Monsters and otherworldly powers are a real danger to the Icelandic saga-hero. Many an Icelander has to deal with ghosts, with trolls, with the undead, or contest with witch’s curses. There are few who have to deal with more monsters than Grettir Ásmundarson (also know as ‘the Strong’), a historical outlaw with a mythologised past. Today I am going to look at three episodes of Grettir’s fighting monsters as he works to clear Iceland of its monstrous inhabitants. Grettir is not always loved or loveable, but he performs a function in a newly Christianised Iceland that other men do not seem able to perform. Grettir alone stands against to monsters. Or rather, Grettir is the only one who seeks them out, as we shall see in each case – the fight against the undead mound-dweller Kar the Old; the famous battle with the revenant Glam; and a fight to the death with a troll-wife and her ‘friend.’ And these are but a sampling of the monsters and monstrous available in Grettis saga! I will be looking at some of the similarities between the tales, the function of the tropes, and what I think the author is up to. However, my main focus today will be on storytelling and, while this is a rather long article, I anticipate it will be an entertaining one!
First, however, we need to get something out of the way.
For those of you acquainted with a certain Old English epic poem, you are going to feel a sense of familiarity in two of these tales – Glaum and the troll-wife – tales of monstrous hall invaders. Beyond these individual episodes, there are numerous story elements in which Grettis saga parallels Beowulf (Grettir, for example, is super-strong and an amazing swimmer), and scholars have long tried to pin down the relationship between the two texts. True enough, in detail there are differences between the episodes, and these have been explored in some depth by Magnús Fjalldal in his book, The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection Between Beowulf and Grettir’s Saga; clearly Magnús doubts any genetic relationship between the texts. Yet coincidence is hardly a convincing or satisfying thesis. Getting caught up in the varied minutia is to ignore both that the basic narrative elements of these episodes across the texts remain unchanged, and that authors are free to adapt motifs within their stories. Any similarities of motif are far more likely to derive from a common genetic source than mere coincidence, while any dissimilarities can be explained by narrative shifts and alterations resulting from the authorial selections of first oral, then literary tradition. On that latter point, bearing in mind that Grettis saga and Beowulf were written at a remove of four-hundred years and four-thousand kilometres from one-another, it would be astonishing to find that the fourteenth-century Grettis saga maintained identical tropes to Beowulf. But my intent here was not to get lost in Grettir v. Beowulf! It is enough to understand that, while there seems little doubt that an outlaw named Grettir Ásmundarson was a famed historical figure of eleventh-century Iceland, his life as it comes to us has been overlaid with the motifs of a heroic tradition.
Enough! To the stories! To the monsters!
Kar the Old, the Mound Dweller
Mound-dwellers will be recognisable to fans on the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien drawing upon the Old Norse undead inhabitants of burial mounds for his ‘barrow wights.’ Essentially, we are looking at dead men, usually those who had led a less than ideal life, who haunt the areas near their mounds.
At this point of the saga, Grettir is in his first outlawry – a minor outlawry requiring exile of three years, and he is in Norway staying on an island with a land-owner named Thorfinn. Thorfinn’s father, Kar the Old, has frightened away most of the inhabitants of the island who are not in the direct employ of Thorfinn. The interesting thing is that Kar is dead. One evening Grettir notices flames erupting in the distance from Kar’s barrow and, being a heroic adventurer type, decides that the next day he would go explore the mound with a terrified farmer in tow…
Then Grettir went into the mound; it was dark there and not at all sweet-smelling. Now he looked around to see what the place was like. He found some horse’s bones and then he bumped into the back of a chair and found that there was a man sitting on the chair. There was a great deal of valuables in gold and silver heaped together and there was a chest set under the man’s feet full of silver. Grettir took all this treasure and carried it to the rope, and when he was going to the entrance someone took hold of him firmly. Then he let go of the treasure and turned towards the man and they began to wrestle rather roughly. Everything near them was thrust out of the way; the mound-dweller attacked fiercely. Grettir gave way for a long time and it came to the point that he realised that it was no good holding back. Now neither spared the other; they dragged each other to where the horse-bones were; they struggled with each other among them for a long time and each of them at various times began to get the worst of it, but the end of it was that the mound-dweller fell on his back and this made a great crash. Then Audun abandoned the rope and thought that Grettir must be dead. Now Grettir drew his sword ‘Iokulsnaut’[Ættartangi] and struck the mound-dweller on the neck, cutting off his head; he placed it by his rump. Then Grettir went to the rope with the treasure but Audun had gone right away, so he had to pull himself up the rope by his hands. He had tied the treasure in a noose and pulled it up afterwards. Grettir had become very stiff from his dealings with Kar; now he went back to Thorfinn’s farm with the treasure … There was one object of value there that Grettir had particularly got his eye on; this was a cutlass, such a good weapon that he said he had never seen a better.
There are some interesting things here, but this is primarily intended as narrative through which Grettir earns the sword with which he would forge his legend and clear Iceland of its monsters. It is notable that Grettir wins this fight with a sword that has its own provenance – Ættartangi, the sword of the Vatnsdal chieftains. But it is not in the interest of the Grettis saga author to have his protagonist reliant on the legacies of his forebears – this sword links Grettir to the legends of the past, but with his looted sword in hand he will forge his own future.
Glam the Revenant
This story is a little in-depth, but it is perhaps the climatic episode of the saga. A wealthy farmer named Thorhall has a haunting problem on his farm, and had a problem getting shepherds to work for him. Finally he settles on an ornery Swede by the name of Glam who, upon being told the farm was haunted, declared ‘I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I will find it the less boring.’ Suffice it to say that Glam should be afraid of ghosts, and Thorhall should have just settled for a comfortable level of haunting, because things are going to get much worse.
On Christmas Eve Glam prepares to go out shepherding, and demands food from the farmer’s wife as he leaves. The farmer’s wife indicates that they usually fast on that day, Glam derides her superstition an eats despite the wife’s warning that ‘I know for sure that it will go ill for you today if you go ahead with this wicked act.’ It certainly went ill. As the rest of the farm was at church, a severe storm came over, Glam did not return from his work, and farm-hands were unable to search for him until the next day. We do not know how Glam died, but it was not a natural death. His body is described as dead and blue as Hel and swollen up like an ox, nauseating to the searchers. Three times they tried to move his body to the church yard for burial, first they could not move it by hand, then they could not move it by oxen, and finally the dead Glam hid when they brought a priest along. Later they heaped stones over him and moved on with their lives. Fortunately, as the locals believed, Glam dealt whatever creature had attacked him its death blow before he himself succumbed. Unfortunately, Glam would prove to be a far worse monster.
Over the next year, Thorhall managed to find another socially awkward yet fearless shepherd who did his job with aplomb and little trouble. Until the next Christmas Eve. With the farmer’s wife’s words ‘I hope it is not going to happen all over again’ ringing in his ears. It did. The next day the shepherd was found near Glam’ cairn: his neck was broken and every bone in his body smashed. While this man was successfully taken to the church for a proper burial, this murder was the catalyst for Glam’s reign of terror. His depredations drove everyone from the farm except for the farmer, his wife, and the herdsman. Once the herdsman was killed by Glam in the barn, his back broken, even the farmer and his wife fled, leaving Glam to kill every animal left behind. It was now that Grettir heard of events and thought to try his hand at another monster-slaying. Grettir at this point is not an outlaw, but it is the curse that Glam utters at the end of this passage that seems to drive him toward his outlawry. Grettir’s first night at the Thorhall’s farm was uneventful, the second night his horse was smashed to pieces, and we pick up with events on the third night.
So the day passed by, and when it was time for bed, Grettir would not undress and lay down on the platform opposite the farmer’s bedcloset. He put a fur poncho over himself and he wrapped one edge down under his feet and the other under his head and looked out through the head-hole … when the door opened, Grettir saw the villain stretch in its head and it seemed to him enormously big and amazingly large-featured. Glam moved slowly and straightened up when he got inside the door. He towered high up into the roof, turned towards the hall and laid his arms up on the cross-beam and leaned in over the hall … Grettir lay quiet and did not move. Glam saw that some sort of heap lay on the platform and he made his way in down the hall and took hold of the poncho rather hard. Grettir pushed against the platform support and it did not move. Glam jerked again much harder and the poncho held firm. A third time he pulled it with both hands so hard that he pulled Grettir up from the platform. They now ripped the poncho in two between them. Glam looked at the bit he was holding on to and wondered greatly who could be pulling so hard against him. And at that moment Grettir leapt under his arms and took him round the middle and pressed against his back as hard as he could and intended that Glam should bend over backwards, but the villain pushed at Grettir’s arms so hard that he was forced to give way by the superior strength … Glam wanted to get outside, but Grettir dug in his heels wherever he could and still Glam managed to drag him out to the entrance … And when Grettir sees that he cannot hold back with his feet, he does two things at once, he leaps as hard as he can into the villain’s embrace and kicks back with both feet at a stone partburied in the ground that stood on the threshold. The villain was not expecting this. He had been struggling to pull Grettir towards himself, and so Glam toppled over backwards and was flung in reverse out against the doorway so that his shoulders caught the lintel and the roof gave way, both the beams and the frozen thatch. Thus he fell face upwards and backwards outside the building with Grettir on top of him
There was bright moonlight outside and gaps in the heavy cloud. Sometimes it clouded over and sometimes it cleared away. At the moment Glam fell, the cloud cleared from the moon and Glam glared up at it and Grettir himself has said that this was the only sight he ever saw that took him aback. Then he felt so weakened by everything, his weariness and seeing Glam squint at him fiercely, that he was unable to draw his cutlass and lay just about between life and death. And such was the greater power of evil in Glam than in most other revenants that he then spoke as follows: ‘You have displayed great zeal, Grettir,’ he said, ‘in seeking me out, and it will not seem surprising if you don’t gain a great deal of good fortune from your encounter with me. But I can tell you this, that you have now acquired half the strength and development that was intended for you if you had not met me. I cannot now deprive you of the strength that you have already acquired, but I can ensure that you never become any stronger than you are now, and yet even now you are strong enough, as many will find out to their cost. You have become renowned up to now for your deeds, but from now on you will become guilty of crimes and deeds of violence, and nearly everything you do will lead to your misfortune and failure. You will be made outlaw and be compelled always to live in the open on your own. I also lay this upon you that these eyes of mine will be always before your sight, and you will find it hard to be alone and this will bring you to your death.’
What a curse! What a moment! This is one of the most famous passages in the saga, and Glam’s curse certainly predicts the turn Grettir’s life is to take. Grettir then cuts Glam’s head off…
There is in this passage, and more widely in this episode, an interesting mix of Christian and pagan motifs, which I will look at more in-depth in the next section. Notably, a Christian festival apparently provides a key motivation for the activities of monsters that do not normally form a part of the framework of Christian belief. It is also of note that while transgressing the expectations of Christian practice may bring evil down upon you, adhering to them seems to be no guarantee of protection.
And yes, the parallels to Beowulf are explicit. And they will only get more so…
The Troll-Wife, and the Ugly Troll-Wife’s Friend
At the time this event takes place, Grettir has long been an outlaw, but he has also garnered a reputation as hunter of monsters – the saga declaring that he was very good at getting rid of hauntings and the activities of revenants. Naturally then, upon hearing that the region of Sandhaugar had become troll-haunted, Grettir travelled there under a pseudonym in order to test himself against the creatures.
I have saved this as our last story as here we see a number of recycled motifs from the previous two events. As in the Glam episode, the hauntings have a particular association with Christmas. The first troll attack took place on a Christmas Eve when a young farmer was snatched from his home while his wife (Steinvor) was at church, while Grettir’s arrival in the region coincided with the Christmas Eve two years later, and he was attacked that night. Upon arriving in Sandhaugar, Grettir had sought out the bereaved Steinvor and, replicating the events surrounding the disappearance her husband, Grettir stayed in while she went to church. Like Beowulf waiting for Grendel (or that roguish Grettir waiting for Glam), Grettir settled down in the hall to pretend to sleep…
Now this is to be told about Grettir, that when it got close to midnight he heard great clatterings outside. Next there came into the room a great trollwife. She had a trencher in her hand, and in the other rather a big machete. She looked round when she got in and saw where [Grettir] was lying and leapt at him and he up against her and they attacked each other fiercely and fought for a long time in the room. She was the stronger, but he gave ground cleverly and everything that got in their way they broke, even the cross-partition at the end of the room. She dragged him out past the doorway and so into the farm-house entrance. There he resisted strongly. She was trying to drag him out of the farmhouse, but she could not do this until they had pulled down all the door-frame and carried it out on their shoulders. She struggled then down to the river and right out to the edge of the gorge … when they got to the river gorge, he swung the giantess round off her feet. At that moment he got his right arm free. He then grasped quickly for the cutlass he was girded with and drew it, and struck then at the troll’s shoulder so that it took off her right arm, and so he got free, and she threw herself into the gorge and so into the waterfall. Guest was then both stiff and tired and lay there for a long time on the cliff edge. Then when it began to get light he went back to the house and lay down in bed. He was all swollen and blue.
When Steinvor returned home she was most impressed by the hero who had vanquished the troll and destroyed her home and, when the local priest arrived shortly after, it was soon divined that the anonymous hero was the outlaw Grettir. In what follows, I read the priest as using this discovery to his own ends, pressuring the unmasked Grettir to go down into the gorge to try find what became of the missing farmer. The priest does not explicitly threaten to expose Grettir to regional chieftains or law-makers, but there seems to be an implicit threat as the priest casts doubt on Grettir’s account of the fight, stating that he would not be able to put any faith in Grettir’s account if there was no evidence for it to be seen. If Grettir does not have evidence, does he have value to the community?
The second part of the narrative as Grettir ventures into the gorge has significant parallels to the Kar episode. Grettir brings a gormless companion (the priest) to stand ready to pull him from the depths, but who flees as Grettir is drawn into a subterranean battle for his life, leaving Grettir to drag himself up back into the living world with treasure in tow. Further, as in Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (or the contest of that brave hero Grettir with Karr the Old) we will see that swords are standard wall decorations in the lairs of monsters…
Then [Grettir] leapt off the cliff and down into the waterfall. The priest saw the soles of his feet and knew nothing of what happened to him afterwards. Grettir dived under the waterfall … there was a great cave there under the waterfall and the river fell in front of it off the cliff. He then went into the cave and there was a great fire on a pile of burning logs. Grettir saw a horribly big giant lying there. He was terrifying to see. And when Grettir approached him the giant leapt up and grasped a long weapon and struck at the intruder, for one could both strike and thrust with it … Grettir struck back with his cutlass and it hit the shaft so that it went in two. The giant was then about to reach back behind himself for a sword that was hanging there in the cave. At that moment Grettir struck him from the front in the chest so that it practically took off all the ribs and belly so that his innards were flung out of him down into the river, and they were swept down along the river. And while the priest was sitting by the rope he saw some shreds being carried down along in the current, all bloody. He was then no longer rooted to the spot and felt certain that Grettir must be dead. He ran then from the holdfast and went home. Evening had then come and [the priest] said for certain that Grettir was dead and said that such a man was a great loss.
Now it is to be said about Grettir, that he struck one blow after another until the giant was dead. Then Grettir went further in along the cave. He lit a lamp and explored the cave. It is not told how much wealth he got in the cave, but people think it must have been a great deal. He was occupied there on into the night. He found there the bones of two men and put them in a bag. He then made his way out of the cave and swam to the rope and shook it and was expecting the priest to be there, but when he realised that the priest had gone home he had to haul himself up the rope and so got up onto the cliff.
After these events Grettir leaves the bones with the priest, spending the winter protected by the community he had liberated from its monsters. It is Grettir’s last pleasant winter. The outlaw-hero leaves Sandhaugar and, though Grettir has years of life left, the saga begins the inexorable journey toward his death – cursed by a witch and cut down in his infirmity by the witch’s reprehensible foster-son.
As a concluding note, I want to draw attention to the delicate balance the saga author is striking between Christian moral values and religious expectations, and the integrity of regional traditions and beliefs. Firstly, it should be noted that the author displays no scepticism toward the monsters he is describing. They are, however, placed within a Christian framework, one which they routinely transgress as entities that exist outside Christian mythologies. Good Christians go to church on Christmas Eve or the monsters of the past attack them in the night. Good Christians are buried in church-yards, lest they too become the monster that haunt the landscape. Yet Grettir does not go to church, but he does know the bones of dead men belong in a church-yard. Grettir operates between the Christian and pagan worlds, and I think that is intentional on the part of the saga author. Grettir is a transitional figure, a hero like the pagan heroes of old and therefore unwelcomed and outlawed in a Christian Iceland. Yet a hero of old is exactly what Iceland requires to cleanse the landscape for its Christian future, and it is a role in which Grettir performs admirably.
- Feature image: Eric Fraser, 1961 – ‘The Saga of Grettir the Strong’
- Magnús Fjalldal, The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection Between ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Grettis saga,‘ Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
- Magnus Magnusson, The Icelandic Sagas, volume 2, London: Folio Society, 2002.
- ‘The Saga of Grettir,’ in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas, edited and translated by J. M. Dent, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2004. [Translations drawn from this text].
- Dean Swinford, ‘Form and Representation in Beowulf and Grettis saga,’ Neophilologus 86 (No. 4, 2002), pp. 613 – 620.
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