Good Books: Gisli’s Saga

If Hollywood ever decides to make a movie based on Icelandic saga, Gisla saga is the one they should pick. The saga is direct with a simple structure compared to other sagas. It follows one man’s life from his upbringing in Norway and move to Iceland, where he murders his chieftain, through his years of outlawry to his inevitable death at the hands of his enemies. Gisli is brave, indomitable, and doomed. But also, the saga is permeated with Sex: pre-, post-, and extra-marital sex, men who may like each other over much, and a whiff of incestuous feelings — Gisli’s Saga touches many bases. There is already an Icelandic movie about Gisli, Útlaginn Outlaw — but it isn’t available on DVD.

The oldest extant version of Gisli’s Saga, from about 1400.(Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik)

The saga begins, as most do, with the forebears of the main character. In this case, though, we only go back to Gisli’s father and uncles and only for one chapter. One of Gisli’s uncles, Ari, is killed by a berserk. Now the berserk means to take his farm. Ari’s widow goes to his brother, also named Gisli, and tells him that she would as soon be married to him as anyone and that one of her slaves has a famous sword, Greyflank, that will always kill. Gisli persuades the slave to loan him the sword and kills the berserk with it. The slave asks for the sword back but Gisli wants to keep it. They quarrel. Gisli kills the slave but is mortally wounded in the process. Greyflank is broken in two, but the pieces are saved.

Ari and Gisli have a surviving brother, Thorbjorn, who takes over the family property. He marries and has children: a daughter, Thordis, and sons, Thorkell, Gisli, and Ari. Ari is fostered to another family and plays no part in the saga until the very end. A man courts Thordis. She seems willing and her brother Thorkell is in favor of the match but her father doesn’t like him. Gisli takes his father’s part and kills the man. This is the first of several of Thordis’ suitors to be killed by Gisli and there is a suspicion that he may like her a bit too much. Gisli kills enough people so that the family is attacked in their home by men who try to burn them alive in the house. Gisli and his father dip cloth into barrels of whey — sur, sour in Old Norse — and put out the flames. They escape and go on to kill their attackers. After, Thorbjorn becomes known as Sur and Gisli and his siblings are Sursson and Surssdottir. To the reader, who knows that the family resides in Surnadale, it seems more probable that Sur derives from the placename than from whey, but perhaps the saga author is making a point about the souring of a family.

Around 950, Thorbjorn Sur and his wife and children leave Norway and travel to Iceland where Thorbjorn buys a holding in a small valley, Haukadal, off Dyrafjord in the far northwest of the country. Iceland is very much a frontier community at this time and the West Fjords are the most isolated area of the country. The family builds a farm, Saebol, and begin to prosper. Thorbjorn and his wife die and are howed in proper burial mounds.

Looking down the valley toward the fjord. The historical marker is near the site of Holl. (photo:Ólafur Ólafsson )

Thorkell marries a local girl, Asgerd; Gisli marries Aud, sister toVestein, Gisli’s good friend and son-in-law of the man who has sold Haukadal to the family — Asgerd and Aud have property of their own that they bring to the marriages. Thorgrim, an important goði, falls in love with Thordis and asks to marry her. This time, Gisli does not intervene. Thorgrim and Thordis move into Saebol and Gisli and Thorkell build another farm at Holl a few hundred meters away. Everyone seems to get on well. [goði, literally something like the “god-guy”, the chieftain responsible for sacrifices in his goðorð. Every free man in Iceland is required to give allegiance to a goði. Thorgrim is heir to the Thorsness goðorð, a famous and prestigious Assembly.]

Thorkell and Thorgrim fit out a ship to try a season trading. Vestein has trading connections and he and Gisli also set out sailing. On the way home Vestein has to go to England. Gisli makes his great friend swear that he will return to Iceland and not leave until Gisli gives him permission. Vestein swears. Gisli has a coin made from an ounce of silver then has the coin cut apart by a smith. He gives one half to Vestein. “If I send you a message, it will come with my half of the coin. Fit the two together and you will know that the message is from me.” They part.

Back in Iceland, Thorkell does little work around Holl. He is sleeping in, late in the morning, and overhears Aud, Gisli’s wife, and Asgerd, his own wife, chatting in the next room. Asgerd asks Aud for help cutting out a shirt for Thorkell. “You wouldn’t ask if the shirt was for Vestein,” says Aud, and Thorkell hears that his wife has had an affair with Vestein. “Anyway,” says Asgerd, “What about you, Aud, and your carrying-on with Thorgrim?” “That was before I was married,” says Aud, “There has been no one but Gisli since.” The implication is that Asgerd has slept with Vestein even after her marriage. Thorkell stalks out of the house and the women suddenly become aware that he has overheard them. “What will you do now?” Aud asks Asgerd. “Tonight, in bed, I will throw my arms around Thorkell’s neck and say it’s a lie and he will forgive me,” she says, “What will you do?” Aud says, “I will tell my  husband everything that is unsaid and whatever I can find no help for and leave it to him.”

That night cuckolded Thorkell tells Asgerd she cannot share the bed. She explodes in anger and says that in that case she will divorce him and take back the property that she has contributed to the marriage. This quiets Thorkell and Asgerd then throws her arms around his neck and asks for his forgiveness. The couple make up.

Aud tells Gisli what happened during the day and he replies that nothing can be done. He does not blame her but he sees that fate will be done, “What is to follow, follows.”

The next spring Thorkell and Asgerd move out of Holl and go to Saebol to live with Thordis, who is pregnant, and Thorgrim. Thorkell and Thorgrim become great friends and, one day, take the pieces of Greyflank to a local sorcerer who fashions the broken blade into a spearpoint. Gisli gets word that Vestein is returning and sends him the half  coin with a message to stay away, but it is too late. Vestein arrives at Holl and spends the night. While Gisli is away on an errand Vestein is stabbed in his sleep. Gisli pulls the weapon from his dead friend’s wound but does not say that it is Greyflank.

Seftjörn. Looking from about the site of Thorgrim’s mound toward the site of Vestein’s.

Vestein is buried in a mound near the small pond called Seftjörn where the women gather rushes to cover the dirt floors of the longhalls. After the burial, to show that there are no hard feelings, the men play a game on the ice that sounds to me like hurley or perhaps lacrosse though others think it resembles hockey.

Thorgrim has a Winter Feast and many guests are invited. Gisli arranges with a servant that the door will be unbolted and, that night, makes his way to Saebol with Greyflank in his hand. Gisli answers to a code of honor that says he must avenge his friend, but he is also impelled by jealousy toward the man who has married his sister, killed his good friend, and slept with his wife. He makes his way quietly into the hall and picks up rushes from the floor and uses them to snuff the oil lamps. He goes to the bed-closet where Thorgrim and Thordis are sleeping. He reaches in to locate Thorgrim and puts his hand on his sister’s bare breast. She wakes, thinking it is her husband, “You are so cold.” Thorgrim comes awake. “Do you me to turn toward you? Roll over and hug me.” There is a spell of drowsy murmur familiar to any married couple while Gisli stands silently, Greyflank in his right hand, holding his left in his armpit to warm it. The couple go back to sleep, Gisli puts in his hand once again, locates Thorgrim, and drives the spear into his breast so hard that it sticks into the board beneath. Then, in the confusion, he makes his way out of the building and back to Holl.

Thorgrim is buried near Seftjörn on the side opposite Vestein’s mound. Once again there are games on the frozen pond to show that there is no ill will in the community. A few weeks later Thordis is delivered of her child, a son that she names Snorri.

It is probably not much of a mystery to most people who killed Vestein nor who killed Thorgrim, but no one voices their thoughts. No one that is, until Thordis blurts it out. She is now married to Bork, Thorgrim’s brother, and goes to live at Thorsness, the seat of her late husband’s goðorð. Gisli is sentenced to outlawry, meaning anyone can kill him at will and Bork begins sending men across the bay to try to do just that.

Gisli spends the next thirteen years as an outlaw. He receives assistance from the people in his area, even though it is not legal to aid an outlaw. Aud has gone to one of her holdings on another fjord and Gisli visits her there. When Bork sends a team after him, Gisli retreats into hiding places that he has set up and returns to Aud when Bork’s men leave. But life on the run begins to tell on Gisli and he has bad dreams. Two women come to him in dreams, one is shining, one is dark. When he dreams of the shining woman, he knows things will go well; when he dreams of the dark woman, he knows his luck is poor. As time passes, only the dark woman visits his dreams.

One of Gisli’s hideouts. These scrubby trees would have been leafed over during the summer when Gisli was hiding there. (photo: Emily Lethbridge)

People in the region protect Gisli. One day Aud receives a visit from two young men, Vestein’s sons, who excitedly tell her that they have completed their and Gisli’s vengeance; they have killed his brother Thorkell. Aud sends them away. Later, she tells Gisli what they have done. Gisli draws his sword and wants to kill them but Aud calms him down. There has been enough killing and it is time to stop. Gisli agrees. He now is exhausted with being on the run and seems to look forward to his inevitable doom.

Bork’s assassin, Eyjolf, rows over from Thorsness. He offers a purse of three hundred silver coins to Aud if she will betray her husband. Aud has him count the money out, piece by piece, into a leather sack. Then she takes the sack and smashes it across his face. Eyjolf wants to kill her but his men refuse to have anything to do with killing a woman.

Gisli spends the summer with Aud. His dreams have become very bad; the dark woman paints him with gore and the shining woman weeps for him. On the last day of summer, Gisli cannot sleep. He and Aud and their foster-daughter Gudrid go out to one of his hideouts. There is frost on the ground and they leave footprints. Gisli is carving a rune-stick and drops wood shavings. Eyjolf is able to follow their trail. When he sees Eyjolf, Gisli goes up onto a rocky outcrop called Einhamar and awaits ther attack. Eyjolf and another man charge up the slope. Aud hits Eyjolf with a club and sends him back down the hill; Gisli cuts the other man in half. Gisli says to his wife, “I knew I had married well but until know I did not know just how well.”

Eyjolf’s men assault Einhamar. (from the movie, Útlaginn.)

Eyjof’s men seize Aud and Gudrid and resume their assault. Gisli fights hard, killing four, but receives a wound that opens his belly. He holds his guts in with his shirt and fights on. Finally, Gisli recites a last bit of heroic poetry and leaps from the cliff, driving his sword down through the head and body of another man. He dies there. Gisli kills six men at Einhamar and two more die later from their wounds. Eyjolf invites Aud to return with him back to the farm but she refuses and stays with Gisli’s ruined body.

Eyjolf rows back across the bay to Thorsness and reports to Bork that he has killed Gisli. Thordis picks up Eyjolf’s sword and tries to kill him but the sword hilt catches on the table edge and she only gives him a terrible wound in the thigh. Bork slaps her and, the next day, she divorces him. Her son, Snorri, inheirits the goðorð. The sons of Vestein travel to Norway. Ari Sursson recognizes one of them and kills him. The other winds up in Greenland. Ari goes to Iceland to take up his brothers’ property. Aud and Gudrid travel to Denmark where they become Christians. They go on a pilgrimage to Rome and are never heard of again. Here ends the saga of Gisli.

There is a footnote: Greyflank was still around in the Thirteenth Century and actually carried into battle in 1238. It was much battered by then and its owner threw it ahead of his troops as they rushed into the fray. This may have been about the time that the version of Gisli’s Saga that we know was composed.

Gisli’s story is a school assignment in Iceland and there are many homemade movies on YouTube of young people acting out various parts of the saga.

Emily Lethbridge’s blog on the Saga-Steads of Iceland has photographs of the places mention in the saga, here and here.

There are three versions of the saga available in English. George Johnston translated The Saga of Gisli the Outlaw as directly as he could. The saga-writer switched back and forth between past and present tense — a device that must have heightened the effect when the saga was read aloud to a group of people — and Johnston retains this device. His version also has some maps and an essay on the saga.

The Penguin edition, Gisli Sursson’s Saga And The Saga Of The People Of Eyri,  is taken from the 1999 more or less definitive Leifur Eiriksson version of the Sagas of Icelanders and includes Eyrbyggja Saga that features the doings of Snorri, son of Thordis and Thorgrim.

The same translation of  Gisli Sursson’s Saga is included in the selected Sagas Of Icelanders from Penguin that also has ten other sagas, some tales, and a great deal of background matter. You may be able to find a remaindered hard cover edition at a cheaper price than the paperback.

3 comments on “Good Books: Gisli’s Saga

  1. nursemyra says:

    That’s a very involved tale, I found it hard to keep track of everyone except Snorri. His name made me laugh. Seriously, I love reading but I think I’d rather watch this as a film so I could keep the characters straight in my mind.

    • mikulpepper says:

      Snorri means “Troublesome” or something like that, in the way you’d say of a kid, “Here comes Trouble!” But it’s not so much a joke in the sagas as Snorri is troubled by whether or not to avenge his father. Or perhaps his uncle. He doesn’t and receives some sneers but winds up as a successful and powerful chieftain.
      As for being involved: Yes, and especially so for a story under a hundred pages in most printings. Other sagas are even more involved, covering generations in time and various locales in space. Still, I find these books well worth an effort. These are, after all, the closest thing you’re going to get to a look at ancient Europe.

  2. […] Mike Culpepper blog post about Gisli, including photos of locations […]

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