Friday, 29 July 2011

From Eastern Parts II: Brothers in Arms, or Droplaugarsona saga

Two sons, Helgi and Grímr, were born to a couple (Þorvaldr and Droplaug) who lived at a place called Arneiðarstaðir (today Arnheiðarstaðir) on the western side of the long lake Lagarfljót, in the east of Iceland (the present-day capital of the east, Egilsstaðir, sits on east of the northern end of this lake, in which Iceland‘s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, the Lagarfljót serpent or Lagarfljótsormurinn, is said to reside...). Helgi, the elder, was ‚a large man, promising and strong, cheerful and self-assertive‘ who was not interested in thinking about farming, but the best of men as far as skill with weapons was concerned (mikill maðr vexti ok vænn ok sterkr, gleðimaðr ok hávaðasamr. Hann vildi ekki um búnað hugsa. Vígr var hann manna bezt, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 2, p. 140, ed. Jón Jóhannesson, Íslenzk fornrit XI, Reykjavík 1950). The younger son, Grímr, was also large and strong but silent and composed, and a good farmer (mikill maðr vexti ok afrendr at afli, hljóðlátr ok stilltr vel. Hann var búmaðr mikill, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 2, p. 142). These two men were thought to have the greatest potential of all the young men in the district.

The old farmhouse at Arnheiðarstaðir

The saga of these two brothers, the ‚sons of Droplaug‘ (who was their mother, and whose name they take rather than that of their father‘s, on account of their father dying early in their lives) takes place for the most part around the Lagarfljót lake – which, at 25kms running on a north-east/south-west axis, is one of the longest lakes in Iceland. At the ages of 13 and 12, respectively, Helgi and Grímr kill a man called Þorgrímr torðyfill (‚dung-beetle‘) who had been spreading slander about their mother. They travel to a farm called Eyvindarár on the other side of the Lagarfljót lake, where their aunt lives, rise up early in the morning, and when their aunt asks where they are off to, they answer „We shall hunt ptarmigan“ („Rjúpur skulum vér veiða“, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 3, p. 145). On their return to Eyvindarár a little later, when their aunt asks what they hunted, they answer „We hunted down a certain dung-beetle“ („Vit höfum veitt torðyfil einn“, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 3, p. 146). This killing does not go down well with a local man called Helgi Ásbjarnarson, since the dead Þorgrímr dung-beetle was one of his men. The greater part of the rest of the saga tells of the escalating feud between the brothers and Helgi Ásbjarnarson: tense local politics, disputes over missing sheep, conflict over the courting of a married woman and other episodes all contribute to the escalating tension and enmity between the two sides.

Lagarfljót from the western side
Both sides gather support and have spies out about the area to watch on each other‘s movements; eventually, Helgi has a dream in which it seems to him that the brothers travel exactly the route they are embarked upon in reality, down into Eyvindardalr (on the north-eastern side of Lagarfljót) to a place called Kálfshváll – where it happens that Helgi Ásbjarnarson is hiding nearby, waiting to ambush the brothers. Helgi dreams that the brothers are attacked by 18 or 20 wolves, one of which is bigger than the others, another of which leaps up at Helgi‘s chin and mouth...at which point Helgi wakes up. The dream is interpreted as being a sign that a band of men (with Helgi Ásbjarnarson as their leader) are lying in wait for the brothers; Helgi Droplaugarson refuses to turn back, however.

Vopnalág in Eyvindardalur, where Helgi
Ásbjarnarson is said to have hidden
(the hill with the scooped-out centre)
The brothers come down into Eyvindardalr and head towards the ford by Kálfshváll; it is still winter and the river is frozen. 18 men run towards Helgi and Grímr who turn off the path and up towards the edge of a gully: a great battle takes place and Helgi demonstrates his agility and prowess with weapons. A man called Hjarrandi hews at Helgi‘s face and hits him on the mouth: „Aldri var ek fagrleitr, en lítit hefir þú um bætt“ (Droplaugarsona saga ch. 10, p. 164; „I was never good-looking, but you haven´t helped much“), quips Helgi. Helgi takes his beard in his mouth and bites on it; he looks over and sees that his brother has fallen, is hit by a spear, and dies himself. The brothers‘ aunt hears of the battle, and sends her son to the battle-field to recover Helgi‘s and Grímr‘s bodies. Helgi is buried at Eyvindarár in a mound but it turns out that Grímr is not actually dead, and he is nursed back to life...to exact vengeance on Helgi Ásbjarnarson for the death of is brother.       

Grímr hides out in various local places and then strikes, killing Helgi Ásbjarnarson in his bed on his farm at Eiðar. This scene is an interesting one – and many of the details concerning how Grímr sneaks into the farmhouse at Eiðar (how he ties together the tails of the cattle in the cowshed in order to inhibit people‘s pursuit of him later, for example, and is clad lightly in a shirt and linen underclothes without shoes) have very close parallels in the description in Gísla saga Súrssonar of how Gísli kills Þorgrímr at night in his bed. There is certainly some close textual relationship between the two sagas here – but scholars have debated which of the two sagas borrows from the other and recasts the scene. After killing Helgi, Grímr flees north to a farm at Krossavík in Vopnafjörður where his kinsman Geitir Lýtingsson lives. He hides out there for a while, then escapes to Norway, and then dies from a wound he picks up while fighting a viking called Gauss...

Grímsbás (under the rock overhang)
I was shown, and told about, various places around Lagarfljót where Grímr is said to have hidden, and which contain the element ‚Grímr‘ in them. Grímstorfa ('Grímr's turf') can be seen when driving out along the road from Egilsstaðir/Fellabær, on a mountain called Hafursfell, where a number of trees grow out from the rock high up. This place is not named in the saga, but it´s mentioned in a folk tale – though this folk tale also records an alternative tradition that the place-name is associated with a different Grímr. I climbed down to another Grímr-place, Grímsbás ('Grímr's stall') – a low overhang of rock forming a cave by a waterfall, with what seems to be a man-made wall running along the outer mouth of the cave. The slopes by the waterfall were studded with birch trees, and grasses and wild flowers grew high and abundantly.  

Outlaws and heroes on the run seem to capture the imaginations of past generations of Icelanders almost more than anything else, if the number of place-names around the country associated with these characters‘ hideouts are anything to go by...From Lagarfljót I travelled north up to Vopnafjörður with the dual aim of visiting Krossavík and finding Grímr‘s hideouts there (there‘s a gully known as Grímsgjá, in which Grímr is said to have hidden, a large stone halfway up the mountain behind the farm called Tjaldsteinn (‚Tent-stone‘) which Grímr is said to have used to construct a woollen tent with, and a slope on the same mountain called Grímsbyggðir (‚Grímr‘s settled area‘), and taking on the saga that is set in Vopnafjörður, Vápnfirðinga saga, in which Krossavík features too. But these Grímr-place-names notwithstanding, Droplaugarsona saga doesn´t seem to be a saga that has a central place in many local people‘s consciousness today. There is an information sign beside the road that leads out of Egilsstaðir and towards Fagridalur, close by where the battle of Eyvindardalur was fought but little else around the area. The saga was closer to the hearts and in the imaginations of people who lived in the area one or two generations ago though: south of the farm at Arneiðarstaðir where the brothers were born and grew up is a farm called Droplaugarstaðir...which was built in 1942, and on which, at one time, lived two cousins who were both called Droplaug...   
Upper panel of the famous medieval carved door panels
at Valþjófsstaðir church, in Droplaugarsona saga territory
(the originals are in the National Museum)

And another link with the saga-age past has been put forward by a local historian (Helgi Hallgrímsson, whose parents built Droplaugarstaðir). In the summer of 1980 the biggest silver hoard ever found in Iceland was uncovered on a farm called Miðhús, on the outskirts of Egilsstaðir, not far from Eyvindarár. It had been a hot summer and the family had been building a new house: a muddy patch by the house had dried up cracked open and on her way out to call the family in for food, Edda, who lives there still, stumbled on something stuck in the ground. When her family came in, their hands were filled with bracelets and twists of silver. Was this the silver that Arneiðr  – from whom the farm Arneiðarstaðir takes its name, a woman of noble Shetland descent who was captured and enslaved, then bought and married by one of the first eastern settlers and the first person to be named in Droplaugarsona saga, Ketill þrymr – found buried in Norway, as Droplaugarsona saga and Fljótsdæla saga recount?...

For further reading on Grímr-place-names, and on Arneiðr and the silver hoard, see
·    Helgi Hallgrímsson, 'Grímshellir og Grímsbás', Múlaþing 15 (1987), 117-31
·    Helgi Hallgrímsson, ‚Arneiður og Droplaug: Frásögn af tveimur fornkonum á Austurlandi‘, in Greinar af sama meiði, helgaðar Indriða Gíslasyni sjötugum (Reykjavík, 1998), pp. 359-74
·    Þór Magnússon, ‚Silfursjóður frá Miðhúsum í Egilsstaðahreppi‘, Árbók hins íslenska fornleifafélags (1980/1981), 5-20 (available online here, with photos of the hoard  http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?pageId=2054967)

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