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 (13th century)

‘The hand is soon sorry that it struck’

Brennu-Njals Saga is the longest and most celebrated of the Icelandic Sagas. Like most of the sagas, the events it describes take place in the period 930–1030, which is called söguöld (the Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history, though scholars have shown the chronology is as erratic and inconsistent as a Shakespeare history play and for the same reason: dates and protagonists’ ages are changed to make the storylines more dramatic.

Also, as standard, though the events are set from the mid-tenth to mid-eleventh centuries, Njal’s saga wasn’t written down until towards the end of the thirteenth century (1280?) ie 250 years after the events occurred, and by an anonymous Icelandic sagaman or storyteller. It is a highly crafted text, but crafted in numerous ways we aren’t famliliar with.

The challenge of sagas

There are several obstacles to enjoying the Icelandic sagas:

Many names The blizzard of names is very confusing but understanding them is vital, since most sagas amount to long, convoluted records of feuds and vendettas which span generations of numerous families, where husbands marry multiple wives, have numerous children, step-children, foster-children and adopted children. A few family trees (as in this edition) are barely enough to hold the full complexity of family relations and can be more confusing than helpful, as Icelanders had a limited number of names and no family or surnames. They take the name of their father and add -son or -daughter. Hence Thrain’s son Grim is Grim Thrainson etc. But there only appear to be about 20 names and given there are some 400 people in the text, there is a lot of duplication of names, making it challenging to keep in mind not just who’s who but what the family ties and allegiances are of the numerous Hoskulds and Thorgeirs and Mords and Grims.

The glossary of names at the end of this Penguin edition is invaluable in helping you remember which character did what in which chapter, but isn’t really enough to explain who is related to who, and so doesn’t really help explain why people act the way they do.

Dull prose The prose is as flat as a pancake. The action, like the dialogue, is clipped and laconic; only the absolute minimum of information is given. Description of anything at all only occurs once every 20 or 30 pages and comes like the sight of a weed in the Sahara.

There was a man whose name was Gunnar. He was one of Unna’s kinsmen, and his mother’s name was Rannveig. Gunnar’s father was named Hamond. Gunnar Hamond’s son dwelt at Lithend, in the Fleetlithe. He was a tall man in growth, and a strong man—best skilled in arms of all men… His brother’s name was Kolskegg; he was a tall strong man, a noble fellow, and undaunted in everything. Another brother’s name was Hjort; he was then in his childhood. Orm Skogarnef was a base-born brother of Gunnar’s; he does not come into this story. Arnguda was the name of Gunnar’s sister. Hroar, the priest at Tongue, had her to wife. (Chapter 19)

There was a man named Valgard, he kept house at Hof by Rangriver, he was the son of Jorund the Priest, and his brother was Wolf Aurpriest. Those brothers, Wolf Aurpriest, and Valgard the guileful, set off to woo Unna, and she gave herself away to Valgard without the advice of any of her kinsfolk. But Gunnar and Njal, and many others thought ill of that, for he was a cross-grained man and had few friends. They begot between them a son, whose name was Mord, and he is long in this story. (Chapter 25)

It is clipped, factual, bare as the windswept Icelandic landscape. But, over the long haul of this long book, the style becomes strangely addictive. There are almost no descriptions, no similes, no metaphors, little or no colour. The prose describes people doing things in the flattest most factual manner imaginable. But it gains power.

A long book about killing The subject matter is men killing other men. In fact, in Njal’s Saga it’s men killing other men and then going to the Althing, the national court, to negotiate the complicated legal settlements which Icelandic culture offered between murderers and the victim’s family. In the first half of the book Njal is a wise lawyer who can fix any murder-related mess. From one angle, Njal’s Saga is a kind of Icelandic John Grisham, with some very long and quite tense courtroom scenes.

The Law In the sagas – written down in the solidly Christian culture of the 1200s by literate men who were either monks or got their education from monks – almost all traces of paganism have been removed. Instead, and maybe this does reflect the Iceland of the time, there is a massive emphasis on the Law, on legal procedures and negotiations. The events of Njal’s Saga are punctuated by the annual visit by all the characters, by all Icelandic men it appears, to the annual Althing or national court or legal convention. First there is an isolated killing in a field or in the woods or by a river. Then the lengthy negotiations at the Althing where, in the first half of the tale, Njal advises Gunnar who always emerges with honour.

Violence is quick Unlike in the movies, the violence tends to be quick. One blow is generally enough, sometimes two, to kill a man, especially if you’ve crept up on him unawares. Only rarely is there a ‘battle’ ie a fight involving more than two men, and these stand out, like the Battle of Rangver River where Gunnar and his two brothers hold off a force of thirty, or the climactic battle at the Allthing when negotiations break down.

No paganism If you go reading sagas looking for any signs of paganism you will be disappointed. There are hardly any references to priests or temples or rituals or sacrifices. There is a little folk superstition, for example characters sometimes foresee their futures in dreams, and everyone is fatalistic – ‘If that is my fate, so be it’ – but these attitudes could and do survive in nominally Christian countries today. In one scene Killer-Hrapp pulls the idols out of a temple and rips off their gold and one of them is a statue of Thor. That’s almost the only reference to pagan religion in this long book about a pagan culture.

Christianity Chapters 100-105 describe the arrival of Christianity in Iceland in the form of the missionary Thangbrand. Two things are striking: 1. How quickly the new faith is accepted by these sturdy heathen men. 2. How violent Thangbrand is. He kills men in duels, kills a poet, kills a berserkr. His isn’t a religion of pacifism and forgiveness. His God is simply stronger than the pagan Thor. He wins fights, he converts. The burning of Njal happens after the Conversion. All the protagonists go right on killing each other for the slightest reasons. The culture, the feel of Christian doctrine, only has a little influence right at the very end of the text, after both the surviving protagonists (Kari Solmundarson and Flosi Thordarson) have completed arduous pilgrimages to Rome and, finally arrived back in Iceland, embrace and forgive each other.

Now why couldn’t they have done that several hundred blood-soaked pages earlier?

Skarp'héðinn kills Thrain Sigfusson (1898)

Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin beheads Thrain Sigfusson with one blow

Related links

Other sagas

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