08 June 2011


In Greek tragedy, the hero's acts constrain his freedom of action bit by bit, until at the endgame he has no choices left.  The same is true in the Icelandic sagas, but the Norse heroes had fewer non-violent moves available to them.  The also had more weapons of name and reputation, and more mead.  Here is Grendel's testimony about the world of the sagas (from John Gardner's superb Grendel):

     In the beginning there were... ragged little bands... [of] crafty-witted killers... As the bands grew larger, they would seize and clear a hill... and set up shacks, and on the crown of the hill a large shaggy house... where they'd all go at night for protection from other bands of men... At dusk... the men went inside and drank mead... getting louder and braver, talking about what they were going to do to the bands on the other hills...
     ...Now and then some trivial argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one, and all the others would detach themselves from the killer as neatly as blood clotting, and they'd consider the case and they'd either excuse him, for some reason, or else send him out to the forest to live by stealing from their outlying pens like a wounded fox...
     ...[Once] I came to a hall in ruins... The fallen hall was a square of flames and acrid smoke, and the people inside... were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned dark and crisp...
     Then the wars began, and the war songs, and the weapon making... Two bands of men would charge.  Twenty feet apart they would slide to a stop and stand screaming at each other with raised swords.  The leaders... held their javelins high in both hands and shook them, howling... things about their fathers and their fathers' fathers, things about justice and honor and lawful revenge... With luck, I might see, on a soft summer night, as many as three halls burning down at once...

"Justice and honor and lawful revenge:" locking the doors from the inside, in a house on fire.  What the anthropologist Grendel doesn't see is that the alliances so vital to survival in this world of mead-drunk warriors and berserkers can also lock doors.  What does or doesn't make for durable alliances, and what such alliances sign one up for, are matters of life and death in a society as violent as this one.

This is what being locked inside a burning longhouse looks like-- as history rather than fiction-- in the claustral Iceland of Gisli's Saga (this is not, by the way, The Saga of Burnt Njal, in which the house actually burns).  Because the tale is so heavily laden with incident, I have tried to extract and lay out the relevant moves as if for a game of chess, rather than attempting a narrative summary.  This true story of "a little more than kin and less than kind " took place among the northwestern fjords of Iceland, by the river Haukadal, around A. D. 950.

1.  In Norway, the brothers Gisli and Thorkell survive an attempt to burn them in their house.  After settling that blood-feud in the usual way, they move to Iceland, and share a homestead, Holl.

2.  Their sister Thordis marries Thorgrim; the two of them live near Holl.

3.  Gisli is married to Aud, and is friendly with Aud's brother Vestein, who lives two fjords away.

4.  Thorkell is married to Asgerd.

5.  Because the Norwegian immigrants are "bold talkers," their neighbors are bristly and envious.  Learning this, Gisli suggests that he, Thorkell, Thorgrim, and Vestein should swear blood-brotherhood, for mutual protection.

6.  At the blood-brotherhood ceremony, Thorgrim (Gisli's sister's husband) refuses to swear brotherhood with Vestein (Gisli's wife's brother).  Offended, Gisli refuses to affirm brotherhood with Thorgrim. 

7.  Like many other landowners, Thorkell and Thorgrim become trading partners between sowing and harvest, as do Gisli and Vestein.  Thorkell, Thorgrim, and Gisli return for the harvest, while Vestein goes to England on business.

8.  One day, Thorkell overhears a conversation between his wife Asgerd and Gisli's wife Aud.  He learns that while Aud once liked Thorgrim, she has been faithful to Gisli since their marriage.  On the other hand, Asgerd seems to have slept with Vestein since she married Thorkell.

9.  Thorkell tells Asgerd to leave his bed: "we both know now what the reason is, though it was kept from me for a long while."  She tells him that she will divorce him and take back her dowry, unless he takes her back.  He seems to be mollified after a while.  Meanwhile, Aud tells Gisli what has happened.  The year goes on.

10. Next spring, Thorkell tells Gisli he wants to split up their joint homestead, and move in with Thorkell.  Unhappily, Gisli agrees.

11. Vestein returns to Iceland from a sojourn in England; although Gisli tries to forestall him from visiting, he misses Gisli's messages and comes nevertheless.  Gisli feels a sense of foreboding.

12. Vestein has brought ceremonial presents for the two brothers, but Thorkell refuses to accept his.  Again, Gisli feels a sense of fate closing in.

13. Three nights later, while he is sleeping in Gisli's house, Vestein is killed.

14. Gisli suspects Thorkell but doesn't accuse him.  

15. Recognizing this, Thorkell says, "I would like us to begin sports and be on as good terms as we ever have been before."  

16. Gisli agrees, "on this condition, that if something happens to you in your lifetime that seems as much to you as this seems to me, then you will promise to carry on with the same understanding as you are now asking of me."

17. During the 'sports,' Gisli's and Thorgrim's rivalry heats up.  Thorgrim makes an insulting verse about Vestein; in return, Gisli makes an insulting verse in the same cadence about Thorgrim, while beating him in the ball game.  Thorkell quickly ends the games before violence can ensue.

18. Much later, Thorgrim throws a feast at his house, where Thorkell now lives, and invites his brother Bork and his cousin Eyjolf.  He forces Geirmund (Thorkell's foster-son) to take a message to Gisli, [insultingly] asking for the loan of the ceremonial banner which Thorkell had refused to accept as a gift from Vestein.  Although Thorkell tries to dissuade Thorgrim, he doesn't oppose him forcefully.  

19. Gisli is also throwing a feast, and is putting up the banner in his own house when Geirmund arrives.  Although insulted by Thorgrim's presumption, he agrees to send the banner, presumably out of loyalty to Thorkell.  However, he asks the disaffected Geirmund (who is also the brother of Gisli's foster-daughter) to leave Thorgrim's doors unbarred.

20. That night, Gisli enters Thorgrim's house and kills him in his bed, while he lies next to Thordis, Gisli's sister.  He escapes unseen.

21. Suspecting Gisli, Eyjolf and Thorkell visit him, but Thorkell hides Gisli's incriminating shoes.

22. Later, at another ball game, Gisli plays against Bork, Thordis's new husband.  In Thordis's hearing, Gisli taunts Bork, in a verse implying that he killed Bork's brother (and Thordis's dead husband) Thorgrim.

23. Thordis works out the import of this verse, and tells Bork that Gisli killed Thorgrim.  Bork brings a case against Gisli.

24. Gisli is declared an outlaw.  Thorkell warns Gisli of this, and gives him money, but refuses to hide him or do anything which might jeopardize his own legal standing.  Gisli reminds him of his promise, from when Vestein was killed, but Thorkell is not moved.

25. Gisli flees, and is pursued for many years by Bork and especially by Eyjolf.

26. Some time later, Thorkell is killed by two strangers, who turn out to be Vestein's sons.

27. Vestein's sons try to take refuge with Aud, Vestein's sister, but she sends them away so that Gisli will not be honor-bound to fight them for killing his brother Thorkell.

28. Seven years after Gisli is outlawed, Eyjolf and his men catch up to him.  After a great battle with sword, axe, and spear, Gisli is finally bested by Eyjolf and dies a hero's death.

29. Enraged and grieved by the death of her brother Gisli, Thordis divorces Bork.

30. Later still, Thorkell and Gisli's brother Ari kills Vestein's son.

And so on, and so on, and so on, in sæculo sæculorum.  Gisli is distinguished by having survived longer as a "wounded fox" than anyone else in Icelandic history besides Grettir the Strong.  Nevertheless, by the end of the vendetta, the four main protagonists are dead, along with at least a dozen others.  Nearly a millennium later, in 1914, when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Europe lay in the midst of the same snakes' nest of alliances, secret hatreds and rivalries, and conflicts of loyalty; those very same chimeras of "justice and honor and lawful revenge" took awful flight.  Yeats's bitterness at the return of barbarism came out of Ireland not Flanders, but that battle was also born in the Great War:

               Now days are dragon-ridden, 
               The nightmare rides upon sleep...
               The night can sweat with terror, as before
               We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
               And sought to bring the world under a rule,
               Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.


  1. Yeesh. The best argument I've ever heard for the equality of the sexes. Not that women aren't as flawed and fallible as men, but at least not (for the most part) in the same way.

  2. Unfortunately, there are several examples in the sagas of women playing similar roles: setting the house on fire with one's husband and his family inside, for example, because of a fight between that family and her own. This is an example of the persistence of a malignant meme, so to speak, rather than a convergence of memes and hormones. Or perhaps of the human capacity to move past biological imperatives into some version of that sophistication we call civilization...

  3. Incidentally, in move 10 of this murderous chess game, Thorkell moves in with Thorgrim, not "Thorkell." In other words, Thorkell moves in with his (and Gisli's) brother-in-law.