The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method

  Sigurðsson, Gísli. 2004. The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 2. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

5. The Same Event in More Than One Saga

The previous chapter looked at how particular characters from the sagas of the east of Iceland are presented in sources that appear unlikely to be directly related to each other on a written level, i.e. through literary relations. It emerged that there is discernable variation in the personal characteristics ascribed to Víga-Bjarni in different sagas, while those of Þorkell Geitisson remain reasonably uniform, creating a rounded and consistent image of his personality in apparently unrelated sources. The conclusion drawn from this was that audiences were probably acquainted with these characters through sources outside the written sagas and were aware beforehand of their family connections and the main incidents in which they were involved at different points in their lives. In places the sagas appear to work on a direct assumption that such supplementary information would be available to their audiences, information that audiences were expected to bring to bear on the written texts to fill them out and imbue them with meaning.

It is not easy to assess the scope of such knowledge, but one way of approaching the problem is to consider how corresponding family relationships and events are presented in different texts. Materially related narratives can conflict over a wide range of details while sharing the same broad outlines. In order to explain such relationships we need to ask ourselves whether it is more likely that a) the writers of the extant sources used other written sources like those we are familiar with, or b) there is reason to suppose the existence of a common story tradition in the background. If the connection is such as to suggest that the linking factor is likely to be a common story tradition, we can then go on to ask questions such as: Are the sources complementary, each adding to the information provided by the others? Is there an assumption of a more wide-ranging knowledge on the part of audiences than we find in each source individually? [1] Do the sources conflict in any way? And, if so, is it possible to find some plausible explanation of why this should be?

Parallel Genealogies

As examples of differing genealogies of the same characters in materially related sources we may consider those of the Droplaugarsons and Helgi Ásbjarnarson as given in Droplaugarsona saga, Brand-Krossa þáttr, and Fljótsdœla saga, together with the little that is said about these people in Landnámabok. It will be seen that in all these sources there are differences both of emphasis and in the individual details.

Genealogies of the Droplaugarsons

At the beginning of Droplaugarsona saga we are given information on the ancestors of the brothers Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson, with the main emphasis on how their paternal great-grandfather, Ketill þrymr, came to marry an earl’s daughter in a foreign land. This story is also told in Landnámabók (S 278, H 240), but here there is no mention of either the Droplaugarsons or their maternal ancestry. In the saga itself, however, there appears to be a clear intention to demonstrate a link between Droplaug and her sons and the line of Ketill þrymr:

Figure 5-1: The genealogy of the Droplaugarsons as given in Droplaugarsona saga, chapters 1 and 2

Some of these people appear with similar genealogies in Landnámabók, but there are so many differences that there is no way that whoever put the saga together got his genealogical information directly from Landnámabók. The altogether more plausible supposition is that Droplaugarsona saga was written using traditional knowledge in the east of Iceland. If we examine the differences between two sources, it becomes clear that Landnámabók was no great mine of information when it came to the central characters of Droplaugarsona saga:

  1. According to Landnámabók (S 285, H 246), Yngvildr (Hávarsdóttir, the wife of Þiðrandi and mother of Ketill þrymr in Droplaugarsona saga) was the daughter of Ævarr the Old and Þjóðhildr, daughter of Þorkell fullspakr.
  2. None of Yngvildr’s paternal relations nor the in-laws of her brother Bersi as given in Droplaugarsona saga are mentioned at all in Landnámabók, with the sole exception of Egill the Red of Nes (S 292, H 253).
  3. Landnámabók mentions Egill’s son Óláfr in passing, but includes neither Yngvildr’s sister-in-law Ingibjǫrg nor Egill’s father Guttormr, both of whom are mentioned in Droplaugarsona saga.
  4. Of the three brothers and sisters, Þorvaldr (father of the Droplaugarsons), Hallkatla (wife of Geitir Lýtingsson), and Gróa of Eyvindará, none is mentioned in Landnámabók.
  5. The Sturlubók redaction of Landnámabók (S 388) names the wife of Earl Ásbjǫrn as Álǫf, daughter of Þórðr vaggagði, rather than Sigríðr.

In Brand-Krossa þáttr there is nothing on the Droplaugarsons’ paternal relations, but in compensation we are given a considerably more detailed treatment of their mother’s side of the family, as follows:

Figure 5-2: The maternal genealogy of the Droplaugarsons as given in Brand-Krossa þáttr

In Droplaugarsona saga, this line is taken back only as far as the Droplaugarsons’ grandfather, who is named as Þorgrímr as opposed to just Grímr in the þáttr. The genealogy in the þáttr does not appear to be based on older written sources, and so the þáttr may be regarded as good evidence of the existence of oral accounts of the maternal ancestry of the Droplaugarsons. This is supported by the þáttr’s version of the adventure in which an ancestor of the brothers acquires a wife while traveling abroad. In Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga this tale is told of Ketill þrymr; in Brand-Krossa þáttr the hero is Grímr, the Droplaugarsons’ great-great-grandfather on their mother’s side (for this story, see p. 205 f below). It is notable that in the þáttr, at the beginning of chapter 2, there appears to be an assumption that the audience will already have some kind of prior knowledge of the brothers’ ancestry. The text reads: ‘Þessa rœðu segja sumir menn til ættar Droplaugarsona, þeirar er ókunnari er. En þótt sumum mǫnnum þykki hon efanlig, þá er þó gaman at heyra hana’ (‘This story is ascribed by some people to the side of the Droplaugarsons’ family that is less well known. But even though some people doubt its veracity, it is still fun to hear it’) (ÍF XI:186). This comment on the brothers’ maternal relations seems to imply that the audience is expected to be rather better informed on their paternal relations. But this knowledge can hardly have been so universally accepted that it prevented a story that we know from older written sources was associated with the better known paternal ancestors from being transferred and told of the ‘less well known’ maternal side of the family. This kind of transference would have created problems if the writer’s and audience’s knowledge of these people had been set down in black and white on the written page. If, however, their information had come largely from oral tradition it is quite understandable that a story of this kind might come to be shifted from one family to another in this way and told of different people.

Fljótsdœla saga gives yet another version of Droplaugarson genealogy:

Figure 5-3: The genealogy of the Droplaugarsons according to Fljótsdœla saga, chapters 3-7

The most interesting features of this genealogy are how different the mother’s side is from the one given in Brand-Krossa þáttr, and the fact that the tale of the wife won in foreign lands is here told of Helgi and Grímr’s parents. The father’s side, however, is similar to what we find in other sources, other than being somewhat reduced in size and scope. But even here the relationship of Þorkell fullspakr to the brothers is specified more precisely in Fljótsdœla saga than in Droplaugarsona saga, where he is said merely to be ‘frændi Gríms skyldr’ (‘a close relative of Grímr’s) (ÍF XI:176) when he accepts Hrafnkell goði’s bribe to join the hunt for Grímr. Þiðrandi too is placed more fully in Fljótsdœla saga than elsewhere (see p. 222). Fljótsdœla saga is also alone in ascribing such extraordinary longevity to Þiðrandi the Old.

Further evidence of the existence of oral genealogical lore appears in the confusion surrounding Grímr of Gil, who in Fljótsdœla saga is said to be the brother of Helgi and Grímr’s maternal grandmother. In Droplaugarsona saga, their maternal grandfather is called Þorgrímr but given the same address. In Brand-Krossa þáttr this man is named as just Grímr, but with nothing said about where he lived. It is interesting that in Landnámabók (S 388, H 342) too this story is associated with the name of Grímr, but in this case it is Grímr the eponymous settler of Grímsnes in the southwest of Iceland who marries the mother of Arneiðr, named as Álǫf. Genealogical confusion of this kind can hardly be explained other than by assuming that the people who put the texts into book form acquired their historical and genealogical information from oral sources rather than written books—unless they made the whole thing up, which seems highly improbable in view of the number of points of agreement there are between the various sources.

From the genealogies of the Droplaugarsons and their paternal relations detailed above, it seems clear that none of the four sources was based on any of the others. Each contains either more or less information on this family than the others, and where they agree in general they differ on specifics. Landnámabók makes no mention of Helgi and Grímr themselves but tells a story about their father’s family, which is told differently in the other sources and even associated with their mother’s side of the family in Brand-Krossa þáttr and Fljótsdœla saga. The fullest treatment of their father’s family is found in Droplaugarsona saga; in Fljótsdœla saga the details given are generally much sketchier and the emphasis more towards their mother and her relations, even though, to judge from Brand-Krossa þáttr (which only describes the mother’s side), this was the ‘less well known’ side of the family. Despite the contradictions, the patent similarities between the various genealogies mean that it is impossible to imagine individual ‘authors’ constructing them independently out of just a few miscellaneous ‘facts.’ The recourse often taken to ‘explain’ such inconsistencies—that the ‘author’ had misremembered material he had read or heard many years before he came to put his text together—strikes one as clutching at straws, as well as being entirely unamenable to test or proof. Though each of the texts is different (and therefore of very limited value as regards historical research into ‘real’ events), they provide clear evidence of a closely integrated tradition of story material in the background, material which, we may suppose, provided a source of both learning and entertainment to storytellers and their audiences in the east of Iceland.

Genealogies of Helgi Ásbjarnarson

Helgi Ásbjarnarson is the archenemy of the Droplaugarsons in the eastern sagas and thus it is hardly surprising that Droplaugarsona saga pays rather less attention to him and his relations than to the Droplaugarsons themselves in the genealogical information offered. For instance, it is striking that the saga makes no mention of the fact known from other sagas, that Hrafnkell Freysgoði, the hero of Hrafnkels saga, was Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s grandfather.

Figure 5-4: The genealogy of Helgi Ásbjarnarson as given in Droplaugarsona saga, chapter 3a

a. The saga does not specify whether Hrafnkell goði and Áslaug were full brother and sister, nor whether Hrafnkell’s father and Helgi were full brothers. In Brand-Krossa þáttr Hrafnkell is said to be ‘Þórisson,’ and he and Helgi are said to be the sons of two brothers, making the genealogy in the þáttr incompatible with that in Droplaugarsona saga. From the way the information on Hrafnkell is presented at the time of his introduction in Droplaugarsona saga, it is not even certain that Hrafnkell goði (Áslaug’s brother) and Hrafnkell (Helgi’s nephew) are the same man, though this becomes clear later on.

Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s genealogy is traced in chapter 3 of Droplaugarsona saga. The main point of the information given appears to be to link Helgi and his brother’s son, Hrafnkell goði, through marriage to Ingibjǫrg and Spak-Bersi Ǫzurarson, thereby establishing a connection with a famous and powerful dynasty known from Landnámabók, the descendants of Brynjólfr the Old and his brothers, Ævarr the Old and Herjólfr. Brynjólfr was the paternal great-grandfather of Spak-Bersi, and an audience familiar with Brynjólfr’s family and authority would have been able to deduce from this that Helgi and Hrafnkell’s goðorð (i.e. their official status as patron chieftains over client farmers) had come to them through these marriage relations. Sigurður Nordal (1940:20) considered this connection to have had a basis in historical fact, since it tied in with his belief that Hrafnkell Freysgoði could not have built up the power base described in Hrafnkels saga at a time when Brynjólfr the Old ruled the roost in the farming lowlands of Fljótsdalur; that is, the goðorð of Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Hrafnkell goði, and what it implied, provided further evidence for his view that Hrafnkels saga was a conscious work of fiction concocted by an individual ‘author.’ It is striking that Hrafnkell Freysgoði is not mentioned at all in Droplaugarsona saga; if there had been stories in general circulation about his rise to power along the lines of those found in Hrafnkels saga, we might have expected Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s authority to have come from his connection with Hrafnkell Freysgoði rather than through marriage to a descendant of Brynjólfr the Old. This silence over Hrafnkell Freysgoði might thus be viewed as lending support to Nordal’s view that Hrafnkels saga is a work of pure authorial fiction. However, the evidence is hardly unequivocal, since Brand-Krossa þáttr trumpets Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s noble ancestry by tracing his descent from Hrafnkell Hrafnsson—‘Þat viljum vér ok segja, hversu Helgi Ásbjarnarson er kominn af landnámsmǫnnum, er gǫfgastr maðr er í þessari sǫgu at vitra mann virðingu (‘We wish to say too how Helgi Ásbjarnarson, who is the noblest man in this story in the judgment of wise men, was descended from original settlers’) (ÍF XI:183)—before setting off on the details of Hrafnkell and his descendants. The þáttr’s independence is apparent from the fact that its information differs from the corresponding genealogy in Droplaugarsona saga:

Figure 5-5: The genealogy of Helgi Ásbjarnarson as given in Brand-Krossa þáttr, chapter 1

According to Brand-Krossa þáttr, Helgi Ásbjarnarson is descended from the settler and chieftain Hrafnkell, who ‘fór í Hrafnkelsdal ok byggði allan dalinn sínum mǫnnum, nær tuttugu bœjum, en hann bjó sjálfr á Steinrøðarstǫðum’ (‘moved to Hrafnkelsdalur and settled the whole valley with his men, near on twenty farms, and lived himself at Steinröðarstaðir’) (ÍF XI:183). Steinröðarstaðir is not mentioned in Hrafnkels saga, where the hero is said to have been Hallfreðarson (as opposed to Hrafnsson in Brand-Krossa þáttr) and to have spent most of his life at Aðalból until he buys the little farm at Lokhilla, which later becomes Hrafnkelsstaðir. The Hrafnkell whom Helgi Ásbjarnarson shares the goðorð with is said to be Þórisson in Brand-Krossa þáttr, just as his sister is said to be Þórisdóttir in Droplaugarsona saga—but then in Brand-Krossa þáttr Helgi is not Hrafnkell’s uncle, as in Droplaugarsona saga, but his cousin, their fathers having been brothers as in Landnámabók, which adds that Hrafnkell Hrafnsson lived at Steinröðarstaðir: ‘Hans son var Ásbjǫrn, faðir Helga, ok Þórir, faðir Hrafnkels goða, fǫður Sveinbjarnar’ (‘His son was [sic., sons were] Ásbjǫrn, father of Helgi, and Þórir, father of Hrafnkell goði, father of Sveinbjǫrn’) (S 283, H 244). Sveinbjǫrn Hrafnkelsson is not mentioned in any sagas. According to Hrafnkels saga itself, Hallfreðr came and settled in Iceland with his young son Hrafnkell; Hrafnkell later married Oddbjǫrg Skjǫldólfsdóttir from Laxárdalur (who is otherwise unknown), by whom he had two sons, Þórir and Ásbjǫrn. After Hrafnkell dies in Hrafnkels saga, Þórir takes over the farm at Hrafnkelsstaðir while Ásbjǫrn gets Aðalból—in contrast to what is said in Brand-Krossa þáttr, in which Þórir lives at Steinröðarstaðir and Ásbjǫrn at Lokhellur.

Table 5-1: Main points of difference in the sources that give genealogies of Helgi Ásbjarnarson

Droplaugarsona saga Landnámabók Brand-Krossa þáttr Hrafnkels saga
Fljótsdœla saga
Helgi is related by marriage to the descendants of Brynjólfr the Old. Helgi is a descendant of Hrafnkell Freysgoði. Helgi is a descendant of Hrafnkell Freysgoði. Helgi is a descendant of Hrafnkell Freysgoði.
Helgi is the brother of Hrafnkell goði’s father. Helgi’s father and Hrafnkell goði’s father are brothers. Helgi’s father and Hrafnkell goði’s father are brothers. Helgi’s father and Hrafnkell goði’s father are brothers.
  Hrafnkell has a dream in Skriðdalur. Hrafnkell has a dream in Skriðdalur. Hallfreðr has a dream in Geitdalur.
  Hrafnkell lives at Steinröðarstaðir. Hrafnkell lives at Steinröðarstaðir. Hrafnkell lives at Aðalból and Lokhilla (later Hrafnkelsstaðir).
    Þórir lives at Steinröðarstaðir; Ásbjǫrn lives at Lokhellur (modern Hrafnkelsstaðir). Þórir lives at Hrafnkelsstaðir; Ásbjǫrn lives at Aðalból.
    Nearly 20 farms in Hrafnkelsdalur.  

For many years most scholars went along with Sigurður Nordal’s conclusion (1940:22-24) that the ‘author’ of Hrafnkels saga had taken the dream of Hrafnkell Hrafnsson in Skriðdalur from Landnámabók and adapted it point by point to create the dream of Hallfreðr in Geitdalur, and then used this as an element within a narrative of his own creation (see Jóhannesson 1950:xl-xliii), or even as a springboard for an exegesis upon the moral teachings of the medieval Church as found in learned Latin writings, as Hermann Pálsson supposed (1962a, 1971; see p. 25 f). However, in 1976 Óskar Halldórsson (1976:33) pulled the rug from under all such ideas by demonstrating that it was not possible to infer any kind of written connection between the sources, and that the arbitrary combination of both agreement and discrepancy in the dream sequences in Landnámabók and Hrafnkels saga indicated that the latter must have got at least some of its material from oral sources. Halldórsson’s research is informed by a far deeper understanding of oral tradition than we find among any of his predecessors; for instance, he takes account of all sides of the problem and displays a familiarity with the nature and fluidity of narrative in oral preservation. Nothing that has appeared since has confuted his main finding that the correspondences and differences between Landnámabók and Hrafnkels saga should be put down to the oral preservation of the story material rather than uneven use of written texts.

There is no getting away from the fact mentioned previously, that the main subject of Hrafnkels saga, the rise of a chieftain in a part of the country that the lore behind Landnámabók considered to be the fiefdom of Brynjólfr the Old, runs directly counter to the saga world of Droplaugarsona saga, which appears to associate Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s authority with his relationship through marriage to Brynjólfr and which makes no mention whatsoever of any Hrafnkell Freysgoði of Hrafnkelsdalur. On the other hand, this central theme of Hrafnkels saga ties in excellently with Brand-Krossa þáttr and Fljótsdœla saga, which follows Hrafnkels saga directly in the main manuscript. Thus it appears that ideas about Hrafnkell’s chieftaincy are restricted to written sources that are younger than Landnámabók and reveal little awareness of the settlement domain of Brynjólfr the Old and his brothers in the east of Iceland. However, the sources also suggest the existence of oral tales about Hrafnkell and his sphere of influence in Hrafnkelsdalur—and ancient audiences would hardly have been surprised to hear that this man had managed to advance himself through his own efforts and attract support to the east of the great lake of Lagarfljót when he had a grandson, Helgi Ásbjarnarson, who later turned out to be a great chieftain in the same area. The confusions in the discussion have come about through a failure to maintain a clear distinction between what is historically probable and what can happen within the internal premises of a story tradition. Since Hrafnkels saga overlaps so little with other written sagas, no firm conclusions can be reached about whether its main events are the creation of an author working with pen in hand or the product of years of reshaping at an oral stage. Either is possible, although whatever the case we have to assume that ideas of some kind were alive about Hrafnkell in the tradition that is clearly perceptible behind the saga, and so the saga of Hrafnkell must be something more than straight fiction from the bottom up.

Fljótsdœla saga picks up the narrative directly from the point at which Hrafnkels saga leaves off. In this case, therefore, there is no question as to Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s identity and family background:

Figure 5-6: The genealogy of Helgi Ásbjarnarson as given in Fljótsdœla saga chapter 1, in direct continuation of Hrafnkels saga

None of the relatives of Helgi Ásbjarnarson listed here appear in other sagas except Ásbjǫrn, Þórir, and Hrafnkell Þórisson. Hákon is mentioned in Landnámabók, but with no details of his wife. As noted previously, in Brand-Krossa þáttr Ásbjǫrn’s wife is named as Hallbera and said to be the daughter of Hrollaugr, the son of Rǫgnvaldr earl of Møre in Norway—a line of descent presumably intended to redound to Helgi’s glory. The information on these characters in Fljótsdœla saga can thus hardly have come from other books anything like those we know today.

The sources for the genealogy of Helgi Ásbjarnarson appear to be full of internal contradictions. They frequently conflict and each has details not found in the others. There can hardly be any question of literary relations except perhaps between Brand-Krossa þáttr and Landnámabók in the account of Hrafnkell’s dream. However, the þáttr reveals signs that whoever wrote it knew more about his characters than he could have found in Landnámabók, and so the latter can hardly have acted as the sole source for the writer of the former. The same applies to the other texts; in each of them there are clear indications of writers turning to oral sources in search of their material.


The genealogical details given on Helgi Ásbjarnarson are not simply isolated and extraneous information, any more than genealogies in the sagas generally (see p. 83). They serve specific purposes in each of the sagas. In Droplaugarsona saga, Helgi and his close relation Hrafnkell are linked through ties of marriage to the descendants of Brynjólfr the Old, who according to Landnámabók was one of the leading figures in the east of Iceland in directly post-settlement times. It is not unlikely that audiences at one time would have been thoroughly familiar with Brynjólfr and fully aware of the potential significance of a family connection of this sort. In Brand-Krossa þáttr, on the other hand, the focus is on Helgi’s own noble lineage: his great-grandfather is said to have been Earl Rǫgnvaldr of Møre, and his grandfather Hrafnkell Hrafnsson, the settler and chieftain of Hrafnkelsdalur whose star appears to have been on the rise within the saga tradition of eastern Iceland. The purpose of the genealogy offered in Fljótsdœla saga is not so immediately apparent; there is perhaps what purports to be a purely informative function, or at least a pretense of comprehensiveness and verisimilitude, for here we find various names that are not known from any other source and about whom nothing further is said in the saga itself.


Far from being evidence of lapses of memory or slips of the pen as is commonly claimed in such cases, the differences in information offered by the various sources on families and genealogies are generally motivated by purposes specific to each occasion, with modifications and selection dictated by the needs of the narrative rather than any aim to provide a strictly historical record of the actual family connections among Icelanders in the 10th century. This fluidity is precisely what one would expect of learning dependent for its preservation on the unreliable medium of human memory, and the opposite of what one would expect of people in the habit of turning to written books for their information.

As it happens, even scholars steeped in the traditional approach to saga origins have been happy to admit the importance of oral sources in the case of Droplaugarsona saga. In an excellent article on the treatment and historical and cultural source value of individual episodes in the saga in light of how far they can be tested against other sources, Björn Karel Þórólfsson (1928:46) wrote: ‘Sagan er öll ausin af sama brunni, sagnafróðleik, sem gengið hefur í óbundnu máli frá kyni til kyns’ (‘The whole saga is the product of the same wellspring, historical lore, which was passed on in prose form from generation to generation’). However, the main argument that has been adduced to support the idea of oral origins in this saga has centered on its closing words, about a certain Þorvaldr ‘er sagði sǫgu þessa’ (‘who told this saga’) (ÍF XI:180); see also Ólsen (1939:14-8). Unfortunately, the source value of these words is limited, for a number of reasons: the text is corrupt at this point, making this Þorvaldr’s genealogy problematical (he is said to be the son of Ingjaldr, son of Þorvaldr, which does not tie in with what has previously been said about the son of Grímr Droplaugarson and his wife Helga being called Þorkell); and, as Björn M. Ólsen (1939:18) rightly pointed out, the words ‘told this saga’ might equally apply to dictation to a scribe, as in the famous reference to the poet Sturla who is said to have ‘sagt fyrir’ (‘dictated,’ ‘recited’) sagas. Various scholars have suggested that it is unlikely that the ‘author’ of Droplaugarsona saga composed the verses in the saga because they concur so poorly with the material in the prose; as a result the verses have been seen rather as one of his sources, though how genuine they are and how valuable as a historical source is open to question. In general, however, it must be doubted that uncontextualized fugitive verses can ever have been a major ‘source’ for saga writers—especially when this also requires us to suppose that the writers then proceeded to ‘misinterpret’ the verses in various ways.

Richard Perkins (1989) revives another old and well-worn argument in favor of oral accounts behind the sagas, viz. that place names, buildings, and other human artifacts supported the preservation of oral tales associated with them. In a general article on Droplaugarsona saga, Perkins (1986) notes that the saga says that Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s hall ‘stendr … enn í Mjóvanesi’ (‘is still standing at Mjóvanes’) (ÍF XI:155); that Grímr’s hiding place above Krossavík ‘er nú kallat at Grímsbyggðum síðan’ (‘has since then been known as Grímsbyggðir’) (176); and that, after the description of the battle in Eyvindardalur, there is ‘nú lítill grjótvarði, er þeir bǫrðusk’ (‘now a little cairn of rocks where they fought’) (162). References of this sort might point to a story tradition that survived in connection with features of the landscape. All these points might indeed be indicative of an oral tradition, but they might equally be viewed as literary devices put in by a writer with the intention of giving his saga a patina of credibility (see p. 37). For this reason, this study has attempted to approach the problem of orality behind the sagas through different kinds of arguments and methods. As it happens, these arguments and methods also appear to come down in support of Björn Karel Þórólfsson’s main contention, that of the sources used by the writer of Droplaugarsona saga by far the most important was the fund of lore and stories passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation in the areas in which the saga is set.

The ‘Same’ Events in Different Sagas

The battle in Böðvarsdalur

The battle between Þorkell Geitisson and Bjarni Brodd-Helgason in Böðvarsdalur is described in detail in Vápnfirðinga saga and mentioned in passing in Landnámabók, Ǫlkofra þáttr, and Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs.

Of the fifteen who are named out of the total of thirty-three who took part in the battle in Böðvarsdalur, five are names and little more: Eyjólfr of Víðivellir on Þorkell’s side, and from Bjarni’s side Brúni of Þorbrandsstaðir, Eilífr Torfason of Torfastaðir, Skíði, Bjarni’s foster son, and Haukr Loptsson. Of these, only Eilífr achieves any note in the saga, for having ‘fallen’ in the battle (and then being cured). The names of the others appear solely as independent scraps of information among the followers of their chieftains. These men play no significant part in the plot of the saga and it is thus difficult to explain the inclusion of their names in the text other than as the result of the writer of the saga knowing stories that already included these names. It is well imaginable that these men may have been more than mere names to the original audience of the saga; background knowledge of this sort is at least probable in the case of the brothers from Búastaðir, whom the saga takes for granted that the audience will be able to identify as the sons of Glíru-Halli without needing to spell this out for them.

Moving beyond the references in Landnámabók described above, the battle of Böðvarsdalur is also mentioned in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs and Ǫlkofra þáttr, and in both texts is treated as if it were a well-known event. In Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, the first reference occurs in a scene in which the brothers Þórhallr and Þorvaldr are talking at home at Hof and one of them complains that Bjarni has failed to take action against the outlaw Þorsteinn stangarhǫgg (‘Staff-Strike’), remarking that it would have been ‘eigi verra at hafa meir vægt frændum sínum í Bǫðvarsdal ok sæti nú eigi skógarmaðrinn jafnhátt honum í Sunnudal’ (‘no worse to have shown some more mercy towards his kinsmen at Böðvarsdalur and not have the outlaw sitting there in Sunnudalur on a par with him’) (ÍF XI:72). On this reference, Jón Jóhannesson comments in a footnote that the ‘author’ is here assuming that the ‘readers’ are familiar with Vápnfirðinga saga. Jóhannesson offers no reasons to support his assumption that what is being referred to here is the saga in its written form, and in fact no such evidence exists, either here or later in the þáttr when Bjarni and Þorsteinn start to fight. During their confrontation, Bjarni takes a rest and goes to get a drink of water, and puts down his sword: ‘Þorsteinn tók upp, leit á ok mælti: “Eigi mundir þú þetta sverð hafa í Bǫðvarsdal”’ (‘Þorsteinn picked it up and looked at it and said, “You wouldn’t have had that sword in Böðvarsdalur”’) (75). Exactly what these words are supposed to imply is not clear, but a comparison with Bjarni’s performance at Böðvarsdalur also lies behind the comment of the old farmer Þórarinn when Bjarni goes to his farm and pretends he has killed his son Þorsteinn: ‘“Eigi er kynligt at því,” kvað karl, “at þungt veitti við þik í Bǫðvarsdal, er þú bart nú af syni mínum.”’ (‘“I’m not surprised,” said the old man, “that things proved tough for your opponents at Böðvarsdalur, when you’ve now gotten the better of my son”’) (77)—words evidently reflecting the high regard in which Þórarinn held his son. None of these references point to any kind of written literary relationship with Vápnfirðinga saga; it is altogether much likelier that what we have here are allusions to a generally known battle in which Bjarni of Hof fought against one of his kinsmen and came out on top.

The same applies to the reference to Böðvarsdalur in Ǫlkofra þáttr. Here Broddi Bjarnason is depicted as taunting Þorkell Geitisson with the words: ‘hitt ætla ek, ef þú leitar at, er þú munir fingrum kenna þat, er faðir minn markaði þik í Bǫðvarsdal’ (‘but anyway I reckon that if you look you’ll see on your fingers how my father left his mark on you at Böðvarsdalur’) (ÍF XI:93). This implies that Þorkell came out of the battle with an appreciable injury or disfigurement, and that it was Bjarni who caused it. Neither of these points is specified in Vápnfirðinga saga, which says only that Þorkell was wounded on the hand and had to retire from the battle, and that he was later tended at home at Krossavík. Þorsteins þáttr on the other hand clearly implies that Bjarni launched a vigorous attack on his kinsmen, and this may well be a reflection of the idea that it was Bjarni himself who wounded Þorkell. Vápnfirðinga saga does not mention this particularly, but it may well be alluded to in Þorkell’s remark before the battle that ‘frændrnir’ (‘the kinsmen,’ i.e. he and Bjarni) (ÍF XI:61) will face each other in combat.


From this it is clear that the battle in Böðvarsdalur was such a major event in the saga tradition of eastern Iceland that audiences would have been thoroughly familiar with it and known who fought in it and against whom. It was possible to name the people involved without needing to give further information on them all, perhaps because their family details were known, as in the case of the brother from Búastaðir. Later, familiarity with the parts played by Bjarni and Þorkell in the battle was used in other sagas as a spur to action or to display scorn or contempt when the leading participants are reminded of the ill-fated day in their youths when they faced each other in battle, and one of them wounded his own kinsman.

An ancestor of the Droplaugarsons wins a wife abroad

In both Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga, the hero of the episode is Ketill þrymr, who according to Droplaugarsona saga was the paternal great-grandfather of Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson (see p. 192). Landnámabók (S 388, H 432) contains further information pertinent to this version of the story where it describes the viking activities of Hólmfastr and Grímr, the son and nephew of Véþormr of Jämtland on the borders of Norway and Sweden, whom Droplaugarsona saga also describes as a friend of Ketill’s. (This Grímr later moved to Iceland and became the eponymous settler of Grímsnes in the southern lowlands.) The entry says that Hólmfastr and Grímr ‘drápu í Suðreyjum Ásbjǫrn jarl skerjablesa ok tóku þar at herfangi Álǫfu konu hans ok Arneiði dóttur hans, ok hlaut Hólmfastr hana ok seldi hana í hendr fǫður sínum ok lét vera ambátt. Grímr fekk Álǫfar, dóttur Þórðar vaggagða, er jarl hafði átta’ (‘killed Earl Ásbjǫrn skerjablesi [‘Skerry-Blaze’] in the Hebrides and captured as spoils of war his wife Álǫf and his daughter Arneiðr; she fell to Hólmfastr’s share and he passed her on to his father, who made her a handmaid. Grímr married Álǫf, the daughter of Þórðr vaggagði, who had previously been married to the earl’) (S 388, H 432).

The accounts of Ketill þrymr’s marriage in the various redactions of Landnámabók are in all major respects the same as in Droplaugarsona saga, and scholars have been quick to pounce on the parallels and postulate literary relations. For instance, in a footnote in the ÍF edition of Landnámabók, Jakob Benediktsson has no hesitation in claiming that, when compiling Sturlubók, Sturla Þórðarson took the existing accounts in the (lost) Styrmisbók manuscript of Landnámabók and in Droplaugarsona saga and cobbled them together to produce a composite version: ‘In the saga Arneiðr finds the silver and reveals its existence before she marries Ketill, and Ketill offers to transport her to her kinsfolk with the money; in Sturlubók the sequence of the events is changed in order to take account of both sources’ (Benediktsson, J. 1968:295-6, translated).

Table 5-2: The Landnámabók accounts of Ketill þrymr and his marriage to Arneiðr. Variant readings in Þórðarbók (deriving from the lost Melabók) are given in italics. The passage where changes were incorporated by Sturla Þórðarson is in boldface. The sentence underlined appears almost verbatim in Droplaugarsona saga, implying a direct literary relationship.

Hauksbók (H 240) Sturlubók (S 278)
Ketill ok Graut-Atli, synir Þóris þiðranda, fóru ór Veradal til Íslands ok námu land í Fljótsdal, fyrr en Brynjólfr kœmi út, Lagarfljótsstrandir báðar, Ketill fyrir vestan fljót á millim Hengiforsár ok Ormsár. Ketill ok Graut-Atli, synir Þóris þiðranda, fóru ór Veradal til Íslands ok námu land í Fljótsdal, fyrr en Brynjólfr kom út. Ketill nam Lagarfljótsstrandir báðar fyrir vestan Fljót á milli Hengiforsár ok Ormsár.
(Ketill and Graut-Atli, the sons of Þórir þiðrandi, moved from Veradal to Iceland and claimed land in Fljótsdalur, before Brynjólfr came out, on both shores of Lagarfljót, Ketill to the west of the lake between Hengiforsá and Ormsá. ) (Ketill and Graut-Atli, the sons of Þórir þiðrandi, moved from Veradal to Iceland and claimed land in Fljótsdalur, before Brynjólfr came out. Ketill claimed both shores of Lagarfljót to the west of the lake between Hengiforsá and Ormsá.)
Ketill fór útan ok var með Véþormi, syni Vémundar hins gamla; þá keypti hann at Véþormi Arneiði, dóttur Ásbjarnar jarls skerjablesa, er [Haralds konungs hárfagra, er auknefndist skerjablesi, sem] Hólmfastr son Véþorms hafði hertekit, þá er þeir Grímr systurson Véþorms drápu Ásbjǫrn jarl í Suðreyjum [ok tóku þar Ólǫfu konu hans ok Arneiði dóttur hans]. Ketill þrymr keypti Arneiði tveimr hlutum dýrra en Véþormr mat hana í fyrstu [fyrir ǫndverðu]. Ketill fór útan ok var með Véþormi syni Vémundar ens gamla; þá keypti hann at Véþormi Arneiði, dóttur Ásbjarnar jarls skerjablesa, er Hólmfastr son Véþorms hafði hertekit, þá er þeir Grímr systurson Véþorms drápu Ásbjǫrn jarl. Ketill keypti Arneiði dóttur Ásbjarnar tveim hlutum dýrra en Véþormr mat hana í fyrstu;
(Ketill went abroad and stayed with Véþormr, the son of Vémundr the Old; while there, he bought from Véþormr Arneiðr, the daughter of Earl Ásbjǫrn skerjablesi, whom [of King Haraldr hárfagri, who was nicknamed skerjablesi, whom] Véþormr’s son Hólmfastr had taken as spoils of war when he and Grímr, Véþormr’s nephew, killed Earl Ásbjǫrn in the Hebrides [and captured his wife Ólǫf and his daughter Arneiðr there]. Ketill þrymr bought Arneiðr at twice the price Véþormr had set on her at first [at the outset].) (Ketill went abroad and stayed with Véþormr, the son of Vémundr the Old; while there, he bought from Véþormr Arneiðr, the daughter of Earl Ásbjǫrn skerjablesi, whom Véþormr’s son Hólmfastr had taken as spoils of war when he and Grímr, Véþormr’s nephew, killed Earl Ásbjǫrn. Ketill bought Arneiðr Ásbjǫrn’s daughter at twice the price Véþormr had set on her at first;)
En áðr þau Ketill fóru [fœri] til Íslands, fann Arneiðr silfr mikit [fólgit] undir viðarrótum ok leyndi Ketil, til þess er hann fekk hennar [þá seldi hon honum silfrit]. en er kaupit var orðit, þá gerði Ketill brúðkaup til Arneiðar. Eptir þat fann hon grafsilfr mikit undir viðarrótum. Þá bauð Ketill at flytja hana til frænda sinna, en hon kaus þá honum at fylgja.
(But before Ketill and his men went [could go] to Iceland, Arneiðr found a hoard of silver [hidden] under the roots of a tree and hid it from Ketill until he married her [then she handed the silver over to him].) (and when the deal was struck, Ketill took Arneiðr as his wife. After this, she found a hoard of buried silver under the roots of a tree. Ketill offered to take her to her relatives, but she chose to go with him.)
Þau fóru út ok bjǫggu á Arneiðarstǫðum. Þeira son var Þiðrandi faðir Ketils í Njarðvík. Þau fóru út ok bjǫggu á Arneiðarstǫðum; þeira son var Þiðrandi faðir Ketils í Njarðvík.
(They left for Iceland and lived at Arneiðarstaðir. Their son was Þiðrandi, the father of Ketill of Njarðvík.) (They left for Iceland and lived at Arneiðarstaðir; their son was Þiðrandi, the father of Ketill of Njarðvík.)
[Jóreiðr var dóttir Þiðranda, móðir Þorsteins, fǫður Guðríðar, móður Rannveigar, móður Salgerðar, móður Guðrúnar, móður Hreins ábóta, fǫður Valdísar, móður Snorra, fǫður Hallberu.]  
[Þiðrandi’s daughter was Jóreiðr, the mother of Þorsteinn, father of Guðríðr, mother of Rannveig, mother of Salgerðr, mother of Guðrún, mother of Abbot Hreinn, father of Valdís, mother of Snorri, father of Hallbera.]  

The passage where Sturla Þórðarson made his changes is indicated in bold in the comparison of the Landnámabók texts. As Benediktsson points out, there appears also to be a literary relationship with the Droplaugarsona saga text (shown in italics). In Sturlubók the text reads: ‘Þá bauð Ketill at flytja hana til frænda sinna, en hon kaus þá honum at fylgja’ (‘Ketill offered to take her to her relatives, but she chose to go with him’). This sentence appears almost word for word in the saga: ‘Þá bauð Ketill henni at flytja hana til frænda sinna með þessu fé, en hon kaus at fylgja honum’ (‘Ketill offered to take her to her relatives with this money, but she chose to go with him’) (ÍF XI:139). The similarity here is so great that some kind of connection through a written text seems indisputable. However, it is very doubtful that the text in question was Droplaugarsona saga in the form in which we know it and that this single sentence can be taken as proof that Sturla had access to the saga in its written form; if this were the case, for instance, it is hard to see why he failed to bring in the Droplaugarsons at this point by continuing the line from Ketill and Arneiðr down to them in the way done so conspicuously at the start of the saga (see p. 192).

Sturla also appears not to have used Droplaugarsona saga in the matter of the name of Arneiðr’s mother. At S 388 he names her as Álǫf. (At S 278 she is not mentioned, while in the addendum in Þórðarbók in H 240 the form is Ólǫf.) In the saga, however, this woman is called Sigríðr, and had Sturla had the first two chapters of the saga in front of him he would surely have used that name at S 388 rather than Álǫf, whom he had not mentioned previously. In addition, S 388 is the only source to include the information that Grímr, the settler of Grímsnes, brought Arneiðr’s mother to Iceland with him. Sturla must either have invented this himself, or had information on these people from oral tradition, or used some text other than the Droplaugarsona saga we know; for instance, Grímr’s marriage in S 388 perhaps recalls the Grímr named in the Droplaugarsons’ maternal line in other sources (see p. 193). Whatever the case, Sturla’s use of sources indicates material differences, and therefore material independence, between the saga and the text that he probably used at S 278 and S 388.

In addition to being, unsurprisingly, considerably more detailed than the short résumé in Landnámabók, the Droplaugarsona saga account of Ketill þrymr’s marriage conflicts directly with Landnámabók on a number of other points:

  1. Ketill þrymr’s settlement claim. According to Landnámabók, Ketill and his brother Graut-Atli claimed land in Fljótsdalur, on both sides of the lake, before Brynjólfr (the Old) arrived in Iceland; later Ketill goes abroad and when he returns sets up home at Arneiðarstaðir within his land claim. In Droplaugarsona saga, on the other hand, the brothers live at Húsastaðir in Skriðdalur before Ketill goes abroad; when he returns he buys land to the west of the lake and settles at Arneiðarstaðir, and Atli buys land to the east ‘er nú heitir í Atlavík’ (‘at the place now called Atlavík’) (ÍF XI:140).
  2. Véþormr’s family. In Landnámabók, Véþormr is said to be the son of Vémundr the Old, the father of Hólmfastr, and the maternal uncle of Grímr. In Droplaugarsona saga he is the son of Rǫgnvaldr, son of Ketill raumr, and has three brothers, Grímr, Guttomr, and Ormarr. In both sources Grímr takes part in the raids on the Hebrides, but Véþormr goes with him only in the saga. Hólmfastr, who in Landnámabók is the one who captures Arneiðr, is not mentioned in the saga; on the other hand, the saga is alone in mentioning Guttormr and Ormarr.
  3. Arneiðr’s price. Landnámabók says that Ketill purchased Arneiðr at twice the price Véþormr had set on her initially, without the actual price being specified. According to Droplaugarsona saga, Ketill got her at a discount because of his friendship with Véþormr, who says, ‘Þú skalt fá hana fyrir hálft hundrað silfrs sakar okkarrar vináttu’ (‘You shall have her for half a hundred of silver on account of our friendship’) (ÍF XI:138).

Putting the two texts together, the common core boils down to this: Ketill goes abroad and buys from Véþormr a handmaid called Arneiðr, the daughter of Earl Ásbjǫrn skerjablesi of the Hebrides; on the way home she finds a hidden hoard of silver which they take back with them to Fljótsdalur, and thereafter they live together at Arneiðarstaðir.

Both Brand-Krossa þáttr and Fljótsdœla saga also have tales to tell about an ancestor of the Droplaugarsons who wins himself a wife while abroad, though in a rather different fashion from that in Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga. For one, the hoard of silver is gone and no more is said of it in ancient sources. In its place we get accounts bearing the hallmarks of adventure tales, in which men rescue their future wives from the hands of trolls and giants, along with ‘gull ok silfr ok gersimar’ (‘gold and silver and jewels’) in Brand-Krossa þáttr (ÍF XI:190), or ‘stórfé’ (‘great wealth’) in Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:232).

  • In Brand-Krossa þáttr, a farmer called Grímr from Vík in Vopnafjörður loses his precious brindled ox with cross markings on its head into the sea and becomes so depressed that his brother Þorsteinn from Öxarfjörður suggests he go abroad to recover his spirits. The brothers go to Norway with sheepskin cloaks and arrange a deal with a man called Kárhǫfði. This man lives with a farmer called Geitir, who he tells them is ‘vel auðgan ok inn bezta í skuldum’ (‘very well off and with an excellent credit rating’) (ÍF XI:188). Grímr hands over all his goods to Kárhǫfði and goes with his brother to stay with a farmer called Þórir in Trondheim. A little while later they set off to look for Geitir. No one knows anything about him, except that an old man in an isolated valley knows of some cliffs called Geitishamrar and points them off in that direction. In a cave in the rock face they find Kárhǫfði ‘kompán sinn’ (‘their business associate’) (188), who invites them into the living room. There they see the intact skin of the ox Brandkrossi and recognize their sheepskins on the men who are sitting in the room. The proprietor of the cave is Geitir, who has a wife and a daughter called Droplaug. Geitir cheers Grímr up by offering him generous compensation for his ox, which he had lured there by magic, as well as his daughter and lots of money besides. Grímr is happy to accept and they all sleep together in a single bed throughout the winter, the brothers and Droplaug, and love blossoms between Grímr and Droplaug. When spring arrives Droplaug is sent off with a rich dowry and they sail back to Iceland. The þáttr ends by tracing the line of descent from Grímr and Droplaug to Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson (see p. 193).

Geitir is not a common name in ancient texts but it would presumably have been familiar to the ears of the people of Vopnafjörður, who had once had a powerful neighbor by the name of Geitir Lýtingsson. Vápnfirðinga saga includes an account of how this Geitir and his then friend Brodd-Helgi once provided a group of merchants with winter lodgings, and so it is not beyond imagination that the events in the þáttr are supposed to call up some kind of mental associations with the ‘real’ Geitir Lýtingsson, who was related through marriage to the Droplaugarsons on their mother’s side (see p. 192). The þáttr makes no bones about being intended primarily as entertainment rather than as a reliable historical record: ‘Þessa rœðu segja sumir menn til ættar Droplaugarsona, þeirar er ókunnari er. En þótt sumum mǫnnum þykki hon efanlig, þá er þó gaman at heyra hana’ (‘This story is ascribed by some people to the side of the Droplaugarsons’ family that is less well known. But even though some people doubt its veracity, it is still fun to hear it’) (ÍF XI:186). The world of the þáttr lies a long way from the spirit of realism generally associated with the sagas of Icelanders and closer to the world of the legendary sagas, where trolls and monsters are an everyday occurrence. However, the troglodytic Geitir has his home somewhere up an isolated valley in Norway and thus offers no threat to the realistic world view of the sagas in Iceland. Once in Iceland, Geitir’s daughter lives firmly in the world of men. [8]

  • Fljótsdœla saga also moves outside the realistic framework of the sagas of Icelanders in its tale of how Þorvaldr, the son of Þiðrandi the Old of Njarðvík, goes abroad following a financial disagreement with his brother Ketill. Þorvaldr is shipwrecked on Shetland and spends the winter in a menial position at the hall of Earl Bjǫrgólfr. As the midwinter yule feast approaches, despondency settles over the household. No one will tell Þorvaldr why this should be, but he has a dream in which he takes his spear and goes out along the shoreline past some rocks until he comes to a cave, where he finds a woman chained, whom he releases and takes away with him; but he wakes up in terror when he realizes he is being pursued by some kind of living being. The earl is deeply affected when Þorvaldr recounts his dream to him, and tells him that his daughter Droplaug had disappeared the previous yule, carried off by a giant called Geitir who lives in a cliff called Geitishamarr in the mountain Geitissúlur and is the greatest curse in all of Shetland. Þorvaldr now seeks out the cave, finds Droplaug, and makes off with her. A little later the giant Geitir returns home and sets off in pursuit, but Þorvaldr kills him with his own swords and takes Droplaug back to her father’s house. Later, goods are recovered from the cave, including the things lost by Þorvaldr and his shipmates in the shipwreck. A year later Þorvaldr gets Droplaug as his wife, turns down an earldom in Shetland, and sails home to Iceland with great wealth and his wife, together with her mother Arneiðr and her mother’s brother Grímr. Grímr buys himself land at Gil in Jökulsdalur and Þorvaldr sets up home at Vallholt to the west of the lake at Lagarfljót. His mother-in-law takes ‘við búi fyrir innan stokk’ (‘over the running of the house itself’) (233) and so the place becomes known as Arneiðarstaðir.

It is interesting that, with his last breath, the giant Geitir puts a curse on the sword: ‘Verði þeim sízt gagn at, er mest liggr við’ (‘May it be of least help to them [the relatives of Þorvaldr] when the need is greatest’) (ÍF XI:229). In Droplaugarsona saga (ÍF XI:157-8, 164) it comes out that Helgi Droplaugarson does not have his usual sword with him when he is killed, having left it at Eyvindará for sharpening and borrowed another in its place. In a footnote Jón Jóhannesson comments that the writer of Fljótsdœla saga assumes that Helgi Droplaugarson’s sword is the same one that Þorvaldr got from the giant. It is not really permissible to link saga texts in the way Jóhannesson does, but it is tempting to turn the whole matter on its head and ask whether the Droplaugarsona saga account of Helgi leaving his sword behind might have provided the inspiration for stories about its being cursed. It should be noted that later in Fljótsdœla saga (235) it is made clear that Þorvaldr’s sword has magical properties, for Droplaug asks him to leave it behind at home before he sets out on his final journey—since it would be of no help to him anyway. The saga breaks off before the point at which Helgi Droplaugarson is killed and so it is not possible to say whether there was any reference to Geitir’s curse at this point in the Fljótsdœla saga account.

Though different in most respects, Fljótsdœla saga and Brand-Krossa þáttr are clearly linked by the names of Droplaug and Geitir the giant. The two Droplaugs seem to have similar personalities. In the þáttr she is described as ‘væn kona ok stórmannlig, umsýslumikil ok drenglunduð ok ómálug. Hon var stórlát ok staðlynd, ef í móti henni var gǫrt, fálát ok fengsǫ m ok staðfǫst vinum sínum, en mjǫ k harðúðig óvinum sínum’ (‘a fine-looking and impressive woman, active and noble-minded and reserved. She was strong-willed and unswerving if crossed, composed and unstinting and steadfast toward her friends, but very grim toward her enemies’) (ÍF XI:190). This chimes well with her portrait in Fljótsdœla saga, where the earl warns Þorvaldr about his daughter’s strong character and she is described thus: ‘við aðra menn var hun heldr skapstór, en þess í milli fálát ok steigurlát, en þó var hun afbragð annarra kvenna, bæði at yfirlitum ok atgjörvi’ (‘toward other men [than Þorvaldr] she was rather self-willed, and at other times reserved and haughty, but for all that she stood out from other women both for appearance and attainment’) (ÍF XI:232). Later she is described as ‘ríkilát’ (‘headstrong,’ ‘assertive’) (233). Though the only word common to both descriptions is ‘fálát’ (‘reserved’), it is clear that in many respects they are describing similar personal characteristics, which the audiences were probably meant to associate with Droplaug’s supernatural parentage in the þáttr and her time spent in captivity with the giant in the saga.


The account in Fljótsdœla saga shares with Droplaugarsona saga the fact that the female protagonist is an earl’s daughter (from the Hebrides here, rather than from Shetland) and the appearance of the names Arneiðr and Grímr, in both cases in connection with the ancestors of the Droplaugarsons. However, there are no direct verbal correspondences to indicate that any one of the sagas with a version of this tale was written using any other as its source—with the exception of the Sturlubók redaction of Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga, by way of some unknown written source. It therefore seems much likelier that people knew oral stories about some ancestor of the brothers winning a wife in adventurous fashion in a foreign land, but the details had become muddled and varied according to who was telling the story, until no one could say for sure whether the woman in question was Arneiðr, an earl’s daughter taken as spoils of war in the Hebrides, or Droplaug, the daughter of the rock-dweller Geitir in Norway, or Droplaug, the daughter of the earl of Shetland and his wife Arneiðr rescued from a malevolent giant called Geitir. What we have here, then, is an example of a single story appearing in various guises in the preserved texts, a story that changes and develops according to the knowledge and stylistic preferences of the individual saga writers who clothed their oral learning in written form. This kind of variation can hardly be explained other than as the result of a common oral tradition behind all the texts—which by no means excludes the possibility that written texts may have acted as the inspiration for new oral tales, as may be the case with the story in Fljótsdœla saga of the curse laid upon what was later to become Helgi Droplaugarson’s sword.

The drowning of Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s first wife

Both Droplaugarsona saga and Fljótsdœla saga give accounts of how the first wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson drowns when the ice gives way underneath her on the lake of Lagarfljót:

Droplaugarsona saga (ÍF XI:142-4) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:236-40)
Helgi Ásbjarnarson lives at Oddsstaðir with his wife Droplaug Spak-Bersadóttir. They have several children. Droplaug’s mother Ingibjǫrg is in childbed and Droplaug goes to Bersastaðir with gifts of food. With her she has a pair of slaves to drive a sledge pulled by two oxen. ‘Droplaug var eina nótt uppi þar, því at mannboð skyldi vera á O[rm]sstǫðum einni nótt síðar, en þat var litlu fyrir várþing. Þá fóru þau heim ok óku eptir ísi. Ok er þau kómu út um Hallormsstaði, þá fóru þrælarnir í sleðann, því at uxarnir kunnu þá heim. En er þau kómu á víkina fyrir sunnan Oddsstaði, þá gingu uxarnir báðir niðr í eina vǫk, ok drukknuðu þau þar ǫll, ok heitir þar síðan Þrælavík. Sauðamaðr Helga sagði honum einum saman tíðendin, en hann bað hann engum segja. Síðan fór Helgi til várþings. Þar seldi hann Oddsstaði ok keypti Mjóvanes. Fór hann þagat byggðum, ok þótti honum sér þá skjótara fyrnask líflát Droplaugar. Nǫkkuru síðar bað Helgi Ásbjarnarson Þórdísar toddu, dóttur Brodd-Helga, ok var hon honum gefin.’ (‘Droplaug spent one night up there because there was to be a gathering at O[rm]sstaðir the following night; this was a little before the time of the spring assembly. Then they went home and drove along the ice. As they were coming out past Hallormsstaðir, the slaves got into the sledge, because the oxen knew their way home from here. But when they got to the bay south of Oddsstaðir both the oxen went through a hole in the ice and they were all drowned; the place has since been known as Þrælavík [‘Slave Bay’]. Helgi’s shepherd told him the news in private and he told him to tell no one. Then Helgi went to the spring assembly. There he sold Oddsstaðir and bought Mjóvanes. He moved his household there, thinking that this way he would get over Droplaug’s death the quicker. Some time later Helgi Ásbjarnarson asked for the hand of Þórdís todda, the daughter of Brodd-Helgi, and she was given to him in marriage.’) The Droplaugarsons are being fostered by Bersi, and when Helgi Ásbjarnarson asks for the hand of Bersi’s daughter, Þorlaug, Helgi Droplaugarson is so upset at losing her that he does not attend the wedding. Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Þorlaug set up home at Oddsstaðir and have a daughter called Ragnheiðr. In the third winter Þorlaug weans her daughter and sets off ‘á kynnisleit upp á Bersastaði at finna föður sinn’ (‘on a visit up to Bersastaðir to see her father’) (239). After a week Helgi sends slaves with two oxen to fetch her. ‘Þeir vóru þar um nótt. Þá fell lognsnær um nóttina. Um morgininn fara þau heimleiðis. Þá var Helgi farinn ofan á drang þann, er fram gengr af Oddsstaðahöfða. Sá hann þá, at þeir óku sunnan eptir ísinum ok ofan í vök eina, ok drukknuðu þau þar öll. Þar heitir nú Þrælavík.’ (‘They spent the night there. The night was still and it snowed. In the morning they set off for home. At the time Helgi had gone down to the high rock that stands above the lake out from Oddsstaðahöfði. He saw them driving south along the ice and down into a crack, and they were all drowned. The place is now called Þrælavík [‘Slave Bay’]’) (239). Helgi announces the news publicly and Bersi offers to foster Ragnheiðr so that Helgi might ‘skjótara af hyggja, en þat varð þó ekki’ (‘the sooner forget, but that was not to be’) (239). Two winters later Helgi marries Þórdís todda and she moves to Oddsstaðir, where in the interim he has had a child by his housekeeper. Þórdís sends the housekeeper away but brings up the child herself. The next winter Þórdís puts in a request that they sell Oddsstaðir and buy Mjóvanes in its place.

The sagas agree that Helgi’s wife was on her way home from a visit to her parents (to her mother Ingibjǫrg in Droplaugarsona saga, to her father Bersi in Fljótsdœla saga) when she drowns in Þrælavík on the lake at Lagarfljót together with her oxen and two slaves. About the rest of the events leading up to and following on from this tragedy there are significant differences, as follows:

Droplaugarsona saga Fljótsdœla saga
1. Helgi is married to Droplaug. 1. Helgi is married to Þorlaug, to the displeasure of Helgi Droplaugarson.
2. They have several children. 2. They have a single daughter, Ragnheiðr.
3. Droplaug visits her mother Ingibjǫrg with gifts of food while she is in childbed. 3. In her third winter Þorlaug weans Ragnheiðr and visits her father.
4. Two slaves go along with the sledge, which is drawn by two oxen. They stay one night. 4. After a week, Helgi sends slaves and two oxen to collect his wife.
5. A shepherd sees the accident and tells Helgi, who asks him not to tell anyone else. 5. Helgi sees the accident himself and announces the news publicly.
6. Helgi sells Oddsstaðir to help him forget Droplaug. 6. Bersi offers to foster Ragnheiðr to help Helgi forget Þorlaug.
7. Some time later Helgi marries Þórdís todda and she moves with him to Mjóvanes. 7. Two winters later Helgi marries Þórdís todda, having in the meantime had a child by his housekeeper, and the next winter they move to Mjóvanes.

From this comparison it becomes apparent just how little the two texts agree on specific details, details that ought really to remain the same if this were a case of direct use of written sources, e.g. the name of the wife, the number of children, the purpose and length of the visit, who witnessed the accident, and the means employed to help Helgi get over his grief. One thing that is clear, however, is that Fljótsdœla saga provides a large amount of additional material. Here we find an explanation for the deep personal hatred between Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Helgi Droplaugarson, viz. that the former had married the girl the latter had set his heart on (even if he was only 12 years old at the time). The saga also extends Helgi’s history at Oddsstaðir by having him stay on there and have a child by his housekeeper in between wives; this then provides an opportunity for demonstrating Þórdís’s nobility of spirit when she accepts the child and sends its mother off well provided for. Both these incidents shed light on the characters’ circumstances and spell out what might have been unstated background knowledge in the less detailed account in Droplaugarsona saga: that the two Helgis fell out over a matter of the heart, and that Þórdís todda was a woman of great spirit and strength of mind who came into her own the moment she got free of her bullying brother at Hof, cf. Fljótsdœla saga’s description of her prior to her marriage to Helgi: ‘Hun var skapstór ok skörungr mikill, skafinn drengr ok líklig til góðs forgangs, en þó var hun lítils virð heima’ (‘She was a woman of determination and spirit, a woman of her word and likely to prove a good leader, though she was little valued at home’) (ÍF XI:239). This picture of Þórdís’s miserable treatment in her family home is reflected later in the saga when Helgi Ásbjarnarson urges her not to surrender Gunnarr Þiðrandabani to the mercies of her brother: ‘Máttu ok muna, hversu mikils þú vart virð, meðan þú vart heima. Vartu þá í einum sloppi ok gekkt þar fyrir búi. Sá ek þig ekki betr haldna en eina ambátt, áðr en ek tók við þér’ (‘You might also remember how little respect you were shown while you lived at home. All you had was a single shift to wear as you went about the running of the household. I saw you being kept no better than a slave girl before I took you on’) (282).

The expanded narrative in Fljótsdœla saga ties in with what appears to be its general policy of providing fuller details of the characters and events than we find in the comparable texts, suggesting that the writer was unable to assume the same degree of background knowledge of his audience as the writers of these other texts (see p. 182). But all things considered, it seems likelier that the writer of Fljótsdœla saga got his information on how Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s wife drowned in Þrælavík from hearing stories about it rather than from reading about it in Droplaugarsona saga.

Helgi Droplaugarson kills Þorgrímr torðyfill

Fljótsdœla saga and Droplaugarsona saga again treat comparable material in their accounts of Helgi Droplaugarson’s killing of Þorgrímr torðyfill (‘Dung-Beetle’), a resident laborer of Þórir of Mýnes, as a result of slanders spread by Þorgrímr about his mother Droplaug. But the circumstances of the killing, and the events leading up to it and following on from it, are reported very differently in the two sources:

Droplaugarsona saga (ÍF XI:144-7) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:240-56)
One autumn Þórir’s domestic workers are sitting around the fire at Mýnes discussing women. The general opinion is that Droplaug ranks higher than most women in the district but then Þorgrímr torðyfill puts in, ‘ef hon hefði bónda sinn einhlítan gǫrt’ (‘if she’d kept herself to her husband’) (144-5). No one else has ever heard anything compromising about her and Þórir, as head of the household, tells the men to watch their tongues. A certain Þorfinnr passes this chitchat on to Droplaug. She says nothing immediately, but a short time later she tells her sons about it and asks them not to seek vengeance. At the time Helgi is thirteen and Grímr twelve. A little later they go to visit their aunt Gróa at Eyvindará, saying they intend to hunt ptarmigan, but they then go on to Mýnes and ask after Þórir, who is away, and his domestic staff. An unintroduced man called Ásmundr is doing the hay along with Þorgrímr, and when he sees the brothers approaching they unbridle the horse from the hay sled and Þorgrímr tries to get on and escape but Helgi shoots him with a spear. Ásmundr goes home in terror and the brothers go back to Gróa, who sends them on to Arneiðarstaðir after asking them what they have caught, to which Helgi replies: ‘Vit hǫfum veitt torðyfil einn’ (‘We’ve only caught a single torðyfill’) (146). When Þórir returns that afternoon he shows little interest and turns the matter over to Helgi Ásbjarnarson on the grounds that Þorgrímr had been his freedman. Droplaug sends the boys to Geitir Lýtingsson at Krossavík but they lose their way in a supernatural blizzard and find themselves going sunwise [east to west] around SpaBersi’s shrine to the gods. He tells them that the storm is the result of the gods’ anger at their having gone sunwise round the temple and at failing to announce the killing of Torðyfill in the legally prescribed manner. They make atonement and go on to Krossavík. The following spring Þorkell Geitisson and Helgi Ásbjarnarson agree a settlement, leaving Helgi Droplaugarson feeling that the slander remains unavenged. He gets legal training from Þorkell and uses this to pick quarrels with Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s client farmers. Þorgrímr torðyfill, a freedman, domestic worker and kinsman of Þórir of Mýnes is sitting by the fire one autumn with Þórir and his workers. Þórir has long been without a wife and Þorgrímr initiates a discussion about whether any woman has run a household as handsomely after her husband died as Þórir has his. Droplaug’s name is mentioned, to which Þorgrímr responds that that might have been the case if she had not lain with the slave Svartr and had her son Helgi by him. Þórir tries to hush this up but word gets to Arneiðarstaðir where Droplaug takes offense and goads Helgi, then aged twelve, to do something about it. Helgi and Grímr, aged ten, just laugh and amuse themselves hunting ptarmigan. As winter draws on, the boys set out one night with their hunting tackle to Eyvindará and from there to Mýnes, where they see Þorgrímr working on a load of hay along with one of the household retainers. The boys are recognized; the retainer reckons they present no danger, but Þorgrímr is frightened of their marksmanship and rides away. Helgi hurls a spear at him that goes right through him. The brothers go on to Eyvindará but the retainer carries on with this work, leaving Þorgrímr sitting dead on his horse until the end of the day, when he finally tells Þórir what has happened. Þórir sets out immediately but by now Gróa has sent her kinsmen home to Arneiðarstaðir, where their mother welcomes them and asks about the hunting. Helgi replies: ‘Smátt er í veiðum, móðir, veidda ek tordýfil einn’ (‘Not much of a catch, mother, I only caught a single torðyfill’) (247). Þórir and Gróa reach a settlement, but at this point Þorgrímr’s brother Nollarr turns up and wants to get Helgi Ásbjarnarson involved in the case. Helgi refuses and so Nollarr tries to whip up Bersi against his foster son by telling him that he is now seducing Helga of Skeggjastaðir, for whom Bersi has had a special fondness. Nollarr’s plans come to nothing, but as a result of his intervention Helgi loses Helga and never looks at another woman as long as he lives.

These two passages share more material than was the case in the drowning of Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s wife:

  1. The slander of one of Þórir of Mýnes’s domestic retainers, Þorgrímr torðyfill, that Droplaug has been unfaithful to her husband, reaches the ears of Droplaug and her sons.
  2. Helgi and Grímr have a reputation as keen ptarmigan hunters.
  3. Helgi kills Þorgrímr with a spear as Þorgrímr tries to make his getaway from the haymaking on horseback.
  4. Helgi and Grímr visit their kinswoman Gróa at Eyvindarstaðir on their way.
  5. Reparation is made for Þorgrímr by:
    a. in Droplaugarsona saga, Þorkell Geitisson paying money to Helgi Ásbjarnarson (Þorgrímr being his freedman);

    b. in Fljótsdœla saga, Gróa paying money to Þórir of Mýnes.

The names of the corresponding characters in each saga are the same, only Droplaugarsona saga is more precise in that:

  1. It supplies the name Þorfinnr for the man who tells Droplaug about Þorgrímr’s slander; Þorfinnr has no other function in the saga.
  2. It names Ásmundr as the farmhand who is working on the hay with Þorgrímr.

Ásmundr does not appear elsewhere in the saga and in fact plays a much less important role than the unnamed farmworker in Fljótsdœla saga, who we accompany throughout the day on a range of outdoor chores—‘en Þorgrímr sat á baki einart meðan’ (‘with Þorgrímr sitting there on the horse’s back the whole while’) (ÍF XI:247)—before returning to the house and telling Þórir what has happened. Other features in Fljótsdœla saga with no parallels elsewhere are the slave Svartr mentioned in Þorgrímr’s accusations and the long, comic episode about Þorgrímr’s brother Nollarr. In this coda to the story, however, Fljótsdœla saga works in with notable skill the idea that at the heart of Helgi Droplaugarson’s problems lie unresolved disappointments in love after suffering, aged only twelve, the loss of the two girls who were dearest to him: first the daughter of his foster father Bersi, who is married off to Helgi Ásbjarnarson; and second Helga Þorbjarnardóttir of Skeggjastaðir, who refuses to accompany him to Eyvindará because she suspects that Nollarr will misrepresent her in front of Bersi. After this experience, the saga says, Helgi Droplaugarson never looked at a woman again.

At first sight it might appear that the Þorgrímr torðyfill episode in Fljótsdœla saga is the work of a conscious author, created by adding to and filling in on the picture given in Droplaugarsona saga. Thus we might imagine the author improvising on the conversation around the fire at Mýnes and spicing it up by making Þorgrímr’s remarks even more unambiguous, and providing a more explicit description of Þorgrímr’s innate nastiness, which in Droplaugarsona saga comes across entirely through his actions: now he is also said to be ‘lítill maðr vexti ok kvikligr, orðmargr ok illorðr, heimskr ok illgjarn, ok ef hann heyrði nökkurn mann vel látinn, þæstist hann í móti ok mátti þat eigi heyra, ok varð hann þeim öllum nökkura flýtu at fá’ (‘small in stature and with quick movements, garrulous and disparaging, stupid and malicious, and if he heard good things being said about anyone he would puff himself up and refuse to hear, and would always have to come back with some put-down’) (ÍF XI:240).

However, there are certain points that argue specifically against such an interpretation:

  1. Droplaugarsona saga supplies the names of Þorfinnr and Ásmundr, while the corresponding characters in Fljótsdœla saga remain nameless.
  2. The ages of the brothers are given differently: thirteen and twelve in Droplaugarsona saga; twelve and ten in Fljótsdœla saga (which, however, attributes to Helgi significant experience in affairs of the heart at the time of this episode).
  3. The time scales are different: in Droplaugarsona saga the whole affair takes place within a comparatively short period; in Fljótsdœla saga the brothers allow things to drift on toward winter before they decide to act.
  4. Following the killing of Þorgrímr, the two sagas give different details of the people involved in the settlement, and in Fljótsdœla saga there is the added burlesque episode about Þorgrímr’s otherwise unknown brother, Nollarr.

Other perhaps than Helgi’s reply regarding the hunting, there are no correspondences of diction in the Droplaugarsona saga and Fljótsdœla saga accounts of the killing of Þorgrímr torðyfill that might suggest any kind of literary relationship. So the conclusion remains unaltered: that these texts are obviously related, but this relationship most probably goes back to an oral tradition in which people told stories about the two young ptarmigan hunters from Arneiðarstaðir who attacked the freedman Þorgrímr torðyfill of Mýnes and killed him in revenge for derogatory remarks he had made about their mother. Beyond this, there was nothing in any of the sources to specify how this killing fitted into the overall scheme of the lives of the Droplaugarsons as reconstructed so carefully in the saga we now know and which bears their name. It is precisely the whole—the overall saga—that does not achieve fixed form until set down on the page; up to this point we can only assume the existence of individual, unconnected, and fluid stories about the heroes people chose to tell their stories about.

Gunnarr Þiðrandabani

About Gunnarr Þiðrandabani and the events leading up to and following on from the killing that kept his name alive we have a specific Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. The same people and events are also mentioned in Fljótsdœla saga and Laxdœla saga, and Gunnarr is also named as a well-known character in Droplaugarsona saga. In broad outline, the common elements of the story begin with Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr moving from the south of Iceland to the east and taking temporary lodgings with the Kóreksson brothers. He sets up farm on his own but falls into debt and flees from his creditors, taking refuge with Ketill þrymr at Njarðvík. Þiðrandi Geitisson happens to accompany the Kórekssons when they go to summon Ásbjǫrn to court, but things go badly wrong and first Ketill is killed and then Þiðrandi, cut down by a spear thrown by a Norwegian merchant called Gunnarr to avenge his host Ketill. Þiðrandi’s powerful relatives seek vengeance and track Gunnarr down to the home of a man called Sveinki or Sveinungr in Borgarfjörður, but he manages to conceal Gunnarr’s presence by a series of tricks. Gunnarr is passed on to the chieftain Helgi Ásbjarnarson who shelters him into the summer and then sends him on to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir in the west of Iceland, who gets him out of the country. The main points of this story are shared by all the sources, but their accounts differ so much in other respects that it is worth looking into the connections between them in greater detail. The first place to turn is the improvident builder of drystone walls, Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr himself.

Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr. Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr appears in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Fljótsdœla saga:

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:196-200) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:258-264)
Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr turns up one autumn and takes lodgings with Bjǫrn Kóreksson in Skriðudalur. Ásbjǫrn is described as ‘mikill maðr ok svipligr, sterkligr, svartr á hár ok mjǫk hárr, eygðr illa ok langhálsaðr’ (‘a big man and impressive-looking, strongly built, black-haired and very tall, with unpleasant eyes and a long neck’) (196). He claims to be from the south of Iceland and to have previously been working for Ásgrímr Elliða-Grímsson. He is taken on and given lodgings by the Kórekssons, and works well for almost three years and builds up some capital. Then he wants to set up farm on his own but accumulates debts, both to the Kórekssons and to a merchant called Þórir Englandsfari who has previously made friends with Þiðrandi, the son of Geitir Lýtingsson, at a horse fight; at this same horse fight Bjǫrn Kóreksson has also made friends with Þiðrandi by giving him the horse that he had pitted against one belonging to Ketill of Njarðvík. Þórir is staying with Brodd-Helgi, who says that so far as he is concerned Ásbjǫrn is ‘óskapfelldr ok hroðavænligr’ (‘not to my taste and likely to cause trouble’) (197). Ásbjǫrn welshes on his debts and absconds to Njarðvík, promising Ketill that this time he will be ‘hagfelldr’ (‘tractable’) (197). The Kórekssons attempt to recover their debts from Ketill, who admits that they are in the right but sees no reason to part with his own money on Ásbjǫrn’s behalf. At the request of his foster son Þiðrandi, Ketill permits the Kórekssons to come in a small group to summons Ásbjǫrn. Þiðrandi is shocked that he should act like this and Ketill accuses him of taking an interest in the case only because of the horse he has been given. Þiðrandi moves away to Krossavík and the Kórekssons decide to go and issue the summons if Þiðrandi will go with them ‘á kynnisleit’ (‘to see what is happening’) (198). That same summer, three of the Kórekssons (Bjǫrn, Þorfinnr, and Halldórr), Þórir the merchant, Þiðrandi, and two other unnamed men go to Njarðvík. Ásbjǫrn sees them coming as he ‘var á mýri nǫkkurri ok gróf torf’ (‘was out in a certain bog digging turfs’) (199); he ‘kastar nú niðr verkfœrum sínum ok tekr á skeiði miklu heim til bœjarins’ (‘now throws down his tools and takes to his feet at great speed home to the farm’) (199). One of the brothers aims a javelin at him and hits him in the belly, but he makes it back into the house with the fire, where Ketill ‘bakaðisk við eldinn’ (‘was roasting himself by the fire’) (199), and urges Ketill to avenge him. This is the last we hear of Ásbjǫrn. Ásbjǫrn, a southerner from Flói in the southwest, has traveled east by way of Rangárvellir and Síða and taken lodgings in Fljótsdalur. He is ‘mikill maðr vexti, dökkr á hárslit, ljótr í andliti ok heldr óþokkuligr’ (‘a big man in stature, dark-haired, ugly of face and rather unappealing’ (258). He is good at building walls and has been five years in Fljótsdalur before things go wrong. He spends the first two years with Þorbjǫrn kóreki, father of Gunnsteinn and Þorkell, at Kóreksstaðir, after which he sets up farm with his pregnant wife and some children at Sauðlækur, later called Hlaupandastaðir. His wealth starts to run out and he deserts his wife and children and moves to Njarðvík, where Ketill takes him on to build walls. The people of Kóreksstaðir provide for his destitute dependants but are unable to recover the rent owed to them. No one likes Ásbjǫrn except Ketill. Þiðrandi now leaves his foster father Hróarr to visit his kinsman Ketill and arrives with six others at Þorbjǫrn’s house. Þorbjǫrn’s sons get Þiðrandi to agree to have a word with Ketill about making Ásbjǫrn available for prosecution. So they ride twenty of them to Njarðvík and see Ásbjǫrn ‘upp í hlíðinni at garðlagi’ (‘up on the hillside laying walls’) (261). Gunnsteinn throws a spear shaft at him ‘með hlátri miklum’ (‘with much laughter’) (261) and it goes through his turned-up kirtle. Ásbjǫrn jumps and ‘tekr þegar skeið heim til bæjar’ (‘takes at once to his feet home to the farm’) (261) and runs ‘í eldaskálann, þar er Ketill bakast’ (‘into the hall with the fire where Ketill is roasting himself’) (261-2), saying that Gunnsteinn’s spear has gone in under one of his arms and ‘út undir annarri’ (‘out under the other’) (262), and urges Ketill to avenge him. Ketill goes out and lays into Þiðrandi, who cuts him to the ground but is wounded himself. After the main encounter Þiðrandi tells Gunnsteinn that Ásbjǫrn has used divination to see how things will turn out and is even now among the fallen stripping ‘mannnáinn einn’ (‘one of the corpses’) (264). Gunnsteinn runs over and hacks Ásbjǫrn in two through the middle.

There are correspondences at three points in this story that might be taken as indications of a direct literary relationship between the two texts:

  1. In the description of Ásbjǫrn himself, both sagas agree on his origins (‘sunnlenzkr,’ ‘from the south of Iceland’) and the main features of his character and appearance, but they do not use the same words except in the general and formulaic phrase ‘mikill maðr’ (‘a big man’). This formula—by which I mean a fixed combination of words used in similar circumstances—appears countless times in the sagas and is thus of questionable value for positing literary relations.
  2. The texts also agree in the formulaic expression taka á skeiði/taka skeið (‘take to one’s feet,’ ‘run’). In Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana it says that Ásbjǫrn ‘tekr á skeiði miklu heim til bœjarins’ (‘takes to his feet at great speed home to the farm’); in Fljótsdœla saga the actual words used are ‘tekr þegar skeið heim til bæjar’ (‘takes at once to his feet home to the farm’). The expressions gera skeið and renna skeið (‘run,’ ‘put on a spurt,’ usually for a limited distance) are fairly common in the sagas, but taka skeið occurs only in Þórðar saga kakala in Sturlunga saga (317:479), in Magnússona saga in Heimskringla (27:739), and, among the sagas of Icelanders, in the D text of Hrafnkels saga (i.e. in the version found as part of a compilation with Fljótsdœla saga in Mánaskálar/Grafarkotsbók, AM 551 c 4to) in the passage describing Sámr’s attack on Hrafnkell at Aðalból at the beginning of chapter 11: ‘Nú taka þeir skeið heim at bænum’ (‘Now they set off at a run home to the farm’) (11:1408). [10] So far as this affects the probabilities of a literary relationship with Gunnars saga, it is therefore necessary to bear in mind that the expression taka skeið was part of the vocabulary of the writer of Fljótsdœla saga long before he found himself needing to find a way to describe Ásbjǫrn’s sprint back to the farm at Njarðvík. There is thus no need to assume that he got the formula from Gunnars saga at this point; the example might even be used to argue that Gunnars saga is the recipient here, though this would probably conflict too radically with all our general ideas about the ages of the sagas to be considered in any way plausible (see also p. 240). Attention should also be paid to the nuances of usage of the formula; at both places in the composite Hrafnkels saga/Fljótsdœla saga in AM 551 c 4to the form is taka skeið, while in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana it appears as taka á skeiði, a difference which might rather be taken to suggest that what we have here are independent uses of a formula in each saga. However, some kind of literary relationship cannot be ruled out entirely, especially since in both cases the formula turns up in the same context, i.e. followed by the phrase ‘heim at bœnum/til bœjar(-ins)’ (‘home to the farm’).
  3. The third formula is bakask við eld (‘roast, toast [lit. ‘bake’] oneself by the fire’). In both accounts Ketill is said to have been ‘bakask við eld’ (‘roasting himself by the fire’) when Ásbjǫrn rushes in and urges him to avenge him. The expression, and the activity, is not uncommon in the sagas. However, Ketill’s sitting over the fire is fully motivated in Fljótsdœla saga, where he has previously been said to be subject to frequent fits of the shivers; this perhaps implies that Ketill is not fully in control of his actions at this point, which may explain why he lays into his well-loved kinsman Þiðrandi the moment he gets outside. Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana has nothing comparable about any such instability in Ketill’s character; here his warming himself by the fire is used to prefigure his death, for he ‘kenndi ekki heitt af eldinum ok kvazk þat undarligt þykkja’ (‘felt no heat from the fire and said he found this uncanny’) (ÍF XI:200). The two texts thus make very different uses of the ideas inherent in the formula ‘bakast við eld.’

There are thus an unusual number of verbal correspondences in the two accounts of Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr, even if they are largely formulaic, and so it is hardly possible to rule out some kind of literary relationship entirely. Nevertheless, the points on which the sagas disagree are far greater in number and seem more compelling in nature:

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Fljótsdœla saga
1. Ásbjǫrn goes to Bjǫrn Kóreksson at Skriðudalur and stays there working for him for two winters. 1. Ásbjǫrn arrives in Fljótsdalur and spends two winters working for Þorbjǫrn kórekr at Kóreksstaðir.
2. Ásbjǫrn is in his third winter in the east. 2. Ásbjǫrn is in his fifth winter in the east.
3. Ásbjǫrn builds up debts to the Kórekssons and fails to pay Þórir Englandsfari. 3. Ásbjǫrn deserts his pregnant wife and his children and fails to pay the Kórekssons his rent.
4. Ásbjǫrn is given lodgings by Ketill, who refuses to part with money on his behalf and permits him to be summonsed. 4. Ásbjǫrn is taken on to build walls by Ketill; unlike most others, Ketill gets on well with Ásbjǫrn.
5. Þiðrandi is Ketill’s foster son but, to Ketill’s displeasure, he accepts a gift from the Kórekssons. 5. Þiðrandi is Hróarr’s foster son and Ketill’s kinsman and is friends with the Kórekssons.
6. During the summer Þiðrandi goes to Krossavík. 6. Þiðrandi has recently returned from abroad.
7. There are three Kórekssons, Bjǫrn, Þorfinnr, and Halldórr. 7. Þorbjǫrn kórekr has two sons, Gunnsteinn and Þorkell.
8. The party bearing the summons to Njarðvík consists of the Kórekssons, Þórir, Þiðrandi, and two unnamed—seven in total. 8. Þiðrandi (with six others) and the Kórekssons (20 in total) ride to Njarðvík to have Ásbjǫrn given up for prosecution.
9. Ásbjǫrn sees the summonsing party coming and runs back to the farm from digging turfs. 9. Þiðrandi and his men see Ásbjǫrn, who runs back to the farm from building walls.
10. An unnamed Kóreksson throws a javelin into Ásbjǫrn’s belly and out the other side. 10. Gunnsteinn Kóreksson throws a spear shaft at Ásbjǫrn and through the folds in his kirtle.
11. No more is said of Ásbjǫrn after he tries to goad Ketill into action with a javelin sticking out of his guts. 11. Ásbjǫrn is stripping the bodies of the slain when Gunnsteinn rushes up and hacks him to death.

From the comparison above, the conclusion seems inescapable that the connection between these texts can hardly come down to the direct use of written sources—at least, not in the form in which we know them. It appears that both writers knew about this unappealing southerner called Ásbjǫrn from an oral story tradition and were familiar with the details of how he set in motion the course of events that led to the killing of one of the best loved men in the east of Iceland, Þiðrandi Geitisson. In such a tradition, it is perfectly conceivable that the formulas mikill ok sterkr, taka á skeið heim at bæ, and bakask við eld constituted handy tools in the storytellers’ repertoire.

There is also the possibility that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is an original source that served as the inspiration for other sagas in the east of Iceland (see p. 137) and that these sagas were then used by the writer of Fljótsdœla saga. Counting against this, however, is the familiarity with which the writer of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana refers to people and events. As mentioned earlier in connection with Þorkell Geitisson (p. 162), Þiðrandi is never actually introduced in the saga; instead, it is assumed that the audience realizes that he is a member of the Krossavík clan and thus Þorkell’s brother. This has been criticized as an apparent failure on the part of the writer (see Jóhannesson 1950:xci) but is in fact a typical feature of works written for an audience that is already familiar with the subject matter. In addition, in at least three places the saga makes direct reference to background knowledge of this kind:

  1. ‘Nú er þat sumra manna sǫgn, at í þessari ferð hafi verit Helgi Droplaugarson með Þorkatli, frænda sínum, en eigi vitum vér, hvárt satt er’ (‘According to some people, Helgi Droplaugarson was on this expedition with his kinsman Þorkell, but we do not know whether this is true’) (ÍF XI:204; see p. 180).
  2. ‘Þar bjó Helgi þá’ (‘Helgi lived there [sc. at Mjóvanes] at the time’) (ÍF XI:207).
  3. ‘Ok eigi miklu síðar tókusk til skipti þeira Helga Ásbjarnarsonar ok Gríms Droplaugarsonar, at Helgi var veginn’ (‘And not much later things between Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Grímr Droplaugarson took the turn that Helgi was killed’) (ÍF XI:209).

Jón Jóhannesson (1950:lxxxviii) used these passages to argue that the ‘author’ of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana knew either an original version of the saga of the Droplaugarsons or an ‘ævi’ of them (a ‘life,’ i.e. a written biographical synopsis), since, to translate his words: ‘The demands made of the readers at these points are greater than can be allowed for solely by reference to oral sources.’ This is very doubtful: the demands made can hardly be viewed as enormous and there seems no real reason not rather to assume a purely orally based background. Jóhannesson’s argumentation is particularly complex and requires the acceptance of a large number of unknowns. To start with, he has to posit an original version of Droplaugarsona saga rather different from the one we have now. Then, to explain the large number of differences between this—a saga we cannot be sure ever existed in written form—and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, he is forced to hypothesize that the ‘author’ of the latter based his work on the former solely through memory. The appeals made to memory become even greater when we bear in mind that the text was written for a particular readership and needed to take their knowledge into account too. So, to take Jóhannesson’s premises a step further, even if the writer had read this particular (hypothetical) text, which could hardly have existed in many copies, it stretches credulity beyond breaking point to suppose that the entire intended audience for his newly written saga would also have known this same text through ‘background reading’—a text that the ‘author’ himself had forgotten large parts of.

To further complicate the matter, Droplaugarsona saga itself assumes a familiarity with Gunnarr the Norwegian on the part of its audience in a passage where it describes Grímr’s journey abroad after he is declared guilty of killing Helgi Ásbjarnarson. Grímr has found a ship and arrived at Sogn in Norway: ‘Þá mælti Þorkell stýrimaðr við Grím: “Mat spari ek eigi við þik, en traust hefi ek ekki til at halda þik fyrir Gunnari Austmanni ok engum þeim, er þik vilja feigan”’ (‘Then Þorkell the helmsman said to Grímr, “I don’t begrudge you food, but I don’t trust myself to be able to keep you safe from Gunnarr the Norwegian or any of those who want you dead”’) (ÍF XI:177-8). This is the first and last we hear of Gunnarr the Norwegian in the saga and the audience is patently supposed to know who it is that is being referred to, just as if the reference were to the king himself. It seems very likely, as Jóhannesson points out in a footnote, that this Gunnarr the Norwegian is the same man as Gunnarr Þiðrandabani. But in order to understand the threat he poses to Grímr in Norway the audience needs to know the story that is told in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. Here literary relations are out of the question: on the one hand, such an approach would require us to believe that the ‘author’ of Droplaugarsona saga is referring at this point to the written saga of Gunnarr; on the other, we have the widely accepted view, the view of Jóhannesson himself, that the ‘author’ of Gunnars saga used Droplaugarsona saga as a source. This leads us into a vicious circle from which there is no obvious way out. A more plausible explanation for the familiarity with which Droplaugarsona saga refers to Gunnarr the Norwegian, and also the allusions in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana to the subject matter of Droplaugarsona saga, is that both works are making reference to an orally based body of knowledge of this material, knowledge that was available to both the writers and their audiences. We can therefore say with some confidence that each of Droplaugarsona saga, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, and Fljótsdœla saga probably drew on material from oral tradition, and this in turn reduces the likelihood that the oral story matter in Fljótsdœla saga comes mainly by way of written sagas—though it by no means rules out the possibility that people’s appreciation of oral narratives may have been enhanced by the knowledge that the stories they heard contained material that they also knew existed elsewhere in written form in books, even if they may never have seen or read these books themselves.

The killing of Þiðrandi. Þiðrandi Geitisson is killed in the same sources as tell about Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr, that is Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Fljótsdœla saga. As already described (p. 194), he is introduced differently in these two texts, as the foster son either of Ketill of Njarðvík in Gunnars saga (which does not mention that Ketill is the brother of Þiðrandi’s mother), or of Hróarr Tungugoði in Fljótsdœla saga (which provides comprehensive details of all Þiðrandi’s genealogy and circumstances). As also noted, the events leading up to Þiðrandi’s participation in the Kórekssons’ journey to Njarðvík to serve the summons on Ásbjǫrn are also described differently in the two sources. In light of this, it is worth comparing how the sources deal with the killing of Þiðrandi itself.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:200-1) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:262-5)
Egged on by Ásbjǫrn, Ketill loses his cool and rushes outside with spear in hand. Þiðrandi asks his men to spare his foster father. Ketill runs at Bjǫrn Kóreksson and thrusts his spear into him. Þórir Englandsfari then gives Ketill a fatal wound but is himself cut down by Ketill’s own men. When two of Ketill’s men, Þjóðgeirr and Þórir bringr, have been killed, Þiðrandi and his companions, five in total, want to ride away. At this point one of Ketill’s servant women runs indoors and urges the Norwegian merchants Gunnarr and Þormóðr to avenge her master. Gunnarr goes outside and asks which man would be the greatest loss among the attackers: ‘“Þat er hann Þiðrandi,” segir hon, in auma kona’ (‘“That’s him, Þiðrandi,” she says, the wretched woman’) (200-1). Gunnarr throws a spear into Þiðrandi’s back and it pierces through him. The lady of the house, Þorgerðr, and her sons lament this deed, but Gunnarr ‘kvað nú svá búit vera mundu’ (‘said that what was done was done’) (201). Egged on by Ásbjǫrn, Ketill jumps up ‘við bræði mikla’ (‘in great wrath’) (262), puts on a woolen shirt and goes in silence to his sleeping closet where he gets a helmet, sword, and shield. Once outside, he slashes at Þiðrandi who is on horseback, cutting through both saddle and into the horse. His second blow splits Þiðrandi’s shield. Meanwhile the women call together Ketill’s workmen, twenty all told. Þiðrandi tells his men not to use their weapons on his kinsman Ketill and asks him his terms. Ketill makes no reply and continues to attack Þiðrandi, who gives ground until the sun has started to go down. As Þiðrandi uses his sword to vault backwards over a stream, Ketill slashes at him, dislocating his right shoulder blade and exposing his lungs. So finally Þiðrandi thrusts back at Ketill with his left hand and kills him; then he sits down with the Kórekssons, the only ones still alive among his men. Ketill’s men cover his body with earth and go back to the house, exhausted and wounded from the battle. During the evening a housemaid goes to Gunnarr the Norwegian as he sits in his storehouse putting flights on his arrows and urges him to avenge her master. Gunnarr takes up a bow, puts an arrow to the string and asks where Þiðrandi is. She points him out and the arrow pierces his chest and comes out between his shoulders. Gunnarr asks again who it is that the arrow has hit and is told that it is Þiðrandi. At this he says: ‘Seg allra kvenna örmust. Eigi fekk annan mann vinsælla né betr at sér. Hefi ek þeim manni bana unnit, er ek vilda sízt’ (‘You and your wretched tongue, woman! There was never a more popular and accomplished man. I have been the death of the man I would least have wanted to’) (265).

In summary, these accounts agree on the following points:

  1. The names of Ketill, Gunnarr, and Þiðrandi;
  2. Both Ketill and Þiðrandi are killed;
  3. An unnamed woman urges Gunnarr to kill Þiðrandi.

On everything else each account goes its own way:

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Fljótsdœla saga
1. Ketill goes outside with a spear. 1. Ketill goes outside with a helmet, sword, and shield.
2. Þiðrandi asks his men to spare his foster father. 2. Þiðrandi asks his men to spare his kinsman.
3. Ketill kills Bjǫrn Kóreksson. 3. Ketill only attacks Þiðrandi.
4. Ketill is killed by Þórir Englandsfari. 4. Ketill is killed by Þiðrandi.
5. Of Þiðrandi’s men only Þórir is killed, and of Ketill’s domestic staff Þjóðgeirr and Þórir bringr are killed. 5. Of Þiðrandi’s men all are killed except the Kórekssons; Ketill’s domestic staff are wounded.
6. Þiðrandi and four others ride away. 6. Having been mortally wounded by Ketill, Þiðrandi sits on a tussock with the Kórekssons.
7. A servant woman urges Gunnarr and Þormóðr to take action. 7. A housemaid urges Gunnarr to take action.
8. Gunnarr asks who would be the greatest loss and is told that this would be Þiðrandi. 8. Gunnarr asks directly to have Þiðrandi pointed out to him.
9. Gunnarr throws a spear into Þiðrandi’s back. 9. Gunnarr shoots an arrow into Þiðrandi’s chest.
10. Gunnarr is phlegmatic about his deed. 10. Gunnarr regrets his deed and holds the woman to blame.

Once again, the differences between the texts are so great that the most obvious explanation is that each is drawing on material from an unfixed and amorphous oral tradition in the background. The central motif of a guest who shoots the person who least warrants it from a party coming to serve a summons has similarities to the scene in Hœnsa-Þóris saga where a Norwegian fires his bow and hits the boy Helgi Arngrímsson on Hœnsa-Þórir’s ill-fated journey to serve a summons on Blund-Ketill in Örnólfsdalur (see p. 325 ff). Despite there being nothing in the diction to recommend such a connection (other than that the name Ketill appears in all the texts), people have even suggested this may be a case of literary relations: see, for instance, Jóhannesson 1950:lxxxviii. But the circumstances in the eastern sagas are quite different from those in the Örnólfsdalur incident; despite what Gunnarr says afterwards in Fljótsdœla saga, the killing of Þiðrandi can hardly be viewed as in any way accidental or involuntary. In both Fljótsdœla saga and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Gunnarr makes direct inquiries about Þiðrandi, either by having him pointed out to him or by asking whose death would constitute the greatest loss to the attackers, and in both cases the bowman is fully aware who it is that he is aiming at. On top of this, in Fljótsdœla saga Þiðrandi is already so badly injured from Ketill’s sword, with an open wound in the back that exposes his lungs, that he would hardly have lived much longer even if Gunnarr had not shot him through the chest with his arrow. It also seems highly improbable that the audience is intended to be taken in by Gunnarr’s expressions of regret addressed to the housemaid when he holds her to blame for having pointed Þiðrandi out to him—since this is precisely what he asked her to do! The underlying idea behind the killing of Þiðrandi is thus quite unlike the incident in Hœnsa-Þóris saga, where the fact that it is an innocent boy who is hit by the Norwegian’s arrow is a matter of pure chance, as in the myth of Hǫðr and Baldr: see p. 325; see also Magerøy 1991. Explanations for the parallels in these texts’ accounts of the expeditions to summons Blund-Ketill/ Ketill þrymr, in which the person who is most innocent ends up being killed, are thus better sought among ideas about formalized narrative themes and migratory motifs than through appeal to the direct use of written sources.

A further dramatic instance of the differences between the sources, and therefore why it is unlikely that one is based on the other, concerns the Kórekssons themselves. Firstly, they are given different names in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and in Fljótsdœla saga; and secondly, the sources disagree on their fate after Þiðrandi is killed—in the former, they simply disappear from the story; in the latter we follow Þorkell and Gunnsteinn as, grievously wounded, they struggle home from Njarðvík. In this account, they get as far as Kiðjahvammur but can go no farther; Þorkell takes off his clothes, whereupon his guts pour out ‘ok lét Þorkell þar líf sitt’ (‘and there Þorkell died’) (ÍF XI:266). Gunnsteinn has become so stiff that he cannot move on but is saved by his father having an ominous dream at home at Kóreksstaðir and sending out a shepherd to look for his sons; the shepherd finds Gunnsteinn, gets him into the saddle and leads him home, where Kórekr tends his wounds.

The search for Gunnarr at the home of Sveinki/Sveinungr. As may be imagined, the Norwegian merchant Gunnarr does not get away scot-free after killing the man who Fljótsdœla saga calls ‘hinn fjórði maðr … bezt menntr á öllu Íslandi’ (‘one of the four most accomplished men in all of Iceland’) (ÍF XI:220)—the other three being Kjartan Óláfsson (from Laxdœla saga), Hǫskuldr Þorgeirsson Ljósvetningagoði (Ljósvetninga saga), and Ingólfr the Handsome Þorsteinsson (Vatnsdœla saga), ‘ok er svó mikit af sagt ásjónu þessara manna, at margar konur fengu eigi haldit skapi sínu, ef litu fegrð þeirra’ (‘and this much is said of the looks of these men, that many women were unable to control themselves if they looked upon their beauty’) (221). The first person to take up the case is Þorkell Geitisson, but his part in it varies greatly according to which of the sources one looks at.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:201-7) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:267-82)
Everybody mourns the death of Þiðrandi. Þorkell Geitisson searches for the two Norwegians at Njarðvík but Þorgerðr, the mistress of the house, says that they have been thrown out. Later that winter Þorkell forces Ketill’s sons, Þorkell and Eyjólfr, to admit they are harboring the Norwegians in their goatsheds (by means of killing a calf and using its blood to make Eyjólfr think that his brother has been killeda). With the brothers tied up, Þorkell Geitisson and his men go after the Norwegians; Þorkell kills Þormóðr with a the spear but Gunnarr escapes and flees to Sveinki at farm of Bakki in Borgarfjörður. Sveinki thanks Gunnarr for having avenged his friend Ketill of Njarðvík and hides him under a pile of fuel turfs in an outhouse. Þorkell Geitisson arrives (according to the saga, some say accompanied by Helgi Droplaugarson) and searches Sveinki’s farm. Meanwhile, Sveinki bars the door and spirits Gunnarr away. They go down to the shore, where Sveinki has Gunnarr hide himself under his newly caulked fishing boat and drives a flock of lambs over their tracks to hide them. Þorkell is angry at having been locked in and wants to search under the boat. Sveinki himself goes under the boat and Þorkell’s men jab their spears under it and wound Gunnarr. Somewhat improbably, Sveinki inflicts a cut upon himself and comes out from under the boat with blood pouring from him. Þorkell departs and Sveinki now takes Gunnarr to his barn and hides him in the hay. Þorkell returns swiftly but neglects to search in the barn. Once he is finally gone, Sveinki takes Gunnarr down to the sea and tells him to swim out to a small island offshore and hide himself in the seaweed. There he remains until Sveinki feels confident that Þorkell is not coming back and rows out to fetch him. Sveinki then advises Gunnarr to go to Helgi Ásbjarnarson at Mjóvanes and seek assistance; to do this, he must arrive in the dark and knock at the north door in a certain way, because then Helgi will come to the door himself. This works and Helgi allows Gunnarr to lie low in one of his outhouses when he hears of how Sveinki has helped him. Hróarr Tungugoði dies of grief for his foster son. Þorkell Ketilsson builds a funeral mound for his kinsman and those who have died, while others from the family turn their minds to vengeance: Þorkell Geitisson, Bjarni of Hof, Þórdís todda (wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson), and the Droplaugarsons. As winter approaches, Þorkell Geitisson sets off, accompanied by the Droplaugarsons. In all, eighteen men go on to Njarðvík, picking up Gunnsteinn at Kóreksstaðir on the way. By the time they arrive at Njarðvík, Helgi Droplaugarson has assumed command of the expedition. They get news of Þorkell Ketilsson and his men, capture them and threaten to kill them unless they tell on Gunnarr, who turns out to have been staying through the winter under cover in a tent on the rocky wastes. Þorkell Geitisson is given the task of guarding Þorkell Ketilsson while Helgi goes after Gunnarr, who happens to have gone outside in his linen breeches to relieve himself and sees the trouble on its way. He runs off in bare feet, is wounded by a spear, but swims across the bay and crosses the screes to Borgarfjörður with Helgi and his men coming after him by boat and on foot. Gunnarr meets Sveinungr of Bakki, who hides him in a pile of turfs but expresses no thanks to him for killing Þiðrandi. To put the search party off the scent, Sveinungr sends out his son dressed in white to round up sheep and directs Helgi towards him when he inquires about Gunnarr. While Helgi goes after the boy, Sveinungr hides Gunnarr in the hay in the barn. When Helgi realizes who the shepherd is, he turns back and goes into the barn with Sveinungr while his men open the hatch. Gunnarr remains undiscovered and Helgi sets off home. Gunnarr is put under a boat and his tracks are hidden by driving sheep across them. Helgi suspects he has been deceived and turns back. They search under the boat with their spears but notice nothing, even though they wound Gunnarr in the thigh. By now Sveinungr has a very ugly look on his face and they make off. Gunnarr is brought indoors and his wounds tended. Helgi’s men call on Sveinungr’s brother Gunnsteinn in Borgarfjörður, who makes them thoroughly unwelcome when he hears about the trouble they have been causing at Bakki. The next day they are already up on the moors when Helgi notices there is blood on his spear and realizes that Gunnarr must have been under the boat after all. But he thinks that getting Gunnarr out of Sveinungr’s hands will be beyond him and decides to continue home. A little later Sveinungr takes Gunnarr to Helgi Ásbjarnarson at Mjóvanes, who accepts him and keeps him safe in a storehouse through the winter.

a. This motif also appears in Víga-Glúms saga: see also Jóhannesson 1950:xc and Cederschiöld 1890, who considers the story of the killing of the calf related to a fable in Disciplina clericalis by the early 12th-century Spanish Jewish writer Petrus Alfonsi.

The texts thus agree on several points concerning Gunnarr Þiðrandabani’s flight, notably Sveinki/Sveinungr’s three choices of hiding place at Borgarfjörður—a) in a pile of turf, b) in the hay, c) under a boat—though the order differs. A curious feature of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is that Sveinki has Gunnarr swim out to the island to hide despite being seriously wounded. This swim is apparently unnecessary, since by this time the chase has been called off. But similar accounts of manhunts occur in several of the sagas, [11] and we can thus assume that this may be a case of a formulaic narrative theme rather than direct borrowing between sagas. The texts also agree that Gunnarr spent time in an ‘útibúr’ (‘outhouse,’ ‘storehouse’) [12] at Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s and was not received formally at the farm—presumably because Helgi’s wife Þórdís todda was closely related to Þiðrandi. Despite these similarities, however, once we consider the points on which they differ it becomes unlikely that there is any very close relationship between the two texts.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Fljótsdœla saga
1. Þorkell Geitisson searches for the Norwegians and forces Eyjólfr Ketilsson to divulge their whereabouts. 1. Þorkell Geitisson enlists the Droplaugarsons. Helgi Droplaugarson forces Þorkell Ketilsson to divulge Gunnarr’s whereabouts. Þorkell Geitisson remains behind.
2. There are two Norwegians in the goatsheds; one is killed while escaping. 2. Gunnarr is on his own in a tent and is wounded while trying to escape.
3. The route of Gunnarr’s flight down into Borgarfjörður is not described. 3. The saga gives details of Gunnarr’s swim across the bay and his route on foot across the frozen screes down into Borgarfjörður.
4. Sveinki thanks Gunnarr for having avenged Ketill. 4. Sveinungr condemns the killing of Þiðrandi.
5. ‘Some say’ that Helgi Droplaugarson was with Þorkell on the expedition. 5. Helgi is the leader of the expedition.
6. Sveinki locks Þorkell indoors while he hides Gunnarr under his boat. 6. Sveinungr sends Helgi on a wild goose chase after his son while he hides Gunnarr under the boat.
7. Sveinki goes under the boat and inflicts a wound on himself in order to deceive the man who has stabbed Gunnarr with his spear. 7. Sveinungr stands by in anger during the search under the boat.
8. Þorkell never searches Sveinki’s barn. 8. Helgi goes with Sveinungr into the barn.
9. Sveinki gets Gunnarr to swim out to an island once Þorkell is far enough away. 9. Sveinungr takes Gunnarr back inside after he has been wounded under the boat.
10. Nothing is said about Þorkell’s journey home. 10. On his way home, Helgi stays with Sveinungr’s brother and sees Gunnarr’s blood on his spear the next day.
11. Sveinki sends Gunnarr on alone to Helgi Ásbjarnarson. 11. Sveinungr takes Gunnarr to Helgi Ásbjarnarson himself.

It is worth noting that Sveinungr is in any case not entirely the creation of the writer of Fljótsdœla saga and that some kind of knowledge of him must have been passed on by tradition, since Landnámabók (S 287, H 248) records that a man called Þórir lína settled and lived in Breiðavík, the next bay to the south of Borgarfjörður, and had two sons, Sveinungr and Gunnsteinn. These are presumably the brothers that the writer of Fljótsdœla saga places in Borgarfjörður and clearly has more information about than he could have got from Landnámabók. There also seems to have been some common conception of the character of the farmer of Bakki, judging from the way he is described in the various sources:

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:203) Droplaugarsona saga (ÍF XI:151) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:273)
‘Gunnarr kom at bœ þeim, er á Bakka hét, í Borgarfirði. Þar bjó sá maðr, er Sveinki hét, garpr mikill ok inn ódælasti viðreignar.’ (‘Gunnarr came to the farm of Bakki in Borgarfjörður. A man lived there called Sveinki, a sturdy warrior and not a man to be trifled with.’) ‘Sveinungr hét maðr, er bjó á Bakka í Borgarfirði. Hann var Þórisson. Hann var mikill maðr ok sterkr ok vitr. Hann var vinr Helga Droplaugarsonar.’ (‘There was a man called Sveinungr who lived at Bakki in Borgarfjörður. He was the son of Þórir. He was a big man and strong and wise. He was a friend of Helgi Droplaugarson.’) ‘Sunnan undir hálsinum stendr bær, er heitir á Bakka […] Þar bjó sá maðr, er Sveinungr hét. Hann var kraptamaðr mikill ok átti góða peninga, kvóngaðr maðr ok átti einn son, níu vetra gamlan, þá er þetta varð tíðinda […] Sveinungr var einrænn maðr, ok var mál manna, at hann væri eigi allr þar, er hann var sénn. En þó var hann góðr þar, er hann vildi, en gjörði við fá eiga.’ (‘South under the ridge there stands a farm called Bakki […] There lived a man called Sveinungr. He was a man of great strength and well-to-do, a married man with one son nine years old when this happened […] Sveinungr kept himself to himself and the word was that there was more to him than met the eye. But he treated well those that he chose to, though he kept his nose out of other people’s business.’)

There is nothing in these descriptions that invites explanation through a literary relationship between the written texts as we have them. On the other hand, the material allows us to suppose that there were stories going around about a big, strong, and independently minded man who had once lived at Bakki in Borgarfjörður. Some people might have told stories about the time when he bested the big shots of the district by concealing the fugitive Gunnarr Þiðrandabani, either from Þorkell Geitisson or Helgi Droplaugarson, before sending him on to Helgi Ásbjarnarson for protection. Others might have known other stories about this man helping Helgi Droplaugarson against Helgi Ásbjarnarson. Certainly, these two incidents would go together badly within a single written saga but might easily have coexisted in an oral storytelling tradition where the common factor was that this Sveinki/Sveinungr of Bakki was enough his own man to stand up against all the most important chieftains in the east of Iceland—in a way not necessarily consistent with their own stories as they eventually came to be written in books.

Helgi Ásbjarnarson shelters Gunnarr and sends him on to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir—and the question of ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’. Bjarni Brodd-Helgason’s unsuccessful mission to his sister at Mjóvanes to seek out Gunnarr Þiðrandabani is described in detail in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Fljótsdœla saga. The two accounts were compared earlier (pp. 152 f) and found to exhibit no more signs of direct literary relations than the passages analyzed in this chapter. But at this point in the story of Gunnarr’s tribulations the picture is complicated by the addition of a further source, Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:202-4). Here, just as the wedding celebrations of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir and Þorkell Eyjólfsson are getting under way, it is said that Gunnarr Þiðrandabani had ‘verit sendr Guðrúnu til trausts ok halds; hon hafði ok við honum tekit, ok var leynt nafni hans. Gunnarr hafði sekr orðit um víg Þiðranda Geitissonar ór Krossavík, sem segir í sǫgu Njarðvíkinga’ (‘been sent to Guðrún for security and safekeeping and she had accepted him, and his name was kept secret. Gunnarr had been declared guilty of the killing of Þiðrandi Geitisson of Krossavík, as related in “saga Njarðvíkinga”’) (202).

Much scholarly ink has been spilt over this passing mention of an otherwise unknown ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ (‘saga of the house of Njarðvík’). Many have taken the view that this is simply a reference to Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and that therefore the ‘author’ of Laxdœla saga used Gunnars saga as a source. This idea was first put forward in an edition of Laxdœla saga published in Copenhagen in 1826 (xviii, with ‘Þáttur af Gunnari Þiðranda-bana,’ i.e. Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, printed in an appendix) and repeated in the introduction to Kålund’s Copenhagen edition (1889-91:lx). Andreas Heusler (1930:215 [1969:326-7]) regarded the connection in the same light, arguing that, since the account in Laxdœla saga was twice the length of the corresponding passage in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Gunnars saga was the source and the Laxdœla saga account represented an artistic reworking of the material found there. The main dissenting voice was that of Finnur Jónsson. Jónsson (1923:440) saw no reason to view Gunnar saga as the source of the account in Laxdœla saga simply because the latter was longer, the more so since the Laxdœla account contained at least one significant point of substance not found in Gunnars saga. To Jónsson, the account in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana read rather like a synopsis of the material from Laxdœla saga. In a chapter dedicated to Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana—which, despite its Norwegian hero, he classified as an Íslendingaþáttr on the grounds that it is set in Iceland and deals with Icelandic chieftains and their families—Jónsson (1923:544) made the point that the ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ mentioned in Laxdœla saga cannot well be Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana since this would be a singularly inappropriate title for a short saga (or þáttr as he would have it) with a Norwegian as its central character. He did not, however, reject the idea that the story of Gunnarr might have formed a part of such a saga.

In his book on the origins of the sagas, Knut Liestøl (1929:41-2) analyzed several examples of parallel accounts of the same incidents in different sagas, including the example from Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Laxdœla saga. Liestøl paid particular attention to the difference in length between the two accounts and to what he felt was a striking difference in the incidence of direct speech—virtually absent in the Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana account but comprising between a quarter and a third of the corresponding passage in Laxdœla saga (nine instances). This he compared with what he viewed as equally striking correspondences in subject matter: both accounts of the scene where Þorkell Eyjólfsson recognizes Gunnarr take place in the evening as people are getting washed, and Gunnarr is wearing a hat and gives a false name. The difference, as Liestøl saw it, lay in the use of literary devices on the one hand and the simpler narrative techniques of oral performance on the other. A little later in his study, Liestøl (1929:47-8) points out that the features that Laxdœla saga has over and above the other sagas have the effect of elevating Guðrún’s part, both in word and deed, in accordance with the general tendency throughout the saga. However, there were so many differences between the texts, e.g. in the use of direct speech and in the part played by Snorri goði, that they could hardly have been grounded in the same tradition, nor was it possible to view Laxdœla saga as an expansion or amplification of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. Thus, so far as Liestøl was concerned, there was no question of a literary relationship between the two works. These views were vigorously contested by Johannes van Ham (1932:129-32), who felt that the verbal correspondences in the scene where Gunnarr first appears carrying the water for washing were so great that there could be no doubt about the literary dependence between the two accounts. The changes made by the author of Laxdœla saga he considered to be completely natural and thus concluded that there was no reason not to think that ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana were one and the same thing (1932:132).

In his introduction to the Íslenzk fornrit edition, Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1934) discussed the sources of Laxdœla saga, including ‘saga Njarðvíkinga.’ Sveinsson (xxxviii-xxxix) was also in no doubt that this referred to Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (which he calls Gunnars þáttr Þiðrandabana), countering the objection that a ‘þáttr’ should be termed a ‘saga’ in Laxdœla saga on the grounds that this kind of variation in nomenclature was perfectly normal and of no significance. He considered the diction of the two accounts to be so similar and the differences in subject matter so slight that the changes could be put down to ‘authorial taste’ aimed at the greater glory of the heroine (xxxix); for example, in Laxdœla saga it is Guðrún herself who supplies Gunnarr with a ship, as opposed to him having to rely on the help of Snorri goði to get him out of the country as in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. According to Sveinsson, the most conspicuous differences lay in the actual presentation, the episode in Laxdœla saga being twice as long and more dramatic and impressive than the one in the ‘þáttr,’ which he characterized as little more than a ‘well worded summary’ (1934:xxxix).

The fullest discussion of the literary relations of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is to be found in Jón Jóhannesson’s introduction to Íslenzk fornrit XI (1950:lxxxvi-xcii). [15] To all intents and purposes, Jóhannesson’s conclusions on the relations of the saga to other written works and oral tradition, its chronology and knowledge of local geography, literary values, age, and provenance have been accepted unanimously by others who have written on the saga in general reference books since. Jóhannesson considered the literary relationship with Laxdœla saga to be incontrovertible and that ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ was therefore the extant Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. He answered what he called the ‘aðalmótbára’ (main counterargument), i.e. the incongruity of the name ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ itself, as if this were merely a matter of length: ‘the counterargument falls down of its own accord, since the þáttr is actually termed a saga in both manuscripts (see p. 211), doubtless going back to the vellum manuscript’ (1950:lxxxvii, translated). (This, of course, sidesteps the main thrust of Finnur Jónsson’s ‘counterargument,’ i.e. that the title ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ accords ill with the subject matter of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana.) As a source, Jóhannesson considered the ‘þáttr’ to be more original and reliable than Laxdœla saga and put the differences down to a desire on the part of the ‘author’ of Laxdœla saga to play up the part of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir as much as possible. Since it must have been available to the ‘author’ of Laxdœla saga, he believed that the ‘þáttr’ was probably known in Breiðafjörður in western Iceland around or before the middle of the 13th century. The familiarity displayed in the ‘þáttr’ with ‘westerners’ like Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, Þorkell Eyjólfsson, and Snorri goði Jóhannesson explained as its ‘author’ having known older written sources about these people, such as the extant synoptic biography of Snorri goði, Ævi Snorri goða, and a parallel, postulated *Ævi Þorkels Eyjólfssonar.

The name Þórir Englandsfari also appears in the second Halldórs þáttr Snorrasonar, which is generally reckoned to be older than Heimskringla. Jóhannesson takes this as evidence of a further literary relationship, with Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana again as the giver, despite the fact that Halldórs þáttr is set in the middle years of the 11th century, some while later than the events described in Gunnars saga. Jóhannesson (1950:lxxxvii) put this anomaly down to the author of the þáttr overlooking the fact that Þórir had died in the encounter at Njarðvík. On the basis of this supposed connection, Jóhannesson moved the date of Gunnars saga back as early as the first quarter of the 13th century. Jóhannesson sees oral influences in the saga in Þorkell’s threefold search for Gunnarr at Sveinki’s farm and in the killing of the calf when Þorkell forces Eyjólfr Ketilsson to divulge the whereabouts of Gunnarr’s hiding place, an incident which he took to be a mark of clumsiness on the part of the author and probably a legendary motif of foreign provenance (1950:lxxxix).

Jóhannesson’s idea that the supposedly poor knowledge of local place names and topography indicated that the saga was written in the west of Iceland has not been subject to thorough reassessment, nor his view that the ‘author’ based his work on stories from the east and that the finished saga was later taken east and acted as the catalyst for the development of saga writing there (1950:xci). But despite this apparent broad scholarly consensus on the literary relations among these sources, it now seems apposite to take the case up afresh and re-examine the three extant accounts of how Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir held a protecting hand over Þorkell Geitisson’s convicted enemy and got him out of the country.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:209-11) Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:202-4) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:285-8)
Þorkell Geitisson has Gunnarr declared guilty at the Alþingi. Grímr Droplaugarson kills Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Þórdís todda says ‘at hon vill senda Gunnar vestr til Helgafells til Guðrúnar Ósvífrsdóttur til halds ok trausts, ok skilði hon vel við hann. Ok kom hann vestr þangat í þat mund, er Guðrún var fǫstnuð Þorkatli Eyjólfssyni’ (‘that she wishes to send Gunnarr west to Helgafell to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir for safe-keeping and security, and she parted with him on good terms. He arrived there in the west just at the time that the marriage was being arranged between Guðrún and Þorkell Eyjólfsson’) (209). By this time all of Gunnarr’s property has come into the hands of Þorkell Geitisson. Þorkell Eyjólfsson rides to his wedding at Helgafell: ‘Ok um kveldit, er menn taka handlaugar, þá heldr Gunnarr Þiðrandabani vatni fyrir boðsmǫnnum ok Þorkatli Eyjólfssyni ok hefir hatt síðan á hǫfði. Þorkell þykkisk kenna manninn ok spyrr hann at nafni. Hann nefndisk því nafni, sem honum líkaði, en eigi því, er hann hét’ (‘And in the evening, when people take bowls to wash their hands, Gunnarr Þiðrandabani holds water for the guests and Þorkell Eyjólfsson and has a hat that hangs down over his head. Þorkell thinks he recognizes the man and asks him his name. He named himself with a name as he saw fit, and not what he was really called’) (210). Þorkell now sends for Guðrún with a message that he wants Gunnarr out of there; if not, he will leave himself. ‘Henni þykkir jafnvel, þótt hon eigi ekki hann Þorkel Eyjólfsson at bónda ok fari hann á brott, sem hann kom. “En ekki vinn ek þat til hans at selja þá menn undir vápn, er ek vil halda”’ (‘[Guðrún says] it is all the same to her if she doesn’t go through with marrying this Þorkell Eyjólfsson and if he goes away just as he came. “And I’m not doing that for him, handing people over to their deaths whom I choose to protect”’ (210). Snorri goði is introduced as a friend of Guðrún’s and it is said that they have altogether a hundred men with them. Þorkell backs down and the marriage goes ahead. Guðrún ‘kom Gunnari Þiðrandabana útan með fulltingi Snorra goða ok leysti hann vel af hendi. Fór Gunnarr útan ok kom aldri til Íslands síðan’ (‘With Snorri goði’s help, Guðrún got Gunnarr Þiðrandabani out of the country and sent him off in style. Gunnarr left the country and came never again to Iceland’) (210). He sends Guðrún fine gifts and invites Sveinki to come to him in Norway, where he is well provided for ‘til elli ævi sinnar’ (‘until the old age of his life’) (211). The autumn set for the marriage between Guðrún and Þorkell Eyjólfsson, ‘hafði Gunnarr Þiðrandabani verit sendr Guðrúnu til trausts ok halds; hon hafði ok við honum tekit, ok var leynt nafni hans […] fór hann mjǫk hulðu hǫfði, því at margir stórir menn veittu þar eptirsjár. It fyrsta kveld veizlunnar, er menn gengu til vatns, stóð þar maðr mikill hjá vatninu; sá var herðimikill ok bringubreiðr; sá maðr hafði hatt á hǫfði. Þorkell spurði, hverr hann væri; sá nefndisk svá, sem honum sýndisk. Þorkell segir: “Þú munt segja eigi satt; værir þú líkari at frásǫgn Gunnari Þiðrandabana”’ (‘Gunnarr Þiðrandabani had been sent to Guðrún for security and safe-keeping and she had accepted him, and his name was kept secret […] He kept a very low profile because many powerful men were after him. The first evening of the feast, when people were going to the water [to wash], there was a big man standing by the water; he was broad-shouldered and broad-chested; this man had a hat on his head. Þorkell asked who he was. He named himself, as he saw fit. Þorkell says: “I don’t think you’re telling the truth; from what I’ve heard tell you are more like Gunnarr Þiðrandabani”’) (202). Þorkell presses him to reveal his true identity. Gunnarr does so and asks what he has in mind. ‘Þorkell kvazk þat vilja mundu, at hann vissi þat brátt’ (‘Þorkell said he would let him know soon enough’) (202), and orders his men to arrest him. Guðrún sees what is going on and orders her men to come to Gunnarr’s aid. She has ‘lið miklu meira’ (‘a much bigger band of followers’) (202) and a battle looks imminent. But Snorri goði intervenes and points out to Þorkell that Guðrún has more courage and character than the both of them. ‘Þorkell lézk því hafa heitit nafna sínum, Þorkatli Geitissyni, at hann skyldi drepa Gunnar, ef hann kœmi vestr á sveitir’ (‘Þorkell said he had promised his namesake Þorkell Geitisson that he would kill Gunnarr if he turned up there in the west’) (203). Snorri persuades him there is more to be had from going along with him and Guðrún, as he will not find another wife like her. Þorkell is placated, Gunnarr is taken away, and the feast proceeds. The newlyweds establish a good relationship and in the spring Guðrún asks Þorkell what he ‘vili sjá fyrir Gunnari’ (‘wants to do about Gunnarr’) (203), but he leaves this up to her. Guðrún requests ‘at þú gefir honum skipit’ (‘that you give him the ship’) (203). Þorkell answers: ‘“Eigi er þér lítit í hug um mart, Guðrún […] ok er þér eigi hent at eiga vesalmenni; er þat ok ekki við þitt œði; skal þetta gera eptir þínum vilja”’ (‘“You don’t believe in half measures, Guðrún […] and it wouldn’t do for you to be married to some miserable wretch; that wouldn’t suit your spirit; we’ll do things the way you want”’) (203-204). ‘Fór Gunnarr útan ok kom við Nóreg’ (‘Gunnarr left the country and came to Norway’) (204), where he ‘var stórauðigr ok it mesta mikilmenni ok góðr drengr’ (‘was very rich and a man of great substance and of noble mind’) (204). The Droplaugarsons have Gunnarr’s property guarded and Þorkell Geitisson puts a price on his head and gives ‘höfðingjum umboð, at hann skulu höndum taka. Allir hétu góðu um þetta’ (‘the chieftains a commission to have him arrested. Everyone promised to do as he asked’) (286). This includes Þorkell Eyjólfsson, who lives at Helgafell and is married to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. There have been warm feelings between her and Helgi Ásbjarnarson and they have exchanged gifts. Helgi has Gunnarr escorted to Guðrún ‘því at hann var sendr þangat til umsjár ok halds með gnógum jarteiknum’ (‘since he was sent there for care and safe-keeping with ample marks of accreditation’) (286). Guðrún reacts favorably but Þorkell is not at home. ‘Hann hafði heitit Þorkeli Geitissyni at taka Gunnar af lífi, ef hann næði honum’ (‘He had promised Þorkell Geitisson to execute Gunnarr if he could lay his hands on him’) (286). When Þorkell returns ‘síð um aptan’ (‘late in the afternoon’) (286) people are helped out of their outdoor clothes and the fires are lit. He then sees an unfamiliar man, very powerfully built, in a gray hooded cape, and ‘spyrr, hverr sá maðr væri hinn drengiligi. Hann segir til sín ok kveðst Gestr heita’ (‘asks who this noble-looking man might be. He speaks up and says his name is Gestr’ [a common enough name, but also meaning ‘guest’]) (286-7). Þorkell says: ‘“Furðu líkr ertu þeim manni at frásögn, er heitir Gunnar ok er kallaðr Þiðrandabani”’ (‘“From what I’ve heard tell, you’re amazingly like the man called Gunnarr, known also as Þiðrandabani”’) (287). Asked how he can be expected to react, he says: ‘Þat skaltu vita brátt’ (‘You’ll know soon enough’) (287) and takes a swipe at Gunnarr with his sword. Guðrún is told what is going on and orders Þorkell to leave the man alone, threatening to divorce him otherwise. She delivers a speech about Gunnarr having been sent to her ‘til halds ok trausts’ (‘for safe-keeping and security’) (287) and that she will protect him like a son until the ships leave Iceland in the summer. Þorkell replies: ‘“Verðr optast engin hæfa á, ef þú ræðr eigi því, sem þú vilt. Verðum vér jafnan lítilmenni af, ef þú hlutast til”’ (‘“Things generally don’t work out unless you get your own way. We always seem to come out of it looking pathetic once you get involved”’) (287). In the spring Guðrún wants Gunnarr to be given a ship belonging to their son Gellir, who is staying at home for the summer. Þorkell lets her have her own way. ‘Siglir Gunnar í haf, þegar honum gaf byri’ (‘Gunnarr sails out to sea once he got a favorable breeze’) (288) and lands in Hálogaland in the north of Norway, where it transpires he is the son of a nobleman. The following summer he sends the ship back to Iceland with generous payment and lives the rest of his life in Hálogaland ‘ok kemr lítt við þessa sögu’ (‘and has little [further] part in this saga’) (288).

Bold text indicates verbal correspondences in all three texts; italics indicate correspondences between Gunnars saga and Laxdœla saga; and underline between Laxdœla saga and Fljótsdœla saga.

Certain central points are common to all three texts:

  1. The names of the main characters are the same in all cases.
  2. Gunnarr Þiðrandabani comes to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir.
  3. Þorkell Eyjólfsson opposes Guðrún’s protecting Gunnarr.
  4. There is a threat of a breakdown in relations between Þorkell and Guðrún.
  5. Guðrún gets Gunnarr out of the country.

But there are also several clear differences in how the sagas present the events and the texts are related in a number of different ways. In the comparisons above and below, italics indicate points where there are verbal similarities shared by two texts but not by all three.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Laxdœla saga Fljótsdœla saga
1. Þórdís sends Gunnarr to Guðrún. 1. The person who sends Gunnarr to Guðrún is not specified. 1. Helgi Ásbjarnarson has Gunnarr escorted to Guðrún.
2. Gunnarr arrives during the wedding of Guðrún and Þorkell. 2. Gunnarr arrives before the wedding of Guðrún and Þorkell. 2. Guðrún and Þorkell are living at Helgafell and have a grown-up son, Gellir.
3. Gunnarr and Þorkell speak while the guests are washing their hands; Gunnarr holds vatni (‘water’). 3. Gunnarr and Þorkell speak while the guests are washing their hands, i.e. go to vatns (‘water’). 3. Gunnarr and Þorkell speak by the fire.
4. Gunnarr gives an unspecified false name. 4. Gunnarr gives an unspecified false name. 4. Gunnarr gives his name as Gestr.
5. Þorkell threatens to leave the feast if Gunnarr is not sent away. 5. Þorkell gives an order for Gunnarr to be arrested. 5. Þorkell aims a blow at Gunnarr.
6. — 6. Þorkell has promised (heitit) Þorkell Geitisson that he will kill Gunnarr. 6. Þorkell has promised (heitit) Þorkell Geitisson that he will kill Gunnarr.
7. Guðrún is indifferent to whether Þorkell leaves or not. 7. Guðrún gets her own men to protect Gunnarr. 7. Guðrún tells Þorkell to leave Gunnarr in peace and threatens to divorce him.
8. The combined forces of Guðrún and Snorri goði are enough to stop Þorkell from carrying out this threat. 8. Snorri goði intervenes and tells Þorkell to put more value on the trust of him and Guðrún than of Þorkell Geitisson. 8. —  
9. — 9. Gunnarr is led away from the feast. 9. —
10. With the support of Snorri goði, Guðrún gets Gunnarr out of the country. 10. Guðrún gets Þorkell to provide Gunnarr with a ship to get abroad. 10. Guðrún provides Gunnarr with the ship belonging to her and Þorkell’s son, Gellir.
11. Gunnarr sends Guðrún fine gifts and invites Sveinki to come to him. 11. Gunnarr lives on his riches in Norway and is out of the saga. 11. Gunnarr is the son of a nobleman and returns the ship with fine gifts.

If we compare the texts, it comes out that the statements of Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Jón Jóhannesson about the episode in Laxdœla saga being twice the length of the corresponding passage in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and adding to it and dramatizing it with the intention of emphasizing the role of Guðrún do not tell the whole story. Much of the extra length in Laxdœla saga can be put down to the account of Gunnarr’s fate being interspersed with details of Guðrún and Þorkell’s life together after their wedding. If only the lines pertinent to the story of Gunnarr are taken, the ratio comes down to around three to five. Also, most of the extra material in Laxdœla saga does not serve to enhance the role of Guðrún so much as to explain the part of Snorri goði in the proceedings and to motivate the conversation between Guðrún and Þorkell in which she asks him to provide Gunnarr with a ship. If the intention of the ‘author’ of Laxdœla saga had really been to write up Guðrún’s part, it seems very unlikely—if he had read Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana—that he would have dropped the words directly attributed to Guðrún there, when she ‘þykkir jafnvel, þótt hon eigi ekki hann Þorkel Eyjólfsson at bónda ok fari hann á brott, sem hann kom. “En ekki vinn ek þat til hans at selja þá menn undir vápn, er ek vil halda”’ (‘reckons it is all the same to her if she doesn’t go through with marrying this Þorkell Eyjólfsson and if he goes away just as he came. “And I’m not doing that for him, handing over people to their deaths whom I choose to protect.”’) (ÍF XI:210). [16] In place of Guðrún’s uncompromising stance here, Laxdœla saga presents Snorri goði as a conciliator, persuading Þorkell Eyjólfsson to abandon his promise to Þorkell Geitisson and throw in his lot with them, ‘því at þú fær aldri slíkrar konu, sem Guðrún er’ (‘because you will never get another wife the like of Guðrún’) (ÍF V:203).

The relative space given to the constituent parts of the episode is roughly as follows (based on line count in the Íslenzk fornrit editions):

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:210-1) Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:202-4)
  [Material said to be from ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ – 3 lines]
Introduction – 4 lines Introduction – 3 lines
Dialogue between Þorkell and Gunnarr – 7 lines Dialogue between Þorkell and Gunnarr – 13 lines
Guðrún’s reactions – 8 lines Guðrún’s reactions – 6 lines
Snorri goði lends his support to Guðrún – 2 lines Dialogue between Snorri goði and Þorkell – 13 lines
  [Guðrún and Þorkell’s married life – 11 lines]
Þorkell’s reaction and relations with Guðrún – 2 lines Dialogue between Guðrún and Þorkell about Gunnarr – 11 lines
Gunnarr got out of Iceland – 3 lines Gunnarr got out of Iceland – 4 lines
Gunnarr in Norway – 5 lines Gunnarr in Norway – 2 lines

This hardly constitutes a dramatic and deliberate enhancement of Guðrún’s role by the writer of Laxdœla saga. On the contrary, Laxdœla saga devotes considerably more space to Gunnarr on his first appearance and describes him in different words from his saga, viz. he is ‘herðimikill ok bringubreiðr’ (‘broad-shouldered and broad-chested’) (ÍF V:202). By way of comparison, the description of Gunnarr at the beginning of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana: ‘Gunnarr var manna vaskligastr, mikill ok sterkr ok manna vænstr at sjá’ (‘Gunnarr was the most valiant of men, big and strong and as handsome as they come’) (ÍF XI:198). While it is quite possible to infer from this that such a man would have been big and broad in the shoulders and chest, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana does not actually say as much. In other words, the sagas are in material agreement as to Gunnarr’s powerful appearance but there is no question of any verbal correspondence. In other respects, the greater length of the episode in Laxdœla saga comes down to the description of Snorri goði’s part in solving the dispute—all that is said in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is that this was brought about ‘með fulltingi Snorra goða’ (‘with the support of Snorri goði’)—and to the details of the general relations between Guðrún and Þorkell and their discussions about what to do with Gunnarr. Taken overall, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana can be seen as limiting itself to matters that affect Gunnarr directly, while in Laxdœla saga the center of interest is on the characters that feature largest elsewhere in the saga, both before and after the Gunnarr Þiðrandabani affair.

The fact remains that the direct verbal correspondences point to a connection linking all three of these texts rather than just the two compared so far. All the verbal correspondences between Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Fljótsdœla saga (indicated in the summaries in bold) are also found in Laxdœla saga.

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:209-10) Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:202) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:286-7)
‘at hon vill senda Gunnar vestr til Helgafells til Guðrúnar Ósvífrsdóttur til halds ok trausts’ (‘that she wishes to send Gunnarr west to Helgafell to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir for safe-keeping and security’) (209). ‘hafði Gunnarr Þiðrandabani verit sendr Guðrúnu til trausts ok halds’ (Gunnarr Þiðrandabani had been sent to Guðrún for security and safe-keeping’) (202). ‘því at hann var sendr þangat til umsjár ok halds með gnógum jarteiknum’ (‘since he was sent there for care and safekeeping with ample marks of accreditation’) (286).
    sendrtil halds ok trausts’ (‘sentfor safe-keeping and security’ (287).
‘Þorkell þykkisk kenna manninn ok spyrr hann at nafni’ (‘Þorkell thinks he recognizes the man and asks him his name’) (210). ‘Þorkell spurði, hverr hann væri’ (Þorkell asked who he was’) (202). ‘Þorkell spyrr, hverr sá maðr væri hinn drengiligi’ (‘Þorkell asks who this noble-looking man might be’) (286).

There are also specific verbal correspondences linking both, on the one hand, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Laxdœla saga (in italics), and on the other Laxdœla saga and Fljótsdœla saga (underlined):

Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:210-1) Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:202-4) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:286-7)
‘Ok um kveldit, er menn taka handlaugar, þá heldr Gunnarr Þiðrandabani vatni fyrir boðsmǫnnum ok Þorkatli Eyjólfssyni ok hefir hatt síðan á hǫfði’ (‘And in the evening, when people take bowls to wash their hands, Gunnarr Þiðrandabani holds water for the guests and Þorkell Eyjólfsson and has a hat that hangs down over his head’) (210). ‘It fyrsta kveld veizlunnar, er menn gengu til vatns, stóð þar maðr mikill hjá vatninu; sá var herðimikill ok bringubreiðr; sá maðr hafði hatt á hǫfði’ (‘The first evening of the feast, when people were going to the water [to wash], there was a big man standing by the water; he was broad-shouldered and broad-chested; this man had a hat on his head’) (202).  
‘Þorkell þykkisk kenna manninn ok spyrr hann at nafni. Hann nefndisk því nafni, sem honum líkaði, en eigi því, er hann hét’ (‘Þorkell thinks he recognizes the man and asks him his name. He named himself with a name as he saw fit, and not what he was really called’) (210). ‘Þorkell spurði, hverr hann væri; sá nefndisk svá, sem honum sýndisk’ (‘Þorkell asked who he was. He named himself, as he saw fit’) (202). ‘Þorkell spyrr, hverr sá maðr væri hinn drengiligi. Hann segir til sín ok kveðst Gestr heita’ (‘Þorkell asks who this noble-looking man might be. He speaks up and says his name is Gestr’) (286-7).
  ‘Þorkell segir: “Þú munt segja eigi satt; værir þú líkari at frásǫgn Gunnari Þiðrandabana”’ (‘Þorkell says: “I don’t think you’re telling the truth; from what I’ve heard tell you are more like Gunnarr Þiðrandabani”’) (202). ‘Þorkell segir: “Furðu líkr ertu þeim manni at frásögn, er heitir Gunnar ok er kallaðr Þiðrandabani”’ (‘Þorkell says: “From what I’ve heard tell, you’re amazingly like the man called Gunnarr, known also as Þiðrandabani”’) (287).
  ‘Þorkell kvazk þat vilja mundu, at hann vissi þat brátt’ (‘Þorkell said he would let him know soon enough’) (202). ‘Þorkell svarar: “Þat skaltu vita brátt”’ (‘Þorkell answers: “You’ll know soon enough”’) (287).
  ‘Þorkell lézk því hafa heitit nafna sínum, Þorkatli Geitissyni, at hann skyldi drepa Gunnar, ef hann kœmi vestr á sveitir’ (‘Þorkell said he had promised his namesake Þorkell Geitisson that he would kill Gunnarr if he turned up there in the west’) (203). ‘Allir hétu góðu um þetta’ (‘Everyone promised to do as he asked’) (286).
‘Hann hafði heitit Þorkeli Geitissyni at taka Gunnar af lífi, ef hann næði honum’ (‘He had promised Þorkell Geitisson to execute Gunnarr if he could lay his hands on him’) (286).
Fór Gunnarr útan ok kom aldri til Íslands síðan’ (‘Gunnarr left the country and came never again to Iceland’) (210). Fór Gunnarr útan ok kom við Nóreg’ (‘Gunnarr left the country and came to Norway’) (204).  

If what we have here are direct literary relations, i.e. loans from one written text to another, there are at least four possible ways of accounting for them:

  1. Laxdœla saga was written with conscious knowledge of both the other sagas.
  2. Laxdœla saga supplied material to both the other sagas in their accounts of the reception given to Gunnarr by Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir.
  3. The writer of Laxdœla saga used Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, and then some time later the writer of Fljótsdœla saga used Laxdœla saga in his account of Gunnarr’s fortunes in the west.
  4. The writer of Laxdœla saga used Fljótsdœla saga, and then some time later the writer of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana used Laxdœla saga in his account of Gunnarr’s fortunes in the west.

If we have any faith at all in the generally accepted ideas about the ages of these three sagas, Laxdœla saga can at least be taken as older than Fljótsdœla saga, which rules out possibilities 1) and 4). This leaves 2) and 3). As regards the manuscripts, Laxdœla saga is the only one of the three sagas preserved on skin. The other two exist only in paper copies, the oldest being from the 17th century; for example, several copies of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana are found along with other sagas from the east of Iceland, but it is also found with Laxdœla saga in the compilation AM 158 fol. from around 1650. So, are there any genuine grounds for thinking that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is old enough to have been able to influence the writing of Laxdœla saga in the middle years of the 13th century? In fact, the main reason adduced by scholars for thinking that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is older than Laxdœla saga rests on the assumption that it is the same work as the ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ mentioned in Laxdœla saga. But this equation is not the only way of accounting for the verbal correspondences between Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Laxdœla saga; we should also consider the possibility that the writer of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana constructed his account of the adventures of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani on the basis of material drawn from both *saga Njarðvíkinga and Laxdœla saga.

The argument advanced by Finnur Jónsson (see p. 230) against identifying *saga Njarðvíkinga with Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is still fully valid, i.e. that ‘the saga of the house of Njarðvík’ is a singularly inappropriate title for a saga that centers around the Norwegian merchant Gunnarr Þiðrandabani and his fortunes in Iceland—a saga that describes itself perfectly naturally in its final sentence as ‘sǫgu Gunnars Þiðrandabana’ (‘the saga of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani’) (ÍF XI:211). In support of Jónsson’s argument there is also the fact that Laxdœla saga includes story material from the east of Iceland that does not come from Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, viz. Laxdœla saga states specifically that Þiðrandi Geitisson was from Krossavík, while all that Gunnars saga has to tell us about his origins and family background is that he was fostered by Ketill of Njarðvík. We can therefore infer that the writer of Laxdœla saga had more information on this character than appears in the version of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana that we know. The word ‘Njarðvíkingar’ itself is also peculiar to Laxdœla saga: it does not occur in Landnámabók or in any of the eastern sagas except Fljótsdœla saga, which by general consensus is late in its written form, where it is used four times in connection with the paternal line of the Droplaugarsons:

Hallsteinn […] í Jórvík […] var ungr maðr ok var þá nýkvóngaðr. Hann var skyldr þeim mjök Njarðvíkingum. Við þenna mann var Þorvaldr ástúðugastr, áðr hann fór utan. (‘Hallsteinn […] of Jórvík […] was a young man and newly married at the time. He was closely related to the Njarðvíkingar. He was the dearest friend of Þorvaldr [sc. Þiðrandason, father of the Droplaugarsons] before he went abroad.’) (ÍF XI:233)

Gunnar hét maðr. Hann var skyldr mjök Njarðvíkingum. (‘There was a man called Gunnarr. He was closely related to the Njarðvíkingar.’) (ÍF XI:235)

Droplaug svarar: ‘Má ok vera við þessa iðn, er þú hefir, at Þorgrími tordýfli þyki þú meir segjast í ætt Svarts þræls heldr en í ætt Þorvalds Þiðrandasonar eða annarra Njarðvíkinga eða enn annarra þeirra, er mér þykja flestir íslenzkir lítils virðir hjá þeim.’ (‘Droplaug replies [in response to Þorgrímr torðyfill’s insinuations about her and directing her words to her son Helgi]: “What with this way you have of spending your time [sc. hunting ptarmigan] maybeÞórgrímr torðyfill reckons you’re conforming more to the family of Svartr the slave than the family of Þorvaldr Þiðrandason or others of the Njarðvíkingar or anyone else of those I’d reckon make most people in Iceland seem of little account.”’) (ÍF XI:243)

Þorbjǫrn átti sér konu. Hun var skyld þeim Njarðvíkingum. (‘Þorbjǫrn [kórekr] had a wife. She was related to the Njarðvíkingar.’) (ÍF XI:259)

None of the arguments presented here call into question the literary relationship between Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Laxdœla saga. The main advantage of distinguishing *saga Njarðvíkinga from Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is that it allows us to take the testimony of Laxdœla saga at face value, without the need to suppose it means anything other than what it actually says—a obvious plus point when it comes to formulating theories about the use of sources among the ancient saga writers. The writer of Laxdœla saga could have known an account from the east of Iceland about how ‘Gunnarr hafði sekr orðit um víg Þiðranda Geitissonar ór Krossavík’ (‘Gunnarr had been declared guilty of the killing of Þiðrandi Geitisson of Krossavík’), and named this account ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ (ÍF V:202). He could then have told his own version of how Guðrún received this wealthy Norwegian and got him out of the country with the help of Snorri goði, and in the defiance of her husband’s wishes. This episode in Laxdœla saga could then have come to the attention of someone familiar with *saga Njarðvíkinga and inspired him to construct a saga specifically about Gunnarr Þiðrandabani using what was said about him in Laxdœla saga in combination with what was already common knowledge in the east.

As shown above, there are few if any direct verbal correspondences between Fljótsdœla saga and parallel passages in other sagas from the east of Iceland, and there is thus a good probability that whoever wrote this saga acquired his material from oral sources in the east. Things are different when it comes to Fljótsdœla saga and Laxdœla saga, between which the correspondences in diction appear to indicate a literary relationship rather than some kind of background connection through oral sources. In addition to the description of Gunnarr’s reception at Helgafell, scholars have suggested further influences from Laxdœla saga in Fljótsdœla saga’s account of the drowning of Þorvaldr Þiðrandason, which bears certain similarities to the drowning of Þorkell Eyjólfsson in Laxdœla saga, even to the extent of apparent verbal correspondences:

Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:221-3) Fljótsdœla saga (ÍF XI:235-6)
Þorkell has the sword Skǫfnungr with him when he drowns. (222) Þorvaldr leaves the sword acquired from Geitir with Droplaug. (235)
‘Þváttdaginn fyrir páska spurðusk tíðendin ok þóttu vera mikil, því at Þorkell hafði verit mikill hǫfðingi.’ (‘The news got out on the Saturday before Easter and aroused much interest, for Þorkell had been a great chieftain.’) (223) ‘En þessi tíðindi spurðust brátt um heraðit ok þótti mörgum mikil.’ (‘But this news got out quickly around the district and aroused much interest among many people.’) (235)
‘Guðrúnu þótti mikit fráfall Þorkels.’ (‘Guðrún was deeply affected by the decease of Þorkell.’) (223) ‘Droplaug kunni illa fráfalli Þorvalds.’ (‘Droplaug was upset by the decease of Þorvaldr.’) (236)

The correspondences here may not be very great, and perhaps not in as significant words as in the accounts of Gunnarr at Helgafell—cf. ‘senda/sendr til trausts ok halds,’ ‘nefndisk sem honum líkaði/sýndisk,’ ‘líkr/líkari at frásǫgn,’ ‘vita/vissi brátt’—but they at least point in the same direction. They certainly do nothing to reduce the possibility of a literary relationship between these two works. For instance, although the word ‘fráfall’ (‘decease’) appears eleven times in the sagas and þættir of Icelanders, only three of these occurrences are in the context of a wife’s feelings at the death of her husband: these two examples, and in Gunnars saga Keldnugúpsfífls.

In which case, what is it that Laxdœla saga is referring to when it speaks of *saga Njarðvíkinga? All scholars who have discussed this matter have worked on the assumption that this is a reference to a written work: see, for instance, Stefán Karlsson’s suggestion quoted above (see footnote 20, p. 240) that Fljótsdœla saga drew on material from an older saga, now lost. But it is worth asking whether a story needs to be written to qualify for the name of ‘saga.’ Robert Kellogg (1994) investigated the meaning of the word ‘saga’ in ancient sources and came to the conclusion that it does not automatically indicate a written work. If, for example, *saga Njarðvíkinga had been a written saga, it is unlikely that it would have been used as a source in Laxdœla saga and nowhere else. It was shown above that in the passages where Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Fljótsdœla saga treat the same material they are so different in their presentation and diction (except in the one place where they are both also related to Laxdœla saga) that the likeliest explanation of the connection between them appears to be that both were based on oral accounts dealing with the main characters and events of the saga world of eastern Iceland (a world that could itself have been influenced by written sagas once they had come into existence); this at least seems more probable than positing lost written sources along the lines of *saga Njarðvíkinga, something which exists only as a passing reference in a third source, Laxdœla saga, which on the other hand appears to have other indisputable links with both the eastern sagas.

Figure 5-7: Possible relationships among the sources, accounting for a) the reference in Laxdœla saga to *saga Njarðvíkinga, and b) the verbal correspondences linking Laxdœla saga, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, and Fljótsdœla saga

It seems reasonable to suppose that the story knowledge of the saga writers of the east of Iceland was restricted largely to their own particular region, just like the poetical knowledge of Óláfr Þórðarson hvítaskáld (see p. 113). So it is likely that saga writers needed to turn to other informants or books when they wanted to move the settings of their works to some part of the country about which they knew little beyond the names of the leading chieftains. As noted previously (p. 232), Jón Jóhannesson took the view that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana was probably written in the west of Iceland on the grounds that it appeared to display an imperfect knowledge of place and topography in the east. If this were so, the case for an oral *saga Njarðvíkinga (as opposed to the written Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana in the west of Iceland) that was used by the writer of Laxdœla saga would be considerably weakened. Jóhannesson’s arguments are set out in the table below.

Table 5-3: Jón Jóhannesson’s arguments and conclusions concerning the age and literary relations of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (see Jóhannesson 1950:lxxxvi-xcii)


Leaving aside Jóhannesson’s conviction that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and *saga Njarðvíkinga are one and the same thing, his argumentation is built entirely around the paucity of geographical and topographical information about the east in Gunnars saga (the argument that influence from the saga is first apparent in the west being circular, depending as it does entirely on the supposition that, under the name of *saga Njarðvíkinga, it was used by the author of Laxdœla saga). On the geography of the saga, Jóhannesson has this to say:

Lítil rækt er lögð við staðfræði í þættinum, og er því eigi að vænta þar mikilla leiðbeininga um, hvar hann sé ritaður. Nokkurs kunnugleika í Njarðvík og Borgarfirði gætir, en þó eigi svo mikils, að víst megi telja, að höfundurinn hafi komið þar, enda mæla önnur rök gegn því. Fjarlægðir þar eystra virðast hafa verið í þoku fyrir honum. Björn Kóreksson er talinn búa í Skriðudal, en þó virðist gert ráð fyrir, að hann hafi búið miklu nær Njarðvík en svo, enda er líklegast, að hann hafi í rauninni búið á Kóreksstöðum. Enn fremur bendir frásögnin af sendiför Þórðar í Krossavík (201.–202. bls.) til þess, að höfundurinn hafi ímyndað sér, að miklu skemmra væri mill[i] Vopnafjarðar og Njarðvíkur en er. Sennilegast er því, að höfundurinn hafi stuðzt við sagnir af Austurlandi, en hann hafi eigi verið kunnugur þar sjálfur, og má þá helzt gizka á, að þátturinn sé ritaður á Helgafelli á Snæfellsnesi eða þar í grennd, enda verður hans fyrst vart á þeim slóðum, eins og fyrr greinir.

This is first and foremost a matter of ‘feel’: Jóhannesson is unable to cite out-and-out errors in the geographical information but has a feeling that the distances and journeys between places are not specified in the kind of detail that would be expected by a modern readership. It is however acknowledged that the saga displays a special familiarity with the isolated settlements of Njarðvík and Borgarfjörður, places that have probably never in their histories seen large numbers of visitors. This presentation of the material does not, however, necessarily imply that the ‘author’ of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana was unfamiliar with the east of Iceland; on the contrary, it is absolutely of a piece with a general narrative technique that assumes of its audience a large degree of prior knowledge of the events and characters mentioned in the narrative (see above, p. 184). It therefore comes as no surprise that well-known routes and distances should be treated in the same way, i.e. not explained or described expressly. The audience is assumed to be aware that it was no quick jaunt over to Njarðvík for Þorkell Geitisson setting out from Vopnafjörður, or for Bjǫrn Kóreksson setting out from Skriðudalur—and, indeed, the saga suggests that these journeys were not undertaken without some preparation. There is thus no genuine sign of any particular lack of local knowledge on the part of the writer of Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, and therefore no reason to think anything other than that it could have been written in the east of the country. And so it is likely that whoever wrote this saga had gotten his material from oral sources in that part of the country and, alongside this, took for granted that his audience shared a reasonable knowledge of the local geography and the leading chieftains whom he presented to them without feeling any need to introduce them formally. [22]


A detailed examination of the connections between Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Laxdœla saga, and Fljótsdœla saga reveals that there is no evidence for a direct literary relationship between Gunnars saga and Fljótsdœla saga. There is, however, reason to believe that both works do have literary relations with Laxdœla saga. But the saga that Laxdœla saga refers to as ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ can hardly be Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana as has often been claimed—principally because ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ is too inappropriate a name to describe a work that deals with the misfortunes of a Norwegian merchant in Iceland, a point made by Finnur Jónsson many years ago but sidestepped in the discussions of all more recent critics. Fljótsdœla saga, on the other hand, several times describes important characters as ‘Njarðvíkingar,’ and one 18th-century manuscript actually titles the work ‘Historia Niardvijkingorum.’ It is therefore more likely that the *saga Njarðvíkinga of Laxdœla saga refers to a story treating material similar to that found in Fljótsdœla saga (and Droplaugarsona saga), but one which is more likely to have been oral than written, in part because the links between the sagas of the east of Iceland suggest that it was their general practice to go to oral sources for their material rather than to pre-existing written ones. Fljótsdœla saga in the written form in which we know it could then (like Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana) have used Laxdœla saga as its source for the fortunes of Gunnarr in the west of the country where the action of Laxdœla saga takes place. For Gunnarr’s activities in the more familiar east, however, Fljótsdœla saga could tell the story as it was known within the local oral tradition in that part of the country.


[ back ] 1. It is reasonable to speak of this kind of prior knowledge on the part of the audiences of written sagas only as long as comparable stories and genealogical material remained alive within an uninterrupted oral tradition. With the passing of time, writers would no longer feel themselves able to add anything new about the characters, genealogies, and incidents that featured in their sagas; at this point we can regard them rather as copyists and assume that their audiences knew little more about the subjects described than appeared in the texts.

[ back ] 2. For a comparison between this dream in Landnámabók and the dream of Hallfreðr in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, see above p. 27.

[ back ] 3. As part of courses that I ran at the Ethnology Department of the University of Iceland in the springs of 1994 and 1997, I got the students to do projects comparing accounts of the same events in different sagas from the east of Iceland applying the methods outlined in this work. Their conclusions were in many respects similar to my own, and I received considerable benefit from their comments and the discussions occasioned by their projects.

[ back ] 4. Glíru-Halli in Landnámabók; Glyttu/Glýttu- or Glettu/Glittu-Halli in most manuscripts of the saga.

[ back ] 5. A similar addendum in Þórðarbók to the genealogy of the Egilssons (S 268, H 230) adds that they were ‘í liði með Þorkatli í Bǫðvarsdal í móti Bjarna Brodd-Helgasyni’ (‘on Þorkell’s side at Böðvarsdalur against Bjarni Brodd-Helgason’). See also the addendum in Þórðarbók at S 265, H 227.

[ back ] 6. Jón Jóhannesson (1950:58, 62) thinks that there may be some confusion here and that this Eilífr may be the same man as the Eyjólfr mentioned among Þorkell’s party.

[ back ] 7. W. G. Collingwood (1908) suggested that this story as it appears in Fljótsdœla saga had its origins in Shetland. Collingwood took the general view that these kinds of tales of trolls and giants were typically signs of Celtic influence, but also drew attention to the use of the word lámr—‘jötunninn breiðir frá sér lámana’ (‘the giant opened out his great clumsy paws’) (ÍF XI:228)—which is a loan from the Gaelic lamh. He also suggested that the weapon that Þorvaldr took from the giant Geitir was most probably a bronze sword of a type similar to one found in Shetland in the 19th century; such swords would have been familiar to Norse vikings from raiding graves on the islands, and this would have provided the background for descriptions like that of Geitir’s sword: ‘Járnhjölt vóru at. Ekki var þat búit meir. Hann brá sverðinu, ok var þat grænt at lit, en brúnt með eggjunum. Hvergi var ryðflekkr á sverðinu’ (‘The hilt was of iron. There was no more decoration on it. He drew the sword, and it was green in color, but brown along the edges. There was no speck of rust anywhere on the sword’) (227). In a footnote, Jón Jóhannesson explains the green color as steel taking on a green tinge on tempering and the ‘brown’ (which Collingwood took as a reference to bronze) as meaning that the sword was burnished, cf. brýna (whet, sharpen); similar descriptions of finely crafted swords occur in other sources. It may also be mentioned here that Kahle (1909) considered the Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga versions of the story to be independent of each other, each being a reflection of the ‘found sister’ adventure motif. See Hallgrímsson (1998) for an excellent general survey of this story in the various sources.

[ back ] 8. See Tulinius 1990 on differences in narrative technique according to where events in the sagas are supposed to take place.

[ back ] 9. In the fragment of Droplaugarsona saga preserved in AM 162 C fol., on sheet 5 recto, it is Grímr that replies that not much has happened but that they, or he, have ‘veiddan torðyfil einn’ (‘caught a single torðyfill’) (see Helgason, J. 1975:80-1). On this disparity with the Mǫðruvallabók text, Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xciii) comments that this and other minor correspondences of diction (which he does not go on to specify) show that the author of Fljótsdœla saga knew the M text of Droplaugarsona saga rather than the AM 162 text. For a comparison of the texts of Droplaugarsona saga, see Kristjánsson 1991.

[ back ] 10. Information on the lexis of the sagas is obtained from a digital database of the sagas of Icelanders, Sturlunga saga, Heimskringla, Grágás, and Landnámabók, accessible through Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands (Linguistics Institute of the University of Iceland). Page references are to the modern spelling editions that the database used (see bibliography).

[ back ] 11. For instance, hunts alternating between buildings and ships are found in Eyrbyggja saga, Njáls saga, Odds þáttr Ófeigssonar, and Vatnsdœla saga: see Jóhannesson 1950:lxxxix and Liestøl 1929:78.

[ back ] 12. The word ‘útibúr’ is found in around half of the sagas of Icelanders and can thus hardly be cited as evidence of a literary relationship between these two particular texts.

[ back ] 13. In fact, Þiðrandi is not as close to Sveinungr in Fljótsdœla saga as he is to Sveinki in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, in which Þiðrandi was fostered at Njarðvík. So on the face of it one might rather have expected Sveinki in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana to lament his former neighbor and the foster son of his friend more than Sveinungr in Fljótsdœla saga, who would have known Þiðrandi only by hearsay.

[ back ] 14. This discrepancy seems to have been noticed by the copyist who added the later parts of Droplaugarsona saga to the end of the unfinished version of Fljótsdœla saga in the manuscript Kall 616 4to. His first addition is the account of this lawsuit between the two Helgis, but omitting all mention of Sveinungr (see Kålund 1883:111).

[ back ] 15. In line with Einar Ól. Sveinsson before him in Íslenzk fornrit V, and because of the text’s brevity, Jóhannesson (1950:lxxxvii) preferred to use the title Gunnars þáttr Þiðrandabana.

[ back ] 16. This was pointed out to me by Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir as part of her contribution to the course mentioned above, p. 202 note 3.

[ back ] 17. This manuscript is a compendium of sagas of Icelanders from the middle of the 18th century, once in the ownership of Þorbergur Einarsson, the minister of Eyri on Skutulsfjörður (the modern town of Ísafjörður). Kålund (1883:x) suggested that the summary was written by Árni Magnússon’s assistant and copyist, Jón Ólafsson of Grunnavík.

[ back ] 18. In the Íslenzk fornrit edition, Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xciii-xcix) echoed Kålund’s ideas regarding the age of Fljótsdœla saga, i.e. that it is from shortly before the Reformation (1541-51 in Iceland), though with the qualification that it might be older, i.e. from the second half of the 15th century. For differing 19th-century views on the age of Fljótsdœla saga, see Kålund 1883:i-iii.

[ back ] 19. Kålund’s ideas, repeated almost unqualified in Jón Jóhannesson’s introduction to the saga in ÍF XI, are not supported by any examples of verbal correspondences. Kålund merely identifies the passages that share material with other sagas and assumes, without further argumentation, that all these sagas served as sources for Fljótsdœla saga.

[ back ] 20. Jón Jóhannesson does not discuss Jón Jónsson’s objections specifically but rejects them en bloc with the sweeping and unsupported claim that they are ‘not convincing’ (‘eigi sannfærandi,’ 1950:xciii). In light of the evidence presented here, it is Jóhannesson’s claim that now appears unconvincing. To translate Karlsson’s comments (1994:757): ‘Something else that requires looking into when reassessing of the sagas of the east of Iceland is what the probabilities are that Fljótsdœla saga is to some extent based on a much older, lost saga, which might perhaps be the “Njarðvíkinga saga” referred to in Laxdœla saga in connection with Gunnarr Þiðrandabani.’

[ back ] 21. ‘Geography is not a major consideration of the þáttr [i.e. Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana] and we can thus expect few internal clues as to where it was written. It displays some familiarity with the Njarðvík and Borgarfjörður regions, but not such as to allow us any certainty that the author had ever been there, and there are other points that speak against this. He appears to have been very vague about distances in the east. Bjǫrn Kóreksson is said to live in Skriðudalur, but it also seems to be assumed that he lived much closer to Njarðvík than this, which is consistent with the strong probability that he actually lived at Kóreksstaðir. Moreover, the account of the mission of Þórðor Krossavík (pp. 201-2) suggests that the author imagined the distance between Vopnafjörður and Njarðvík to be much less than it is in fact. The most likely explanation is thus that the author based his work on stories from the east of Iceland but was not personally familiar with the region; the best guess, then, is that the þáttr was written at or somewhere near to Helgafell on Snæfellsnes [in the extreme west], a conclusion consistent with the fact that it is first mentioned in that area, as explained above.’

[ back ] 22. On this, see also Baldur Hafstað 1999. Hafstað takes the opposite view from the one argued here, i.e. he accepts the identification of ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ with Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana.