Gisli Sursson’s saga

All knowledgeable men agree that Gisli survived as an outlaw longer than any other man, except Grettir Asmundarson. (Chapter 22)

Gísla saga Súrssonar aka the saga of Gisli the outlaw. 38 chapters so not short enough to be a tale and not long enough to qualify as a ‘major’ saga, it is often considered the best of the ‘lesser’ sagas.

Sur means ‘whey’ and derives not from his father’s name as was customary but from an event in his father’s life when the family farm was set on fire and Gisli and his father escaped using skins doused in whey. Hence the nicknames Sur and Sursson, and George Dasent in his sweet Victorian version refers to Gisli as ‘the Soursop’ and the family as ‘the Soursops’.

Gisli’s saga overlaps with the Saga of the People of Eyri into which it intrudes in chapters 12 and 13. Whereas Gisli is the ‘hero’ of his saga to whom we become quite attached, it is odd and disorientating to read about him as a throwaway side-incident, peripheral to the lives of the people in the Eyrbyggja Saga. A technique revived in daring modernist and post-modernist narratives in the late 20th century but which was flourishing in 13th century Iceland.

Gisli wins my unofficial prize for opening with the most bewilderingly unremitting bombardment of families, marriages, children, kith and kin of any of the sagas I’ve read.

Synopsis

Prelude in Norway
1 – Towards the end of the reign of King Harald Fair-Hair (870-930) Thorkel Skearuaki lived in Surnadal with three sons Ari, Gisli and Thorbjorn. Ari marries Ingibjorg, daughter of Isi and, along with her dowry, comes a man named Kol, a man of high degree who had been taken captive and was now a slave. Meanwhile Bjorn the Black, a well-known berserkr, arrives with his posse and announces he will take over ownership of the farm and Ingibjorg unless Ari wants to fight him. Ari agrees a duel in which Bjorn kills him and prepares to assume farm and wife. But the second son, Gisli, steps in and challenges Bjorn in three days. Gisli asks Ingibjorg for help and she says her thrall, Kol, has a powerful sword. Kol reluctantly hands over the sword Grasida (Grey-blade) which he claims was made by dwarves and bites whatever it touches. In the duel Gisli kills Bjorn, then he and his men chase and kill all Bjorn’s followers. Gisli takes his brother’s farm and wife. Koll wants his sword back but Gisli refuses. Gisli offers Koll his freedom and stock for the sword but Koll refuses. They strike at each other simultaneously and Greyblade kills Koll and Koll’s axe kills Gisli, but not before Koll predicts this is just the beginning of bad luck which will dog Gisli’s kith and kin.
2 – The only surviving son of Thorkel, Thorbjorn, marries a woman named Thora and has a daughter Thordis, and three sons Thorkel, Gisli and Ari. Thorkel grows old and dies and Thorbjorn inherits his stock and the farm at Stokkar in Surnadal. Two young men also lived in Surnadal from different families and the same age as Thorkel, Gisli and Ari – namely Bard and Kolbjorn. They had both lost their fathers and inherited wealth. Word gets around that Bard has seduced Thordis. Thorbjorn disapproves and so does Gisli but Thorkel is a friend of Bard’s. Gisli was accompanying Thorkel and Bard back to Bard’s farm when, without any warning, Gisli kills him with one stroke. Father Thorbjorn is pleased but Thorkel is outraged and goes to stay with a relative of Bard’s, Skeggi the Dueller, on the island of Saxo. He encourages Skeggi to take revenge for his kinsman so Skeggi rides to suggest to Thorbjorn that he marries Thordis. Thorbjorn turns this down as Thordis is now matched to the other young man in the neighbourhood, Kolbjorn. Skeggi challenges Kolbjorn to a duel. When the day comes Kolbjorn bottles out but an outraged Gisli rides to Saxo on his behalf. No-one appearing Skeggi asks his carpenter to set up wooden effigies of Kolbjorn and Gisli, one behind the other, insultingly implying their homosexuality. At which Gisli emerges from the woods where he’s been watching to fight. Skeggi strikes at Gisli with the sword Gunnlogi (war-flame) then Gisli strikes Skeggi with his halberd and chops off his leg. Skeggi sues for peace and walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days (which aren’t very long).
3 – Skeggi has two sons, Einar and Arni who vow to take revenge for their father’s humiliation. they ride to see Kolbjorn in Aurnadal and say, if he doesn’t join them, they’ll kill him. So Kolbjorn joins the brothers and their posse of 60 (!) and rides to Stokkar where they set fire to the farm. Thorbjorn and his sons temporarily douse the flames in goatskins soaked in whey (hence the nickname Sur or ‘whey’) before knocking down a wall and fleeing under cover of smoke. 12 are burned to death. Gisli and his crew ride to Styrkir’s farm where they muster 40 men, ride to Kolbjorn’s house and burn him and his people alive. Then the Surssons sell their land and buy a ship and load all their goods and people. They sail north to Flyndrenes where 40 of them encounter Skeggi’s son in a group of 11 and massacre them all. Then ride on to the farm, takes all the goods and livestock and Gisli chops Skeggi’s head off.

In Iceland
4 – After 60 days at sea they land at the mouth of the Haukadalsa river. Thorkeil Eiriksson welcomes them and father Thorbjorn Sur (whey) builds a farm at Saebol.
5 – Mass of detail about settlers, their families, intermarriages and children. The farms Saebol and Hol are built next door to each other.
6 – At the Althing people talk about the finery worn by the men from Haukadal. Thorkel the Wealthy chats to Gest Oddleif who says he gives the posse three years and then they’ll no longer see eye to eye. Gisli is told this and bids the friends – Gisli, Thorgrim, Thorkel and Vestein – go create a turf arch and pledge blood brotherhood. However, at the last moment Thorgrim backs out of the pledge, saying he’ll have enough on his hands supporting Thorkel and Gisli his brothers-in-law, and cannot support Vestein; at which Gisli withdraws his hand and says he won’t support someone who won’t support his brother-in-law Vestein.
7 – Two merchants arrive with timber from Norway. Thorgrim son of Thorstein Cod-biter sends his son Thorodd to unload the timber who realises it is bad quality, complains to the Norwegians who murder him, then go to their lodging, eat and sleep. Thorgrim hears the news, sets out immediately, catches them in their sleep and kills them both. In the spring Thorgrim and his brother-in-law Thorkel fit out the Norwegians’ ship and sail to Norway. The same summer Gisli and Vestein set off. Thorgrim and Thorkel present themselves at the court of King Harald Grey-cloak where they are welcomed. Vestein and Gisli’s boat is shipwrecked.
8 – They meet Beard-Bjalfi who owns a trading ship, they buy a part-share and sail south to Denmark. Vestein announces he has to sail west to England to sort things out with  his trading partner Sigurd. Gisli makes a silver coin which can be divided in two and pledges they will send their half to the other when one of them is in trouble. Vestain goes to England. Gisli and Bjalfi return to Norway, then to Iceland.

The fatal conversation
9 – Thorkel and Thorgrim arrive back in Haukadal on the same day as Gisli and they return to the farm. One day Thorkel is half sleeping in the long hall when he overhears women talking: Gisli’s wife Aud strongly implies that Thorkel’s wife Asgerd fancies Vestein; Asgerd says that Aud fancies Thorgrim. Thorkel is thunderstruck. That night he spurns his wife, eventually giving in. Aud tells Gisli what they’ve been talking about, and Gisli says Fate will decide.
10 – The brothers Thorkel and Gisli agree to split the farm, Thorkel takes the movable possessions and moves in with his brother-in-law Thorgrim. Gisli holds a grand Winter Days feast for all his kin.
11 – Thorgrim and Thorkel invite Thorgrim Nef, a sorcerer, to refashion the fragments of the sword Grafida, into a spear. —News arrives at Gisli’s feast the Vestein has arrived in Haukadale. Gisli sends messengers to him to tell him not to come to the feast, but they miss him.
12 – The messengers finally find Vestein but he has ridden so far it is easier to continue to Haukadale. He passes a succession of farmhands who warn him not to proceed. Arrived at Hol he unpacks presents for Gisli and Thorkel but when these are shown, Thorkel refuses to accept them. Gisli thinks everything is pointing in one direction.

Vestein is killed
13 – Gisli has two bad dreams. A big storm tears the roof off followed by a rainstorm and all the men go to protect the hay. Only Vestein is left there and in the night someone comes and kills him with a spear (presumably the spear made from Grasida (Ch 11). Gisli is sad. He tells his foster daughter Gudrid to go to Saebol and tell the news. She returns to say both the Thorgrims and Thorkel were sitting fully armed.
14 – Gisli and his men build a mound for Vestein in the sandbank on the far side of Seftjorn pond below Saebol. Thorgrim volunteers to tie on his Hel-shoes. A strange dialogue between Gisli and his brother Thorkel (who is surely number one suspect) in which Thorkel asks after their sister, Aud, Vestein’s widow – and Gisli agrees to be civilised and restrained as long as Thorkel is as restrained if anything ever happens to pain him as much as Vestein’s death pains Gisli.
15 – The summer games continue and Gisli bests Thorgrim in the violent ball game. Thorgrim says a verse looking at Vestein’s mound which seems to implicate him. — Thorgrim decides to hold a feast to celebrate the Winter Nights and sacrifice to Frey. Gisli, at the neighbouring farm, also organises a feast and invites all his kin. Thorgrim suggests to Thorkel they ask Gisli for the tapestries Vestein brought back from abroad but which, at the time, Thorkel turned down (Ch 12). Thorkel acquiesces. Thorgrim orders Geirmund to go get them and when Geirmund hesitates, slaps him hard in the face. Geirmund goes to Gisli’s and asks and Gisli gives them, himself carrying them as far as the hayfield fence; where he asks Geirmund a favour in return: to leave open three doors into Saebol.

Gisli kills Thorgrim
16 – In a really atmospheric scene Gisli dresses in black, takes the spear Grasida that killed Vestein, sneaks down to the stream which separates the farms, up to Saebol, sneaks in through the byre then through the darkened hall into the bed closet of Thorgrim and Thordis and waits over their bed till Thorgrim stirs, then pulls the bedclothes off and transfixes him to the bed with the spear then, as Thordis awakes screaming, sneaks out, back the way he came, locking the doors, down to the stream and so back to his own farm where he slips into bed.
17 – Thorgrim’s guests are drunk and confused. They remove the spear and make a mound for the body. Then a big number of them go to Hol to wake up Gisli and tell him. In an unusually percipient detail, Thorkel sees Gisli’s shoes are wet with snow and ice, and pushes them under the bed so nobody else can see them. Gisli offers to finish Thorgrim’s mound and, after they’ve laid Thorgrim’s body in a ship, Gisli carries a massive boulder up the mound and throws it on the ship, smashing it.
18 – Thorgrim’s wake, drinking. Thorgrim’s brother Bork the Stout pays Thorgrim Nef to sacrifice a nine year-old ox in a pagan ritual to ensure that no matter who tries to give help to the slayer of Thorgrim it will be to no avail. The brothers hold joint winter games. Bork moves in with Thordis ie his brother’s widow and marries her. She gives birth to Thorgrims son, at first named Thorgrim but who proves so unruly his name is changed to Snorri. The games coninue all day with particular rivalry between young Thorstein and Bork. Gisli is fixing Thorstein’s broken bat when he very unwisely recites a poem which more or less admits his responsibility for murdering Thorgrim. His sister Thordis overhears it, goes home and deciphers it.
19 – The strange episode of Audbjorg, sister of Thorgrim Nef, the sorcerer who recast the fragments of Grasida into the fateful spear. Her son Thorstein and a man called Berg argue about the games until Berg hits Thorstein who goes home to Audbjorg bleeding. She walks backwards round her house chanting until an avalanche falls on Berg’s house killing him and all within. Bork hears about this, goes to her house, has her seized and stoned to death and buried at Saltnes. Gisli rides to Nefstadir where a sack is placed over Thorgrim Nef’s head and he too is stoned to death, and buried next to his sister. Bork decides to move to Thorsnes and rides part of the way there with Thordis, his wife, Thorgrim’s widow, Gisli’s sister. At Thorgrim’s mound she repeats Gisli’s verse and Bork quickly deciphers it and is furious. He wants to ride straight back and kill Gisli. Thorkel is with them and persuades Bork to ride on south. Claiming he has to drop in on an old friend Thorkel rides fast to warn his brother Gisli that the matter is now out in the open. Bork settles into his farm at Thorsnes. Next Summons Days Bork summons Gisli to the Thorsnes Assembly. Again Thorkel makes his excuses to ride off and warn his brother.
20 – While Bork prepares a case to go before the Thorsnes Assembly, Gisli sells his land to Thorkel Eiriksson. He confers with his brother Thorkel. Thorkel will tip him off of all attacks but won’t actively help him and thus expose himself to ruin. Gisli sets off with two cart horses and a sled piled with valuables making for hte woods. he eschanges his cloak with his slave Thord the Coward and makes Thord sit high up on the sled. Predictably Bork and his men pursue Thord to the edge of the woods and kill him, realise it’s only Thord, and then make after Gisli. As they attack him Gisli kills Thorodd and Thorgrim the Norwegian. Bork goes to Gisli’s homestead and begin proceedings. When Bork has gone Gisli returns home, loads all his things into a small boat, and rows across miles to a small fjord where he builds a homestead.

Gisli is outlawed
21 – Gisli sends words to Vestein’s uncles asking them to offer a settlement at the assembly. But the foul it up and Gisli is outlawed. Gisli speaks three good verses. The two Thorkels will help him so much and no further. He spends three years at Geirthjofsfjord, and then three years travelling round iceland trying to get support from chieftains. But Thorgrim Nef’s spell works and no-one will help him. Six years pass in a variety of hideouts.
22 – Bork hires Eyjolf the Grey as a hitman who works with Helgi the Spy. They track Gisli to Geirthjofsfjord, but can’t catch him. Gisli stays with his sister Aud. He has powerful dreams of seven fires and this inspires him to speak verses. (Is he turning into Egil Skallagrimsson?)
23 – Bork gets cross with Eyjolf who he has paid good money. Helgi the Spy recognises Gisli in a hideout in Geirthjofsfjord but when Bork arrives with men he has gone. Gisli asks his brother for help one last time, gets cloth and silver and departs. He goes to stay with Gest Oddleifsson’s mother Thorgerd.
24 – In the spring he returns to Geirthjofsfjord to be near his wife Aud but is troubled by bad dreams. He recites poems about them. He alternates between Geirthjofsfjord and Thorgerd’s hideaway. He goes to see his brother one last time, borrows his boat and departs prophesing Thorkel will die before him, then rows out to the island of Hergilsey where he stays with his cousin Ingjald.
25 – Gisli stays with Ingjald several years. Ingjald has an idiot son who is chained to a millwheel and left to graze, and two slaves. Gisli makes him wonderful things including three boats but these prompt suspicions that Gisli is there. Bork sends Eyjolf to the island of Hergilsay. Gisli hides but Eyjolf sees food being served up ready to be taken to his hiding place. Eyjolf is ferried back to the mainland, alerts Bork who sets off with a posse.
26 – Ingjald is out fishing with Gisli when they see the boat with Bjork in approaching. Gisli persuades Ingjald to divide the boats, he and the idiot rowing to shore and going uphill while Gisli stays with the female slave, Bothild, and pretends to be the idiot. This occasions a lot of mirth from Bork’s men as they go by seeking directions. Of course they beach the boat and follow the figures till they realise they’re not Gisli and Bork is furious. It is said Ingjald was a good supporter of Gisli. When Thorgrim Nef cast his spell denying support to Gisli it applied to men on the mainland, he forgot about islands and so Ingjald wasn’t affected.
27 – Bork, contemplating the idiot, is humiliated by the whole trip. They jump into their boat and set off in pursuit of the other boat.
27 – Bothild rows Gisli to Hjardanes where he leaps ashore and runs up the ravine. Outlaw-Stein is the first out of the boat pursuing Gisli who turns and kills him with a swordstroke. Then he jumps into the water intending to swim to the mainland but is hit in the calf by a spear from Bork. He pulls it out and manages to swim across and limp up into the woods, encircled by Bork and his men. He manages to slip down to a beach under cliffs and makes it along to the house of Ref and Alfdis who agree to hide him, viz by Gisli hiding in their bed and, when Bork and his men search the place, she yells out fishwife abuse which puts them off until they leave. Gisli stays with Ref for two weeks and gives him present of a knife and belt when he leaves and returns to his wife at Geirthjofsfjord. His reputation is enhanced. Bork looks like a fool.
28 – The Thorskafjord Assembly. Two poor young men hitch a ride in Gest Oddleifsson’s boat. They ask to stay in the booth of Hjallborn the wanderer and ask famous men to be pointed out. They go to the booth of Thorkel, as to see his sword, and promptly behead him! Everyone runs off in panic and one of the two men, Helgi, says they seem to be discussing whether Vestein left only daughters or also sons ie they are Vestein’s sons taking revenge. I am puzzled. I didn’t think Thorkel killed Vestein, I thought Thorgrim did (though I’m confused why he did since it was Thorkel’s wife who he overheard saying she fancied Vestein ie nothing really to do with Thorgrim).
29 – Gest discourages Bork from pursuing the killers; everyone thinks Gest was in league with them as Vestein was a kinsman. Once again Bork is made to look foolish. The killers flee to Gisli’s (?).
30 – Aud sends them over the hills to Bjartmar’s sons. Gisli says, Good, otherwise he would have had to kill them.— Gisli’s bad dreams return.Gisli makes verses about his visions.
31 – Helgi is sent again to spy on Geirthjofsfjord and takes a man named Havard. Turns out he is loyal to Gisli. Once when they spy a campfire and Helgi builds a cairn to mark the spot, Helgi dismantles it and drops a boulder nearby as if from Gisli so that Helgi flees and when he returns with Bork there is no cairn so they can’t triangulate to the place they saw the fire. Bork goes to see Aud and offers her 300 pieces of silver and a good marriage if she’ll betray Gisli.
32 – Gudrid, his foster-daughter, rides to warn Gisli that Aud is betraying him. Gisli makes a verse saying she will always be true. When she has put his silver in a purse Aud stands and smacks Eyjolf in the face with the purse drawing blood. He shoults for her to be killed, but Havard steps in and persuades the men against it. Aud gives Havard a gold ring for his loyalty. Havard leaves Eyjolf’s service and rides south to join Gest Oddleifsson.
33 – Gisli has more and more dreams, torn between good-woman and bad-woman who threatens blood and death. He makes verses about them, and becomes scared of the dark (just like Grettir).

Gisli’s last stand
34 – The summer passes and on the last day Gisli has more bad dreams and takes Aud and Gudrid south towards a hideout. He recites a verse of his most recent bad dream. And indeed Eyjolf had approached the homestead and now followed their trail in the frost. Gisli and the woman scramble to the top of the ridge to make a stand. Eyjolf tells Helgi to attack Gisli who promptly chops him in half. Eyjolf scrambles up and Aud hits him hard in the arm with a club, to Gisli’s praise.
35 – Gisli holds off the 12 men, killing four, before scrambling higher onto the ridge named Einhamar.
36 – Gisli wounds all of them but they renew the onslaught and injure him until his guts spill out. He recites his last verse, jumps from the crag onto Eyjolf’s kinsman Thord, killing him, and breathes his last. Summary of the dead. They bury Gisli under a stone mound and offer to take Aud but she refuses.
37 – Eyjolf goes to Helgafell to meet Bork who welcomes him and tells his wife Thordis to rejoice. Thordis is, of course, Gisli’s sister. When she serves food to the men she seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to kill him but it strikes the table and she only injures him in the thigh. Eyjolf claims full compensation and goes away very unhappy. Thordis divorces Bork in front of witnesses, and moves away. Bork lives at Helgafell until driven out by Snorri the Priest.
38 – Postscript. Vestein’s sons get Gest Oddleifsson to get them out of the country along with their mother Gunnhild, Aud, Ingjald’s daughter Gudrid and son Geirmund. They sail to Norway. Berg is walking round town when buttonholed by a man, and tells who he is. The man strikes him dead on the spot as he is Ari, brother to Gisli and Thorkel, thus revenging Thorkel’s murder. Vestein’s other son Helgi flees to the ship and gets a ship to Greenland where he becomes prosperous. Aud and Gunnhild go to Hedeby in Denmark, convert to Christianity, and go on pilgrimage to Rome. Geirmund stays in Norway and prospers. Gudrid marries and has many descendants.
‘And here ends the saga of Gisli Sursson.’

Key relationships

  • Thorgrim, son of Thorstein Cod-biter, marries Thordis the sister of Gisli and Thorkel. He is Gisli’s son-in-law. Thorgrim and Thordis move into the farm at Saebol. Gisli and Thorkel build a farm at neighbouring Hol.
  • Gisli marries Aud, Vestein’s sister. Vestein is Gisli’s brother-in-law. They swear special friendship and split a special silver coin. When Vestein is murdered, Gisli must take revenge on the murderer, even though it is his own brother-in-law, Thorgrim.
  • Thorkel, Gisli’s brother, marries Asgerd. He is associated with the murder of Vestein and that is why he is eventually killed by Vestein’s sons.

Chronology (from GA Dasent’s 1866 translation)

930 – Harold Fairhair shares Norway among his sons
933 – Earl Hakon, Athelstane’s foster-child, begins to reign
934? – Gisli born
950 – Gisli, quite young, kills Kolbein
951 – Thorbjorn’s house at Stock burned
952 – Thorbjorn and his sons sail for Iceland
965? – Thorbjorn Soursop dies
958? – Gisli and Thorkel marry
960 – Thorgrim the Priest marries Thordisa, Gisli’s sister
961 – Thorgrim, Vestein, and the Soursops go abroad
963 – (Oct. 7th to 17th) Thorgrim slain, and birth of Snorri the Priest
964 – Outlawry of Gisli
972? – Thorkel slain
978 – Gisli slain, after having been an outlaw fourteen years and a half
1031 – Death of Snorri the Priest

Translation

Translated into good, clear modern English by Martin S Regal, and included in the excellent portmanteau Penguin volume, The Sagas of the Icelanders.

There are two main traditions of the text: the Penguin version translates the shorter, more focused one; the Victorian translation, linked to below, translates the longer one which has more circumstantial detail in the opening chapters, eg about the sword Grey-blade and the curse the dying Kol lays on Gisli’s family. This is, frankly, more interesting. In throwing out the cod-medievalisms of the Victorian version, in order to become fast, no-nonsense modern prose – a little like a  modern thriller – the Penguin version loses by discarding the folk tale feel, the dwarves and magic of the Victorian version.

Related links

Thordis seizing the sword to attack Eyjolf after he has killed her brother Gisli

Thordis seizing the sword to attack Eyjolf after he has killed her brother Gisli

Other sagas

The Saga of the Confederates

Bandamanna saga is that rare thing, a saga with a sense of humour. It is a satire on the venality of the chieftain class who spout fine words and bring big law cases but are only motivated by greed and can be easily bought off.

1 – Ofeig lives in Midfjord. He’s not rich. He has a son, Odd, who he ignores. Odd asks for some capital to set up on his own but Ofeig promises the minimum possible. One day Odd simply takes some fishing reel and cloth and rides north to Vatnsnes where he joins a group of fishermen and flourishes. After three successful years he has enough capital to buy a share in a ferry; then in an ocean-going boat. Soon he is the richest merchant.
2 – Odd carries on from strength to strength, settling at a farm named Mel. Ospak, from a bad family, wants to join. Odd gives him a try and he is a good worker. All Odd lacks is a godord so he buys one.
3 – Ospak does well. Two winters later Odd announces he’s going abroad. He first offers control of the farm to his kinsman Vali who is not keen; then to Ospak who pretends reluctance but is very keen, and so it is Odd hands over running of all his affairs – including his godord – to Ospak, and he carries out  his duties, both at the farm and the Althing, very well.
4 – Ospak happens to ride north to Vididal, to Svolustadir, where he meets and falls in love with Svala. Her kinsman Thorarin the Wise, refuses to be involved and so she performs a self-betrothal and marries Ospak and returns with him to Mel, though they keep on the farm at Svolustadir. Odd returns from his merchant trip successful, as usual, and finds the farm well looked after. He asks Ospak for control of it and his godord back. Ospak delays, saying it’s traditional to do such things at the autumn Althing. However, on the last day of the assembly Odd wakes late to find everyone leaving, the proceedings closed, and his godord not returned. A few days later, at table, he suddenly leaps up with an axe in his hand and threatens Ospak to hand back control of the farm and godord. Which he does. There is now bad blood. Ospak packs and goes to Svolustadir. That autumn thirty of Odd’s sheep go missing. Vaki goes north on a trading trip and drops in a Svolustadir. Conversation turns to the missing sheep and Vali says lots of people thing Ospak stole them as revenge, Ospak gets angry. Back at Mel Vali reports the conversation. On the Summons Days Odd takes twenty men to Svolustadir with the aim of accusing Ospak, but Vali begs to intercede first. He goes into the darkened hall where someone leaps from a bench and strikes him a blow in the back. Ospak had meant to kill Odd. As he falls dying he warns Ospak that Odd is outside, says, Flee and tell Svala to go out and say we’ve made up the row and I’ve ridden north with you. Svala goes tell Odd this, he believes and rides home. Vali dies and Ospak buries him then disappears. Word spreads and Odd is dishonoured by the failure of his trip.
5 – At the Althing Odd brings a case against Ospak. Thorarin the Wise, kinsman of Ospak’s wife Svala, and another chieftain Styrmir, discuss the case. They both know there’s a legal flaw in it. Odd raised ten men as witnesses in his district, but one died and he renamed a new one in the district, not at the Althing as he should have. Thorarin says who cares. Styrmir argues that Odd is arrogant and overbearing and needs taking down a peg or two. Thorarin reluctantly agrees and they go to court and present this defence which destroys Odd’s case. Walking back to his booth, stunned, Odd meets an old scruffy man. It is his father Ofeig. Ofeig asks after the case, then offers to rectify it, if given enough silve. Odd gives him a big bagful.
6 – Ofeig enters the judgement ring and persuades the judges they have failed in their oath to bring justice to an obvious murderer, Ospak. He lets the bag of silver become obvious and eventually opens it and counts out the silver and says he will give some to all the judges and half a mark to whoever delcares Ospak an outlaw. The combination of money and the argument about their oaths persaudes them. Next day Ospak is declared an outlaw whom anyone can kill with impunity.
7 – Styrmir and Thorarin fel humiliated that their case has been overthrown. They muster six other powerful chieftains to their cause. In the spring Summons Days they ride to Mel and summons Odd for causing money to be brought into the court. Odd is relaxed but Ofeig says this is bad and to load all his movable belongings into a boat ahead of the Althing.
8 – At the Althing Ofeig sees the overwhelming forces before him and wanders thinking. He happens to be outside Egil Skulason’s booth as Egil is showing people out. He contrives to be invited in where he makes a long explanation that Odd is anticipating a prosecution and has removed all his belongings: this along with the promise of the Confederates to share half of Odd’s belongings among themselves, half with the chieftains of the district, means Egil will get one-sixteenth of not-very-much. Egil foresees humiliation and loss of honour. Ofeig presents Egil with a bag of silver, purely as a sign of his respect, and suggests that if Egil limits the settlement it will look better for him, Egil says he will need an ally among the Confederates.
9 – Ofeig works the same magic with Gelli Thorkelsson, persuading him there will be little money and much dishonour in pursuing the case. He gives Gelli money but also says Odd is willing to marry his daughter, and to provide a rich dowry himself. Gelli will never get a better offer. He is persuaded to join with Egil.
10 – In a tour de force at the Althing Ofeig persuades Hermund the leader of the Confederates, to let Ofeig choose the arbitrators. He goes through the Confederates one by one assassinating their characters until he is left with who he claims are the two worst, Egil and Gellir; he nominates them. Egil and Gellir confer as if coming up with something when, in fact, they have already pledged to Ofeig to keep the sum low. They return and announce Odd must pay 13 ounces of hack silver ie nothing. The other Confederates are outraged at which Egil launches a diatribe agains them each, describing their stinginess and personal vices till they shut up. Never have so many proud chieftains been humiliated at once. Ofeig has a spring in his step. There is much bad feeling.
11 – Ofeig tells his son what he has achieved and he is delighted. Odd sails to the Orkneys to collect grain and malt and returns to organise a sumptuous feast for his wedding to Gelli’s daughter. At the feast end Odd gives both Egil and Gelli rich gifts and they part firm friends.
12 – The saga concludes with a series of unfortunate events:

  • Hermund musters forces and rides to burn Egil in his house but en route there is the sound of a bowstring twang and Hermund feels a sharp wound in his side, abandons the expedition, returns home and dies.
  • One Bergthor summed up the case against Ospak when he was outlawed: one night there is a loud banging on his door and Bergthor realises it is Ospak and refuses to go out. In the morning nine of his cows have been killed.
  • Five of Odd’s best stud horses are found dead and Ospak is blamed.
  • Mar Hildisson marries Svala ie Ospak’s wife, and moves into Svolustadir. One morning someone ie Ospak enters his bedroom and stabs him, reciting a verse that no-one else shall sleep with Svala. But on the way out Mar’s idiot brother Bjalfi stabs the intruder. In the autumn farmers find Ospak’s body in a cave where he staggered and died after Bjalfi’s wound.

Odd lived to ripe old age and in good friendship with his father.

Sayings

  • Many eyes squint when there’s money around (5)
  • Wisdom is welcome wherever it comes from (10)

Translation

Translated into good, clear modern English by Ruth C. Ellison, with notably English idiom eg the chieftains have a ‘chat’. Included in the excellent portmanteau Penguin volume, The Sagas of the Icelanders.

Related links

Hack silver, measured by weight not face value - the currency of the Bandamanna

Hack silver, measured by weight not face value – the currency of the Vikings and Icelanders

Other sagas

The saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. Hrafnkel is his name, godi means priest though it also came to mean chieftain or secular power, and Frey was the Norse god of fertility. So: the saga of Hrafnkel the priest of Frey. Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi is well-known for being one of the shortest and most focused of the sagas, telling its story with clarity and directness. In the Penguin edition it has 16 chapters; in the 1882 free online translation by John Coles it has 20.

1 – In the days of King Harald Fair-Hair (870-930) a man called Hallfred brings his wife and son Hrafnkel to Breiddal in Iceland. In a vision a woman tells him to move his house which he does and avoids an avalanche. The new place is named Hallfredsstadir.
2 – Hrafnkel comes of age and builds his own farm in Jokunsdal which he names Adalbol. He builds a large temple to Frey. He settles the valley and imposes himself on the population as their godi. He is not a good godi, being unfair, not paying reparations etc.
3 – A man named Bjarni lives on a farm at Laugarhus. He has sons, the argumentative lawyer Sam and Eyjolf who adventures abroad to Denmark and onto Constantinople. Hrafnkel reverences one stalion which he dedicates to Frey and names Freyfaxi and forbids any man to ride it.
4 – There is a farmer named Thorbjorn, Bjarni’s brother. He is not well off and has many dependents. Thorbjorn tells his eldest son Einar he needs to get a job. Einar rides over to Adalbol to see Hrafnkel who has filled most of  his vacancies but can offer him the job of shepherd, which Einar takes. Thee is one condition: he must not ride the stallion named Freyfaxi. Hrafnkel will kill any man who rides it.
5 – Einar does well all summer but one day wakes up and thrity sheep are missing. He needs to find them but when he goes to round up a horse to ride all the others run away. Except Freyfaxi who, as one fated, stands stock still while Einar eventually decides to saddle and ride him. Einar rides freyfaxi all round the hills looking for the sheep and eventually finds them where he started. As soon as he dismounts Freyfaxi, covered in mud and sweat, bolts down to the farmhouse where a woman reports his state to Hrafnkel who is angry. Next morning he rides up to the sheiling, confirms that Einar did indeed ride his horse, and kills him with one axe stroke. He buries his body in a shallow grave at a place which becomes known as Einarsvardi.
6 – Thorbjorn rides to:

  • Adalbol to complain to Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn concedes it was a bad deed and offers him the pick of his cattle, placements and advancement for his sons and daughters, and free choice of what he’s got in his home. But Thorbjorn insists on independent arbitration ie that he be treated as an equal, and this Thorbjorn scornfully refuses.
  • Thorbjorn rides on to Laugurhus to his brother Bjarni who thinks he’s stupid for turning down Hrafnkel’s generous offer.
  • and on to Leikskalar to see Sam, his brother’s son, who he persuades very reluctantly to take over the case (of, after all, avenging his cousin).

7 –  Sam observes the formalities of Icelandic law: he rides to a farm, gathers a crowd, and accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Then goes home. Summer passes and winter then in spring, in the Summons Days, Sam rides to Adalbol and formally accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Hrafnkel assembles a posse of 70 retainers and rides to the Althing. Sam musters as many unattached men as he can and rides to the Althing by a different route. He and his uncle Thorbjorn go round the booths asking for support but no-one will help as they all say Hrafnkel wins all his case, and Sam is no kin of theirs.
8 – Thorbjorn says maybe they shouls pack their bags and head home. Sam says he’s got him into this mess and he’s going to see it through to the end. Just then a man with a streak of white hair comes walking by. He is Thorkel Thjostarson just returned from Constantinople. He has brothers Thorgeir and Thormod. After having Sam’s situation explained Thorkel says he will support him.
9 – The elaborate ruse of stumbling over Thorgeir’s sore toe leads the brothers to argue, Thorgeir saying Hrafnkel always wins, Thorkel can have the godord back if he wants etc. Thorkel refuses all this and talks Thorgeir round into supporting Sam and old man Thorbjorn.
10 – The Thjostarssons muster at the Law Rock while Sam presents his case flawlessy. When Hrafnkel is told he thinks he’ll just ride up there and scare them off, but the throng is so great he can’t make his way through and so doesn’t have chance to present a defence (!) and so is sentenced in his absence to full outlawry. Thorkel says Hrafnkel will probably ride home confident in the knowledge that Sam won’t do the necessary follow-up ie serving notice of the outlawry in person. Thorkel says he his brothers and retainers will help. So they all ride across Iceland to the east (15 days) arriving at Hrafnkel’s valley on the morning that the confiscation court is meant to be carried out.
11 – Sam, the Thjostarrsons and sixty (!) of their retainers run down to the farm and terrorise the people. They lock all the women and children in a barn. They then pierce the ankles of all eight of the men and hang them by the ankles by a rope over a beam. Thorkel and Sam discuss what to do. Thorgeir and Sam go to a knoll an arrow’s shot from the farm to carry out the confiscation court. Hrafnkel offers self-judgement and Sam says he is going to spare him, but confiscate his farm, all the land and livestock and also Hrafnkel’s godi or chieftainship. Hrafnkel packs all his people and belongings and leaves Adalbol that day. He migrates east and buys a poor farm but by sheer hard work builds it up and names it Hrafnkelsstadir.
12 – The Thjostarssons advise Sam to be wise and just to his new thingmen. They examine the horses and don’t see anything special about Freyfaxi, but decide they must give him back to his part-owner (the god) so they set a stone around his neck and push him over a high waterfall, ever since known as Freyfaxahamar. They strip and burn Frey’s temple, then depart on excellent terms with much gift-giving and return west.
13 – When Hrafnkel hears the Thjostarssons have stripped his temple and burned the idols he abandons paganism, ceasing to sacrifice. Hrafnkel thrives, acquires wealth and, as the land east of Lagarfljot becomes populated, he builds a great following of thingmen. He is a wiser and kinder man.
14 – One day Sam’s brother Eyvind returns from long merchanting abroad. He is rich dressed in fine clothes. Sam sends him horses and Eyvind, four merchants and his boy set off with pack horses towards Adalbol. A erving woman washing linen in the river watches them go by and, as so often, goes to report it to Hrafnkel and goads him, taunting that people grow soft with age , and what an opportunity this would be for revenge. Hrafnkel musters his supporters and 18 of them set out in pursuit. This chapter is famous for the highly-detailed description of the lie of the rivers, bogs, lava fields which the two parties cross. Eyvind’s boy repeatedly advises him to flee but Eyvind refuses to flee someone he hasn’t offended. Hrafnkel caches him up and massacres Eyvind and his troop. The boy had fled fast to Adalbol where he tells Sam but by the time Sam and supporters arrive his brother is dead. They give chase but Hrafnkel is too far ahead and makes it home safely.
15 – Hrafnkel makes a surprise attack on Sam with no fewer than 70 supporters and catches him in his bed. He offers him death or self-judgement, which Sam accepts. Hrafnkel turfs him out of Adalbol, telling him to take only what he brought. Hrafnkel will resume living there and resume the godard and Sam will live back on his farm in Leikskalar with his kin. Which is what happens.
16 – Sam rankles. He rides west to visit the Thjostarssons asking for help. But this time they turn him down. They told him to kill Hrafnkel when he had the chance; now he is reaping the result of ignoring their advice. And no, they refuse to ride all the way out east to take part in further fighting. They offer gifts but Sam refuses them and rides home disgruntled. He lives out his life in this lowly position, never achieving revenge. Hrafnkel by contrast lives in honour till he dies of an illness. His properties are divided between his sons.

Thoughts

‘The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one’s subordinates.’ (Wikipedia)

Debate has raged for over a century about whether the saga stems from oral tradition preserving the memory of actual events, or whether it is a work of fiction by a 13th century writer, creating what has been described as it ‘one of the most perfect short novels in world literature.’

It seems probable that the peg of the narrative, the specialness of Freyfaxi and his standing still to tempt Einar, his running to his master after being ridden, and his ultimate sacrifice, may have origins in pagan horse-worship. But there is nothing else supernatural or uncanny in the tale, unlike most sagas which have plenty of omens and prophecies which suggest to me the theory of a 13th century author setting out to create a novella and using disparate elements which were to hand.

Aliens

What strikes this reader is the complete alienness of the concepts of justice and honour which permeate the saga. It is difficult to understand that Hrafnkel can be tried and sentenced at the Althing without even appearing to make a defence. It is boggling that, having thus been outlawed, Hrafnkel can be attacked, tortured, maimed and killed by Sam with no comeback, and so can his farmhands. It is terrifying that quite out of the blue Hrafnkel can murder Eyvind and four completely uninvolved merchants and, again, not only get away scot-free but regain all his lost possessions – and be universally judged the winner! Obviously intended by the author to deserve to be held in high honour and esteem for sitting things out and finally getting  his way.

The complete ‘otherness’ of the entire system of values of the sagas completely overshadows the minor issue of whether the stories are oral history or fiction or a combination of the two. They are powerful insights into a mindset which is so alien to ours in almost every way that they almost amount to science fiction.

Related links

Other sagas

Bolli Bollason’s Tale

The Laxdæla saga survives in numerous manuscripts. The one used for printed versions is the so-called Möðruvallabók from the 14th century. In this MS, to the end of the saga proper has been added a short narrative about Bolli, son of the famous Bolli who features in the famous love-triangle with Kjartan and Gudrun (hence Bolli Bolla-son) titled Bolla þáttur Bollasonar or Bolli Bollason’s Tale. It is, apparently, a þáttur, a short narrative often included as an episode in a larger whole, such as part of a saga.

After the epic lengths of Njal’s saga (159 chapters) and Laxdæla saga (78 chapters), Bolli Bollason’s Tale is a slender 10 chapters, weighing in at just 13 pages in the giant Penguin volume, The Sagas of the Icelanders.

Synopsis

1 – In a tale this short it’s clearer than ever that the blunt functionality with which people are named and yanked into the action is a little like the dramatis personae at the beginning of a play, before it’s even started. Introducing:

  • Thord from Marbaeli, his wife Gudrun and son Olaf. Gudrun is related to Bolli.
  • Arnor Crone’s-nose from Miklabaer in Skagafjord.
  • Thord and Thorvald Hjaltason from Hof in Hjaltadal.
  • Thorolf Stuck-up from Thufur. He’s married to a kinswoman of Arnor’s and is a thingmen of the Hjaltasons.

Thorolf has an aggrssive bull which injures other people’s livestock. One day Thord catches it ripping up a pile of peat and kills it with a spear. Thorolf and he have a standoff then Thorolf kills Thord’s eight year old son. He goes see Arnor for his backing who rejects him. He goes see the Hjaltasons who initially say no but Thorvald is shamed into supporting him.
2- Gudrun rides south to see her kinsman Bolli who reluctantly agrees to accept the case. Meanwhile Thorvald Hjaltson persuades Starri of Guddalir to shelter Thorolf.
3 – Bolli rides north to Miklabaer to meet Arnor and persuade him to help. They ride on to the Hegranes assembly where Bolli and Arnor’s followers outnumber Thorvald and Starri’s followers, and so Bolli succeeds in getting Thorolf outlawed.
4 – Starri and Thorvald pay the captain of a ship at Hrutafjord to take Thorolf abroad. Bolli considers he won’t have really closed the case if Thorolf escapes so he buckles on his famous sword, Leg-Biter, rides up to the beach at Hrutafjord and kills Thorolf.
5 – At that year’s Althing Bolli is invited to stay by a number of men of the north: Gudmund the Powerful, Arnor Crone’s-nose, Thorstein son of Hellu-Narfi and Thord of Marbaeli. That summer a ship lands at Dagverdanes and Bolli puts the crew up at Tunga. At Christmas he rides with this crew north to accept the invitations. They are feasted at Marbaeli with Thord, at Miklabaer with Arnor. Arnor says the Hjaltasons feel their honour was insulted when Bolli killed Thorolf and might ambush him; so he, Arnor, will accompany him as he rides further north.
6 – Indeed the Hjaltasons ride out to ambush Bolli as he heads north over Heljardal heath, but are dismayed to find him accompanied by Arnor’s men and so meekly and humiliatingly return home. At which Arnor leaves them. Bolli’s posse arrive at a farm called Skeid, home to bad-tempered Helgi. The posse’s horses start eating the hay and Helgi runs out to confront them; Bolli is polite and apologises but Helgi calls them thieves then demands Bolli’s spear then makes a formal summons for theft and makes it liable for outlawry. Bolli says he’s overdoing it and countecharges him with slander and trying to extort his property (the spear). They ride off, soon arriving at Thorstein’s farm at Hals.
7 – Helgi’s wife Sigrid says you’ve made a fool of yourself and rides over to Hals to see Thorstein and ask him to intercede. Sure enough Thorstein asks his guest, Bolli, to drop the charges, first saying they’re too trivial to care about, then offering Bolli his best horse, then threatening that he won’t stand by and see Helgi killed. This escalates into a row and Bolli leaves his house.
8 – Bolli’s crew ride on to Gudmund the Powerful at Modruvellir. Gudmund has heard that Bolli’s upset Thorstein and advises him to ride home a different route. Bolli changes the subject and makes Gudmund a fine present of the spear King’s Gift. Gudmund gives Bolli rings etc and the part the best of friends. Bolli rides on to a farm called Krossar where he is the guest of the farmer Ottar.
9 – Thorstein gathers thirty men and sets up an ambush at the river Svarfadardalsa. Bolli and his crew ride up and Thorstein attacks. Ottar canters off. Helgi is urging Thorstein on and Bolli throws a spear whic transfixes Helgi to the river bank. Bolli deals Thorstein a severe wound on the shoulder and leg. Meanwhile Ottar had ridden off to get his friend Ljot of Vellir who arrives with his followers and breaks up the fight, saying he will impose the terms of a settlement. The fighting stops. Thorstein rides home. Ljot invites Bolli to go stay at his farm. Bolli is grateful to both Ottar and Ljot.
The site where they fought is known as Hestanes.
10 – Ljot calls an assembly at which Helgi’s death will go unpunished because of his slanders; the wounds to Thorstein and to Bolli cancel each other out; for three of Thorstein’s men killed Bolli must pay compensation; for his attempt on Bolli’s life thorstain must pay 1,500 three-ell lengths of cloth. They are reconciled. Bolli thanks Ljot. Bolli takes over custody of dead Helgi’s farm and livestock. They ride to Miklabaer and meet Arnor who congratulates them.

This journey of Bolli’s became the subject of new stories in all districts. Everyone felt that hardly any journey had been made to equal it. He gained in respect for this and many other things.

Thoughts

In this short space you can see the tremendous importance of two or three themes or issues or threads which make these stories possible, which are in fact the stuff they are made of:

  • Kin and family relations are all-important otherwise trivial incidents would stop at just that; but because relatives and kin are drawn in there’s always the tendency to escalate, and quickly.
  • Hypersensitivity to small wrongs and insults quickly gets out of hand: why does an argument about a bull lead to a boy being murdered and then distant relatives on both sides being called to what would have been quite a big fight; or an argument about some straw lead to a pitched battle between 50 men?
  • The Law: Icelandic law is odd because it saturates the culture so deeply that complete strangers are prepared to invoke its extreme powers (ie the threat of outlawry) at the drop of a hat, as Helgi does against Bolli over the hay; yet it never seems to prevent conflict. It is used purely as a way of formalising compensation after the event. Even then it is entirely reliant on the physical force of the participants: thus Bolli and Arnor only ‘win’ their case at the Althing because they have more men that their opponents. And even then, it can break down again at the drop of a hat, as Bolli simply decides the outlawry of Thorolf he himself secured isn’t enough, and rides over to kill him. No-one appears to think  badly of this casual ignoring the law.

Related links

Bolli Bollason’s Tale is included in

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Other sagas

Laxdæla saga

Second only to the mighty Njal’s saga in number of manuscripts surviving, the ‘saga of the people of Laxdal’ is one of the classics of the genre.

Ketil Flat-Nose emigrates to Iceland
1 – Introducing Ketil Flat-Nose and his wife Yngvild, and their five children: sons Bjorn the Easterner and Helgi Bjolan and daughters Unn the Deep-Minded, Thorunn, Jorunn Manvitsbrekka.
2 – After the Battle of Hafrsfjord (?875) King Harald Fair-Hair (872-930) emerged as the first king of a unified Norway. He imposed taxes and appointed lords and drove many people into exile. Ketil assembles his family and says he doesn’t want to submit to Harald. His sons Bjorn and Helgi are for going to Iceland, Ketil less keen.
3 – The sons and son-in-law arrive in west and north Iceland and claim land and build settlements.
4 – Ketil settles in Scotland with his kin (890). His grandson Thorstein goes a-viking around the Scottish coast. He eventually makes peace with the Scots but is killed. Ketil dies. Her father and son dead, Unn has a knorr built secretly and steals away with her people and goods. She sails to the Orkneys and settles Thorstein’s daughter, then on to the Faroes and arranges the marriage of another of Thorstein’s daughters.
5 – Unn sails to Iceland (895), arriving at Hvammsfjord and making her home at Hvamm. She marries Thorgerd daughter of Thorstein to Dala-Koll. Their son is Hoskuld Dala-Kollson whose daughter is Hallgerd ‘Long legs’, a central character in Njals’ saga where she manages to get her three husbands killed (notably the hero Gunnar) and then provides a focus for the enemies of Njal.
6 – Unn apportions land to all her followers, and the marriages of the rest of Thorstein the Red’s six daughters.

Rise of Hoskuld
7 – Unn holds a big wedding feast for her grandson Olaf Feilan (920) at which she publicly leaves him the farm at Hvamm then goes to bed. In the morning she is found dead. She is buried in a boat in a mound along with lots of treasure. Dala-Koll dies and Hoskuld inherits what comes to be known as Hoskuldsstadir. His mother Thorgerd (now a widow) returns to Norway and marries Herjolf.
8 – Herjolf and Thorgerd have a son, Hrut. He grows up big and strong. Herjolf dies (923). Thorgerd returns to Iceland, to Hoskuldsstadir. Eventually she dies and Hoskuld takes over all her property.
9 – Hoskuld woos and marries Jorunn (935). Their sons were Thorleik and Bard; their daughters were Hallgerd long-legs and Thurid. Hoskuld becomes honoured and rich.
10 – A man called Hrapp lives at a farm across the river Laxal from Hoskuldsstadir. He is troublesome. His wife Vigdis and all her family and relations.
11 – A man called Thord Goddi is neighbour to Hrapp and comes into conflict with him.

Hoskuld visits Norway
Hoskuld buys a ship and sails to Norway where he is welcomed by kin.
12 –  In the summer a royal expedition east to the Brenno Islands to judge law cases, also an excuse for feasting and entertainment. Hoskuld goes. He encounters the trader Gilli the Russian. He barters for a slave woman, paying three marks of silver for one who cannot speak.
13 – Hoskuld presents himself to the newish ruler of Norway, Earl Hakon (975-995), who is a bit miffed he’s delayed saying hello, but helps him to the timber he requires and sends him back to Iceland laden with presents (gold ring and sword) (948).

Hoskuld returns to iceland with a concubine
Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn is not thrilled to have Hoskuld’s slave woman under the same roof especially when she gives birth to a fine-looking boy, whom Hoskuld names Olaf after his uncle Olaf Feilan.  Hoskuld discovers the dumb slave girl by a stream talking to handsome young Olaf, asks her name. She is Melkorka daughter of Myrkjarten, a king in Ireland, before she was captured in a raid aged fifteen. When she’s getting changed Jorunn hits her with a sock, Melkorka slaps her. Oops. Hoskuld separates them and gives Melkorka her own farm further up the Laxdal valley.

The story of Hall which leads to Thord fostering Olaf
14 – Long story of overbearing Hall from the Saudeyjar Islands. He goes to the fishing camp on the Bjarneyjar islands, takes a fishing partner Thorolf and bullies him. The bullying reaches a climax after one trip where Hall claims the better half of the catch. Hall tries to hit him with a gaff, they are separated, Thorolf goes off disgruntled, Hall takes another partner. As Hall leaps off the boat after his next fishing expedition Thorolf is waiting, chops off  his head, and scarpers. He takes a boat to the mainland, to the Laxa river and goes up to the house of Thord because Thord’s wife Vigdis is a distant relative. They argue about it but Vigdis gets her way to hide Thorolf for the winter. But then Hall’s overbearing brother, Ingjald, arrives and offers Thord three marks of silver if he will hand Thorolf over peacefully.
15 – Vigdis scents a trap and sends their servant Asgaut to take Thorolf from the cowshed where Thord has secreted him but they’re surprised by Ingjald and his men, and decide to swim across the half-frozen Laxa river, where Ingjald and his men can’t follow. They proceed on to the house of Thorolf Red-Nose where they are welcomed and Thorolf the fisherman becomes a retainer. Back at Thord’s house Ingjald is furious and demands the return of  his money but Vigdis smacks it in his face and frightens him off.
16 – Vigdis gives Asgaut money and makes him a free man; he sails to Denmark, settles and is out of this saga. Vigdis divorces her cowardly husband, takes her half of the goods and goes to stay with her kin the leader of which, Thord Bellower, is not impressed. Thord goes begs Hoskuld for his help. He offers to foster Hoskuld’s illegitimate son, Olaf, making him his heir. Hoskuld agrees, dspite the objections of Olaf’s mother, the ex-slave woman Melkorka (950). Hoskuld sends a conciliatory message and money to Thord Bellower and this placates him. Olaf grows up to be big, strong and handsome, and Hoskuld gives him fine clothes, which leads to his nickname, the peacock.

17 – Unpopular Hrapp dies (950). He’d asked his wife (another Vigdis) to bury him upright in the doorway which she does. But he haunts the farm and area and kills his servants. Vigdis flees. Hoskuld digs up Hrapp’s body and reburies it far away. Hrapp’s son, Sumarlidid, takes over the farm but goes mad and dies.
18 – Thorstein moves his whole family east in a boat. Interesting details of Norse boat and sailing, currents etc. In the event it overturns and everyone is drowned bar one. Details of the deal Thorkel Scarf does with the survivor to make him tell the order of the drowning in such a way as to ensure that Thorkel inherits all the goods through his wife Gudrid, Thorstein’s daughter (who drowned).

The dispute between Hrut and Hoskuld
19 – In the Laxdæla version Hrut is born and raised in Norway where he becomes a valued member of King Harald Gunnhildsson’s entourage, but he is called to Iceland to claim his inheritance, namely his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld is not pleased to see him, Hrut demands his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld replies that he was legally his mother’s guardian after his father’s death and did not give her permission to remarry (and thus split the property). Hrut is dissatisfied. In the autumn Hoskuld makes a visit and Hrut and his men go and rustle 20 of his cattle. Hoskuld’s men pursue and there is a pitched battle in which four of Hoskuld’s men are killed and the rest surrender. When Hoskuld finds out he is furious and sets about raising men from allies and supporters when his wife Jorunn intervenes: a) lots of people think Hrut was only taking his due and had showed retraint waiting so long b) Hoskuld has enemies such as Thord Bellower for taking Thord Goddi’s side against his wife. Hoskuld calms down and sees sense. He offers a settlement to Hrut. Hrut offers compensation for the men killed. The two are reconciled and live as brothers ought to. Hrut lives to a ripe old age at Hrutsstadir.

(Compare and contrast with the version of events told in Njal’s saga’s early chapters where Hrut lives happily with his brother, but is called to Norway to collect an inheritance from a distant relative and slips into the service of King Harald Grey-Cloak and becomes lover to Queen Gunnhild before returning cursed by Queen Gunhild, so that is marriage to Unn remains unconsummated so that Unn divorces him and Hrut is sued for return of the dowry etc. The core of the two Hruts ie half-brother to Hoskuld, time in Norway, lover to Queen Gunnhild, are consistent: but everything  else has been changed and rearranged. This makes you realise just how malleable these narratives and, by extension, the names, the people, the protagonists, are. )

Melkorka sends Olaf the Peacock abroad
20 – Hoskuld is old. His son Thorleik builds his own farm and marries Gjaflaug. The other son Bard helps Hoskuld on his farm. Meanwhile Hoskuld is reluctant to help Melkorka on her farm, he says she has Olaf to help. Melkorka decides to get revenge for his neglect. She arranges a) to marry Thorbjorn Pockmark, at which point he will release treadeable goods for b) her son Olaf the Peacock to go to Ireland and find her father, the Irish king Myrkjarten. She gives him a gold arm ring which her father will remember and a knife and belt which her nurse will remember.

Olaf in Norway
21 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is kindly received by King Harald and the Queen Mother Gunnhild who takes a shine to him (as she does to all attractive men). After faithful service Olaf requests help sailing to Ireland the the king and queen equip him with a boat and sixty men.

Olaf in Ireland
After some trials in the fog and with reefs they anchor on the coast of Ireland. The locals threaten to storm the boat but Olaf puts up a stout defence and looks commanding in his golden helmet. The king is called and at a parlay Olaf realises it is his grandfather Myrkjarten. Recognising the golden arm band Myrkjarten acknowledges Olaf as his son and they ride to Dublin. Olaf fights for the king and proves a daring commander. So much so that at a massive assembly Myrkjarten declares Olaf his successor as king of Ireland. Olaf gracefully declines: ‘I would rather enjoy a brief spell of honour than a long rule of shame’. Olaf requests to return to Norway; the king gives him a spear, a sword and other wealth and Olaf arrives back in Norway.

Olaf returns to Iceland
22 – King Harald and Queen Gunnhild like him all over again and try to get him to stay but Olaf sails safely home to Iceland with another set of royal presents, and goes to stay with his father Hoskuld. He becomes famous. Melkorka asks if her nurse came with him but he has to say, regretfully, the king wouldn’t let her. Melkorka had married Thorbjorn Pockmark: they have a son, Lambi who grows up big and strong. Hoskuld says Olaf needs a wife. He suggests Thorgerd, daughter of Egil Skallagrimsson (who, of course, has a famous saga dedicated to him).
23 – At the Althing Hoskuld suggests to Egil who asks Thorgerd who refuses to marry the son of a slave. So Olaf himself visits Egil’s booth and gets talking to Thorgerd and she agrees. A sumptuous wedding feast is held as Hoskuldsstadir and Olaf gives Egil the sword given him by King Myrkjarten.

Hrapp’s haunting
24 – Thord Goddi (Olaf’s fosterfather) dies. Olaf builds a mound over him. Olaf buys Killer-Hrapp’s vacant land, builds a farmhouse in a clearing, herds all his animals from Hoskuldsstadir to the new place which he calls Hjardaholt. One night a shepherd comes in terrified. Hrapp is haunting. Olaf attakcs Hrapp with a spear, Hrapp breaks off the spearhead and sinks into the ground. Olaf digs up Hrapp’s corpse (and finds the spearhead) and burns it by the sea.
25 – Hrut frees a slave and gives him land close to Hoskuld’s land. Hoskuld says it is his land. One day Thorleik kills the freeman. Hrut and his people are livid but the Law finds against them. Thorleik and Gaufljag have a bonny son, Bolli.

Hoskuld dies – his funeral feast
26 – Hoskuld is dying. He tells his sons Thorleik and Bard he’ll divide the legacy between them but wants to give Olaf the 12 ounces which the law allows an illegitimate son. Thorleik grudgingly agrees but then Hoskuld gives Olaf the gold armband and sword Myrkjarten gave him, 12 ounces of gold not the 12 ounces of silver that was customary. Thorleik was furious. Hoskuld dies and is buried. The brothers agree to hold a funeral feast after the next Althing.
27 – At the Law Rock Olaf promises a lavish feast, which irritates the brothers. In fact it IS an extravagant feast, with 1,080 guests, the second largest feast in Icelandic history. Afterwards, Olaf makes it up with Thorleik and offers to foster Thorleik’s son Bolli, since the foster-father acknowledges himself inferior. Thorleik is delighted so Bolli, aged 3, goes to Hjardarholt.
28 – Olaf and Thorgerd have a son, Kjartan, named for his maternal grandfather the Irish king. Dueller-Bersi offers to foster Olaf’s son Halldor. Kjartan is the handsomest man ever born in Iceland, tall and strong and excelling at physical sports etc like his grandfather Egil Skallagrimsson. Bolli is the second-finest man in Iceland.

Geirmund and Leg-Biter
29 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is taken in by Geirmund the Powerful who helps him ask the current ruler, Earl Hakon Sigurdsson (Hakon the Powerful) (975-995) to secure timber. Secretly, Geirmund stashes all his goods and people aboard Olaf’s timber ship, he wants to flee Norway. Olaf reluctantly acquiesces and, once back in Iceland, takes him in. With the timber Olaf builds a magnificent new hall decorated with carvings of Norse myths and legends. Olaf falls in love with olaf’s daughter Thurid and proposes. Olaf says no but Geirmund gets Thorgerd’s support and again acquiesces. At the wedding feast poet Ulf Uggasson sings a drapa about Hoskuld and about the wood carvings. (Some stanzas are preserved in the Poetic Edda; Ulf is also mentioned in Njal’s Saga.)
30 – After three years Geirmund announces he is abandoning Thurid and their daughter Groa. Thorgerd and Thurid are furious. Olaf is more relaxed and gives Geirmund a boat to return to Norway in. It is becalmed off islands in the fjord. Thurid follows it with servants, gets them to puncture the tow boat, then steals aboard, takes Geirmund’s beloved sword, ‘Leg-Biter’, and leaves the baby. When Groa starts crying Geirmund, wakes, runs on deck and begs the departing Thurid to return his sword. Never, she yells. Whereupon Geirmund curses the sword and says it will kill the one she loves most. Back at Hjardarholt Thurid gives Leg-Biter to her cousin Bolli. Geirmund sails on to Norway where his ship is wrecked and everyone aboard drowns (including, presumably, one-year-old Groa).

Olaf’s dream
31 – Thurid remarries, to Gudmund Solmundsson and bears the sons Hall, Bardi, Stein and Staingrim. Details of the marriages of Olaf’s other daughters. Olaf has a magnificent oxen named Harri. At age 18 he has it slaughtered. That night a woman comes to him in a dream and says you have had my son killed and returned him to me mutilated. For that I will see your son drenched and blood and by the person you wojuld least wish to.

Introducing Gudrun
32 – Osvif Helgasson and his kin at Laugur in Saelingsdale. His daughter, Gudrun Osvifs-daughter, the most beautiful and intelligent woman in Iceland.
33 – Gudrun tells wise Gest Oddleifson her four dreams: he interprets them that she will have four husbands and they will all die. Later he rides past Bolli and Kjartan swimming in the river along with other boys. He points them out to Olaf and chats to him. they ride on and his son notices him weeping: he explains he foresees Bolli stooping over Kjartan’s corpse.
34 – Gudrun is wooed and married by Thorvald Halldorsson. She is a prickly wife, alwa demanding the finest jewellery. Rumour gets round she’s seeing a lot of Thord Ingunnarsson leading Thorvald to argue with Gudrun and slap her. Outraged, she divorces him, takes half his property and returns to Osvif.
35 – Gudrun persuades Thord to divorce his wife Aud for wearing trousers. She is upset and her brothers are furious. Gudrun and Thord are married a a big feast. Later Aud sneaks to the homestead where Thord is sleeping and delivers a mighty sword blow which permanently damages his arm. Thord recovers in time for his mother Ingunn to come complain about her neighbour Kotkel and wife and sons who are wizards and pestering her. Thord takes a boat and loads all her belongings aboard then rides to confront Kotkel and family of being wizards, a crime which demands full outlawry, then rides back and boards the ship. Kotkel and sons mount a wizard platform and make incantations and spells. Thord’s boat, his mother and servants and all their belongings are drowned and lost.
36 – Gudrun is grief-stricken, gives birth to Thord’s son and calls him Thord. Snorri the Godi from Helgafell offers to foster Thord who becomes known as the Cat. Kotkel and family are driven out of the north and travel south where they manage to inveigle Thorleik Hoskuldsson into letting them stay in exchange for some fine stallions. Osvif, Gudrun and her brothers are outraged and want to kill Kotkel but Snorri the Godi suggests calm; Thorleik will pay the price.
37 – At the Althing a big man named Eldgrim makes Thorleik an offer for the horses which he refuses. They argue, Eldgrim threatening to steal them. One day one of Hrut’s servants reports a big man taking Thorleik’s horses. Hrut rides down to confront him. Hrut is 80 years old. They argue. Hrut kills Eldgrim with one blow of his halberd. Thorleik is very cross and feels he’s been shamed. He commissions Kotkel to go work magic on Hrut. Hrut and his household hear musical chants outside. They all fall asleep except for Hrut’s son Kari who goes outside and is struck dead by the magic. When they wake and find the body Hrut is devastated. He rides to Olaf the Peacock suggesting violent action against Kotkel and Thorleik. Olaf says it would be bad for kin to fight and he would have to defend Thorleik. Instead they ride after Kotkel and his sons. Stigandi gets away. Kotkel and son are captured and stoned to death. They take Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye out into the fjord and drown him with a rock around his neck. But not before he looks back to Kambsnes and curses Thorleik and his farm (a curse which many later remember).
38 – Stigandi becomes an outlaw and a nuisance. Olaf helps bribe a shepherdess to trap him. They put a sack over his head then stone him to death. Slickstone-eye’s body washes up ashore, it’s buried but haunts the area. Olaf goes see Thorleik and persuades him to emigrate. Thorleik sells the farm at Kambsnes and sails to Norway, then on to Denmark and Gotland and he is out of this saga.

Kjartan and Gudrun fall in love
39 – Kjartan and Bolli regularly go to the hot springs at Laugur in Saelingsdal where Kjartan enjoys talking to Gudrun. And Olaf and Gudrun’s father Osvif are friendly.

Kjartan and Bolli go to Norway
40 – Kjartan decides to go abroad. He buys a half share in a boat. His father Olaf Peacock does not approve. Neither it turns out does Gudrun. She asks to go with him but he says her family need her. He says, wait for three years and she angrily refuses. Kjartan and Bolli sail to Norway. they discover Earl Hakon has been replaced by King Olaf Tryggvasson (995-1000) who is insisting everyone convert to the new religion. All the Icelanders in port make a pact to refuse to convert. One day they see lots of people swimming. There is one strong swimmer. Kjartan dives in and has, what appears to count for a swimming competition which is to see how long you can hold the other guy under. Three times Kjartan struggles with the stranger. Upon resurfacing it turns out it is King Tryggvasson! When they dress the king gives Kjartan a fine cloak as a gift. The king stays in the neighbourhood making speeches exhorting people to convert. Kjartan and Bolli discuss their response and Kjartan is hot headed and says they must resist and even burn the king’s house down. Olaf has spies everywhere and at the next assembly asks who said his house must be burnt down? Kjartan steps forward to admit it but refuses to convert. Olaf’s advisers say Force him but Olaf sees that Kjartan’s volunatry conversion will mean more to his men and his kin in Iceland than threats. Finally Kjartan and his men go to observe the Christmas feast and find their hearts turned. They all ask to be baptised. Kjartan and Bolli become liegemen to the king.

The conversion of Iceland
41 – Kjartan tells Olaf he wants to leave but Olaf will only let him if it’s to convert Iceland. Kjartan says that will pit him against his kinsmen so he prefers to stay serving the king on Norway. Olaf sends Thangbrand to convert Iceland. He has some success eg with Hall of Sida, and kills some men, but is attacked and returns to Norway saying the Icelands are obstinate which makes Olaf angry.  (This correlates with Njal’s saga 100-5 where Thangbrand performs various miracles, kills a few men including a berserkr, converts Hall and Gizur the White and Njal, but also returns disgruntled. This version even echoes the outlawry of Hjalti Skeggjason for blasphemy ie his couplet insulting Frey and Thor.)

Bolli marries Gudrun
42 – After they have come to do fealty to him Olaf sends Gizur and Hjalti back to Iceland as missionaries. Bolli goes with them but Kjartan is kept by the king as a hostage. Bolli hints that Kjartan has been friendly with the king’s sister Ingibjorg. Gizur and Hjalti speak well at the Althing and convert Iceland 🙂 Bolli is warmly received back at Hjardarholt with uncle Olaf. He rides over to see Gudrun often and even tentatively proposes but Gudrun says she will never consider another man while Kjartan is alive. Bolli tells her (as he’d promised not to) that Kjartan may be warm for Ingibjorg.
43 – Bolli persuades Osvif to let him marry Gudrun; she is not keen at all. Olaf is also not keen, knowing how people associated Gudrun with Kjartan. But Bolli overrides them all and marries Gudrun at a big feast.

Kjartan returns to Iceland
Meanwhile the missionaries arrive back in Norway to tell King Olaf that Iceland is converted and he releases the hostages including Kjartan. Kjartan says an ambiguous goodbye to Ingibjorg who gives him a luxury white head-dress to give Gudrun, and Olaf gives him a sword, he will never die while he bears it.
44 – Kjartan and Kalf arrive back in Iceland with their goods. Kjartan learns his foster-brother Bolli has married Gudrun and shows no response. Kalf tells his lovely sister Hrefna she can have her pick of the treasure and while the men are out she finds and choses the white head-dress given by Ingibjorg. On their return Kalf says No she can’t have it but Kjartan says sure she can, he’d like to have the head-dress and the pretty head under it. Hrefna is puzzled by his listless proposal and doesn’t accept it. Kjartan is joyously welcomed by his father Olaf. Bolli and Gudrun invite Kjartan to come and stay and Osvif and Olaf traditionally host each other at feasts so the Hjardaholt people are incited to Laugar. Gudrun tells Bolli he wasn’t truthful about Kjartan’s feelings: she is unhappy. Kjartan doesn’t want to go but Olaf persuades him and he puts on a gold helmet and shield, the sword King’s Gift.
45 – Kjartan really doesn’t enjoy the feast. Bolli offers him the finest stallion from his herd but Kjartan refuses. Twice. They part badly. Then Olaf and Kjartan travel north to the home of Gudmund the Powerful and his son Hall, where they are richly entertained and take part in games. Kjartan’s sister Thurid matchmakes: why not marry Hrefna: she is pretty, her father is good, he’s good friends with her brother. Kjartan is won round and marries her with a massive wedding feast at Hjardaholt which lasts a week, and Hrefna gets to wear the white head-dress with eight ounces of gold woven into it.

Relations deteriorate
46 – Olaf and Osvir alternate hosting feasts. At Olaf’s feast Kjartan disputes which wife will get the seat of precedence. Then Kjartan’s sword goes missing. Servants accompany Osvir’s crew home and some of the men detour to a pond/bushes and, later, coming back, the servant finds the sword there. Olaf counsels discretion. A season later the Hjardaholt people go to Laugar. During the festivities the famous white head-dress goes missing. It is never found. this time Kjartan speaks up and accuses Bolli and his people of being thieves.
47 – That Christmas Kjartan takes 60 men from Hjardaholt and blockades the longhouse at Laugar. People had outside privies. The Laugar people are all forced to pee and poo inside the house for three days. Then Kjartan rides home. Olaf is unhappy. The Osvifssons want revenge. Thorarin wants to sell his farm at Tongue and get away from the growing tension. It’s perfect for Bolli and Gudrun who offer a good price and Thorarin agrees, though without witnesses. As soon as Kjartan hears about it he rides to Tongue and offers the same high price, with witnesses, and says he means to be master of the area. Reluctantly Thorarin accedes. Kjartan makes him ride up to Saurbaer to assign debts owed to him to Thorarin as payment. Thorhalla Chatterbox happened to be at Tongue when Kjaltan arrived and overheard his plans and the route he is taking. Gudrun says to Thorhalla Kjartan can afford to be puffed up since noone ever intervenes no matter how much offence he gives. The Osvifssons overhear and are shamed.
48 – Kjartan is at Hol in the north. An has a dream that a witchy woman opens his chest with a cleaver, empties his entrails and fills his gut with twigs. they all joke about it but mother Aud warns Kjartan to take extra men for the return journey south. Reluctantly he agrees for the sons Thorkel Pup and Knut to accompany him. But half way down the Svinavald valley, at the shielings called Nordursel, Kjartan tells them to go back. Which is a shame because Gudrun has spent the day shaming and goading her brothers into taking revenge and they are lying in ambush for him further down the valley.

Murder of Kjartan
49 – Kjartan continues south. A man named Thorkel of Hafratindar can see both Kjartan riding and the assassins waiting. His shepherd boy says they should warn him. Thorkel says, Let’s watch. The Osvifssons attack but can’t get to Kjartan. An the Black holds them off at the cost of having his intestines ripped out. The Osvifssons goad Bolli who eventually, reluctantly, draws Leg-Biter. Kjartan drops his sword. Bolli deals Kjartan his death blow. Bolli returns and tells Gudrun. The Osvifssons go into hiding. Olaf forbids his sons killing Bolli, instead they sail to find Thorhalla’s two sons and kill them.
50 – Olaf sends men to Laugar to protect Bolli. Family and allies assemble furiously angry, but Olaf counsels retraint.
51 – At the Thorsness Assembly Olaf secures exile for all the Osvifssons. Three years later he dies. His son Halldor takes over the farm at Hjardarholt, with Olaf’s widow, Thorgerd, consumed with hatred for Bolli.

Murder of Bolli
52 – Gudrun and Bolli thrive at their new farm and have a son, Thorleik. Thorgerd taunts Halldor into murdering Thorkel of Hafratindar, the man who watched Kjartan ride to his death.
53 – thorgerd has Halldor and Steinthor accompany her on a trip north past Saelingsdaltunga, the farm of Bolli and Gurdun, where she taunts her sons, saying how ashamed Egil Skallagrimsson would have been of them. An Althing. The Olafssons invite Bardi Gudmandarson home with them.
54 – Halldor and the three other Olafssons, Lambi his father’s half-brother, Bardi, Thorstein the Black and Helgi his brother-in-law, An Twig-Belly as well as Thorgerd the vengeful mother, ride to kill Bolli.
55 – They find Bolli and Gudrun in the sheiling, all the farmers gone out to hay. A short fight ends with Steinthor Olafsson decapitating Bolli. Helgi Hardbeinsson wipes his bloody spear on Gudrun’s shawl.
56 – Gudrun and Osvif call for Snorri the Godi who comes with advice. Part of that is they exchange houses, Snorri moving to Tunga while Gudrun and Osvif move across the fjord to Helgafell (setting of much of Eyrbyggja Saga).
57 – Thorgills Holluson woos Gudrun; she lets her son Thorleik stay and learn law with him. A rich merchant Thorkel Eyjolfsson carries out a feud-vengeance attack on an outlaw called Grim using the sword Skofnung.
58 – But the attack goes wrong and Grim comes out better. But refuses to kill him. They make peace and ride to Snorri who congratulates them and suggeste Thorkel propose to Gudrun. Thorkel takes Grim to Norway where he becomes successful.
59 – It is twelve years since Bolli’s death. Gudrun and Snorri have a sneaky conversation in which a) they agree to make Lambi and Thorstein an offer, namely help us kill Helgi and live b) Gudrun will offer marriage to Thorgils Holluson to make him lead the attack, but she will make her promise to marry him of all the men in Iceland – all the while meaning to really marry Thorkel who is in Norway.
60 – Gudrun taunts her sons Thorleik (16) and Bolli (12) and makes the tricky promise of marriage to Thorgils in echange for getting him to lead the attack on Helgi.
61 – Thorgils persuades Thorstein the Black and Lambi to make reparation to Bolli’s sons and avoid risk to themselves if they join the expedition to kill Helgi.
62 – Ten men ride to kill Helgi. At his farm men tell them he’s up at his sheiling.
63 – Along chapter in which a shepherd gives an unusually detailed description of the appearance of each of the attackers. Helgi sends the women back to his farm to get help. At the last minute a funny little man named Hrapp rides up to help Thorgils and his crew.

Battle of Skorradal
64 – Big fight at Helgi’s sheiling. He is killed by Bolli Bollasson with Leg-Biter along with two other fatalities.
65 – Lambi and Thorstein the Black are extremely unpopular with their own side. Thorgils and Gudrun’s sons return to Helgafell where Gudrun is delighted. At this point she reveals the trick-promise to Thorgills and he leaves, furious.
66 – Osvif dies and is buried in the church in Helgafell. Gest Oddleifson also dies and his body transported across the icebound Breidafjord to lie in the same grave, two wise and good men together.
67 – Thorgils and Thorstein the Black visit Helgi’s sons and come to an honourable settlement. They ride to the Althing to settle up. Thorgils is counting silver when Audgisl Thorarinsson comes up and chops his head off for depriving his father of a godord. They had come to complain to Snorri who had a) said it’s about time someone dealt with Thorgils b) given Audgisl an axe ie more or less commissioned the murder.

Gudrun’s fourth husband
68 – Thorkel Eyjolfsson returns a rich man from abroad. Snorri says propose to Gudrun (having disposed of the rival Thorgils). Thorkel does and after consulting her sons, Gudrin says yes. Big wedding feast.
69 – An outlaw named Thidbrandabani is at the wedding feast and it turns out Thorkel has promised to kill him to avenge and kinsman but Gudrun says he must be protected at all costs and a massacre nearly breaks out at the feast, until halted by Snorri. Gifts for the departing guests. Snorri invites young Bolli Bollason to come stay with him. Thorkel improves the farm, rebuilding the hall. Gudrun asks him to give the outlaw Gunnar all he wants to Thorkel gives him his merchant ship and money and Gunnar sails to Norway where he becomes a successful wealthy man.
70 – Thorleik wants to make his way in the world and sails to Norway where he enters the service of King (saint) Olaf. When Bolli comes of age he asks his step-father Thorkel to intercede on his behalf with Snorri to secure marriage with Snorri’s daughter Thordis. they are married. Big feast. Thorleik returns home rich.
71 – The reunited brothers are as thick as thieves all summer and when Snorri asks them what they’re planning they tell him a revenge attack on the Olafssons for killing Bolli. Snorri works his magic and effects a settlement between the Bollassons and the Olafssons. Money is paid and Halldor gives Bolli a fine sword and Steinthor gives Thorleik a fine shield.
72 – Then Bolli wants to go abroad. Snorri gives him portable wealth. Bolli buys the other half of the ship Thorleik owns, so it is totally owned by the brothers.

Bolli goes to Constantinople
73 – They sail to Norway. Bolli arrogantly delays going to see the ruling King Olaf the Saint. Eventually they do and Olaf is impressed with Bolli and takes him into his service. Eventually Bolli asks leave to travel south, to Denmark, and then he voyages to Constantinople to become part of the Varangian Guard.
74 – Thorkel sails to Norway to collect timber to build a church in Helgafell. (This is made more poignant if you know that Helgafell which features so largely in this saga and Eyrbyggja saga was to become one of the early centres of Christian learning in Iceland.) He is greeted warmly by King Olaf but they argue when Thorkel plans his church to the same dimensions as Olaf’s ie refuses to back down. Nonetheless he sails back to Helgafell and holds a sumptuous feast.
75 – Strange diversion: Thorkel rides north to collect  his wood, collecting his kinsman Thorstein on the way: they detour to Hjardarholt where they try to persuade Halldor to sell them his land, but he rejects them and they quickly become angry, in fact they would have attacked him had he not had his kinsman Beinar standing behind them with a large axe.

Thorkel, Gudrun’s fourth husband, is drowned
76 – Thorkel is returning with the ship full of timber when it founders in high seas and he and all aboard are drowned. At that moment Gudrun sees a ghost as she enters church. As she exits she sees Thorkel and his crew all dripping wet but when she gets home they are not there, then someone brings news of the drowning. Gellir is 14 and takes over running the farm. Gudrun becomes very religious, becoming the first woman in Iceland to learn the Psalter. She spends long periods in the church praying.
77 – Four years later Bolli Bollasson returns to Iceland in high, exotic style, dressed in gold with a fine helmet and shield. He greets his mother, then rides on to stay with his father-in-law Snorri.
78 – The last chapter is elegiac, dealing with the deaths of these great people, first Snorri old and full of years. Then the aged Gudrun, having become Iceland’s first nun and anchorite. Gellir becomes a rich man, much honoured and in later life undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome, dying on the way home. He had two sons, one Thorgils who had a son who was Ari the Learned (1067–1148), Iceland’s most prominent medieval chronicler, author of Íslendingabók which details the histories of the families who settled Iceland.

Thus the saga which began in the dark, pagan and illiterate times of King Harald Fair-Hair, ends 150 years later in the light of educated, Christian historians, having traversed what feels like vast distances in time, space and emotion.

Sayings

  • When one wolf hunts for another he may eat the prey (22)
  • Every kin has its coward (53)
  • Each man must look after himself in a tight situation (61)

Related links

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with on Gudrun's shawl (Wikimedia Commons)

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with, on Gudrun’s shawl. Note her look. (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Njal’s saga 2

‘The seeds of evil have been sown, and evil will be the harvest.’ – Flosi Thordarson

Njal’s saga is 159 chapters long. Complementing my earlier post which lists the events of the first 80 chapters, this synopsis lists the events of the second half, starting at chapter 81, immediately after the last stand and death of the hero Gunnar Hámundarson.

81 – A short haunting chapter dedicated to the romantic and mysterious afterlife of Gunnar’s brother, Kolskegg. (Both the brothers had been outlawed from Iceland for defending themselves against the ambush of the two Thorgeirs at Rang River in chapter 72. At the last moment Gunnar looks up and sees the loveliness of his native hills and refuses to leave. He returns to his homestead where he is surrounded and killed by his enemies.) Meanwhile, Kolskegg had obeyed his outlawry, taken ship to Norway and then south to Denmark where he became liegeman to King Sweyn Forkbeard (986-1014). He has a mysterious vision of becoming God’s knight, is baptised and heads east then south and ends up serving in the Varangian Guard at Constantinople. 82 – Thrain Sigfusson, uncle to Gunnar, sails to Norway and goes to see its ruler Earl Hakon. He serves the Earl by doing battle with a notorious pirate, Kol, and killing him. The Earl awards him the ship Vulture. 83 – Meanwhile Njal’s sons Helgi and Grim voyage in a merchant ship to Norway but are blown off course and encounter Vikings who say your money or your lives. The Njalssons refuse to back down. 84 – Naval battle with the Vikings in the middle of which a small fleet comes rowing their way led by one Kari Solmundarson who fights on their side, and they win. 85 – Kari serves the ruler of Orkney, Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson, and they go stay with him. In a vision Hogni sees that the Earl’s steward in Scotland has been attacked. 86 – Scouts prove this to be true and the Earl raises an army to attack the Scots and the Njalsons help him win the Battle of Duncansby Head. Much thanks then they go a-viking with Kari round the coast of Scotland.

They were with the earl that winter and the summer after, till Kari went sea-roving; then they went with him, and harried far and wide that summer, and everywhere won the victory. They fought against Godred, King of Man, and conquered him; and after that they fared back, and had gotten much goods.

In the spring they depart for Norway promising to meet Kari who is going in summer.

Killer-Hrapp
87 – A criminal called Hrapp hitches a lift on a boat over to Norway where he goes to see Gudbrand one of Earl Hakon’s closest friends. He is taken in and starts making advances to Gudbrand’s wife Gudrun. Gudbrand’s supervisor Asvardd finds them in the woods making love and Hrapp breaks Asvard’s back with an axe. He goes tells Gudbrand but runs off before his guard can catch him. He escapes and shacks up with another outlaw in the deepest forest. 88 – Earl Hakon comes to feast with Gudbrand. In the night Hrapp ransacks the local temple, stealing the gold and dragging the idols out onto the grass. He is attacked by six men but fights them off, killing three and mortally wounding Gudbrand’s son Thrand. Hrapp escapes to Lade where Thrain and the Njalssons are preparing to return to iceland. He begs the Njalssons to hide him and they refuse. Then he begs Thrain to hide him and, inexplicably, he does. Three times the earl  rows out to Thrain’s boat, Thrain denies it and hides Hrapp in different locations. Finally Thrain sails off successfully, sets Hrapp up in Iceland. Hrapp goes to Grjotriver where it is rumoured he sleeps with Hallgerd, that woman of ill-omen. 89 – Livid, Earl Hakon decides the Njalssons are to blame and sails out to their boat with a force. They fight back killing the Earl’s men until overcome, tied up and thrown in prison. Here they cut their bonds with an axe and escape to an island where they encounter Kari. He offers ot mediate with the Earl and things improve enough for the Earl’s son, Eirik, to give them a feast and reparation for their ill treatment. Then they go a-viking with Kari, raising around Wales, the Hebrides, Kintyre. 90 – Finally they return to Iceland and Kari is invited to stay at Bergthorsknoll where he falls in love and proposes to Njal’s daughter, Helga. 91 – The Njalssons want reparation for their ordeal which was caused by Thrain. Thrain gathers round him his liegemen as well as Killer-Hrapp and Gunnar’s ‘bad’ son Grani Gunnarson. They congregate at Grjotriver where bad Hallgerd lives with Grani. Hrapp, Grani and Hallgerd abuse the Njalssons. Tempers fray. The Njalssons persuade Kari to ride with them to Grjotriver where there’s a standoff from a Western and much abuse.

92 – The Battle of Markar River Runolf of Dale invites Thrain and his posse to stay. After some time they set off back from Dale. At Markar river the eight of them are attacked by the Njalssons, Kari and Helgi kill Thrain Sigfusson and Hrapp, and two others, letting the rest live. Bad mistake. 93 – Ketil of Mork is Thrain’s brother but married to Njal’s daughter ie brother-in-law to his brother’s killers. He works with Njal to reach a settlement with much compensation. He offers to Thrain’s widow to foster Thrain’s son, Hoskuld. 94 – Njal visits Ketil of Mork and is so taken with the boy that he asks to become foster-father to Hoskuld. He becomes part of the household and an inseparable friend of the Njalssons.

Hoskuld Thrainson becomes a chieftain, is renamed Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest, and marries Hildigunn
95 – Introducing Flosi of Svinafell, a big powerful chieftain with a half-brother, four other brothers and a beautiful daughter Hildigunn. 96 – Introducing Hall of Sida, his brother and five sons. 97 – Njal suggests to Hoskuld that he marry Hildigunn. They ride to Svinafell to negotiate with Flosi but Hildigunn was promised a chieftain. Through a set of complicated manoeuvres Njal gets the Althing to institute a fifth Court and to appoint Hoskuld Thrainsson chieftain of Hvitaness, whereupon he becomes Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest. He marries Hildigunn.

Lyting kills Hoskuld Njalsson and is counterattacked
98 – Lyting of Samstead is married to Thrain Sigfusson’s sister Steinvor. Njal has an illegitimate son by his mistress Hrodny, who is also named Hoskuld. Lyting holds a feast at which he invites Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest or the Lambusons or Grani Gunnarson to kill Hoskuld Njalson as revenge for Thrain. They all refuse and ride off cursing Lyting. But Lyting sets off with his thug brothers, ambushes and kills Hoskuld N. Shepherds bring him to his mother Hrodny who refuses to accept he’s dead and props him up in a barn. Bergthora urges on the Njalssons to take revenge quickly before blood cools. 99 – The Njalssons ride up to the stream where Lyting is resting. They attack and kill his brothers but Lyting escapes wounded. He rides to Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest’s house and begs him to  make a settlement. H H-P rides to Njal’s house and does just that, with compensation given for Hoskuld Thrainson and a promise of no further violence.

The Christianisation of Iceland 100-105
Quite abruptly five chapters are inserted, apparently copied from another written source, describing the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. – Bishop Thangbrand arrives. He kills a man with a crucifix. He survives a wizard making the ground open up under him. Njal and all his household convert. Mord Valgardsson doesn’t. Steinum tries to convert Thangbrand to paganism: a theological debate. Hjalti Skeggjason composes an anti=pagan lampoon for which he is outlawed. Thangbrand helps kill the feared berserkr Otrygg. Back in Norway Thangbrand tells King Olaf Tryggvason how stubbornly resistant to Christianity the Icelanders are and, enraged, the king threatens to imprison and kill ever Icelander in Norway (!). Gizur the White pleads for their lives and sails back to Iceland and rides to the Althing, along with a growing army of Christians. they are met with the assembled pagans and it looks like there’ll be a big fight. 105 – The famous meeting of the Althing where the decision is given to Thorgeir the Priest who spends a day with his cloak over his head before emerging to say the entire island must become Christian.

106 – Three years later Hoskuld Njalsson’s son, Amundi the Blind, confronts Lyting at the Althing, wishing he could see and – thanks be to God! – he can see for long enough to kill Lyting and then – he is rendered blind again.

The plot to kill Njal
107 – Valgard the Grey starts the plot to kill Njal and his sons. He returns from abroad to find his chieftaincy fallen into decay under his son Mord and that of Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest flourishing. This makes him so cross he vows to take his revenge on Hoskuld and the whole Njal clan. 108 – Mord sucks up to the Njalssons, holding feasts, giving them gifts. 109 – Mord systematically blackens Hoskuld’s name to the Njalssons, and tells Hoskuld the Njalssons were plotting to kill him. 110 – His slanders to the Njalssons take affect and they vow to go kill Hoskuld. 111 – The Njalssons ride to Ossaby and kill Hoskuld as he sows seed. Return to Bergthorsknoll and tell Njal who is devastated and predicts they will die as a result. 112 – Hoskuld’s wife Hildigunn finds his body and wipes it clean with his cloak. Mord inveigles with Ketil of Mork and takes the lead in getting witnesses and going to the Althing. 113 – Introducing Gudmund the Powerful. 114 – Introducing Snorri the Priest, both friends of Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson. 115 – The impact on Flosi Thordarson of Svinafell who gave his niece Hildigunn to marry Hoskuld. to whom it falls to avenge the murder. 116 – Flosi rides to Ossaby to meet Hildigunn who goads him and wraps him in Hoskuld’s bllody claok. Flosi recruits more eminent supporters. 117 – Flosi meets the Sigfussons, brothers of the murdered Thrain, uncles of Thrain’s murdered son, Hoskuld. 118 – Njal travels to the Althing, gathering recruits.

At the Althing
119 – Hall of Sida joins forces with Flosi though warns him against Mord. Asgrim takes the Njalssons to recruit help: at a series of booths Skalp-Hedin loiters at the back and exchanges sardonic remarks with the booth’s owner; more than one points out that he is a man of bad luck. 120 – They encounter Thorkel the Braggart who refuses them help if Gudmund has refused help. At which point he and Skarp-Hedin exchange insults and S-H runs up with his axe as if to kill him. Many people are happy at Thorkel getting his comeuppance. 121 – The court case begins with the various groups standing round highly armed. Thorhall Asgrimsson, who has been foster-son in Njal’s home and learned law from him, destroys the prosecution case by showing that Mord didn’t reveal himself as an assailant in the killing of Hoskuld. 122 – Njal makes a moving plea that he would rather his own sons had died rather than Hoskuld whom he loved, and begs Flosi for a settlement to be made. Others add their voices and finally they agree to give the case to a dozen men, six from each side, to settle, and all shake hands. 123 – The arbitrators are men of standing and honour such as Hall of Sida and Snorri the Priest. Snorri suggests setting the highest compensation ever, 600 ounces of silver but, strangely, with the expectation that most of the arbitrators will themselves contribute, which they do. The fatal cloak Njal tops off the pile with a silk cloak and a pair of boots. Flosi is brought to the booth to inspect the pile and asks who gave the cloak. Skarp-Hedin asks why he wants to know. Flosi says it was probably given by Old Beardless as nobody knows whether he’s a man or woman. Then it’s suitable, replies Skarp-Hedin, as he’s heard Flosi takes it from the Svinafell Troll every ninth night. At which point the furious Flosi kicks the pile and declares he will accept nothing but blood vengeance and stalks out.

The burning of Njal
124 – Flosi assembles up to 100 supporters near the Althing and makes them swear an oath to support his cause. He tells them all to go home for the summer haymaking then in eight weeks they will attack. Kari assures Njal he will stick with the Njalssons. Back at Bergthorasknoll the old woman Sæunn beats the chickweed then explains it is because it will be used in the fire. 125 – A boy at Reykis named Hildiglum sees the ‘witch-ride’ ie a man riding a grey horse in a ring of fire who throws a firebrand into the mountains which explode into flames. 126 – Two months before winter Flosi gathers his forces and rides west accumulating allies. 127 – At Bergthorsknoll Bergthora says she thinks she is serving the last ever meal in that house, and Njal has a vision of the gable walls torn down and blood al over the tables and food. 128 – Flosi and his posse hide in a knoll until well on into the night then ride up the house. Njal and his sons and kin and servants are standing outside, some 30 men. As Flosi approaches Njal takes the fateful decision to shepherd his people into the house, against Skarp-Hedin’s advice. Flosi immediately surrounds the house and posts men at the door but the Njalssons are able to poke out halberds and spears and wound people. Flosi takes the decision to burn the house. 129 – Flosi lets the women and children exit, but refuses Njal’s last offer of a deal and settlement. He invites Bergthora to leave but she prefers to stay with her husband, they go lie on the bed with little Thord, Kari’s son, get a servant to cover them with an ox hide and there they die. The sons fight on but the Sigfussons manage to set fire to the attic using the fateful chickweed and the house collapses on the inmates. Skarp-Hedin helps Kari escape. 130 – Skarp-Hedin swaps taunts with the Burners up to the last moment when he is trapped under a falling beam. They all die. Flosi and his men wait till the flames have died down. Then Geirmund rides up to tell them that Kari escaped, and they realise there will be vengeance. Among the ashes they hear the dead Skarp-Hedin singing. They ride to kill Ingjald Hoskuldson who had sworn to be part of their band but then talked out of it by his sister Hrodny. they wound him but he kills ones of them and makes his escape to join Kari. 131 – Kari goes to see Mord Valgardsson of all people and other allies and Ingjald joins him and they plan to let the Sigfussons return to their farms and pick them off. Realising this the Sigfussons ride east with Flosi. 132 – Kari and Injald sift through the wreckage finding the various bodies, 11 in all, and take them to the church for burial. Kari goes to consult with Asgrim who invites all the survivors to go live at Tongue and enumerates their supporters including Mord and Gizur the White. Kari can’t sleep and makes poems. 133 – Flosi also can’t sleep and dreams of Iron-Grim who calls his followers to their deaths. Both sides plan for their confrontation at the spring Althing.

The Aftermath
134 – Flosi goes on a grand tour of kin and powerful men gathering allies, returning hom to his father-in-law’s Hall of Sida. 135 – Kari goes ot see Gizur the White who advises him to force Mord to take on the case against Flosi: they ride to Mord’s and force him much against his will, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t do it well. Mord starts the complex procedure of naming witnesses and actions, then Kari rides home. 136 – Flosi’s gang go visit Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson at Tongue, eating his food, making themselves at home, provoking him until he attacks but Flosi spares him. Then they travel on to Hall of Sida.

At the Althing
137 – Asgrim and his alllies arrive at the same time as Flosi and fighting nearly breaks out. 138 – Flosi tours the booths asking for support and persuades Eyjolf Bolversksson to take on the case, giving him a solid gold arm bracelet which Snorri the Priest later discovers, predicting it will cost Eyjolf. As it does. 139 – Asgrim and Gizur go seeking support. Akapti Thoroddsson refuses. Snorri the Priest says yes. 140 – They secure the support of Gudmund the Powerful. 141 – At the Law Rock Mord Valgardsson, then Thorgeir, Kari et al raise cases against all the Burners. Eyjolf suggests a strategem: Flosi hand over his chieftaincy to a neighbouring chieftain, and become the liegeman of a chieftain in a different area: this will invalidate Mord’s prosecution.

The Great Law Case
142 – A battle of wits between Mord who brings point after poiint against the Burners only to be refuted by Eyjolf, and forced to resort to Thorhill Asgrimsson who was fostered by Njal who taught him so much law as to become the best lawyer in Iceland. He gives counter-strategies which become so recondite that Flosi and Eyjolf have to counter-check with Skapti the Law Speaker. 143 – Eyjolf reveals that Mord’s whole case is invalid because Flosi has transferred his allegiance to a chieftain who resides in a different area, and thus the entire case should have been presented in a different court! 144 – Thorhill advises they charge Flosi at the Law Rock with bribing Eyjolf, then go to the Fifth Court to lay further charges; but while they’re at the Law Rock Flosi beats them to the Fifth Court and lays charges against them! 144 – Mord makes a long recapitulation of the case but makes a vital blunder: he excludes six judges (from 48) from giving a verdict and then invites Flosi and Eyjolf themselves to exclude six; they refuse the option. Mord then asks the judges for a verdict BUT he has forgotten that, if Flosi and Eyjolf fail to reject six judges he, Mord, must do so. Eyjolf immediately calls for Mord’s entire case to be thrown out and Mord to be made an outlaw. 145 – As soon as Thorhall hears about this turn of events he lances the boil in his thigh which had been incapacitating him and emerges from his booth and starts killing Flosi’s supporters. This is the trigger which starts The Battle of the Althing which turns into a full-scale slaughter. Half the Sigfussons are killed, Eyjolf the lawyer, and Hall of Sida’s son, Ljot. Eventually Hall and Snorri the priest broker a ceasefire which is followed by a full legal settlement with lots of compensation, Flosi is exiled for three years, the other Burners for the rest of their lives.

Kari’s revenge
146 – Kari Sigmundarson and Thorgeir Skorar-Geir, nephew of Njal, refuse the settlement and ride off in pursuit of the Sigfussons. The Battle of Kerlingardale River Two men attack fifteen, kill five and put the rest to flight who flee to Svinafell and tell Flosi. Flosi stays home throughout the winter and into the spring. Hall of Sida advises him to make a settlement with Thorgeir to isolate Kari. 147 – Hall of Sida rides to Holt and persuades Thorgeir to reach a settlement; he’s reluctant to abandon Kari until Kari himself threatens to become his enemy. 148 – Hall brokers the deal: Thorgeir and Flosi shake on it. Kari refuses to stay with Thorgeir as it might jeopardise him and rises off to stay with Bjorn the White. 149 – Flosi and the Sigfussons buy a ship from Eyjolf Nose in exchange for buying him land. They all believe the rumour spread by Bjorn that Kari has ridden north. They ride to administer their farms. 150 – Kari and Bjorn ambush the Sigfussons at Skapt River and kill five of them. 151 – Six of the Burners attack Kari and Bjork and they kill three before they break off. 152 – Kari arranges for Bjorn’s safety, then rides to tell Asgrim and then Gizur the Whie what he has done. 153 – Flose and the Sigfussons set sail for Norway but are shipwrecked on Orkney. They surrender to Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson where Flosi admits that he killed Helgi Njalsson who had been one of the Earl’s favourite retainers (85). The Earl has the seized and is about to kill them but for the intervention of Thorstein, son of Hall of Sida, Flosi’s brother-in-law as Flosi is married to Thorstein’s sister Steinvor. He spares Flosi and lets him become one of his retainers.

Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf
154-157 are judged to be an interpolation added from another manuscript. They describe the complex dynastic disputes and rivalries which lead to the Battle of Clontarf outside Dublin on Good Friday 1014. Kari and Holbein sail to Fair Isle where they are greeted by Kari’s friend David the White. Earl Sigurd of Orkney invites Earl Gilli of the Hebrides to go visit. King Sigtrygg from Ireland is also there. Sigtrygg’s mother is the wicked Kormlod. Kormlod is divorced from King Brian and hates him and incites Sigtrygg to kill him and to gain Earl Sigurd’s support first. Hence he is in Orkney at the same time as Earl Gilli is visiting. All three are in the big hall for a Christmas Day feast with Flosi and Thorstein when the Earl wants to hear the story of the burning of Njal. Gunnar Lambason was chosen to tell the story. 155 – Kari and Kolbein and David the White sail to Mainland and arrive at the hall during the feast and just as Gunnar Lambason starts telling the story. He lies. Enraged, Kari bursts into the hall runs up and beheads Gunnar Lambason whose head lands on the table in front of the earl and kings. The earl calls for Kari to be seized and killed but noone moves. Kari had also been a member of the earl’s retinue and was popular. Even Flosi, his enemy, speaks up for him and says he was provoked and has done what was honourable. Kari leaves the hall without anyone moving, goes back to the ship and sails to Caithness. After this interruption Sigtrygg goes back to persuading Earl Sigurd, much against his men’s advice, to join the army against King Brian; Sigurd says he will join if he can a) marry Kormlod b) become king of all Ireland once they’ve defeated Brian. Kormlod says they need more forces for the rebellion so she sends Sigtrygg to parlay with two Vikings with thirty ships anchored off the Isle of Man. Ospak refuses to join but Brodir says he will rejoin the rebellion if he can get Kormlod’s hand in marriage and the kingship of Ireland ie the same terms offered Earl Sigurd. 156 – Brodir’s men and boats experience three nights of weird phenomena: night one, boiling blood falls out of the sky, scalding them; night two, the weapons, the swords and spears leap up and fight of their own accord; night three, ravens fly down and attack them. Ospak tells him these omens mean he is doomed. Furious, Brodir returns to his ship planning to attack Ospak in the morning. Realising this Ospak sails to Ireland, goes to meet King Brian, tells him all the plans of hte coming attack, takes baptism and pledges to serve him. Brian calls all his forces to convene outside Dublin on Palm Sunday. 157 – Earl Sigurd marshals his forces and sails to Ireland. Flosi offers to come but the earl tells him he must finish his pilgrimage to Rome.  The Battle of Clontarf On one side Brodir the Viking, King Sigtrygg (son of Brian and the vengeful Kormlod who set this all in motion) and Earl Sigurd; on the other King Brian, his sons, Ulf Hreda and Ospak the Viking. Fierce fighting: everyone who holds Earl Sigurd’s banner is killed including the earl himself. Wounded, Ospak advances through the ranks and puts Sigtrygg to flight at which point the attacking army breaks and flees. Hrafn the Red is chased into a river where devils from Hell seize him. The Viking Brodir springs form the woods and chops of King Brian’s head. Brodir is captured and his intestines tied to a tree and he is carried round it so that his intestines wind round it until he dies. In Caithness a man called Dorrud has a vision of 12 riders going into a woman’s house where women sit weaving using human heads as weights and intestines for thread. A whole suite of miracles and visions accompany the battle. Earl Gilli in the Hebrides has a vision of a man who recites a poem about the battle. Only a week later does a messenger arrive. Flosi learns that all of  his men, the Burners, were killed. He vows to continue his pilgrimage and sails to Wales.

158 – Kari, David and Kolbein meet men from the Hebrides who tell them about the battle in Ireland and that Flosi has gone to Wales. They sail there and moor. Kari goes inland and comes across Kol Thorstainsson the braggartiest of the Burners and chops off  his head with one blow. Flosi buries Kol then walks all the way to Rome where he is given absolution by the Pope. He travels back north and stays the winter on Norway and is given a ship by king Eirik to sail home to Iceland where he returns to his home at Svinafell, having fulfilled the terms of the settlement, exile and compensation. 159 – Kari sails to Normandy then walks to Rome to receive absolution. He walks back and sails round the coast to Caithness. Next summer Kari sails back to Iceland though is boat is shipwrecked. His men ask, what now, and Kari leads them through a blizzard to Svinafell. They walk in covered in snow and Flosi jumps up and embraces kari, and gives him the place of honour next to himself. They are fully reconciled and Flosi gives Kari his niece Hildigunn (widow of Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest) in marriage. In old age Flosi sets out with companions to fetch timber and is never seen again.

Motives and causes

  • The Njalssons kill Thrain Sigfusson because he refused to make it clear to Earl Hakon that he, not the Njalsons, was harbouring Killer-Hrapp, and then refused to give them any compensation for the trouble he caused ie Earl Hakon attacking them and throwing them into prison. The more they insist on compensation the more Thrain associates with a cohort who badmouth the Njalssons. After the stand-off at Hallgerd and Grani Gunnarson’s farm, Grjotriver, violence becomes inevitable and the Njalssons ambush Thrain’s posse at the frozen Markar River.
  • The Njalssons kill Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest entirely as a result of the ill-feeling Mord Valgardsson creates between them. But this second killing crystallises the enmity of all the Sigfussons, their kin and allies against Njal’s family who are felt to have got off lightly for killing first Thrain then his son.
  • Njal is burnt because a large alliance of men crystallises around Flosi of Svinafell who had given his niece Hildigunn to Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest and therefore is duty-bound to avenge his murder. The Sigfussons are brothers to the murdered Thrain Sigfusson and all uncles to the murdered Hoskuld, but they are happy to take their lead in vengeance from the more powerful figure of Flosi. Njal nearly saves himself with the epic deal done at the Althing, which only comes undone because of the silk cloak Njal places atop the 600 ounces of silver, and then the insults Skarp-Hedin is quick to throw at Flosi. Ie it could so easily have been averted, and so many good men wanted a peaceful settlement.

The Supernatural

  • Njal’s predictions always come true, rather as Hrut’s did in part one.
  • Helgi Njalsson has second sight: he sees the Earl of Orkney’s steward has been killed.
  • Omens before the burning: Hildiglum sees the Witches Ride; Sæunn knows the chickweed will be used to start the fire.
  • The Burners hear Skarp-Hedin, indubitably dead, reciting poetry from the ashes.
  • Njal and Bergthora are untouched by the flames – their Christian faith keeps them pure.
  • Flosi sees Iron-Grim in a dream.
  • There is a florid set of Christian miracles and visions surrounding the Battle of Clontarf. This is one reason for regarding it as copied from a different text.

Saga sayings

  • Far from home is far from joy (6)
  • The hand is soon sorry that it struck (42, 90, 134)
  • Cold are the counsels of women (116)
  • No tree falls at the first stroke (138)
  • One’s back is bare without a brother (152)

Eminent people

Kári Sölmundarson of Suderoerne comes at the help for Njal's sons Grim and Helgi (Andreas Bloch/Wikimedia Commons)

Kári Sölmundarson of Suderoerne comes to the help for Njal’s sons Grim and Helgi (Andreas Bloch/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Njal’s Saga 1

‘With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.’ – Njal Thorgeirsson (70)

Njal’s saga is 159 chapters long. This synopsis lists the events of the first 80 chapters, up to and including Gunnar’s Last Stand, which forms a natural break half-way through the narrative.

The episode of Unn and Hrut
Chapters 1 introduces Mord Fiddle and his beautiful daughter Unn; and Hoskuld Dala-Kollson and his half-brother Hrut. In a brief vignette Hoskuld introduces his beautiful young daughter Hallgerd but Hrut takes against her. 2 – Hoskuld and Hrut attend the Althing where Hrut proposes to Mord that he marry Unn. A deal is done. But riding home his paternal uncle Ozur arrives from Norway to say a kinsman has died and Hrut needs to sail there to claim his inheritance. The marriage deal with Mord is renegotiated with a 3-year delay. 3 – Hrut and his uncle Ozur sail to Norway and go see King Harald Grey-Cloak (which dates these events to the 960s since HG-C reigned from 961-70). The king’s mother, Gunnhild, wife of the dead King Eirik Bloodaxe, seduces Hrut and makes him her man for as long as he stays at court. Hrut has Viking adventures sailing south in pursuit of Soti who has sold and stolen his inheritance, but he is caught and the money recovered. When Hrut finally returns to Iceland, Queen Gunnhild asks if he has a woman there and he lies and says no, and she casts a spell on him to make him impotent with her. 6-7 The marriage proceeds but is never consummated. Unn tells her father Mord Fiddle and he advises her to be patient but another winter of frustration passes and she meets her father again at the Althing and he advises her to pretend to be ill then to leave Hrut with her servants and goods. And this she does & returns to his house. Mord goes to the Law Rock and gives notice of Unn’s divorce from Hrut. 8 – Mord claims back his dowry of 90 hundreds, the full marriage settlement. Angry at this demand Hrut challenges Mord to a duel. Mord backs down to universal derision.

Hallgerd’s first husband, Thorvald
9 – Hallgerd Hoskuld’s-daughter has grown to be tall and beautiful and nicknamed ‘Long Legs’. A man called Thorvald discusses getting married with his father Osvif and visits Hoskuld who is keen to get shot of her. Hallgerd is cross at not being consulted. 10 – Hallgerd invites her foster-father Thjostolf and a famously bad-tempered man, Svan, skilled in magic. 11 – Hallgerd is a bad housewife and gets through all the supplies. When Thorvald berates her she says he and his father can go hungry. He slaps her and goes off to the Bjarn Islands to get supplies. Her foster-father Thjostolf comes by, sees she is hurt, and immediately rows out to the islands where he confronts Thorvald and kills him with his big axe, staves in the boats of his servants and rows back to land. 12 – Hallgerd advises Thjostolf to ride north to stay with Svan. When Osvif (her dead Thorvald’s father) rides north in pursuit, the wizard Svan creates a fog and then blackness which the posse can’t penetrate. they give up and ride over to poor Hoskuld’s who, on Hrut’s advice, gives Osvif generous compensation for his son. And Hallgerd stays with Hoskuld and asks if her foster-father, the murderer Thjostolf can come stay.

Hallgerd’s second husband, Grim
13-17 The brothers Thorarin Lawspeaker, Ragi and Glum enter the saga. Glum wants to marry Hallgerd. Hoskuld and Hrut are careful to consult her this time. She agrees and the contract is made. Things go well until foster-father Thjostolf is kicked out of Hoskuld’s house and goes live with Glum. They argue. Glum and Hallgerd argue and he slaps her. She begs Thjostulf not to take revenge; he only grins. They go round up sheep on a mountain and an argument sparks and Thjostulf kills Glum. Hallgerd advises him to ride to her uncle Hrut’s. He explains to Hrut what he did and Hrut immediately attacks and kills him. Thorarin and Ragi ride to Hoskuld’s and, although they are not liable and killed Thjostulf as soon as, Hoskuld behaves generously and gives the brothers compensation. They are now out of this saga. They only appeared for four chapters to amplify Hallgerd’s guilt and the Hs’ nobility.

Unn’s law case against Hrut for return of the dowry
18 Mord Fiddle dies. His daughter Unn inherits the estate and fritters it away. 19 – Introducing the hero of the saga, Gunnar Hámundarson from Hlidarend. Tall, powerful, skillful, athletic, generous, well-bred.

Gunnar Hámundarson is generally considered to be the archetypical ‘light hero’ of the Icelandic sagas (as opposed to ‘dark heroes’ such as Egill Skallagrímsson): a man of heroism, energy, virtue, and — above all — unswerving loyalty to the land of his birth and love for its overpowering physical beauty

20 – Introducing the other hero, Njal from Bergthorsknoll. Wealthy and handsome and the most learned man in the law, he has one peculiarity: he cannot grow a beard. 21 – Penniless Unn goes to see her kinsman Gunnar, to ask if she will take up the case for reclaiming her dowry to Hrut. Gunnar vows to help her, gives her money, then goes to see his friend the superwise Njal. Njal has a plan. 22 – Njal maps out a complicated charade whereby Gunnar will pretend to be Hawker-Hedin who pretends to sell shoddy wares and argues and fights with everyone. He is to wend his away across south Iceland until he arrives at Hrutstead. There he is to let Hrut engage him in conversation and discuss the character of men from various regions until they come close to home, when Mord Fiddle’s name will come up. And Gunnar must let Hrut naturally raise the story of Mord’s failed attempt to recover the dowry. And Gunnar is to let Hrut go on to explain how Mord could have revived the claim at any point since, in fact anybody could who recited the correct form of words. And he is to get Hrut to tell him the correct form of words and repeat it once with lots of mistakes and let Hrut correct him, and read it a second time correctly – and he will have indeed have summonsed Hrut to the Althing. In the middle of the night he and his men are to make their getaway. 23 – Gunnar carries it off to the letter, then absconds. Hoskuld wakes from a prophetic dream and rushes over to his half brother’s house. But Gunnar has escaped. 24 – Gunnar presses his case at the Althing, Hoskuld and Hrut come back with counterarguments, at which point Gunnar simply challenges Hrut to single combat which, wisely, he refuses, and has to pay back the whole dowry, which Gunnar hands over to Unn.

Unn’s second husband, Valgard, birht of Mord Valgardsson
25 – Unn marries Valgard the Grey, a malicious and unpopular man. Their son is Mord Valgardsson who grows up sly and malicious and will be the Iago of the saga. Introduction to Njal’s sons: Skarp-Hedin, Grim, Helgi and his illegitimate son Hoskuld. 26 – Njal arranges for Helgi to marry Thorhalla Asgrim’s-daughter. 27 – Njal offers to become foster-father to Asgrim’s son Thorhall. (At the end of the saga, Thorhall will become legal adviser to Kari, Mord and the avengers in the Great Law Case, and will be the first to draw blood when the case breaks down.)

Gunnar and Kolskegg’s foreign adventures
28-32 Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg travel abroad in the ship of Halvard the White. They have two fights with Vikings. Gunnar stays with and impresses King Harald Gormsson/’Bluetooth’ of Denmark (958-986). Then sails north to Trondheim and impresses Earl Hakon (970-995). in the sea battle in 30 Gunnar wins the halberd he keeps for the rest of his life.

Gunnar meets and marries Hallgerd
33 – Gunnar rides to the Althing to announce  his return to Iceland and there meets and becomes infatuated with Hallgerd. Against the advice of her father Hoskuld and his best friend Njal, Gunnar marries her. 34 – Introduction of the seven Sigfusson brothers. Thrain Sigfusson divorces his wife and wants to marry Thorgerd, daughter of Hallgerd, granddaughter of Hoskuld, (He will play a key role; after the death of Gunnar, it will be Skerp-Hedin’s murder of Thrain which leads to the Burning.) Ketil Sigfusson of Mork marries Njal’s daughter and is the most restrained of the Burners, so that Kari refuses to kill him.)

The wives’ killings, or how Hallgerd and Bergthora incite their servants to kill each others’ servants
35 – The seeds of enmity between Hallgerd and Njal’s wife Bergthora when Thorhalla returns to Njal’s house and Bergthora asks Hallgerd to move along the dais to make room for her and Hallgerd rudely refuses. Hallgerd then insults Njal the beardless and Bergthora throws in her face the fact Hallgerd had her first husband killed. Hallgerd calls on Gunnar to revenge her but he refuses, saying he is too deep in debt to Njal.36 – Kol murders Svart Njal and Gunnar ride to the Althing. In his absence Hallgerd commissions a servant Kol to ride up to the woods and kill Bergthora’s servant Svart. 36 – Hallgerd sends word to Gunnar at the Althing, who takes it calmly and visits Njal. The friends agree a moderate payment of 12 ounces of silver for Svart. Back home at Hlidarend Gunnar reprimands Hallgerd. At Bergthorsknoll Bergthora takes on an itinerant named Atli who works with them through the winter. 37 – Atli murders Kol Bergthora commissions Atli to kill Kol and he does. It’s reported to Gunnr and Njal at the Althing. Njal gives back to Gunnar the pouch of silver he received as compensation for Svart. Gunnar and Njal reprove their wives. 38 – Brynjolf murders Atli Hallgerd orders Brynjolf to kill Atli up in the woods making charcoal. Gunnar pays Njal 100 ounces of silver. Hallgerd mocks him. 39 – Thord murders Brynjolf Thord tall handsome foster-father to Njal’s sons. Bergthora orders Thord to kill Brynjolf.  40 – Njal and Gunnar at the Althing are told. Njal pays Gunnar back the 100 oz of silver. 41 Introducing Gunnar’s kinsmen Sigmund Lambason and Skjold. Hallgerd organises Sigmund, Skjold and Thrain Sigfusson (he who married Hallgerd’s daughter in 34) to kill Thord. 42 – Sigmund and Skjold murder Thord. 43 – News brought to Njal and Gunnar at the Althing. Both shocked. Gunnar pays Njal 200 oz silver. 44 – Gunnar berates Sigmund, telling him to be careful. One day they are sitting round, Hallgerd insults Njal as beardless and the Njalssons as little dungheaps, and tells Sigmund to make a lampoon poem about them which he does. Gunnar overhears, is furious and bans the words. But some wandering beggarwomen hear them and go to Bergthorasknoll and tell Bergthora who tells Njal’s sons. Late that night Njal is woken by his sons packing their weapons and sneaking out. 45 – Skarp-Hedin, Helgi and Grim murder Sigmund and Skjold. Farmers tell Hallgerd. Gunnar refrains from demanding compensation until, at the next Althing, Njal offers Gunnar 200 oz silver. Both act with nobility and rstraint and vow to stay friends no matter what their wives do. End of the wives’ murders.

The episode of Otkel Skarfsson, introducing Gizur the White and Geir the Priest
46 Introducing Gizur the White , a powerful chieftain, and his friend Geir the Priest. Mord Valgardsson, his mother Unn who we met in the opening pages of the saga now dead, is consumed with envy and hatred of Gunnar, the man who won Unn her dowry. 47 – Introducing Otkel Skarfsson of Kirkby, a kinsman of Gizur the White, his son Thorgeir, and his friend the scoundrel Skamkel. There is a famine. Gunnar lends food to kin and friends. He goes ot ask Otkel to lend him some form his store. Inspired by spiteful Skamkel Otkel refuses but, bizarrely, offers to sell him his good-for-nothing slave Melkolf. 48 – Hallgerd orders Melkolf back to Kirkby to steal food from Otkel then burn down his barn, which he does. On the way back his sandal strap breaks and he fixes it with a knife, leavin both knife and bits of strap by the way, which will become evidence. Gunnar arrives at Hlidarend with guests from the Althing. Hallgerd lays out provisions he knows they don’t have. They argue. Gunnar slaps Hallgerd. Bad idea. Remember Thorvald! 49 – Skamkell finds the incriminating knife. Wicked Mord devises a strategem for the women beggars to ascertain that Hallgerd has Otkel’s stolen food. They spread the word Hallgerd is a thief. Gunnar rides to Otkel and makes a fair offer of compensation – twice the value of the burned food. Egged on by Skamkel Otkel refuses, then sends Skamkel to get advice from his kinsman Gizur the White. 50 – Gizur and Geir advise Otkel accept the offer. Skamkel returns and lies, saying they advised summonsing Gunnar to the Althing. So Otkel rides over to Hlidarend with a posse and summonses Gunnar. 51 – At the Althing when Gizur and Geir hear Skamkel lied to Otkel they are livid. They go to Gunnar’s tent to make reparation. Gunnar is furious at being summonsed and judges the damages for the fire to exactly match his reparation for being summonsed ie totalling nothing. Gunnar wanrs Otkel to keep out of  his way. 52 – Runolf stays with Otkel. He invites Otkel back. Otkel sets off with kin and two feisty horses. 53 – Near Gunnar’s farm the horses run out of control and the one Otkel is riding crashes into Gunar out farming, Otkel’s spur gashing Gunnar’s ear. The rest of the entourage  ride by jeering. They stay at Runolf’s a while, then plan to ride home to Kirkby. 54 – The Battle of Rang River Gunar, later joined by his brother Kolskegg, kill Skamkel, Audolf the Easterner, Otkel, Hallkel and four others. 55 – Njal advises Gunnar never to kill twice in the same family, and never to break a settlement among good men: it is a prophecy. Gizur the White activates the case against Gunnar. 56 – Aided by Njal Gunnar activates a suite of cases against the men who he murdered, and against their defenders at the Althing: mediation finds a settlement. Gunnar is held in high esteem. End of the Otkel episode.

The Starkadarsons
57 – Introducing Starkad of Thrihyrning and his three sons and Egil Kolson and his three sons and two Easterners staying with them. 58 – The Starkadsons have a red stallion. Who shall they match it against. Someone suggest Gunnar. they ride over and challenge him. 59 – The Horse Fight quickly degenerates into a man fight, as Kol and Thorgeir try to push Gunnar’s horse onto him but he pushes their back onto them, then Thorgeir strikes Gunnar’s horse, blinding him, and Gunnar knocks Thorgeir flat. They have to be separated. Njal tries to broker a settlement, Thorgeir angrily refuses. 60 – Gunnar helps Asgrim. Njal warns him to be on guard. 61 – Gunnar, Kolskegg and Hjort go stay with Asgrim, then return. Spies tip off the Starkadsons who along with Egil and the Easterners gather 30 men in all. 62 – Gunnar’s dream. They see the men of Thrihyrning. The Battle of Knafahills Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Thorkil, Kol, Egil, Thorir, Bork, Hauk and eight others. But Gunnar’s brother Hjort is killed. 64 – Njal devises a complicated suite of cases and countercases to neutralise the case that will be brought against Gunnar. 65 – Thorgeir recruits Gizur the White and Mord Valgardson for his case at the Althing; Gunnar recruits his supporters. 66 – The legal proceedings in which Gunnar neutralises his critics much to their anger. 67 – Thorgeir Starkardarson of Thrihyning goes to visit Mord Valgardson and they conspire. 68 – Thorgeir Starkadarson cynically cultivates thorgeir Otkelson – Mord has explained that if Gunnar kills twice in the same family he is doomed: Thorgeir S plans to get Thorgeir O killed to fulfil the prophecy. 69 – The next autumn Gunnar sends is men out to the fields and is the only man left at Hlidarend. The two Thorgeils assemble a posse and set off to attack him, but are assailed by a strange sleepiness and tke a nap in the woods. Njal has visions of them and, when his shepherd revals their precise location, rides up to scare them off. They flee. 70 – Njal negotiates a deal at the Althing so the two Thorgeirs have to pay 200 oz and all the other members of the posse 100 oz of silver to Gunnar. Gunnar stays with his half-brother in law Olaf the peacock who gives him gifts including the dog, Sam. (Olaf is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld and so half-brother of Gunnar’s difficult wife, Hallgerd.) 71 – Gunnar rides to the Land-Isles. En route back with Kolskegg he is ambushed by the Thorgeirs with twelve men apiece. 72 The Battle of Rang River II  Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Onund the Handsome, Ogmund Tangle-Hair, Thorgeir Otkelson, and some others before they flee. 73 – Njal points out that Gunnar has now fulfilled part one of his prophecy, namely killing twice in the same family (Otkel and now his son Thorgeir Otkelson); he must be careful not to fail part two, namely break a lawful settlement. At the Althing at the Law Rock Gizur the White eloquently makes the case against Gunnar. 74 – Njal challenges the jurymen; nonetheless the case is given against Gunnar who has to pay compensation and, along with Kolskegg, is outlawed for three years. Njal tells him he must go. He agrees. He tells his mother he will go. 75 – Having arranged the shipping Gunnar and Kolskegg ride down towards the sea but Gunnar’s horse stumbles, and he looks back up at the hillside in the sun:

‘How lovely the slopes are,’ he said, ‘more lovely than they have ever seemed to me before, golden cornfields and new-mown hay. I am going back home, and I will not go away.’

Gizur the White successfully calls for Gunnar to be delcared an outlaw. Anyone can kill him with impunity. Gizur assembles a posse of all Gunnar’s enemies, some thirty men in all, who make a compact to kill him. Njal offers to send his sons Skarp-Hedin and Hoskuld to go stay with him but Gunar nobly says he doesn’t want them to die for him. 76 – Mord Valgardsson tells the enemies Gunnar is alone at Hlidarend. Gizur the White and Geir and Starkad assemble and ride in a posse of 30 to Hlidarend. they threaten Gunnar’s neighbour into luring away his dog, Sam, then kill him, Sam’s death howl alerts Gunnar to the attack.

77 – Gunnar Hamunson’s Last Stand Surrounded and alone, Gunnar keeps his enemies at bay for a long time, killing two and inflicting wounds but finally they kill him. He had asked Hallgerd for strands from her hair to repair his bow but she refuses. Gizur the White asks Rannveig (G’s mother) for permission to bury their dead.

78 – In the aftermath Rannveig treats Hallgerd so harshly she leaves home along with the Gunnar’s bad son Grani. Gunnar is buried in a mound. A passing farmer and servant hear Gunnar chanting verse. On another occasion Gunnar’s good son Hogni and Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin see the mound open, illuminated with four lights and Gunnar chants a verse. 79 – Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out with Gunnar’s halberd, ride to Oddi where they kill Tjorvi and Hroald. Ride to Thrihyrning and kill Starkad and Thorgeir Starkadson. Ride to Hof where Mord begs for mercy and, foolishly, they let him live. 80 – At the district Assembly Njal negotiates a settlement with the enemies. Geir the Priest is now out of this saga, as is Hogni Gunnarsson.

Supernatural

Supernatural signs and omens occur throughout the text and are treated quite casually by the characters, although everything is treated casually, with little or no ‘affect’.

  • 12 – Svan the magician creates fog then blackness to deter the posse pursuing Thjostolf.
  • 41 – Thord sees a goat drenched in blood. It is his fetch. He is doomed.
  • 62 – Gunnar dreams of the death of his brother Hjort in the forthcoming Battle of Knafahills
  • 72 – blood appears on Gunnar’s halberd, a ‘death rain’ which forebodes fighting
  • 78 – Gunnar’s corpse is heard singing and reciting poetry

Connections

The more sagas I read, the more I appreciate how the stories and characters overlap and intertwine and begin to understand how the size and complexity of the 40 or so surviving sagas, taken together, create an enormous intertwining jungle of people and adventures. Working in different registers and chronicling different events, many of them nonetheless overlap dates and locations and sometimes characters, to create a vast tapestry. If you throw in the differences between the factual family sagas and the more legendary and mythical ones; if you throw in the general difficulty of getting clarity about even ell-known historical figures and events; and if you throw in the mystique and romance of learning an ancient and evocative medieval language – then you have the ingredients for an endlessly ramifying, wonderfully rich and rewarding field of study. I can see why people become addicted.

Overlapping figures include Queen Gunnhild: as wife of King Eirik Bloodaxe she incurs the enmity of Egil Skallagrimsson who memorably sets up a scorn pole against them both. In Njals’ saga Eirik is dead (d.954) and Gunnhild is mother of King Harald Grey-Cloak. She plays  the baleful role of putting a hex on Hrut which makes him impotent with Unn which leads to her divorcing him which leads to Gunnar taking up Unn’s case at the Althing.

Olaf Peacock is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld Dala-Kollson, and therefore half-brother of Hallgerd Hoskuldsdottir who is married to Gunnar Hámundarson, and therefore kin to Gunnar who he visits and offers help to. As well as Njal’s saga, Olaf appears in Laxdæla saga and is mentioned in Egil’s saga, Gunnlaug’s saga, Kormák’s saga, Grettir’s saga and the Landnámabók,

Related links

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson (59)

Other sagas

The Vatnsdæla saga (13th century)

Ingimund was a popular figure with all good men (18)

Vatnsdæla saga is the chronicle of one family over five generations, starting in Norway and following them through the settlement of the Vatnsdal, a valley that runs south from Hunafloi in the north of Iceland. Ingimundur, the grandson of a Norwegian chieftain, Ketill Raum, fights for King Harald Fairhair of Norway at the battle of Hafrsfjord and is rewarded by him. At the prompting of a fortune-teller he moves to Iceland where he lives to old age. The saga tells the story of his family until the arrival of Christianity at the end of the tenth century.

Distinctive feel

Shorter than Egil’s or Njal’s sagas (a mere 47 chapters long), the saga of the people of Vatnsdale has a notably different feel for several reasons. For a start, the opening scenes where young Thorstein is shamed by his father into going and doing a deed of derring-do like the heroes of old, and so hides in the house of a hero/giant, before killing him a) feels more like a fairy story than the grim realism of a saga b) ‘heroes of old’? The whole saga is written with a knowing, antiquarian reverence for the past and its legends. The other sagas just tell the events baldly and blankly.

This kind of editorialising happens periodically throughout and creates a distancing affect. Other sagas are in the moment and therefore dramatic; the narrator of Vatnsdæla saga refers to things as being ‘from the olden times’ thereby giving a slightly more folk tale affect; in fact making me realise that a characteristic of the folk tale is the conscious sense of describing ‘the olden days’.

The behaviour of young men today is not what it was when I was young. In those days men hankered after deeds of derring-do, either by going raiding or by winning wealth and honour through exploits in which there was some element of danger.

The dialogue at the start is also longer and more psychological ie it expresses feelings and is aware of other peoples’ feelings. In your average saga dialogue is the barest expression of wants and tends to lead either to violent disagreements or strong male bonding. The saga maintains this slight folk story/fairy tale air throughout.

Good people

The second and most obvious difference is that the successive heads of the family – Thorstein, Ingimund and Thorstein, Ingolf, Thorkel – are good men, who live in peace and plenty with their neighbours, respected and honoured. This concern for the abstract idea of honour makes it feel as if the text has been influenced by French romance, where high ideals motivate character. In Njal’s saga the key idea is justice in accordance with the convoluted processes of the Law. In Egil’s saga the hero behaves like a beast and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Vatnsdæla saga‘s dwelling on honour is one of its distinctive features.

This is well and nobly spoken… Ingimund stayed over the winter, and his honour seemed to be much on the increase… (7) Ingimund, in great honour, visited his father after the battle of Havresfjord (8) It is a great honour to be the object of your goodwill… As before the king showed him all due honour… (12) There were good people a-plenty in the vicinity, but is was Ingimund who enjoyed the most honour (16) He maintained his honour in this affair as in all others. (35) Ingolf had lived on in great honour for twelve years after the death of his father. (41) I believe that you will be a source of honour to your kinsfolk. (43) The Vatnsdal people did everything possible to honour Thorkel Scratcher. (45) Thorkel resolved this case in an honourable way. (46)

Synopsis

1-7 Thorstein son of Ketil the Large, proves himself a hero by clearing the public highway of the menace of the giant Jokul, then surrenders himself to his father Ingimund. Surprisingly Ingimund lets him live and even marry Jokul’s sister, Thordis. Thorstein names his eldest son after his father-in-law ie Ingimund and as soon as he is old enough Ingimund goes off a-viking.

7 – Ingimund and Saemund come into conflict, then negotiate and become bosom friends.

8-9 Ingimund joins King Harald Fine-Hair’s army at the Battle of Hravnsfjord, winning his friendship and awarded an amulet (cf the enmity Egil’s family got for not supporting Harald).

10 – Ingimund encounters a Lapp sorceress who predicts he will emigrate to Iceland and says the amulet has been spirited to the place he will settle. Ingimund says he doesn’t want to go but later searches for and can’t find the amulet.

11 – Thorstein dies. 13 – Ingimund’s wife Vigdis gives birth to two boys, Thorstein named for his paternal grandfather and Jokul named for the giant his grandfather Thorstein killed at the start. 14,15 – It is this Ingimund Thorsteinsson who takes the family to Iceland and settles the northern valley of Vatn giving names to all the landmarks. In complete contrast to Egil, Ingimund is a good man, respected and honoured.

18-26 The incident of Hrolleif the Tall and his mother, Ljot the witch. After staying with various relatives and causing trouble everywhere they go, Hrolleif is dumped on Ingimund where he comes into continual conflict with the five sons. When he refuses to make way for them at the salmon fishery a fight breaks out. When the old and nearly Ingimund is led there on horseback Hrolleif spears him. Ingimund staggers home and is found dead in his chair (23). In acts which are entirely uncharacteristic of the sagas, two of his friends, Eyvind the Proud and Gaut fall on their own swords in suicide (23). Is it some strange fusion with the learned author’s knowledge of classical literature? Or can it possibly be true?

The narrative torch is passed to his sons who take some months coming up with a plan to ambush Hrolleif outside his own house, where they chop off  his head and his mother the witch dies of rage. Only just in time because she had been planning to rearrange the entire landscape so the brothers could never find their way there.

27 ‘Thorstein became chief of the Vatnsdal people’. 28 – The story of Thorolf Sledgehammer who is a pest and defends his house with magic cats who, when confronted, runs off over the fields carrying two chests full of silver before grabbing the nearest pursuing man and jumping down a deep shaft never to be seen again.

29 The story of Thorgrim Skinhood: a disoute about a good piece of pasture land escalates into a pitched battle between the Ingimundsons with 25 men and Thorgrim and kin with 40, until broken up by neighbours. It is settled in the law court and Thorgrim is exiled.

30 The story of Thorolf Darkskin who rustles cattle until a posse of 19 set off for his fortified homestead, storm it, and Jokul chases Thorolf across fields to a marsh where he sits down and weeps and is killed.

31-36 The story of Berg the Bold, a pushy showoff who doesn’t show Thorstein respect; arriving at a wedding he barges Thorstein out of the way which makes hotheaded Jokul hit him which leads to the threat of a fight. At a lawcourt Thorstein offers to undergo turf-reparation but Berg is rude so he stops and they arrange a double duel, but the weather is so bad that, although Thorstein and Jokul show up, Berg and his ally Finnbogi don’t, thus losing much face. And they then assemble a posse to ambush the brothers but are outnumbered by the brother’s own posse and go meekly away. So humiliating that they pack up and leave the area.

36 Two sisters arrive. Groa performs a magic spell, walking backward round the house and waving a handkerchief at the mountain, then there is a rockfall which kills everyone inside. The other sister is driven away and the site becomes haunted.

37 Thorstein persuades his brother, Thorir the berserkr, to adopt the illegitimate son of Thorgrim (son of their sister, Thordis) who has been left out to die. Thorir does so and Thorstein successfully prays for him to stop being a berserkr. When found the baby was scratching at the cloth over his face and becomes known as Thorkel Scratcher.

38 Thorstein dies, as do Jokul and Thorir. His sons succeed: Ingolf and Gudbrand. 37-40 Ingolf falls in love with Valgerd daughter of Ottar who disapproves. This escalates into a feud with Ottar hiring two successive itinerants to assassinate either Ingolf or Gudbrand. The first, Thorir, tries to axe Gudbrand but the blade sticks in the roofbeam and Gudbrand kills him. But the second, Svart, stays with Gudbrand a whole winter before spearing him to death. Ingolf takes Ottar to the Althing (first mention of it) where a settlement is made.

41 Ingolf dies in a famous solo attack on the sheiling of highway robbers. He kills five and scares the others off before collapsing from his wounds.

42 Thorgrim acknowledges his 12 year-old son Thorkel Scratcher when they collaborate on a plan to kill Thorkel Silver from Helgavatn who, in the casting of lots to become next godi of Vatnsdal, kept winning by using magic.

43 Thorkel Silver sails to the Orkney Isles and serves earl Sigurd with distinction when they go a-viking. Thorkel makes a single-handed raid on a castle and earl Sigurd lets him keep the silver he wins so Thorkel can free his slave-mother and thus become a freeman and legitimate.

44 The long story of how Thorkel Scratcher kills Glaedir the blusterer who insults him at a wedding and the conflict and legal case this leads to which is won when Thordis the Prophetess instructs Thorkel to tap Gudmund the advocate on the cheek so he forgets what to say

46 Bishop Frederick arrives to convert Iceland. At a feast at Olaf’s he makes a great and incomprehensible demonstration involving two berserkrs and three fires. Iceland is converted. Thorkel is baptised and builds a church.

47 Bard the Peevish conducts a magic spell to ward off a storm. A long and incomprehensible feud arises where Thorkel seems to give sound advice. He dies old and full of years.

With that he died and this was a great sorrow to his thingmen, and all men of the region, because he seemed – as was indeed the case – a great district leader, and a man blessed with great luck, and the man most like the old Vatnsdal men such as Thorstein and Ingimund. However, Thorkel surpassed them in that he was a man of the true faith, and loved God, and prepared himself for death in the Christian way. And with that we make an end of the saga of the people of Vatnsdal.

Magic and human sacrifice

Magic is omnipresent, like Thorolf Sledgehammer’s enchanted cats, Ljot rearranging the landscape, the witch who makes a cloak imvulnerable. The move to Iceland isn’t prompted by simple self-defence as with Egil’s family, but because of an elaborate yarn about an amulet which is magicked over the sea and buried in Vatnsdal. Berg’s sister is, inevitably in this saga, a witch who can see the future.  When two sisters arrive from Norway one, Groa, is inevitably a witch who performs a strange spell. After Thorkel Scratcher kills Glaedir his kin consult Thordis the Prophetess who works magic to win the case. Bard the Peevish performs a magic spell, even after the conversion to Christianity.

It is notable that the adversaries in the central confrontations are accused of digging ditches in which they sacrifice animals and humans. Did this take place? Or is it legendary – propaganda – an addition by the Christian author of the text?

Viking is an activity not a race or ethnic group

In Vatnsdæla saga as in Egil’s saga, viking is an activity anyone can undertake, meaning violent raids to grab loot.

He went raiding each summer and won wealth and honour… Ingjald and Thorstein held a feast together each autumn when they returned home from their Viking raids… They then set off raiding for a second summer and seized large amounts of booty from pirates and robbers… In the last summer that Ingimund and Saemund held fellowship together, they returned with far more booty than ever before… Hrafn had been on Viking raids for a long time, and was well off for weapons and war-clothing… Hrafn always wanted to talk about his Viking adventures and raids… (17)  During the following summer they went raiding… (43)

To quote Tom Shippey:

The many ‘sagas of Icelanders’, or Íslendinga sögur, are not strictly speaking about Vikings, for ‘Viking’ was a job description rather than an ethnic label; but some Icelanders, notably Egil Skallagrimsson, went through a Viking phase, as did several of the Norwegian kings whose lives are recorded in the ‘kings’ sagas’ or konunga sögur, and more indirectly in the praise poems of their skalds (bards). (London Review of Books Vol. 32 No. 14 · 22 July 2010)

And so also Thorstein and Ingjald and, in the next generation, Ingimund and Saemund, go through their ‘Viking phase’ before settling down to become respected landowners.

Translation

The translation is by Andrew Wawn and from the Penguin volume, The Saga of the Icelanders. It is clear and modern but somehow not quite as fluent as Bernard Scudder’s translation of Egil’s saga. But both are vastly better than the old Victorian/Edwardian translations and just a bit zippier than the Magnus Magnusson translations from the early 1960s.

Related links

Head of a man carved from an antler

Head of a man carved from an antler

Other sagas

Egil’s saga (13th century)

Then Egil said, ‘Let us go back to the farm and acquit ourselves like true warriors: kill everyone we can catch and take all the valuables we can carry.’ (Ch 58)

The saga of Egil Skallagrimsson is said to be one of the masterpieces of the genre, along with the sagas of Grettir, Njal and the people of Laxdale.

The saga is 90 chapters long. Typically the eponymous hero only appears in chapter 31, over a third in, and is old and ceases to play much of an active role by chapter 80 – ie as with all the other sagas one man’s life is deeply embedded in the lives and stories of his forebears and ancestors.

That first third is devoted to the collapse of the relationship between Norwegian King Harald Fine-Hair, or Tangle-hair as is here translated, and one of his leading men Thorolf Kveldulfsson. In brief Thorolf serves the king excellently but is the victim of slanders made by the sons of the second marriage of a man whose property he inherited via his friend, the grandson. In their bid to regain the property they think rightly theirs, the sons convince Harald Thorolf is a traitor plotting his murder and Harald first deprives Thorolf of his role of King’s tax collector, then surrounds his homestead, burning it (as in Njal’s saga) before massacring the men who run out. Thorolf’s downfall convinces Egil’s father Grim the Bald (Skallagrim) and many of his kinsfolk to flee Harald’s dictatorial behaviour for the newly discovered and unpopulated island of Iceland.

History

One thing which makes Egil’s saga easier to read than most is that it is firmly embedded in a historical framework. Egil’s family are entangled with successive kings of Norway, Denmark and England. The first third of the saga is the story of Egil’s uncle Thorolf’s doomed relationship with King Harald Fine-Hair. Once he has reached adulthood, Egil sails back to Norway where he has difficult relations with Harald’s son Eirik Bloodaxe, serves King Athelstan of England in battle against King Olaf the Red of Scotland, and falls foul of King Gorm of Denmark.

The known dates of these kings, their battles and successions, although a bit mangled in the saga, nonetheless give the reader a fixed and logically unfolding framework or chronology in which to situate the narrative. Unlike, say, the Eyrbyggja saga, where obscure events relate only to other obscure events, and unknown characters relate to lots of other unknown characters, creating a tapestry of confusion.

Psychopath

I’ve read blurb saying Egil is an ambivalent figure. He’s not. He’s a violent psychopath. He kills lots of people. As a youth he is unnaturally large and ugly and strong. He commits his first murder aged seven and doesn’t look back. He kills Bard at the feast where Bard is hosting King Eirik Bloodaxe along with his queen Gunnhild. He kills all the men in the boat Eirik sends after him, including Eirik’s son prince Rognvald.

The warship gave such a jolt that the sea flooded over one side and filled it. Egil leaped aboard, clutching his halberd and urged his men to let no one on the ship escape alive. Meeting no resistance, they did just that: everyone on the ship was killed, and none escaped. Rognvald and his men died there, thirteen of them in all. Egil and his men rowed to the island of Herdla. Then Egil spoke a verse:

We fought, I paid no heed
that my violent deeds might be repaid.
My lightning sword I daubed with the blood
of warlike Eirik and Gunnhild’s son.
Thirteen men fell there,
pines of the sea’s golden moon,
on a single ship; the bringer
of battle is hard at work.

He kills all the men he confronts in battle fighting for King Athelstan. He kills Olvir. He kills Berg-Onund and Frodi and Hadd. And the appalling savagery of Viking mentality is described with blunt factuality as Egil and his brother Thorolf go a-viking, killing countless farmers and their workers, stealing everything they can carry, burning everything else.

In the spring, Thorolf and Egil equipped big longships and took on a crew to go raiding in the Baltic that summer. They won a huge amount of booty and won many battles… One day they put into an estuary with a large forest on the upland above it. They went ashore and split up into parties of twelve. Thay walked through the woodland and it was not far until the first settlement began, fairly sparse at first. The Vikings began plundering and killing people at once, and everyone fled from them. (Ch 46)

Poetry

His poetry is meant to redeem Egil. It’s hard to tell from the translations. These are very good, lucid and atmospheric, but I’m not qualified to compare them to any other skaldic poetry embedded in 13th century Icelandic sagas.

Black Slicer did not bite
the shield when I brandished it.
Atli the Short kept blunting
its edge with his magic.
I used my strength against
that sword-wielding braggart,
my teeth removed that peril.
Thus I vanquished the beast.

But obviously the poetry is key to the character of Egil as conceived or recorded in the tradition and he creates and speaks verse at most of the major events in the story. It’s striking that this poetry is appreciated by all and sundry with none of the pretentiousness which has surrounded it in the West since the Romantic revolution (?1800). The crudest warriors repect the power of well-articulated speech. Good verse can temper very bad opinions of its author: when he falls into King Eirik’s grasp Egil is about to lose his life but manages to save it by writing and reciting a 20-verse drapa in Eirik’s praise, even though, once he’s escaped, he makes it clear he didn’t mean a word.

The saga contains 60 poems in all. Highlights include:

2 – a threat poem that displays Skallagrim’s power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men
6 – a poem insulting King Eirik after the king gave Skallagrim what he thought a poor gift
17 – a grief-poem for his brother Thorolf
23 – a love poem for his future wife
29 – an insult poem to Eirik and Gunnhild for banishing him
Ch 79 – a grief poem for drowned son Bodvar
Ch 80 – a praise poem for his lifelong friend Arinbjorn

The poems lend this saga something unique, which is psychology. They give an insight, albeit oblique and objectified, of the characters’ feelings. Thus, despite the monstrousness of Egil’s behaviour, the poems – which become increasingly softer and more elegiac as he ages – lend the text a deceptive sense of gentleness. Despite his hideous behaviour, it is hard not to respond to the sad tone of the final poems of his age and infirmity.

Their numbers are dwindling, the famous
warriors who met with weapons
and spread gifts like the gold of day.
Where will I find generous men,
who beyond the sea that, nailed with islands,
girds the earth, showered snows of silver
on to my hands where hawks perch,
in return for my words of praise?

Translation

The translation is by Bernard Scudder and from The Saga of the Icelanders. It is excellent, clear, concise and modern, with no jarring archaisms or dated colloquialisms. It reads as if it is being told now.

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Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas was producer on this swashbuckling movie of Viking life and love and so it is no surprise that he dominates the screen as Einar, the gorgeously handsome, superbly strong and confident son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (‘Hairy-Breeches’).

The opening sequence voices over rostrum shots of the Bayeaux Tapestry to give a surprisingly evocative introduction to the Viking Age, before getting straight into the rape and pillage as Ragnar kills the English king Edwin and rapes his wife. The result of this union, the bastard son who will grow up to be Tony Curtis, is sent abroad soon after birth with only a stone pendant to identify him. Twenty years later, caught and sold on as a slave, he ends up at the Norwegian base of none other than Ragnar, his natural father, and comes into conflict with Einar (Kirk), Ragnar’s lawfully acknowledged son, all three men blissfully/tragically ignorant of their true blood relationship. Kirk and Curtis are half-brothers and rivals to the death, which feels authentically saga-ish.

And the rest of the plot is the colourful story of their conflicts, particularly over the stunningly beautiful Janet Leigh, fiancée of the horrible Anglo-Saxon King Aella of Northumbria and kidnapped by Ragnar’s Vikings for ransom. And rekidnapped by Tony and taken back to England along with Ragnar as prisoner. And so on.

It’s a great rainy Sunday afternoon film. One one hand, mildly surprising they bothered to use real historical figures, but then it’s based on a historical novel The Viking by Edison Marshall itself based on sagas and the chronicles. On the other it is notably unhistorical – King Aella is reported to have died in battle with the invading Great Heathen Army, not pushed into a pit of wolves by Tony Curtis. And the son of Ragnar who led the revenge attack on Northumbria was named Ivar the Boneless, not Einar. Then again, the sources offer conflicting accounts and the sagas freely shape history for dramatic purposes so why shouldn’t a movie?

It’s a relief the film didn’t show Aella having his ribs being separated from his spine and his lungs being pulled out through his back, the torture or mark of the so-called ‘blood eagle‘, as some accounts report.

They used real Norwegian locations for Ragnar’s settlement which are breathtakingly beautiful. But dominating the film is the super-manly figure of the virile, drunk, angry, superbly confident, scarred and ultimately doomed Kirk Douglas. Watch and adore!

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