The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 3

Page 2

The best known of these stories are those of Kormák and Gunnlaug, the latter of which has attracted much attention, and has been frequently translated into other languages. Kormák is the earliest of the poets thus commemorated, but the relation of his saga to fact is far from certain. His active career was a brief one (from about 956 to 967), and part of that time he spent in Norway and Ireland. As a poet he is known from other sources, and in the saga nearly seventy verses are cited as his; the majority of these may be genuine but many of them are in a very corrupt state. The saga is mainly concerned with his relations to Steingerð; many of the verses refer to her, and some of them hold the foremost place in old Icelandic love-poetry. Kormák did not marry Steingerð --through witchcraft, it is suggested-- and she was given in marriage to Bersi, also a poet and a good fighter. With him, and with her second husband, Kormák fought duels, and continued to be influenced by his love for her, until he met with an early death during a viking raid in Scotland. The incidents in the saga hang somewhat loosely together and are not told in the clearest fashion, nor is the prose always in agreement with the verses. Part of the narrative may have been taken from a separate saga of Bersi, a number of whose verses are also cited. There are several interesting passages such as that which describes the first meeting of Kormák and Steingerð, the borrowing of the sword Sköfnung, the old regulations concerning duels, and the means by which one witchwife endeavoured to conteract the spells imposed by another.

The saga of Gunnlaug is much shorter, and its literary merit much higher, than that of Korák. He was in love with Helga the Fair, the daughter of Thorstein at Borg; but during his prolonged absence from Iceland (from 1001 to 1005) she was married to Hrafn, whom Gunnlaug had provoked by his contemptuous behaviour while they were together at the court of the Swedish king. The enmity between them led to an indecisive duel at the Althingi, and was ended by another in Norway (in 1008), in which both of the combatants were killed. There are many striking passages and incidents in the saga, such as the dream of Thorstein, in which the whole course of events is foreshadowed; the story of Helga's birth and upbringing; Gunnlaug's Travels abroad, in the course of which he visited not only Norway and course of which he visited not only Norway and Sweden, but England, Ireland, and the Orkneys as well; the rivalry of the two poets at the Swedish court, and their criticisms of each other's poetry; the last fight on Dinganess, and the touching death of Helga, with Gunnlaug's gift before her eyes. It is undoubtedly the love-story running through it that has drawn so much attention to this saga, but the prominence of this element has awakened some doubt as to the perfect genuineness of the tale. There are some indications that in tone it may have been influenced by a knowledge of foreign romances, although its historical basis need not be doubted. Gunnlaug's visits to England and Ireland are suggiciently attested by the fragments of his poems in praise of King Ethelred and Earl Sigtrygg; of the other verses contained in the saga some are certainly spurious, but a few may hell be genuine.

The saga of Hallfreð 'the troublesome poet' (vandreaðaskáld) has soem resemblance to that of Kormák with Kolfinna in the place of Steinerð; it is, however, much shorter and of a more historical character. There most valuable parts of the saga are not those which deal with the love-affair, but those which tell of Hallfreð's visits to Norway and his coming in contact with King Ólaf Tryggvason. The king induced him to become a Christian, but this he did only upon certain conditions, and even threatened to relapse when the king refused to listen to his verses. "I will give up the lore that you have made me learn," he said, "if you will not listen to my poem; for what you have made them teach me is not more poetic than the poem I have composed about you." Several of his verses show the reluctance with which he gave up the old faith, and supply imporant evidence as to the hold which the worship of Odin and the other gods upon the Scandinavian mind. There is also an account of an expedition to Sweden, where he married and settled down for two or three years. Hallfreð ran many risks in the course of his adventurous life, and was only forty years old when he died at sea, as a result of an accident, in 1007. His coffin drifted to Iona, and his body was finally buried in the church there. I certain respects Hallfreð was a greater poet than either Kormák or Gunnlaug, but his love-verses are few and of little note in comparison with his other work; Finest of all his memorial poem for Ólaf Tryggvason, in whose last battle it was not his fortune to take a part.

The story of the two poets Björn and Thórð, told in Bjarnar saga Hítdóelakappa, has some resemblance to that of Gunnlaug and Hrafn, but in this case the two rivals came much more into contact with each other. Björn was engaged to Oddný, but went abroad (in1007), and like Gunnlaug stated too long; his absence gave Thórð the chance of stepping in before him and securing the bride for himself. This was a distinct breach of faith on the part of Thórð, between whom and Björn there had been a grudge, followed by apparent friendship. The subsequent relations between the two rivals were peculiar, sometimes at enmity, sometimes normally reconciled; for a time Björn even stayed in Thórð's house. Satirical verses composed by each against the other increased the growing bitterness between them, and at last the breach became final. Thórð then (in 1024) lay in wait for Bjön with a strong body of men, and killed him after a prolonged and gallant resistance. Bjön's death told so much upon Oddný that after it she gradually pined away, and the saga sketches very touchingly the unavailing regret of Thórð, who "would rather have had Bjön alive again; than witness the suffering of his wife -- Björn's adventures in other lands, some of them undoubtedly fictitious, are pretty fully narrated in the saga, which also cites a number of verses by each of the poets. Thórð is other wise known as a skald, and Bjön is said to have composed a poem in praise of the apostle Thomas, to whom he built a church in Iceland. "So said Rúnólf Dálksson," an Icelandic priest in the middle of the twelfth century; this reference would indicate an early date for the saga, but it has scarcely come down in its original form.

There is also a slight love-interest in the story of the poet Thormóð Bersason, commonly called kolbrúnarskáld, from the verses which he composed in praise of Thorbjörg, surnamed kolbrún on account of her coal-black eyebrows. These verses he afterwards adapted to suit a new love, but Thorbjörg appeared to him in a dream, reproached him with a pain in the eyes, which proved so violent that he was fain to be freed from it by making an open confession of his fault. The greater part of this saga, however, is concerned with matters of a different kind. At an early age Thormóð had entered into sworn brotherhood with Thorgeir Hávarsson, and they had vowed that the longer lived of the two should avenge the other. From this close association between them, their story received the inexact title of the 'saga of the foster-brothers' Fóstbroeðra saga). Thorgeir, who was a man of great strength and rough disposition, was finally killed in the north-east of Iceland (in 1024) by a certain Thorgrím from Greenland. Thormóð, though he had long before parted company from his friend, felt himself bound by his oath to avenge him, and went to Greenland for the purpose. His adventures there, especially after he had killed Thorgrím, are very fully related, and form one of the most exciting sections of the saga; their authenticity is to a great extent vouched for by the exactness of the local geography. In the end he was able to escape from Greenland, and returned to Norway; there he attached himself to King Ólf Haraldsson, and accompanied him in his subsequent exile. When Ólf made the vain attempt to recover his kingdom in 1030, Thormóð went with him, and on the morning of the battle at Stiklastað woke up the king's host by his recitation of the old war-poem Bjarkamál. That day he fought desperately and was not wounded till the very close of the battle, when an arrow pierced his breast. The account of what followed on this, until he fell dead with an unfinished verse upon his tongue, is one of the most striking passages in old Icelandic literature. Altogether the saga is a notable piece of work, though in its present form it bears the marks of a late hand, which has here and there inserted passages displaying an inflated style and wanting in god taste. Thormóð was of considerable note as a poet, and some forty of his verses are preserved, fifteen of them being from a poem commemorative of his comrade Thorgeir.

The saga of Gísli Súrsson (Gísla saga) is also that of a poet, and no mean one, but its hero is still more famous as one of the great Icelandic outlaws, who chose rather to face privations and death than give way to their enemies by leaving the country. Gísli was Norweagian by birth, and went to Iceland with his father about 935, after revenging wrongs done to them in their native land. They settled in Dýrafirth, in the north-west of the island, and soon contracted relationships with some of the earlier settlers. After some years Gísli's sworn brother Véstein was murdered by Thorgrím, a local chief who had married Gísli's sister. In persuance of his duty to his dead kinsman, Gísli then killed Thorgrím, but in such a way that the author of the deed remained unknown for a time, and the secret was only disclosed by his own imprudence. Gísli was subsequently outlawed (in 965) and lived in that condition for thirteen years. The whole story of his outlawry, his hairbreadth escapes and steadily increasing hardships, is very touchingly related, and is rendered still more impressive by his ill-boding dreams; in these he constantly saw one or other of two 'dream-women,' one of them well-disposed to him, the other the reverse. As time went on, the former appeared more and more seldom, and at last his dreams alone in his hiding-places. During all his troubles he received the faithful aid of his wife, Auð, whose devotion to her husband is the bright thread running through the saga. In the end Gísli fell before his enemies, after a defence as stubborn as that of Björn; "and it is commonly said that he was a most brave and gallant man, though not in all things a fortunate one."  

Among the minor sagas worth mentioning, there are several which in different ways present a story obviously diverging from the sphere of fact into that of fiction. One of these is the saga of Gold-Thórir (Gullþóris saga) or of the men of Thor§kafirth (þorvskfirðinga saga). In its original form this was evidently a sober unadorned record of dissension and fighting between local chiefs within a very limited area, every foot of which was familiar to the writer of the saga. As it now exists, the true beginning has disappeared, and its place has been taken by a purely fanciful account of Thórir's adventures in Norway; in this conventional method of obtaining treasure by digging into a grave-mound is slightly varied, as the buried berserk prevents Thórir from carrying out his design, and directs him to a greater source of wealth. To obtain this, Thórir and his comrades had to enter, at great risk, a cave inhabited by dragons, and were rewarded for their daring by abundance of gold, from which Thórir derived his later distinctive epithet. In the more genuine portions, which describe events taking place round the inner end of Broadfirth between the years 920 and 940, there is very little plot; the author evidently had tried to do no more than piece together the local traditions in their proper sequence, and more than once explains the grounds on which certain statements are made. Here and there, as in so many other sagas, a belief in the supernatural powers of certain statements are makes its appearance, and it is quite impossible to say at what period in the development of the story these features were introduced. Their conventional nature is sufficiently clear from the frequency of their occurrence in saga-literature.

The deviation from fact is of quite a different character in the saga of Hoensa-Thórir, which contains nothing of an improbable nature. It is a tale of a mean man --- one who had traded in fowls and was on that account called Hen-Thórir—and a man of note, Blun-Ketil, whose desire to help others led to his own undoing. During a hard winter he took hay from Thórir in order to give it to others who required it, and on account of this Thórir never rested until he had drawn some of the most powerful men in the district to burn Blund-Ketil in his house by night. The rest of the saga tells how this dead was avenged by Blund-Ketil's son, and how the at last peace was made between the opposing parties. The delineation of character in the story is remarkably good, and some of the incidents are vividly described. In spite of its air of veracity, however there are strong reasons for regarding it as mainly a product of literary invention; one of the strongest is the fact, which has Ari's authority behind it, that it was not Blund-Ketil but his Thorkel who was burned by his enemies (in 965).

Of a somewhat similarly type, as regards its correspondence with real facts, is the saga of Hávarð the Lame, who was a real person and a poet. The general outline of the story may well be historic; but there is much confusion, and probably a good deal of invention in the details. It tells how Ólaf, the son of Hávarð, was wantonly killed by a prominent man in Ísafirth, about the year 1000 and how the aged father against all expectation, carried out the difficult task of avenging him. After this he left his own district, and moved a far way to the east, to Svarfaðardal. Here the story was evidently handed down, and finally written by some one who had no exact knowledge of the locality in which the action took place.

The history of Svarfaðardal itself during the greater part of the tenth century forms the subject of Svarfoela saga, which must also be regarded as largely fictitious. Several of the conventional incidents are represented in it, such as fighting with vikings and berserks; and one of the chief persons, Klaufi, takes an active part in the affairs after he is dead. One of the most striking characters in the saga is a woman, Yngvild of the fair cheeks, whose share in bringing about the death of Klaufi was relentlessly punished by his kinsman Karl the Red. The treatment by which he finally succeeded in breaking her proud spirit is fortunately not typical of the saga-age, and may well be invention from beginning to end. There was evidently an older saga relating to the same district, but how much of it remains in the existing one it is impossible to determine.

Another case in which a late fictitious version has replaced an earlier and more genuine narrative is the saga of the two foster-brothers Hörð and Geir, who finally became the leaders of a band of outlaws and robbers living on an island in Hvalfirth. Previous to this they had been abroad, and are credited with battles against, vikings, breaking into grave-mounds, laying ghosts and other stock adventures. In the end the band became too troublesome for the neighbouring district, and were decoyed to land and killed there (about 986). Though it possesses little or no historical value, Harðar saga has considerable literary merit, and even invests the fate of the outlaws with a certain tragic pathos.

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