The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Saga of the Greenlanders

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

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

Related links

Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

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.


Related links

Other sagas

Bolli Bollason’s Tale

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

Related links

Bolli Bollason’s Tale is included in

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Saga scene (artist unknown)

Other sagas

Njal’s Saga 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supernatural

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

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

Connections

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

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

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

Related links

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson

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

Other sagas

Reading sagas

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

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

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

Other sagas

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