Monday, 6 June 2011

Gísla saga 2: The Outlaw Years

In the last post, I mentioned some of the events described in Gísla saga Súrssonar that lead up to the point in the saga when Gísli Súrsson becomes an outlaw... Forced to leave his farmstead in Haukadalur, the saga relates how he survived on the run for 13 years before finally being hunted down and killed by his enemies. Gísli‘s outlaw years are the subject of the second half of the saga, which is an intriguing mix of almost slapstick-style or fabliaux comedy on the one hand, as Gísli gives his pursuers the slip through pulling off various cunning tricks, and on the other, heightened and doom-driven prose as Gísli‘s final hour approaches. The prose is punctuated by verses uttered by Gísli, often about the frequently blood-drenched nightmares that disturb his sleep. Poignantly, Gísli comes to be afraid of the dark (as is another famous outlaw, Grettir, after he is cursed by the revenant Glámr...a post on Grettis saga will appear at some point over the summer months!).


Gísli relies on friends and family to support him as an outlaw and he spends periods of time in different places hiding out. Help is not always forthcoming, however: the consequence of a spell that the sorceror Þorgrímr nef conjures, on the orders of Börkr—who must capture Gísli in order to avenge the death of his brother, Þorgrímr, at Gísli‘s hands. One place where Gísli spends summers in hiding is in a fjord south of Dýrafjörður (where Haukadalur is) called Geirþjófsfjörður, which branches off the bigger Arnarfjörður. Geirþjófsfjörður can only be accessed by walking down from the heath above it, or from the water by boat. Its remoteness made my expeditions down into it to explore the places named in the saga even more of an adventure into the unknown.
Gísla saga tells of how Gísli‘s wife, Auðr, had a farmstead in Geirþjófsfjörður—and grassed-over mounds known as Auðartóftir (‚Auðr‘s ruins‘) where this farm stood are marked and easy to find, on the level plain at the end of the fjord. I had a packed lunch (together with a local Gísli expert, who came with me for the first trip down into the valley, and my filming Cambridge Ideas companion) with my back up against one side of Auðartóftir, the sun (welcome, after days of snow and sleet and minimal visibility) shining down on us. There is a modern farmhouse not far from Auðartóftir—but the last inhabitants left some time in the 1950s/60s, and the fjord and valley have been deserted since then. It must have been a remarkable thing to have lived and farmed down by this fjord, with places associated with Gísli‘s last years and death visible on all sides, both those that are named in the saga, and other places that incorporate his name in some way and testify to a tradition of engagement with the saga beyond the printed page. It‘s a beautiful valley—and its gentle contours, as well as the rivers and waterfalls that fall from the heaths above and run down noisily through huge gullies into the fjord, took me by surprise. I had imagined a much starker, darker, grimmer, silent backdrop for Gísli‘s last fugitive months.  

One of Gísli´s hideouts

The saga describes how Gísli had various small hideouts around the valley—two of these are marked, and a third, unmarked but clearly visible, was pointed out to me. I stood IN one of Gísli‘s hideouts and listened to birds calling, and water gurgling. According to the saga, Gísli only spent time in Geirþjófsfjörður over the summer—when the leaves on the birch and rowan trees—though these trees do not grow to a great height—would provide greater cover. But it struck me that this must have been a precarious security since a spy—such as Njósnar-Helgi in the saga, who is sent into Geirþjófsfjörður by Börkr‘s sidekick Eyjólfr inn grái to ascertain Gísli‘s whereabouts—looking down on the valley, might quickly notice the shaking of greenery in one spot or another... And after pushing through some of these tangled thickets for a short spell, I appreciated that being chased through such woods (as Gísli is, at certain points in the saga) would not have been a simple matter either.  
The saga‘s account of Gísli‘s last hours and his final battle is a powerful piece of narrative. His end is nigh and utterly inevitable, but the narrative tension is nonetheless built up and up right until the climax of his last fight, which itself is dramatically staged and presented. It is the last night of summer and Gísli is with his wife Auðr and their foster-daughter at the farm but he cannot sleep, so the three of them walk from the farm to one of the hide-outs, to the south of the farm and beneath some cliffs. The weather is close and there is a heavy dew: as they walk, their cloaks leave trails behind them, and Gísli lets shavings from a runestick that he is carving fall unheeded too. When they get to the hideout, Gísli tries to sleep but dreams of two loon-birds fighting each other, covered in gore. The voices of approaching men are heard—it is Eyjólfr with a band of 15 men and they have followed the trails from the farm to the hideout. Gísli, Auðr and the girl run up onto the cliffs—these now bear the name Kleifar, and are marked with a sign—and Eyjólfr and his men attack from below.
Auðr has armed herself with a wooden club and beats Eyjólfr, driving him back down; she is captured and Gísli utters the memorable words ‚I have known for a long time that I married well, though I did not know just how well married I was. But you helped me less than you might have done or intended to, although your attack was good, because they would both have gone the same way now‘—i.e., had Gísli attacked Eyjólfr, he would have killed him as he has others (‚Þat vissa ek fyrir löngu, at ek var vel kvæntr, en þó vissa ek eigi, at ek væra svá vel kvæntr sem ek em. En minna lið veittir þú mér nú en þú mundir vilja eða þú ætlaðir, þó at tilræðit væri gott, því at eina leið mundu þeir nú hafa farit báðir‘, Gísla saga ch. 34, p. 112). The attackers press on and up and Gísli kills two more men—four are now dead. When least expected, Gísli runs off and up onto a rocky outcrop close by, called Einhamarr, and defends himself from there.
Einhamarr, view north from the top
Men climb up and ‚er atsóknin þá bæði hörð ok áköf, ok fá þeir nú komit á hann sárum nökkurum með spjótalögum, en hann versk með mikilli hreysti ok drengskap. Ok fá þeir svá þungt af honum af grjóti ok stórum höggum, svá at engi var ósárr, sá er at honum sótti, því at Gísli var eigi missfengr í höggum‘ (Gísla saga ch. 35, p. 114; ‚the attack was both hard and furious, and they manage to wound him somewhat with spear-thrusts, but he defended himself with great courage and valour. And they receive such a heavy onslaught of rocks and blows from him that none was unwounded of those he attacked, because Gísli was not inaccurate with his blows‘). Gísli is speared in the stomach and his guts spill out; he gathers them up in his shirt and ties them in with his belt. Then he calls for a pause, states that they will get the end they want, and then speaks his last verse—in which he claims his courage comes from his father. After this, Gísli leaps from the rock and drives his sword into the head of one of the attackers, cleaving him down to the middle, and dying himself.   
I sat on top of Einhamar and read all of this—in the sunshine, looking down onto the plain where Auðartóftir are, and over to Kleifar. I found it hard in some ways to reconcile the details of the scene—violent shouts, clashing of weapons, blood and guts—with the peace of that rock as I sat, read, thought on it...I wondered if I was falling into the trap of reading the sagas—and imagining episodes within them—as though they are history rather than narratives that occupy the hazy space between history and fiction.
Certainly, it seemed to me that for local people, Gísla saga was more history than fiction—and Gísli might have died only decades ago rather than many centuries, in some cases. I think it would have been impossible to find a local person who did not know something of Gísli—that he lived in Haukadalur, at the very least—and many in the area know Gísli‘s story not necessarily through reading the saga, but because of his presence in the landscape, and the way that the events in the saga play out in local places, and the way that people have always passed on stories about Gísli in these landscapes. And this is not a passive tradition in present times either—in different ways, local people still actively engage with the saga and see it as their local heritage. There have been concerted efforts to present the saga to those unfamiliar with it and new to the area in the form of very well-made information boards raised at key places mentioned in the saga, for example. But most absorbingly, I experienced the spontaneous composing of verses about Gísli and places in the saga at first hand—in a perfectly natural context, not an artificial one. And I had to compose a verse about Gísli myself, in return...and thus found myself engaging with Gísli and Gísla saga creatively in the way that Icelanders have for many hundreds of years—and in some places, still do.     

A joke in/by nature...or perhaps created by Gísli?


  1. Your project is fascinating. I love the photos, tales and puzzling over the Icelandic words. Wishing you good journeys.

  2. Thanks for the great post (as always). One question... is it so odd that locals in the area that Gísla saga takes place in are intimately familiar with the story? Aren't, to take one example, the people of Hastings well versed in the famous battle of 1066?

  3. Gísla saga is one of my, if not my favorite saga. These posts have been wonderful & much anticipated. Your photographs are beautiful. Good luck!