‘Grettir’s Saga’

Father and son parted with little love between them. Many wished him a good voyage, but few a safe return.

I figured you were ready for a break from James Scott Bell novels, so I picked up an Icelandic saga I hadn’t read in a long time – Grettir’s Saga, (also known as The Saga of Grettir the Strong). My overall reaction is that I see why it’s generally listed among the great sagas, but it’s great in a different – and less interesting to me— way than some of the others.

Grettir is famed as the greatest Icelandic outlaw, because he lasted twenty years as a fugitive, longer than any other. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, outlawry in Iceland meant just that – being placed outside the law. Any man could kill you without breaking the law, and it was a crime to help you.

Grettir was the son of a farmer named Asmund, and distinguished himself from his youth by his unusual size and strength. His reported behavior at that stage – which strikes me as more historically reliable than a lot of stuff in this saga – shows him as not particularly admirable. He is a bully. He pushes people around and feels justified in taking their stuff, because he can get away with it.

In the saga story, the great decisive moment in his life is when he subdues and “kills” a ghost. If you’ve read my novels, you know that a Norse ghost wasn’t like our kind. They weren’t incorporeal wraiths. They were more like the Walking Dead – made strong by evil magic, and invulnerable. The only way to “kill” them was to cut off their heads.

Grettir challenges and kills a terrible ghost named Glam. Before his demise, Glam places a curse on Grettir – great bad luck and fear of the dark, meaning he needs company at night. One detects – possibly – a hint of what we’d call PTSD here. For the rest of his life, as Grettir puts it, “I can no longer live alone even to save my life.”

On a voyage to Norway, Grettir kills (accidentally, he claims) some Icelandic enemies. Coming home to Iceland, he finds himself outlawed. Thereafter he is dependent on a few people powerful enough and friendly enough to him to defy the law by providing him hiding places.

Eventually, accompanied by his brother Illugi and one slave, he takes up residence on an island called Drangey, where his hilltop refuge can only be reached by a ladder. In the end, just at the point where his “sentence” has reached its maximum length and would have become void, he and Illugi are killed in a treacherous attack.

I do not like Grettir’s Saga as much as I like several of the other major sagas, like Egil Skallagrimsson’s or Laxdæla. The magical quality I find in those tales, that of revealing interesting personalities whom the reader feels he gets to know a little, is completely lacking here. Grettir is a stock hero performing stock heroics in a stock story. The value of this account, I would guess, is largely in its displaying so many classic saga elements all in one place. The episodes of the story which show what I would guess to be somewhat true historical events, are fairly sordid and show Grettir in a bad light. The other episodes, where he fights all kinds of berserkers, monsters, trolls, ghosts, and witches, are boilerplate, set pieces that can be inserted into any saga when the story needed some action. (One even detects elements from Beowulf in one adventure.) His death is blamed, not on the fact that he’s fighting with a gangrenous leg, but on witchcraft. Even Grettir’s dialogue is unoriginal – all saga heroes deliver “one-liners” from time to time, but Grettir’s are mostly just traditional proverbs.

The saga writer gives one very interesting explanation why this story was found particularly worthy of preservation. Grettir, he says, is the only Icelander whose death was ever avenged in Constantinople. The last chapters tell the story of a brother of Grettir’s, who runs into the man responsible for his death while serving in the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and carries out a successful plan to even the score.

I was not very happy with this particular translation, which I bought for my Kindle and read this time. I’m not entirely sure which translation it is – it says Penguin Classics, but Penguin published two (is it pirated? I don’t know). As a translator myself, I found it often too literal. Many lines seem to be translated almost word for word, and the reader is expected to guess the meanings of the idioms. Even I had trouble figuring them out sometimes. And odd word choices were made – like translating “ghost” as “spook.” I can understand it in a way – they’re probably translating an Icelandic root to the current Norwegian word “spøkelse,” which does mean ghost. But “spook” in English lacks the gravity appropriate to the context.

Grettir’s Saga is worth reading for the serious saga fan, but I’d recommend reading others first. And get a different translation.

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