The saga of Hen-Thorir

Hænsna-Þóris saga takes place in Borgafjord in the west of Iceland. The old William Morris translation included a handy map:

Map of the setting of Hen-Thorirs saga

Map of the setting of Hen-Thorir’s saga

Short synopsis

  • An unfortunate misunderstanding leads to the burning of well-thought-of chieftain Blund-Ketil.
  • His son recruits powerful allies and brings the burners to justice, not without several bloody fights.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Odd Onundarson aka Tungu-Odd has sons Thorodd and Thorvald and daughters Thurid and Jofrid and lives at Borgafjord. He is a mean cheat.
Arngrim Helgason aka Arngrim the Priest, has a son Helgi and lives at Nordtunga.
Blund-Ketil lives at Ornolfsdal and has a son, Herstein. He is rich and righteous-hearted.
Thorkel Trefil lives at Svignaskard.
Thorir, a traveling salesman who makes a lot of money but is disliked ‘for there could hardly be a more detestable creature alive.’ He once went on a trading trip with a bag full of hens, hence…

Thorir visits Arngrim to ask if he can foster his son, Helgi, offers him half his money but in exchange Arngrim must support him come what may.
A ship from Norway puts in and Odd the trader is first on the scene and, when the Norwegian refuses to sell his entire stock to Odd cheap, Odd bans anyone else from dealing with him and him from moving his goods. Herstein Blund-Ketilsson tells his father who invites the Norwegian captain to stay; they load all his wares onto 120 horses and taken them to B-K’s farm. Odd hears the news and is miffed but does nothing since B-D has many friends.

2 – In the summer a thin crop of grass. By January many farmers are in dire straits. His tenants come to Blund-Ketil begging for hay and, reluctantly, he slaughters his own animals (horse, interestingly) and gives tenants hay. More tenants appeal until B-K suggests Thorir has plenty. They ride to see him and are greeted by Arngrim’s own son who is being fostered there, a sweet boy who tells the truth against tightwad Thorir. No matter what Blund-Keil offers Thorir refuses to sell him hay. Eventually, B-D says he will leave the right amount of money (hack silver) and take it, which he does, leaving Thorir seething.

3 – Thorir sets off to recruit supporters from local farmers: Arngrim says no. Odd says no.

4 – Thorvald Tongu-Oddson returns from a trip abroad and is invited to stay at Nordtunga with Arngrim. The sneaky vagrant Widefarer is also there and sprints off to alert Thorir, who promptly rides over and tells Thorvald his hard luck story and asks Thorvald to help him get his hay back: there and then he conveys half his property to Thorvald in exchange for him taking up the lawsuit about the hay. Bright and early the next morning Thorvald sets off with thirty men and rides to Thverarhlid where he confronts Blund-Ketil who, very generously, says he’s prepared to pay all the hay’s value plus gifts on top. Thorvald realises this is a handsome offer but Hen-Thorir goads him on to make the full summons using the strongest language possible. Blund-Keil goes into the house red with anger, the Norwegian trader asks whats wrong, B-K says he’s just been hugely insulted at which – the Norwegian captain runs straight out with his bow and arrow and fires at the posse killing a man. It turns out to be Helgi, the son of Arngrim the Priest. Thorir bends over him and claims his last words are ‘Burn Blund-Ketil’ which noble Arngrim doubts but they go hide in the woods and that evening return and set fire to Blund-Ketil’s farmstead and burn to death Blund-Ketil and all his household.

5 – Herstein recruits support Blund-Ketilsson’s son, Herstein, is at his foster-father’s Thorbjorn, and has a dream where he sees his father on fire. Herstein learns it is true and sets out to rally support. Thorbjorn says Odd has always offered his support but to their dismay Odd performs an arcane ritual (riding round the burnt building anti-clockwise) which claims B-K’s land for his own then leaves: his son Thorvald’s actions have certainly benefited the father! Thorbjorn manages the removal of the dead Norwegian captain’s goods to his farm. Then they visit Thorkel Trefil of Svignaskard. TT initially misinterprets it as just a request for hospitality and then realises he’s been dragged in.

The tricking of Gunnar Hlifarson Next they visit Gunnar Hlifarson, big, strong man married to a sister of Thord Bellow. (Gunnar has daughters Thurid and Jofrid.)  Thorkel pulls a trick, saying Herstein is desperate to marry Gunnar’s daughter, Thurid, and it must happen NOW. Gunnar gives in to their entreaties, at which point they tell him about the burning and he realises he’s now involved.

The tricking of Thord Bellow Next day Gunnar, Thorkel, Thorbjorn and Herstein ride to Thord Bellow’s farm at Hvamm, where Thurid is being fosterd and where they pull the same trick, strongly urging Thord himself to betrothe Thurid and himself to host the wedding which he does in front of witnesses. Then they tell him about the burning and he is very angry at being tricked, ‘feeling they had made a complete fool of him’.

The wedding of Herstein Blund-Ketilson and Thurid Gunnar’s-daughter A week later they’re married at Thord Bellow’s place. In the middle of the feast Herstein vows to have Arngrim the Priest outlawed at the next Assembly and Gunnar vows to have Thorvald Oddson outlawed. Thord refuses to join in. In the spring the Allies formally summons Arngrim and Thorvald to the Law-meeting at Thingnes.

6 – When he hears the news Hen-Thorir disappears with a dozen men. The Burners Odd and Arngrim muster forces. The Allies Thorkel Trefil and Thord Bellow muster their forces. The Allies with 240 men ride to cross the river Nordra at Thrælastraum but are met by Tungu-Odd with 480 men. The Battle of Thrælastraum Four men fall on each side with many injured. The Allies are prvented from attending the Law-meeting but declare they will raise the case at the National Assembly. (Gunnar and Herstein swap farms. Gunnar secures all the dead Norwegian’s timber.)

In the summer Thord sets out for the Assembly early and when Tungu-Odd arrives, bars his 360-strong force from approaching the sanctuary. A second pitched battle breaks out and six men are killed until third parties step in to force peace.

The incident of Herstein Blund-Ketilson and Hen-Thorir Herstein had been ill when Thord stopped by. Now he feels better and is doing some metalwork, at which he is skilled, when a retainer-farmer drops by and asks his help with a sick cow. He will not take no for an answer so Herstein sets off to see the cow but sees shields among the bushes and runs back to summon his own retainers. He then lets the farmer take him as arranged into an ambush but when Hen-Thorir and his 12 men leap out Herstein outnumbers them. They are all killed and Herstein himself beheads Hen-Thorir! He rides to the Assembly carrying it where he gains great honour.

At the Assembly Arngrim and all those present at the burning are outlawed except Thorvald Oddson who is exiled for three years. He goes abroad and is captured and made a slave in Scotland.

7 – The love of Thorodd Tungu-Oddson and Jofrid Gunnar’s-daughter Gunnar discovers the son of his enemy and brother of lead burner Thorodd paying suit to his daughter. He respects him for his honesty. Later in the year Odd declares he is going to clear Gunnar off the disputed land and raises a force of 90 men. Thorodd goes on ahead and Gunnar withdraws to his farmstead with his bow ready to make a last stand. Against all the odds however Thorodd assures Gunnar he wants to make peace and marry his daughter. Gunnar agrees just as Odd rides up with more men and is outraged that his son has let him down. Thorodd and Jofrid are married.

Strange epilogue That winter, having heard his brother is in captivity, Thorodd sets off abroad to ransom him. He never returns nor his brother. His father falls ill and dies of grief. The widow Jofrid later marries Thorstein Egilsson of Borg and so is the mother of Helga, central figure in the love triangle at the heart of the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue.

Fates and destinies

  • Blund-Ketil burned to death
  • Herstein Blund-Ketilson marries Thurid Gunnar’s-daughter
  • Arngrim the Priest is exiled. His son Helgi is killed by an arrow fired by the Norwegian captain.
  • Tunga-Odd dies of grief
  • Thorvald Oddson his son is outlawed and captured as a slave in Scotland
  • Thorodd Oddson his other son marries Gunnar’s daughter Jofrid then goes missing.
  • Thorkel Trefil we hear nothing more.
  • Gunnar Hlifarson thrives on his farms.
  • Thord Bellow we hear nothing more.
  • and Hen-Thorir? he is killed and beheaded.

Sayings

A man’s worst company comes from home. (3)

Translation

This translation is by the great Norse scholar Gwyn Jones in the OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas published in 1961. It is fluent and easy to read with the occasional jarringly dated phrase or deliberate literary quote (‘You have fooled me to the top of my bent.’) Interestingly, Jones also seems to have made fewer, longer chapters – his version has seven chapters compared with William Morris’s 17 – which on balance I think is a bad thing: the sagas are fractionally easier to understand when divided into short, anecdote-focused sections.

Related links

The Althing in Session by WG Collingwood (Wikimedia Commons)

The Althing in Session by W.G. Collingwood (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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