Treating the one you love best the worst
About this saga
Laxdælasaga was written in the 13th century and narrates the eventful lives of different Icelanders between the years 890 and 1030.1 It is a vast work and therefore I had to choose a theme for this blog post, which will be: powerful women. There have been speculations that the author of this saga was a woman, because the story has strong female characters and it describes the position of women in society.2
On the one hand, I would love it if this were true. On the other hand, I would like to think that a man could have been creative enough to write this story and that a woman could have written about bloody battles. But maybe I ‘m being naïve here, since 13th century Iceland had much stricter gender roles than we have now. Another point worth noting is that Laxdælasaga is not the only saga to feature powerful women. In fact I have encountered them in every saga I have read so far. Anyway, Laxdælasaga has some very interesting female characters and in this post I will focus on them.
One cannot write about Laxdælasaga without mentioning the main story line: a love triangle that ends in jealousy, vengeance, death and a need for tissues on the part of the reader. So I am including this in the post as well (the story line, not the tissues). On the positive side, reading about the mess these three persons make will definitely make you feel better about your own love life.
I also wanted to write about fortune-telling and magic in the Viking Age, which both appear in the story. But the post was getting too long, maybe it will be a subject for a separate one sometime. So, for now: on to the women!
One of the powerful women in this saga is Unn, the daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose. She and her family leave Norway under the threat of King Harald Fair-hair. While her brothers are eager to go to Iceland, Unn’s father says he has no intention of spending his old age in “that fishing camp”. (This was so funny for me to read, because I myself was very eager to move to Iceland. But as a friend of mine pointed out, there was no Domino’s Pizza in Iceland back then, so we cannot blame Ketil 😉 )
So Unn and her father go to the British Isles. After her father dies there and her son is killed in battle, Unn realises it is no longer a safe place for her to stay. She secretly has a ship built in a forest and sails with a large crew to Iceland, where she makes sure that she herself and all of her crew find good land to live on. The saga tells us: “…people say it is hard to find another example of a woman managing to escape from such a hostile situation with as much wealth and so many followers. It shows what an exceptional woman Unn was.” 3
Another strong woman in Laxdælasaga is Melkorka. When a descendant of Unn, Hoskuld, goes on a trip to Denmark, he buys a slave woman and takes her back home with him (not to the delight of his wife, by the way). The slave trader warned him that she cannot speak, but since she is beautiful Hoskuld doesn’t care about that. (A friend of mine commented: he probably liked to have a woman who couldn’t nag him). The woman becomes pregnant by him and one day, to his surprise, Hoskuld overhears her talking to her baby. When he confronts her about this, she tells him that her name is Melkorka and that she is the daughter of an Irish king. She was kidnapped from home when she was 15 years old. After opening up about her ancestry, Melkorka’s situation in Icelandic society becomes much better and she gets her own farm to live on. I can’t imagine how traumatizing it must be to be kidnapped, imprisoned and sold off by slave traders. It is no wonder that Melkorka didn’t speak for a long time. But somehow she manages to overcome the trauma and she becomes the mother of the wonderful Ólaf.
Ólaf grows up to be a man who is not only beautiful and brave, but also wise and a great diplomat. An example of this is given when he travels to Ireland to find his grandfather, king Mýrkjartan. The king is so impressed with Ólaf that he wants to make him heir to the throne, instead of one of his sons. However, Ólaf politely refuses, believing that it would be unjust and lead to nothing but trouble.
Ólaf goes back to Iceland and marries a daughter of Egill Skallagrímsson, who bears him a son they call Kjartan. They also have a foster son called Bolli. The two boys grow up together as brothers and best friends. They are inseparable. Unfortunately, they will become two of the main players in the central drama of this saga. The third player is Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir.
Guðrún is a young, beautiful, very clever woman, who is troubled by disturbing dreams. In four different dreams she loses four beautiful pieces of jewellery, in different ways, and with different emotional reactions. A wise man called Gest explains to her that these dreams are actually about the four husbands that she will have. Sure enough, the first dream becomes reality when Guðrún has to marry a man she doesn’t care for, even though he is wealthy. In order to be able to marry the man she really loves, she finds a clever way to get a divorce from her first husband. She gives him a shirt with a very low-cut neckline, and then proclaims to the community that her husband wears women’s clothes, which was a legitimate ground for divorce in those days. She tells her new lover to do the same, so he announces that he will divorce his wife because she wears pants. The two marry and are briefly happy together, until he unexpectedly drowns at sea, which was predicted by the second dream.
After losing her second husband, Guðrún falls in love with Kjartan, son of Ólaf, son of Melkorka and becomes his girlfriend. As I mentioned before, Kjartan is very good friends with his foster brother Bolli. These two men reminded me of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. Two best friends who have great adventures together, but one always stands in the shadow of the other. Because everyone in Iceland agrees that while Kjartan and Bolli are the most handsome, brave, promising lads of the country, Kjartan is the more outstanding of the two of them. This distinction becomes more pronounced as Kjartan and Bolli go on a trip to Norway together and Kjartan becomes the Norwegian king’s favourite.
Maybe this is why, when circumstances force Bolli to return to Iceland sooner than his friend, he seizes the opportunity to ask Guðrún, Kjartan’s girlfriend, to marry him. She is not willing at first, but Bolli and her father persuade her to give in. Bolli has told her that Kjartan has become very friendly with the sister of the Norwegian king, and that he probably won’t come back. So not Kjartan, but Bolli becomes Guðrún’s third husband.
However, Kjartan does come back, and is far from pleased to find his beloved married to his best friend. He marries another woman, but the tension between the two couples rises and harassments from both sides ensue, such as stealing swords and thwarting real estate deals. Finally, Guðrún becomes so angry that she eggs her brothers and her husband Bolli on to kill Kjartan.
Bolli is very unwilling to do so, and when the others are fighting Kjartan (many against one), he just stands by and watches. In the end Kjartan himself tells Bolli to finish him off. He adds that he would rather die at Bollis hands, then to have to kill his brother himself. And Bolli obeys, regretting his deed immediately after he has done it.
After the killing of Kjartan, his relatives want to take revenge on Bolli. But Ólaf doesn’t want his foster son to die, even though Bolli killed his son, so he declares that no one will touch Bolli while he is alive. But Ólaf’s wife Thorgerd, Kjartans mother, is not so forgiving. This is not surprising, since she is a daughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. So after Ólaf dies peacefully of old age, she and her sons take revenge on Bolli, making Guðrún a widow again.
Later Guðrún marries a respectable man called Thorkel. He dies in a shipwreck, and Guðrún loses her fourth and final husband. After that she becomes very religious (by then the Icelanders have converted to Christianity) and devotes her life to the church. One day her favourite son, Bolli son of Bolli, asks her which of the men in her life she loved most. At first she evades his answer, but when he insists she says: “Though I treated him worst, I loved him best”.4 It is up to the reader to guess who she means, but my guess is it was the one she was not married to.
Although I couldn’t always sympathize with Guðrún (she instigates Kjartan’s death and thereby also signs Bolli’s death sentence), she definitely is a very strong woman. She divorces the man she doesn’t like, gets revenge on the one who hurt her feelings, and accepts the prediction of the four dreams, keeping on living her life in the best way she can. The latter is very fitting for the Viking way of life. The Vikings believed that people’s lives were determined by fate. Fate was spun by three beings called the “norns”, who lived at the base of Yggdrasil, the tree of life. One couldn’t escape fate, but it was important to meet fate with a brave, courageous attitude.5
What can we learn from this saga?
1. Keep faith when things get tough
Unn, Melkorka and Guðrún all had their fair share of misfortune in their lives, but they persevered and managed to improve their situations, to varying degrees. As Winston Churchill once said: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” Or as the tile on my bedroom wall less eloquently states: “If life gives you lemons, ask for salt and tequila”
2. Be like Ólaf
Ólaf is such
an inspiring character to me in this saga, because he always tries to get along
peacefully with everyone. He doesn’t let greed, jealousy or grief get the
better of him. He chooses a long, happy life in Iceland over taking the throne
in Ireland. And he keeps loving his foster son Bolli even though Bolli killed
his own son Kjartan. If we could all be a bit more like him the world would be
a better place. (Although on the downside sagas would be quite boring).
Ólaf doesn’t treat the ones he loves the worst. On the contrary, he is the very best.
3. Iceland is not just a fishing camp
There is Domino’s Pizza, there are puffins, northern lights, Hatari, waterfalls, black sand beaches, Árstíðir, and much more. So plenty of reasons to visit and stay 😉
What do you think?
I hope you enjoyed reading this post about Laxdælasaga. I would love to hear what you think of it. Do you agree that Unn, Melkorka and Guðrún were powerful women? Who do you think Guðrún loved best? And do you agree with Ólafs peaceful response to his son’s death, or should he have supported his wife by taking revenge? Feel free to share your opinions in the comment section 🙂
Many thanks to another strong woman, my mom, for correcting my English and making helpful suggestions about the text!
1 Kunz, K. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Laxardal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 270.
2 Kunz, K. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Laxardal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 274-275.
3 Kunz, K. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Laxardal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 278.
4 Kunz, K. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Laxardal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 421.