The Vapnfjord Men

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

Summary

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

Detailed synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saga sayings

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

Translation

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

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

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Other sagas

The saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

The title in the original Norse is Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. Hrafnkel is his name, godi means priest (though it also came to mean chieftain or secular power), and Frey was the Norse god of fertility. So it can be translated as the saga of Hrafnkel the priest of Frey.

Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi is well-known for being one of the shortest and most focused of the sagas, telling its story with clarity and directness. In the Penguin edition it has 16 chapters; in the 1882 free online translation by John Coles it has 20. It only takes an hour or so to read.

Synopsis

1 – In the days of King Harald Fair-Hair (870-930) a man called Hallfred brings his wife and son Hrafnkel to Breiddal in Iceland. In a vision a woman tells him to move his house, which he does, and so avoids an avalanche. The new place is named Hallfredsstadir.

2 – Hrafnkel comes of age and builds his own farm in Jokunsdal which he names Adalbol. He builds a large temple to Frey. He settles the valley and imposes himself on the population as their godi. He is not a good godi, being unfair, not paying reparations etc.

3 – A man named Bjarni lives on a farm at Laugarhus. He has sons, the argumentative lawyer Sam and Eyjolf who adventures abroad to Denmark and onto Constantinople. Hrafnkel reverences one stalion which he dedicates to Frey and names Freyfaxi and forbids any man to ride it.

4 – There is a farmer named Thorbjorn, Bjarni’s brother. He is not well off and has many dependents. Thorbjorn tells his eldest son Einar he needs to get a job. Einar rides over to Adalbol to see Hrafnkel who has filled most of  his vacancies but can offer him the job of shepherd, which Einar takes. Thee is one condition: he must not ride the stallion named Freyfaxi. Hrafnkel will kill any man who rides it.

5 – Einar does well all summer but one day wakes up and thrity sheep are missing. He needs to find them but when he goes to round up a horse to ride all the others run away. Except Freyfaxi who, as one fated, stands stock still while Einar eventually decides to saddle and ride him. Einar rides freyfaxi all round the hills looking for the sheep and eventually finds them where he started. As soon as he dismounts Freyfaxi, covered in mud and sweat, bolts down to the farmhouse where a woman reports his state to Hrafnkel who is angry. Next morning he rides up to the sheiling, confirms that Einar did indeed ride his horse, and kills him with one axe stroke. He buries his body in a shallow grave at a place which becomes known as Einarsvardi.

6 – Thorbjorn rides to:

  • Adalbol to complain to Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn concedes it was a bad deed and offers him the pick of his cattle, placements and advancement for his sons and daughters, and free choice of what he’s got in his home. But Thorbjorn insists on independent arbitration ie that he be treated as an equal, and this Thorbjorn scornfully refuses.
  • Thorbjorn rides on to Laugurhus to his brother Bjarni who thinks he’s stupid for turning down Hrafnkel’s generous offer.
  • and on to Leikskalar to see Sam, his brother’s son, who he persuades very reluctantly to take over the case (of, after all, avenging his cousin).

7 –  Sam observes the formalities of Icelandic law: he rides to a farm, gathers a crowd, and accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Then goes home. Summer passes and winter then in spring, in the Summons Days, Sam rides to Adalbol and formally accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Hrafnkel assembles a posse of 70 retainers and rides to the Althing. Sam musters as many unattached men as he can and rides to the Althing by a different route. He and his uncle Thorbjorn go round the booths asking for support but no-one will help as they all say Hrafnkel wins all his case, and Sam is no kin of theirs.

8 – Thorbjorn says maybe they should pack their bags and head home. Sam says he’s got him into this mess and he’s going to see it through to the end. Just then a man with a streak of white hair comes walking by. He is Thorkel Thjostarson just returned from Constantinople. He has brothers Thorgeir and Thormod. After having Sam’s situation explained Thorkel says he will support him.

9 – The elaborate ruse of stumbling over Thorgeir’s sore toe leads the brothers to argue, Thorgeir saying Hrafnkel always wins, Thorkel can have the godord back if he wants etc. Thorkel refuses all this and talks Thorgeir round into supporting Sam and old man Thorbjorn.

10 – The Thjostarssons muster at the Law Rock while Sam presents his case flawlessy. When Hrafnkel is told he thinks he’ll just ride up there and scare them off, but the throng is so great he can’t make his way through and so doesn’t have chance to present a defence (!) and so is sentenced in his absence to full outlawry. Thorkel says Hrafnkel will probably ride home confident in the knowledge that Sam won’t do the necessary follow-up i.e. serving notice of the outlawry in person. Thorkel says he his brothers and retainers will help. So they all ride across Iceland to the east (15 days) arriving at Hrafnkel’s valley on the morning that the confiscation court is meant to be carried out.

11 – Sam, the Thjostarrsons and sixty (!) of their retainers run down to the farm and terrorise the people. They lock all the women and children in a barn. They then pierce the ankles of all eight of the men and hang them by the ankles by a rope over a beam. Thorkel and Sam discuss what to do. Thorgeir and Sam go to a knoll an arrow’s shot from the farm to carry out the confiscation court. Hrafnkel offers self-judgement and Sam says he is going to spare him, but confiscate his farm, all the land and livestock and also Hrafnkel’s godi or chieftainship. Hrafnkel packs all his people and belongings and leaves Adalbol that day. He migrates east and buys a poor farm but by sheer hard work builds it up and names it Hrafnkelsstadir.

12 – The Thjostarssons advise Sam to be wise and just to his new thingmen. They examine the horses and don’t see anything special about Freyfaxi, but decide they must give him back to his part-owner (the god) so they set a stone around his neck and push him over a high waterfall, ever since known as Freyfaxahamar. They strip and burn Frey’s temple, then depart on excellent terms with much gift-giving and return west.

13 – When Hrafnkel hears the Thjostarssons have stripped his temple and burned the idols he abandons paganism, ceasing to sacrifice. Hrafnkel thrives, acquires wealth and, as the land east of Lagarfljot becomes populated, he builds a great following of thingmen. He is a wiser and kinder man.

14 – One day Sam’s brother Eyvind returns from long merchanting abroad. He is rich dressed in fine clothes. Sam sends him horses and Eyvind, four merchants and his boy set off with pack horses towards Adalbol. A erving woman washing linen in the river watches them go by and, as so often, goes to report it to Hrafnkel and goads him, taunting that people grow soft with age , and what an opportunity this would be for revenge. Hrafnkel musters his supporters and 18 of them set out in pursuit. This chapter is famous for the highly-detailed description of the lie of the rivers, bogs, lava fields which the two parties cross. Eyvind’s boy repeatedly advises him to flee but Eyvind refuses to flee someone he hasn’t offended. Hrafnkel caches him up and massacres Eyvind and his troop. The boy had fled fast to Adalbol where he tells Sam but by the time Sam and supporters arrive his brother is dead. They give chase but Hrafnkel is too far ahead and makes it home safely.

15 – Hrafnkel makes a surprise attack on Sam with no fewer than 70 supporters and catches him in his bed. He offers him death or self-judgement, which Sam accepts. Hrafnkel turfs him out of Adalbol, telling him to take only what he brought. Hrafnkel will resume living there and resume the godard and Sam will live back on his farm in Leikskalar with his kin. Which is what happens.

16 – Sam rankles. He rides west to visit the Thjostarssons asking for help. But this time they turn him down. They told him to kill Hrafnkel when he had the chance; now he is reaping the result of ignoring their advice. And no, they refuse to ride all the way out east to take part in further fighting. They offer gifts but Sam refuses them and rides home disgruntled. He lives out his life in this lowly position, never achieving revenge. Hrafnkel by contrast lives in honour till he dies of an illness. His properties are divided between his sons.

Thoughts

‘The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one’s subordinates.’ (Wikipedia)

Debate has raged for over a century about whether the saga stems from oral tradition preserving the memory of actual events, or whether it is a work of fiction by a 13th century writer, creating what has been described as it ‘one of the most perfect short novels in world literature.’

It seems probable that the peg of the narrative, the specialness of Freyfaxi and his standing still to tempt Einar, his running to his master after being ridden, and his ultimate sacrifice, may have origins in pagan horse-worship. But there is nothing else supernatural or uncanny in the tale, unlike most sagas which have plenty of omens and prophecies which suggest to me the theory of a 13th century author setting out to create a novella and using disparate elements which were to hand.

Aliens

What strikes this reader is the complete alienness of the concepts of justice and honour which permeate the saga. It is difficult to understand that Hrafnkel can be tried and sentenced at the Althing without even appearing to make a defence. It is boggling that, having thus been outlawed, Hrafnkel can be attacked, tortured, maimed and killed by Sam with no comeback, and so can his farmhands. It is terrifying that quite out of the blue Hrafnkel can murder Eyvind and four completely uninvolved merchants and, again, not only get away scot-free but regain all his lost possessions – and be universally judged the winner! Obviously intended by the author to deserve to be held in high honour and esteem for sitting things out and finally getting  his way.

The complete ‘otherness’ of the entire system of values of the sagas for me totally overshadows the minor issue of whether the stories are oral history or fiction or a combination of the two. They are powerful insights into a mindset which is so alien to ours in almost every way that they almost amount to science fiction.


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Other sagas

Njal’s Saga 1

‘With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.’ – Njal Thorgeirsson (70)

Njal’s saga is 159 chapters long. This synopsis lists the events of the first 80 chapters, up to and including Gunnar’s Last Stand, which forms a natural break half-way through the narrative.

The episode of Unn and Hrut
Chapters 1 introduces Mord Fiddle and his beautiful daughter Unn; and Hoskuld Dala-Kollson and his half-brother Hrut. In a brief vignette Hoskuld introduces his beautiful young daughter Hallgerd but Hrut takes against her. 2 – Hoskuld and Hrut attend the Althing where Hrut proposes to Mord that he marry Unn. A deal is done. But riding home his paternal uncle Ozur arrives from Norway to say a kinsman has died and Hrut needs to sail there to claim his inheritance. The marriage deal with Mord is renegotiated with a 3-year delay. 3 – Hrut and his uncle Ozur sail to Norway and go see King Harald Grey-Cloak (which dates these events to the 960s since HG-C reigned from 961-70). The king’s mother, Gunnhild, wife of the dead King Eirik Bloodaxe, seduces Hrut and makes him her man for as long as he stays at court. Hrut has Viking adventures sailing south in pursuit of Soti who has sold and stolen his inheritance, but he is caught and the money recovered. When Hrut finally returns to Iceland, Queen Gunnhild asks if he has a woman there and he lies and says no, and she casts a spell on him to make him impotent with her. 6-7 The marriage proceeds but is never consummated. Unn tells her father Mord Fiddle and he advises her to be patient but another winter of frustration passes and she meets her father again at the Althing and he advises her to pretend to be ill then to leave Hrut with her servants and goods. And this she does & returns to his house. Mord goes to the Law Rock and gives notice of Unn’s divorce from Hrut. 8 – Mord claims back his dowry of 90 hundreds, the full marriage settlement. Angry at this demand Hrut challenges Mord to a duel. Mord backs down to universal derision.

Hallgerd’s first husband, Thorvald
9 – Hallgerd Hoskuld’s-daughter has grown to be tall and beautiful and nicknamed ‘Long Legs’. A man called Thorvald discusses getting married with his father Osvif and visits Hoskuld who is keen to get shot of her. Hallgerd is cross at not being consulted. 10 – Hallgerd invites her foster-father Thjostolf and a famously bad-tempered man, Svan, skilled in magic. 11 – Hallgerd is a bad housewife and gets through all the supplies. When Thorvald berates her she says he and his father can go hungry. He slaps her and goes off to the Bjarn Islands to get supplies. Her foster-father Thjostolf comes by, sees she is hurt, and immediately rows out to the islands where he confronts Thorvald and kills him with his big axe, staves in the boats of his servants and rows back to land. 12 – Hallgerd advises Thjostolf to ride north to stay with Svan. When Osvif (her dead Thorvald’s father) rides north in pursuit, the wizard Svan creates a fog and then blackness which the posse can’t penetrate. they give up and ride over to poor Hoskuld’s who, on Hrut’s advice, gives Osvif generous compensation for his son. And Hallgerd stays with Hoskuld and asks if her foster-father, the murderer Thjostolf can come stay.

Hallgerd’s second husband, Grim
13-17 The brothers Thorarin Lawspeaker, Ragi and Glum enter the saga. Glum wants to marry Hallgerd. Hoskuld and Hrut are careful to consult her this time. She agrees and the contract is made. Things go well until foster-father Thjostolf is kicked out of Hoskuld’s house and goes live with Glum. They argue. Glum and Hallgerd argue and he slaps her. She begs Thjostulf not to take revenge; he only grins. They go round up sheep on a mountain and an argument sparks and Thjostulf kills Glum. Hallgerd advises him to ride to her uncle Hrut’s. He explains to Hrut what he did and Hrut immediately attacks and kills him. Thorarin and Ragi ride to Hoskuld’s and, although they are not liable and killed Thjostulf as soon as, Hoskuld behaves generously and gives the brothers compensation. They are now out of this saga. They only appeared for four chapters to amplify Hallgerd’s guilt and the Hs’ nobility.

Unn’s law case against Hrut for return of the dowry
18 Mord Fiddle dies. His daughter Unn inherits the estate and fritters it away. 19 – Introducing the hero of the saga, Gunnar Hámundarson from Hlidarend. Tall, powerful, skillful, athletic, generous, well-bred.

Gunnar Hámundarson is generally considered to be the archetypical ‘light hero’ of the Icelandic sagas (as opposed to ‘dark heroes’ such as Egill Skallagrímsson): a man of heroism, energy, virtue, and — above all — unswerving loyalty to the land of his birth and love for its overpowering physical beauty

20 – Introducing the other hero, Njal from Bergthorsknoll. Wealthy and handsome and the most learned man in the law, he has one peculiarity: he cannot grow a beard. 21 – Penniless Unn goes to see her kinsman Gunnar, to ask if she will take up the case for reclaiming her dowry to Hrut. Gunnar vows to help her, gives her money, then goes to see his friend the superwise Njal. Njal has a plan. 22 – Njal maps out a complicated charade whereby Gunnar will pretend to be Hawker-Hedin who pretends to sell shoddy wares and argues and fights with everyone. He is to wend his away across south Iceland until he arrives at Hrutstead. There he is to let Hrut engage him in conversation and discuss the character of men from various regions until they come close to home, when Mord Fiddle’s name will come up. And Gunnar must let Hrut naturally raise the story of Mord’s failed attempt to recover the dowry. And Gunnar is to let Hrut go on to explain how Mord could have revived the claim at any point since, in fact anybody could who recited the correct form of words. And he is to get Hrut to tell him the correct form of words and repeat it once with lots of mistakes and let Hrut correct him, and read it a second time correctly – and he will have indeed have summonsed Hrut to the Althing. In the middle of the night he and his men are to make their getaway. 23 – Gunnar carries it off to the letter, then absconds. Hoskuld wakes from a prophetic dream and rushes over to his half brother’s house. But Gunnar has escaped. 24 – Gunnar presses his case at the Althing, Hoskuld and Hrut come back with counterarguments, at which point Gunnar simply challenges Hrut to single combat which, wisely, he refuses, and has to pay back the whole dowry, which Gunnar hands over to Unn.

Unn’s second husband, Valgard, birht of Mord Valgardsson
25 – Unn marries Valgard the Grey, a malicious and unpopular man. Their son is Mord Valgardsson who grows up sly and malicious and will be the Iago of the saga. Introduction to Njal’s sons: Skarp-Hedin, Grim, Helgi and his illegitimate son Hoskuld. 26 – Njal arranges for Helgi to marry Thorhalla Asgrim’s-daughter. 27 – Njal offers to become foster-father to Asgrim’s son Thorhall. (At the end of the saga, Thorhall will become legal adviser to Kari, Mord and the avengers in the Great Law Case, and will be the first to draw blood when the case breaks down.)

Gunnar and Kolskegg’s foreign adventures
28-32 Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg travel abroad in the ship of Halvard the White. They have two fights with Vikings. Gunnar stays with and impresses King Harald Gormsson/’Bluetooth’ of Denmark (958-986). Then sails north to Trondheim and impresses Earl Hakon (970-995). in the sea battle in 30 Gunnar wins the halberd he keeps for the rest of his life.

Gunnar meets and marries Hallgerd
33 – Gunnar rides to the Althing to announce  his return to Iceland and there meets and becomes infatuated with Hallgerd. Against the advice of her father Hoskuld and his best friend Njal, Gunnar marries her. 34 – Introduction of the seven Sigfusson brothers. Thrain Sigfusson divorces his wife and wants to marry Thorgerd, daughter of Hallgerd, granddaughter of Hoskuld, (He will play a key role; after the death of Gunnar, it will be Skerp-Hedin’s murder of Thrain which leads to the Burning.) Ketil Sigfusson of Mork marries Njal’s daughter and is the most restrained of the Burners, so that Kari refuses to kill him.)

The wives’ killings, or how Hallgerd and Bergthora incite their servants to kill each others’ servants
35 – The seeds of enmity between Hallgerd and Njal’s wife Bergthora when Thorhalla returns to Njal’s house and Bergthora asks Hallgerd to move along the dais to make room for her and Hallgerd rudely refuses. Hallgerd then insults Njal the beardless and Bergthora throws in her face the fact Hallgerd had her first husband killed. Hallgerd calls on Gunnar to revenge her but he refuses, saying he is too deep in debt to Njal.36 – Kol murders Svart Njal and Gunnar ride to the Althing. In his absence Hallgerd commissions a servant Kol to ride up to the woods and kill Bergthora’s servant Svart. 36 – Hallgerd sends word to Gunnar at the Althing, who takes it calmly and visits Njal. The friends agree a moderate payment of 12 ounces of silver for Svart. Back home at Hlidarend Gunnar reprimands Hallgerd. At Bergthorsknoll Bergthora takes on an itinerant named Atli who works with them through the winter. 37 – Atli murders Kol Bergthora commissions Atli to kill Kol and he does. It’s reported to Gunnr and Njal at the Althing. Njal gives back to Gunnar the pouch of silver he received as compensation for Svart. Gunnar and Njal reprove their wives. 38 – Brynjolf murders Atli Hallgerd orders Brynjolf to kill Atli up in the woods making charcoal. Gunnar pays Njal 100 ounces of silver. Hallgerd mocks him. 39 – Thord murders Brynjolf Thord tall handsome foster-father to Njal’s sons. Bergthora orders Thord to kill Brynjolf.  40 – Njal and Gunnar at the Althing are told. Njal pays Gunnar back the 100 oz of silver. 41 Introducing Gunnar’s kinsmen Sigmund Lambason and Skjold. Hallgerd organises Sigmund, Skjold and Thrain Sigfusson (he who married Hallgerd’s daughter in 34) to kill Thord. 42 – Sigmund and Skjold murder Thord. 43 – News brought to Njal and Gunnar at the Althing. Both shocked. Gunnar pays Njal 200 oz silver. 44 – Gunnar berates Sigmund, telling him to be careful. One day they are sitting round, Hallgerd insults Njal as beardless and the Njalssons as little dungheaps, and tells Sigmund to make a lampoon poem about them which he does. Gunnar overhears, is furious and bans the words. But some wandering beggarwomen hear them and go to Bergthorasknoll and tell Bergthora who tells Njal’s sons. Late that night Njal is woken by his sons packing their weapons and sneaking out. 45 – Skarp-Hedin, Helgi and Grim murder Sigmund and Skjold. Farmers tell Hallgerd. Gunnar refrains from demanding compensation until, at the next Althing, Njal offers Gunnar 200 oz silver. Both act with nobility and rstraint and vow to stay friends no matter what their wives do. End of the wives’ murders.

The episode of Otkel Skarfsson, introducing Gizur the White and Geir the Priest
46 Introducing Gizur the White , a powerful chieftain, and his friend Geir the Priest. Mord Valgardsson, his mother Unn who we met in the opening pages of the saga now dead, is consumed with envy and hatred of Gunnar, the man who won Unn her dowry. 47 – Introducing Otkel Skarfsson of Kirkby, a kinsman of Gizur the White, his son Thorgeir, and his friend the scoundrel Skamkel. There is a famine. Gunnar lends food to kin and friends. He goes ot ask Otkel to lend him some form his store. Inspired by spiteful Skamkel Otkel refuses but, bizarrely, offers to sell him his good-for-nothing slave Melkolf. 48 – Hallgerd orders Melkolf back to Kirkby to steal food from Otkel then burn down his barn, which he does. On the way back his sandal strap breaks and he fixes it with a knife, leavin both knife and bits of strap by the way, which will become evidence. Gunnar arrives at Hlidarend with guests from the Althing. Hallgerd lays out provisions he knows they don’t have. They argue. Gunnar slaps Hallgerd. Bad idea. Remember Thorvald! 49 – Skamkell finds the incriminating knife. Wicked Mord devises a strategem for the women beggars to ascertain that Hallgerd has Otkel’s stolen food. They spread the word Hallgerd is a thief. Gunnar rides to Otkel and makes a fair offer of compensation – twice the value of the burned food. Egged on by Skamkel Otkel refuses, then sends Skamkel to get advice from his kinsman Gizur the White. 50 – Gizur and Geir advise Otkel accept the offer. Skamkel returns and lies, saying they advised summonsing Gunnar to the Althing. So Otkel rides over to Hlidarend with a posse and summonses Gunnar. 51 – At the Althing when Gizur and Geir hear Skamkel lied to Otkel they are livid. They go to Gunnar’s tent to make reparation. Gunnar is furious at being summonsed and judges the damages for the fire to exactly match his reparation for being summonsed ie totalling nothing. Gunnar wanrs Otkel to keep out of  his way. 52 – Runolf stays with Otkel. He invites Otkel back. Otkel sets off with kin and two feisty horses. 53 – Near Gunnar’s farm the horses run out of control and the one Otkel is riding crashes into Gunar out farming, Otkel’s spur gashing Gunnar’s ear. The rest of the entourage  ride by jeering. They stay at Runolf’s a while, then plan to ride home to Kirkby. 54 – The Battle of Rang River Gunar, later joined by his brother Kolskegg, kill Skamkel, Audolf the Easterner, Otkel, Hallkel and four others. 55 – Njal advises Gunnar never to kill twice in the same family, and never to break a settlement among good men: it is a prophecy. Gizur the White activates the case against Gunnar. 56 – Aided by Njal Gunnar activates a suite of cases against the men who he murdered, and against their defenders at the Althing: mediation finds a settlement. Gunnar is held in high esteem. End of the Otkel episode.

The Starkadarsons
57 – Introducing Starkad of Thrihyrning and his three sons and Egil Kolson and his three sons and two Easterners staying with them. 58 – The Starkadsons have a red stallion. Who shall they match it against. Someone suggest Gunnar. they ride over and challenge him. 59 – The Horse Fight quickly degenerates into a man fight, as Kol and Thorgeir try to push Gunnar’s horse onto him but he pushes their back onto them, then Thorgeir strikes Gunnar’s horse, blinding him, and Gunnar knocks Thorgeir flat. They have to be separated. Njal tries to broker a settlement, Thorgeir angrily refuses. 60 – Gunnar helps Asgrim. Njal warns him to be on guard. 61 – Gunnar, Kolskegg and Hjort go stay with Asgrim, then return. Spies tip off the Starkadsons who along with Egil and the Easterners gather 30 men in all. 62 – Gunnar’s dream. They see the men of Thrihyrning. The Battle of Knafahills Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Thorkil, Kol, Egil, Thorir, Bork, Hauk and eight others. But Gunnar’s brother Hjort is killed. 64 – Njal devises a complicated suite of cases and countercases to neutralise the case that will be brought against Gunnar. 65 – Thorgeir recruits Gizur the White and Mord Valgardson for his case at the Althing; Gunnar recruits his supporters. 66 – The legal proceedings in which Gunnar neutralises his critics much to their anger. 67 – Thorgeir Starkardarson of Thrihyning goes to visit Mord Valgardson and they conspire. 68 – Thorgeir Starkadarson cynically cultivates thorgeir Otkelson – Mord has explained that if Gunnar kills twice in the same family he is doomed: Thorgeir S plans to get Thorgeir O killed to fulfil the prophecy. 69 – The next autumn Gunnar sends is men out to the fields and is the only man left at Hlidarend. The two Thorgeils assemble a posse and set off to attack him, but are assailed by a strange sleepiness and tke a nap in the woods. Njal has visions of them and, when his shepherd revals their precise location, rides up to scare them off. They flee. 70 – Njal negotiates a deal at the Althing so the two Thorgeirs have to pay 200 oz and all the other members of the posse 100 oz of silver to Gunnar. Gunnar stays with his half-brother in law Olaf the peacock who gives him gifts including the dog, Sam. (Olaf is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld and so half-brother of Gunnar’s difficult wife, Hallgerd.) 71 – Gunnar rides to the Land-Isles. En route back with Kolskegg he is ambushed by the Thorgeirs with twelve men apiece. 72 The Battle of Rang River II  Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Onund the Handsome, Ogmund Tangle-Hair, Thorgeir Otkelson, and some others before they flee. 73 – Njal points out that Gunnar has now fulfilled part one of his prophecy, namely killing twice in the same family (Otkel and now his son Thorgeir Otkelson); he must be careful not to fail part two, namely break a lawful settlement. At the Althing at the Law Rock Gizur the White eloquently makes the case against Gunnar. 74 – Njal challenges the jurymen; nonetheless the case is given against Gunnar who has to pay compensation and, along with Kolskegg, is outlawed for three years. Njal tells him he must go. He agrees. He tells his mother he will go. 75 – Having arranged the shipping Gunnar and Kolskegg ride down towards the sea but Gunnar’s horse stumbles, and he looks back up at the hillside in the sun:

‘How lovely the slopes are,’ he said, ‘more lovely than they have ever seemed to me before, golden cornfields and new-mown hay. I am going back home, and I will not go away.’

Gizur the White successfully calls for Gunnar to be delcared an outlaw. Anyone can kill him with impunity. Gizur assembles a posse of all Gunnar’s enemies, some thirty men in all, who make a compact to kill him. Njal offers to send his sons Skarp-Hedin and Hoskuld to go stay with him but Gunar nobly says he doesn’t want them to die for him. 76 – Mord Valgardsson tells the enemies Gunnar is alone at Hlidarend. Gizur the White and Geir and Starkad assemble and ride in a posse of 30 to Hlidarend. they threaten Gunnar’s neighbour into luring away his dog, Sam, then kill him, Sam’s death howl alerts Gunnar to the attack.

77 – Gunnar Hamunson’s Last Stand Surrounded and alone, Gunnar keeps his enemies at bay for a long time, killing two and inflicting wounds but finally they kill him. He had asked Hallgerd for strands from her hair to repair his bow but she refuses. Gizur the White asks Rannveig (G’s mother) for permission to bury their dead.

78 – In the aftermath Rannveig treats Hallgerd so harshly she leaves home along with the Gunnar’s bad son Grani. Gunnar is buried in a mound. A passing farmer and servant hear Gunnar chanting verse. On another occasion Gunnar’s good son Hogni and Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin see the mound open, illuminated with four lights and Gunnar chants a verse. 79 – Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out with Gunnar’s halberd, ride to Oddi where they kill Tjorvi and Hroald. Ride to Thrihyrning and kill Starkad and Thorgeir Starkadson. Ride to Hof where Mord begs for mercy and, foolishly, they let him live. 80 – At the district Assembly Njal negotiates a settlement with the enemies. Geir the Priest is now out of this saga, as is Hogni Gunnarsson.

Supernatural

Supernatural signs and omens occur throughout the text and are treated quite casually by the characters, although everything is treated casually, with little or no ‘affect’.

  • 12 – Svan the magician creates fog then blackness to deter the posse pursuing Thjostolf.
  • 41 – Thord sees a goat drenched in blood. It is his fetch. He is doomed.
  • 62 – Gunnar dreams of the death of his brother Hjort in the forthcoming Battle of Knafahills
  • 72 – blood appears on Gunnar’s halberd, a ‘death rain’ which forebodes fighting
  • 78 – Gunnar’s corpse is heard singing and reciting poetry

Connections

The more sagas I read, the more I appreciate how the stories and characters overlap and intertwine and begin to understand how the size and complexity of the 40 or so surviving sagas, taken together, create an enormous intertwining jungle of people and adventures. Working in different registers and chronicling different events, many of them nonetheless overlap dates and locations and sometimes characters, to create a vast tapestry. If you throw in the differences between the factual family sagas and the more legendary and mythical ones; if you throw in the general difficulty of getting clarity about even ell-known historical figures and events; and if you throw in the mystique and romance of learning an ancient and evocative medieval language – then you have the ingredients for an endlessly ramifying, wonderfully rich and rewarding field of study. I can see why people become addicted.

Overlapping figures include Queen Gunnhild: as wife of King Eirik Bloodaxe she incurs the enmity of Egil Skallagrimsson who memorably sets up a scorn pole against them both. In Njals’ saga Eirik is dead (d.954) and Gunnhild is mother of King Harald Grey-Cloak. She plays  the baleful role of putting a hex on Hrut which makes him impotent with Unn which leads to her divorcing him which leads to Gunnar taking up Unn’s case at the Althing.

Olaf Peacock is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld Dala-Kollson, and therefore half-brother of Hallgerd Hoskuldsdottir who is married to Gunnar Hámundarson, and therefore kin to Gunnar who he visits and offers help to. As well as Njal’s saga, Olaf appears in Laxdæla saga and is mentioned in Egil’s saga, Gunnlaug’s saga, Kormák’s saga, Grettir’s saga and the Landnámabók,

Related links

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson (59)

Other sagas

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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