Translated by Bernard Scudder, Edited with an introduction and notes by Ornolfur Thorsson, Penguin, 2005.
Illustration: Grettir the Strong
from a seventeenth century manuscript
in the Arni Magnusson Institute, Iceland
This saga takes place in the eleventh century, and was probably written near the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, around the 16th century. It is possibly one of the bloodier sagas, with people being killed for all of the typical reasons: insults, revenge, theft, revenge, a little temper tantrum, fights with trolls and ghosts, revenge. But there is more of it in this saga, because Grettir...well, Grettir just isn't very socially adjusted. He is the strongest man in Iceland and much of Norway, but he never learns from his mistakes. He can sometimes forsee his future, but is unable to change it. Which is to say, he is unwilling or unable to change himself. What more dire future could a person face?
Grettir takes a "saga tour" of Iceland during his long period of outlawry; many vignettes of historical places, figures and tales are interwoven into Grettir's story. It contains violence, magic, feats of strength, passion and lust, and humor. The bulk of the story is made up of Grettir losing his temper, killing someone (or many someones), and being driven off somewhere else because, surprisingly, he makes people nervous. However the last quarter of the book really picks up as Grettir begins his exile on Drangey Island with his brother Illugi and servant Glaum.
Drangey Island is the ideal spot for an outlaw. In Grettir's time it was jointly owned by several landholders, and populated only by sheep. The only way to ascend the steep cliffs that protected the island from intruders was, and is, by way of a ladder. Grettir and his companions attained the summit, pulled up the ladder, and had enough lamb to last them several years, to say nothing of natural spring water and a limitless supply of birds for meat and eggs. The landowners were entirely helpless to rescue their sheep or their land, or to evict Grettir.
The story of how Grettir was overcome and outwitted involves many individuals over many years. It culminates in a crone, or witch, who places a curse on him. When Grettir realizes what she has done, he hurls a rock over the cliff of Drangey at the woman, resulting in this typically wry dialogue:
A great shriek was heard. The rock had hit the old woman on her thigh and broken it.
Then Illugi said, 'I wish you hadn't done that.'
'Don't find fault with me for that,' Grettir said, 'but it disturbs me that it didn't hit her hard enough, because a crone's life wouldn't be too great a price to pay for both of ours.'
'How could she pay for us?' asked Illugi. 'That wouldn't make us worth much.'
Although this saga deals primarily with outlaws and warriors, near the end of the story some selfless and honorable characters emerge, in some surprising places. Another really intriguing aspect of the tale is that so many of the physical places where events occured are identifiable places that can be visited, such as Grettir's Lift, Drangey Island, Haerring's Leap, and Grettir's Pool.
We plan to visit them all, just a few weeks from now.