The Gisla Saga: an Icelandic Tale of Love, Family, and Revenge
Considered an outlaw saga, the Gisla Saga survives in thirty-three manuscripts, first written in the 13 th century. It is notable for its psychological treatment of characters and its blatant contradiction of Icelandic family values. Gisli Sursson is considered a man struggling with a number of emotions – love for his siblings, anger over their untimely deaths, and betrayal due to tragic fratricide among the blood brothers. One of the most renowned sagas, it is certainly testament to the Icelandic values in the 9 th to 11 th centuries, both in the male and female spheres.
It is implied through dreams that Gisli grapples with right from wrong throughout his journey, but his desire for vengeance is stronger than his desire to keep his family together.
Gisli with his wife Aud and their foster-daughter Gudrid. 1866. Public Domain
The women in the Gisla Saga are valued as strong females—they commit as much of the physical action as they do emotional, revealing their appreciation in Icelandic culture as more than just place holders.
The tale of Gisli Sursson opens with a brief description of the circumstances in Norway between the years 930-980 C.E. These years span the reign of Harald Fairhair to Hakon the Bad, setting the stage for the circumstances in Iceland, which were vastly different and much less rigid and distressing.
The titular character Gisli enters the scene in the second chapter, after the Gisli for which he was named is discussed as a man of strong familial ties. The first Gisli is important to the story for the protection and retribution he provides his brother Ari, setting the stage for the type of man the second Gisli—the main Gisli—will become.
In brief, the first Gisli is noted for avenging the death of Ari, husband to Ingibjorga. Ingibjorga, a beautiful young woman, is desired by a visitor to Ari's farm known as Bjorn the Black, and Bjorn challenges Ari for Ingibjorga when Ari declines to allow Bjorn to play master with her. Bjorn kills Ari, and thus Gisli demands vengeance for his brother. Given to him by Kol, the servant of Ingibjorga, is the powerful sword called Graysteel, and though Gisli uses it to defeat Bjorn he also breaks it, thus cursing his household.
The Sword Graysteel ("Grásíða"), from Gísla saga (1866 English translation). Public Domain
At this stage of the written saga, the tale shifts to the second Gisli, discussing his older brother Thorkel and his younger brother, another Ari. This Gisli defends his family in a similar fashion, when a man called Kolbein comes to his house to visit with Gisli's sister, Thordisa. Kolbein becomes enamored with Thordisa and wishes to wed her, but it is repeatedly implied between Gisli and Gisli's father Thorbjorn that the latter does not want Kolbein to wed her and wants to be rid of him. When Kolbein will not assuage his interest, Gisli kills him, upsetting his brother Thorkel but greatly pleasing his father. Following this, the struggle continues for Thordisa's hand, resulting in the burning down of Gisli's family farm. With their home destroyed, Gisli and his kin choose to leave Norway, setting sail upon the great seas for Iceland itself.
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However, despite this exposition, the true tragedy of Gisli begins following this move when he, his brother Thorkel, and two Icelanders, Venstein and Thorgrim, wed one another's sisters, thus becoming brothers-in-law and neighbors within a small community. They decide, being such close friends and having such strong inter-marital relations, to make themselves blood brothers with a binding oath. Yet at the last moment, Thorgrim retracts his loyalty to Venstein and thereby, Gisli breaks his obligation to Thorgrim. From there, the four brothers’ fates are sealed.
Thorkel is invoked with jealousy when he catches his wife Asgerd telling Gisli's wife Aud that Asgerd is in love with Venstein instead. Angered, Thorkel moves himself and his wife away from his and Gisli's farm onto Thorgrim's farm, and the tale implies that Thorkel and Thorgrim begin to plan Venstein's death.
Ever the loyal wife, Aud warns Gisli of what transpired, and when Venstein returns home to Iceland from a trip abroad, Gisli tries to keep him away to no avail. In the middle of the night, Venstein is slaughtered by an unknown foe. Gisli, once again, takes it upon himself to get revenge for his friend and brother, and through haunting dreams, firmly believes it was Thorgrim who committed the act. He slays Thorgrim and, like Venstein's killer, is not caught in the act.
Thorgrim’s Slaying, from Gísla saga. 1866. Public Domain
But the women in the Gisla Saga are more than just obedient wives—they are watchful and protective of the men in their lives. Thorgrim's widow and Gisli’s sister Thordisa—newly married to Thorgrim's brother Bork—accuses Gisli of the murder of Thorgrim after hearing a verse from him that sounds like a confession.
Bork pursues a lawsuit, and Gisli becomes an outlaw, on the run for thirteen years trying to evade Bork, Eyjolf the Gray, and their men. Throughout his travels, Gisli continues to be plagued by dreams of two women—one good, one evil—trying to influence his mind for and against the right action.
Gisli's exile is further complicated by the death of his brother Thorkel, at the hands of an unnamed man—considered to be one of the sons of Venstein—who asked to view Thorkel's prized sword and then slew him with it. News reached Gisli's ears of this before his wife could inform him, and he makes yet another decision to avenge his brother. However, Aud remains again a valuable wife to have, both due to her loyalty to Gisli and her levelheadedness. She convinces both Gisli and Bork not to slay Venstein's sons in revenge, in doing so preserving what little family value remains within their line.
When Gisli is finally discovered, a great battle breaks out between him, Bork, and Bork's men, and Gisli is praised as the finest warrior, never once turning his back on any of the men. Aud takes on a more physical role of defending her husband, fighting by his side with her companion Gudrida until Gisli killed, and surviving to bury him as an honest, decent man despite the deaths he caused in vengeance.
Thordisa similarly takes up arms to avenge her brother, attempting to slay Eyjolf the Gray. When Bork stops her from cutting flesh, she immediately divorces him, angered that he will not allow her retribution.
The tale of Gisli ends with Aud leaving Iceland with Venstein's widow Gunnhilda, Gudrida, Gudrida's brother Geirmund, and the two sons of Venstein in tow. They all venture to Norway, where one son of Venstein is killed and another drowned, receiving their dues for slaying Thorkel. Geirmund and Gudrida wed Norwegians, and Aud and Gunnhilda are noted for converting to Christianity and traveling to Rome where they remain until their deaths.
The Gisla Saga must be equally appreciated for its breadth of human emotions and the complex internal struggle of familial ties. Gisli's longstanding determination to avenge his family drives him to great lengths, and both moral and immoral callings. The wealth of characterization of both the men and women in the Gisla Saga speaks to the profoundness of the text and thus allows it to remain one of the most well-read tales from medieval Iceland.
Featured image: From the Gisla Saga: When Eyjólfur and his men attacked Gísli in overwhelming numbers, Gísli’s wife Auður stood by his side, armed with a club. ( hurstwic.org)
P.S. Langeslag. "The Dream Women of 'Gísla saga'", Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 81.1, Spring 2009, pp. 47-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40920837
Jane Smiley. Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin Publishing Group: NY, 2001.)
"The Gisla Saga." Iskendur Sagna-Grunnur. Accessed February 13, 2014. http://www.sagadb.org/gisla_saga_surssonar.en
"About the Sagas." The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders. Accessed February 15, 2014. http://sagas.is/sogurnar.htm
By Ryan Stone