Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O’Brien (2005)

Interestingly, this book seems to have two different sub-titles depending on which edition you buy. The edition I have is sub-titled ‘A history of Power, Love and Greed in Eleventh-Century England’, a bit generic. But the latest edition on Amazon is sub-titled ‘The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066’, which is stronger and more specific.

Emma of Normandy was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (993-996) and sister to his successor, Duke Richard II (963-1026). In 1002 she was married off to King Aethelred II of England, the ill-fated king who ruled from 978 to 1016 and by whom she had three children, including Edward, later to become King Edward the Confessor (who ruled 1042 to 1066).

After Aethelred died in 1016, and England was conquered by the Danish King Cnut, Emma found herself being recalled from the Norman court – where she had gone for safety – and, in 1017, quickly married off to the new Danish king. She bore Cnut two more children, a daughter and Harthacnut, who was to succeed Cnut as King of Norway and ruled briefly as king of England from 1040 to 1042.

Thus Emma occupies the unique position in history of having been married to two kings of England and being mother to two further kings of England – by different fathers.

Unlike other books I’ve recently read about this period – Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson or The Norman Conquest 1066 by Marc Morris – which have a lot of factual information to sift and a lot of events to get through, O’Brien’s book is much slower paced and goes out of its way to present a thorough sense of the world in which Emma lived. Almost every chapter opens with a vivid description of a key scene or moment, allowing you to really think through the emotional and cultural effects of the events which other historians sometimes race through rather hastily.

We learn how squalid and unhygienic Saxon England was, what the Saxon king and queen and nobles wore, how feasts were arranged, the role of jewellery and metal weapons, and so on. Some of her vivid scenes depict Emma’s departure from Normandy, her arrival in Canterbury, her wedding ceremony to Aethelred – as well as speculation about her feelings and emotions: What must it have been like to be sold off in marriage to a man probably twice her age (Aethelred), who already had at least one common-law wife by whom he had had no fewer than ten children, the oldest of whom were Emma’s age?

What a bear pit she was sold into – and how strong and clever she must have been to not only survive the murderous rivalries of the English court but then to live on into – and thrive in – the completely different ambience of the Danish king she was forced to marry. Both men had common law wives or mistresses – both, eerily, named Aelfgifu – against whom she had to compete, for affection (maybe) and power (certainly).

The story covers three nationalities – Norman, English and Danish – as well as a host of competing warlords and nobles so it’s no surprise that the book comes well-equipped with family trees of the three countries’ royal families, and a Dramatis personae featuring no fewer than 57 personages – all of whom you really have to know about in order to grasp the full complexity of the situation.

Some commenters on Amazon complain that we learn a lot about the doings of the various men and warlords of her time and less about Emma but a) I think O’Brien has done a heroic job in teasing out every possible incident, experience and emotion which Emma must have experienced and b) what any reading of this period conveys is that everyone’s lives, even the strongest kings, were immersed in the dense and complex matrix of royal and aristocratic marriages, power alliances and conflicts.

Cnut may have conquered England – but only as a result of the twin good fortunes of King Aethelred dying a natural death, and then his son Edmund Ironside unexpectedly dying soon after he and Cnut had made a pact to divide the country (O’Brien recounts the possible causes of that sudden death, injury, illness or assassination).

Cnut still had to travel back to Denmark to try and assert his authority there against his own brother, and went to war to conquer Norway in which he was miserably defeated. Meanwhile, back in the English court, Emma had to protect her newborn infants by Cnut from the jealousy of her own children by Aethelred, let alone the football team size brood of Aethelstan’s children by his earlier, Saxon, wife.

And seeing as every one of these children, male or female, was married off to the siblings of the rulers of Denmark, Norway, Scotland, France, Flanders, Normandy and Brittany, and themselves had numerous progeny, it is quickly mind-bendingly complicated to work out who thinks they’re entitled to inherit the crown of which nation or duchy, and who they’re likely to ally with, or be thrown into conflict against, while new allies or opponents are being born or unexpectedly popping off.

This web of conflicting forces comes into play when Cnut dies in 1035 and there is a period of uncertainty bordering on anarchy while the following contenders vie for the crown:

  • Cnut’s son by Aelfgifu – Harold Harefoot
  • Cnut’s son by Emma – Harthacnut
  • Aethelred’s sons by Emma – Alfred and Edward

To help understand it all, you need the family trees of the Duchy of Normandy, and of Saxon England and of Denmark to follow the dense weave of marriages and kin.

Chapter eleven opens with a particularly bravura recreation of the fate of poor Alfred, Aethelred’s son, who was persuaded to lead a force of Norman sympathisers to claim the throne. He landed with plenty of men and ships on the south coast, was courteously met and persuaded by Earl Godwine to go with him to Guildford, where in the middle of the night his men are disarmed and then brutally massacred – except for the ones kept to be sold into slavery. Alfred himself was tied up and taken on a three-day journey into the heart of Fen country where he was brutally blinded and left to die in the mud.

The narrative is as immediate and bloodthirsty as any contemporary thriller.

O’Brien guides us through this maze of conflicting sources and accounts, consistently seeing it from the point of view of her tough and Machiavellian heroine. Her emphasis on the day-to-day realities of early 11th century England, and on the emotional life of the key players, is a welcome relief from the sometimes crushing litany of battles, taxes and legal charters which tend to fill the accounts of other historians.

This is a very enjoyable and rewarding work not only of history but of historical imagination.

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Timeline of Emma’s life

978 Aethelred II crowned King of England
985? Emma of Normandy born
1002 Emma marries Aethelred. In the same year he orders the infamous Massacre of Danes throughout England.
1005? Birth of Emma’s son Edward (to be the future Edward II the Confessor)
1006-13 A daughter Godgifu and son, Alfred, are born.
1013 Invasion of Swein Forkbeard prompts Aethelred and Emma to flee to her family in Normandy. Her two young sons, Alfred and Edward, are to be left in the Norman court for most of their boyhood and teens.
1014 Swein dies. Aethelred returns but quickly falls out with his son by his pre-Emma mistress, Edmund ‘Ironsides’.
1016 Swein’s son, Cnut invades with a Danish fleet. Aethelred dies of natural causes and, after he’s made a peace treaty with Cnut, Edmund dies in suspicious circumstances, leaving Cnut king of all England.
1017 Cnut marries Emma.
1020s Emma has a son Harthacnut and daughter, Gunnhild.
1027 Cnut goes on pilgrimage to Rome.
1028 Cnut is in Norway furthering his claims to the throne.
1030 Cnut appoints his son by his ‘consort’ Aelfgifu, Swein, earl of Norway to rule in  his absence.
1033 Rebellion in Norway against the unpopular rule of Swein and Aelfgifu.
1035 Cnut was planning a military campaign in Norway and also managing the marriage of his daughter by Emma, Godgifu, to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad, the future Henry III, when he dies without naming an heir and with at least three possible contenders to the throne – Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward.
1036 The nobility call a witan at Oxford where it is agreed Harold Harefoot will rule England north of the Thames, Harthacnut England south of the Thames – in his absence run by Earl Godwine in alliance with Emma. Alfred lands from Normandy to press his claim but is kidnapped, blinded and dies. Meanwhile Emma’s best hope, Harthacnut, refuses to come to England, facing his own problems in Norway, and so the path is open for Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son, Harold Harefoot, to be acclaimed king, and Emma to be placed in a very dicey position, as mother of two direct threats to the new king.
1037 Emma flees, but not to Normandy a) because she has been implicated in the murder of her own son, Alfred, who had spent most of his life in exile in the Norman court and whose murder scandalised her relatives b) and because her nephew, the Duke Robert, had died young in 1035, leaving as his only male heir his eight-year-old son by his mistress – William ‘the bastard’ or has he would come to be known, William the Conqueror, so that the court was a snakepit of conspiracies. She goes to Bruges.
1040 Harold Harefoot dies unexpectedly young, aged about 23. Harthacnut, who had finally got round to assembling a fleet to take him to England, is now able to land and claim the throne unopposed. Emma returns with him as the official Queen Mother.
1041 Harthcnut swiftly makes himself unpopular by imposing harsh taxation. He commits a notorious atrocity when two of his tax collectors are killed by a mob in Worcester, and he leads an army west which lays the entire county to waste. O’Brien suggests it is Emma’s idea to invite her surviving son by Aethelred – Edward – back from the Norman court to come and be co-ruler with Harthacnut.
1042 But the arrangement has barely got under way before Harthacnut dies of a drunken fit at a wedding party. Edward II is crowned king.
Around this time a book she had commissioned about her life and times is published, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a primary source for her life story.
1052 Emma dies, very nearly 70.
1066 Emma’s great-nephew, William of Normandy, seizes the throne of England.


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The Saga of the Jomsvikings

Classifying sagas

Hundreds of long prose texts were composed in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the texts we call sagas. Modern scholars bring some order to this profusion by classifying them as:

  • sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) – just over 40 texts describing what purport to be the true exploits of ordinary figures from the early settlement of Iceland, the so-called Saga Period, from 870 to just after the Christianisation in 1000 – this is the category which includes all the famous sagas ie Njal, Grettir, Laxdaela and so on
  • short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir) – around 66 items, often very short, often abstracted from the longer kings’ sagas
  • kings’ sagas (Konungasögur) – lives of Scandinavian kings, most notably the famous Heimskringla
  • contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur) – contemporary to their 13th century time of composition, written soon after the events they describe, most preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga
  • legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur) – dealing with deep myths and legends of the Northern peoples, most notably the Völsunga saga
  • chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur) – frequently copied from southern, mostly French chansons de geste
  • saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur)
  • saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
  • bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur)

Jómsvíkinga saga is told in the flat, objective style of the sagas of Icelanders but deals with chieftains and kings and high politics, so is more of a king’s saga.

Summary

Jomsborg is founded on the north German coast by the legendary Danish hero, Pálni-Tóki. It is a fraternity of vikings who raid around the Baltic. After Pálni-Tóki’s death the new leader, Sigvaldi, kidnaps King Svein of Denmark and tricks him into marrying Gunnhild, daughter of the Wendish king Búrisleif. Svein’s revenge is to invite the vikings to a feast at which he gets them drunk and encourages them to vow to conquer Norway and its ruler Earl Hákon Sigfurdsson. At the resulting Battle of Hjörungavágr the Jomsvikings are soundly beaten and, in a famous scene, 70 of them are lined up and executed until Eirik, Hákon’s son, is moved by their bravery to spare them.

Accretions

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is the core of the story and yet it only occurs in the last ten or so chapters of the 38-chapter long text. Over the centuries the oral tradition and the scribes (endless controversy about how much of each) have added on 20 or more chapters of build-up stretching back some 150 years before the main event, introducing, for example, the series of prophetic dreams (rather garbled and ineffective in the event, as they don’t actually foretell many key events). As with all the sagas events are told in the same flat style with little or no explanation which means you have to reread the text since, only when you’ve got to the end, do you find out what it’s about, which bits are important and which bits are fun and fanciful but unnecessary to the ‘plot’.

History and non-history

As the scholar N.F. Blake writes in his thorough and academic introduction to this 1962 edition, despite the highly detailed nature of the text which appears to be all about kings and battles, ‘The Jómsvíkinga Saga is not a historical text and has no value as a historical document. The main claim that the saga has to our attention is its literary excellence.’

Maybe so, but the saga is densely packed thoughout with real historical personages and, although their relations may be cast in fairy tale terms of three dreams and three visits and trick oaths and miraculous storms, nonetheless a lot of it is meaningless unless you have a good grasp of the power relations between the various kings and earls of Norway and Denmark – a challenging feat since the sources are meagre and even the best modern scholarship is dismayingly speculative about much of this period.

However, the overall affect is similar to other substantial sagas in that the mere effort involved in trying to follow the story leads you to become emotionally attached to some of the protagonists (for example, the venerable Bjorn the Welshman who is quietly effective throughout), even when their actions are repellent, even when their characters are almost non-existent – so that by the time the tragic end arrives the reader is moved partly out of sheer exhaustion at having stuck with the text till the bitter end.

Versions

Apparently the saga exists in five versions which are quite different in detail. This translation is from version H. There are also a number of other texts retailing the adventures of the Jomsvikings, which give completely different versions of key facts, for example about who founded them and where Jomsborg even was. This saga doesn’t give the definitive account, the reverse: reading this saga would be only the beginning of a journey towards a full understanding of the subject…

Detailed synposis

1 – In Denmark ruled King Gorm the Childless. His friend Earl Arnfinn holds a fiefdom in north Germany from Charlemagne (d.814). The earl has an incestuous relationship with his sister who bears a son. Slaves are told to expose it but, as always in this fable, leave it where it will be found by King Gorm and his hirdmen hunting. The babe is found in rich fabric knotted into a tree, so Gorm calls him Knut (knot) and adopts him and leaves him his kingdom. Knut himself has a son he names Gorm who will later be known as Gorm the Mighty.
2 – In Holstein rules Earl Klakk-Harald. His daughter Þyri has no equal in beauty. King Gorm comes with his army seeking her hand, but Harald wisely invites him to a feast at which Þyri herself says he must come again with gifts, build a house where none has stood, and sleep three nights in winter, having three dreams. Gorm goes away, builds the house, sleeps there on three consecutive nights and has dreams and tells Þyri who says she can marry him. Big wedding feast.
3 – Gorm tells his dreams: 1. He is looking out over his kingdom, the sea has receded to dry up. He sees three white oxen come out of the sea, eat all the grass, and return to the sea. 2. Three red oxen with large horns come up from the sea, strip all the grass, and return to the sea. 3. Three enormous black oxen come from the sea, eat all the grass, and return. Then a loud crash as the sea rushes back to where it had been. Þyri interprets: three white oxen are three heavy winters covering the land with snow. Three red oxen mean three winters with little snow but not good. The three black oxen mean a dire famine. The crash of the sea means civil war between great men close to Gorm. The queen pledges to prepare for the famine and when it comes there is enough food to feed all, whence she becomes known as the wisest woman alive and the Glory of Denmark.
4 – King Gorm invites Earl Harald to visit him at Christmas but the earl and men see a tree covered with blossom and decide it is a bad omen and turn back (symbolising the change from heathenism to Christianity in Denmark). Next year another Christmas invite but when they board a ship the earl and his men hear whelps barking in their mothers’ wombs (the rebellion of Svein against his father). Next year another invitation but this time the earl and his men see waves crashing and the sea turning red (the conflict between Knut and Harald – this never happens as Knut is killed by a Saxon arrow – see below). The king is all for attacking and ravaging Holstein but his wife calms him and invites her father who explains what kept him home three times and interprets the events as warning that boys yet unborn will cause great strife.
5 – Earl Harald bestows his land on  his foster-son Knut and goes on pilgrimage never to return. Aethelstan is king in England (925-39). The Danish army led by Gorm’s sons Knut and Harald invades and ravages Northumberland. Aethelstan gathers an army and defeats the Danes near Scarborough. One day the men were swimming by their ships when English men attack with bows, mortally wounding Knut. The English rally and the Danes are decisively expelled. They return to tell King Gorm who dies of heartbreak and is buried at Jelling (930? 940?). Harald Gormsson is elected king who will become known as King Harald Bluetooth (958-986).
6 – At this time Norway is ruled by Harald Greycloak (960-970?), the son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and his mother, Eirik’s wife Gunnhild, who had expelled Earl Hakon Sigurdarson, who takes 10 ships and to a Viking life. During winter King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth and Earl Hákon plot treachery against King Harald Greycloak of Norway and in the spring he is killed (970) by dead Knut’s son Gull-Harald (who Hákon then string up on a gallows for his trouble). Then the Holy Roman Emperor Otto comes on an expedition (974), gets Olaf Tryggvasson to help him and they force King Harald Bluetooth and Earl Hákon to become Christians.
7 – There was a man named Tóki who lived in Fyn in Denmark. He has three sons, the illegitimate Fjolnir (sneak), legitimate Áki (hero) and Pálnir (father of the legendary Pálni-Tóki). When Tóki  dies the two legitimate sons divide his property, offering Fjolnir a third of the chattels but not property. Angered he goes off to serve King Harald, rising to become his counsellor. Áki Tókason becomes the most successful viking raider in the land but Fjolnir feeds King Harald a steady diet and criticism and paranoia. When they learn Áki is at a feast in Gotland the king sends 10 ships and 600 men who successfully kill all Áki’s 120 men. Fjolnir has had his revenge.
8 – When Áki’s brother learns this he takes to his bed in despair since he cannot carry out the required revenge against so powerful a man as the king. His foster-brother Sigurdr advises asking the hand in marriage of Ingibjorg, daughter of Earl Ottar of Götland. He says yes and travels to Fyn for the grand wedding feast. That night in their wedding chamber Ingibjorg has a dream she is weaving on a loom the threads of which are weighted with human heads. One falls down and it is the head of King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth. Good sign.
9 – Pálnir and Ingibjorg have a son Pálni-Tóki who grows up big and strong. (Apparently Pálni-Tóki is a legendary figure, comparable to William Tell and other heroes.) When his father dies he goes a-viking every summer. Wales is ruled by Stefnir who has a daughter Álof. Pálni-Tóki plans to raid there but Stefnir and his adviser Bjorn the Welshman quickly send emissaries inviting him to a feast and to be friends. Not only does Pálni-Tóki attend but he proposes to Stefnir’s daughter, Álof. Stefnir makes Pálni-Tóki an earl and gives him half of Wales. After a year Pálni-Tóki says he wants to return to Denmark, so leaves his half the kingdom in control of Bjorn the Welshman.
10 – King Harald Bluetooth progresses round his land. He stays with Pálni-Tóki. As a result of his carousing a servant woman, Saum-Aesa, falls pregnant and bears a son (960). When Pálni-Tóki learns it is by the king he adopts the child and calls it Sveinn. (He will grow up to be the Sven Forkbeard who rebels against his father and conquers England in 1013.)  Next time the king is visiting they present him the three year-old boy but the king is angry and doesn’t want to know. Pálni-Tóki vows to bring him up royally.
11 – When he is 15 Pálni-Tóki advises him to go ask for ships from his father so he can go raiding. He harries Denmark and the farmers complain. Next spring he asks for more ships and harries fiercely all summer. When he meets his father he threatens him and Harald buys him off with more ships. Pálni-Tóki congratulates him: he is becoming strong and threatening. Pálni-Tóki goes to check his lands in Wales.
12 – Svein harries, burning and looting. Finally King Harald sets off with 50 ships to confront him.  The fleets meet off Bornholm. Day-long battle is inconclusive and the ships anchor. Harald goes ashore. Pálni-Tóki arrives back from Wales with 24 ships. Harald goes ashore with a handful of men and makes a fire. Pálni-Tóki shoots him dead with a golden arrow and sneaks away. Fjolnir keeps the arrow and Harald’s retainers agree to lie that the king fell in battle. Next day the naval fight resumes; Svein and Pálni-Tóki’s forces break through Harald’s blockade and sink more ships at which point everyone learns that Harald is dead. Svein and Pálni-Tóki give his followers the choice between fighting on or pledging their allegiance to Sveinn. They choose the latter and Sveinn progresses to an Assembly at which he is voted new king of Denmark.
13 – Svein is now king (986-1014). He invites Pálni-Tóki to a feast but three times (as in all good folk tales) he refuses, claiming he has to manage his affairs in Wales. Finally, under threats from Svein, Pálni-Tóki arrives with three ships and 120 men. Big feast. Fjolnir (the same sneak who persuaded King Harald to kill his uncle Aki) whispers to the king the story of Pálni-Tóki killing his father.
14 – Fjolnir gives a page the golden arrow and tells him to pass it round the room till someone claims it. Pálni-Tóki claims it and openly declares he shot and killed Svein’s father. Svein (Pálni-Tóki’s foster-son, after all) tells everyone to seize and kill Pálni-Tóki. Everyone leaps to their feet. Pálni-Tóki chops his bad uncle Fjolnir in two (cheers). But Pálni-Tóki and Bjorn the Welshman escape, though Bjorn goes back to rescue a man they’d left behind.
15 – The next summer Pálni-Tóki’s wife dies. He is restless in Wales, so leaves it to Bjorn the Welshman to manage and goes a-viking the coasts of Scotland and Ireland for three years, gaining great loot and then sets sail east to Wendland. The king of the Wends, Búrisleif, is understandably worried and offers Pálni-Tóki a base at a place named Jóm. Pálni-Tóki builds a castle there with a harbour that can hold 360 longships and has iron doors and catapults. (This all sounds fantasy from a long time later.) He calls it Jómsborg.
16 – Laws of the Jomsvikings: age 18-50; no refusing to fight; avenge each as a brother; never speak a word of fear; all valuable goods seized to be taken to the banner(?); no starting fights; news to be mentioned only to Pálni-Tóki; no women in the city; no-one absent for more than three days; if blood feuds exist between brothers Pálni-Tóki makes final agreement. They went harrying every summer. They were known as the Jomsvikings.
17 – A number of new families are introduced. Pálni-Tóki’s son is Áki, living back on Fyn in Denmark. Áki marries Thorgunn, daughter of Véseti, they have a son named Vagn who is tough and hard to handle.
18 – Sigvaldi and Thorkell, sons of Strut-Harald, ask his permission to go join the Jomsvikings and sail with 120 men via Bornholm where they land and raid farms owned by Véseti, then sail on to Joms. Pálni-Tóki stands on the battlements over the harbour and asks them their provenance. He knows their kin and half the men are accepted, half rejected.
19 – Meanwhile Véseti complains to King Svein about his farms being raided. Sveinn summons Earl Strutt-Harald who says his son’s actions are no responsibility of his. Véseti with 240 men plunders Harald’s farms, who complains to Sveinn but Sveinn says Harald wanted to act alone: so Harald goes raids three of Véseti’s farms.
20 – Sveinn calls a great assembly at which all parties arrive with ships and short-tempered men and it looks like a full-scale civil war might erupt, except Svein  declares a just settlement, Búi will return Harald’s cloak and riches (though not the chests of gold he insists on keeping) and awards Strut-Harald’s daughter to Véseti’s son Sigurd-kapa. All sides as reconciled.
21 – Then Búi and his brother Sigurd-kapa decide they want to go join the Jomsvikings. They sail there and are also asked questions by Pálni-Tóki on the tower. Sigvaldi and Thorkell want to be assured the feud between the families is settled.
22 – Vagn is such an unruly child that by the age of nine he has killed three men. Age 12 he asks Aki for a ship and sails to Jom. Long dialogue with Pálni-Tóki on the tower, involving Búi and Sigvaldi. Nobody wants to admit Vagn. Pálni-Tóki offers him rule in Wales, he says no. Then he challenges Sigvaldi to come out with two ships and fight it out.
23 – Sigvaldi and Vagn’s ships fight, first with hails of stones, then with swords. Sigvaldi is forced to retreat and loses thirty men. Pálni-Tóki is watching, stops the fighting and admits Vagn to the crew, even though he is only 12. He turns out a mighty warrior.
24 – Pálni-Tóki dies. Before passing he consults with King Búrisleif who gave them Jom about who should replace him. They agree Sigvaldi who is delighted. Vagn is given half of Wales to rule and goes there. But under Sigvaldi the Jomsvikings’ discipline deteriorates.
25 – King Búrisleif has three daughters. Sigvaldi asks for the hand of the Astrid. The King agrees but Astrid is not keen and says she’ll only do it on condition that Sigvald manages to liberate their country from the tribute they have to pay Denmark or, alternatively, brings King Svein there himself. They confirm the arrangement with oaths. Sigvald sails with three ships and 360 men to Sjaellund ie his home territory, learning that King Svein is holding a big feast nearby. Sigvald tells Sveinn he is dying and needs to tell him something important. King Svein comes onboard Sigvald’s ship at which Sigvald grips him and orders his men to raise anchor and row off hurriedly. He takes the king to Jomsborg where the vikings swear loyalty to him. Then Sigvald says he has pledged him (Svein) to King Búrisleif’s other daughter Gunnhild who will only accept him if he cancels the tribute which King Búrisleif has to pay him. Svein agrees and there is a mighty wedding feast. The wives wear veils until the next day when the king can see their faces and realises Sigvald was lying when he said Gunnhild was the most beautiful. Still, he sails back to Denmark with his new bride, thirty ships and fine gifts and Sigvald sails to Jom with his new wife.
26 – Earl Strut-Harald, father of Sigvald and Thorkell, dies. King Svein says the brothers should return for the funeral feast. People warn him against it but the brothers return to Sjaelland with 180 ships. Big feast, lots of drinking: Svein gets the vikings drunk then suggests they make oaths. He swears to defeat Aethelred and take England within three years (he does so in 1014). Sigvald swears that he will drive Earl Hákon out of Norway or die in the attempt. Thorkell the Tall vows to follow his brother. Búi vows to follow Sigvald. Sigurd-kapa vows to follow his brother. Vagn vows to follow his kinsmen, and then to go to bed with Ingibjorg, daughter of Thorkell leira. Bjorn the Welshman (surely getting on a bit by now) vows to follow Vagn. In the morning the sober vikings can’t remember their vows but his wife, Astrid, reminds Sigvald, and promises to help him make plans.

[In a footnote, N.F. Blake says that a man making an oath at a feast gets up from his seat and goes and puts one foot on a stone in the feast hall.]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

27 – Next day King Svein reminds the now-sober Sigvald of his vow. They squabble about how many ships the king will give him, and agree to set off soon. Astrid promises help to her husband, and Tóva gives her husband Sigurd some fighting men. The Jomsvikings depart.
28 – The Jomsvikings sail to the Vik and attack Tønsborg in Norway, murdering and burning. It is managed by Geirmund the White who flees to an outhouse with retainers then, when attacked, leaps out a window and has his arm chopped off by Vagn Akisson, but nonetheless flees to the woods and makes his way north to Earl Hakon who he tells of the attack. When the earl doesn’t believe him, he shows his stump.
29 – Hákon sends round the war arrow and musters troops. He raises his sons Svein and Eirik. The fleet of 360 ships assembles at a creek called Hjörungavágr. The Jomsvikins sail north plundering. The incident of Vagn and Ulf ie Vagn goes ashore on an island and finds a farmer tending three cows and 12 goats and asks him if he’s seen the Norwegian forces and he says he’s seen the king in one boat and the Joms force him to direct them and when he thinks they’re going t orealise he was lying he dives overboard but Vagn kills him with one spear throw.
30 – Detailed list of the men lined up on either side. For some reason space is devoted to one of Hákon’s skalds, Skjald-meyjar-Einarr, who recites a poem saying he’s going to leave. The earl gives him an elaborate set of magic scales and he stays. (This poet is mentioned in Egils saga as one of Hakon’s court poets and is also unhappy with his boss in that account.) And two verses from another Icelander named Vígfúss.
31 – The Battle of Hjörungavágr – detailed description of the battle lineup.
32 – Earl Hakon convenes with his sons and agree it looks like they’re losing. He goes ashore at Prímsign and prays to the heathen godesses, Thorgerd Holgabrudr and Irpa. He offers sacrifices which are rejected until he offers his seven-year-old son Erling who is then killed.
33 – He rallies his troops to rejoin the fray. As the day proceeds it clouds over until completely dark when lightning, thunder and hailstones break out. Many had taken off their clothes earlier in the day because of the heat and now begin to freeze. Whatever the Jomsvikings threw rebounded back on them plus the hail. The vikings with second sight see that a witch is throwing arrows at them. Hákon calls on his pagan goddess Thorgerd once again and the hailstorm is renewed, and those with second sight now see two witches fighting agains them. Sigvaldi concedes defeat. They didn’t vow to fight witches. Thorkell midlang leaps aboard Búi’s ship and hits him in the face with an axe, slips and Búi chops him in two; then Búi seizes his famous chests of gold (see chapter 20) and commands his men to abandon ship. Vagn, disgusted with Sigvald for abandoning his oath, makes an insulting poem about it then flings a spear at him which pins his steersman to the gunwale. Once Sigvald is gone, Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa and the rest all flee.
34 – Only Vagn fights on though many of his men are killed. When night falls the Norwegian earls take the oars from Vagn’s ship, anchor and weigh the hailstones sent by the pagan godesses Thorgerd and Irpa. Vagn’s men manage to float on the mast & sail to nearby skerries but many are wounded, it is bitter cold, and ten men die.
35 – At first light a viking arrow kills Gudbrand, kinsman of the earl. They search the abandoned viking ships and it came from Hávard the hewer whose feet have been cut off. They kill him. Earl Eirik asks Thorleif skuma why he looks so rough and Thorleif replies he seems to have been wounded when he attacked Vagn. Then he dies. This exchange seems to be there solely to justify what is, presumably, an old piece of skaldic verse attributed to Einarr skalagramm.
36 – Execution of the Jomsvikings The Norwegians see Vagn’s men on the skerry, row out and being them back prisoner, tie all 70 of them with ropes. Thorkel leira is appointed to execute them and, one by one, they ask whether they are afraid to die. They say no and one by one are beheaded, each one being asked the question and giving some kind of witty or ironic reply. One wants to be struck in the face so as to see death. Another is disappointed he won’t get to have sex with the earl’s wife, and so on.
37 – The famous story of the viking who requests a thrall to hold his hair up as he’s executed and who, as the blow falls, jerks his head down so that the thrall’s arms are chopped off above the wrist, and who then jokes, ‘Whose are these hands in my hair?’ He is killed and Earl Hakon orders all the others executed without delay. When they come to Vagn he replies he will only die content if he fulfils his vow: what was that? To kill Thorkel leira and lie with his daughter Ingibjorg without his consent. Thorkel is so furious he lunges at Vagn; Bjorn the Welshman pushes him over so the blow misses, Thorkel stumbles and the sword cuts through Vagn’s rope, freeing him, so that he grabs the sword and kills Thorkel with one blow. Hakon orders him killed on the spot but Earl Eirik overrules him on this and, in general, requests the rest of the Jomsviking be spared. Eirik asks old white-haired Bjorn the Welshman if he’s the brave man who returned to rescue a man from the hall (in chapter 14). When he says yes Eirik says will you accept your life from me and Bjorn says only if Vagn and all the others are spared. The Jomsvikings’ bravery in face of death and legendary solidarity are confirmed.

38 – Aftermath Earl Eirik grants Vagn his freedom and his wish, namely to marry Ingobjorg. He returns to Denmark, to his estates at Fyn, and lives to old age and many famous men are descended from him. Bjorn returns to rule Wales with a mighty reputation. Sigvaldi returns to his estates in Sjaelland and his wife Astrid. He rules wisely, as do the others ie Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa etc. But Búi, who had leapt overboard with no hands, is said to have turned into a serpent and ever afterwards guarded his gold. Earl Hákon gains great fame from his victory but doesn’t live much longer. Christian Olaf Trygvasson arrives in Norway and the fiercely pagan Hákon, on the run, is murdered by his own thrall while hiding in a pigsty (995). Olaf rules and converts all of Norway to Christianity.

‘That is the end of the story of the Jomsvikings.’

Related links

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

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 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

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.

Related links

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

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