Uitgelicht

#5 – The Tale of Halldor Snorrason

The tale of Halldor Snorrason is one of the short tales called ‘Íslendingaþættir’, written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th century. This story describes the friendship between king Harald Hardrada of Norway and the Icelander Halldor Snorrason. It is not an epic tale about grand battles, but rather an amusing short story about two friends who argue a lot.

Who was king Harald Hardrada?

King Harald Hardrada was king of Norway in the 11th century, but he had to work hard to earn his crown. His half-brother Olaf1 had actually been king before, but he was defeated and exiled by the Danish king Cnut the Great. When Harald was only fifteen years old, he fought with his brother Olaf against Cnut in the battle of Stiklestad, in an attempt to regain the Norwegian throne, but Olaf was killed and Harald was forced into exile to Kievan Rus. Harald started fighting in the army of Yaroslav the Wise, grand prince of Kiev, after which he moved to Constantinople and worked his way up to commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. In this position he managed to gain enough wealth to organize a new campaign to reclaim the Norwegian throne. This time he was successful.2

Who was Halldor Snorrason?

The Icelander Halldor Snorrason was one of the men who had fought alongside Harald, both in Constantinople and in Norway, which earned him much honour and respect from the king. In the saga he is described as “…a large handsome man, the strongest and most courageous of men in battle.”3 He was the son of Snorri the Godi, a chieftain in Western Iceland, and a descendant of the Icelandic historian, politician and poet Snorri Sturluson.4

Disagreements

The tale of Halldor Snorrason takes place at the court of Norway, after king Harald has claimed his throne. While the king has a lot of respect for Halldor, somehow the two friends don’t get along as well at court as they used to in battle. They get into arguments over all sorts of things, like payments and drinking rules. The disagreements usually end in another man, Bard, acting as a mediator and convincing the king to give Halldor what he wants.

Straight ahead or change course?

On one occasion, Halldor and the king argue about the direction in which they should steer the ship on which they are sailing. The king doesn’t listen to Halldor’s advice and because of that the ship sails straight into a rock. Halldor is so offended by this that he wants to leave the travel company and go back to Iceland. He is also dissatisfied with the way the king pays his men, namely in ‘silver’ coins that are actually partly copper. Bard intervenes and persuades the king to pay Halldor a decent amount of silver.

This is a picture of where Harald and Halldor sailed their ship into a rock.
Or it’s just a picture of my holiday in Norway.
You choose 😉

Not in the same boat

After receiving the silver Halldor says that he still won’t return to the king’s ship. “If he wants my company any longer, then I want a ship of my own to command.”5 Bard talks with the king again, which results in king Harald ordering a man called Svein to give Halldor his ship. So Halldor takes over the command of this ship and they continue their journey. However, Svein is not happy about this, especially since he is a landowner and of a higher status than Halldor6. The king solves the matter by giving Halldor the option to sell the ship to him (to the king), after which the king will give the ship back to Svein. Halldor agrees and the king pays him the amount they agreed on, except for half a mark of gold.

That awkward situation when a friend owes you money

That winter Halldor doesn’t make much of an effort to get the half a mark of gold from the king, but when spring comes he tells the king he would like to receive it, because he is planning on returning to Iceland. The king is evasive about it however. So one night Halldor enters the king and queen’s bedroom, wakes them up and demands the queen’s ring as payment. The queen gives it to him, because she thinks Halldor might kill them otherwise. Halldor leaves with the ring, gathers his travel companions and departs hastily to Iceland. They are pursued by several of the king’s ships, but they manage to lose them.

The highest place

A few years later Halldor receives a message from the king, saying that if Halldor would come back to Norway to serve him again, he would get more respect than ever and receive a higher place than any other man of low birth. However, Halldor declines the offer, saying: “I know perfectly well that he would carry out his promise to place no man in Norway higher than me if I went to meet him, because he would place me on the highest of gallows if he had any say in the matter.”7

Doing your old friend a favour

And so the two former friends never meet again. But when king Harald reaches an advanced age, he sends Halldor a request for fox-skins, because he wants to make a warm blanket out of them. Upon receiving the message Halldor says: “The early rooster is getting old.”8 But he does send the skins.

This was the tale of the Icelander Halldor Snorrason and his friendship with king Harald Hardrada. I enjoyed reading it, because it shows a very human side of these historical figures. I found Halldor rather ‘high maintenance’ in his requests, and on the other hand king Harald seemed a bit of a cheapskate. What is your impression of the two men? And do you think the king really intended to have Halldor hanged? Or did he just want his old friend back at court? And is it even possible to be friends when there is such a big difference in power?

1 Both Olaf and Harald are said to be descendants of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_II_of_Norway
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_II_of_Norway
3 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693.
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Halldor_Snorrason_II
5 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 690.
6 Despite Halldor being the son of Snorri the Godi, one of the most powerful men in Iceland at that time, he is regarded as a ‘commoner’ by the other characters in the tale. It could be that Norwegians thought Icelanders in general to be of ‘low status’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Halldor_Snorrason_II
7 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693
8 Gunnell, T. (2001). “The tale of Halldor Snorrason II”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 693.

Uitgelicht

#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.

Uitgelicht

#3 – The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal

A story about merciful giants, unethical fortunetellers and glorious bastards

The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal tells the story of Ingimund1, the settler of the Vatnsdal valley in North West Iceland, and his descendants. The saga was written around 1300 AD and some scholars believe the writer must have been a monk of the famous Thingeyrar monastery that used to be located in this same valley. 2 The monastery was the oldest one in Iceland, built by the bishop of Hólar to thank God for ending the famine in Iceland. Unfortunately the building doesn’t exist anymore, but in its place now stands a beautiful stone church.3

A picture of Thingeyrakirkja that I took on a gloomy day in August 🙂

A case of “Young people these days…”

Like many of the Icelandic sagas, the story starts in Norway. In 9th century Romsdal, North West Norway, a young man named Thorstein is scolded by his father for being a lazy coward who sits by his mother’s hearth and drinks mead all day, instead of going on raids and winning himself honor and treasure like his father and ancestors before him. Thorstein is enraged by these words and storms out of the house. He is determined to prove his worth by going into the local forest, to find out who has been making innocent travellers disappear there. (Which is exactly what his father intended him to do.)

The beautiful giant

In the forest Thorstein soon finds the criminal who is responsible for the robbing and murdering of travellers. It is a man who is as big as a giant, but also handsome and noble looking, which makes Thorstein hesitant to kill him. But he is desperate to prove himself to his father, so he hides himself in the giant’s house. Once the big man is fast asleep in his bed, Thorstein runs him through with a sword. The giant wakes up and even though he has been dealt a fatal wound, he manages to grab Thorstein and pull him between the bed panel and himself, holding him in a deadly grip. The giant introduces himself as Jokul, the son of Ingimund the Earl. He explains that he has indeed been attacking travellers in the forest, but that he recently started feeling remorse and that he would have changed his ways, had Thorstein not dealt him this death blow.

Jokul is in a position to kill Thorstein now, but instead the wounded man asks him for a favor: to marry Jokul’s sister. Jokul has the feeling that Thorstein is a man of good fortune, who could bring his family prosperity, and who could let Jokul’s name live on by naming one of his sons after him. Thorstein agrees to this proposition and pulls out the sword on Jokul’s request, after which Jokul dies. The young man goes home to tell his father the news that the forest had been freed of its menace (his father is very proud of him) and then sets off to the land of Earl Ingimund.

That awkward moment when your son’s murderer wants to marry your daughter

At the risk of his life, Thorstein introduces himself to the earl and the earl’s wife as the murderer of their son who would like to marry their daughter. It takes some convincing, especially on the part of the earl, but in the end they agree. Partly because they believe that this was indeed their son’s dying wish, and partly because of Thorstein’s honesty and courage. He could after all just have stayed home with his father and not have fulfilled his promise to Jokul. So Thorstein marries Thordis, the earl’s daughter, and they have a son together that they name Ingimund.

An unfortunate party

Ingimund grows up to be a brave, smart man. When king Harald Fairhair rises to power, Ingimund realizes that it is wiser to join him than to oppose him, and he becomes one of the king’s favorite warriors. Therefore he is not forced to flee to Iceland, like many other powerful men at the time. However, he does move to Iceland, for a totally different reason. Have you ever regretted going to a party because of how the evening turned out? Well, Ingimund has. He attends a party where a Lapp woman is present who can foresee the future. Ingimund doesn’t want to know his future, but the woman tells him anyway (I guess they didn’t have an ethical code for fortune tellers in those days). She tells him that his future lies in Iceland, and that his amulet of Freyr4 which the king gave to him is no longer in his purse, but is buried in Iceland, in the region where Ingimund will settle. Ingimund is angry at her for making this prediction, because he is happy in Norway and wants to stay there. But when he looks in his purse, the amulet is gone…

Moving to Iceland

In the following years Ingimund continues to live a prosperous life in Norway. He marries a woman called Vigdis and they have several children together. But the thought that fate wants him to move to Iceland gnaws at him and his friends tell him that no one can escape fate. So in the end he fulfills the prophecy and sets sail for Iceland, with his wife and children. He settles in the Vatnsdal valley that was described to him by the Lapps and when he puts pillars in the earth to build a temple, he finds his amulet of Freyr again.

Ingimund becomes a well-respected chieftain in Iceland. Meanwhile, his five sons are growing up to be five very different men, especially the two oldest. Ingimund’s first son, Thorstein, is thoughtful and clever, while his second son, Jokul, is strong and short-tempered. The other sons are called Thorir, Hogni and Smid, respectively.

Ingimund’s death

Ingimund is respected not just for his courage and strength, but also because he is a generous and honorable man. His honorable behavior eventually leads to his death. As a favor to his foster-brother Sæmund, he lets Sæmund’s nephew Hrolleif live on his lands. Sæmund and other landowners in the district are fed up with Hrolleif, because of his bullying, violent behavior.

One day Hrolleif gets into an argument with Ingimund’s sons because he doesn’t respect their fishing rights in the local river. When Ingimund hears about this he goes to Hrolleif and tries to reason with him, but Hrolleif throws a spear into his midriff. Ingimund, who is by then already an old and almost blind man, gets home with the help of a servant boy. Before he dies, he tells the servant boy to warn Hrolleif and his mother to leave the area before Ingimund’s sons find out what has happened and take their revenge on them. Ingimund says: “I am no better avenged by his death and, no matter what happens later, as long as I have any say in things, it is right for me to protect the person whom I have previously agreed to help.”5

This behavior may seem overly noble, but in the Viking Age it was considered very important to protect family as well as houseguests. Examples of this occur in many Icelandic sagas.

Although Hrolleif flees, he is killed by Ingimund’s sons later that year. This is no easy feat for them, because Hrolleif’s mother protects him with witchcraft. But it is the combination of Jokul’s strength and Thorstein’s cleverness that makes them succeed in decapitating Hrolleif.

A new great leader

After Ingimund’s death his sons and especially Thorstein become the rulers of the district. Together they make a good team, but none of them by themselves is as great a man as their father Ingimund was. Great (wo)men were needed in those times, because many outlaws and robbers roamed Iceland, from which the people needed protection. Moreover, there were berserks who challenged men to duels if they would not give them their wives or wealth.

But new leaders can be found in unexpected places. One day Thorir, one of Thorstein’s younger brothers, is complaining about his own bad temper. He is prone to fits of rage in moments when these suit him the least, and he tells Thorstein that he would do anything to be rid of this. Thorstein says that he will ask ‘the god who created the sun’ to free Thorir of his bad temper, if Thorir will do two things for him in return. First of all, pass his position of goði6 on to Thorstein’s sons, and secondly, save the newborn bastard child that their kinsman Thorgrim has left out to die. Thorir agrees to both conditions and takes the baby home with him. The child is called Thorkel Scratcher, possibly because he was scratching at a cloth that was covering his face when they found him.7 Thorir raises the child and never has fits of rage again.

Thorkel Scratcher doesn’t have an easy youth, being a slave woman’s son. Many people don’t give him credit or make fun of him. But Thorkel proves himself by doing great deeds and fighting bravely, as well as being a hard worker and a social, agreeable man. When he is fighting for the earl of Orkney against many men on a beach, he doesn’t flee back to the ship like the rest of the crew, but takes them on by himself. And when there is a shortage of men to help organize a local wedding, Thorkel is the one who runs about the countryside to catch pigs and slaughter them for the feast. Because of his background as a bastard child, he has a kindness and humbleness that leaders like Ingimund and Thorstein may have lacked.

It is because of his many qualities that the slavewoman’s son becomes the goði of the district. The writer of the saga, an unknown Christian monk, also describes how an additional virtue of Thorkel was that he converted to Christianity (along with the rest of Iceland in 1000 AD). The saga of the people of Vatnsdal ends with Thorkel’s death. He dies of an illness at an old age, and is sorely missed by his þingmenn8.

What can we learn from this saga?

1. Great adventures are not had by staying home
Although Thorstein (senior) is angry when his father provokes him to move his but away from the hearth and out of the door, it’s good for him in the long run. He has an adventure that improves his confidence, wins him respect and leads him, albeit in a strange way, to the mother of his children. So sometimes we need to be our own Ketil the Large (that was the name of Thorstein’s father) and push ourselves to go out of the house and have new experiences. But I have to admit, at other moments it’s great to stay by the hearth and just read about other people’s adventures 😉

2. We shape our own fate

The Vikings believed that fate was pre-determined (which made sense considering the harsh conditions in which they lived), but in my opinion this saga gives us examples of the contrary: we can create our own destinies. One such example is Thorkel Scratcher. His initial position in society is less than ideal, but because of his own perseverance and good deeds he manages to climb the social ladder.

Another example is Ingimund. The fortune teller’s prediction about him moving to Iceland only came true because he chose to act on this prediction.
Funnily enough, I had a personal experience that was similar to Ingimund’s. I once met a woman who claimed to be able to read people’s auras and make predictions about their futures. She told me that she saw me working with children in Africa. Well… while that would be a noble thing to do, I never felt any desire to move to Africa and so far the prediction hasn’t come true. However, I did feel a strong desire to move to Iceland. When I first started considering this a lot of people around me thought it was a bad or weird idea, but I followed through and it is turning out well 🙂

Thank you for reading my blogpost on Vatnsdælasaga, as the saga is called in Icelandic. I hope you enjoyed it! As always, my goal was to give people a taste of the saga, by describing some of the major events. However, there are many more interesting subplots and characters in this story that I couldn’t cover, so for the full experience I recommend reading the saga yourself 🙂

1 I have decided to use English equivalents of the Icelandic names in my blogs, as is done in the book The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed., London: Penguin Books), my main source of information for this blog. I personally prefer to write the names according to Icelandic spelling, but I think this would become confusing for non-Icelandic readers, since Icelandic contains some different letters and Icelandic names are conjugated according to their position in the sentence (I am Ingimundur, I saw Ingimund, etc.). Thus in this blogpost Ingimundur has become Ingimund, Þorsteinn has become Thorstein, etc.
2 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 188.
3 https://guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/regina/the-historical-ingeyrarkirkja-church-in-north-iceland
4 Freyr was a Norse fertility god and the brother of the goddess Freya, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freyr
5 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 224.
6 Goðar were the local chieftains in Iceland. In the Viking Age they had both regilious and administrative duties, but after the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 their function became purely secular. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothi
7 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 248.
8 Þingmenn were the followers of a goði. Every free landowner in Iceland had to choose a goði to follow, this didn’t necessarily have to be the goði of their own district. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothi

Uitgelicht

#2 – Laxdælasaga

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!

Unn

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

Melkorka

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

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.

Street art in Reykjavík with the famous quote from Laxdælasaga: “Þeim var ég verst er ég unni mest”,
which can be translated as “Though I treated him worst, I loved him best”.

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.
5https://norse-mythology.org/concepts/destiny-wyrd-urd/

#1 – Egill Skallagrímsson

About this blog

Hi there! In December 2018 I moved to Iceland. I was not just drawn to this island by its beautiful nature, but also because it is a land of storytellers.

After the first Norwegians, Irish and Scots settled in Iceland in the 9th century, people started telling stories about their adventures and they were written down in the 13th and 14th century. These stories are called the Icelandic Sagas. The popularity of stories hasn’t died down in Iceland since then. Every year Icelanders give each other books for Christmas, in 1955 Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature and nowadays 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book.1

I enjoy reading the old Icelandic Sagas and I would like more people to become acquainted with them. That is why I decided to write this blog in which I will review different sagas one by one.

The first post is about Egill Skallagrímsson. I hope you will find it interesting! Let me know what you think about it, if you like 🙂

 A little bit of context

The saga of Egill Skallagrímsson was written in the 13th century, possibly by Snorri Sturluson, the famous Icelandic historian who also wrote the Prose Edda. Egill, the main character of this saga, lived much earlier, in the 10th century.

Bold, brutal and brave

Son of a bald man (Skalla-Grímur means ‘bald Grímur’), Egill is without a doubt one of the boldest figures in the Icelandic sagas. At the age of seven he kills an older boy in a fit of anger after having lost from him in a game, and this is the first of many killings to follow. Egill is exceptionally strong and often goes berserk2, enabling him to take on many men all by himself.

Egill has a strong will, is quickly enraged and he is not one to be impressed by other people’s status. One of his most famous disputes is with king Eirik Blood-axe and queen Gunnhild of Norway. While Egill’s father, Skallagrím, moved to Iceland because he refused to submit to king Harald Fairhair (king Eirik’s father), Egill will not bow down to King Eirik’s will. He cannot accept that one of the king’s friends, Berg-Onund, has taken possession of an inheritance to which Egills wife Ásgerd also had a claim. When Egill’s attempt to settle the matter in court is thwarted by the king and queen, he takes revenge by not only killing Berg-Onund, but also one of the king’s sons, a boy of only 10 years old.

However, ruthless as he can be, Egill does have a strong sense of justice. He takes matters to court when he can, and he never gets into any disputes with his neighbours in his home country Iceland. He doesn’t just fight battles for himself, but he also helps others, when he feels like it. He stands in for his best friend Arinbjorn’s nephew in a duel, slaying the troublemaking Swede who threatened their family. In many battles he acts as a brave leader, leading his men to victory against all odds.

Life-saving poems

Egill isn’t just a great warrior, he is also an accomplished poet. Poetry seems to be an emotional outlet for him. He writes poems when he is angry, happy or sad, and after the death of two of his sons, writing a poem about it helps him to regain his will to live. In this beautiful poem he breaks with the god Odinn, who gave him fortune in poetry and war, but who allowed the seagod to take his favourite son.3

This isn’t the only occasion in which a poem saves Egill’s life. While making a journey to England he unexpectedly finds himself in the hands of King Eirik, who intends to execute him at dawn, spurred on by a furious Queen Gunnhild. His good friend Arinbjorn tries to persuade the king to spare Egill, and encourages Egill to save his own life by writing the king a beautiful poem. Egill has to make quite an effort to compose a poem in honour of his enemy, but succeeds in writing a twenty-stanza piece overnight, that flatters the king enough to allow Egill to leave with his head on his shoulders.

A sexy Viking?

While some characters in the sagas were famous for their beauty, Egill is described as being very ugly. He doesn’t seem bothered by that though. He appreciates the value of his head, especially when the king allows him to keep it.

“Ugly as my head may be,
the cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
to accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
received a finer gift
from a noble-minded
son of a great ruler?”4

To sum up, Egill is a person with many opposing characteristics. He isn’t a perfect hero, and he isn’t an evil brute either. Like many other characters in the sagas, he is a real person with strengths and weaknesses. I think this is one of the reasons why these stories are so interesting to read. Moreover, although some events in the sagas are fictional, they offer an insight into the lives of the Vikings and the settlers of Iceland.

What can we take away from this saga?

The Viking Age was a very different time from ours, and many deeds that were considered normal then, we find abhorrent now. But I think we can also learn from these stories. Some of the values that the Vikings had can be an inspiration for us in our modern lives. So what does Egillssaga teach us? Here are three lessons that I have learnt from it:

  • Be bold, be brave. If you have a goal in life, go for it. You can get very far if you believe in yourself and stubbornly adhere to your goals, like Egill did. If people cross your boundaries, stand up for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend killing them over it, but speak your mind.
  • You don’t need good looks to be successful. Egill and Skallagrím were both no beauties, yet they outlived their more handsome, more popular brothers, who died while serving kings. Appreciate both your inner and your outer strengths and use them to accomplish your goals in life. Follow your own path and don’t let other people’s opinions or self-criticism make you swerve from it.
  • We need more poetry. It’s tempting to cope with everyday stress by settling on the couch and watching Netflix, but wouldn’t our lives be richer if we wrote poems about it and shared them with our friends? 😉 We don’t have to write about grand events, also small annoyances can inspire us. Like the poem Egill wrote after his least favourite son borrowed a beautiful cloak without asking and ruined it by dredging it through the mud:
    “I had little need of an heir
    to use my inheritance
    My son has betrayed me
    in my lifetime I call that treachery.
    The horseman of the sea
    could well have waited
    for other sea-skiers
    to pile rocks over me.”5

To conclude

I hope you enjoyed reading my blog on Egillssaga. I have described only some of the intriguing, funny, horrible, noteworthy events that occur in the saga, because I didn’t want to spoil everything. It’s much more fun to read it yourself. The translation of the saga into English in ‘The sagas of Icelanders’ from Penguin Classics is very readable in my experience.

And to end this blog with a fun fact: many Icelanders are direct descendants from Egill Skallagrímsson and other famous characters in the Icelandic sagas. They can check their heritage quite easily via the website https://www.islendingabok.is/

A special thanks to my mom for editing this text and improving my English!

1 Goldsmith, R. “Iceland: Where one in 10 people will publish a book”. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24399599
2 In the Viking Age ‘berserkers’ were warriors who fought in a wild, furious trance.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker
3 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 7.
4 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 119.
5 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 168.