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

Gisli Sursson’s saga

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

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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key relationships

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

Chronology (from GA Dasent’s 1866 translation)

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

Translation

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

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

Related links

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

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

Other sagas

Laxdæla saga

Second only to the mighty Njal’s saga in number of manuscripts surviving, the ‘saga of the people of Laxdal’ is one of the classics of the genre.

Ketil Flat-Nose emigrates to Iceland
1 – Introducing Ketil Flat-Nose and his wife Yngvild, and their five children: sons Bjorn the Easterner and Helgi Bjolan and daughters Unn the Deep-Minded, Thorunn, Jorunn Manvitsbrekka.
2 – After the Battle of Hafrsfjord (?875) King Harald Fair-Hair (872-930) emerged as the first king of a unified Norway. He imposed taxes and appointed lords and drove many people into exile. Ketil assembles his family and says he doesn’t want to submit to Harald. His sons Bjorn and Helgi are for going to Iceland, Ketil less keen.
3 – The sons and son-in-law arrive in west and north Iceland and claim land and build settlements.
4 – Ketil settles in Scotland with his kin (890). His grandson Thorstein goes a-viking around the Scottish coast. He eventually makes peace with the Scots but is killed. Ketil dies. Her father and son dead, Unn has a knorr built secretly and steals away with her people and goods. She sails to the Orkneys and settles Thorstein’s daughter, then on to the Faroes and arranges the marriage of another of Thorstein’s daughters.
5 – Unn sails to Iceland (895), arriving at Hvammsfjord and making her home at Hvamm. She marries Thorgerd daughter of Thorstein to Dala-Koll. Their son is Hoskuld Dala-Kollson whose daughter is Hallgerd ‘Long legs’, a central character in Njals’ saga where she manages to get her three husbands killed (notably the hero Gunnar) and then provides a focus for the enemies of Njal.
6 – Unn apportions land to all her followers, and the marriages of the rest of Thorstein the Red’s six daughters.

Rise of Hoskuld
7 – Unn holds a big wedding feast for her grandson Olaf Feilan (920) at which she publicly leaves him the farm at Hvamm then goes to bed. In the morning she is found dead. She is buried in a boat in a mound along with lots of treasure. Dala-Koll dies and Hoskuld inherits what comes to be known as Hoskuldsstadir. His mother Thorgerd (now a widow) returns to Norway and marries Herjolf.
8 – Herjolf and Thorgerd have a son, Hrut. He grows up big and strong. Herjolf dies (923). Thorgerd returns to Iceland, to Hoskuldsstadir. Eventually she dies and Hoskuld takes over all her property.
9 – Hoskuld woos and marries Jorunn (935). Their sons were Thorleik and Bard; their daughters were Hallgerd long-legs and Thurid. Hoskuld becomes honoured and rich.
10 – A man called Hrapp lives at a farm across the river Laxal from Hoskuldsstadir. He is troublesome. His wife Vigdis and all her family and relations.
11 – A man called Thord Goddi is neighbour to Hrapp and comes into conflict with him.

Hoskuld visits Norway
Hoskuld buys a ship and sails to Norway where he is welcomed by kin.
12 –  In the summer a royal expedition east to the Brenno Islands to judge law cases, also an excuse for feasting and entertainment. Hoskuld goes. He encounters the trader Gilli the Russian. He barters for a slave woman, paying three marks of silver for one who cannot speak.
13 – Hoskuld presents himself to the newish ruler of Norway, Earl Hakon (975-995), who is a bit miffed he’s delayed saying hello, but helps him to the timber he requires and sends him back to Iceland laden with presents (gold ring and sword) (948).

Hoskuld returns to iceland with a concubine
Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn is not thrilled to have Hoskuld’s slave woman under the same roof especially when she gives birth to a fine-looking boy, whom Hoskuld names Olaf after his uncle Olaf Feilan.  Hoskuld discovers the dumb slave girl by a stream talking to handsome young Olaf, asks her name. She is Melkorka daughter of Myrkjarten, a king in Ireland, before she was captured in a raid aged fifteen. When she’s getting changed Jorunn hits her with a sock, Melkorka slaps her. Oops. Hoskuld separates them and gives Melkorka her own farm further up the Laxdal valley.

The story of Hall which leads to Thord fostering Olaf
14 – Long story of overbearing Hall from the Saudeyjar Islands. He goes to the fishing camp on the Bjarneyjar islands, takes a fishing partner Thorolf and bullies him. The bullying reaches a climax after one trip where Hall claims the better half of the catch. Hall tries to hit him with a gaff, they are separated, Thorolf goes off disgruntled, Hall takes another partner. As Hall leaps off the boat after his next fishing expedition Thorolf is waiting, chops off  his head, and scarpers. He takes a boat to the mainland, to the Laxa river and goes up to the house of Thord because Thord’s wife Vigdis is a distant relative. They argue about it but Vigdis gets her way to hide Thorolf for the winter. But then Hall’s overbearing brother, Ingjald, arrives and offers Thord three marks of silver if he will hand Thorolf over peacefully.
15 – Vigdis scents a trap and sends their servant Asgaut to take Thorolf from the cowshed where Thord has secreted him but they’re surprised by Ingjald and his men, and decide to swim across the half-frozen Laxa river, where Ingjald and his men can’t follow. They proceed on to the house of Thorolf Red-Nose where they are welcomed and Thorolf the fisherman becomes a retainer. Back at Thord’s house Ingjald is furious and demands the return of  his money but Vigdis smacks it in his face and frightens him off.
16 – Vigdis gives Asgaut money and makes him a free man; he sails to Denmark, settles and is out of this saga. Vigdis divorces her cowardly husband, takes her half of the goods and goes to stay with her kin the leader of which, Thord Bellower, is not impressed. Thord goes begs Hoskuld for his help. He offers to foster Hoskuld’s illegitimate son, Olaf, making him his heir. Hoskuld agrees, dspite the objections of Olaf’s mother, the ex-slave woman Melkorka (950). Hoskuld sends a conciliatory message and money to Thord Bellower and this placates him. Olaf grows up to be big, strong and handsome, and Hoskuld gives him fine clothes, which leads to his nickname, the peacock.

17 – Unpopular Hrapp dies (950). He’d asked his wife (another Vigdis) to bury him upright in the doorway which she does. But he haunts the farm and area and kills his servants. Vigdis flees. Hoskuld digs up Hrapp’s body and reburies it far away. Hrapp’s son, Sumarlidid, takes over the farm but goes mad and dies.
18 – Thorstein moves his whole family east in a boat. Interesting details of Norse boat and sailing, currents etc. In the event it overturns and everyone is drowned bar one. Details of the deal Thorkel Scarf does with the survivor to make him tell the order of the drowning in such a way as to ensure that Thorkel inherits all the goods through his wife Gudrid, Thorstein’s daughter (who drowned).

The dispute between Hrut and Hoskuld
19 – In the Laxdæla version Hrut is born and raised in Norway where he becomes a valued member of King Harald Gunnhildsson’s entourage, but he is called to Iceland to claim his inheritance, namely his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld is not pleased to see him, Hrut demands his mother’s share of the farm. Hoskuld replies that he was legally his mother’s guardian after his father’s death and did not give her permission to remarry (and thus split the property). Hrut is dissatisfied. In the autumn Hoskuld makes a visit and Hrut and his men go and rustle 20 of his cattle. Hoskuld’s men pursue and there is a pitched battle in which four of Hoskuld’s men are killed and the rest surrender. When Hoskuld finds out he is furious and sets about raising men from allies and supporters when his wife Jorunn intervenes: a) lots of people think Hrut was only taking his due and had showed retraint waiting so long b) Hoskuld has enemies such as Thord Bellower for taking Thord Goddi’s side against his wife. Hoskuld calms down and sees sense. He offers a settlement to Hrut. Hrut offers compensation for the men killed. The two are reconciled and live as brothers ought to. Hrut lives to a ripe old age at Hrutsstadir.

(Compare and contrast with the version of events told in Njal’s saga’s early chapters where Hrut lives happily with his brother, but is called to Norway to collect an inheritance from a distant relative and slips into the service of King Harald Grey-Cloak and becomes lover to Queen Gunnhild before returning cursed by Queen Gunhild, so that is marriage to Unn remains unconsummated so that Unn divorces him and Hrut is sued for return of the dowry etc. The core of the two Hruts ie half-brother to Hoskuld, time in Norway, lover to Queen Gunnhild, are consistent: but everything  else has been changed and rearranged. This makes you realise just how malleable these narratives and, by extension, the names, the people, the protagonists, are. )

Melkorka sends Olaf the Peacock abroad
20 – Hoskuld is old. His son Thorleik builds his own farm and marries Gjaflaug. The other son Bard helps Hoskuld on his farm. Meanwhile Hoskuld is reluctant to help Melkorka on her farm, he says she has Olaf to help. Melkorka decides to get revenge for his neglect. She arranges a) to marry Thorbjorn Pockmark, at which point he will release treadeable goods for b) her son Olaf the Peacock to go to Ireland and find her father, the Irish king Myrkjarten. She gives him a gold arm ring which her father will remember and a knife and belt which her nurse will remember.

Olaf in Norway
21 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is kindly received by King Harald and the Queen Mother Gunnhild who takes a shine to him (as she does to all attractive men). After faithful service Olaf requests help sailing to Ireland the the king and queen equip him with a boat and sixty men.

Olaf in Ireland
After some trials in the fog and with reefs they anchor on the coast of Ireland. The locals threaten to storm the boat but Olaf puts up a stout defence and looks commanding in his golden helmet. The king is called and at a parlay Olaf realises it is his grandfather Myrkjarten. Recognising the golden arm band Myrkjarten acknowledges Olaf as his son and they ride to Dublin. Olaf fights for the king and proves a daring commander. So much so that at a massive assembly Myrkjarten declares Olaf his successor as king of Ireland. Olaf gracefully declines: ‘I would rather enjoy a brief spell of honour than a long rule of shame’. Olaf requests to return to Norway; the king gives him a spear, a sword and other wealth and Olaf arrives back in Norway.

Olaf returns to Iceland
22 – King Harald and Queen Gunnhild like him all over again and try to get him to stay but Olaf sails safely home to Iceland with another set of royal presents, and goes to stay with his father Hoskuld. He becomes famous. Melkorka asks if her nurse came with him but he has to say, regretfully, the king wouldn’t let her. Melkorka had married Thorbjorn Pockmark: they have a son, Lambi who grows up big and strong. Hoskuld says Olaf needs a wife. He suggests Thorgerd, daughter of Egil Skallagrimsson (who, of course, has a famous saga dedicated to him).
23 – At the Althing Hoskuld suggests to Egil who asks Thorgerd who refuses to marry the son of a slave. So Olaf himself visits Egil’s booth and gets talking to Thorgerd and she agrees. A sumptuous wedding feast is held as Hoskuldsstadir and Olaf gives Egil the sword given him by King Myrkjarten.

Hrapp’s haunting
24 – Thord Goddi (Olaf’s fosterfather) dies. Olaf builds a mound over him. Olaf buys Killer-Hrapp’s vacant land, builds a farmhouse in a clearing, herds all his animals from Hoskuldsstadir to the new place which he calls Hjardaholt. One night a shepherd comes in terrified. Hrapp is haunting. Olaf attakcs Hrapp with a spear, Hrapp breaks off the spearhead and sinks into the ground. Olaf digs up Hrapp’s corpse (and finds the spearhead) and burns it by the sea.
25 – Hrut frees a slave and gives him land close to Hoskuld’s land. Hoskuld says it is his land. One day Thorleik kills the freeman. Hrut and his people are livid but the Law finds against them. Thorleik and Gaufljag have a bonny son, Bolli.

Hoskuld dies – his funeral feast
26 – Hoskuld is dying. He tells his sons Thorleik and Bard he’ll divide the legacy between them but wants to give Olaf the 12 ounces which the law allows an illegitimate son. Thorleik grudgingly agrees but then Hoskuld gives Olaf the gold armband and sword Myrkjarten gave him, 12 ounces of gold not the 12 ounces of silver that was customary. Thorleik was furious. Hoskuld dies and is buried. The brothers agree to hold a funeral feast after the next Althing.
27 – At the Law Rock Olaf promises a lavish feast, which irritates the brothers. In fact it IS an extravagant feast, with 1,080 guests, the second largest feast in Icelandic history. Afterwards, Olaf makes it up with Thorleik and offers to foster Thorleik’s son Bolli, since the foster-father acknowledges himself inferior. Thorleik is delighted so Bolli, aged 3, goes to Hjardarholt.
28 – Olaf and Thorgerd have a son, Kjartan, named for his maternal grandfather the Irish king. Dueller-Bersi offers to foster Olaf’s son Halldor. Kjartan is the handsomest man ever born in Iceland, tall and strong and excelling at physical sports etc like his grandfather Egil Skallagrimsson. Bolli is the second-finest man in Iceland.

Geirmund and Leg-Biter
29 – Olaf sails to Norway where he is taken in by Geirmund the Powerful who helps him ask the current ruler, Earl Hakon Sigurdsson (Hakon the Powerful) (975-995) to secure timber. Secretly, Geirmund stashes all his goods and people aboard Olaf’s timber ship, he wants to flee Norway. Olaf reluctantly acquiesces and, once back in Iceland, takes him in. With the timber Olaf builds a magnificent new hall decorated with carvings of Norse myths and legends. Olaf falls in love with olaf’s daughter Thurid and proposes. Olaf says no but Geirmund gets Thorgerd’s support and again acquiesces. At the wedding feast poet Ulf Uggasson sings a drapa about Hoskuld and about the wood carvings. (Some stanzas are preserved in the Poetic Edda; Ulf is also mentioned in Njal’s Saga.)
30 – After three years Geirmund announces he is abandoning Thurid and their daughter Groa. Thorgerd and Thurid are furious. Olaf is more relaxed and gives Geirmund a boat to return to Norway in. It is becalmed off islands in the fjord. Thurid follows it with servants, gets them to puncture the tow boat, then steals aboard, takes Geirmund’s beloved sword, ‘Leg-Biter’, and leaves the baby. When Groa starts crying Geirmund, wakes, runs on deck and begs the departing Thurid to return his sword. Never, she yells. Whereupon Geirmund curses the sword and says it will kill the one she loves most. Back at Hjardarholt Thurid gives Leg-Biter to her cousin Bolli. Geirmund sails on to Norway where his ship is wrecked and everyone aboard drowns (including, presumably, one-year-old Groa).

Olaf’s dream
31 – Thurid remarries, to Gudmund Solmundsson and bears the sons Hall, Bardi, Stein and Staingrim. Details of the marriages of Olaf’s other daughters. Olaf has a magnificent oxen named Harri. At age 18 he has it slaughtered. That night a woman comes to him in a dream and says you have had my son killed and returned him to me mutilated. For that I will see your son drenched and blood and by the person you wojuld least wish to.

Introducing Gudrun
32 – Osvif Helgasson and his kin at Laugur in Saelingsdale. His daughter, Gudrun Osvifs-daughter, the most beautiful and intelligent woman in Iceland.
33 – Gudrun tells wise Gest Oddleifson her four dreams: he interprets them that she will have four husbands and they will all die. Later he rides past Bolli and Kjartan swimming in the river along with other boys. He points them out to Olaf and chats to him. they ride on and his son notices him weeping: he explains he foresees Bolli stooping over Kjartan’s corpse.
34 – Gudrun is wooed and married by Thorvald Halldorsson. She is a prickly wife, alwa demanding the finest jewellery. Rumour gets round she’s seeing a lot of Thord Ingunnarsson leading Thorvald to argue with Gudrun and slap her. Outraged, she divorces him, takes half his property and returns to Osvif.
35 – Gudrun persuades Thord to divorce his wife Aud for wearing trousers. She is upset and her brothers are furious. Gudrun and Thord are married a a big feast. Later Aud sneaks to the homestead where Thord is sleeping and delivers a mighty sword blow which permanently damages his arm. Thord recovers in time for his mother Ingunn to come complain about her neighbour Kotkel and wife and sons who are wizards and pestering her. Thord takes a boat and loads all her belongings aboard then rides to confront Kotkel and family of being wizards, a crime which demands full outlawry, then rides back and boards the ship. Kotkel and sons mount a wizard platform and make incantations and spells. Thord’s boat, his mother and servants and all their belongings are drowned and lost.
36 – Gudrun is grief-stricken, gives birth to Thord’s son and calls him Thord. Snorri the Godi from Helgafell offers to foster Thord who becomes known as the Cat. Kotkel and family are driven out of the north and travel south where they manage to inveigle Thorleik Hoskuldsson into letting them stay in exchange for some fine stallions. Osvif, Gudrun and her brothers are outraged and want to kill Kotkel but Snorri the Godi suggests calm; Thorleik will pay the price.
37 – At the Althing a big man named Eldgrim makes Thorleik an offer for the horses which he refuses. They argue, Eldgrim threatening to steal them. One day one of Hrut’s servants reports a big man taking Thorleik’s horses. Hrut rides down to confront him. Hrut is 80 years old. They argue. Hrut kills Eldgrim with one blow of his halberd. Thorleik is very cross and feels he’s been shamed. He commissions Kotkel to go work magic on Hrut. Hrut and his household hear musical chants outside. They all fall asleep except for Hrut’s son Kari who goes outside and is struck dead by the magic. When they wake and find the body Hrut is devastated. He rides to Olaf the Peacock suggesting violent action against Kotkel and Thorleik. Olaf says it would be bad for kin to fight and he would have to defend Thorleik. Instead they ride after Kotkel and his sons. Stigandi gets away. Kotkel and son are captured and stoned to death. They take Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye out into the fjord and drown him with a rock around his neck. But not before he looks back to Kambsnes and curses Thorleik and his farm (a curse which many later remember).
38 – Stigandi becomes an outlaw and a nuisance. Olaf helps bribe a shepherdess to trap him. They put a sack over his head then stone him to death. Slickstone-eye’s body washes up ashore, it’s buried but haunts the area. Olaf goes see Thorleik and persuades him to emigrate. Thorleik sells the farm at Kambsnes and sails to Norway, then on to Denmark and Gotland and he is out of this saga.

Kjartan and Gudrun fall in love
39 – Kjartan and Bolli regularly go to the hot springs at Laugur in Saelingsdal where Kjartan enjoys talking to Gudrun. And Olaf and Gudrun’s father Osvif are friendly.

Kjartan and Bolli go to Norway
40 – Kjartan decides to go abroad. He buys a half share in a boat. His father Olaf Peacock does not approve. Neither it turns out does Gudrun. She asks to go with him but he says her family need her. He says, wait for three years and she angrily refuses. Kjartan and Bolli sail to Norway. they discover Earl Hakon has been replaced by King Olaf Tryggvasson (995-1000) who is insisting everyone convert to the new religion. All the Icelanders in port make a pact to refuse to convert. One day they see lots of people swimming. There is one strong swimmer. Kjartan dives in and has, what appears to count for a swimming competition which is to see how long you can hold the other guy under. Three times Kjartan struggles with the stranger. Upon resurfacing it turns out it is King Tryggvasson! When they dress the king gives Kjartan a fine cloak as a gift. The king stays in the neighbourhood making speeches exhorting people to convert. Kjartan and Bolli discuss their response and Kjartan is hot headed and says they must resist and even burn the king’s house down. Olaf has spies everywhere and at the next assembly asks who said his house must be burnt down? Kjartan steps forward to admit it but refuses to convert. Olaf’s advisers say Force him but Olaf sees that Kjartan’s volunatry conversion will mean more to his men and his kin in Iceland than threats. Finally Kjartan and his men go to observe the Christmas feast and find their hearts turned. They all ask to be baptised. Kjartan and Bolli become liegemen to the king.

The conversion of Iceland
41 – Kjartan tells Olaf he wants to leave but Olaf will only let him if it’s to convert Iceland. Kjartan says that will pit him against his kinsmen so he prefers to stay serving the king on Norway. Olaf sends Thangbrand to convert Iceland. He has some success eg with Hall of Sida, and kills some men, but is attacked and returns to Norway saying the Icelands are obstinate which makes Olaf angry.  (This correlates with Njal’s saga 100-5 where Thangbrand performs various miracles, kills a few men including a berserkr, converts Hall and Gizur the White and Njal, but also returns disgruntled. This version even echoes the outlawry of Hjalti Skeggjason for blasphemy ie his couplet insulting Frey and Thor.)

Bolli marries Gudrun
42 – After they have come to do fealty to him Olaf sends Gizur and Hjalti back to Iceland as missionaries. Bolli goes with them but Kjartan is kept by the king as a hostage. Bolli hints that Kjartan has been friendly with the king’s sister Ingibjorg. Gizur and Hjalti speak well at the Althing and convert Iceland 🙂 Bolli is warmly received back at Hjardarholt with uncle Olaf. He rides over to see Gudrun often and even tentatively proposes but Gudrun says she will never consider another man while Kjartan is alive. Bolli tells her (as he’d promised not to) that Kjartan may be warm for Ingibjorg.
43 – Bolli persuades Osvif to let him marry Gudrun; she is not keen at all. Olaf is also not keen, knowing how people associated Gudrun with Kjartan. But Bolli overrides them all and marries Gudrun at a big feast.

Kjartan returns to Iceland
Meanwhile the missionaries arrive back in Norway to tell King Olaf that Iceland is converted and he releases the hostages including Kjartan. Kjartan says an ambiguous goodbye to Ingibjorg who gives him a luxury white head-dress to give Gudrun, and Olaf gives him a sword, he will never die while he bears it.
44 – Kjartan and Kalf arrive back in Iceland with their goods. Kjartan learns his foster-brother Bolli has married Gudrun and shows no response. Kalf tells his lovely sister Hrefna she can have her pick of the treasure and while the men are out she finds and choses the white head-dress given by Ingibjorg. On their return Kalf says No she can’t have it but Kjartan says sure she can, he’d like to have the head-dress and the pretty head under it. Hrefna is puzzled by his listless proposal and doesn’t accept it. Kjartan is joyously welcomed by his father Olaf. Bolli and Gudrun invite Kjartan to come and stay and Osvif and Olaf traditionally host each other at feasts so the Hjardaholt people are incited to Laugar. Gudrun tells Bolli he wasn’t truthful about Kjartan’s feelings: she is unhappy. Kjartan doesn’t want to go but Olaf persuades him and he puts on a gold helmet and shield, the sword King’s Gift.
45 – Kjartan really doesn’t enjoy the feast. Bolli offers him the finest stallion from his herd but Kjartan refuses. Twice. They part badly. Then Olaf and Kjartan travel north to the home of Gudmund the Powerful and his son Hall, where they are richly entertained and take part in games. Kjartan’s sister Thurid matchmakes: why not marry Hrefna: she is pretty, her father is good, he’s good friends with her brother. Kjartan is won round and marries her with a massive wedding feast at Hjardaholt which lasts a week, and Hrefna gets to wear the white head-dress with eight ounces of gold woven into it.

Relations deteriorate
46 – Olaf and Osvir alternate hosting feasts. At Olaf’s feast Kjartan disputes which wife will get the seat of precedence. Then Kjartan’s sword goes missing. Servants accompany Osvir’s crew home and some of the men detour to a pond/bushes and, later, coming back, the servant finds the sword there. Olaf counsels discretion. A season later the Hjardaholt people go to Laugar. During the festivities the famous white head-dress goes missing. It is never found. this time Kjartan speaks up and accuses Bolli and his people of being thieves.
47 – That Christmas Kjartan takes 60 men from Hjardaholt and blockades the longhouse at Laugar. People had outside privies. The Laugar people are all forced to pee and poo inside the house for three days. Then Kjartan rides home. Olaf is unhappy. The Osvifssons want revenge. Thorarin wants to sell his farm at Tongue and get away from the growing tension. It’s perfect for Bolli and Gudrun who offer a good price and Thorarin agrees, though without witnesses. As soon as Kjartan hears about it he rides to Tongue and offers the same high price, with witnesses, and says he means to be master of the area. Reluctantly Thorarin accedes. Kjartan makes him ride up to Saurbaer to assign debts owed to him to Thorarin as payment. Thorhalla Chatterbox happened to be at Tongue when Kjaltan arrived and overheard his plans and the route he is taking. Gudrun says to Thorhalla Kjartan can afford to be puffed up since noone ever intervenes no matter how much offence he gives. The Osvifssons overhear and are shamed.
48 – Kjartan is at Hol in the north. An has a dream that a witchy woman opens his chest with a cleaver, empties his entrails and fills his gut with twigs. they all joke about it but mother Aud warns Kjartan to take extra men for the return journey south. Reluctantly he agrees for the sons Thorkel Pup and Knut to accompany him. But half way down the Svinavald valley, at the shielings called Nordursel, Kjartan tells them to go back. Which is a shame because Gudrun has spent the day shaming and goading her brothers into taking revenge and they are lying in ambush for him further down the valley.

Murder of Kjartan
49 – Kjartan continues south. A man named Thorkel of Hafratindar can see both Kjartan riding and the assassins waiting. His shepherd boy says they should warn him. Thorkel says, Let’s watch. The Osvifssons attack but can’t get to Kjartan. An the Black holds them off at the cost of having his intestines ripped out. The Osvifssons goad Bolli who eventually, reluctantly, draws Leg-Biter. Kjartan drops his sword. Bolli deals Kjartan his death blow. Bolli returns and tells Gudrun. The Osvifssons go into hiding. Olaf forbids his sons killing Bolli, instead they sail to find Thorhalla’s two sons and kill them.
50 – Olaf sends men to Laugar to protect Bolli. Family and allies assemble furiously angry, but Olaf counsels retraint.
51 – At the Thorsness Assembly Olaf secures exile for all the Osvifssons. Three years later he dies. His son Halldor takes over the farm at Hjardarholt, with Olaf’s widow, Thorgerd, consumed with hatred for Bolli.

Murder of Bolli
52 – Gudrun and Bolli thrive at their new farm and have a son, Thorleik. Thorgerd taunts Halldor into murdering Thorkel of Hafratindar, the man who watched Kjartan ride to his death.
53 – thorgerd has Halldor and Steinthor accompany her on a trip north past Saelingsdaltunga, the farm of Bolli and Gurdun, where she taunts her sons, saying how ashamed Egil Skallagrimsson would have been of them. An Althing. The Olafssons invite Bardi Gudmandarson home with them.
54 – Halldor and the three other Olafssons, Lambi his father’s half-brother, Bardi, Thorstein the Black and Helgi his brother-in-law, An Twig-Belly as well as Thorgerd the vengeful mother, ride to kill Bolli.
55 – They find Bolli and Gudrun in the sheiling, all the farmers gone out to hay. A short fight ends with Steinthor Olafsson decapitating Bolli. Helgi Hardbeinsson wipes his bloody spear on Gudrun’s shawl.
56 – Gudrun and Osvif call for Snorri the Godi who comes with advice. Part of that is they exchange houses, Snorri moving to Tunga while Gudrun and Osvif move across the fjord to Helgafell (setting of much of Eyrbyggja Saga).
57 – Thorgills Holluson woos Gudrun; she lets her son Thorleik stay and learn law with him. A rich merchant Thorkel Eyjolfsson carries out a feud-vengeance attack on an outlaw called Grim using the sword Skofnung.
58 – But the attack goes wrong and Grim comes out better. But refuses to kill him. They make peace and ride to Snorri who congratulates them and suggeste Thorkel propose to Gudrun. Thorkel takes Grim to Norway where he becomes successful.
59 – It is twelve years since Bolli’s death. Gudrun and Snorri have a sneaky conversation in which a) they agree to make Lambi and Thorstein an offer, namely help us kill Helgi and live b) Gudrun will offer marriage to Thorgils Holluson to make him lead the attack, but she will make her promise to marry him of all the men in Iceland – all the while meaning to really marry Thorkel who is in Norway.
60 – Gudrun taunts her sons Thorleik (16) and Bolli (12) and makes the tricky promise of marriage to Thorgils in echange for getting him to lead the attack on Helgi.
61 – Thorgils persuades Thorstein the Black and Lambi to make reparation to Bolli’s sons and avoid risk to themselves if they join the expedition to kill Helgi.
62 – Ten men ride to kill Helgi. At his farm men tell them he’s up at his sheiling.
63 – Along chapter in which a shepherd gives an unusually detailed description of the appearance of each of the attackers. Helgi sends the women back to his farm to get help. At the last minute a funny little man named Hrapp rides up to help Thorgils and his crew.

Battle of Skorradal
64 – Big fight at Helgi’s sheiling. He is killed by Bolli Bollasson with Leg-Biter along with two other fatalities.
65 – Lambi and Thorstein the Black are extremely unpopular with their own side. Thorgils and Gudrun’s sons return to Helgafell where Gudrun is delighted. At this point she reveals the trick-promise to Thorgills and he leaves, furious.
66 – Osvif dies and is buried in the church in Helgafell. Gest Oddleifson also dies and his body transported across the icebound Breidafjord to lie in the same grave, two wise and good men together.
67 – Thorgils and Thorstein the Black visit Helgi’s sons and come to an honourable settlement. They ride to the Althing to settle up. Thorgils is counting silver when Audgisl Thorarinsson comes up and chops his head off for depriving his father of a godord. They had come to complain to Snorri who had a) said it’s about time someone dealt with Thorgils b) given Audgisl an axe ie more or less commissioned the murder.

Gudrun’s fourth husband
68 – Thorkel Eyjolfsson returns a rich man from abroad. Snorri says propose to Gudrun (having disposed of the rival Thorgils). Thorkel does and after consulting her sons, Gudrin says yes. Big wedding feast.
69 – An outlaw named Thidbrandabani is at the wedding feast and it turns out Thorkel has promised to kill him to avenge and kinsman but Gudrun says he must be protected at all costs and a massacre nearly breaks out at the feast, until halted by Snorri. Gifts for the departing guests. Snorri invites young Bolli Bollason to come stay with him. Thorkel improves the farm, rebuilding the hall. Gudrun asks him to give the outlaw Gunnar all he wants to Thorkel gives him his merchant ship and money and Gunnar sails to Norway where he becomes a successful wealthy man.
70 – Thorleik wants to make his way in the world and sails to Norway where he enters the service of King (saint) Olaf. When Bolli comes of age he asks his step-father Thorkel to intercede on his behalf with Snorri to secure marriage with Snorri’s daughter Thordis. they are married. Big feast. Thorleik returns home rich.
71 – The reunited brothers are as thick as thieves all summer and when Snorri asks them what they’re planning they tell him a revenge attack on the Olafssons for killing Bolli. Snorri works his magic and effects a settlement between the Bollassons and the Olafssons. Money is paid and Halldor gives Bolli a fine sword and Steinthor gives Thorleik a fine shield.
72 – Then Bolli wants to go abroad. Snorri gives him portable wealth. Bolli buys the other half of the ship Thorleik owns, so it is totally owned by the brothers.

Bolli goes to Constantinople
73 – They sail to Norway. Bolli arrogantly delays going to see the ruling King Olaf the Saint. Eventually they do and Olaf is impressed with Bolli and takes him into his service. Eventually Bolli asks leave to travel south, to Denmark, and then he voyages to Constantinople to become part of the Varangian Guard.
74 – Thorkel sails to Norway to collect timber to build a church in Helgafell. (This is made more poignant if you know that Helgafell which features so largely in this saga and Eyrbyggja saga was to become one of the early centres of Christian learning in Iceland.) He is greeted warmly by King Olaf but they argue when Thorkel plans his church to the same dimensions as Olaf’s ie refuses to back down. Nonetheless he sails back to Helgafell and holds a sumptuous feast.
75 – Strange diversion: Thorkel rides north to collect  his wood, collecting his kinsman Thorstein on the way: they detour to Hjardarholt where they try to persuade Halldor to sell them his land, but he rejects them and they quickly become angry, in fact they would have attacked him had he not had his kinsman Beinar standing behind them with a large axe.

Thorkel, Gudrun’s fourth husband, is drowned
76 – Thorkel is returning with the ship full of timber when it founders in high seas and he and all aboard are drowned. At that moment Gudrun sees a ghost as she enters church. As she exits she sees Thorkel and his crew all dripping wet but when she gets home they are not there, then someone brings news of the drowning. Gellir is 14 and takes over running the farm. Gudrun becomes very religious, becoming the first woman in Iceland to learn the Psalter. She spends long periods in the church praying.
77 – Four years later Bolli Bollasson returns to Iceland in high, exotic style, dressed in gold with a fine helmet and shield. He greets his mother, then rides on to stay with his father-in-law Snorri.
78 – The last chapter is elegiac, dealing with the deaths of these great people, first Snorri old and full of years. Then the aged Gudrun, having become Iceland’s first nun and anchorite. Gellir becomes a rich man, much honoured and in later life undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome, dying on the way home. He had two sons, one Thorgils who had a son who was Ari the Learned (1067–1148), Iceland’s most prominent medieval chronicler, author of Íslendingabók which details the histories of the families who settled Iceland.

Thus the saga which began in the dark, pagan and illiterate times of King Harald Fair-Hair, ends 150 years later in the light of educated, Christian historians, having traversed what feels like vast distances in time, space and emotion.

Sayings

  • When one wolf hunts for another he may eat the prey (22)
  • Every kin has its coward (53)
  • Each man must look after himself in a tight situation (61)

Related links

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with on Gudrun's shawl (Wikimedia Commons)

Helgi Harðbeinsson wipes the spear he has just killed her husband with, on Gudrun’s shawl. Note her look. (Wikimedia Commons)

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