Gisli Sursson's Saga, translated by Martin S. Regal. Pgs. 496-557. In The Saga's of Icelanders: A Selection, preface by Jane Smiley, introduction by Robert Kellog. New York: Viking, 2000. 782 pgs.
To paraphrase Pete ("I've never met a dessert I didn't like"), I've never met an Icelandic saga I didn't love. But I haven't read them all yet.
Gisli came up next on my list as the logical beginning of what will be, for me, a trilogy. Part two, which I have just begun, is Overing and Osborn's Landscape of Desire, which features a chapter on the Saga of Grettir. Part three is a Master's Thesis, written by Lisa Brewer, "No one guessed who I was when I came here this morning: Humor as political subversion in the Medieval Icelandic outlaw sagas of Gisli and Grettir, 2008. Overing, of Landscape of Desire, is Brewer's thesis advisor. So you can see that the third part of my reading trilogy ties the first parts together, and that I would want to read Gisli's saga before embarking upon Lisa's thesis.
I had purchased a first edition of Gisli because of its woodcut illustrations by Rockwell Kent. The illustrations are over-the-top heroic style, and very attractive. I found the text stilted and archaic, however. I struggled through it, and at some point it occured to me that I had another edition of Gisli in my copy of The Sagas of Icelanders (if you don't have a copy, you can purchase a used copy for only $10. or so--what a deal for a nearly 800 page hardcover book!). When I finished the Ralph Allen edition, I turned to the newer translation in The Sagas, by Martin Regal, and found it much more readable. My quotes, however, are from the Allen translation.
Gisli is different from many of the saga heroes in that he is a true hero in a more modern sense of the word. Many of our other saga friends, such as Grettir and Egil, could more accurately be called antiheroes.
Gisli is exceedingly fair and kind in spirit; he is also forgiving. Gisli holds himself to a higher standard of behavior and generosity than he does other men. As his brother Thorkel puts it,
Unlike is Gisli to other men in patience; much better he acts than we.
Gisli's relationship with his brother Thorkel is always problematic, despite Gisli's continual efforts to improve things. In a telling exchange, Gisli says to Thorkel:
... if anything should chance to happen in my lifetime of such moment that it seems to thee equally as great as this appears to me, thou shouldst then promise me this, to act with the same restraint as thou now askest of me.
I don't mean to give you the impression that Gisli was a mild-mannered, peaceful man. On the contrary, he was a great warrior. But he was also an extremely fair man. There is humor, pathos, and poetry in this saga, and I encourage you to read it. As for me, it is a beguiling foretaste of the next two readings in my "trilogy."