Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli

I’d been meaning to check out the 1981 Icelandic film, Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli, for some time. Not a great film by any means, it has genuine pleasures and rewards for the saga enthusiast.

Gisli Sursson’s Saga is one of the best sagas, and offers interesting distinctions when compared to others. It’s a tragedy of fate, like all good sagas, but in this case the legal and ethical rules by which the Norsemen lived create unintended (and insoluble) problems for a decent man. If your blood brother and your kinsman get into a fight, whom do you support?

Gisli has sworn blood brotherhood with his friend Vesteinn. But Vesteinn is murdered by Gisli’s brother-in-law. Gisli feels obligated to avenge him, thus keeping his honor (as he sees it) but turning almost the whole world against him. He is outlawed, which in Iceland meant that any man could kill him without penalty, and no one was permitted to assist him.

There are a few people who help him, though, notably his faithful wife. And with their help he manages to survive as an outlaw — without fleeing the country – longer than any other man, except one (Grettir, who also has a saga).

An interesting aspect of the story is that Gisli actually does two things that were usually considered shameful among Icelanders – killing a man at night, and killing a man in secret. However, it’s explained in the written saga that he observed a technicality (leaving the weapon in the victim) which made it less than full murder. And he killed at night in revenge for a previous killing by night, so I assume the two cancelled each other out. In any case, Gisli was viewed by posterity as an honorable man.

The movie follows the saga fairly faithfully, though there are some puzzling changes, such as the scene where two young men dress up as women to murder a man (they dress as beggars in the saga. I don’t think any Icelandic man would willingly dress as a woman). The film is low-budget, and it shows, especially in the fight scenes, which are poorly staged and edited. Also, it’s hard to keep the characters straight at the beginning — most of the main characters are men with brown beards. But the scenery is as authentic as you could ask, and the costumes – though imperfect by the standards of today’s reenactor – are better than you’ll see in most other Viking movies (or TV shows).

Outlaw is not top entertainment, but I recommend it as a reading supplement for the saga fan. You can view it on YouTube here.

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