Gisli Sursson’s saga

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

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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key relationships

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

Chronology (from GA Dasent’s 1866 translation)

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

Translation

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

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

Related links

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

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

Other sagas

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

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