Classic Literature. Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML: One of a series of thirteenth-century texts that tell of the fortunes, quests and struggles of early Icelandic families, the Laxdæla Saga is a gripping historical account of emigration from Norway, passionate love triangles, evolving gender roles, heated battles, centuries-old grudges, vengeance, and much more.
Summarised like that, it sounds a bit dull. But, by gum, it’s not. The saga is a combination of high drama and soap opera. There is the murder, violence and plotting of frontier life, complete with outlaws and gangs. There is also romance, jealousy, divorce, and bickering over clothes.
Gudrun Ovsifsdottir and the foster brothers Kjartan and Bolli are embroiled in a love triangle. Gudrun loves one foster brother but is forced to marry the other, and in retaliation she initiates a cycle of murder and blood feud that continues for years. Gudrun is strong, intelligent and beautiful; also vain, manipulative and obsessed with revenge. After a long life including children and four marriages, in old age she becomes Iceland’s first nun.
The story is told in a simple, understated way and is full of dry humour. The side detail is fascinating: minor characters have names like ‘Thorhalla the Gossip’ and ‘Hallfred Troublesome-Poet’; men arrange stallion fights; Irish slaves are bought; a man rises from the dead to terrorise the community; a new religion arrives. At times though, there seems to be too much emphasis on genealogy. I assume this detail was more important for early listeners/ readers of this story, possibly to help them trace their own family trees back to the people in the saga. I skimmed over the lengthier genealogies in the first half of the story and didn’t regret it. My edition (translation by Magnusson & Palsson) has helpful tables of family relationships which are good for reference.
This is my favourite saga, which I would recommend over other sagas such as Njal’s Saga and Egil’s Saga.
'You are pressing me very hard, my son, said Gudrun. 'But if I must tell someone, then I would
Bolli begged her to do so.
Then Gudrun said, 'I was worst to the one I loved the most,'
The saying 'hell hath no fury like a woman scorned' certainly applies to Gudrun Osvifur's-daughter, whose third husband Bolli was the foster-brother of Kjartan, the man she really loved. She manoeuvred her husband and brothers into killing Kjartan, and when Kjratan's brothers killed Bolli in revenge, she was instrumental in keeping the feud going.
The saga starts several generations earlier, in order to explain the family relationships between Gudrun, her four husbands and the other two men who wished to marry her, who are all descended from Ketil Flatnose. Although it is thought that a lot of the characters were real people, the author of Laxdaela Saga is believed to have changed the order and timescale of events in order to make a better story.