Posts Tagged ‘Grettir’


Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Njáls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Njáls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.


A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisfærsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

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It’s Halloween, so I suppose I should post a little something about Scandinavian ghosts and monsters.  The pictures here are of a pipe-cleaner sculpture from a former student, representing one of the many monster fights in Grettis saga (also available in this translation), one of my favorites, and probably the one I have taught the most times over the years.  Can’t remember exactly which monster fight this is– probably the fight with the troll-woman just before the final chapter of Grettir’s life on Drangey, though I think my first guess was that it was the fight with Glámr, the pagan Swedish immigrant to Iceland turned draugr.  A draugr = a ghost, but corporeal–a zombie, but not hungry for brains, and much more articulate, and not decaying but instead superhumanly strong, troublesome, and “walking again” because of something left undone, often an improper burial.  While I’ve labeled one of these a fight with a “troll” and another a fight with a “ghost,” really both are “troll” fights, in the older sense of the word–monstrous or superhuman in the sense of transcending that which is normal–Grettir himself invites comparison to the monsters he fights, as a super-strong outsider (literally–he is an outlaw), and the similarly cantankerous Egill Skallagrímsson is at one point said to be “large as a troll” (the Icelandic scholar Ármann Jakobsson has written on this an related topics).  Grettis saga is relatively late for one of the classical “Sagas of Icelanders,” which may explain why it is just bursting with encounters with the supernatural–other Sagas of Icelanders (aka Family Sagas) may have occasional ghosts or other otherworldly types showing up, but overall they are less sensational, and correspond more to our contemporary sense of “history,” while the legendary sagas (or “sagas of ancient times”) are… well, fantasy novels, basically.  More akin to the Romances, if we are more conscious of the time in which they are written, but also reworking stories which seem to go back to the Viking age, and often claim to go back further.  The setting of Grettis saga is standard Family Saga, however, and the monster fights themselves (there are a lot of them!), as well as Grettir’s character and his representation of himself at a few points in the saga, all work together to mediate between the heroic past and more mundane present of medieval Iceland.  Get a copy–if you have trouble appreciating the larger vision of the saga (many don’t like it as much as the more central classics), try out Kathryn Hume’s article “The Thematic Design of Grettis saga.”  It’s available on JSTOR, if you have access to that.  Many contested connections of Beowulf as well, if you want to bring some even more famous medieval monsters into it.

That’s a medieval monster story for you.  As far as modern Scandi scary stories go, I’m getting into John Ajvide Lindqvist’s work.  You may have heard of his unusual vampire movie, Let the Right One In (available on Netflix, last I checked), originally a novel.  I am currently reading his novel Handling the Undead, a treatment of the zombie genre which is less about eating brains, and more about what we would do if suddenly our loved ones came back to “life,” even if they were clearly not themselves, not entirely at least (and far less articulate than a draugr like Glámr).  I’m around halfway through, and at the moment it seems to be revolving around not only issues of death and life and loss, but also the question of who exactly gets custody of these “reliving”–the government or their families?  What are the boundaries between the phenomenon as a national health problem and as a crisis of personal relationships?  Not your typical thrilling brain-chase, but I’ve found it disturbing enough–if zombie stories normally gloss over the actual trauma of the impossibly concrete confrontation with death and loss that the return of the dead implies, the absence of the usual horror-film bells and whistles in this book allows mortality and mourning to come to the forefront in a very powerful way.  I had to put the book away for a while today– it was just too much (plus I was eating lunch…)  Anyway, I highly recommend it so far, even though I’m not actually a horror fan and get a bit grossed out by the book at times.  Plan on teaching it next semester, so we’ll see what my students think!

That’s it, a bit late for a Halloween post, but there ya go!  Remember, if you need a costume, check out my links in my post on dressing like a Viking!

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