Map of Iceland, 1761. Public domain.
A man named Hrut had a stepbrother named Hoskuld. One day Hoskuld held a feast and Hrut was there. Hoskuld called to his daughter, Hallgerd, who was playing on the floor with other girls. Hallgerd “was tall and beautiful, with hair as fine as silk and so abundant that it came down to her waist.”
Hoskuld asked Hrut what he thought of his daughter. Hrut didn’t answer at first so Hoskuld asked again. Hrut finally said, “The girl is quite beautiful, and many will pay for that, but what I don’t know is how the eyes of a thief have come into our family.”
For a long time after that, the brothers did not speak to each other. Hoskuld sent his daughter to a man named Thjostolf to foster her. “It was said that he did nothing to improve Hallgerd’s character.”
As we meet Hallgerd at the opening of the saga, and several important themes begin to unfold.
- Character is fixed and largely immutable. Our culture is built on the notion of repentance and change – “I once was lost but now I’m found,” but this is absent from the nordic pagan worldview. Hallgerd will start a bloody feud with another woman’s family in the first part of the story. Even when her intentions are good, chaos follows in her wake. She will have three husbands; each will think he can handle her, and each will die a violent death.
- Another important theme is the equality of women. In no other medieval tradition have I seen women with foster fathers.
Hallgerd’s uncle Hrut became engaged to a woman named Unn, but before the wedding, like many young Icelandic men, he travelled to Norway to seek fame and fortune. He won an honored place in the king’s court and captured a fair amount of booty after defeating a group of vikings in a sea battle. Most importantly for the story, the king’s mother, Gunnhild invited him to her bed. This was an offer he couldn’t refuse (though he didn’t seem to want to), for not only did Gunnhild have the ear of the king, but she was skilled in magic.
When it was time for Hrut to leave, Gunnhild asked if he had a girl back home. Hrut said he did not. Gunnhild put her arms around him, kissed him, and said, “I cast this spell: you will not have sexual pleasure with the woman you plan to marry in Iceland, though you’ll be able to have your will with other women. Neither of us comes out of this well, because you did not tell me the truth.”
Hrut married Unn, but because of the curse, he could not please her sexually. After conferring with her father, Unn divorced Hrut, but he kept her dowry, creating a seed of conflict that reverberates through the story.
More important themes appear:
- Consistently in this saga, characters act in ways contrary to common sense and their own best interest. Hrut knows Gunnhild is a prophetic sorceress. Why would he deny having a girl back home, when there’s no indication that she even cares before he lies? Perhaps the author appreciates how confused we can get at critical moments. Perhaps everyone who has ever had a “What was I thinking” moment can identify with Hrut.
- Related to this is the place of magic in the saga – it exists, but on the periphery, and when it appears, it’s a two-edged sword at best and harmful most of the time.
- Once again we see the equality of women. Both men and women can divorce their spouse by simply declaring themselves divorced in front of witnesses.
- Romance and sexuality are not central to the saga, except as inciting incidents, but when they occur, they are dealt with in a frank and earthy manner. When Unn’s father sees his daughter moping after her marriage, he persuades her to speak. Unn says, “When he comes close to me, his penis is so large that he can’t have any satisfaction from me, and yet we’ve both tried every possible way to enjoy each other, but nothing works.” The audience would not have been shocked, though it’s easy to imagine snickers and winks as the mead was drunk in the hall.
About the time Hrut returned from Norway, Hoskuld arranged a marriage for his daughter, Hallgerd. In those days, women were charged with running the household and ensuring there was food for the family and retainers through the long winters. Hallgerd was “bountiful and high-spirited,” and when her husband, Thorvald, berated her for running short of food, Hallgerd insulted him. He struck her and stalked out of the house. When Hallgerd’s foster-father, Thjostolf, saw her bleeding, he set off after Thorvald, and killed him.
Hallgerd was married a second time, to a man named Glum. Though she loved him, a day came when “they had a strong exchange of words” and Glum struck her. Once more, though she begged him not to, her foster-father killed her husband.
At this point, we meet the first of two principle characters in the story. Gunnar of Hlidarendi fit the ideal of the nordic warrior. He was “big and strong and an excellent fighter. He could swing a sword and throw a spear with either hand…and he was so swift with a sword that there seemed to be three in the air at once. He shot with a bow better than anyone else, and…he could jump higher than his own height, in full fighting gear…He swam like a seal and there was no sport in which there was any point in competing with him.”
After describing his martial skills, the narrator adds that he was a hunk and “very well off for property.” As we get to know Gunnar, we find that his character matches his resume. He’s a generous, open hearted man, honorable to a fault, and a warrior who doesn’t like to fight. He’s related to Unn, however, and when he recovers her dowry by force, he begins to make enemies, including Unn’s second husband, another of the “bad seed” characters that populate the saga and guarantee that Gunnar will have to fight.
Gunnar at the Ranga River, where he and his two brothers defeat 30 men. 1898 illustration. Public domain.
Gunnar’s close friend, Njal supplies the wisdom Gunnar sometimes lacks. Njal (pronounced knee-AHL) was “well off for property and handsome to look at…so well versed in the law that he had no equal, and he was wise and prophetic, sound of advice and well-intentioned, and whatever course he counselled turned out well. He was modest and noble-spirited, able to see far into the future and remember far into the past, and he solved the problems of whoever turned to him.”
The strange thing about Njal was his inability to grow a beard. Though he fathered three sons and three daughters, his enemies used this anomaly to suggest there was something lacking in his manhood. It seems to me that legendary seers, from Tiresias to Merlin to Black Elk are always lacking in some of the cultural norms of manhood. In particular, Njal never fights though he counsels those who do. He and Gunnar make up for what the other lacks. Both prospered, in large part, because Gunnar followed Njal’s advice – up until the day he met Hallgerd.
Gunnar and Hallgerd at the Althing, (the National Assembly). 1898 illustration. Public domain.
The day they met, Gunnar and Hallgerd “talked for a long time.” Then Gunnar sought out her father to ask for her hand in marriage. Njal told Gunnar,”Every kind of evil will come from her when she moves east.” This time Gunnar didn’t listen to his prophetic friend.
To Be Continued