#4 – The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue

Icelandic Poets

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue describes the rivalry between two poets who lived around the year 1000: Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue and Hrafn Onundarson. In the Viking Age Icelanders were known throughout Scandinavia and England for their poetic skills.1 In those days they didn’t write the poems down, but they delivered them orally. Interestingly, over the course of the centuries it became increasingly difficult for the Norwegian kings to understand the Icelandic poets.2 The reason for this was that the Icelanders, who were mostly descendant from Norse settlers, kept speaking Old Norse, while in Norway the language was changing into what we now know as modern Norwegian. Modern Icelandic is still quite similar to Old Norse, making it relatively easy for Icelanders to read old texts in their language.

The tongue of a serpent

Returning to the saga at hand, being a court poet could be a profitable business in the Viking Age. Gunnlaug for example receives the following gifts from various kings: a cloak of scarlet, a gold ring, a tunic, a gold bracelet, and an axe decorated with silver inlay. While he is skilled at praising kings, Gunnlaug’s sharp tongue also gets him into trouble with people. Maybe this is the reason why he is called Gunnlaug Ormstunga (‘tunga’ = tongue, ‘orms’ = of the worm/ serpent. Although an Icelandic friend of mine pointed out that his name could also mean serpent-stabber: orm-stunga.)

On his first journey abroad, Gunnlaug quickly gets on the wrong side of earl Eirik of Norway. When the earl remarks that Gunnlaug isn’t limping even though he has a gigantic, disgusting looking boil on his foot, Gunnlaug replies: ‘One mustn’t limp while both legs are the same length’.3 The earl, probably thinking the 18-year old Gunnlaug rather cocky, then predicts that the poet will not live another 18 years. To this Gunnlaug answers that the earl would do better not to curse him, but to pray for himself instead, so he will not die in the way his father earl Hakon did. This is a big insult, because earl Hakon was killed by one of his servants, while hiding from an enemy in a pigsty. Earl Eirik is furious and banishes Gunnlaug, who has to flee the country. After this unfortunate incident his enterprises at the courts become more successful though.

Birds of a feather don’t always flock together

One day Gunnlaug arrives at the court of king Olaf the Swede at Uppsala, and finds out that there is already another Icelandic poet there: Hrafn Onundarson. At first the two poets get along well, but then they start quarreling over who gets to recite their poem to the king first (very mature!). The king decides that Gunnlaug will go first, because he senses that this young man doesn’t take it well if things don’t go his way. After both of the poets have recited their poems, the king asks them to give each other feedback, which of course doesn’t go well either.

A little while later Hrafn gets permission from the king to travel back to his country Iceland. Before he leaves, he tells Gunnlaug that their friendship is over because Gunnlaug shamed him in front of court, and that he will soon repay him. True to his word, Hrafn spends his time in Iceland by pursuing Helga the Fair, Gunnlaug’s fiancée. She was promised to Gunnlaug by her father, under the condition that the poet would return from his travels abroad within three years. But Gunnlaug doesn’t succeed in returning in time, because of a promise he made to king Ethelred of England. When he does return, he is too late. The woman he loves is married to his rival Hrafn. Helga herself didn’t want this at all, but her father gave in to Hrafn’s pressure when Gunnlaug failed to return. When Gunnlaug arrives in Iceland, Helga is very upset and doesn’t want to be intimate with her husband Hrafn anymore. At a wedding party where they both are present, Gunnlaug and Helga talk for a long time, and he gives her a beautiful cloak that was a gift from king Ethelred.

The last duel in Iceland

The next summer, when everyone gathers at the Althing (the national outdoor assembly where disputes could be settled), Gunnlaug challenges Hrafn to a duel, which Hrafn readily accepts. Their relatives from both sides are very upset by this, but they can’t do anything about it, since dueling is allowed by law. At the duel they get the chance to separate the two men though, while they are arguing after the first blow. The following day it is decided at the Althing that dueling is from now on permanently abolished. And so this was the last duel ever to take place in Iceland.

But the story doesn’t end there. Hrafn realises that he will never get anywhere with his wife Helga as long as Gunnlaug is around, so he challenges his enemy to fight the duel in Norway instead. That is what they do, and the duel ends in both their deaths.
Helga later marries a man named Thorkel and has many children with him. Although he is a decent man, she never loves him as much as she loved Gunnlaug. And when she is dying from a disease, she spends her last moments staring at the cloak he once gifted her.

Fate

What I found funny while reading this saga, is that Gunnlaug and Hrafn are so alike: talented but also proud and quarrelsome. It is sad that they didn’t become friends instead of enemies. Although I didn’t have time to cover it in this blogpost, their rivalry doesn’t just end in their own deaths, but also in the deaths of several of their relatives. The similarity between the two poets is reflected in a foreboding dream Helga’s father has before his daughter is even born. He dreams of two huge eagles who fight to the death over a beautiful swan. In the Viking Age people believed that certain events were destined to happen. The dream predicted the poets’ fate, and they could not escape it.

Thanks for reading this post about the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue, I hope you enjoyed it!
I usually end a post by writing about what we can learn from the saga, but somehow I didn’t feel like it this time. Sometimes it is nice to enjoy a story without analyzing it too much. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it though, feel free to comment below 🙂

1 Scudder, B. (2001). “The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 559. Translation by K.C. Attwood.
2 Scudder, B. (2001). “The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 559. Translation by K.C. Attwood.
3 Scudder, B. (2001). “The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 571. Translation by K.C. Attwood.

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