The Story of Grettir the Strong, by William Morris

Preface.

We do not feel able to take in hand the wide subject of the Sagas of Iceland within the limits of a Preface; therefore we have only to say that we put forward this volume as the translation of an old story founded on facts, full of dramatic interest, and setting before people's eyes pictures of the life and manners of an interesting race of men near akin to ourselves.

Those to whom the subject is new, we must refer to the translations already made of some other of these works,1 and to the notes which accompany them: a few notes at the end of this volume may be of use to students of Saga literature.

For the original tale we think little apology is due; that it holds a very high place among the Sagas of Iceland no student of that literature will deny; of these we think it yields only to the story of Njal and his sons, a work in our estimation to be placed beside the few great works of the world. Our Saga is fuller and more complete than the tale of the other great outlaw Gisli; less frightful than the wonderfully characteristic and strange history of Egil, the son of Skallagrim; as personal and dramatic as that of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue, if it lack the rare sentiment of that beautiful story; with more detail and consistency, if with less variety, than the history of Gudrun and her lovers in the Laxdaela; and more a work of art than that, or than the unstrung gems of Eyrbyggja, and the great compilation of Snorri Sturluson, the History of the Kings of Norway.

At any rate, we repeat, whatever place among the best Sagas may be given to Grettla2 by readers of such things, it must of necessity be held to be one of the best in all ways; nor will those, we hope, of our readers who have not yet turned their attention to the works written in the Icelandic tongue, fail to be moved more or less by the dramatic power and eager interest in human character, shown by our story-teller; we say, we hope, but we are sure that no one of insight will disappoint us in this, when he has once accustomed himself to the unusual, and, if he pleases, barbarous atmosphere of these ancient stories.

As some may like to know what they are going to read about before venturing on beginning the book, we will now give a short outline of our Saga.

The first thirteen chapters (which sometimes are met with separately in the Icelandic as the Saga of Onund Treefoot), we have considered as an introduction to the story, and have accordingly distinguished them from the main body of the book. They relate the doings of Grettir's ancestors in Norway, in the lands West over the Sea and in Iceland, and are interesting and in many points necessary for the understanding of the subsequent story; one of these we note here for the reader's convenience, viz. the consanguinity of Grettir and King Olaf the Saint;3 for it adds strongly to the significance of the King's refusal to entertain Grettir at his court, or to go further into the case of the murder he was falsely accused of.

The genealogies of this part of the work agree closely with those of the Landnáma-bók, and of the other most reliable Sagas.

After this comes the birth of Grettir, and anecdotes (one at least sufficiently monstrous) of his unruly childhood; then our hero kills his first man by misadventure, and must leave Iceland; wrecked on an isle off Norway, he is taken in there by a lord of that land, and there works the deed that makes him a famous man; the slaying of the villainous bearserks, namely, who would else have made wreck of the honour and goods of Grettir's host in his absence; this great deed, we should say, is prefaced by Grettir's first dealings with the supernatural, which characterise this Saga, and throw a strange light on the more ordinary matters throughout. The slaying of the bearserks is followed by a feud which Grettir has on his hands for the slaying of a braggart who insulted him past bearing, and so great the feud grows that Grettir at last finds himself at enmity with Earl Svein, the ruler of Norway, and, delivered from death by his friends, yet has to leave the land and betake himself to Iceland again. Coming back there, and finding himself a man of great fame, and hungry, for more still, he tries to measure himself against the greatest men in the land, but nothing comes of these trials, for he is being reserved for a greater deed than the dealing with mere men; his enemy is Glam the thrall; the revenant of a strange, unearthly man who was himself killed by an evil spirit; Grettir contends with, and slays, this monster, whose dying curse on him is the turning-point of the story.

All seems fair for our hero, his last deed has made him the foremost man in Iceland, and news now coming out of Olaf the Saint, his relative, being King of Norway, he goes thither to get honour at his hands; but Glam's curse works; Grettir gains a powerful enemy by slaying an insulting braggart just as he was going on ship-board; and on the voyage it falls out that in striving to save the life of his shipmates by a desperate action, he gets the reputation of having destroyed the sons of a powerful Icelander, Thorir of Garth, with their fellows. This evil report clings to him when he lands in Norway; and all people, including the King from whom he hoped so much, look coldly on him. Now he offers to free himself from the false charge by the ordeal of bearing hot iron; the King assents, and all is ready; but Glam is busy, and some strange appearance in the church, where the ordeal is to be, brings all to nothing; and the foreseeing Olaf refuses to take Grettir into his court, because of his ill-luck. So he goes to his brother, Thorstein Dromund, for a while, and then goes back to Iceland. But there, too, his ill-luck had been at work, and when he lands he hears three pieces of bad news at once; his father is dead; his eldest brother, Atli, is slain and unatoned; and he himself has been made an outlaw, by Thorir of Garth, for a deed he has never done.

He avenges his brother, and seeks here and there harbour from his friends, but his foes are too strong for him, or some unlucky turn of fate always pushes him off the help of men, and he has to take to the wilderness with a price upon his head; and now the other part of the curse falls on him heavier, for ever after the struggle with the ghost he sees horrible things in the dark, and cannot bear to be alone, and runs all kinds of risks to avoid it; and so the years of his outlawry pass on. From time to time, driven by need, and rage at his unmerited ill-fortune, he takes to plundering those who cannot hold their own; at other times he lives alone, and supports himself by fishing, and is twice nearly brought to his end by hired assassins the while. Sometimes he dwells with the friendly spirits of the land, and chiefly with Hallmund, his friend, who saves his life in one of the desperate fights he is forced into. But little by little all fall off from him; his friends durst harbour him no more, or are slain. Hallmund comes to a tragic end; Grettir is driven from his lairs one after the other, and makes up his mind to try, as a last resource, to set himself down on the island of Drangey, which rises up sheer from the midst of Skagafirth like a castle; he goes to his father's house, and bids farewell to his mother, and sets off for Drangey in the company of his youngest brother, Illugi, who will not leave him in this pinch, and a losel called "Noise," a good joker (we are told), but a slothful, untrustworthy poltroon. The three get out to Drangey, and possess themselves of the live-stock on it, and for a while all goes well; the land-owners who held the island in shares, despairing of ridding themselves of the outlaw, give their shares or sell them to one Thorbiorn Angle, a man of good house, but violent, unpopular, and unscrupulous. This man, after trying the obvious ways of persuasion, cajolery, and assassination, for getting the island into his hands, at last, with the help of a certain hag, his foster-mother, has recourse to sorcery. By means of her spells (as the story goes) Grettir wounds himself in the leg in the third year of his sojourn at Drangey, and though the wound speedily closes, in a week or two gangrene supervenes, and Grettir, at last, lies nearly helpless, watched continually by his brother Illugi. The losel, "Noise," now that the brothers can no more stir abroad, will not take the trouble to pull up the ladders that lead from the top of the island down to the beach; and, amidst all this, helped by a magic storm the sorceress has raised, Thorbiorn Angle, with a band of men, surprises the island, unroofs the hut of the brothers, and gains ingress there, and after a short struggle (for Grettir is already a dying man) slays the great outlaw and captures Illugi in spite of a gallant defence; he, too, disdaining to make any terms with the murderers of his brother, is slain, and Angle goes away exulting, after he had mutilated the body of Grettir, with the head on which so great a price had been put, and the sword which the dead man had borne.

But now that the mighty man was dead, and people were relieved of their fear of him, the minds of men turned against him who had overcome him in a way, according to their notions, so base and unworthy, and Angle has no easy time of it; he fails to get the head-money, and is himself brought to trial for sorcery and practising heathen rites, and the 'nithings-deed' of slaying a man already dying, and is banished from the land.

Now comes the part so necessary to the Icelandic tale of a hero, the revenging of his death; Angle goes to Norway, and is thought highly of for his deed by people who did not know the whole tale; but Thorstein Dromund, an elder half-brother of Grettir, is a lord in that land, and Angle, knowing of this, feels uneasy in Norway, and at last goes away to Micklegarth (Constantinople), to take service with the Varangians: Thorstein hears of this and follows him, and both are together at last in Micklegarth, but neither knows the other: at last Angle betrays himself by showing Grettir's sword, at a 'weapon-show' of the Varangians, and Thorstein slays him then and there with the same weapon. Thorstein alone in a strange land, with none to speak for him, is obliged to submit to the laws of the country, and is thrown into a dungeon to perish of hunger and wretchedness there. From this fate he is delivered by a great lady of the city, called Spes, who afterwards falls in love with him; and the two meet often in spite of the watchful jealousy of the lady's husband, who is at last so completely conquered by a plot of hers (the sagaman here has taken an incident with little or no change from the Romance of Tristram and Iseult), that he is obliged to submit to a divorce and the loss of his wife's dower, and thereafter the lovers go away together to Norway, and live there happily till old age reminds them of their misdeeds, and they then set off together for Rome and pass the rest of their lives in penitence and apart from one another. And so the story ends, summing up the worth of Grettir the Strong by reminding people of his huge strength, his long endurance in outlawry, his gift for dealing with ghosts and evil spirits, the famous vengeance taken for him in Micklegarth; and, lastly, the fortunate life and good end of Thorstein Dromund, his brother and avenger.

Such is the outline of this tale of a man far above his fellows in all matters valued among his times and people, but also far above them all in ill-luck, for that is the conception that the story-teller has formed of the great outlaw. To us moderns the real interest in these records of a past state of life lies principally in seeing events true in the main treated vividly and dramatically by people who completely understood the manners, life, and, above all, the turn of mind of the actors in them. Amidst many drawbacks, perhaps, to the modern reader, this interest is seldom or ever wanting in the historical sagas, and least of all in our present story; the sagaman never relaxes his grasp of Grettir's character, and he is the same man from beginning to end; thrust this way and that by circumstances, but little altered by them; unlucky in all things, yet made strong to bear all ill-luck; scornful of the world, yet capable of enjoyment, and determined to make the most of it; not deceived by men's specious ways, but disdaining to cry out because he must needs bear with them; scorning men, yet helping them when called on, and desirous of fame: prudent in theory, and wise in foreseeing the inevitable sequence of events, but reckless beyond the recklessness even of that time and people, and finally capable of inspiring in others strong affection and devotion to him in spite of his rugged self-sufficing temper — all these traits which we find in our sagaman's Grettir seem always the most suited to the story of the deeds that surround him, and to our mind most skilfully and dramatically are they suggested to the reader.

As is fitting, the other characters are very much subordinate to the principal figure, but in their way they are no less life-like; the braggart — that inevitable foil to the hero in a saga — was never better represented than in the Gisli of our tale; the thrall Noise, with his carelessness, and thriftless, untrustworthy mirth, is the very pattern of a slave; Snorri the Godi, little though there is of him, fully sustains the prudent and crafty character which follows him in all the Sagas; Thorbiorn Oxmain is a good specimen of the overbearing and sour chief, as is Atli, on the other hand, of the kindly and high-minded, if prudent, rich man; and no one, in short, plays his part like a puppet, but acts as one expects him to act, always allowing the peculiar atmosphere of these tales; and to crown all, as the story comes to its end, the high-souled and poetically conceived Illugi throws a tenderness on the dreadful story of the end of the hero, contrasted as it is with that of the gloomy, superstitious Angle.

Something of a blot, from some points of view, the story of Spes and Thorstein Dromund (of which more anon) must be considered; yet whoever added it to the tale did so with some skill considering its incongruous and superfluous nature, for he takes care that Grettir shall not be forgotten amidst all the plots and success of the lovers; and, whether it be accidental or not, there is to our minds something touching in the contrast between the rude life and tragic end of the hero, and the long, drawn out, worldly good hap and quiet hopes for another life which fall to the lot of his happier brother.

As to the authorship of our story, it has no doubt gone through the stages which mark the growth of the Sagas in general, that is, it was for long handed about from mouth to mouth until it took a definite shape in men's minds; and after it had held that position for a certain time, and had received all the necessary polish for an enjoyable saga, was committed to writing as it flowed ready made from the tongue of the people. Its style, in common with that of all the sagas, shows evidences enough of this: for the rest, the only name connected with it is that of Sturla Thordson the Lawman, a man of good position and family, and a prolific author, who was born in 1214 and died 1284; there is, however, no proof that he wrote the present work, though we think the passages in it that mention his name show clearly enough that he had something to do with the story of Grettir: on the whole, we are inclined to think that a story of Grettir was either written by him or under his auspices, but that the present tale is the work of a later hand, nor do we think so complete a saga-teller, as his other undoubted works show him to have been, would ever have finished his story with the epilogue of Spes and Thorstein Dromund, steeped as that latter part is with the spirit of the mediaeval romances, even to the distinct appropriation of a marked and well-known episode of the Tristram; though it must be admitted that he had probably plenty of opportunity for being versed in that romance, as Tristram was first translated into the tongue of Norway in the year 1226, by Brother Robert, at the instance of King Hakon Hakonson, whose great favourite Sturla Thordson was, and whose history was written by him.

For our translation of this work we have no more to say than to apologise for its shortcomings, and to hope, that in spite of them, it will give some portion of the pleasure to our readers which we felt in accomplishing it ourselves.

Eiríkr Magnússon, William Morris.

London, April 1869.

1 Such as 'Burnt Njal,' Edinburgh, 1861, 8vo, and 'Gisli the Outlaw,' Edinburgh, 1866, 4to, by Dasent; the 'Saga of Viga-Glum,' London, 1866, 8vo, by Sir E. Head; the 'Heimskringla,' London, 1844, 8vo, by S. Laing; the 'Eddas,' Prose by Dasent, Stockholm, 1842; Poetic by A.S. Cottle, Bristol, 1797, and Thorpe, London and Halle, 1866; the 'Three Northern Love Stories,' translated by Magnússon and Morris, London, 1875, and 'The Volsunga Saga,' translated by the same, London, 1870.

2 Such is the conversational title of this Saga; many of the other Sagas have their longer title abbreviated in a like manner: Egil's saga becomes Egla, Njal's saga Njála; Eyrbyggja saga, Laxdaela saga, Vatnsdaeela saga, Reykdaela saga, Svarfdaela saga, become Eyrbyggja, Laxdaela, Vatnsdaela, Reykdaela, Svarfdaela (gen. plur. masc. of daelir, dale-dwellers, is forced into a fem. sing. regularly declined, saga being understood); furthermore, Landnáma bók (landnáma, gen. pl. neut.) the book of land settlings, becomes Landnáma (fem. sing. regularly declined, bók being understood); lastly, Sturlunga saga, the Saga of the mighty family of the Sturlungs, becomes Sturlunga in the same manner.

3

Onund Treefoot brother to Gudbiorg
|                        |
Thorgrim Greypate Gudbrand
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Asmund the Greyhaired Asta (mother of)
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Grettir the Strong. Olaf the Saint.

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