The Story of Grettir the Strong

Introduction by Marjorie Burns   

The Story of Grettir the Strong was not the first saga translated by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon, nor the first they published together.  Their translation “The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Rafn the Skald” had already appeared earlier the same year—in the January 1869 issue of The Fortnightly Review.  But “Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue” makes a better showing in the 1875 revision Morris and Magnússon published in Three Northern Love Stories; and Grettir the Strong—with its cycles of revenge, heroic action, and supernatural encounters—is the saga that established the Morris and Magnússon team.

Grettir (in Morris’s words) “yields only to the story of Njal” among all the known sagas (vi).1 But Morris was nonetheless aware that readers new to sagas would find it baffling in places and sometimes troubling.  To ease the way, he and Magnússon not only included an outline, a chronology, notes, indexes, and lists of periphrastic expressions and proverbial sayings, they also prepared their audience for structural oddities: the long opening section on Grettir’s great grandfather, Onund Treefoot, for example, and the sudden shift to medieval romance that comes at the saga’s end—a shift that the translators call “something of a blot” (xiv). 

Shortly after Morris and Magnússon published their translation, the saga began receiving increased scholarly attention.  In 1878 (nine years after Grettir the Strong appeared), Guðbrandur Vigfússon, in his Prolegomena to Sturlunga saga, noted parallels between Beowulf and Grettis saga, specifically battles with monsters and underwater settings.2 Though Vigfússon (who went on to cite further parallels) is generally credited as the first to publicize these similarities, there is reason to believe Eiríkr Magnússon may have done so before him.3

Critics began looking closely at Grettir’s character as well, at what Kathryn Hume calls his “split” nature,  his ability to be both ugly-minded or surprisingly patient, both “insolently lazy” or remarkably energetic (469).  Though his heroic but troubling character remains essentially the same from youth onward, there are hints of intended progression: the Grettir who conquers a ravaging bear and defeats marauding berserkers becomes a lair-dwelling outlaw himself and the Grettir who battles the supernatural is later described as not quite human, as an “evil wight” or “troll.”

Morris was well aware of Grettir’s divided nature, yet it wasn’t until he traveled to Iceland in 1871 and visited Grettir’s lair on Fagraskógarfiall that he began to see Grettir’s rougher, unrestrained side as an extension of Iceland itself.   The “savage dreadful place,” Morris wrote, “gave quite a new turn in my mind to the whole story, and transfigured Grettir into an awful and monstrous being, like one of the early giants of the world” (Icelandic Journals, 149).

It would be wrong, however, to assume the uncanny or elemental in Grettis saga is inevitably threatening.  The friendly land spirit Hallmund helps Grettir during his troubles, and the giant (or half-troll) Thorir allows Grettir a sequestered winter of easy living, ample food, and “good game” with his daughters.  But the age of pagan belief is passing away.  By the end, charms and spells are less and less acceptable, Hallmund has died, Thorir’s secret valley has been left behind, and peaceful means are replacing individual acts of retribution and the rights of the strong.  Once Grettir is dead, the world of prowess and heroic audacity (the world of Grettir’s great grandfather) has all but disappeared.   

In 1911, May Morris published volume VII of her father’s collected works, the volume which contains The Story of Grettir the Strong.  Though Eiríkr Magnússon had presented her with a list of corrections,  neither May Morris nor the publishers were willing to change what Morris had published before.  They did, however, include Magnússon’s list, which follows the text at morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/grettirtext.html and is also provided below the bibliography.

 

Suggested Reading

Arent, A. Margaret.  “The Heroic Pattern: Old Germanic Helmets, Beowulf, and Grettis saga.”  In Old Norse Literature and Mythology: A Symposium, edited by Edgar C. Polomé, 130-99.  Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1969.

Cook, Robert.  “Reading for Character in Grettis saga.”  In Sagas of the Icelanders: A       Book of Essays, edited by John Tucker.  226-40.  New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1989.
Chambers, R. W.  “Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel and its Scandinavian Parallels.”  English Studies 11 (1929): 81-100.

Fjalldal, Magnús.  The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection between Beowulf and Grettis Saga.  Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

Foote, Peter.  Introduction to The Saga of Grettir the Strong.  Translated by G. A. Hight.  London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1965.

Harris, Richard L.  “The Deaths of Grettir and Grendel: A New Parallel.” Scripta islandica 24 (1973) 25-53.

Hume, Kathryn. “The Thematic Design of Grettis saga.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73 (1974) 469-86.

Jorgensen, Peter A.  “Beowulf’s Swimming Contest with Breca: Old Norse Parallels.” Folklore 89, no. 1 (1978 ): 52-9.

--- “The Gift of the Useless Weapon in Beowulf and the Icelandic Sagas.”  Arkiv för  nordisk filologi 94 (1979) 82-90.

Motz, Lotte.  “Withdrawal and Return: A Ritual Pattern in the Grettis saga.”  Arkiv för nordisk filologi 88 (1973): 91-110.

Turville-Petre, Joan.  “Beowulf and Grettis Saga: An Excursion.”  Saga-Book of the Viking Society 19 (1977): 347-57.

Wawn, Andrew.  The Vikings and the Victorians.  Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Notes

1. Sir George Dasent’s well respected 1861 translation of Njáls saga likely decided Morris against publishing a translation of his own.

2. Most scholars (Vigfússon among them) believed Beowulf and Grettis saga sprang separately and indirectly from an earlier common source.  See Richard L. Harris’s “The Deaths of Grettir and Grendel: A New Parallel,” for an excellent accounting of Grettir scholarship from the nineteenth-century on through to 1977.

3. See Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, edited by T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, 59-60 (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).  Shippey and Haarder base their suggestion that Magnússon may have preceded Vigfússon on Andrew Wawn’s essay, “Grettis saga Ásmundarasonar and Hunger-Response Criticism,” found in Strengleikar slegnir Robert Cook, edited by Margarét Eggertsdóttir and Sverrir Tómasson, 76-8  (Reykjavik 1994).  Wawn also comments briefly on Magnússon’s possible claim in his book The Vikings and the Victorians (11-12).   

NOTES AND CORRECTIONS. [by Eiríkr Magnússon]

P. 29. The genealogy of Gamli of Meals, as here recorded, seems to be peculiar to Grettir's saga. Yet its statements are inconsistent in the matter, for it gives this twofold genealogy of the man. See Ed. Kaupmannahöfn: 1853.

P. 22. Ranveig was the wife of Gamli, the son of Thorald, the son of the Vendlander.

P. 70. And (Thorir of the Pass) sold the land at Meals to Thorhalli, son of Gamli the Widelander. His son was Gamli, who had to wife Ranveig, the daughter of Asmund Greyhaired.

According to 'Landnáma,' this Gamli of Meals, Asmund's son-in-law, was son of Thord, and great-great-grandson of Thorhrolf or Thorolf Fasthaldi (Fastholding), who settled lands on the north coast of Icefirth-deep (Isafjartðardjúp), and farmed at Snowfells (Snaefjöll). We have given Thorhall in our translation in both places as the man's name. Perhaps Thoraldr is nothing but a corruption of Thorólfr fasthaldi; and Thorhalli again a corruption of the first. But Gamli the Vendlander or Widelander, we have no means of identifying.

[30] 'Now in those times there were wont to be large fire-halls at the homesteads.' The hall, holl, skáli, stofa, was the principal room in every home. Elda-skáli, or fire-hall, as the one alluded to at Biarg, was so called from its serving as a cooking-hall and a sitting-hall at once. The main features in the construction of a hall were the following: it was generally built from east to west, in an oblong form, having doors either at one or both ends through the south-side wall, where it met the gable end. These two entrances were called carles'-door and queens'-door (karldyrr, kvenndyrr), being respectively for the ingress and egress of men and women. Sometimes the men's-door was adorned with the beaks (brandar) of a hewn-up ship, as was the case with the hall of Thorir of Garth, standing as door-posts on either side. The door led to a front-hall (forkáli, fortofa, and-dyri, framhús), which, sometimes at least, seems to have been portioned off into an inner room (klefi), or bay, and the vestibule proper. In the bay were [272] kept victuals, such as dried fish, flour, and sometimes, no doubt, beer. Within, the hall fell into three main portions: the main hall, or the nave, and the aisles on either side thereof (skot): The plan of the hall was much like that of one of our regular-built churches without chancel, say like a Suffolk church of the fifteenth century, the nave being lighted by a clerestory, and the aisles running the whole way along the nave, and communicating behind the dais. These aisles were used for sleeping-places; so that along the whole length of the hall, and behind the dais, all was partitioned into bedsteads, open or locked,—open, that is to say, communicating with the nave by a doorless aperture,—locked, that is, shut out of view from the nave (lok-rekkja, lok-hvila).

On the wall between nave and aisles, which was covered with a panelling on its inside at least, were hung the shields and weapons of the chief and his retainers, or home-men. Sometimes it was painted with mythic subjects, and adorned with fantastic carvings; on great occasions it was covered with hangings. Along both side-walls ran a row of seats, called benches (bekkr), the north-most of which, or the one which faced the sun, was called the nobler bench (aeðri bekkr), the south-most one, the less noble bench, (úoeðri bekkr). In the middle of either bench was a seat, called the high seat (öndvegi); that of the nobler bench being occupied by the chief or head of the house, unless he had for his guest a man nobler than himself, in which case the latter took it; that of the less noble bench being allotted to the noblest among the guests. The nobler bench was on ordinary occasions the bench for the chief and the household. The less noble for the guests. In front of the chiefs high-seat were the high-seat-poles which in the early ages of Paganism in the North were objects of much veneration, and must always accompany the chief if he moved his abode, and point out his new homestead, if he fared for it over sea, by the spot where they drifted ashore, as, when land was sighted, they were thrown overboard. In front of the seat-rows just described were placed the tables whereon the meals were put forth. And when the number of people exceeded the capacity of the ordinary benches, a new row of benches was placed in front of the tables, so that there were two rows of benches down along either side of the hall with the tables between them. The last-named rows of benches were called forsoeti; and their occupiers, when seated at table, faced those of the upper and lower bench. In the centre of the hall, if of the fashion, as it probably was in early times, of a fire-hall, was a narrow oblong stone-pavement, probably as long as the rows of the benches, whereon fires were lit for heating of the room, for cooking of food in some cases, and for[273] the purpose of lighting up the hall. The smoke that rose from the burning fuel found its way out through the luffer or louvre, in the middle of the ridge of the roof (ljóri); the reyk-beri, reek-bearer, seems to have been a contrivance for creating draught to carry the smoke out through the ljóri. In that end of the hall which was opposite to the entrance was the cross-bench, dais (pallr), occupied by the women. Here was also a high seat (öndvegi á palli), which was generally taken by the mistress of the house. In our saga it seems that the hall of Sand-heaps made an exception to this general rule, as it apparently had the dais immediately within the doorway.

[77] (cpr. 110). It is worth observing here, that Thorvald, son of Asgeir Madpate the younger, dwells at As in Waterdale, about 1013, when Thorgils Makson was slain. When Grettir played, as a youth, on Midfirth-water (or cca. 1010), he dwelt at Asgeirsriver. We mention this because there has been some confusion about the matter. On the slight authority of the Þáttr af Isleifi biskupi', Biskupa Sögur I. 54, it has been maintained that he dwelt at Asgeirsriver even as late as cca. 1035, when his daughter Dalla was wooed by Isleif the Bishop. G. Vigfússon, Safn til Sögu Islands, I. 337. On the other hand, the statement of Hungrvaka that he farmed at As (i.e., at the Ridge), at the time aforesaid, has given rise to the conjecture that thereby must be meant Valdar-As, a farm in Willowdale, near Asgeirsriver, the manor of the Madpate family. G. Vigfússon, in Biskupa Sögur, I. 61, note 2. It seems there is no need of setting aside the clear statement of our saga, that the As was As in Waterdale (see Index), and not Valdarás in Willowdale at all, or that Thorvald had, by 1013, moved up to the neighbouring country-side of Waterdale, and settled among the kin of his great-grandmother.

P. 114, 1. 1. 'The men of Meals,' is a close translation of the original, which, however, is incorrect; for the men of Meals were Grettir's kin-in-law, and natural allies. The saga means the men of Meal, Kormak and his followers, and the original should be either, þeir Mel-menn, or Mels-menn, or þeir Kormakr frá Mel.

P. 129, 1. 10, 11. We have purposely altered the text from: en þú öruggr í einangri, i.e., 'but thou stout in danger,' into: en þó, i.e., 'but stout in danger none-the-less.' The former reading seems barely to give any sense, the last a natural and the required one.

P. 169. Hallmund. Our saga is one among the historic sagas of Iceland which deals with traditions of ancient belief in the spirits of the unknown regions of the land that are interested in the well-being of the mere men who dwell near them. Hallmund and the giant Thorir are the representatives of these powers in our saga. Of these Hallmund[274] is the more interesting of the two, both for his human sympathies, his tragic end, and the poetry ascribed to him. At one time or other he has had a great name in the Icelandic folk-lore among the spirits of the land, the so-called land wights (land-voetir), and there is still existing a poem of ancient type, the refrain of which is closely similar to that of Grettir's song on Hallmund, but which is stated to be by some cave-wight that lived in a deep and gloomy cavern somewhere in Deepfirth, on the north side of Broadfirth. In the so-called Bergbúaþáttr or cave-dweller's tale (Edited by G. Vigfússon in Nordiske Old-skrifter, xxvii., pp. 123-128, and 140-143, Copenhagen, 1860), this song is said to have been heard by two men, who, on their way to church, had lost their road, and were overtaken by the darkness of night, and, in order to escape straying too far out of their way, sought shelter under the lee of a sheer rock which chanced to be on their way. They soon found a mouth of a cave where they knew not that any cave was to be looked for, whereupon one of the wayfarers set up a cross-mark in the door of the cave, and then with his fellow-traveller sat down on two stones at the mouth of the cave, as they did not dare to risk themselves too far in the gloomy abode away from the cross. When the first third part of the night was spent they heard something come along from within the cave doorwards out to them.20 They signed themselves with the sign of the cross, and prayed God's mercy to be on them, for they thought the doings within the deep of the cavern now grew big enough. On looking into the darkness they saw a sight like unto two full-moons, or huge targets, with some monstrous figure (unreadable in the MS.) between them. They thought this was nothing but two eyes, and that nowise narrow of face might he be who bore such torches. Next they heard a chanting of a monstrous kind and in a big voice. A lay there was sung of twelve staves, with the final refrain of each twice repeated.

The poem seems to be a death-song over the cave-kin of the country by the new change of thought brought in by Christianity.

P. 189. 'Grettir lay out that summer on Madderdale-heath, and in sundry places, and at whiles he was at Reek-heath.' A corroboration of the saga has been clearly set forth by the discovery of a Grettir's-lair, in Axefirth-peak, in 1862. True the saga passes over Grettir's doings on these vast eastern wildernesses, but tradition has preserved the name[275] for the place, and it shows by its construction and position that it must have been constructed by one skilled in choosing a good fighting stand, and a good and wide view at the same time. An Icelandic farmer has thus given an accurate and reliable description of Grettir's lair:

'In the summer of 1850, when I came north to Axefirth, I heard talk of a Grettir's lair upon Axefirth-peak.... Many who had seen it made a slight matter of it, which brought me to think it must have few peculiarities of antiquarian interest to show. But on the 7th of September, this summer (1862), I went with the rape-ruler Arni Jónsson of Wood-stead to inspect the lair. Walking up to it from the level ground below took us three minutes. The lair stands in the lower part of a slip of stones beneath some sheer rocks between a sandstone rock, called the carline, and the stone slip from the peak. It is built up of stones, straight as a line, and runs, 4-3/4 ells in length, 10 inches broad, and is, within walls, 7/8 of an ell deep. The half of it is deftly covered in with flat stones, the longest of which are 2 ells 9 inches long, and about half an ell in thickness, and a little more in breadth. Small thin fragments of stone are wedged in between these where their junctures do not close tight, and so firmly are they fixed, that without instruments they may not be removed. One stone in the south wall is so large that we deemed it fully the task of from four to six men to move it when loose. The north side wall is beginning to give way, where the room is covered in. On the outside it is overgrown with black scurf and grey moss. The head end we deemed was the one which is turned to the rock and is not covered in, and evidently has been open from the beginning. Here the floor is overgrown with moss, grass, thyme, ferns, crow-foot, and lady's-mantle. In all likelihood the inmate has closed that part of the room in with hides, when needful. On sitting up, all who went to and fro on the road below, must have been within view; not only those who came from the north of Foxplain (Melrakkaslètta) and Nupa-sveit, but also far toward the north he had a view even unto the open sea, nay, even unto Budluga-haven. Looking southwards, he must have seen all who came up from the outer firth; for from the lair there is a clear view even unto Burn-river, past which the high-road goes. A popular tradition says, too, that all who must needs pass this way, when Grettir was in the Peak, had taken at last to going over the top of the Peak, where there was no road, but the sheep-wilds of the Axefirthers. The lair-bider, even if he was set on by an overwhelming force, was not easily won, and least of all a man of such prowess as Grettir, except by shot; for he might at a moment's notice take his stand in the rock above his head,[276] the where one side only gives the chance of an onset, and where there is an ample supply of loose stones, large and small, on the Peak side of the rock to defend oneself; on three sides sheer rocks hem in the position, and those overhead are many times the height of a man's.'

P. 208. Knave-game. Perhaps the truer rendering would have been 'nut-game,' if indeed 'hnet tafl' here stands not for 'hnef-tafl,' as we at first supposed. It is undoubtedly true that among the early games of Iceland the 'hettafl,' 'hnottafl,' was a distinct kind of game, as was also the 'hneftafl,' 'hnefatafl,' knave-game. If we follow the text as it stands, the game that Thorbiorn played is supposed to have borne some resemblance to what is now called in Iceland 'refskák,' fox-play, anglice 'fox and geese,' the aim of which is, by twelve pieces, called lambs, to bring the fox into such a position as to leave him no place to move, whichso way he turns.

P. 240. Pied-belly we call the Ram, although the saga seems to mean that he was called Autumn-belly, which is a name of little, if of any, sense at all. We suppose that haus-mögóttr, p. 169, and haust-magi, p. 184, is one and the same thing, the t having spuriously crept into the text from a scribe's inadvertence.

P. 243 (cpr. 207, 225, 272). 'In such wise Grettir lost his life, &c.' The hardest thing to account for, or to bring to an intelligible issue in Grettir's saga, is the incongruity between the statements as to his age at his death and the number of years of his outlawry, as compared with the truthful account of the events told in the saga itself. From the time when Grettir slew his first man, all the events of the saga may be traced clearly year for year up to his death, and their truthfulness is borne out whensoever they chance to run parallel to events mentioned in other trustworthy sagas, and they fall in with the right time nearly without an exception. But the statement on the page referred to above, that he was fourteen years old when he slew Skeggi, that he was twenty when he dealt with Glam; twenty-five when he fell into outlawry, and forty-four when he was slain, is utterly confuted by the chronology of the saga itself.

These numbers given above are obviously made to fall in with the story in page 225 about the talk of the time of his outlawry at the Thing. The question is stated to have been this: whether he had been a fraction of the twentieth year an outlaw, his friends hoping that in such case a part might count pro toto. But the truth of the matter was that he had neither been an outlaw for a fraction of the twentieth year, nor even for anything like nineteen years. He was outlawed at the Thing held in 1016, his year of outlawry dated from Thing to Thing; this talk befell in 1031, consequently he had been full fifteen years[277] and no fraction of a year in outlawry. The story, therefore, of the twenty years, or nineteen years and a fraction, of outlawry falls utterly to the ground when brought to the test of the actual facts as recorded in the saga.

But, despite of this, it is not to be supposed that this episode at the Thing in 1031 is brought in at random and without any cause. There are two obvious reasons for assigning twenty years to the length of Grettir's outlawry, and for bringing into the tale a discussion on that subject just where it is done. The one we may call the reason of traditional belief, the other the reason of dramatic effect. Grettir was indisputably for all reasons the greatest of Icelandic outlaws, and the fond imagination of his biographers at all times urged them to give the longest endurance to the time of his outlawry above all outlaws, without inquiring closely as to whether it agreed with the saga itself or not. The other, or the dramatic motive, lies in bringing in the discussion on this long outlawry just at this particular Thing of 1031; for it was obviously the teller's object to suggest to the reader the hope of the great outlaw's legal restoration to the cherished society of man just before the falling of the crushing blow, in order to give an enhanced tragic interest to his end, and he undoubtedly succeeds in doing this. To these reasons, besides others less obvious, we imagine this main inconsistency in Grettir's saga is to be ascribed.

Nevertheless, it is worth observing that blunders of scribes may have in a measure been at work here. If we are not mistaken most of the existing MSS. of our saga state that when he fell (p. 243) 'he was one winter short of—var hánum vetri fátt á'—whatever number of years they give as his age. And we venture the suggestion that originally the passage ran thus: var hánum vetri fátt á hálf iv{tugum}21, i.e., he lacked one winter of thirty-five years, when he was slain. If a subsequent scribe committed the easy blunder of dropping I before V, the reading of our original (Edition, 53) would be the natural result, and an offspring of that same blunder would also as easily be the other reading, common to one class of the Grettir MSS.: var hánum vetri fátt í v{tugum} or í hinum v. tug, by dropping the syllable 'hálf.'

If the whole passage on page 243, beginning with the words quoted in [278] the commencement of this note, be not indeed a later interpolation, we believe that all that follows the words, 'till the time when he dealt with Glam, the Thrall,' must, indeed, be taken as an interpolation of later commentators.

Our suggestion recommends itself in this at least, that it brings about full harmony between the statements, here treated of, and the saga itself, for when Grettir left the land in 1011 he was fourteen years of age, and twenty years later, or 1031, he fell. How far his age thus given agrees or not with the decrepitude of his father, who died in 1015, having been apparently already a bedridden man for some time, is a matter of itself, and need not affect the accuracy of our suggestion, which, however, we only put forth as a conjecture, not having within reach the MSS. of Grettir's saga. A critical examination of these might, perhaps, allow of a more positive discourse on this vexed point, which to all commentators on Grettir has hitherto remained an insoluble riddle.

P. 251, 1. 12. The original makes Asdis daughter of Skeggi the Short-handed. This is here corrected agreeably to Landnáma, and other records of her family.