Sunday, 2 October 2011

Insult Verses and Death-By-Scissors: Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa

Hítárdalur, looking north into the valley
In my last post, I wrote about the tragic love between Gunnlaugr ormstunga ('serpent-tongue') and the beautiful Helga in fagra ('the fair'), and about how after Gunnlaugr dies fighting his treacherous rival-in-love, Hrafn, Helga is remarried and eventually dies herself, gazing at a cloak Gunnlaugr once gave to her. The farmstead on which Helga died, Ytri-Hraundalur, is in the Mýrar district in north-west Iceland, close to a long valley called Hítárdalur -- the location of much of the action of another saga about a poet and tragic lover, Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa.

Bjarnar saga states that Björn was raised with his uncle at Borg: Björn's maternal grandmother was a sister of Egill Skalla-Grímsson, and Skalla-Grímr was Björn's great-grandfather (see my earlier post of 25th March  on Egils saga and Borg). This makes Björn -- I realise for the first time myself now -- a cousin of Helga the fair, who was the daughter of Egill's son Þorsteinn...the Icelandic obsession with genealogy is starting to rub off on me... Beyond the genealogical overlap and the geographical proximity of Bjarnar saga and Gunnlaugs saga, the protagonists of these two sagas -- Björn and Gunnlaugr -- are both poets and the sagas share a common plot (a plot that is found in two further sagas about poetic protagonists, Kormáks saga and Hallfreðar saga, both of which will be covered soon): the tragic love-triangle. And now for some story-telling on a rainy Sunday afternoon...

Björn is a promising young man: snimma mikill vexti ok rammr at afli, karlmannligr ok sæmiligr at sjá (Bjarnar saga, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 3 (Reykjavík 1938), ch. 1, p. 112; 'very large in stature at a young age and physically powerful, manly and becoming in appearance'). He falls in love with the beautiful and noble-charactered  Oddný eykyndill ('Island-candle') whom he visits on the island of Hjörsey where she lives -- and many people in the district reckon it will be a good match if Björn marries Oddný, with him being the finest of men and well bred. So Björn is engaged to Oddný -- but he longs to go abroad to make his name and fortune -- and thus the betrothal is fixed for a period of 3 years but if Björn doesn't return after that time, Oddný will be married to someone else, and Björn must send a message back to Iceland if he will not make it back. 

Hítarnes, Þórðr's (and later Oddný's) home
(with view over to the Snæfellsnes peninsula)
All goes well and Björn is treated generously at Eiríkr jarl's court in Norway, where another poet from the north-west of Iceland is also visiting. Although previously in Iceland, Björn had been on the receiving end of a certain amount of mockery and abuse from this man, Þórðr Kolbeinsson, Björn and Þórðr are on good terms over the winter, and one evening as they drink together (Björn was more affected by the alcohol than Þórðr, the saga notes), the conversation turns to Oddný and the question as to when Björn intends to head home. Not immediately, says Björn -- which Þórðr says sounds unwise when he has such a treasure as Oddný waiting for him back in Iceland. Þórðr suggests he takes a token and a message back for Oddný from Björn -- the gold armband that the jarl has given Björn might do -- and Björn, after hesitating, agrees. In the morning, Björn rather regrets saying so much to Þórðr and thinks he may have trusted him overly...

And these misgivings prove -- after a few sentences and a voyage by sea -- to be all too well founded. Þórðr delivers Björn's message (that he still intends to return to marry Oddný) and gives her the ring -- but treacherously, he adds a false post-script to Björn's message and claims that Björn has made over the betrothal to him should he die or not return to Iceland. Meanwhile, Björn is sent to Russia where he wins a great duel but is badly wounded; by the time he gets back to Norway at the end of the next summer, three years have passed and he all the boats sailing to Iceland have left...Þórðr marries Oddný; Björn hears the news and won´t go back to Iceland now, preferring rather to go to England where he kills a dragon. Björn runs into Þórðr back in Norway on one occasion and vows to fight him next time they meet; only his respect for King Óláfr (who has come to power now) prevents him from challenging Þórðr to a duel immediately. Eventually, Björn does return home (as, 1000 years later, do most Icelanders abroad, unless they are útrásarvíkingar on the run). And the feud between Björn and Þórðr -- the subject of the rest of the saga -- begins in earnest.

At first, this feud is conducted verbally and the two men exchange insult verses in which they communicate accusations of cowardice and deviant sexual behaviour or origins, with escalating seriousness. On one occasion, a local man and his farmhand discuss the relative insulting value of the verses Björn and Þórðr have composed about each other while busy with the outdoor task of charcoal-burning. Björn had composed a poem called 'Grámagaflím' ('Grey-belly Satire') in which he describes how Þórðr's mother had eaten a slimy rotten fish she found by the side of a lake and thereby conceived Þórðr. The farmhand has never heard anything to rival this poem in the gravity of its insult but his master thinks the poem that Þórðr composed about Björn and which is known as 'Kolluvísur' ('Cow Verses') is worse. He won't recite it at first despite the farmhand's urging since if Björn hears anyone perform it aloud he will kill them without having to pay compensation, since the transmission of such insult 'níð' verses in medieval Iceland was prohibited by law. Eventually he gives in -- only for Björn to leap out from behind a tree and strike him a deadly blow...tantalisingly, we, as the readers of the saga, never get to judge the which of the two poems is the more scurrilous for ourselves.
The red track to Hítarvatn (looking south)
Eventually – after a series of physical confrontations, various characters’ deaths, and some bad dreams which trouble Björn and anticpate his approaching death – Þórðr and a band of men travel to the end of Hítárdalur where Björn’s farm, Hólmr, is situtated beside the lake (Hítárvatn). I spent a night here, following a winding up-and-down, and sometimes bright red, track past the last farm in the valley and through lava-fields and bare sandy stretches. It’s sheep round-up time in the saga (as it was when I was in the area) and Þórðr’s men divide up into three groups of six, not knowing which route Björn will be taking, but covering each path. Björn decides to go out to trim the manes on some horses: he won’t let his bad dreams dictate his actions and he ignores his wife’s pleading to stay at home. Björn and a boy cross the river where it runs out of the lake and walk the path towards where the horses are, at Hvítingshjalli (so-named after one of Björn’s horses, Hvítingr; ‘-hjalli’ is a shelf or ledge along a mountain-side – I looked over towards this place from where I parked the ambulance overnight). The boy sees six men come towards them; “I’m going to hunt that bear (björn) that we all want to catch”, cries one of the men.

Björn won’t run and he sends the boy away after the horses; there is a bloody fight and Björn defends himself strongly killing some of his opponents. Other attackers arrive, including Þórðr (and a boy, who is nominally Þórðr’s and Oddný’s son, but actually fathered by Björn), and Björn continues to fight using the shears he brought out with him to cut the horses’ manes. I wonder whether Björn was the prototype for Edward Scissorhands... All marvel at Björn’s valiant defence but eventually Þórðr causes Björn to fall and he then chops off Björn’s head. It was sobering to think of such merciless violence being conducted in this now-deserted place; thoughts about Björn’s death, coupled with the slightly oppressive silence of the place, made the night I spent there a rather cold and dark one.

Þórðr, having decapitated Björn, ties the head to his saddle and rides back to Björn’s farm where he announces news of Björn’s death to his wife, and then to Vellir, about half-way down the valley, where Björn’s parents live. In a scene which has a close parallel with Grettis saga (and Grettir’s enemy throwing Grettir’s head at his mother’s feet, see post of September 11th), Þórðr casts Björn’s head before his mother. “I recognise the head,” says Björn’s mother, “And you may recognise it too because you were often terrified by the same head before, when it was attached to its body” (“Kenni ek höfuðit ... ok kenn mættir þú, því at fyrir inu sama höfði gekktu optliga hræddr, meðan þat fylgði bolnum”, Bjarnar saga ch. 33, p. 205). When Oddný hears of Þórðr's killing of Björn she grieves and dies herself shortly afterwards...

Hítárvatn; Hvítingshjalli on the left-hand shore

Driving back down Hítárdalur the next morning, I stopped to walk along the river in search of some stones that form a chain across the river known variously as 'Grettisstikklur' or 'Grettisstillur' (‘Grettir’s stepping- or leaping-stones’). In chapter 19 of Bjarnar saga, and chapter 61 of Grettis saga, mention is made of how Grettir, on the run as an outlaw, spends time hiding out in a lair ('Grettisbæli') on the mountain Fagraskógarfjall, on the western side of Hítárdalur, not far from Vellir, where Björn lived when he was not further up the valley at Hólmr. Björn and Grettir try each other’s strength and are said to be equally strong; on one occasion, they entertain themselves by hauling these stones into the river ‘which have never been moved since, neither by the power of flooding water, nor ice-floes, nor glacial flooding’ (er aldri síðan hefir ór rekit, hvárki með vatnavöxtum né ísalögum eða jöklagangi, Grettis saga, Íslenzk fornrit 7, ed. Guðni Jónsson, p. 188). A note in the edition of Grettis saga comments that these huge stones could never have been arranged thus by humans and must be a natural phenomenon – but then again, for better or worse, they don’t make men like Grettir or Björn nowadays...



  1. Hi Emily,
    You don't know me but I have just discovered both the sagas and your blog and just wanted to say thanks for all the helpful info on here. I'm reading my first saga, Laxdaela, at the moment. Enjoyed your posts on Unnr. Greetings from the Hebrides
    Felicity Hansen (Isle of Mull)

  2. Probably "Gettisstiklur". "Að stikla" means to skip, or
    jump between elements, such as rocks.