Eyrbyggja Saga 2

Could be called Snorri’s saga, as Snorri the Priest is born in chapter 12, dies in the last chapter (65) and dominates most of the action in between, if only as peacemaker between the various gangs which come to inhabit the Snæfelsness peninsula in north-west Iceland where it is set. He inhabits a larger proportion of the text than Egil or Njal do of their sagas.

Eyrbyggja as a late, carefully-crafted text

Eyrbyggja uses material from other sagas: chapters  12 and 13 give a brisk summary of the main plot of Gislis saga. In chapter 47 Snorri recounts the story of Gunnar’s last stand from Njal’s saga. The opening chapters about Ketil Flat-Nose seems to come from, or certainly parallel, the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga which also describe the reasons for Ketil leaving Norway for Iceland, and also echo the account in the Landnamabok. Towards the end the text refers overtly to Grettis saga and Bandamanna saga and Heidarviga saga and chapter 24 gives a summary of part of Eirik’s saga. At key moments in the Thorbrandssons versus Thorlakssons sections, the fights at Alftafjord and Vigra Fjord, the author quotes a long poem on the subject, the Lay of the Raven by Thormod Trefilsson, as well as poems supposedly created by the protagonists. Right at the end he quotes Gudny Bodvar’s-daughter as an eyewitness to the bones of Snorri, Bork the Stout and Thordis Sur’s-daughter being dug up and transferred to the new church at Tongue.

Eyrbyggja definitely feels late – it feels as if the author had good written accounts of numerous sagas, long poems and short verses which had been handed down, along with factual accounts of key events and legends and ghost stories, all of which he used carefully to amplify and enrich his narrative. This strength is also its weakness as it lacks the clarity of narrative of Egils saga or Njals saga and suffers, especially in the final third, from feeling like an anthology of interesting legends and anecdotes. Still, for this very reason, its variety of tone and incident, and also because this is a very fluent and readable translation by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, complete with good map and useful notes, I’d be tempted to recommend this as a first saga for the beginner.

Synopsis

The first settlers from Norway
1 – Ketil Flat-Nose is a great chieftain in Norway and married to Yngvild. King Harald Fair-Hair forces Ketil to combat exiles from Norway who are ravaging the coast. Ketil packs wife and sons and sails to the Hebrides where he crushes the Vikings and makes peace with the local chieftains with no intention of handing them over to Harald who promptly confiscates all Ketil’s property in Norway. Ketil marries his daughter to the most powerful chieftain in Britain, Olaf the White.
2 – Ketil’s son Bjorn had stayed on in Norway, goes south to his father’s estates and expels the king’s men. In response Harald outlaws Bjorn and sends men to kill him. Tipped off, Bjorn sails south along the coast to a place named Mostur Island and takes refuge with Hrolf.
3 – Hrolf is a friend of Thor, in charge of Thor’s temple and has an impressive beard so is known as Thorolf Mostur-Beard. Thorolf sends Bjorn with his son Hallstein across the sea. When Harald learns Thorolf has been sheltering the outlaw Ketil’s son, he outlaws him.
4 – Thorolf consults his friend Thor who advises him to go to Iceland. He takes Thor’s temple, timbers and some earth. On sighting Iceland he throws overboard the high-seat pillars and vows to build where they land. They sail into a broad fjord which he names Breida Fjord. The pillars land at a promontory which he calls Thorsnes. Thorolf builds a farm Hofstad and a new temple. On the ness is a mountain which Thorolf declares so sacred that no man can look at it without washing, and he names Helga Fell. He institutes the Thors Ness assembly and the land is so holy no-one is allowed to poo there but must go out to an island just offshore known as Dritsker.
5 – When Bjorn rendevous with his family in the Hebrides, his father Ketil has died. He discovers his mother and brother have converted to Christianity and becomes alienated from them. They call him Bjorn the Easterner.
6 – After two years in the Hebrides Bjorn and his friend Hallstein Thorolfsson sail to Iceland, to Breidafjord where they settle and build farms.

The second generation
7 – Other settlers arrive: Geirrod builds  his home at Eyr, along with Ulfar the Champion and Finngeir. Vestar has a son Asgeir. Bjorn the Easterner dies, succeeded by son 1 Kjallak the Old who marries Astrid and has Thorgrim the Priest, Gerd and Helga – their descendants are many and known as the Kjalleklings; and son 2 Ottar marries Gro, has Bjord father of Vigfus and Osvif the Wise, father of Gudrun the ill-fated heroine of Laxdala saga. In old age Thorolf Mostur-Bear marries Unn and has a son Thorstein, nicknamed Cod-Biter. Hallstein, Bjorn’s sailing companion, has a son Thorstein, fostered by Thorolf and nicknamed Thorstein Surt.
8 – Geirrid sister of Geirrod of Eyr comes to Iceland and Geirrod grants her land. She has a son who grows up to be Thorolf Bjornsson a great Viking. He thinks the land his mother has too small and challenges Ulfar the Champion to a duel and kills him not before Ulfar wounds his leg so that he walks with a limp and is known as Thorolf Twist-Foot. Thorolf has a son, Arnkel (who will squabble with Snorri), and a daughter Geirrid who marries another Thorolf and has Thorarin the Black (who will kill Thorbjorn and be exiled).
9 – Thorolf the founder dies and is succeeded by his son Thorstein Cod-Biter. The Kjalleklings (descended from Bjorn the Easterner) are arrogant. At the Thors Ness assembly Thorgim Kjallaksson announces they will poo where they want and no longer go to Dritsker. Thorstein Cod-Biter, defending his father’s holy soil, musters his men and attacks the Kjalleklings driving them down to the beach where there is a big pitched battle with some deaths.
10 – Thord Gellir, at that time leading chieftain of Breidafjord, is brought in to make a settlement. He moves the assembly to a new location and makes Thorgim half responsible for maintaining the temple, from which point he is known as Thorgrim the Priest.
11 – Thorstein Cod-Biter dies. He had a son Bork the Stout then, aged 25, another baby he calls Thorgrim and dedicates to Thor to become a priest. That autumn shepherds see the north side of Helga Fell open revealing fires and the sounds of feasting and the names of Thorstein and comrades. The next day they learn Thorstein was drowned on a fishing expedition to Hoskuld Island.

Overlap with Gisli’s saga
12 – Thorgrim marries Thordis Sur-daughter of Dyrafjord and goes to live with his brothers-in-law Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim kills Vestein Vesteinsson at a festival and, the following year, aged 25 like his father, Thorgrim is killed by his brother-in-law Gisli at an autumn feast. A few days later Thorgrim’s widow Thordis gives birth to a son named Thorgrim after his father – Thorgrim Thorgrimsson. She marries her brother-in-law Bork the Stout and goes to live in Helgafell. Little Thorgrim is fostered out to Thorbrand of Alftafjord where he is so troublesome he acquires the nickname Snorri, eventually to become the famous Snorri the Priest. Thorbrand has five sons and these Thorbrandssons are blood brothers to Snorri. The fearsome Viking Thorolf Twist-foot has a son Arnkel. Thorgim Kjallakson who started the fight at Thors Ness has three sons: Brand, Arngrim who is so mean he is nicknamed Styr, and Vermund the Slender. Asgeir of Eyr has a son Thorlak who marries Thurid and has sons Steinthor, Bergthor, Thormod, Thord Blig (the Thorlakssons who are going to be involved in feuds) and daughter Helga.
13 – When he’s 14 Snorri travels to Norway funded by his uncle Bork. The following year he returns and there is much joking that his colleague wears elaborate clothes and armour, whereas Snorri rides a plain mare in a black cloak. One day 12 armed men walk into the hall at Helgafell led by Bork’s kinsman, Eyjolf the Grey (son of Thord Gellir, biggest chieftain in the area who made the peace in chapter 10) who announces his crew have just killed Gisli the outlaw. This is as Bork wanted because Gisli killed his brother Thorgrim. But it is bad news for Bork’s wife Thordis as Gisli was her brother. As she goes to serve them, Thordis seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to stab him, only succeeding in gashing his thigh. Bork pushes her and Eyjolf would attack her but Snorri steps in to protect her. Bork gives Eyjolf self-judgement and gives him ample compensation, who rides off feeling very dissatisfied with all his hard work for Bork. This widens the gap between Snorri and his uncle and foster-father Bork.

Snorri’s career
14 – Snorri kicks Bork out of Helgafell which rightfully belongs to him. He surprises Bork by being able to pay the price Bork names. Thordis divorces Bork for hitting her and takes half his belongings so Bork ends up with very little.
15 – Snorri’s farm at Helgafell flourishes and he becomes the priest of Thor’s temple. A widow called Katla lived at Holt, west of Mavahlid with her son Odd, a trouble-maker. Thorbjorn the Stout’s son Gunnlaug often goes to study witchcraft with Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter. He stops in to chat to Katla and she insinuates that he makes love to Geirrid and that she fancies him. As he’s accompanied by Odd on these journeys he often stops off at Mavahlid and Katla always invites him in and he always refuses.
16 – On one of these visits Geirrid warns Gunnlaug not to go home. When he and Odd reach Holt, Katla invites him in and he refuses as usual. The next morning Gunnlaug is found almost dead covered in piercing deep scratches. He has been ridden by a night witch. Snorri and Gunnlaug’s father Thorbjorn ride over to Mavahlid and serve a summons on Geirrid for being a witch. But at the next assembly a lot of her kin support her and the case is rejected.
17 – At the same assembly a big fight breaks out, one side led by Thorgrim Kjallakson over the dowry of Illugi the Black’s wife. Men are killed before Snorri manages to separate the sides and broker a peace for which Illugi is grateful.
18 – Thorbjorn the Stout’s prize horses go missing. A man with second-sight called Spa-Gils strongly implies it was Thorarin the Black, son of Geiridd from Mavahlid. Thorbjorn rides there with a posse. Thorbjorn calls a door court and starts to accuse Thorarin. In a typical moment, it is goading by his mother calling him a coward which prompts Thorarin to leap forward attacking and a fight starts, until the women intervene and Thorbjorn and his men ride away. In the frenzy Thorarin’s wife Aud’s hand is cut off. He rides to where Thorbjorn’s men are recovering and hears them joking about it which drives him wild and he leaps forward and splits Thorbjorn’s skull in half. A fierce battle ensues until Thorbjorn’s men run away. (Odd is protected by the magic tunic his mother has given him.)
19 – Thorarin rides to see Vermund who advises they go see Arnkel. They know Snorri will prepare a case on behalf of Thorbjorn who was married to his half-sister.
20 – Geirrid of Mavahlid says it was Odd Katlason who cut off Aud’s hand. Thorarin and Arnkel ride to Holt: there is a strange folk tale scene where the men search the house for Odd three times but each time Katla bewitches them so they can’t see him. Only when Geirrid arrives do they put a bag over Katla’s head thus stymying her magic and find Odd. They hang him and stone her to death.
21- Arnkel advises Thorarin to go abroad. Message is sent to Bjorn the captain to ready his boat.
22 – On the Summons Days Snorri assembles a big force and rides to Alftafjord to summons the killers for manslaughter. Then he rides to the coast, seizes the Norwegian captain and burns the boat Thorarin was going to flee in. Whereupon Arnkel and Vermund and Thorarin row north across Breidafjord and buy another boat, and Thorarin and Vermund sail away. Snorri attends the assembly and successfully gets Thorarin and all his crew sentenced to outlawry, then confiscates all their property.

23 – Vigfus has a layabout nephew called Bjorn. At a big annual sorting of the sheep Bjorn accuses Snorri’ shepherd Helgi of stealing sheep and attacks him, Snorri’s uncle Mar Hallvardson goes to his defence and injures Bjorn. Vigfus takes the case to the Thor’s Ness assembly, but Snorri counter-charges Bjorn who is found guilty of starting.
24 – At the same assembly Eirik the Red is accused of a killing. His friends the Thorbrandssons gather supporters and Styr asks Snorri not to join the attack on Eirik after the assembly in exchange for his support any other time. They see Eirik off to a boat and he sets sail: it’s on this expedition that he discovers Greenland, in 986.
25 – The Swedish Berserks Vermund and Thorarin the Black arrive in Norway and go serve Earl Hakon the Good. With him are two Swedish berserks. The next year Vermund asks if he can bring them back to Iceland though Hakon warns him against. So he brings them back to Iceland where they soon start arguing. Vermund holds a feast for his brother Styr, Arnkel and other men of Eyr. He tries to persuade first Arnkel, then Styr to take the berserks and at first they get on well.
26 – Vigfus commissions one of his slaves, Svart, to kill Snorri. He breaks a hole in the ceiling of the porch and waits, but he thrusts down with his halberd just too late, misses Snorri and wounds Mar. Svart jumps to the ground but slips and is caught. Svart confesses it was Vigfus and Snorri sets off with six men, surprises Vigfus making charcoal in the woods and kill him. His slaves tell his widow who tries to raise support from Arnkel who refuses, saying it is the Kjallakings and Styr’s business.
27 – Vigfus’s widow Thorgerd goes to Styr asking for help. Styr points out the pledge he made to Snorri in exchange for Snorri not attacking Eirik. So, no help. She goes see Vermund who says, No help. She goes see Steinthor who says I’m too young. Exasperated she goes back to Vermund who says chop off Vigfus’s head and take it in a bag to Arnkel. Which she does and this shames and horrifies him into agreeing to launch a case against Snorri in the spring. But Snorri vigorously launches a counter action for attempted manslaughter and for the wounding of Mar, claiming Vigfus was lawfully killed. Moderators step in and Snorri agrees terms: he pays a large fine and Mar is exiled for three years.
28 – The end of the Swedish berserks One of them asks Styr for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not keen, Styr goes consult Snorri and they go atop Helgafell: ‘plans made there have never been known to fail’. Snorri advises Styr to set the berserks two massive tasks, build a dyke and a sauna. When they enter the sauna Styr kills them. Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis, binding them together.

29 – Thorodd Tribute-trader and Bjorn Introducing Thorodd who goes a sailing trip to Ireland. Earl Sigurd of Orkney has just made a raid demanding tribute from the Isle of Man but is shipwrecked. Thorodd sailing by hears them shouting from the shore and, reluctantly sells them his two boat in exchange for the tribute. So people call him Thorodd Tribute-Trader. Back in Ireland he stays with Snorri at Helgafell and marries his sister Thurid, widow of Thorbjorn who Thorarin the Black killed after the dispute about horses (chapter 18) and they go live in the farm at Frodriver. Soon Bjorn Asbrandsson starts calling on her and rumours start. Thorodd unhappy. One day, going home, Bjorn is attacked by Thorodd and servants – who he wounds – and the two sons of Thorir Wood-leg (the Thorissons), who he kills. Thorodd asks Snorri to mount a case against Bjorn for killing the Thorissons. Bjorn is outlawed and banished for three years. Bjorn sails to Norway, then Denmark, then on to join the legendary Jomsvikings.

Incidents concerning Thorolf Twist-foot, his feuds and ghost
30 – Thorolf Twist-Foot is an old mean man who doesn’t get on with his son Arnkel. Thorolf gets Ulfar’s advice about the weather and haymaking but pays him back badly by getting his men to fetch in Ulfar’s hay as well. Ulfar rushes out to the fields furious, but withdraws in face of Thorolf’s threats and goes to see his son Arnkel for compensation. Thorolf refuses to listen to Arnkel, so he pays Ulfar the compensation then kills seven of Thorolf’s oxen and claims that’s his hay-price returned. Thorolf is livid.
31 – About Christmastime Thorolf has a feast, gets his servants drunk, and tells them to go burn Ulfar’s farm. Over at Bolstad Arnkel sees the fire, rushes over with men to put it out, and seizes his father’s slaves and hangs them in the morning. Ulfar wisely makes over all his property to Arnkel, thus gaining legal support against threats from Thorolf. But this angers the Thorbrandssons, whose freedman Ulfar was and who think the property should revert to them. Thorolf rides to visit Snorri and offers him ownership of the woods on Krakaness if he will take up the case against Arnkel for killing Thorolf’s slaves. Driven by need for the woods, Snorri accepts and prosecutes Arnkel who points out he prevented a burning. Mediators step in and award Snorri 12 ounces of silver per slave ie the minimum which he gives to Thorolf who abuses him. Thus Thorolf is angry, Snorri is angry and Arnkel is angry.
32 – Ulfar’s brother Orlyg dies and Ulfar quickly gets Arnkel to come take joint protection of his property. The Thorbrandssons are cross again, reckoning their freedman’s property should be theirs and go see Snorri who refuses to take up the case against Arnkel, seeing as how his previous case wasn’t a particular success. In the autumn Arnkel gives a feast. Ulfar attends. Thorolf bribes his friend Spa-Gils who needs the money to lie in wait and murder Ulfar, which he does then runs off. Arnkel sees what’s happened and sends men after Spa-Gils. Thorolf sees Spa-Gils running and sends men to the Thorbrandssons so they can get to Ulfar’s property and claim it. Arnkel’s men catch and kill Spa-Gils. Arnkel and his men are at Ulfar’s property before the Thorbrandssons arrive so they fail to claim it again!
33 – Thorolf Twist-foot becomes angry that Snorri is using up too much of the wood and rides to confront him. Snorri calls witnesses to confirm Thorolf giving it to him and Thorolf rides on to his son Arnkel at Bolstad, but Arnkel refuses to get embroiled in another law case with Snorri so Thorolf rides home to Hvamm livid, sits in his high chair and in the morning his staff find him dead. Arnkel knocks a hole in the wall behind Thorolf, has him pulled backwards and his body placed on a sledge pulled by oxen up to a burial place where they build a cairn over the body.
34 – Thorolf’s ghost haunts the valley: the oxen which hauled his body are ridden to death by demons; every animal that goes near his grave goes out of its mind; the ghost kills shepherd and sheep; any bird alighting on Thorolf’s cairn drops dead. The ghost haunts vigorously and drives his widow out of her mind till she dies. First the farm at Hvamm is abandoned, then the whole valley. Arnkel gets recruits, loads Thorolf’s corpse onto a sled and drags it miles away to Ulfarsfell Ridge where they rebury it in Twist-Foot’s Knoll.
35 – Arnkel inherits his father’s property & rights and gets just as cross as his father with Snorri for using Krakaness woods. He waits till Snorri’s friend Hauk is supervising some slaves loading timber onto pack horses, then attacks. Hauk lunges at him but Arnkel deflects with his shield and spears Hauk, takes the horses and wood. Next spring Snorri brings a case against Arnkel for murder but Arnkel argues that Haul attacked him and the case is defeated. Simmering tension.
36 – A man called Thorleif is an outlaw. He comes to Snorri asking for sanctuary; Snorri rejects him but after a long talk. Then Thorleif goes to Bolstad to ask sanctuary of Arnkel and while they’re talking Thorleif takes up Arnkel’s adze and tries to kill him but Arnkel is too fast and kills him. Word gets about that Snorri commissioned him.
37 – Snorri holds a big Winter feast. He gives gifts to the guests. As the Thorbrandssons leave he gives Thorleif Kimbi a fine axe and they make an agreement to kill Arnkel. One night before Christmas Arnkel is working with some of  his men at haystacks. Snorri is tipped off and joins with the Thorbrandssons, 15 in all, to attack. Arnkel holds off a long time but is finally killed.

Arnkel was mourned by everyone, for of all men in pagan times he was the most gifted. He was remarkably shrewd in judgement, good-tempered, kind-hearted, brave, honest and moderate. He came out on top in every lawsuit, no matter with whom he had to deal, which explains why people were so envious of him.

38 – Arnkel’s heirs are all women who don’t pursue the case very well. Only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed.

A new dispute – between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons aka the men of Eyr and the men of Breidavik
39 – Thorleif takes ship to Norway. They are joined at the last minute by a stranger who turns out to be Arnbjorn Asbrandsson, going to look for his brother Bjorn (the one who was exiled and went off to join the Jomsvikings in chapter 29). After landfall in Norway it’s Thorleif’s turn to make porridge but Arnbjorn is still making his so after some argument Thorleif grabs the pot, spills Arnbjorn’s porridge out and walks away but Arnbjorn hits him on the neck with the ladle which was still very hot and marks him. Arnbjorn saild south to find his brother.
40 – After two years exile Thorleif Kimbi returns to Iceland pleased with himself. The same summer Arnbjorn returns with his brother, now known as Bjorn Breidavik-Champion. Together they are known as the Men of Breidavik. Arnbjorn settles at Hakki in Hraunhaven on the south side of the Snæfelsness peninsula. At a big gathering of farmers Bjorn bumps into Thurid, the housewife of Frodriver, over whose affair he was exiled. Bjorn resumes seeing Thurid. An upset Thorodd pays Thorgrima Witch-Face to cause a blizzard. Bjorn is lost crawls into a cave and only just survives three days cooped in the cave.
41 – Fighting between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons That spring at the Thornes Assembly Thorleif Kimbi (one of Thorbrand’s five sons, the Thorbrandssons) makes a marriage offer for Helga Thorlak’s-daughter, sister of Steinthor (Thormod, Bergthor, and Thord Blig, the sons of Thorlak, the Thorlakssons). He is rudely rejected by Steinthor and Thord. Next morning the Thorlakssons are walking by as the Thorbrandssons are playing the turf game. A great chunk of sandy turf hits Thord Blig on the neck and he turns to see all the Thorbrandssons laughing. Both sides draw swords and a fight starts. Eventually Steinthor and Snorri are brought in to make peace.
42 – The Thorbrandssons try to kill Arnbjorn That summer a ship puts in at Hraunhaven on the south of the peninsula. Snorri has business with it and rides south. He is joined by the Thorbrandssons, one of whom is Thorleif Kimbi who was humiliated by Arnbjorn who now lives at Hakki near Hraunhaven. They peel off from Snorri and attack Arnbjorn’s farm, climbing onto the roof but he fights them off, until Snorri returns and tells them to stop which, reluctantly they do. The Men of Breidavik arrive and both gangs are in the market at Hraunhaven in a very uneasy peace.
43 – Egil’s failed assassination attempt The Thorbrandssons tell their slave he will be freed if he sneaks into the autumn games and kills one of the Breidavik men, either Bjorn or Arnbjorn or Thord. People say Snorri advised Egil to hide in the hills until the pass was full of smoke of evening meals then sneak down and kill one. Egil does just that but as he enters the hut where Bjorn and Thord are making dinner he trips and they catch him. They extract the full story of his assassination mission before witnesses then kill him. (The strange incident of the talking head.) It is the custom to pay recompense to the owner of a murdered slave. Steinthor gathers a vast posse of nearly a hundred to ride to give payment. When he learns from spies that Snorri is sitting doing nothing Steinthor decides to reduce the party so as not to provoke anyone. Bjorn tells him he’ll regret it.
44 – The Battle of Alfta Fjord Snorri quickly musters his supporters and takes them to Karsstad telling everyone to behave. Stainthor rides up to the door, dismounts, nails a pich with 12oz of silver to the door, calls witnesses that he has paid the debt. As usual, it’s a woman taunting the men inside who make them furious and Thorleif Kimbi comes rushing out followed by the other hotheads and they start fighting. However Snorri comes out and gets them all to stop and promises Steinthor safe passage. However, he then discovers his 12 year-old son Thorodd has been injured by the very man he’s given safe passage and the red mist descends: they chase after the Thorlakssons and there’s a big fight up a scree called Geirvör. Eventually Aslak of Langadale and Illugi the Strong and Vermund the Slender and all their men come between them and stop the fighting. Snorri reaches out his hand to shake Steinthor’s who abruptly hacks at it with a sword, though the sword hits a gold arm-ring. Everyone pleads with Steinthor to make peace and eventually he does, a ceasefire till all sides get home. Some say Snorri could see the Men of Breidavik riding along Ulfarsfell as reinforcements to the Thorlakssons and that was why Snorri was keen to peacemake.
45 – The Battle of Vigra Fjord That winter Steinthor of Eyr with seven companions is loosing a boat in ice-bound Vigra Fjord when they see six man approaching, their enemies the Thorbrandssons. The Thorbrandssons climb a rock surrounded by massive shards of ice while Steinthor and his posse attack. After fierce fighting they lay all the Thorbrandssons low, only Freystein Bofi is dead (who he? ) but all the others badly injured and Thorleif Kimbi’s leg is chopped off. Snorri, alerted by his farmers, arrives and carries them all back to Helgafell and nurses them back to health. Thorleif Kimbi walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days.
46 – In the spring a lot of their neighbours work hard at the Thors Ness Assembly to make a settlement: elaborate pairings of injuries and killings make both sides about equal, and they shake on the deal, and the peace lasts while Steinthor and Snorri lived.
47 – That summer Thorodd the Tribute-Trader hosts Snorri to a feast and asks him to sort out the ongoing shame of Bjorn visiting his wife, Thurid, Snorri’s sister. Snorri decides they’ll attack and kill him and they ride to Kamb. Interestingly, Snorri uses the example of Gunnar’s last stand, in chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga, as an example of how one man can fight off an attacking crew. Daringly, Bjorn walks straight up to Snorri and puts his shearing knife to his heart and they discuss the issue. In a nutshell, Bjorn promises to stop bothering Thurid. Snorri and gang leave. Bjorn packs his belongings and takes ship at Hraunhaven. Nothing is heard of him for a long time, until the mysterious penultimate chapter 64, in fact.

Peace – the end of the Thorlakssons versus Thorbrandssons feud
48 – Snorri Thorbrandsson and his brother Thorleif Kimbi sail to Greenland where Thorleif lives to a ripe old age and Snorri voyages on to Vinland where he dies like a man fighting the Skrælings. Thorodd Thorbrandsson takes over the farm at Alftafjord and lives in peace.
49 – Christianity is brought to Iceland by Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti. This is very briefly described, as if the author knew that other, fuller accounts existed (eg the five chapters in Njal’s saga). Snorri the Priest does more than anything to convert the Western fjords and it may be for this reason that the Christian author makes him the hero of the saga.

The next six chapters are a respite from fighting, telling the story of the haunting of Thorgunna and Thorodd
50 – Thorgunna arrives in a ship from Dublin, she being from the Hebrides. She is big-boned and stout and has a trunk full of treasures such as English sheets and hangings. Thurid of Frodriver (wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader and sister of Snorri) is madly jealous and invites her to stay though Thorgunna insists on working for her keep and angers Thurid by refusing to part with her wondrous belongings.
51 – Thorgunna joins in with raking the hay when there is a sudden shower and when it clears they see it was of blood. She takes to her bed dying and makes Thorodd promise to burn all her bedding. (In evidence of the lateness of composition Thorgunna asks to be buried at Skalholt which only develops into a centre of Christian learning and holiness in the 11th and 12th centuries). Thorgunna’s body is buried and Thorodd builds a fire to burn the bedding but Thurid begs him to keep it and he acquiesces. They carry the coffin a long way to Skalholt over rain-sodden moors in sleet, stopping at a farm named Nether Ness where the farmer gives them shelter but no food. In the middle of the night they hear noises and find Thorgunna stark naked making food in the kitchen. She brings it into the living room at which the farmer hastily welcomes then and Thorgunna walks out and vanishes. They eat the food she’s prepared and are fine.
52 – Back at the farm at Frodriver, once the coffin-bearers have returned, the household sees a weird half moon appearing on the wall. Thorir Wood-Leg says it is a fatal moon.
53 – Something starts haunting. It kills a shepherd. When Thorir Wood-Leg goes to the privy the shepherd’s ghost blocks his way and throws him hard against the door so that he sickens and dies. Now the two of them haunt. Soon farm hands start dying one after another. Thorodd goes fishing with five men. A ghostly seal appears, head first, emerging out of the floorboards at Frodriver, no matter what people do to it.
54 – Thorodd and servants put out to sea and are all drowned. When news arrives at Frodriver Thurid and Kjartan hold a funeral feast. At the height of the feast Thorodd and his men walk in drenched, dripping seawater.

Everyone welcomed Thorodd and his men, and thought this a happy omen because in those days it was believed that drowned people had been well-received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they came to their own funeral feast. At that time a good many heathen beliefs still prevailed, though people were baptised and supposed to be Christians.

Thorodd and his men go sit by the fire. They do this every night till the fire burns low, then leave. After some days the guests all leave but Thorodd and his men still come and Thorir Wood-Leg now appears, along with the five servants who are buried, and they are all covered in mud and earth, which they start throwing at the drowned ghosts. Kjartan has the idea of building a long fire in the all and a smaller one in the household room, and the ghosts take the long fire and the household take the small one and this goes on all winter. An ox-tail is fond wagging in the fish pile which skedaddles away and all the fish are revealed to have been eaten, then Thorir Wood-Leg’s widow, Thorgrima Witch-Face, dies and another round of illness decimates the farm: six more people die and the rest run away.
55 – Not before time Kjartan goes to see his uncle Snorri who happens to have a priest staying with him. On Snorri’s advice they return to Frodriver on Candlemas, burn all of Thorgunna’s bedding, summon the dead to a door-court and charge them one by one. As the judgements are passed each ghosts leaves, saying they only stayed as long as they were let. Then the priest carries relics and sprinkles holy water into every corner and the dead men are banished.

Snorri swaps houses with Gudrun, the heroine of Laxdæla saga
56 – Snorri lived at Helgafell for eight years after Christianity came to Iceland (ie till 1008). In the spring Snorri exchanges farms with Gudrun Osvif’s-daughter and moves to Tongue in Sælingsdale, two years after Gudrun’s husband Bolli was murdered by Kjartan’s kin. Why? Though Gudrun hasn’t appeared in this saga yet, Snorri has already appeared in Laxdæla saga as a wise man Gudrun turns to. There it is explained Gudrun needs to get away from her vengeful neighbours and much the same motive drives Snorri, though his behaviour doesn’t change much after the move.

Styr’s death and Snorri’s revenge
It will be remembered that although Styr is the son of Thorgim Kjallakson (12), he does a deal with Snorri not to attack Eirik the Red (24) and keeps his word by not attacking Snorri after Vigfus’s murder (27), and asks Snorri’s advice about handling the berserks (28), as a result of which Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis. So when Styr is killed Snorri rides south with 400 men to avenge him. But he is met by 500 of his adversaries and there’s a stand-off. Snorri summons Gest for killing Styr but at the Althing their case is dismissed by Thorstein Gislason. Later Snorri rides south with 14 men and kills Thorstein Gislason and his son Gunnar. At the next Althing another Thorstein, of Hafsfjord, blocks Snorri’s plans and bad feeling quickly degenerates into a pitched battle. Ten or so men die until others step in and a comprehensive settlement is made. —This episode feels bolted onto the narrative, and the numbers (500 men!) and the unusual way the build-up to Styr’s death isn’t explained, make it stand out from the rest of the saga, much of whose interest derives from tracing the way trivial disputes snowball into massive feuds.

Ospak
This is another self-contained episode that could almost come from any saga, anyone’s life. Ospak is a rustler and after a lot of hassle Snorri is one among the many enemies he’s made who band together and kill him. The only failing in this otherwise excellent Penguin edition is that the map which excellently shows all the key locations on Snæfelsness peninsula, doesn’t show any of the locations of the Ospak episode, all of which (I think) happen to the north of Breidafjord.
57 – Ospak raids along the north coast with half a dozen men. He conflicts with Alf the Short and Thorir Gold-Hardarson. He has a fortified stead at Eyr (but not, apparently, the same Eyr as the one in Alftafjord). One day a whale is washed up. Alf and others cut it up, as they have driftage rights. Ospak and crew row up and start taking the already cut whalemeat: Thorir intervenes and Ospak knocks him out with the back of an axe.
58 – Ospak and fourteen men go to Thambardale and raid Alf’s house, stealing everything. Servants warn Thorir at Tongue who goes after them with eighteen men. A full scale battle in which Ospak strikes Thorir over the neck but hits his knife-on-a-strap, more fighting then Ospak and men run off to their fortified farm.
59 – Snorri represents Thorir and Alf at The Thors ness assembly and gets Ospak and crew outlawed. Snorri rides to enact the confiscation only to discover Ospak and his men have packed all their goods and sailed far north, where they set up a base and continue raiding.
60 – Snorri enacts the confiscation anyway and divides what was left of the belongings among Alf and Thorir. At summer’s end Ospak and crew sail south to Bitra, put in at Eyr and carry the loot to the fortified farm, where Ospak’s wife and son had remained. They sail onto Tongue in Bistra, drag Thorir out of bed and kill him on the spot, steal all his goods, then carry on to Thambardale, where Alf the Short hears them coming and esapes through a secret door. Again they loot everything they can and return to the fortified stornghold at Eyr, haul the boats inside and make it impenetrable.
61 – Snorri takes in Alf and his family and makes sure of the lie of the land. Just before Christmas he calls on Thrand Stigandi.
62 – Snorri calls on Sturla Thjodreksson and other neighbours till he has fifty men. At Tongue thirty more join and they ride north to Eyr. The fight starts with both sides throwing lots of stones. Finally Sturla’s spear knocks Ospak down and Sturla kills him, then they kill two more and the vikings surrender. Snorri gives them safe passage so long as they split up. He lets Ospak’s widow and son keep the farm. Glum marries Thordis, sister of Grettir the Strong, and their son was that Ospak who quarrels with Odd Ofeigsson (the plot of the Bandamanna saga).

Thorolf’s ghost (part two) and the magic bull
63 – Another story or legend which could, frankly, be attached to anyone. We thought we’d heard the last of Thorolf Twist-Foot in chapter 34. Now, after all this time, he is back haunting farms at Ulfarsfell and Orlygsstad. Farmers call on Thorodd Thorbrandsson to help. He goes with slaves to Twist-Foot’s Knoll, break open the grave and roll Thorolf’s corpse down to the shore where they create a pyre and burn it. Coming back they witness a cow break a leg. They patch it up and let it roam on the hill where it seen frolicking with an unknown bull and licking the stones where Thorolf was burned. It gets pregnant and has a bull calf which grows with uncanny speed. Thorodd’s foster-mother, old and blind, predicts no good will come of it and they should slaughter it. But Thorodd deceives her, keeps it, feeds it as it grows into a monster and call it Glaesir. In the summer, after a heavy rain, Glaesir runs mad in the home meadow attacking the hayricks. Thorodd goes out to calm him, ends up wrestling with him and is finally tossed and gored in the guts. He limps home where he dies in bed. This same Thorodd was one of Snorri’s companions in the killing of Thorolf Twist-Foot’s noble son, Arnkel (37) and a participant in the Battle of Vigra Fjord (45). He is buried in the local church.— This story is a stand-alone anecdote which needn’t have been in the saga at all.

Vinland
64 – A marvellously haunting and romantic chapter in which a man named Gudleif Gudlaugsson sets out from Norway in the reign of King Olaf the Saint (1015-30), heading for Dublin but is blown way off course by stormy winds, arriving at a big country where they are cpatured by hundreds of locals and dragged before their big grey-haired leader who, to their astonishment addresses them in Norse, asks after Iceland, then about the west fjords, then specifically about Thurid and her son Kjartan. He refuses to name himself but asks them to give Thurid a ring and Kjartan a sword, then bids them leave in a hurry before the locals kill them. Legend has it this man was Bjorn the Breidavik-Champion, who we first met making unwanted visits to Thurid, Snorri’s sister, back in chapter 29, before he was exiled and went to join the Jomsvikings. It is a strange and haunting almost-ending to the book.

65 – Snorri’s descendants The actual ending is a final chapter lovingly rounding up the descendants of Snorri’s many children.

Sayings

  • What happens to others can happen to you (32)

Helgafell

Translations

Helgafell

Helga Fell or Holy Mountain where Thorolf Mostur-Beard settles and which no man is allowed to look on unless he has washed (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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

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