Sunday, 25 September 2011

Romeo and Juliet of The North: Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu

View towards Grímsstaðamúli (and Ytri Hraundalur), Borgarfjörður

'Þat var helzt gaman Helgu, at hon rekði skikkjuna Gunnlaugsnaut ok horfði þar á löngum. Ok eitt sinn kom þar sótt mikil á bæ þeirra Þorkels ok Helgu, ok krömðusk margir lengi. Helga tók þá ok þyngð ok lá þó eigi. Ok einn laugaraptan sat Helga í eldaskála ok hneigði höfuð í kné Þorkatli, bónda sínum, ok lét senda eptir skikkjunni Gunnlaugsnaut. Ok er skikkjan kom til hennar, þá settisk hon upp ok rakði skikkjuna fyrir sér ok horfði á um stund. Ok síðan hná hon aptr í fang bónda sínum ok var þá örend' ('Helga's greatest joy was to spread out the cloak 'Gunnlaugr's gift' and gaze on it for a long time. At one time, a great sickness came to Þorkell's and Helga's farm, and many succumbed to this wasting disease for a long time. Helga became ill but couldn't stay in bed. One evening Helga sat in the hall and her head sunk onto her husband Þorkell's lap, and she had the cloak 'Gunnlaugr's gift' sent for. And when the cloak was brought to her, she sat up and spread out the cloak in front of her and gazed on it for a while. And then she sunk back again into her husband's arms and breathed her last'; Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson, in Íslenzk fornrit 3 (Reykjavík, 1938), ch. 13, pp. 106-107).  

Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu ('The Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-tongue')-- is one of the most romantic and tragic of the Íslendingasögur. It was one of the most popular and well-known sagas in Britain in the 19th century on account of its subject-matter, comparatively short and simple plot, and small cast of characters; William Morris's 1875 translation of the saga into English made it widely available to the British and American public. The story is, in essence, one of doomed love: Gunnlaugr ormstunga Illugason falls in love with Helga in fagra ('the beautiful') Þorsteinsdóttir and she is promised to Gunnlaugr for three years while he travels abroad to acquire honour and wealth. Another Icelander, Hrafn Önundarson, also loves Helga and asks her father for her hand. When Gunnlaugr doesn't return, Helga is -- unwillingly -- betrothed to Hrafn; Gunnlaugr finally arrives back in Iceland on the night of Helga's and Hrafn's wedding, too late. Gunnlaugr and Hrafn fight a public duel at the National Assembly (the Alþingi) the following summer; the result is disputed and duelling is subsequently banned in Iceland.

Helga dies in Þorkell's lap; from a Danish
translation of the saga (1900)
So Gunnlaugr and Hrafn agree to meet in Norway to fight again. The two men rendezvous at the agreed place: "Þat er nú vel, er vit höfum fundizk" ("It's good that we have met now"; Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 101) Gunnlaugr states. The two men fight; Gunnlaugr chops off Hrafn's leg but Hrafn uses a tree-stump to prop himself up. Hrafn asks Gunnlaugr to fetch him some water and promises not to betray Gunnlaugr by attacking him if he uses his helmet as a vessel; Gunnlaugr removes his helmet and fills it with water for Hrafn. Hrafn reaches out with his left hand to take the helmet, and strikes Gunnlaugr a terrible blow on his head with his right hand. "You have betrayed me evilly now, and ignobly, when I trusted you" says Gunnlaugr ("Illa sveiktu mik nú, ok ódrengiliga fór þér, þar sem ég trúða þér", Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 102); "That's true," answered Hrafn, "but this forced me to it, that I will not grant you the embrace of Helga the fair" ("Satt er þat ... en þat gekk mér til þess, at ek ann þér eigi faðmlagsins Helgu innar fögru", Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 102). The fight continues and Hrafn dies; Gunnlaugr dies three days later from wounds he sustained. Back in Iceland, the fathers of both men are visited in their dreams by their blood-drenched sons; later, confirmation of the outcome of the fight is brought to Iceland. Helga is married to a man called Þorkell Hallkelsson and bears many children by him but she never stops loving Gunnlaugr. She holds on to him and his memory by gazing at the cloak Gunnlaugr gave to her -- a cloak that Gunnlaugr received when at the court of King Aðalráðr (Æthelred) of England as a reward for a praise-poem composed in Aðalráðr's honour.  

Gilsbakki today
"The story of the tragic fate of the lovers is a northern counterpart to Romeo and Juliet", wrote William Gershom Collingwood in his 1899 book A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (at p. 48). Collingwood -- and William Morris, ahead of Collingwood in the 1870s -- visited Gilsbakki in Hvítársíða/Borgarfjörður where Gunnlaugr was born: "The present church and parsonage lie among rich meadows on a height overlooking the valley with its lava field and thick copsewoods, and beyond, a fine panorama of glacier-clothed mountains. On both sides of the site deep gills entrench it -- whence the name, and perhaps in ancient times added some strength and security to the position. They are at any rate richly picturesque -- a fit setting for the love story whose memories haunt the place", wrote Collingwood (A Pilgrimage, p. 48). It seems that the farm buildings at Gilsbakki have always been more-or-less on the same site (the site was dug by archaeologists from Brown University in the USA a couple of years ago; photos of the excavation can be seen here); the spot where according to the saga Gunnlaugr, aged 12 and longing to travel abroad, laid out goods he took from his father's storehouse only to be denied them and permission to travel by his father, must have been somewhere up behind the present farm-house. 

The 'gil' or gully at Gilsbakki, looking south
Today, the turf-roofed-farmhouse that Collingwood and Morris would have found, and that Collingwood painted (a b/w image of Collingwood's picture can be found here, bottom left), has been replaced by modern stone buildThe ings; the fine views across the lava-and birch-carpeted valley below the farm (and the sides of the gil or gully on which account the farm is named Gilsbakki, 'bank of the gully') have not changed much, though the glacier Langsjökull is said to have diminished, and the glacier on the mountain Ok has all but disappeared. Mild September sun was lighting up the valley when I visited Gilsbakki and the colours now are stunning: rich oranges and deep reds contrasting with the greyish-green mosses that enfold the flattish outcrops of lava. Inside the farmhouse, a copy of Collingwood's painting of the old farm hangs on the wall, and a copy of the small watercolour portrait Collingwood produced of the then farmer's three-year-old daughter is in a photo-frame on a bookshelf. When the Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson visited Gilsbakki to photograph the place as part of his project following in Collingwood's footsteps, he photographed the current farmer's then six-year-old daughter as well as the farm from the same spot chosen by Collingwood to paint his picture: this continuity regarding the significance of the place as a 'saga-stead' or site, from the 'Saga-Age' when the events in the saga are said to have happened (the late 10th and early 11th centuries) to the 19th century, and over into the 21st century, delighted me.

There are no place-names on the Gilsbakki land that commemorate Gunnlaugr; the one place-name there that is associated with Gunnlaugr and his story rather commemorates his brother Hermundr, who according to tradition -- not the saga -- was buried in the so-called Hermundarhóll ('Hermundr's hill'). Directly to the west of Gilsbakki, however, in Hraundalur in Borgarfjörður, there is a striking hill called Helguhóll ('Helga's hill'). This place is not named in Gunnlaugs saga -- but it is not far from the farm to which Helga moved (Hraun(s)dalr, now Ytri-Hraundalur, a summer-house rather than a working farm) after marrying Þorkell, and on which she died. Local tradition there, at some point in time, for some reason, connected Helga with this hill...a short article by Bjarni V. Guðjónsson about the hill that I was pointed towards suggests that perhaps it was a place where Helga found refuge, where she sat on summer evenings looking out over the plains below and over to Borg (where she was born -- being the daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson's son Þorsteinn; see posts of 20th March25th March, 2nd April on Egill, Egils saga, and Borg), where she might have found some peace from the trials of love she suffered in her life...

A slightly lighter-relief rendering of the saga (Gunnlaugr's and Hrafn's final duel) can be found've got to love these saga re-enactments on YouTube... 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Emily, this project is awesome and so is this blog. I haven't read any sogur in a while, but I think I just have to get myself a copy of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu. Hope to see you soon, take care! sarah.