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

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