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

The Saga of Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.
2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.
3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.
4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.
5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.
6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.
7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.
8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.
9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.
10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.
11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.
12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.
13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’
14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.

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The Saga of the Greenlanders

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).

To be honest, neither of them seem to me to have much literary merit and to be mainly of historical interest (which is considerable). The revelation for me is that there wasn’t one big voyage but quite a few trips stretched over a number of years and by a cast of people each discovering different parts and having different adventures. Thus there isn’t the continuity of characterisation you get in even the fairly short Þattrs.

Scholars take this patchiness to prove them closer to the original oral tradition, with less literary ‘shaping’ of the narrative than we see in most other sagas. That said, the anecdotes in Grœnlendinga saga are threaded together by being associated with successive children of Eirik the Red; and an over-pattern of sorts emerges in the contrast between Freydis the psychopath and Gudrun the saint, though only really in the last chapter.

Synopsis

1 – A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson arrives one summer in Iceland to find his father has emigrated to Greenland along with Eirik the Red, so he sets off to follow him. Three days from Iceland they lose their way. Over the weeks he and his crew spot three distinct lands but, since none of them tally with the description of Greenland he doesn’t go ashore. Eventually the wind does blow them back to Greenland where they land and find his father’s farm, settling there. People hear of his travels and criticise him for lack of curiosity in not landing anywhere.
2 – Leif the son of the outlaw Eirik the Red, is interested in Bjarni’s discoveries, buys a ship from him, hires a crew and tries to get Eirik to lead the expedition but Eirik says he is too old. They discover the same lands as Bjarni but in reverse order and name them: Helluland (meaning Stone-slab land), Markland (meaning Wood land) and a much more fertile place they decide to stay for the winter: cattle could graze here all year round, the sun doesn’t disappear in winter, the salmon are huge etc. They build a base and explore.
3 – Leif’s foster-father Tyrkir goes a bit further and finds grapes and grapevines. (Much ink has been spilt speculating whether these really were grapes (unlikely) or a word the Norse applied to some other kind of fruit (gooseberries?). Leif names the place Vinland meaning Wineland and the name was widely enough known to be recorded by the 11th century historian Adam of Bremen.) In the spring Leif sails back to Greenland laden with timber and grapes (?). As he rounds the Greenland coast he comes across a shipwrecked boat and saves the entire crew and stock, from which he is nicknamed Leif the Lucky. (Ironically the captain and most of the rescued crew then die of illness.)
4 – Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. He takes Leif’s ship, sails across the sea, finds Leif’s camp and stays the winter surviving on fish. In the spring the explore further west, finding one grain cover but nothing else human. Next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north, discovering some boats made of skin and people hiding under them, who they proceed to murder (!) The natives, called Skraelings by the Norsemen, return and attack en masse. The Vikings sail off in a defended boat but Thorvald is fatally wounded, dies and is buried in Vinland. His crew return to Greenland.
5 – Thorstein Eriksson goes to Vinland to recover the body of his brother, in the same well-travelled ship, taking his wife Gudrid. The expedition never reaches Vinland, after sailing all summer ends up back at the coast of Greenland, where Thorstein falls ill and dies. Supernatural events occur: The wife of their host Thorstein the Black dies but sits up and talks. Then dead Thorstein speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid, predicting a long and prosperous life for her back in Iceland, and a pilgrimage to Rome.
6 – A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni, a rich man. He falls in love with Gudrid and they marry (her third marriage) and he’s encouraged to lead an expedition to Vinland. The expedition arrives in Leif’s and Thorvald’s old camp and stays there for the winter. Next summer a group of natives or Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons, instead selling them dairy products. —Gudrid gives birth to a boy, Snorri, the first European born in North America.— The second winter the Skraelings come again to trade but this time one of Karlsefni’s men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. Supernatural events occur: As she waited, Gudrid had seen a strange woman approach with enormous eyes who said she was Gudrid; as the Skraeling was killed the spirit woman disappeared!— The Skraelings return to attack and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays the rest of the winter and returns to Greenland in the spring.
7 – Two brothers arrive from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogi. Freydis Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, suggests they all travel to Vinland and share the profits fifty-fifty. They agree to have only 30 men on each ship but Freydis double crosses her partners immediately by taking along 5 extra men. The brothers arrive slightly earlier in Vinland and move into Leif’s house but when she arrives, Freydis orders them to leave. Games which are mean to unify the little colony just lead to further disputes. One morning Freydis wakes Finnbogi to talk to him. Returning to her bed she tells her husband, Thorvard, the brothers abused and beat her and says she’ll divorce him unless he avenges her. Thorvard leads his men in tying up all the men from the other camp while they are still sleeping. Freydis has each man killed on the spot until only the five women remain who her crew are reluctant to kill. She asks for an axe and kills them all. She is greatest psychopath in all the sagas I’ve read. Freydis threatens her crew with death if anyone tells these deeds. They load the ships with goods and sail back to Greenland, telling everyone the brothers chose to stay in Vinland.
8 – Eventually Leif learns the truth and is horrified but doesn’t take it upon himself to punish her crimes. Meanwhile the saga returns to Gudrid and Karlsefni who make land in Norway, trade, then return to settle in north Iceland. When Karlsefni dies their son Snorri takes over running the farm while Gudrid goes on pilgrimage to Rome and returns to become a nun and anchoress. Their descendants include notable bishops of Iceland.

The murderess balances the holy woman – but both are treated with that same flat affect so characteristic of the sagas, so heartless and yet compelling. There is no false sentiment. There is no sentiment at all.

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Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

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The Vapnfjord Men

Vapnfirðinga Saga, so obscure there doesn’t seem to be an English version online, no matter how antique, and it only warrants a couple of lines in its Wikipedia entry. Nonetheless, it is compactly powerful and, at the end, strangely moving.

Summary

As a boy Helgi kills an outlaw who predicts great kin-hurt for him. Helgi and Geitir of Sunndale, once close friends and brothers-in-law, fall out and become bitter enemies until Helgi is killed, whereupon his son, Bjarni, kills Geitir (his foster-father and uncle), whereupon Geitir’s son Thorkel repeatedly tries to kill Bjarni until, in a moving finale, they are reconciled.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Helgi lives at Hof in Vapnfjord, on the east coast of Iceland. He is big, strong, handsome, overbearing and headstrong. When twelve he saw his family’s bull fighting with a kinsman’s, and attached a spike to the forehead of his bull, which promptly gored the other to death, hence his nickname Brodd- or Spike-Helgi. Two farmers live near Hof, Skidi and Svart. A dispute arises about grazing, Svart kills Skidi. Still aged 12 Brodd-Helgi gets Svart outlawed. But the outlaw makes raids on farmer’s stock from a nearby heath. Still age 12 Helgi ties a flat stone to his chest as armour, tracks Svart to his lair on the heath, chops off his leg and kills him. The dying Svart curses him: ‘Such kin-hurt shall persist in your family from now on that it will be remembered forever.’ He gains kudos for this act.

2 – Helgi becomes Geitir’s brother-in-law Lyting Asbjarnasson lives at Krossavik across Sunnadal from Hof. He has sons Geitir and Blæng, daughters Halla and Rannveig. Helgi marries Halla: they have daughter Thordid and sons Lyting and Bjarni. There is loving-friendship between Helgi and Geitir, they are always together.

Thorleif and Hrafn One day a ship comes to Vapnfjord skippered by Thorleif the Christian, partnered by Hrafn, very tight with  his money and with a secret chest. Helgi rides down and offers Hrafn his hospitality and to buy some valuables. Hrafn refuses both offers and Helgi goes away angry. Geitir arrives and Hrafn offers to go stay with him. The Egilssons hold an autumn feast and it is noticed how Helgi and Geitir spend the time engrossed in private conversation. In winter there are annual games held at Hagi. Geitir persuades the Norwegian to go, despite his reluctance. They are sitting in the hall when news comes that Hrafn has been murdered by someone unknown. A big man named Tjorvi was missing all the day Hrafni was murdered and, since he’s a friend of Helgi and Geitir, people suspect thay conspired to have Hrafni killed. Helgi and Geitir agree to divide dead Hrafn’s goods after the spring Assembly. In the spring Thorleif the Christian readies his ship for sailing. When Helgi and Geitir and everyone else is a the Assembly, Thorleif rows to Krossavik, takes all Hrafn’s goods, carries them back to his boat. Helgi and Geitir are tipped off and take to small boats go out and threaten Thorleif but he sails off regardless, returns to Norway and returns Hrafn’s goods to his kin, winning great reputation. Helgi is particularly upset about this and starts asking Geitir where Hrafn’s secret box, reputedly full of treasure, was hidden. Geitir says he knows nothing about it but Helgi refuses to believe him and a coldness sets in.

The following summer Thorleif returns in a new ship with German partners but Helgi learns he has made his share over to Hrafn’s heirs ie even killing him won’t get any goods for Helgi. Helgi discovers Thorleif has upset a priestess for not aying his dues to the temple and commissions a retainer called Ketil to summons him about it, but Thorleif behaves so hospitably to Ketil that the latter deliberately loses the case when it’s heard at the Assembly to Helgi’s fury. Thorleif is now out of this saga (having behaved, we may think, very well). Helgi berates Geitir for forcing him to make these desperate ploys which fail, and thus humiliating him. Their friendship is over.

3 – Helgi divorces Halla Halla falls ill. Helgi divorces her and marries a younger model. Geitir comes collects his sister and takes her back to Krossavik, but wants Helgi to return her half of the farm. In the spring Geitir rides to Hof to demand Halla’s money a second time but Helgi will not pay. Geitir summons Brodd-Helgi to the Sunnadal Assembly but Helgi arrives with more men and overpowers his case.

Thord and Thormod Two farmers live in Sunnadal, Thord is Helgi’s retainer and Thormod is Geitir’s retainer. Thord complains to Helgi that Thormod is using too much of the common land’s grazing. A little later Helgi summons Thord to ride to the common land where he kills all Thormod’s cattle. Thormod complains to Geitir who says he’s not getting dragged in. Next Helgi takes his carles and chops down all the timber on the common, Thormod’s as well as Thord’s and takes it to Hof. This time Geitir responds to Thormod’s complaints and tells him to muster eight kinsman and ride to Hof when Helgi isn’t there and formally summons Thord. However, Helgi hears about the plan and has his housecarles prepared: as Thormod rides up to the farm they all rush out and attack, killing Thormod and some of the others. Helgi throws their bodies in a spare barn. The survivors are distraught they cannot bury the bodies, so Geitir devises a plan for most of them to go and loiter around outside the farm distracting while Egil’s sons go with, apparently, coal baskets, and retrieve the bodies. It works perfectly to Helgi’s annoyance.But there is no blood-money paid for the killing of Thormod and Geitir still hasn’t got Halla’s money.

Halla’s illness (cancer?) becomes acute and she summons Helgi for a last interview while Geitir is away at an assembly. Shortly afterwards she dies and is dead when Geitir returns. Now there is out-and-out enmity between the former friends.

A ship arrives at Vapnfjord carrying Thorarin Egilsson a canny merchant. Helgi invites him to stay. Then Geitir invites him to stay. Then Helgi gives him a gift of five fine horse. Then Geitir tells him to send it back. Thorarin spends the winter with Geitir but sails off in the spring. All Geitir’s kinsmen come to see him demanding he do something about Helgi’s overbearing behaviour. Geitir gathers support from other chieftains Gudmund the Mighty and Olvir the Wise.

4 – The next spring there is a famine. Helgi and Geitir ride to the Assembly with eight or so retainers each. Helgi goes see his foster-mother who has second sight. She is weeping over a dream she had in which all the main characters are oxes and bulls and gore each other and avenge each other. As is customary, Helgi angrily ignores her dream which is, of course, true.

[HIATUS Here there is a gap in the manuscript which the editor fills with deductions from the text and a preserved poem about these events: At the Sunnadalsmynni Helgi, his son Lyting and other retainers are killed. Geitir submits to the Assembly where wergild is awarded against him and various of his followers exiled including Tjorvi the Big who is declared an outlaw. Bjarni survives his father Helgi and awards himself a hundred of silver. Geitir is his uncle.]

Bjarni settles at Hof with Thorgerd (Helgi’s second wife and his step-mother) and his brothers and sisters. On the Moving Days he hears Tjorvi is still loitering by his house so he leaps on his horse and chases him, catching him just before he reaches his home farm and spearing him to death.

Bjarni marries. Oddly he and his uncle, the killer of his father, Geitir attend feasts together and all is well. The men hold a meeting in the last month of winter at Thorbrandsstadir. As Bjarni sets off his step-mother Thorgerd takes out something to wear and whenhe opens the bundle Bjarni revals the cloak all covered in blood that Helgi was wearing when he was killed. Furious Bjarni storms out and to the meeting. After some trivial exchanges Bjarni snaps and strikes Geitir with an axe, immediately repenting  his action, he holds him as he dies. Noone expects reparation. Geitir is buried. Bjarni drives Thorgerd away in disgust. Geitir’s brother Blæng keeps the farm at Krossavik going. Geitir’s son Thorkel returns from abroad. Bjarni makes him any offer of reparation but Thorkel demurs. Everyone thinks he must be set on revenge.

5 – Three attempts on Bjarni’s life 1. In the winter Thorkel Geitirsson sets spies on Hof to discover how many men are there and Bjarni has counter-spies disinform him. An uneasy peace. 2. The following spring Bjarni is making his way down to the sea when he sees eight men approaching his three; they seize a chopping block, cover it with a cloak and put it in Bjarni’s horse while he hides in a nearby sheiling. Thorkel follows the three horses only for them to eventually ditch the chopping block and Thorkel to be humiliated. 3. Thorkel sends for the sons of Droplaug and recruits them to go burn Bjarni. However next morning Thorkel has one of his periodic illnesses and can’t go. Keen Droplaugssons want to go and when Thorkel insists they can’t because only he can lead the expediton they ride off in disgust. So Bjarni is spared three times.

6 – Next spring both men attend the Assembly with followers. They follow different routes home, staying with different retainers. As Thorkel leaves his sister Thordis gives him a fine necklace and fastens it tightly. Next morning Bjarni and his men pass close to the farm where Thorkel is staying. He tells them to ride in sets of three to make it look like they are less. Thorkel and his men wake and find the tracks and pursue them through the snow to near a farm called Eyvindarsstadir. here Bjarnis resolves to turn and take what is coming.

The battle of Bodvarsdal The two sides fight. Blæng (Geitir’s brother) kills Birning then cracks Bjarni over the neck but he is saved by the lucky necklace. Blæng strikes again but Bjarni gets the better of him; then Thorkel attacks him but is wounded in the arm, and severla others fall killed until Eyvind and his womenfolk come out to break up the fight. Thorkel and his go home to Krossavik but Eyvind accompanies Bjarni and his back to Hof where Thorvard Leech comes to cure them. Bjarni goes straight to the kinsmen of his supporters who were killed making them noble offers.

Reconciliation When he is well Bjarni asks Thorvard Leech to go cure Thorkel who is ailing, and he does, and Thorkel rewards him handsomely. Thorkel’s farm languishes with his men ill. Bjarni learns of this and tells a passing farmer to invite Thorkel’s whole household to come and stay at Hof, or offers hay to feed his livestock. Thorkel’s wife hears it and says it is a noble offer. Thorkel saddles up with 12 followers and rides to Hof and there Bjarni greets him and offers him full reparation, whatever he wants, and both sides are fully reconciled and keep the peace till their dying days. Bjarni becomes renowned for a brave fair man. Thorkel successful at lawsuits. In his old age Krossavar gives out and Bjarni invites him to stay at Hof where he does until he is an old man.

Saga sayings

  • Word carries though mouth stands still. (3)
  • He with a short knife must try, try again. (3)

Translation

By Gwyn Jones from the OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas published in 1961. It is fluent and easy to read with the occasional archaic phrasing, but it doesn’t interfere with the sense and makes it more like a boy’s story you might have read in your youth.

I can’t find an English translation of it online.

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The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue

A short saga at a mere 13 chapters, Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue is intimately linked with the other major sagas: the woman in the love triangle at the heart of the saga is Helga, daughter of Thorstein who is the son of Egil Skallgrimsson, the hero of Egils saga; his sister, Thorgerd (Egil’s-daughter) married Olaf the Peacock and so is mother to the ill-fated Kjartan, key figure in the love-triangle at the heart of the Laxdaela saga. Njal’s saga and Eyrbyggja saga are also referred to. This along with the relative lack of crude violence and the focus on matters of the heart make it feel late – medieval not dark age.

Oral tradition or art?

Art. Lots of asides which have a detached, bookish, academic tone:

When the country was completely heathen, it was something of a custom for poor men with many dependants in their families to have their children exposed. (3)

In those days , the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark, but there was a change of language when William the Bastard conquered England. Since William was of French descent, the French language was used in England from then on. (7)

In those days, anyone who felt he’d received underhand treatment from someone else could challenge him to a duel. (11)

Synopsis

1 – Thorstein, son of the hero and poet Egil Skallagrimsson (Egils saga), is married to Jofrid, daughter of Gunnar Hlifarson, the best fighter in Iceland: number two is Gunnar of Hlidarendi (hero of the first part of Njals saga), number three, Steinthor from Eyri (leader of the Thorlakssons and a central figure in Eyrbyggja saga). (Thorstein’s life is summarised in the final, ninetieth, chapter of Egil’s saga.) They live at Borg, Egil’s farm.
2 – A Norwegian ship puts into harbour and Thorstein puts up the skipper. One day they go to rebuild one his farm buildings. Thorstein dozes and when he wakes tells the Norwegian his dream: a beautiful swan is on his roof. Two eagles fly down and fight over her, both fall dead. Then a hawk flies down, chats to her, and they fly off together. The Norwegian interprets: Thorstein will have a baby girl. Two heroes will fight over her and die. A third will take her. Thorstein angrily dismisses the interpretation.
3 – Jofrid is pregnant. Thorstein is heading off for the Althing and tells her, if it’s a girl, leave it out exposed to die. In his absence Jofrid has the girl (984) but secretly sends her to her sister-in-law (Thorstein’s sister) Thorgerd, at Olaf the Peacock’s home, Hjardarholt. There she is raised for 6 years until Thorstein happens to pay a visit to Hjardarholt and remarks on the beauty of this little girl. Thorgerd tells her the truth. Thorstein thanks her and takes little Helga the Fair home to Borg.
4 – Introducing Illugi the Black (who features in chapter 17 of Eyrbyggja saga). His son is Gunnlaug (b.984) big, strong, impetous, a good if abusive poet, not unlike his grandfather the great Egil. When he was 12 he asked his dad if he could have wares to travel abroad. His dad refuses then find Gunnlaug emptying the stores and readying a horse to go anyway. Illugi refuses and puts everything away, and Gunnlaug goes to Bord, to Thorstein, to take refuge. Thorstein puts him up for years. He gets close to Helga the Fair with her lovely long golden hair. Thorstein teaches the boy law. One day he asks Thorstein to teach him how to betroth himself to a woman and asks, jokingly, to be shown what form of words he must use to Thorstein to ask for Helga’s hand. And he says the words and everyone thinks it’s a game.
5 – Introducing Onund who lives south at Mosfell. Three sons, eldest Hrafn. About this time Iceland is converted to Christianity (1000). By now Gunnlaug is 18 (1002). He asks Illugi again if he may go abroad and this time Illugi buys him a part share in a boat (owned, as it happens, by Audun who is mentioned in Laxdæla saga for refusing to help the sons of Osvif escape after they’ve killed Kjartan Olafsson). Before he sails Gunnlaug pesters Illugi about marrying Helga. Illugi is worried he is too flighty and changeable. Gunnlaug brings Thorstein to meet Illugi and the two almost argue until Illugi concedes Helga will wait three years while Gunnlaug is abroad, but only provisionally; if Illugi doesn’t like him when he returns the deal is off. (It was just such a three-year promise which doesn’t work out for Kjartan and Gudrun in Laxdæla saga.) Gunnlaug sails for Norway in Audun’s ship.
6 – They land and go to the court of Earl Eirik Hakonsson (governor of Norway under Sweyn Forkbeard from 1000 to 1012). Eirik notices his foot is injured. Gunnlaug says you shouldn’t limp unless your legs are actually uneven lengths. A court follower named Thorir says he’s cocky. Gunnlaug speaks a verse threatening him. The Earl says he’ll not last another 18 years with htis attitude at which Gunnlaug says he’d better watch out, under his breath. Why? asks the Earl. Otherwise he’ll end up like his father Hakon the Good, murdered by a servant while hiding in a pigsty (!). Outraged the Earl orders Gunnlaug arrested but Icelander Skuli Thorsteinsson pleads on his behalf and gets Gunnlaug time to go down to the docks and board a ship for London.
7 – Dock in London then present themselves to the King Ethelred, son of Edgar, to his approval. Walking down the street Gunnlaug encounters berserk/thug Thororm and gives him money. Ethelred says it’ll be hard to get back and suggests a strategem. When he next meets him Thororm suggests a duel. Using the king’s trick Gunnlaug kills him and the king is grateful. Gives his permission for Gunnlaug to sail away, as long as he promises to return (medieval kings very clingy).
8 – Gunnlaug sails to Dublin and presents himself to King Sigtrygg Silk-beard who he charms with another poem. The king rewards him with fine clothes then Gunnlaug is off north to the Orkney Islands ruled by Earl Sigurd Hlodvesson. Again Gunnlaug recites a poem and is rewarded with a fine axe. He then sails east to Norway and stays in Vastergotland with elderly Earl Sigurd. Gunnlaug recites a poem he’s composed specially and is rewarded. Norwegians come south for Sigurd’s Yule Feast at which the guests start debating who is the better ruler, Eirik or Sigurd. Gunnlaug recites a poem which praises them both. When the Norwegians report this back to Eirik he is mollified and says Gunnlaug will be welcomed if he returns.
9 – With his companion Thorkel he journeys east into Sweden, ruled by King Olaf. He encounters fellow Icelander Hrafn Onundarsson at the Spring Assembly at Uppsala (1004). They get chatting and friendly but then rival for who will recite their poem to the king first. When they do perform, the king asks their opinions and they each slyly criticise the other. Angry, Hrafn sails back to Iceland, meets his family and goes to the Althing, where he asks his kinsman Skafti the Lawspeaker to help him ask for the hand of Helga Thorstein’s-daughter. Thorstein says not if Gunnlaug returns this summer. But he doesn’t and at the next Althing it’s well over three years since Gunnlaug left and Hrafn renews his suit. Worried, Thorstein goes to to see Illugi, Gunnlaug’s father who says, yes it is over three years, yes I suppose Helga is free of the promise. Helga is not happy (just as Gudrun wasn’t at the prolonged absence of the man she loved, Kjartan.)
10 – Gunnlaug departs Sweden for England and returns to the service of King Ethelred (1004-6). England is under threat of invasion from King Cnut of Denmark and a huge army of Danes is permanently occupying part of the country. Gunnlaug asks permission to return to Iceland but Ethelred refuses while the Danish threat impends. A year passes and still the Danes don’t invade so Ethelred lets Gunnlaug sail east to Norway. Earl Eirik welcomes him then arranges him to take ship back to Iceland with Hallfred the Troublesome Poet. As they sail to Iceland Hallfred tells Gunnlaug Hrafn has proposed to Helgar and Gunnlaug composes a complex poem. (1006) They come ashore at Hraunhofn and meet a farmer’s son Thord who always challenges merchants to wrestling matches. Gunnlaug throws him but sprains his ankle and Thord tells him Helga is definitely marrying Hrafn. Gunnlaug rides home to Gilsbakki at the same moment the others are sitting down to the wedding feast at Borg. Gunnlaug wanted to ride down to Borg there and then but Illugi puts him off and  his foot is injured and so he doesn’t…
11 – Helga is not happy at the wedding. Hrafn takes her to his family home at Mosfell. Soon after she learns that Gunnlaug is back and is furious. She refuses conjugal relations with Hrafn and insists on moving back to her father’s house at Borg. Both families are invited to the wedding of Svertig and Hungerd and are seated next each other. Gunnlaug recites poetry to Helga and gives her the cloak Ethelred gave him. After the feast Gunnlaug jumps on a stallion and nearly rides Hrafn down, reciting complicated skaldic poetry. Helga never sleeps with Hrafn again. At that summer’s Althing Gunnlaug challenges Hrafn to a duel (1006). Hrafn gets first blow since he has been challenged. He makes a mighty swing at Gunnlaug’s shield, his sword breaks, and the fragment flying up cuts Gunnlaug’s face. At that both families intervene to stop the fight. The next day the Althing bans duelling so this was the last duel in Iceland. Next day, at the river Gunnlaug sees Helga again and she looks at him lovingly. Gunnlaug rides home to Gilsbakki where, one morning, Hrafn and 12 men stride into the hall. Gunlaug leaps to his feet but Hrafn has come to challenge him to a duel in Norway, far from their meddling families.
12 – (1007-8) Hrafn sails to Trondheim, waits all winter, then all summer, then another winter. Gunnlaug leaves late in the season and makes landfal on the Orkneys. Gunnlaug goes a-viking with Earl Sigurd. After proving a real hero, Gunnlaug departs for Norway where he is welcomed by King Eirik but forbidden to fight this duel (1008). So (1009) Gunnlaug sets off east in pursuit of Hrafn for several days into Sweden. Finally at a promontory between lakes called Dingenes they meet. They agree their handful of followers will fight too. Gunnlaug kills Hrafn’s two kinsmen Olaf and Grim. Hrafn kills Thorkel the Black. Then Gunnlaug hacks off Hrafn’s leg. He takes Hrafn water in his helmet but Hrafn treacherously hacks at his head giving him a bad wound whereupon Gunnlaug kills him. The Earl’s guides who brought him here bind Gunnlaug’s wound. Gunnlaug is brought into Levanger where he dies.
13 – Illugi has a dream seeing his son all bloody. So does Onund. At the Althing Onund refuses to pay compensation. In the autumn Illugi rode with thirty men to Mosfell. Onund and his sons seek sancgtuary in the church but Illugi kills two of his kinsmen. Hermund, Gunnlaug’s brother, broods on revenge. There is a rich merchant, a nephew of Onund’s also called Hrafn. One day Hermund rides over the moors and down the seashore and stabs him to death and rides off. The feud is declared over.

Death of Helga
Helga marries Thorkell Hallkelsson. They have many children but Helga never forgets Gunnlaug. An illness afflicts the household. Helga asks for the cloak Gunnlaug gave her to be brought out. She spreads it out in front of her and falls back in her husband’s arms dead.

Sayings

  • Things learned young last longest. (11)
  • If a woman loves a man her eyes won’t hide it. (11)

Related links

Gunnlaug making a bad first impression on Earl Eirik Hakonsson

Gunnlaug making a bad first impression on Earl Eirik Hakonsson

Other sagas

Bolli Bollason’s Tale

The Laxdæla saga survives in numerous manuscripts. The one used for printed versions is the so-called Möðruvallabók from the 14th century. In this MS, to the end of the saga proper has been added a short narrative about Bolli, son of the famous Bolli who features in the famous love-triangle with Kjartan and Gudrun (hence Bolli Bolla-son) titled Bolla þáttur Bollasonar or Bolli Bollason’s Tale. It is, apparently, a þáttur, a short narrative often included as an episode in a larger whole, such as part of a saga.

After the epic lengths of Njal’s saga (159 chapters) and Laxdæla saga (78 chapters), Bolli Bollason’s Tale is a slender 10 chapters, weighing in at just 13 pages in the giant Penguin volume, The Sagas of the Icelanders.

Synopsis

1 – In a tale this short it’s clearer than ever that the blunt functionality with which people are named and yanked into the action is a little like the dramatis personae at the beginning of a play, before it’s even started. Introducing:

  • Thord from Marbaeli, his wife Gudrun and son Olaf. Gudrun is related to Bolli.
  • Arnor Crone’s-nose from Miklabaer in Skagafjord.
  • Thord and Thorvald Hjaltason from Hof in Hjaltadal.
  • Thorolf Stuck-up from Thufur. He’s married to a kinswoman of Arnor’s and is a thingmen of the Hjaltasons.

Thorolf has an aggrssive bull which injures other people’s livestock. One day Thord catches it ripping up a pile of peat and kills it with a spear. Thorolf and he have a standoff then Thorolf kills Thord’s eight year old son. He goes see Arnor for his backing who rejects him. He goes see the Hjaltasons who initially say no but Thorvald is shamed into supporting him.
2- Gudrun rides south to see her kinsman Bolli who reluctantly agrees to accept the case. Meanwhile Thorvald Hjaltson persuades Starri of Guddalir to shelter Thorolf.
3 – Bolli rides north to Miklabaer to meet Arnor and persuade him to help. They ride on to the Hegranes assembly where Bolli and Arnor’s followers outnumber Thorvald and Starri’s followers, and so Bolli succeeds in getting Thorolf outlawed.
4 – Starri and Thorvald pay the captain of a ship at Hrutafjord to take Thorolf abroad. Bolli considers he won’t have really closed the case if Thorolf escapes so he buckles on his famous sword, Leg-Biter, rides up to the beach at Hrutafjord and kills Thorolf.
5 – At that year’s Althing Bolli is invited to stay by a number of men of the north: Gudmund the Powerful, Arnor Crone’s-nose, Thorstein son of Hellu-Narfi and Thord of Marbaeli. That summer a ship lands at Dagverdanes and Bolli puts the crew up at Tunga. At Christmas he rides with this crew north to accept the invitations. They are feasted at Marbaeli with Thord, at Miklabaer with Arnor. Arnor says the Hjaltasons feel their honour was insulted when Bolli killed Thorolf and might ambush him; so he, Arnor, will accompany him as he rides further north.
6 – Indeed the Hjaltasons ride out to ambush Bolli as he heads north over Heljardal heath, but are dismayed to find him accompanied by Arnor’s men and so meekly and humiliatingly return home. At which Arnor leaves them. Bolli’s posse arrive at a farm called Skeid, home to bad-tempered Helgi. The posse’s horses start eating the hay and Helgi runs out to confront them; Bolli is polite and apologises but Helgi calls them thieves then demands Bolli’s spear then makes a formal summons for theft and makes it liable for outlawry. Bolli says he’s overdoing it and countecharges him with slander and trying to extort his property (the spear). They ride off, soon arriving at Thorstein’s farm at Hals.
7 – Helgi’s wife Sigrid says you’ve made a fool of yourself and rides over to Hals to see Thorstein and ask him to intercede. Sure enough Thorstein asks his guest, Bolli, to drop the charges, first saying they’re too trivial to care about, then offering Bolli his best horse, then threatening that he won’t stand by and see Helgi killed. This escalates into a row and Bolli leaves his house.
8 – Bolli’s crew ride on to Gudmund the Powerful at Modruvellir. Gudmund has heard that Bolli’s upset Thorstein and advises him to ride home a different route. Bolli changes the subject and makes Gudmund a fine present of the spear King’s Gift. Gudmund gives Bolli rings etc and the part the best of friends. Bolli rides on to a farm called Krossar where he is the guest of the farmer Ottar.
9 – Thorstein gathers thirty men and sets up an ambush at the river Svarfadardalsa. Bolli and his crew ride up and Thorstein attacks. Ottar canters off. Helgi is urging Thorstein on and Bolli throws a spear whic transfixes Helgi to the river bank. Bolli deals Thorstein a severe wound on the shoulder and leg. Meanwhile Ottar had ridden off to get his friend Ljot of Vellir who arrives with his followers and breaks up the fight, saying he will impose the terms of a settlement. The fighting stops. Thorstein rides home. Ljot invites Bolli to go stay at his farm. Bolli is grateful to both Ottar and Ljot.
The site where they fought is known as Hestanes.
10 – Ljot calls an assembly at which Helgi’s death will go unpunished because of his slanders; the wounds to Thorstein and to Bolli cancel each other out; for three of Thorstein’s men killed Bolli must pay compensation; for his attempt on Bolli’s life thorstain must pay 1,500 three-ell lengths of cloth. They are reconciled. Bolli thanks Ljot. Bolli takes over custody of dead Helgi’s farm and livestock. They ride to Miklabaer and meet Arnor who congratulates them.

This journey of Bolli’s became the subject of new stories in all districts. Everyone felt that hardly any journey had been made to equal it. He gained in respect for this and many other things.

Thoughts

In this short space you can see the tremendous importance of two or three themes or issues or threads which make these stories possible, which are in fact the stuff they are made of:

  • Kin and family relations are all-important otherwise trivial incidents would stop at just that; but because relatives and kin are drawn in there’s always the tendency to escalate, and quickly.
  • Hypersensitivity to small wrongs and insults quickly gets out of hand: why does an argument about a bull lead to a boy being murdered and then distant relatives on both sides being called to what would have been quite a big fight; or an argument about some straw lead to a pitched battle between 50 men?
  • The Law: Icelandic law is odd because it saturates the culture so deeply that complete strangers are prepared to invoke its extreme powers (ie the threat of outlawry) at the drop of a hat, as Helgi does against Bolli over the hay; yet it never seems to prevent conflict. It is used purely as a way of formalising compensation after the event. Even then it is entirely reliant on the physical force of the participants: thus Bolli and Arnor only ‘win’ their case at the Althing because they have more men that their opponents. And even then, it can break down again at the drop of a hat, as Bolli simply decides the outlawry of Thorolf he himself secured isn’t enough, and rides over to kill him. No-one appears to think  badly of this casual ignoring the law.

Related links

Bolli Bollason’s Tale is included in

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Other sagas

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,

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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.

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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

Reading sagas

The Icelandic sagas are about family trees and genealogies, hundreds of pages of them. Occasionally something like an anecdote or short scene emerges from the blizzard of names. The reader of sagas must be prepared:

  • To read the first 30 or 40 pages of names and relations and incidents sprawling over numerous generations, before you even get to the nominal ‘hero’ of the saga (Egil doesn’t appear until chapter 31 of his 90-chapter saga is a third in; Njal just appears in chapter 20 of the 159-chapter Njal’s saga) .
  • For the nominal hero of the saga to die some time before the end and the saga to carry on detailing the lives and actions of innumerable relations and descendants for some decades after the main character’s death (Njal dies in chapter 130 leaving 29 further Njal-less chapters).
  • For challengingly complex lists of families and wives and children and descendants and the farms they settled and built and bought and sold each other…
  • made very hard to remember because there seems such a paucity of names: there appear to be only about thirty names, so that fathers, brothers and cousins and blood-enemies can all share the same first name – very confusing – lots of Bards and Thorsteins.
  • For no psychology: one of the appeal of the sagas is the lack of psychology, instead everything is implied. There are sequences of events which unfold at the same relentless pace. Characters comment a little on this or that killing or legal settlement, but you almost never see into their ‘feelings’. Very occasionally, like a gleam of sunlight on an overcast day, there might be a one-sentence glimmer of psychological insight; but there will be at most two such sentences in 400 pages of text. (Gunnar’s mention of the beauty of his meadows, the fateful attraction which makes him turn back from exile and thus seals his fate (chapter 75) stands out as the only psychological moment in the 400 pages of Njal’s saga.) You have to piece together any sense of what the characters are like from a handful of incidents and a nickname; to the casual reader they may all seem like violent psychopaths except some are a bit more cunning than the others.
  • Instead, dialogue and description are kept to the bare minimum necessary to explain what really got medieval Icelanders going – which is more genealogies and family trees and explanations of who killed who, where, as a result of what grudge, the reprisals the killing led to among precisely which of the victim’s numerous friends and relatives; and then the elaborate legal proceedings it all led to at the Quarter sessions or the Althing.
  • For phenomenal violence, killing basically, at the drop of a hat: it’s surprising that Iceland was ever colonised considering the rate at which the colonisers from Norway, Scotland or the Hebrides killed each other. Surely they can’t have been representative, surely permanent feuds can’t have emptied whole valleys. In which case the sagas are deliberately omitting most of the behaviour of most of the population for most of the time to focus on just the grudges and fighting and feuds…
Gunnar's single handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal's saga

Gunnar’s single-handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal’s saga

Other sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga 1

Plot and characters

Eyrbyggja saga follows events on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in west Iceland, starting with the family trees of the first settler who fled Norway under King Harald Fine-Hair to settle the area, through 20 pages or so of the first settlers and their feuds, before it gets to what seem to be the main characters although, since characters appear then disappear from the narrative and are likely to drown or be killed just like that, it is very hard to get your bearings and really develop a feeling for, an empathy with, any of the characters.

If there is a central character it is Snorri the Priest, originally named Thorgrim Thorgrimson. It’s changed to Snorri because this means ‘turbulent’ or ‘troublesome’, and he is a deeply ambivalent character, sometimes violent, hiring assassins, himself killing men; but also, as priest of Thor, responsible for trying to establish peace despite the endless feuding of gangs of men (eg the Thorbrandssons versus the Thorlakssons). His character might be said to grow and the translators like him but he is at one with the violent untrustworthy milieu.

Arnkel the Priest is a fairly sympathetic character who tries to maintain some honour and dignity in the feud-bedeviled culture and despite provocation from his fiery Viking father Thorolf Twist-Foot, before he is eventually killed at a lone stand atop a haystack on his farm by a gang of eight men led by Snorri.

Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion also emerges in the latter part of the saga, having seduced Thurid, wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader, and survived an attack on him by Thorodd and his relatives, Bjorn is outlawed, travels to Norway, Denmark and then east to join the legendary Jomsvikings, among whom he rises to become a chieftain, before returning many years later to Iceland.

Paganism

The Age of Sagas (870-1050) covers the period of the Christianisation of the Icelanders’ homelands of Denmark and Norway (in the 960s) and then the Christianisation of Iceland itself in 1000. the sagas were mostly written in the Christian 1200s, probably by monks or scholars educated in Christian culture.

Eyrbyggja Saga is notable for having details of pagan life, belief and ritual found nowhere else, in any written sources. The founder, the first arrival at Snæfellsnes, Thorolf Mostur-Beard, is described as ‘a friend of Thor’, casts his temple pillars into the sea to see where they will wash ashore, and there builds his settlement. There is a detailed description of his pagan temple which is, alas, almost certainly fictitious. Despite a few more details, and despite two of the leading characters (Snorri and Arnkel) being surnamed ‘the Priest’, the details and the real feel of paganism are here as elusive as everywhere else. There is almost nothing about beliefs or rituals compared to, say, the details given of legal procedure, how they are conducted and what people think of them.

The arrival of Christianity

The arrival of Christianity, which you would have thought a momentous occasion, is dealt with in the six sentences which comprise chapter 49 (compared to the five chapters which describe Christianisation in Nja’s saga):

The next part of the story tells how Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti came to Iceland to preach the faith. Everyone in Iceland was baptised, and Christianity was adopted by law at the Althing. It was Snorri the Priest who more than anyone else persuaded the people in the Westfjords to embrace the new faith… The priests promised each farmer as many places in Heaven as there was standing room in any church he might build. This proved a great inducement to them to put up churches…

The advent of Christianity had little impact on the feuding and killing. A little on the supernatural as Holy water i snow used to disperse the ghosts. The introduction to this Penguin edition argues that the saga as a whole demonstrates a moral progression from chaotic violence in Norway, to the eruption of countless feuds in Iceland, to a growing respect for peace and the law. Doesn’t feel like that to me. Violence and the touchy pride and dangerous edge which lead to violence so quickly seem to me present right to the end.

Ghosts and the supernatural

The world of the saga is saturated with the supernatural, with ghosts and night-riders, strange animals, omens and portents:

  • one of his shepherds sees the whole of Helgafell opening and Thorstein Cod-Biter being welcomed inside, later discovering Thorstein has drowned
  • Gunnlaug Thorbjarnarson is ridden to death by a night hag, probably Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter
  • Thorolf Twist-Foot dies in his chair and they cut through the wall behind it in order to drag him to his grave. But he rises again, birds and wild animals are killed and then humans until the entire valley is emptied, until his son Arnkell the Priest with helpers digs up Thorolf’s corpse and drags it to the seashore where it is reburied
  • Thorodd the Tribute-Taker drowns at sea but the ghosts of him and his crew come back to haunt his farm at Frodriver all one winter, until banished by a combination of a door-court in which legal formulas force them to leave – cemented by the blessing of the house with holy water
  • the entire episode of Thorgunna, an immigrant from the Hebrides with her luxurious bedding who is caught in a rain shower which turns out to be of blood (!) before she takes to her bed and dies, warning that all the bedding is destroyed. When it is not, she returns to haunt the farmstead.

Thor

It is generally thought that Thor was the most commonly worshiped of the pagan gods: small lockets depicting him or his holy hammer have been found in burial sites. In Eyrbyggja Saga the first settler of Snæfellsnes where the action is set is a priest of Thor who throws his temple pillars into the sea to see where the god will wash them ashore and there builds his new temple, and maintenance and tithes for the temple play a role in the action.

Part of the evidence for the popularity of Thor the god is the sheer number of personal names formed from the stem Thor, namely: Thorarin, THorbjorn, Thorbrand, Thord, Thordis, Thorfinn, Thorgerd, Thorgest, Thorgrim, Thorgrima, Thorgunna, Thorir, Thorlak, Thorlief, Thormod, Thorodd, Thorolf and Thorstein.

Nicknames

The Icelanders are fond of giving each other nicknames – presumably to bring to life and make more manageable the blizzard of very similar names which surrounded them. Thus: Alf the Short, Aud the Deep-Minded, Bork the Stout, Egil the Strong, Eirik the Red, Eyjolf the Grey, Illugi the Black, Ketil Flat-Nose, Kjallak the Old, Svart the Strong, Thorarin the Black, Thord the Cat, Thorgrima Witch-Face, Thorofl Mostur-Beard, Thorolf Twist-Foot, Thorstein Cod-Biter, Vermund the Slender.

Greenland

is mentioned twice in the saga. Almost at the end, in chapter 64, a man named Gudleif son of Gudlaug is introduced solely to tell the story of how he and his ship gets lots in a storm and end up making landfall on (prsumably) Greenland where the native people (Inuit Indians?) tie them up and take them before a grey-haired elder who amazes them by suddenly speaking in Old Norse. He never gives his name but asks them to take a gold ring and sword back to Iceland and give them to Thurid and the boy Kjaltan. It is obviously Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion whose strange career has taken him form fighting with the Jomsvikings in the Baltic to ruling over Inuit in Greenland. A fitting and almost moving end to a fairly brief (141 pages) saga which in the end contains multiple and fascinating elements.

Translation

This translation is by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Presumably Edwards is responsible for the final English style which is admirable. It is clear and rhythmic and comfortably colloquial. It’s the colloquialisms which all too often let a translation down but Edwards is relaxed and assured:

‘I’ll tell you what’, said Arnkell. ‘We’ll each have to do what we think best. You two run back home and rouse my men.’ (Ch37)

He tried to tread as softly as he could, for he had already caught a glimpse of Thord and Bjorn sitting by the fire, and thought he had a lifetime of freedom within his grasp, but as he crossed the doorsill, he stepped on a loose tassel. He tried to move to the other foot, but the tassel was caught, so that he tripped and crashed onto the floor with a great thump that sounded like the carcass of a skinned bull being thrown down. Thord leapt to his feet and asked who the devil was there. (Ch 43)

Then Alf the Short stepped forward and asked Ospak not to take the whale. ‘You’d better keep out of this, Alf,’ said Ospak, ‘you’ve a thin skull, and I’ve a heavy axe. One step more and you’ll finish up like Thorir.’ It was good advice, and Alf took it. (Ch 57)

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Icelanders paying a social call

Icelanders paying a social call

Other sagas

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