘What work can you do best?’ he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

“Will you mind my sheep?” Thorhall asked. “Skapti has given you over to me.”

“My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please,” he said. “I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased.”

“That will not hurt me,” said Thorhall. “I shall be glad if you will come to me.”

“I can do so,” he said. “Are there any special difficulties?”

“The place seems to be haunted.”

‘”I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull.’

Prior to Hight, this saga had been translated by the enthusiastic medievalist William Morris, aided by Eirikr Magnusson, back in 1869. Morris’s translation of Grettir’s Saga is available on Project Gutenberg and also on The Icelandic Saga Database. Morris’s Victorian patiche of medieval style is as dated as  his chintz wallpaper, but it has an interesting introduction and a handy chronology dating all the events: 997 Grettir born, 1012 slaying of Thorir Paunch, 1015 burning of the sons of Thorir, 1016 Grettir meets king Olaf but fails to bear iron, 1031 Grettir dies.

Contrast Hight’s crispness with Morris’s style:

But before Earl Eric went away from the land, he called together lords and rich bonders, and many things they spoke on laws and the rule of the land, for Earl Eric was a man good at rule. Now men thought it an exceeding ill fashion in the land that runagates or bearserks called to holm high-born men for their fee or womankind, in such wise, that whosoever should fall before the other should lie unatoned; hereof many got both shame and loss of goods, and some lost their lives withal; and therefore Earl Eric did away with all holm-gangs and outlawed all bearserks who fared with raids and riots.

It’s quite hard to read the Hight for any length; it would be impossible to read the Morris. There are also a Penguin translation and an OUP edition.

Medieval manuscript picture of Grettir the Strong

14th century illustration of Grettir the Strong (by Haukurth, from Wikimedia Commons)

Plot summary The plot is more a long sequence of events, though there is skill in the way the story detours to follow one thread then returns a few chapters later to pick up the main plotline of Grettir’s life. Only towards the end do you see the way various threads have been prepared right at the start to bring the narrative to a climax. Only when it’s completely over does the figure of Grettir emerge much bigger and more moving than at any one place in the text.

The saga is divided into 93 short chapters. Some are only a few paragraphs long.

  • Grettir is a disappointment to his rich successful father, Asmund Longhair, but his mother Asdis dotes on him, giving him her grandfather Jokull’s sword,  when he leaves home.
  • Grettir is a difficult antisocial child, prone to irritate people with smart oneliners and biting lampoons: “The likely may happen – also the unlikely.” “Work not done needs no reward.”
  • Grettir has red hair and freckles.
  • On a voyage with Haflidi he alienates the whole crew by doing no work, until the boat is in peril of sinking when he suddenly bales out with the strength of ten men.
  • At Vindheim Grettir breaks into a howe (from the Old Norse haugr meaning hill, knoll or mound) and fights the demon howe-dweller to win the treasure buried here with the dead king Kar.
  • Grettir is a guest at Thorfinn who is away at the Yule Feast when a boat of vikings lands and threatens to rape and carry off Thorfinn’s wife and daughters. Grettir fights them off, killing no fewer than ten including the leaders Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Bad.
  • Grettir kills in single combat the troll who has been ravaging Thorfinn’s land.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn who had been teasing him.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn’s brother, Hjarrandi after the latter ambushes him.
  • Grettis kills Hjarrandi’s brother, Gunnar, after being ambushed by him and five assistants. What surprises about this is not the anarchy of these death; the opposite, it’s the way Grettis is hauled before jarl Eirik and Gunnar’s relatives argue on one side and Grettir’s supporters on another and the jarl speak openly of his anger at these deaths and is only just persuaded to let Grettir go free.
  • A whale washed up on the beach prompts a fight between Thorgils Makson and the twins Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrow-Skald. Thorgeir kills Thorgils. Again what’s interesting is this leads to a lengthy case at the annual Thing or court where both sides make cogent arguments; Thorgils’ relatives win and Thorgeir is banished and Thormod ordered to pay blood money to Thorgils’ family.
  • Grettir wins a horse fight at Langafit. Apparently the Icelanders made pairs of stallions fight each other by goading them with sticks.
  • Thorhall, the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, needs a shepherd and hires an enormous man called Glam, warning him his homestead is haunted. Glam is big and surly and refuses to fast on Christmas Eve. He stuffs his face and goes out to mind the sheep in a big storm. Later the men find his corpse and signs of a big struggle. He has been killed by the spook. Although they bury Glam he rises from the grave to haunt the neighbourhood, riding on people’s rooftops, scaring and sometimes killing men.
  • Grettir comes to the neighbourhood of Vatnsdal and ends up confronting Glam’s ghost and killing him. But not before the spook curses him, predicting that he will never be stronger than he is now, and will be followed by bad luck. Glam’s Curse:

“Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.” (chapter 35)

Compare with the William Morris translation:

“Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone and that shall drag thee unto death.”

  • And thereafter Grettir is afraid of being in the dark, because it is then that Glam’s eyes appear to him and terrify him.
  • Grettir, like many others, seeks employment under the new king of Norway, Olaf, and sets sail. But on the boat Thorborn Slowcoach insults his now-dead father, Asmund, and Grettir slices his head off at a stroke.
  • The trading boat Grettir is on moors off the coast of Norway in a blizzard. The traders see fire across a river and Grettir swims there to ask for some but the men in the house attack him when he lumbers in looking like a troll, so he fights back, seizes some burning brands and flees back to his ship. The next day they discover the house burned down killing everyone in it. They were the sons of Thorir an important man. Grettir is shunned.
  • In Trondheim, Norway, Grettir seeks an audience with king Olaf. He says burning Thorir’s sons was an accident. The king him the ordeal of holding iron. This was the practice of holding iron bars which have been heated in a furnace a) you have to be inured to pain to hold them b) afterwards, if the wounds heal you are innocent, if not you are guilty. A crowd gathers in the church for the liturgy which precedes the ordeal but an adolescent taunts Grettir so much he strikes him and the king calls the ceremony off. Grettir’s impatience is harming him.
  • Grettir is staying with Einar, a wealthy man in Norway. Robbers led by the berserk Snaekoll, ride down out of the forest and threaten to carry away his daughter, Gyrid. After a laconic exchange Grettir rams the berserk’s shield into his mouth breaking his jaw, pulls him off his horse and decapitates him with his axe.
  • Meanwhile in Iceland Grettir’s father dies a natural death, leaving his holdings to his son Atli. But Atli is murdered by Thorbjorn Oxmain. Meanwhile Thorir learns about his sons who were burned to death by Grettir and takes a large force to the Thing or court, where he gets Grettir proclaimed an outlaw. Grettir’s ship form Norway arrives in Iceland and he learns these three facts in one blow.
  • He steals Sveinn’s horse, saddlehead and rides it a long way in the rain stopping to speak verses to the people he meets. When Sveinn tracks hi down, instead of fighting, they end up swapping verses and becoming good friends.
  • Grettir surprises Thorbjorn Oxmain and his son in the fields as they are gathering in the hay. He shatters Arnor’s skull with a side blow of his sword, then embeds his axe in Thorbjorn’s head. He knows he is outlaw so bids farewell to his mother, still grieving for the loss of her son, Atli, and rides west.
  • Grettir winters with Thorgills at Reykjaholar; two other guests, Thorgeir and Thormod, attack him. They are in mid-fight when Thorgils appears and tells them to stop. Which they do, like naughty schoolboys.
  • A long account of the All-Thing or court where Skapti the Lawman and Snorri the Godi adjudicate the case of Atli’s murder and Thorbjorn’s murder. The remission of Grettir’s status as outlaw is mooted but firmly rejected by Thorir of Gard whose sons were burned in the house. Thus Grettir’s status as outlaw is confirmed, though with misgivings.
  • Grettir roams the westlands taking what he wants from farmers and shepherds. Eventually a posse of 30 men surround and ambush him and tie him up and have a lengthy debate about what do with him, which was turned into a separate humorous poem. At which point the lady of Isafjord rides up and has him released on his good behaviour.
  • Grettir is a plague on the land, stealing from all passersby. He builds himself a hit by the sea and tries to earn a living fishing. Grettir’s enemies, the men of Hrutafjord, hire a mercenary, Grim, to kill him. But Grettir kills Grim.
  • Thorir of Gard commissions Thorir Redbeard, another outlaw, to kill Grettir. For two years he lives and works with him on Arnarvatn Heath. One day, as a storm blows up over the lake and Grettir is repairing the boat, Thorir grabs his sword to kill Grettir who leaps back into the lakewater, swims behind Thorir, dashes him to the ground and cuts his head off.
  • Thorir of Gard attacks Grettir in a narrow pass with 80 men and yet Grettir fights them off. After Thorir withdraws grettir discovers his back had been covered by a strongman named Hallmund. For a while Grettir lives in Hallmund’s cave along with is daughter.
  • Then Grettir confers with Bjorn and goes t olive in a cave overlooking Fagraskogafjall. Bjorn and Grettir are both superstrong and have contests such as swimming the river Hitara from lake to the sea, and creating vast stepping stones.
  • A big man much given to ornaments, decorations and boasting, Gisli, arrives with three helpers to kill Grettir at his mountain fastness. Grettir fights off the assistants then chases Gisli all down to the mountain to the river as the coward strips off all his clothes one by one. At the river Grettir beats Gisli with a tree branch then lets him go free, returning up the hill and collecting all Gisli’s abandoned gear.
  • Grettir is attacked at a narrow spit between forks in a river by two coordinated bands but fights them off with two helpers.
  • Grettir migrates to a secret valley below a glacier which he believes to be protected by a blending, a giant named Thorir, and his daughter, so he called the valley Thorisdal.
  • Another grim takes over Grettir’s abandoned hut by the sea and catches fishes. On two successive nights Hallmund steals the fish laid out to dry. On the third night Grim catches him in the act and chops his neck with his axe. Hallmund flees back t ohis cave and recites the lay of his lifestory to his daughter, dying just at the end. Grim arrives and he and his daughter mourn together and become friends.
  • Grettir outwits another expedition Thorir sends to kill him, outflanking them and stopping to recite verse to Thorir’s daughter.
  • At Eyjardalsa in Bardardal dwells Thorsteinn the White and his wife Steinvor. One Yule she travels to church for mass and when she comes back her husband has vanished. The next year she travels to church leaving her servant behind. Once again he is gone when she returns. Grettir hears of the disappearances and arrives under the alias of Gest. First he carries Steinvor and her daughter across a flooded river so they can go to church. When he returns he builds a barricade in their house and sure enough in the middle of the night a troll appears and there is a massive fight. Some say Grettir hewed off her arm and she ran for the rocks, some say they were fighting when day arose and she turned to a woman-shaped stone which can still be seen. He rests form his fight then the priest tells Grettir of a cave behind a waterfall. Grettir dives into the water, climbs up into the cave and fights an ugly giant. When he has killed him he explores the cave and finds the bones of two dead men, obviously the missing men from Bardardal. He carries them to the church (v Christian) and writes the story of the giant-battle in runes on a staff (v pagan).
  • On advice Grettir journeys to the isle of Drangey. He goes with his younger brother, Illugi, just 15. Their mother Asdis is tearful at the parting.
  • Grettir squats on the isle of Drangey, living with Illugi and a servant, off seabird eggs and the sheep there. In fact the island belongs to some 20 freemen, chief among them Thorbjorn Angle, but they can’t dislodge him, Grettir lives there 2 years. Once when the fire goes out he swims a nautical mile to the mainland, secures fire and a boat back.
  • Thorbjorn persuades a young man called Haering to climb up the cliff while he and his men distract Grettir form the boat. Haering climbs up and is sneaking up on the brothers when Illugi turns and spots him and gives chase. They chase all over the island until Haering jumps over the cliff and breaks every bone in his body. At the spot known ever since as Haering’s Leap.
  • At that summer’s All-Thing Grettir’s supporters claim his 20 years outlawry is expired. His enemies say he should be outlawed all over again for the wicked things he has done. the Lawgiver decides he has not completed the full 20, but that twenty is the maximum any man can have. Grettir will be freed the following summer.
  • Desperate to get his island back Thorbjorn Angle takes a boat out to it with his foster mother Thurid, an old woman and a witch and heathen from the old times before Christianity came. She listens to Thorbjorn shouting up at Grettir on top the cliff, and Grettir refusing to discuss leaving and then shouts out a curse at Grettir, that his doom is sealed and his days will grow worse. Grettir throws a huge stone out into the boat which breaks the old woman’s hip. But she is confident her curse will work.
  • the sorceress performs a strange rite on a log on the beach and sends it off, against the current, to Grettir’s island. Here it bumps against the cliff and Grettir rejects it twice. But on the third day the servant Glaum brings it up and to the hut. Unaware Grettir goes to chop it up with his axe which slips and badly injures him in the thigh. The wound festers.
  • Then Thorbjorn assembles a gang of men and goes back in the boat. The useless thrall Glaum has left the ladder down and Thorbjorn’s men easily climb to the top, overpower Glaum, and launch a massive attack on Grettir’s house. His brother Illugi defends him bravely but he is pinned down by all the shields while the others kill Grettir. Although he is said to be already dead from the festering wound. they cannot free his sword form his grip until they cut his hand off. And then Thorbjorn ruins the sword by cutting off Grettir’s head which he packs in salt.
  • Thorbjorn rides with the head to Bjarg to confront Grettir’s mother Asdil who conducts herself with dignity.
  • At the next All-Thing it is decided that all feuds around Grettir are ended; but instead of getting the price on the head of the outlaw Thorbjorn finds himself exiled for using sorcery in this increasingly Christian culture. His relations go recover Grettir and Illugi’s bodies and bury them in Bjarg church.

Postscript The saga doesn’t end with Grettir’s death and burial. Blood feuds weren’t optional in Icelandic society, even after Christianity was established, and how they played out, how the relatives of those killed bore their responsibility for revenge, were as much a source of interest in this kind of prefeudal society as the finest details of their genealogy. And so Grettir’s half-brother pursues his murderer all the way across Europe to take his revenge. What is extremely odd is the way this brutal saga then turns into a medieval Romance of love and adultery – and then again turns into a Christian tract preaching ideal repentance and holiness, all in the last 30 or so pages!

  •  Thorbjorn sells his goods and takes ship to Constantinople where he becomes a warrior in the emperor’s guard. But he is tracked there by Grettir’s quiet half-brother Thorsteinn Dromund who also joins the Varangian Guard and takes the first opportunity to kill Thorbjorn and is thrown into prison.
  • At this point, surreally, the saga turns into a medieval romance as the lady Spes walks past the dungeon and hears Thorbjorn singing. She pays for him to be released and they become adulterous lovers behind the back of her ineffectual husband Sigurd. They conspire to get Sigurd to falsely accuse her so that he can be disgraced and forced to divorce her and they get married and have sons and move back to Norway.
  • From here, in old age, they decide to atone for their youthful sins and travel to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, and then to live out their days in separate holy retreats. And thus they die reconciled to God.

CHAPTER XCIII. THE TESTIMONY OF STURLA THE LAWMAN

Sturla the Lawman has declared that no outlaw was ever so distinguished as Grettir the Strong. For this he assigns three reasons. First, that he was the cleverest, inasmuch as he was the longest time an outlaw of any man without ever being captured, so long as he was sound in health. Secondly, that he was the strongest man in the land of his age, and better able than any other to deal with spectres and goblins. Thirdly, that his death was avenged in Constantinople, a thing which had never happened to any other Icelander.
Further, he says that Thorsteinn Dromund was a man who had great luck in the latter part of his life.
Here endeth the story of Grettir the son of Asmund.

I was moved to learn that there is a memorial to Grettir the Strong near his legendary homestead of Bjarg in Iceland:

Photo of the memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland

Memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland (Image: Bromr under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

Understatement The saga has some examples of the famous Norse understatement:

  • Grettir counted the men. There were twelve in all, and their aspect did not look peaceful.
  • ‘I shall come again, and it is not certain that we shall then part any better friends than we are now.’
  • Thorbjorn sidled round to the front of the door and thrust his spear with both hands into Atli’s middle, so that it pierced him through. Atli said when he received the thrust: ‘They use broad spear-blades nowadays.’
  • ‘Have you not heard that I have not proved a mound of wealth to most of those who have had to do with me?’ said Grettir.
  • He said: “Here is a man coming towards us with his axe in the air; he has a rather hostile appearance.”

But, to be honest, not as many as you’d expect.

Naming legends There are references to the contemporary present of the author, and a number of naming stories of the kind you commonly find in oral literature. (They litter the early books of the Bible.)

  • “The spear which Grettir had lost was never found until within the memory of men now living. It was found in the later days of Sturla the Lawman, the son of Thord, in the very marsh where Thorbjorn fell, now called Spearmarsh. This is the proof that he was killed there and not in Midfitjar, as has been elsewhere asserted.”
  • Grettir went up to the Arnarvatn Heath and built himself a hut there of which the remains are still to be seen. (chapter 55)
  • Grettir and Bjorn swam in one course the whole length of the Hitara from the lake at its head down to the sea. They brought the stepping-stones into the river which neither floods nor freezing nor icedrifts have since moved from their places. (Ch 58)
  • “Grettir fell back a little and reached a stone which is still standing by the side of the way and is called Grettishaf, where he stood at bay.” (Ch 59)
  • The place where they fought is now called Grettisoddi. (ch 60)
  • They laid Grettir’s head in salt and put it for the winter in the out-house called Grettisbur in Vidvik. (ch 82)
  • Angle let him take the head and bury it in a sand-hill, which is now called Grettisthuf. (ch 84)

Lovely words

  • a bondi is a class of warrior freeman
  • holmgang (meaning “walk on an island or small place”) is a Viking duel.
  • a jarl is a leader or chieftain, next in line to the king. Origin of our word “earl”.
  • luck, from the Dutch apparently, and cognate with modern German Glück.
  • thing is a meeting to administer and decide cases; the All-Thing was the annual meeting of Iceland, held every Summer
  • weregild – a value placed on every human being and piece of property under Salic Law. If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property. Weregild is composed of were, meaning “man” (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning “payment or fee”, as in Danegeld; Geld is modern German for ‘money’.
  • berserker (from the Icelandic for “bear-skin”) is a fighter capable of working himself up into a homicidal frenzy. In their delirium they sometimes bite their own shields and I was delighted to learn that the Lewis chessmen include just such knights in the act of biting their shields!

“The berserk thought they were trying to get off by talking. He began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield up to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman.” (chapter 40)

Other sagas

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