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.

4. The Same Characters in More Than One Saga

As a literary genre, the sagas of Icelanders (‘Íslendingsögur’) are defined by their geographical setting (Iceland) and their historical setting (from the settlement of the country down to shortly after the conversion in the year 1000). These sagas show considerable internal consistency in matters such as the structure of the society depicted and the ethical values portrayed, the leading families and chieftains of this ‘Saga Age,’ and the law. Most show artistic similarities in their formulaic diction and thematic patterning, though each has stylistic characteristics of its own that mark it out from the others. Despite the obvious common features, it is easy to point to individual sagas and passages that in style and treatment show resemblances to other genres such as the legendary sagas (‘fornaldarsögur’), e.g. Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss and Þorskfirðinga saga and the incidents found in many sagas set in the barren world of trolls and spirits far from the grassy farmlands of Iceland. The common characteristics are, however, so pervasive that the sagas manage to create a seamless and internally consistent world in which one element supports the next. How we view and interpret the significance of these common characteristics is in large part determined by how we view oral tradition and its part in the creation of the sagas.

Literary Relations: Premises and Practices

As a matter of principle, however, the idea of literary relations among the sagas should be treated with a degree of skepticism and individual cases accepted as proven only where there are strong supporting arguments. In a society where the only books were made of vellum and prohibitively expensive, the sagas would have been much more often read aloud than in private, and it is highly unlikely that an author would ever have been in a position to accumulate manuscripts of several sagas beside him as he wrote and thus have been able to construct a new saga out of pre-existing written works in the way often envisaged by scholars of the bookprose school. [2] Nevertheless, there seems to be a continuing reluctance to question the evidence and methods on which received ideas about literary relations in the sagas are based. For instance, scholars have frequently been perfectly prepared to accept a proposed literary relationship between works on grounds that fall far short of direct verbal correspondence. Despite Theodore M. Andersson’s cogent critique of Einar Ól. Sveinsson’s ideas on the relations between Njáls saga and other sagas (see p. 39), the whole concept of literary relations has not as yet come in for serious re-examination in general reference books on the genre such as Medieval Scandinavia (Pulsiano 1993). It is often conceded, as if in passing, that orality may have played a part in the preservation of the stories, or that the writers of sagas may have made some use of oral ‘sources’—as, for instance, in the case of Jón Jóhannesson’s ideas on the literary relations among the sagas of the east of Iceland discussed below; but, having got this out of the way, critics have then tended to go on to present as fact literary relations that are in their nature unproven and improvable. On the basis of such relations, bookprose scholars have constructed a whole overall history of the development of the genre, taking in theories of the age of individual sagas and the roles of individual ‘authors’ (see Thorsson 1990:47). All such ideas often appear to rely more on an uncritical acceptance of a particular theory of origins than the results of actual research, as will be discussed in more detail later in connection with Finnboga saga and Vatnsdœla saga (p. 309 ff.). A welcome relief from this tendency is to be found in Stephen Mitchell’s (1987) analysis of the traditions about Hjǫrleifr inn kvensami and Geirmundr heljarskinn as they appear in Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka, Sturlunga saga, and Landnámabók. Mitchell shows by minute comparison of these texts that the connection between them can only partly be explained through a literary relation and that the overall picture cannot be drawn without accepting the oral tradition behind the written texts as an active factor. In this context he also draws attention to the misunderstanding inherent in the assumption that an old written version of a folklore motif (using the case of Merlínusspá) must be treated as a source for younger appearances of that motif in written texts—suggesting that the oral folklore is more likely to have influenced both the old text as well as the younger manifestations of a particular motif.


Neither is it right to make automatic connections between oral tales and real events—though real events can often give rise to oral tales. Thus it may well be the case that real events of the Saga Age provided the seed for stories that were then passed on from one person to another until the time when the sagas were finally fixed in written form several centuries later. But we have little way of knowing how much particular stories may have changed in transmission and, as a result, if and when it is justifiable to speak of the ‘same’ saga, in the strictest modern sense, being told from the Saga Age up until the time of writing. [5] In an oral society, each person who tells a story can set his or her own artistic stamp on it in exactly the same way as a literate author working at his desk. Though the tradition is continuous and integrated, it is also fluid and changes constantly according to who is telling the story. In this, much depends on the personal skills of the storyteller, but other factors also come into it, such as the pre-existing knowledge of the particular audience and the varying attitudes associated with particular regions, social classes, age groups, ethical beliefs, gender, and the like. Thus it is not possible to regard things written down in the 12th century and later as sources of events that took place in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries: stories, poems and genealogies are first and foremost sources for the ideas that storytellers or recorders entertain about the past, ideas that have been shaped by the methods of narrative art and undergone constant revision by the everchanging present and its prevailing conditions. Stories are therefore always the intellectual product of the times when they are told or written rather than of the time they tell about— even if the conservatism of the tradition means that elements of ‘ancient’ lore will always be present. This aspect lies at the center of the discussion in part III below in relation to the Vínland sagas.

There is very little that can be said for sure about how, when, and whether it is permissible to trace an unbroken chain of tradition back to actual events that happened in Iceland at the time when the people of the country still believed in Þórr, Óðinn, and Freyr. It is inherently likely that the Icelanders really did quarrel over love, wealth, and power. And it may very well be the case that they sought to enhance their status through politicking, the use of force, vengeance, and travels abroad in search of glory. The problem lies in the fact that the art of narrative reshapes reality and turns it into a work of literature. Thus even contemporaneous accounts are in their very nature unreliable as ‘sources’ of what really happened. For instance, the story tradition itself to some extent decides what events are ‘tellable,’ and how they may be told—which can result in people experiencing reality as if it were a story, selecting the incidents that conform to conventional narrative patterns and thereby constructing ‘biographies’ of themselves and others. As a result of this selectivity, oral stories from a single cultural area often display common features over and above those imposed by the general laws of narrative art, and these features are quick to take over from and adapt any grain of truth that might lie hidden under the surface. The stories come to include the same kinds of motifs, prefabricated themes, and fixed formulas and expressions that are part of the storyteller’s repertoire and constitute an integral part of his technique (see p. 45). In such conditions it is only natural that similar passages and turns of phrase appear in more than one saga at an oral stage, without there being any question of direct borrowing. There is thus no need to appeal to the idea of one writer copying from another when such stories finally find their way into book form; the prestructured themes and verbal formulas that scholars have often unquestioningly interpreted as signs of literary relations [6] are often simpler to explain as the outcome of a common story tradition lying behind the sagas as a whole (see Andersson 1967:309).

If we come across wording that is completely identical in closely related circumstances, there is of course reason to stop and consider whether the likely explanation is a literary relationship. But even here we must always bear in mind that in traditional narratives related circumstances tend to call up related formulaic diction. The same formulas can thus turn up describing the same kinds of events in texts that have no written relationship one with another. In other words, shared diction need not be an indication of anything more than a common story tradition operating in the background. In the case of two or more accounts dealing with the same people and the same event, other considerations apply; if such accounts employ the same words in their descriptions (over and above the commonest words or words that are inherent in the material itself), the probability of literary relations increases, especially when the correspondences start to multiply.


In the following chapters, the view will be taken that we cannot automatically assume literary relations simply because two or more written sources describe or contain the same themes, motifs, formulas or clichés, names, genealogies, or events. All such features could have been passed on from one person to another without the aid of written books. For it to be permissible to postulate a literary relationship, at least three criteria must be satisfied, as defined by Jónas Kristjánsson (1972:225): 1) more than one shared piece of subject matter, 2) more or less the same order of events, and 3) shared wording or diction. If it turns out that the accepted theories of literary relations prove unsustainable, i.e. if it is impossible to demonstrate through identities of phraseology over and above names, family relationships, and fixed formulas and formulaic diction that saga ‘authors’ have indeed used Landnámabók or other written works, it would seem that the whole intricate edifice of ideas about the age of the sagas of Icelanders, lost older versions, the influences of one saga on another, and the connections between Landnámabók and the sagas—all the ideas that have been built upon the assumption that these relations were proven, unambiguous, and beyond dispute—will be in need of complete revision from the bottom up.

The Austfirðingasögur: Single Entity or Discrete Works?

The Austfirðingasögur, the sagas set in the east of Iceland, provide an excellent example of a group of sagas of Icelanders with large numbers of internal connections. They deal widely with the same characters, families, and incidents, and thus lend themselves well to research into the common story world of the sagas of Icelanders. People and incidents from these sagas also appear in other sources, such as Landnámabók, Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga, and Vǫðu-Brands þáttr; these works can thus be used where appropriate for purposes of comparison, and from this a general picture can be built up of the connections and interplay linking the texts as a whole. There are also thematic connections, such as the account in Droplaugarsona saga of Grímr Droplaugarson’s killing of Helgi Ásbjarnarson in his bed, which has parallels with the account in Gísla saga Súrssonar of Gísli’s killing of Þorgrímr (see Andersson 1969:28-39). The obvious similarities here raise questions about the relationships between sagas when this is something other than a direct material connection. In his Íslenzk fornrit edition of the sagas of the east, Jón Jóhannesson dealt with the internal connections between these sagas as if all cases where the same events, families and characters are mentioned could be explained unambiguously through literary relations; for instance, the fact that Fljótsdœla saga and Droplaugarsona saga deal largely with the same people and events automatically implied that the author of one was using the other, in this case that the former was based on the written version of the latter. However, as discussed below, it is difficult to point to any replicated passages between these two sagas that might provide conclusive proof of ‘source work’ of this kind. Despite this, so far as I am aware Jóhannesson’s ideas on the relationships among the Austfirðingasögur have never been subject to serious scholarly reassessment, either in general reference books or in academic research.

If we are to identify the most likely explanations for the internal relationships within the group of Austfirðingasögur, we need to consider the following questions:

  1. Do the sagas exhibit the same or different ideas about the characters they have in common?
  2. Do the sagas appear to assume a degree of knowledge on the part of the audience or reader about the characters who appear in them?
  3. When events are mentioned in more than one source, how are they presented in each of them and what ideas do we find in connection with them?

When considering these questions, we need to bear in mind the conditions of preservation, i.e. whether the treatment of the texts in the manuscripts (for instance, what other sagas they are found with, and in what order) might indicate that the manuscripts were compiled so that one saga shed light on another—perhaps with one supplying material lacking from another. For instance, it seems possible that the copyists who put the manuscripts together might have deliberately combined sagas such as Hrafnkels saga and Fljótsdœla saga for reasons such as these.

If we can answer these questions, we can then go on to interpret the individual written sagas and so face the question of whether allowing for an oral tradition behind the sagas affects the way we interpret them. But this is by no means the end of the matter; some of the greatest mysteries will still remain unanswered, such as what induced people actually to write the sagas down, and where they got the idea that the sagas would be better kept in books than in memory. But if we can get a clear idea of the extent of audience knowledge built into the texts, this may help us to make some progress toward understanding what happened when the written works took on a literary life of their own and came to form the literary genre we know as the sagas of Icelanders.

The Same Character in More Than One Saga

As is well known, the same characters often appear in Landnámabók (‘Book of Settlements’) and one or more of the sagas of Icelanders. To shed light on the main questions in this research, we need to consider how particular characters are introduced into the sagas and how they are described in each source independently:

  1. What are their salient characteristics?
  2. Are their genealogies always given in the same way or do they vary between sources?
  3. Do the same characters feature in the ‘same’ incidents?
  4. Is there any way of deducing from the texts whether the writer is assuming a common and shared knowledge of the particular character and his or her fate?

Answers to these questions should help us to assess whether behind the written works there lies widespread use of written sources or a corpus of oral stories, and so whether the characters are the imaginative creations of authors working with books and book learning mediated through their own powers of imagination, or creations of a tradition shaped by storytellers and their audiences over many years (though the final form, the form we know, is always at the responsibility of the writer of the saga—just as at each performance of a story or poem at the oral stage the material takes on the particular form given to it by the individual performer). Both these modes of explanation are entirely independent of the historical value of the sagas and allow for characters to be presented on each occasion in accordance with the overall objectives and tendencies of the particular saga.

Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson

The first character to be considered is Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson, who is named or comes into the following works: Landnámabók, Kristni saga, Kristni þáttr in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta (‘Greatest Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason’ in Flateyjarbók), Sǫrla þáttr in Ljósvetninga saga, Íslendingadrápa, Njáls saga, Ǫlkofra þáttr, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Droplaugarsona saga, the version of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in Heimskringla (specifically, the ‘Landvætta-saga,’ or story of the guardian spirits of Iceland), Þorsteins saga hvíta, Vápnfirðinga saga, and the annals.

Sources other than Þorsteins saga hvíta and Vápnfirðinga saga

  • In Landnámabók (S 195, H 163) the first mention of Brodd-Helgi is as the father of his son Bjarni in the genealogy of Bjarni’s wife Rannveig, daughter of Þorgeirr Eiríksson and Yngvildr Þorgeirsdóttir. (N.B. in Vápnfirðinga saga, ch. 14, Rannveig is said to have been previously married to a certain Ǫgmundr.) This connects Brodd-Helgi to the chieftain Ketilbjǫrn the Old of Mosfell in Grímsnes, whose wife Helga was the sister of Eiríkr’s wife, Þuríðr; in other words, the grandmother of Brodd-Helgi’s daughter-in-law was the sister of Ketilbjǫrn’s wife.
  • In the Þórðarbók ms. of Landnámabók (using material from the lost Melabók), as an addendum at S 266, H 228 at the start of the section on the settlement of the Eastern Quarter of Iceland, a genealogy is traced from the settler Hróðgeirr the White by way of his daughter Ingibjǫrg, wife of Þorsteinn the White, who is said to have been the paternal grandmother of ‘Helgi’ (sic., rather than ‘Brodd-Helgi’), the father of Bjarni. The line is then continued through eight generations down to the head of the family who probably had a hand in compiling the Melabók around 1300, Markús Þórðarson of Melar.
  • Landnámabók S 270, H 232 traces the line of descent from Þorsteinn the White, ‘a wise and good man,’ who came to Iceland and had children by his wife Ingibjǫrg, including Þorgils, who married Ásvǫr Þórisdóttir; they were the parents of Brodd-Helgi, who by his first wife Halla Lýtingsdóttir was the father of Víga-Bjarni (‘Killer-Bjarni’).
  • Landnámabók S 272, H 234 gives genealogical details of the killers of Brodd-Helgi’s father, Þorgils. These are named as Þorkell (Þórir í S) and Heðinn (thus also in Vápnfirðinga saga, though in Þorsteins saga hvíta the brothers of Þorsteinn the Fair are named Þorkell and Einarr), two brothers of Þorsteinn the Fair, the killer of Einarr, son of Þórir Graut-Atlason.
  • The Landnámabók supplement in Skarðsárbók details the male line of descent to Brodd-Helgi, who is the fifth generation from Øxna-Þórir, the paternal grandfather of Þorsteinn the White.
  • There is also an addendum in the Þórðarbók (from Melabók) ms. of Landnámabók at S 257, H 221 giving additional details of the sons of Glíru-Halli (additions in italics): ‘Þeir fellu í Bǫðvarsdal ór liði Bjarna Brodd-Helgasonar, þá er hann barðisk við Þorkel Geitisson’ (‘They fell in Böðvarsdalur out of the followers of Bjarni Brodd-Helgason when he fought against Þorkell Geitisson’). A similar addendum on the sons of Glíru-Halli appears in Þórðarbók (from Melabók) at S 265, H 227. Þórðarbók contains other minor additions and emendations that tie in with Vápnfirðinga saga, making it probable that the copyist of Þórðarbók (Melabók) knew this saga. In his Íslenzk fornrit edition, Jakob Benediktsson (1968:285n9) suggests that these additions in Þórðarbók which correspond with Vápnfirðinga saga probably go back to the lost Melabók (rather than being added much later by the compiler of Þórðarbók itself).

From the information provided by Landnámabók alone, it would not be possible to construct an extended saga on the life and deeds of Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson. Landnámabók gives only the genealogies of his mother and father and details of his connection through his daughter-in-law to Ketilbjǫrn the Old of Mosfell. Melabók additionally provides line of descent from him down to Markús of Melar. The only thing we learn about Brodd-Helgi’s circumstances and the course of his life is that his father was killed by certain named and genealogically specified individuals. Landnámabók also records that some men were killed in Böðvarsdalur, but Bjarni Brodd-Helgason’s connection to this event is mentioned only in Þórðarbók (from Melabók).

Judging from the paucity of information on Brodd-Helgi in Landnámabók (other than in the addendum in Þórðarbók/Melabók), it seems unlikely that the compilers got their information on his family and descent from the sagas in which he appears. So the question arises of whether the genealogies in Landnámabók represent the whole of what learned men of the 12th and 13th centuries felt they could say for sure about this man. Landnámabók does not even mention any association between Brodd-Helgi and the well-known estate of Hof in Vopnafjörður, though the compilers would have been fully justified in supposing that it would have been part of Brodd-Helgi’s patrimony; Landnámabók says that Hof was originally acquired by Brodd-Helgi’s grandfather Þorsteinn the White (in settlement of a debt from Steinbjǫrn kǫrtr, who had got it from his uncle Eyvindr), and then that Þorsteinn’s first son was called Þorgils, and that his eldest son was Brodd-Helgi—on the basis of which it seems reasonable to suppose that it might have been common knowledge that Brodd-Helgi lived at Hof too. Neither do we get any indication of when Brodd-Helgi was supposed to have lived, nor what religion the compilers of Landnámabók thought him to be, other than through a rough count of generations (third generation from Þorsteinn the White, who took over a farm from an original settler), which would suggest that he might have lived on into the second half of the 10th century. He is, in fact, little more than a name in Landnámabók. But for all this lack of circumstantial detail, the bare facts that his father was killed, and that he himself was associated with spikes (Icelandic ‘broddar’) and his son Víga-Bjarni with killings (Icelandic ‘víg’), might perhaps in themselves have been enough to provide the basis for a good saga about battles and vengeance. [8]

Even so, it is doubtful if such meager source material as one killing and one nickname is of much help in explaining the origins of a rich and varied saga. Could it not just as well be that the bare details given in Landnámabók represent only a tiny fragment of the stories and information that was going around about the man called Brodd-Helga Þorgilsson in the northern part of the east of Iceland? That the very reason he is mentioned in Landnámabók at all is that people knew stories about him? There is little we can say about this with any certainty, but perhaps to bring us at least a little closer to a reasoned argument we can look at what is said about him in other written sources.

  • In Kristni saga (‘Saga of Christianity’), in the middle of the famous account of how lawspeaker Þorgeirr covered himself with a cloak at the Alþingi to ponder the future religious policy of Iceland in the year that Christianity was adopted, 1000, it is mentioned that a certain Digr-Ketill had brought a charge of Christianity against Þorleifr of Krossavík north of Reyðarfjörður in the east, claiming that Þorleifr, together with Hallr of Síða, had made a victory offering to Christ on behalf of the Eastern Quarter. Digr-Ketill’s charge is said to have had the backing of Brodd-Helgi (‘at ráði Brodd-Helga’) but was dropped when Ketill was forced to accept shelter from Þorleifr when caught in a miraculous blizzard. It is not clear from the account when this incident is supposed to have taken place.
  • More information on this incident is given in Kristni þáttr (‘Þáttr of Christianity’) in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta. Here we find added the words: ‘Þorleifi stefndi Digr-Ketill at ráði ok áeggjan Brodd-Helga um kristnihald sem segir í Vápnfirðinga sǫgu’ (‘Digr-Ketill brought a charge of Christian practices against Þorleifr on the advice and at the instigation of Brodd-Helgi, as is told in Vápnfirðinga saga’) (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, vol. 2, p. 193), followed by a more detailed account of the assistance given to Digr-Ketill by Þorleifr during the blizzard (see ÍF XI, pp. 34-5).

These references strongly suggest that Brodd-Helgi was viewed as a committed heathen who opposed the adoption of Christianity. They also suggest that he was a well-known figure, since he is not introduced formally and Kristni þáttr simply refers its audience to Vápnfirðinga saga (whether oral or written) for further information on the dealings between Digr-Ketill and Þorleifr. In his introduction to Vápnfirðinga saga, Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xvii) follows Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson (1937:120-4) in viewing the passages in both Kristni saga and Kristni þáttr as being based on an Icelandic translation of Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s Latin version of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar. The reference to Vápnfirðinga saga he takes to be a later interpolation, though he also allows, on the basis of one verbal correspondence, that the author of Vápnfirðinga saga may also have used Gunnlaugr’s Óláfs saga as a source.

Whatever the truth in this case, Gunnlaugr’s saga must have referred to Brodd-Helgi as a known character and an opponent of Christianity, information he could not have obtained from Landnámabók as we know it. It is also possible that the reference to Vápnfirðinga saga is not an interpolation as Jóhannesson believed but indicates an oral saga dealing with feuds in the Vopnafjörður region, a saga in which Brodd-Helgi played a major part and through which he would thus have been well-known to saga audiences in his own part of the country. Some such common knowledge of oral tradition might explain why Brodd-Helgi is talked about with such familiarity in these texts.

In Kristni þáttr it is said that a great blizzard (‘hríð’) descended on Digr-Ketill and his men after they left Þorleifr, and that their only hope of survival (‘lifs ván’) was to turn back from the place where they were stuck in the blizzard (‘hríðfastir’). In the written version of Vápnfirðinga saga, which is supposed to be the source for Kristni þáttr, the words used are rather different: firstly, there is no ‘blizzard,’ only ‘foul weather’ (‘illviðri’); secondly, there is no mention of returning to Þorleifr’s farm as Digr-Ketill’s only hope of survival—all that is said is that ‘urðu þeir aptr at hverfa’ (‘they had to turn back’) (ÍF XI:34); and thirdly, in the saga it is specified that Digr-Ketill and his men were stuck for two nights by the weather (‘tvær nætr veðrfastir’) (34-5) rather than the more general ‘while they were stuck there in the blizzard’ (‘meðan þeir váru þar hríðfastir’) in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta (vol. 2, p. 193):

Table 4-1: Varying wordings of comparable events in Vápnfirðinga saga and Kristni þáttr

Vápnfirðinga saga Kristni þáttr
illviðri (‘foul weather’) hríð (‘blizzard’)
aptr at hverfa (‘turn back’) lífs ván (‘hope of survival’)
tvær nætr veðrfastir (‘two nights stuck by the weather’) meðan þeir váru þar hríðfastir (‘while they were stuck there in the blizzard’)

If one of the accounts was copied from the other, it is difficult to see why the weather and the time should have changed in this way—from ‘foul weather’ to the more specific ‘blizzard’ on the one hand, from ‘two nights’ to an unspecified period on the other. These are the kinds of things one might expect to remain unchanged when a writer is lifting material from another written source. There is nothing in Vápnfirðinga saga to say that Digr-Ketill’s travails occurred in winter time, as is strongly implied by Kristni þáttr’s ‘blizzard’ in place of Vápnfirðinga saga’s ‘foul weather.’ What we have between these two passages, then, is not the kind of clear-cut verbal correspondence that is required to prove literary relations; on the contrary, the significant material differences make it altogether more plausible to suppose that no such relationship exists.

The poem Íslendingadrápa provides a more circumstantial description of the terror inspired by Brodd-Helgi before Geitir Lýtingsson ‘réð at beita gunnungi Gunnar’ (‘used his sword’) than we find in the sources that include Sǫrli among Brodd-Helgi’s sons, i.e. Sǫrla þáttr and Njáls saga. To explain this inconsistency we must assume either that the poem used both these sources and Vápnfirðinga saga itself (as seems to have been the view of Bjarni Einarsson (1989), though he does not discuss this example specifically) or that the poem is based on oral accounts of Brodd-Helgi, his sons and his conflicts with others. The latter explanation fits in with the ideas of Jónas Kristjánsson (1975), who has no doubt that Haukr Valdísarson used oral traditions about the saga characters he included in his poem.

From the written sources mentioned so far, we learn little about the life and career of Brodd-Helgi other than what appears in Íslendingadrápa and that the number of his children increases the more sagas we read. There also appears to be an allusion in Ǫlkofra þáttr to the idea found in the drápa of a killer who falls out with Geitir Lýtingsson:

  • In Ǫlkofra þáttr (ch. 3, ÍF XI:93), Broddi Bjarnason makes a passing reference to his grandfather Brodd-Helgi (who he is named after) when disparaging Þorkell Geitisson. Broddi mentions the death of Brodd-Helgi as if it were a well-known event and reminds Þorkell that ‘faðir þinn tœki ofarliga til þeira launanna’ (‘your father paid a top price for this,’ i.e. with his head) and that ‘faðir minn markaði þik í Bǫðvarsdal’ (‘my father left his mark on you in Böðvarsdalur’).

The writer here clearly knows more about Brodd-Helgi than he could have read in Landnámabók. He knows that Brodd-Helgi was killed and refers to Geitir having paid for it with his head, and to Helgi’s son, Víga-Bjarni, having wounded Þorkell Geitisson at Böðvarsdalur. It appears that the writer of Ǫlkofra þáttr had in his mind a similar picture of these events to the one described in Vápnfirðinga saga, where Bjarni, Broddi’s father, is said to have given Geitir a fatal blow to the head (i.e. Geitir received ‘ofarliga til þeira launanna’—‘paid a top price’) and probably wounded Þorkell himself on the hand. In his ÍF edition, Jón Jóhannesson (1950, sect. 4) considers Ǫlkofra þáttr to be younger than Vápnfirðinga saga, among other reasons because its ‘author’ speaks so knowingly of the feuding between the people of Hof (Brodd-Helgi and his family) and the people of Krossavík (Geitir Lýtingsson and his family) that he must have known Vápnfirðinga saga—by which Jóhannesson means the saga in its written form. It is interesting to note, as Jóhannesson himself points out, that Ǫlkofra þáttr agrees with Ljósvetninga saga that Þorkell outlived Bjarni Brodd-Helgason and continued to live at Krossavík, while Vápnfirðinga saga has Þorkell moving to Hof at Bjarni’s invitation and dying there. This is curious if it is true that the author of Ǫlkofra þáttr used the written version of Vápnfirðinga saga as his source of information on the characters in his saga. However, there is nothing remarkable about discrepancies of this kind if we assume that the account in Ǫlkofra þáttr was put together entirely from oral accounts of the characters and incidents.

  • Brodd-Helgi is also mentioned in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana. The saga tells that the merchant Þórir Englandsfari took winter quarters with Brodd-Helgi and developed a strong friendship with him. The following spring Þórir seeks the friendship of Þiðrandi Geitisson, the foster son of Ketill þrymr of Njarðvík. Þórir conducts some business with Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr, an improvident tenant of the Kórekssons (who have previously made friends with Þiðrandi through the gift of a horse). Ásbjǫrn holds on to some of Þórir’s goods without paying for them, and so finishes up in debt to him as well as to the Kórekssons. When Brodd-Helgi hears of this he declares Ásbjǫrn to be ‘óskapfelldr ok hroðavænligr’ (‘distasteful and likely to cause trouble’) (ÍF XI:197). This is the last time Brodd-Helgi is mentioned in the saga. When Ásbjǫrn’s duplicity is revealed he goes as a workman to Ketill of Njarðvík, and Þiðrandi remarks that the Kórekssons can now expect Ketill’s support in recovering their debts. A battle ensues in which Þórir kills Ketill but is himself killed. At this, one of the women of the house eggs Ketill’s guest Gunnarr to cast his spear at Þiðrandi, with tragic results. For a more detailed account of these events, see below, p. 217 ff.
  • Brodd-Helgi is mentioned once in Droplaugarsona saga, when Helgi Ásbjarnarson asks for the hand of his daughter, Þórdís todda, in marriage.
  • In the ‘Landvættasaga’ (the tale of the guardian spirits of Iceland) in Heimskringla (ÍF XXVI:271-2), Brodd-Helgi is mentioned as living in Vopnafjörður, without further comment; however, the context makes it clear that he is here regarded as the leading chieftain in the Eastern Quarter of Iceland.

In none of the three sagas mentioned above is Brodd-Helgi introduced formally into the story. No details of his family are given except that his son Bjarni becomes involved in the search for Gunnarr Þiðrandabani (‘killer of Þiðrandi’), who is secreted at the home of his sister Þórdís todda and her husband Helgi Ásbjarnarson. Þórdís is also named as the daughter of Brodd-Helgi in Droplaugarsona saga. Jón Jóhannesson (1950, sect. 8) considers the saga of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani to be fairly old, from the early years of the 13th century, and written in the west of Iceland on the grounds of the saga’s supposed vagueness about the geography of the east. Jóhannesson’s theory is that this written text found its way east and acted as the catalyst for the writing of sagas there (Jóhannesson 1950:xci; see also below, p. 229 f.). It is worth noting that according to the chronology of Laxdœla saga the actions described in Gunnar’s saga took place after the Conversion, while according to the annals Brodd-Helgi was killed in 974. Both these datings are difficult to reconcile with King Haraldr Gormsson of Denmark’s campaign against Norway in 982, at which time Snorri says in ‘Landvættasaga’ that Brodd-Helgi held sway in Vopnafjörður. However, it may be said that the external chronology of Vápnfirðinga saga is generally very vague, though the writer has taken pains with its internal chronology by giving the age of the main characters at significant junctures. It thus seems that the writers of these sagas lost no sleep over matters of chronology and that the first people to notice this ‘inconsistency’ were modern scholars, with the benefit of having all the texts gathered together on their desktops for ready comparison. If, on the other hand, the knowledge of these characters came from oral accounts, it is only natural that each saga should go its own way in matters of chronology. [11]


The information on Brodd-Helgi presented so far covers his family connections and children, his religious attitudes, the general period when he lived, and where he lived. We also know that his father was killed and that he himself met the same fate.

Landnámabók and the other sources are in general agreement about the ancestors of Brodd-Helgi but tell very different stories about his children. In Landnámabók Bjarni is an only child, but in Vápnfirðinga saga he has a brother called Lýtingr and a sister called Þórdís todda, the second wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson. Þórdís is also mentioned in Droplaugarsona saga, where she later marries the chieftain Hǫskuldr Þorgeirsson of Ljósavatn. Sǫrla þáttr, Njáls saga, and Íslendingadrápa name Sǫrli as a son of Brodd-Helgi, to which Njáls saga adds a sister, Oddný, not mentioned elsewhere. Bjarni is known to Njáls saga, but neither Lýtingr nor Þórdís is named in these three last sources.

Landnámabók states that Brodd-Helgi’s father was killed and implies that Brodd-Helgi lived at Hof in pre-Christian times. Kristni þáttr and Kristni saga tell of Brodd-Helgi’s antagonism towards Christianity and in the ‘Landvættasaga’ in Heimskringla Snorri speaks of him as a leading chieftain in Vopnafjörður. The poem Íslendingadrápa implies that people lived in fear of Brodd-Helgi and that there was an armed attack on him by Geitir [Lýtingsson]. Ǫlkofra þáttr supplies the information that Brodd-Helgi was killed and that vengeance for this was exacted on Geitir. Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana adds that Brodd-Helgi was hostile toward Ásbjǫrn vegghamarr.

Þorsteins saga hvíta and Vápnfirðinga saga. Jón Jóhannesson (1950:vi-vii) floated the idea in his introduction to Þorsteins saga hvíta that the ‘author’ had begun with the intention of expanding and revising Vápnfirðinga saga but had given up after the first chapter. It might well be the case that the creation of Þorsteins saga can be accounted for somewhere along the lines that the writer reckoned he knew more stories than had been covered in the written Vápnfirðinga saga and so decided to produce a version of his own. The two sagas are not pre-served in the same manuscripts and so it is unlikely that Þorsteins saga hvíta was intended as a kind of prequel to Vápnfirðinga saga as is sometimes maintained, especially as their plots coincide before the end of Þorsteins saga, suggesting that it was rather felt to stand alone, whether it is complete in its current form or not.

Figure 4-1: Jón Jóhannesson’s theories (1950:xv-xxii) on the age and relationships of the sources that mention Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson

In Þorsteins saga hvíta Helgi is first mentioned, without his epithet, as one of the two children of Þorgils, son of Þorsteinn hvíti (‘the White’), and Ásvǫr Þórisdóttir. When Brodd-Helgi (now named as such before the epithet has been explained, but this kind of retrospective use of names and titles is normal in traditional oral storytelling) is three years old when his father Þorgils is killed by Einarr (named as ‘Heðinn’ in Landnámabók and Vápnfirðinga saga) and Þorkell (‘Þórir’ in the Sturlubók ms. of Landnámabók), the sons of Þorfinnr. Einarr and Þorkell are the brothers of Þorsteinn fagri (‘the Fair’), who has earlier killed Brodd-Helgi’s uncle, Einarr Þórisson—not without cause, since this Einarr had mocked Þorsteinn the Fair when he was sick and incapacitated and had scornful verses composed about him, and Einar had paid some merchants to say that Þorsteinn was dead so that Einar might get to marry Þorsteinn’s betrothed, Helga Krakadóttir. Þorsteinn fagri is declared guilty of Einarr’s killing. Brodd-Helgi’s father Þorgils leads the party of vengeance and is killed by Þorsteinn fagri’s brothers. Þorsteinn himself leaves the country and is away for five winters. At the age of three, Brodd-Helgi is said to be ‘efniligr maðr at jǫfnum aldri’ (‘a promising man for one of his age’) (ÍF XI:16). When Þorsteinn fagri returns he goes to Hof with four companions.

Brodd-Helgi is playing in the farmyard and invites them all in. When the old, blind Þorsteinn the White realizes that the new arrival is Þorsteinn fagri, who had caused the death of his son, he at first reacts with anger, but then they become reconciled and Þorsteinn fagri becomes as a son to him, looking after the farm and household and eventually marrying Helga Krakadóttir. After their reconciliation, the two Þorsteinns go out into the yard where Helgi (sic., not ‘Brodd-Helgi’) is playing with Þorsteinn fagri’s gold-chased spear, which Þorsteinn promptly gives to him. Eight (or ten) years later, the now aged Þorsteinn the White reassesses the situation and realizes that Helgi is sunk so deep in dark thoughts that it would be better for Þorsteinn fagri to leave the country, for Helgi is ‘ofsamaðr mikill ok engi jafnaðarmaðr’ (‘very belligerent and uncompromising’) (ÍF XI:18). After Þorsteinn fagri’s departure Helgi is described in general terms, in the same words as appear in Vápnfirðinga saga—the literary relationship (rittengsl) here is indisputable: he is ‘mikill maðr ok sterkr, bráðgǫrr, vænn ok stórmannligr ok ekki málugr í barnœsku, ódæll ok óvæginn þegar á unga aldri. Hann var hugkvæmr ok margbreytinn’ (‘a big and strong man, early to mature, promising and impressive and not given to work as a child, difficult to deal with and unyielding while still young. He was resourceful and temperamental’ (ibid). This is followed by the story of how Helgi got his nickname by attaching ice crampons to the head of a stud bull that was goring another so that the spikes cause a fatal wound. This story is told in considerably greater detail here than in Vápnfirðinga saga (see the table comparing the two accounts). At the close of Þorsteins saga hvíta it is said that ‘skjótt var þat auðsét á Helga, at hann myndi verða hǫfðingi mikill ok engi jafnaðarmaðr’ (‘it was apparent from Helgi early on that he would become a great chieftain and hard and uncompromising’ (ÍF XI:19)—wording reminiscent of the 13th-century chieftains in Sturlunga saga trying to act tough.

Table 4-2: The accounts in Vápnfirðinga saga and Þorsteins saga hvíta of how Brodd-Helgi got his nickname (direct verbal correspondences in italics)

Vápnfirðinga saga, ch. 1 (ÍF XI:23-4) Þorsteins saga hvíta, ch. 8 (ÍF XI:18-9)
Frá því er sagt einnhvern dag at Hofi, er naut váru á stǫðli, at graðungr var á stǫðlinum, er þeir frændr áttu, en annarr graðungr kom á stǫðulinn, ok stǫnguðusk graðungarnir. (It is said that on a certain day at Hof, when the bulls were at the milking shed, that a stud bull was at the milking shed that belonged to the kinsmen, and another stud bull came to the milking shed, and the stud bulls started goring each other.) Þat var einn dag at Hofi, er naut váru at stǫðli, þar var griðungr einn kominn til nautanna, mikill ok stórr. Annarr griðungr var heima fyrir, mikill ok ógrligr, er þeir frændr áttu. (There was one day at Hof, when the bulls were at the milking shed, that a certain stud bull had come to the bulls, big and solid. Another stud bull was there from home, big and fearsome, that belonged to the kinsmen.)
En sveinninn Helgi var úti ok sér, at þeira graðungr dugir verr ok ferr frá. (But the boy Helgi was outside and sees that their bull is coming off worse and goes away.) Helgi var þá úti staddr ok sá, at griðungarnir gengusk at ok stǫnguðusk, ok varð heimagriðungrinn vanhluta fyrir búigriðunginum. (Helgi was then standing outside and saw that the stud bulls were going at each other and goring each other, and the home bull was losing out to the neighboring bull.)
Hann tekr mannbrodd einn ok bindr í enni graðunginum, ok gengr þaðan frá þeira graðungi betr. (He takes a crampon [Icelandic mannbroddr, a spiked overshoe for walking on ice] and binds it onto the forehead of the stud bull, and from then things go better for their bull.) En er Helgi sér þat, gengr hann inn ok sœkir sér mannbrodda stóra ok bindr þá framan í ennit á heimagriðunginum. Síðan taka þeir til ok stangask sem áðr, allt þar til er heimagriðungrinn stangar hinn til dauðs. Hǫfðu mannbroddarnir gengit á hol. Þótti flestum mǫnnum þetta vera bellibragð, er Helgi hafði gǫrt. (And when Helgi sees this, he goes inside and fetches some big crampons and binds them on the front of the home bull’s forehead. Then they start off again and gore each other as before, and carry on until the home bull gores the other to death. The crampons had pierced into his vital organs. Most people thought this a humorous prank that Helgi had done.)
Af þessum atburði var hann kallaðr Brodd-Helgi. (From this incident he was called Brodd-Helgi.) Fekk hann af þessu þat viðrnefni, at hann var kallaðr Brodd-Helgi, en þá þótti mǫnnum þat miklu heillavænligra at hafa tvau nǫfn. Var þat þá átrúnaðr manna, at þeir menn myndi lengr lifa, sem tvau nǫfn hefði. (From this he got the nickname, that he was called Brodd-Helgi; in those days people thought it much more propitious to have two names. It was then people’s belief that people would live longer who had two names.)
Var hann afbrigði þeira manna allra, er þar fœddusk upp í heraðinu, at atgørvi. (He stood out for accomplishment among all the men who grew up there in the district.) Skjótt var þat auðsét á Helga, at hann myndi verða hǫfðingi mikill ok engi jafnaðarmaðr. (It was apparent from Helgi early on that he would become a great chieftain and hard and uncompromising.)

The phraseology of the parallel passages in Þorsteins saga hvíta and Vápnfirðinga saga shows a number of similarities, suggesting a literary relationship between these sagas, though the correspondences tend to be restricted to general matters such as ‘naut váru á/at stǫðli’ (‘bulls were at the milking shed’), ‘Helgi var úti’ (‘Helgi was outside’) and ‘kallaðr Brodd-Helgi’ (‘called Brodd-Helgi’), rather than more circumstantial phrases like ‘þeira graðungr dugir verr’ (‘their bull is coming off worse’) and ‘afbrigði þeira manna allra’ (‘standing out among all the men’). It is striking in fact how freely the material is treated, demonstrating that even when people were familiar with a written version of a saga (which is very probable in this case, particularly in view of the identical descriptions of Brodd-Helgi in both sagas) they did not feel bound by their ‘source’ to the extent that they were inhibited from telling the story in their own words and putting their own slant on events, or from expanding and adding to older written texts in the way generally envisaged. This liberal attitude towards the material might be an indication of the existence of a living story tradition which provided saga writers with a wider range of material than could be found in their written sources alone.

From the references to Brodd-Helgi in the sources other than Vápnfirðinga saga described so far, it is clear that in many places there seems to be a fund of extra knowledge, and knowledge of a different sort, lying behind the written texts and not traceable to other written texts. The people who compiled these sources knew this man, his chief characteristics, and certain events attached to him, without there being any sign of their having gotten this information from other books (except in the case of Þorsteins saga hvíta and Vápnfirðinga saga, between which there appears to be an indisputable literary relationship). And they present their written texts in a way that seems to presuppose an ability on the part of their audiences to fill out the portrayal of this character for themselves in order to make sense of what is going on.

So, what about Vápnfirðinga saga itself? Is the way Brodd-Helgi is presented here suggestive of a writer who needed to read up on the sources Jón Jóhannesson says he did in order to create his saga?

There is nothing about Brodd-Helgi’s genealogy as given in Vápnfirðinga saga to suggest that the writer got his information from other written works. If he had, we would, for instance, need to explain why the saga fails even to mention his mother, Ásvǫr Þórisdóttir, who is named in Landnámabók, Njáls saga, and Þorsteins saga hvíta. Also as mentioned above, Vápnfirðinga saga fails to include the names of Hallbera and Sǫrli among Brodd-Helgi’s children, though both appear in Sǫrla þáttr and Njáls saga. On the basis of other genealogical information in the saga, which is in places more detailed than in the extant versions of Landnámabók, Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xvi) concluded that the ‘saga author’ had had access to some kind of parallel genealogical material in written form. But assuming a lost text of this sort merely pushes the problem one stage back and still leaves us having to explain where this text might have gotten its information from. The only conceivable answer is oral tradition. If this is so, it is hard to see why we should not rather assume that the genealogical material in Vápnfirðinga saga came directly from the sources the writer and his informants would have known best, without any need to go looking for it in one of the few copies of Landnámabók existing at the time. If the saga is itself an original source in this sense, it is perfectly understandable that it should differ from our other written sources, including material not found elsewhere, and lacking material that is found elsewhere, and with different names for some of the characters.

Figure 4-2: Brodd-Helgi’s genealogy according to Vápnfirðinga saga

Although we know from The First Grammatical Treatise that Icelanders had started writing down genealogies by the 12th century, this tells us nothing about the working methods of the people who compiled the sagas of Icelanders—whether they were in the habit of going to scraps of parchment for such information, or whether genealogical lore was still part of a living oral tradition in the 13th century (as it must have been in the 12th when the first genealogies were written down). Inherently, it seems likely that the genealogical tradition continued to survive as long as people entertained themselves with stories about the characters mentioned in the genealogies. There is no way of proving, one way or the other, assertions that knowledge of events and family connections is unlikely to have survived into the 13th century, in the way assumed by Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xix) when trying to account for why Vápnfirðinga saga has a much fuller genealogy for the people of Krossavík than Landnámabók: ‘vitneskja um Ögmund, fyrra mann Rannveigar Þorgeirsdóttir, og son þeirra hefir varla geymzt í munnmælum fram á 13. öld’ (‘knowledge of Ǫgmundr, the former husband of Rannveig Þorgeirsdóttir, and of their son would hardly have survived in oral lore into the 13th century’). The possibility of such preservation cannot simply be dismissed out of hand in this way. [16] In fact, there seems no valid reason to suppose that information of this kind could not have lived on into the 13th century—seeing that it must have survived into the 12th in order to be written down at all (with all the customary caveats regarding the fluidity and unreliability of such preservation).


The most salient feature in the characterization of Brodd-Helgi in Vápnfirðinga saga is his reckless impulsiveness—his tendency to be motivated by his immediate desires, without consideration for the consequences. We see this both at the beginning, when he attaches the spikes to the head of the bull, and again later, when he connives with Geitir in the killing of Hrafn the Norwegian in the hope of getting his hands on his wealth. He creates his own unpopularity by his treatment of his wife and imposes his will through bullying tactics when pursuing his legal interests. But the audience is also aware of a sense of guilt in Brodd-Helgi and a more sympathetic side, as when he visits Halla on her deathbed at home at Krossavík. And when Brodd-Helgi himself looks death in the face in his foster mother’s dream, his reaction is not panic or dismay but anger as they disagree on whether his avenger will be his favorite, Lýtingr, or Bjarni, whom he does not love so well. None of these personal traits come out in the other sources that mention Brodd-Helgi. The only elements in his story that are found outside the saga are the description of how he got his name in Þorsteins saga hvíta, the story of his persecution of Þorleifr kristni in Kristni saga and Kristni þáttr (though there is no mention in these sources of the connection with Hrafn the Norwegian and there are no signs of literary relations in the diction), and vague references to a feud with the people of Krossavík in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabani. No indisputable literary relations can be demonstrated with any of these works (except Þorsteins saga hvíta), and since there seems no necessity either to assume that Landnámabók or lost written genealogical material were used to supply the information on Brodd-Helgi’s family in Vápnfirðinga saga, there is no reason not to conclude that the writer of the saga got his knowledge of Brodd-Helgi from oral tradition. The lack of material for comparison makes it impossible to say how much the writer of the saga added on his own initiative, but the elements of subject matter that the saga shares with other, unrelated sources show that we cannot ignore the possibility that there may have been a considerable body of tradition about this man outside what was to be found in books.

Víga-Bjarni, son of Brodd-Helgi

Brodd-Helgi’s son Bjarni is mentioned in Landnámabók, Kristni saga, Vǫðu-Brands þáttr in Ljósvetninga saga, Njáls saga, Vápnfirðinga saga, Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, the poem Íslendingadrápa, Droplaugarsona saga, and Fljótsdœla saga.

Landnámabók, Kristni saga, Vǫðu-Brands þáttr, Njáls saga, Vápnfirðinga saga, and Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs.

Landnámabók is thus no great mine of information on the subject of Bjarni Brodd-Helgason. We are given details of his marriage, his connections by marriage to Eiríkr of Goðdalir and Ketilbjǫrn the Old, and his descent from the ‘wise and good’ settler Þorsteinn hvíti (‘the White’). The addenda in the Þórðarbók ms. (from Melabók) also make reference to a battle in Böðvarsdalur as if it were a generally known event, though there is no way of telling whether this knowledge came from some written source or from oral accounts. Bjarni’s epithet ‘Víga-’ (‘Killer-’) does no more than suggest a connection with violent deeds, perhaps reflected in chapter 1 of Kristni saga, where he is included in the list of the leading chieftains in Iceland at the time of the mission of Bishop Friðrekr and Þorvaldr, when the country had been settled for 107 years. In Þórðarbók, where Bjarni is connected with the battle in Böðvarsdalur, he is called only ‘Bjarni,’ though he is said to be the son of ‘Brodd-’Helgi.

  • The independent Vǫðu-Brands þáttr included in the C text of Ljósvetninga saga mentions Bjarni in connection with an episode where Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík in Vopnafjörður goes to Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson and solicits his support in a case brought against him by Guðmundr ríki arising from injuries caused by one of his domestic staff, Vǫðu-Brandr, to a certain Þorbjǫrn at some games held at Laxamýri where Brandr was visiting his father. In the conversation between Þorkell and Þorsteinn it comes out that at the Alþingi the previous summer Guðmundr had been preening himself to Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, who is a kinsman of Þorkell’s: ‘Nú vilda ek þitt liðsinni til þiggja at sœkja til þings ok verja málit með kappi fyrir Guðmundi, ef hann skal þó eigi fébótum fyrir koma, ok reyna svá, hvárt ek sé eigi annarrar handar maðr hans, sem hann svaraði Bjarna Brodd-Helgasyni, frænda mínum, um sumarit á alþingi’ (‘Now I would like to have your support so I can go to the assembly and put up a good defense against Guðmundr if he refuses to pay any compensation, and then I’ll find out if I really am not half the man he is, which is what he was saying to my kinsman Bjarni Brodd-Helgason last summer at the Alþingi’) (ÍF X:132). In the next chapter the case comes up at the Alþingi; Bjarni Brodd-Helgason is there ‘ok hafði hann mikinn flokk, ok vissu menn eigi, hvar hann myndi at snúask um liðveizluna’ (‘and had a big band of supporters with him, and it was not clear which side he would come down on’) (ÍF X:135). Þorsteinn takes the initiative to resolve the dispute and proposes a marriage between Þorkell and Guðmundr’s niece, Jórunn Einarsdóttir. Guðmundr and Bjarni Brodd-Helgason meet and Bjarni says: ‘Svá sýnisk mér, Guðmundr, sem þú hafir þurft báðar hendr við Þorkel frænda minn, ok hafi þó ekki af veitt um. Ok man ek enn þat, Guðmundr, er ek bað þik, at þú skyldir sætta okkr Þorkel, ok svaraði engi ódrengiligar en þú ok sagðir hann eigi vera mundu meira en annarrar handar mann gilds manns ok kvazt hann hafa hálfþynnu eina í hendi, en mik hǫggspjót gilt á hávu skapti. En ek em nú minni hǫfðingi en þú, ok sýnisk mér sem hann muni eigi þar lengi gengit hafa skaptamuninn’ (‘It seems to me, Guðmundr, that you’ve needed both hands to deal with my kinsman Þorkell, and even so you’ve had them both full. I still remember, Guðmundr, when I asked you to try and reconcile Þorkell and me, and no one reacted less honorably than you when you said he wasn’t worth half a real man and that he had just a rickety axe in his hand while I had a stout spear on a long shaft. Maybe I am less of a chieftain than you, but it seems to me that it hasn’t taken him long to make up for the difference in the weaponry’) (ÍF X:138). Here Bjarni is reminding Guðmundr of his arrogance at the previous Alþingi, and refers to a dispute between the two kinsmen that Guðmundr has failed to resolve. (It is notable that Þorkell and Bjarni should call each other kinsmen.) At the end of the þáttr it is Jórunn who manages to bring about the reconciliation that had proved beyond Guðmundr ríki: ‘En Jórunn var inn mesti kvenskǫrungr, sem ætt hennar var til. Hon kom ok því til leiðar, sem engi hafði áðr komit, at þeir sættusk frændrnir, Þorkell Geitisson ok Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, ok heldu þá sætt vel ok drengiliga síðan’ (‘But, in the family tradition, Jórunn was a woman of great character and determination. She found a way of getting the kinsmen Þorkell Geitisson and Bjarni Brodd-Helgason to settle their differences, something no one else had managed, and they kept to their agreement well after this, like true men of honor’) (ÍF X:139).

Vǫðu-Brands þáttr refers several times to the kinship between Bjarni and Þorkell Geitisson without ever making the details explicit. The picture presented of Bjarni is of an honorable chieftain, ready to make peace, who goes every year to the Alþingi with a large band of supporters, but who knows his place among the rich and powerful when he judges Guðmundr to be a greater man than he is. No attempt is made to explain the dispute between Bjarni and Þorkell; instead, it is referred to as if it were already well-known to the audience. The same is true of Bjarni himself; he is not specifically introduced into the saga but spoken of like some generally known character. It thus appears that the author here assumes that the audience has a wide enough knowledge of the tradition for them to able to provide the extra information needed to make sense of the story being told.

Björn Sigfússon (1940:l-lv) examined the chronology of the þáttr and showed that it conflicts with various other sources [18] : Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson did not become a chieftain until at least 1014, while Þorkell Geitisson was already a chieftain by 987; according to Droplaugarsona saga and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Þorkell married Jórunn some time not long before 1008, but according to the conclusion of Vápnfirðinga saga Jórunn managed to reconcile Bjarni and Þorkell in the summer after the battle in Böðvarsdalur in 989. According to Sigfússon, this last dating cannot be correct, because of the age of Jórunn’s father and brothers and sisters (presumably based on the evidence of other sources), and thus he concludes that Vápnfirðinga saga has got things ‘wrong’ here. From this he concludes that it is also ‘wrong’ to have the action of Vǫðu-Brands þáttr take place before the reconciliation between Þorkell and Bjarni. (Sigfússon believes the þáttr to be younger than Vápnfirðinga saga and to have gotten the detail about Jórunn as peacemaker from there.) He goes on to say:

Ekki er ljóst, hvernig tengslunum við Vopnf. s. er háttað, en sennilegt, að höf. styðjist við hana eftir minni. Munnleg sögn hefði krafizt þess, að skilmerkilegar væri skýrt frá deilum Þorkels og Bjarna en gert er í þættinum. Höf. forðast að gera það, áreiðanlega af því að hann veit af því skráðu í annarri sögu. Á hinn bóginn sjást nokkur afbrigði frá Vopnf. s. í þættinum eða öllu heldur ný tilbrigði frásagna þaðan.

In answer to the points raised by Sigfússon, it may be said that the simplest way to explain the inconsistencies in chronology between Vǫðu-Brands þáttr and the other sagas is that the writer of the þáttr got his story material and characters from oral sources rather than from the books we know and can use to point out his ‘errors.’ Sigfússon thinks it likely that the ‘author’ of the þáttr used Vápnfirðinga saga from memory, so perhaps it would be closer to the mark to say that he had heard the saga rather than read it. Sigfússon is quite wrong in claiming that oral narration would have required the dispute between Þorkell and Bjarni to be explained more circumstantially than we find in the þáttr. In fact, the opposite is true: oral narration is very likely to make use of and reference to an audience’s knowledge of tradition. There is thus no need to assume, as Sigfússon does, that the author failed to give fuller details of the dispute because he knew them to be available in writing elsewhere. Similarly, the ‘new’ variants in Vǫðu-Brands þáttr to the narrative in Vápnfirðinga saga are more easily explained as coming from oral tales about the people of Vopnafjörður than from the written saga as we know it. There is nothing in the texts of these two works to indicate any kind of literary relationship between them. Sigfússon’s findings therefore owe more to his book prose premises, which presuppose an author who composed his saga on the basis of pre-existing written sources, than to any particular hard evidence for the use and knowledge of the particular written sources he supposes the author had available to him.

As noted above, Bjarni is first mentioned in Njáls saga at the time when his brother Sǫrli is introduced as if he were already a well-known person. A little later he is given a formal introduction, with almost identical genealogical details to those found in Landnámabók. The genealogy brings out Bjarni’s connections with the families of Þorkell Geitisson and Jóreiðr, the wife of Síðu-Hallr, and through marriage with Hafr auðgi (‘the Rich’), as detailed elsewhere in the saga (see family tree).

Figure 4-3: Bjarni Brodd-Helgason’s genealogy according to Njáls saga, taking in his connections through marriage to characters detailed elsewhere in the saga

In Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs and in other sagas that mention Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson it is made clear that Yngvildr (Bjarni’s daughter according to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs) was the wife of Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson, strengthening still further the marriage relations between Bjarni and Síðu-Hallr. Though never spelled out directly, it is not impossible that the audience of Njáls saga was expected to have these connections in mind; for instance, the close relationship between Bjarni and Síðu-Hallr and Hafr auðgi, who refuses to support Njáll’s ally Ásgrímr Elliða-Grímsson at the Alþingi and ridicules Skarpheðinn Njálsson, may help to explain why Bjarni reacts so favorably to Flosi’s request for support. The characterization implicit here also prepares the audience for the advice and backing Bjarni gives Flosi at the Alþingi a little later in the saga (ÍF XII:364-368). Bjarni’s unconditional sense of honor comes out most clearly in his absolute refusal to accept Flosi’s bribe, and contrasts powerfully with the venality of the lawman Eyjólfr Bǫlverksson when Flosi and Bjarni approach him for his services in the upcoming court case. Bjarni proves exceptionally shrewd and supportive of his ‘kinsman’ Þorkell Geitisson and adept at drumming up support for Flosi, either with gifts or hard bargaining. The last we see of Bjarni in Njáls saga is when Kári Sǫlmundarson, Njáls son-in-law, thrusts his spear at him at the battle at the Alþingi after Eyjólfr has succeeded in overturning Mǫrðr Valgarðsson’s prosecution of Flosi and the other burners (ÍF XII:404). Bjarni just manages to escape Kári’s spear point and disappears from the saga without further comment.

According to Vǫðu-Brands þáttr, Bjarni goes to the Alþingi with a large retinue of followers but remains neutral in the disputes between the chieftains Guðmundr ríki and Þorkell Geitisson. There is also mention of a reconciliation between the kinsmen Bjarni and Þorkell, but it is not said what their dispute was about. Njáls saga provides us with a fuller picture of Bjarni and his actions: his family is described in detail, linking him with other characters in the saga, and he is portrayed as a man of admirable qualities. He values his kinsman Þorkell highly and knows how to use other people’s moral weaknesses to further the interests of his friends. When faced by overwhelming odds, he chooses to withdraw rather than to fight to the death.

Bjarni Brodd-Helgason is merely a ‘bit player’ in these two sagas; it is in the sagas set in the east that he takes on a major role and his life is presented in greatest detail. Even so, there is a consistency regarding Bjarni’s qualities and personal characteristics between the eastern sources on the one hand and Njáls saga and Vǫðu-Brands þáttr on the other. In Vápnfirðinga saga he is compelled, almost reluctantly, to take action to avenge his father and kills first Tjǫrvi inn mikli (‘the Big,’ one of Geitir’s party of twelve who attacked Brodd-Helgi), and then Geitir himself, his friend at Krossavík, only when goaded by his stepmother Þorgerðr silfra. Bjarni immediately regrets his deed, like Bolli after the killing of Kjartan in Laxdœla saga. The ongoing feud between Bjarni and Þorkell Geitisson is characterized by Bjarni’s discretion and cunning and his efforts to avert trouble, until he is eventually forced into battle in Böðvarsdalur—and even then he is still speaking of the kinship between himself and Þorkell. At the end of the saga the two kinsmen are wholeheartedly reconciled, as mentioned in Vǫðu-Brands þáttr.

Bjarni’s desire to avert difficulties and avoid those who go out of their way to stir up trouble is further emphasized in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs. Here he is perfectly willing to send the hotheads to their deaths but manages himself to bring about peace in memorable fashion at the end of his long single combat with Þorsteinn of Sunnudalur. Bjarni sidesteps the blind demands of vengeance, refuses to let himself be incited to violence, and ends by laying down his weapons rather than take things through to the bitter end—and still manages to emerge with full honor and enhanced reputation. The description here is of a piece with that of the man who withdraws from battle rather than face the spear thrusts of Kári Sǫlmundarson in Njáls saga. Thus the sagas that have the most to say about Bjarni Brodd-Helgason portray him as a man who attempts consistently to avoid bloodshed, vengeance, and feuding, a characterization that seems somewhat at odds with his nickname of Víga-Bjarni (‘Killer-Bjarni’).


Bjarni Brodd-Helgason appears in a rather different light in the other sources that mention him: Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Íslendingadrápa, Droplaugarsona saga, and Fljótsdœla saga.

  • In Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana Bjarni comes riding into the action unannounced and unintroduced with a party of a dozen men on their way to Mjóvanes, the home of his sister Þórdís (the wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson but in other respects not introduced), with the intention of ransacking the place in search of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani (‘Killer of Þiðrandi’) ‘er drepit hefir frænda várn ok fóstbróður’ (‘who had killed our kinsman and sworn brother’) (ÍF XI:208). Gunnarr is concealed in an outhouse at the farm. Bjarni is confrontational but accepts his sister’s invitation to stay the night, while she takes the opportunity to thwart his intentions by sending for reinforcements. By the time Bjarni wakes the next morning there are thirty of Þórdís’s friends and neighbors assembled in the yard. Faced by such overwhelming odds, Bjarni withdraws without a fight and at this point disappears from the saga.

The relationship between Bjarni and Þiðrandi is never made explicit in the saga: all that is said of Þiðrandi at the outset is that he is the son of Geitir (ÍF XI:195) and that he is being fostered at Njarðvík by Ketill þrymr. A little later the saga says that Þiðrandi went ‘norðr í Krossavík ok var um sumarit á mannamóti’ (‘north to Krossavík and was there at a gathering during the summer’) (ÍF XI:198); the audience here is probably supposed to be aware that Geitir lived at Krossavík and so able to work out for themselves that Þiðrandi is thus visiting his father. Vápnfirðinga saga (ÍF XI:27) mentions that Bjarni Brodd-Helgason was fostered at Krossavík by his mother’s brother Geitir, and this might explain the duty of vengeance Bjarni feels incumbent on him in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana when he calls Þiðrandi his ‘frænda’ (‘kinsman’) and ‘fóstbróður’ (‘sworn brother’). This might thus be another example of knowledge assumed of the audience without being stated specifically.

  • In Íslendingadrápa the emphasis is exclusively on Bjarni’s warrior characteristics. The construction put upon his epithet, i.e. that he is ruthless and ‘trigger-happy,’ appears in the words ‘hjalmþrimu gjarn Bjarni’ (‘battle-eager Bjarni’), and the poem goes on to say that he has made the wolves rejoice over Geitir’s blood and killed ‘flesta… ollu… hans fǫður morði’ (‘most of those who brought about his father’s death’).

The short description in the poem is in clear contrast to the picture we find in other sources of a conciliatory and peace-loving Bjarni. [23] The drápa and Vápnfirðinga saga are the only sources to describe Bjarni’s vengeance for his father (other than mere mentions of the killing of Geitir), but there is no reason to think that one of them obtained its material from the other. It seems altogether more likely that both works are based on independent accounts or else diverged consciously from their ‘sources’—in which case the question arises of why we need to postulate the use of any ‘source’ at all. If the writer of Vápnfirðinga saga had needed to look to Íslendingadrápa for information on one of his main characters, he would surely have taken the easy course and let Bjarni kill more of Geitir’s accomplices than just Tjǫrvi. (Bjarni’s vengeance is described near the lacuna in the manuscript, but it is inconceivable that Bjarni could have killed the ten survivors in the space that is lacking.) If it was the other way around, i.e. that whoever composed Íslendingadrápa followed written sources, it is difficult to see why he should have changed just Tjǫrvi into ‘most of those who caused his father’s death.’

  • In Droplaugarsona saga Bjarni is mentioned only once, when Grímr Droplaugarson is at Krossavík, happy and laughing after killing Helgi Ásbjarnarson in revenge for his brother Helgi. Grímr composes a verse in which he says it is now up to ‘bǫðgjǫrnum Bjarna’ (‘battle-eager Bjarni,’ i.e. Víga-Bjarni) to avenge his in-law. Þorkell Geitisson is in Eyjafjörður in the north settling disputes among his clients and so the mistress of the house, his wife Jórunn, tells Grímr that she is worried about the lack of a leader at the farm: ‘en þó mundum vit til hætta, ef eigi væri násetur Bjarna, mágs Helga Ásbjarnarsonar, sem nú eru’ (‘but even so we might risk it were not that Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s brother-in-law Bjarni lived so close at hand’) (ÍF XI:173).

Bjarni is not introduced in any other respect. The writer assumes that his relationship through marriage to Helgi Ásbjarnarson is already known to his audience and that this is sufficient to make him think of revenge—perhaps supported by his epithet, which is probably alluded to in the word ‘bǫðgjǫrnum’ (‘battle-eager’) in Grímr’s verse. Nothing is said about Bjarni and Þorkell supposedly being reconciled through Jórunn’s offices, as described in the sagas mentioned above where Bjarni is portrayed as a peaceable and conciliatory chieftain. Here, just as in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana and Íslendingadrápa, Bjarni seems to be associated rather with feuding and violence and is depicted as ready to accept the demands of vengeance when his honor is compromised.

The failure to provide Bjarni with a formal introduction in Droplaugarsona saga and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana may perhaps be put down to the fact that these sagas are preserved in manuscripts that also contain other sagas from the east of Iceland in which Bjarni has already been fully introduced. Droplaugarsona saga is admittedly the only eastern saga in Mǫðruvallabók (other than Ǫlkofra þáttr), but there is one sheet of it in AM 162 C fol. from the first half of the 15th century along with fragments of Vápnfirðinga saga and Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, while Gunnars saga is found in five 17th-century manuscripts along with other sagas from the east (AM 156 fol., AM 158 fol., AM 426 fol., AM 496 4to, and AM 552 e 4to). It is thus possible that the copyists omitted the passages where Bjarni was introduced because he had already been described in detail earlier in the books they were working on. By way of comparison, Bjarni is given a full introduction in Fljótsdœla saga, which is found with Hrafnkels saga in the manuscripts.

  • In Fljótsdœla saga Bjarni is introduced like a new character when Helgi Ásbjarnarson goes north to Hof to ask for the hand of his sister Þórdís: ‘Þar bjó sá maðr, er Bjarni hét ok var Brodd-Helgason, hinn mesti skörungr ok höfðingi mikill. Hann átti sér systur, er Þórdís hét’ (‘There lived the man who was called Bjarni and was the son of Brodd-Helgi, a man of great character and a powerful chieftain. He had a sister called Þórdís’) (ÍF XI:239). Bjarni agrees to the marriage and then is not mentioned again until after the killing of Þiðrandi, who is said to be a close kinsman of his (ÍF XI:267), though without the relationship being specified more precisely. The saga then lists the people involved in the hunt for Gunnarr the Norwegian to avenge Þiðrandi as Þorkell Geitisson (Þiðrandi’s brother), Bjarni (a close kinsman), Helgi Ásbjarnarson (the husband of Bjarni’s sister Þórdís), and the brothers Grímr and Helgi (sons of Þorvaldr, son of Þiðrandi the old). Gunnarr escapes and Bjarni is not involved any further in the pursuit until chapter 20, by which time Gunnarr has come under the protection of Helgi Ásbjarnarson. Helgi goes off to the local assembly and entrusts Þórdís with protecting Gunnarr; she demurs, pointing out that family relations are bad enough already without this adding to it, and threatens to send for her brother Bjarni. Helgi reminds Þórdís of how badly she had been treated at home at Hof before he married her and says he will send her back there if she hands Gunnarr over ‘undir øxi Bjarna’ (‘to Bjarni’s axe’) (ÍF XI:283). Þórdís does not carry out her threat, but Bjarni turns up on his own initiative with nearly 80 men and asks her to surrender Gunnarr. She pleads ignorance but sends a message to Helgi during the night and the next morning Bjarni calls off the search of his sister’s home and rides back to Hof just before Helgi rides into the yard with 150 supporters. With this, Bjarni disappears from the saga.

In general, it seems that most of the sources that mention Bjarni Brodd-Helgason expect their audiences to have prior knowledge of certain facts and events, specifically:

  1. the battle in Böðvarsdalur
  2. that Bjarni had at one time been in conflict with his kinsman Þorkell Geitisson of Krossanes
  3. that Bjarni was sufficiently closely related to Þiðrandi Geitisson to feel obliged to avenge his killing, even if this involved incurring the enmity of his sister and brother-in-law

From a close reading of the sources, it seems that we are justified in distinguishing two contrasting views of Bjarni: on the one hand, in the sagas set within his own locality, as a man who tries to avoid vengeance and feuding, and on the other, in sagas that take place farther from his former stamping grounds in Vopnafjörður, as a man who lives up fully to his nickname of ‘Bjarni the Killer.’ In his introduction to ÍF XI, Jón Jóhannesson notes that the name ‘Víga-Bjarni’ appears in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, Landnámabók, the appendix to Skarðsárbók, and Kristni saga, as well as being implicit in the form ‘bǫðgjarn’ (‘battle-eager’) in Grímr Droplaugarson’s verse in Droplaugarsona saga. As Jóhannesson says, this conflicts with the picture of the peace-loving Bjarni found in Vápnfirðinga saga, and from this he concludes that something had become confused or garbled in Vápnfirðinga saga (1950:xxii). As ever, Jóhannesson’s ideas here are centered entirely around the truth value of the sagas, but it is by no means certain that this is the proper way to approach the problem. It is unlikely that it is a question of one source being ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’; it is perfectly conceivable that Bjarni’s character in the saga tradition was not equally clearly delineated in the minds of all people. Perhaps this change in emphasis can be put down to Bjarni’s traditional epithet having worked on the imaginations of people outside Vopnafjörður and made more of a killer out of him than he appears in the written sagas where he figures most prominently. We have no way of knowing whether those who portray Bjarni Brodd-Helgason in their sagas thirsting for revenge for his kinsman Þiðrandi knew any more about his character than what they could deduce from his epithet, supported by the knowledge that he had been a chieftain at Hof in Vopnafjörður and had taken part in a famous battle in Böðvarsdalur against his kinsman Þorkell Geitisson.

Another possibility is that the image of a peace-loving Bjarni came originally from the hand of the person who wrote Vápnfirðinga saga and was then carried over and developed further in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs. Although the þáttr is not preserved in the same manuscripts as Vápnfirðinga saga, it speaks of Bjarni of Hof as a generally known person (ÍF XI:69), while other characters are introduced in the conventional manner. His wife Rannveig also appears in the þáttr spurring Bjarni to action (ÍF XI:73-4) without her status being explained for the benefit of those hearing stories about these people for the first time. Additionally, the audience seems to need some prior knowledge of the battle in Böðvarsdalur in order to understand the events described. Had the þáttr been preserved alongside Vápnfirðinga saga, it would perhaps not have been necessary to give Bjarni a special introduction, but this is not the case. To explain the things that the writer takes for granted about the characters and events, we must either assume knowledge of a written saga about Bjarni of Hof (which the writer of the þáttr must also have expected his readers to be familiar with from the few manuscripts that might have existed, or at least heard read aloud) or an oral tradition of stories in which it was enough to mention Bjarni’s name for people to understand who was meant, his family relations, his general character, and what might be expected of him in a saga. Since there is nothing particular to support the idea of knowledge acquired from a written saga, it seems better to assume that the writer of the þáttr is making use of common knowledge attributable to oral tradition rather than to some written book. If some sort of tradition had survived about Víga-Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, it is most likely that this tradition would have been centered in Vopnafjörður, among the people who told stories in which he played a leading part. And it seems unlikely that the writer of Vápnfirðinga saga would have deviated far from the image familiar to the people of the region. [24] Presumably the farther away one gets, in time and space, from the real Bjarni Brodd-Helgason of Vopnafjörður, the less people would have known about him beyond what was implicit in the name Víga-Bjarni, and this may well have encouraged a more bellicose portrayal of this man than was familiar to the people of Vopnafjörður, or than they chose to remember.

Geitir Lýtingsson

Geitir Lýtingsson of Krossavík is Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson’s brother-in-law. In Vápnfirðinga saga he is portrayed as the chief rival of Brodd-Helgi and his son Víga-Bjarni for power and status in Vopnafjörður. Like them, Geitir appears in a range of sources: Landnámabók, Kristni saga, Þorsteins saga hvíta, Vápnfirðinga saga, Íslendingadrápa, Droplaugarsona saga, Þorsteins saga uxafóts, Fljótsdœla saga, and the annals, where he is said to have been killed in the year 987.

Figure 4-4: Genealogy and marriage relations of Geitir Lýtingsson at his introduction in Vápnfirðinga saga

At first sight it is curious that Vápnfirðinga saga does not mention Geitir’s son Þorkell when giving the details of Geitir’s parentage and marriage; Þorkell’s name does not appear until a few lines later, as the husband of Hallfríðr Egilsdóttir of Egilsstaðir. Jón Jóhannesson (1950:27n6) interpreted this as a mishandling of the material on the part of the ‘author’ as a result of a slavish adherence to Landnámabók at this point. In defense of the narrator, it is perhaps worth considering whether the delay in introducing Þorkell might not rather be deliberate, motivated by a wish to emphasize the ties between Geitir and his clients, the relatives of his son’s wife Hallfríðr, and intended to explain their unswerving support for Geitir later in the saga when things go wrong between him and Brodd-Helgi. There is every reason to expect tension in Vápnfirðinga saga between the descendants of Steinbjǫrn kǫrtr, Hallfríðr’s grandfather, and Brodd-Helgi: the saga opens with an account of how Hof had originally belonged to Steinbjǫrn, but that he had gone bankrupt and been forced to sell out to Þorsteinn hvíti (‘the White’), Brodd-Helgi’s grandfather. The circumstances are explained in more detail in Þorsteins saga hvíta, where it is said that Þorsteinn acquired the estate in settlement of a debt. So it is hardly farfetched to anticipate a degree of resentment among the sons and descendants of Steinbjǫrn, who had thus lost the opportunity to be the masters of Hof instead of what they now were, mere clients of Geitir’s, whose best friend Brodd-Helgi was the grandson of the man who had deprived them of their birthright. In view of the tensions we are perhaps given to understand existed below the surface here, it need not appear so strange that the narrator should first mention Þorkell Geitisson as the husband of Hallfríðr rather than as the son of his father; this serves to highlight the family ties between Geitir and his client farmers, thus explaining the support they give him when he turns against their hereditary enemy. In principle, it seems better to view the rather anomalous way Þorkell is introduced as being of positive significance, rather than simply ascribing it to some kind of incompetence on the part of the writer.

  • After Vápnfirðinga saga has established this dramatic tension, for a time Geitir and his brother-in-law Brodd-Helgi are hand in glove (see pp. 130 f). There is a lacuna in the manuscripts which probably included an account of how Geitir attacked Brodd-Helgi and killed him, and the text picks up again in the middle of the peace negotiations with Bjarni after the killing under the auspices of Guðmundr ríki. The truce holds, except that Bjarni kills Tjǫrvi, and he becomes Geitir’s closest friend and follows his advice in all matters. However, his stepmother Þorgerðr silfra is unable to accept this situation and goads Bjarni by showing him the blooded clothes that Helgi had been wearing when he was killed. Bjarni is forced to shoulder his responsibility for vengeance, and he hacks Geitir in the head at the March gathering at Þorbrandsstaðir, killing him. Bjarni immediately regrets what he has done.

Geitir comes across in Vápnfirðinga saga as a popular but rather passive chieftain. However, he reveals himself capable of a shameful act for his own personal gain when he joins with Brodd-Helgi in arranging the killing of Hrafn the Norwegian and appropriating his property. Geitir has no hesitation in manipulating his clients for his own benefit and sacrificing his supporters when it suits his interests. He suffers a temporary but humiliating fall from grace when Guðmundr ríki refuses him support and he is forced to move away to the safety of Fagridalur. Despite this, he achieves a fair degree of success through his tenacity and resourcefulness but is eventually caught off guard when least expecting it and dies in the arms of the man who has killed him, like Kjartan Óláfsson in Laxdœla saga.

Geitir is also mentioned in Íslendingadrápa, where he is given the epithet ‘ǫrlyndr’ (‘impetuous,’ ‘quick-tempered’) for having put ‘fǫður Sǫrla’ (‘Sǫrli’s father,’ i.e. Brodd-Helgi) to the sword. As has already been noted, the poem also says that Bjarni Brodd-Helgason made the wolves rejoice over Geitir’s blood, ‘þess’s vá víka vagnskreyti’ (‘of him who killed the adornment of the vehicle of the inlets,’ i.e. the seafarer or man, Brodd-Helgi). In Kristni saga Geitir is named alongside Víga-Bjarni in the list of the leading chieftains of Iceland at the time of the mission of Bishop Friðrekr and Þorvaldr the Wide-Traveled.

Figure 4-5: Geitir Lýtingsson’s marriage relations according to Droplaugarsona saga

This tells us precious little about Geitir Lýtingsson of Krossavík and so it might appear that he did not figure prominently in the story tradition outside Vápnfirðinga saga. In other sources the emphasis is more on his father Lýtingr, his son Þorkell and the family of his wife Hallkatla. However, it is interesting that in other sagas connected with the Vopnafjörður region and the east of Iceland, Brand-Krossa þáttr and Fljótsdœla saga, the name Geitir appears both in place names and as the name of a mountain troll (‘bergrisi’) in Norway and a giant (‘jǫtunn’) in Shetland (see p. 208 f.). There may conceivably be some kind of link here with Geitir of Krossavík; for example, people may have made some connection between Geitir’s muttering of ancient lore as described in Þorsteins saga uxafóts and the trolls and giants who bore the same name as him.


The sources on Geitir Lýtingsson seem unanimous in depicting him as a man held in high esteem and much sought after for support and protection. He is not high-handed and bullying and is capable of maintaining his calm under duress, but there is a touch of ruthlessness in his dealings with lesser men, as perhaps alluded to in the epithet ‘ǫrlyndr’ (‘impetuous,’ ‘quick-tempered’) in Íslendingadrápa. Geitir’s family connections are of central importance for understanding people’s actions and behavior in the sagas of eastern Iceland, and this might explain why his genealogy is given in so much detail in these sources when the various versions of Landnámabók seem largely to ignore him. Only Vápnfirðinga saga has much to say about Geitir himself, but it is clear that the Droplaugarsons regarded him and his son Þorkell, who appears in many more ancient sources than his father, as a source of great strength and support. It is particularly interesting that the men of Krossavík should be able to offer legal training and advice to Helgi Droplaugarson, since this is precisely the area in which Þorkell enjoyed his reputation on a national level. We can thus infer that Geitir was a sufficiently well-known character for the audiences of sagas other than Vápnfirðinga saga to be able to recognize in him a chieftain of some standing and a good man to have on one’s side. In addition, in Brand-Krossa þáttr and Fljótsdœla saga the name Geitir appears in connection with giants and ogres in lands outside Iceland. Since these tales were current among people who were familiar with a chieftain of this name within Iceland, it is perhaps possible to see here a reflection of some kind of controversy or ridicule surrounding the erstwhile master of Krossavík.

Þorkell Geitisson

Judging from the sources, the name of Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík was quite well known outside his home region of Vopnafjörður. He is mentioned in Landnámabók and appears in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Droplaugarsona saga, Ljósvetninga saga, Vápnfirðinga saga, Ǫlkofra þáttr, Laxdœla saga, Njáls saga, Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar, Íslendingadrápa, Þorsteins saga uxafóts, and Fljótsdœla saga.

  • Þorkell is mentioned at various places in Landnámabók described previously. The first citation appears in the addendum in the Þórðarbók ms. (using material from the lost Melabók) at S 257, H 221, concerning Brandr and Bergr, the sons of Glíru-Halli, who fell at Böðvarsdalur ‘ór liði Bjarna Brodd-Helgasonar, þá er hann barðisk við Þorkel Geitisson’ (‘from the followers of Bjarni Brodd-Helgason when he fought against Þorkell Geitisson’).
  • The main text of Landnámabók at S 268, H 230 notes that Þorkell was married to Hallfríðr, daughter of Egill, son of Steinbjǫrn kǫrtr, who claimed land in Vopnafjörður and lived originally at Hof. This is the passage that Jón Jóhannesson (1950:27) believes was used, or rather misused, by the ‘author’ of Vápnfirðinga saga when introducing Þorkell into his saga (see above, p. 158). Þórðarbók (from Melabók) adds: ‘Brœðr Hallfríðar váru í liði með Þorkatli í Bǫðvarsdal í móti Bjarna Brodd-Helgasyni’ (‘Hallfríðr’s brothers were with Þorkell in Böðvarsdalur against Bjarni Brodd-Helgason’).
  • Landnámabók H 233 mentions Þorkell at the end of a genealogy from his grandfather Lýtingr who ‘nam Vápnafjarðarstrǫnd alla hina eystri, Bǫðvarsdal ok Fagradal, ok bjó í Krossavík ok lifði hér fá vetr; frá honum eru Vápnfirðingar komnir. Geitir var son Lýtings, faðir Þorkels’ (‘claimed the entire east coast of Vopnafjörður, including Böðvarsdalur and Fagridalur, and built his home at Krossavík and lived there for a few years; from him are descended the men of Vopnafjörður. Lýtingr’s son was Geitir, the father of Þorkell’). There is no mention of Geitir and Þorkell at the corresponding place in the Sturlubók ms. but in Þórðarbók the line is traced on down to Markús of Melar.

The older redactions of Landnámabók, Sturlubók, and Hauksbók, thus display no more knowledge of Þorkell than they do of his peers among the chieftainly class of Vopnafjörður in the Saga Age.

Nothing more is said of Þorkell Geitisson, who disappears from the action without comment just as he entered it without introduction. Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana is not found in the same manuscripts as Vápnfirðinga saga or the other sagas that deal with Þorkell in greater detail, so it appears that the audience is supposed to know who Þorkell is without needing to have him specially introduced. From the narrative we can also deduce that it was common knowledge that Þorkell and Þiðrandi were brothers from Krossavík, though this is never made explicit (but, as previously mentioned, this connection can perhaps be inferred from the fact that Þiðrandi moves to Krossavík when he falls out with his foster father Ketill). There is no sign that relations are anything other than excellent between Þorkell and Brodd-Helgi’s friend, the merchant Þórir Englandsfari, and Bjarni Brodd-Helgason himself supports Þorkell’s cause when he goes to his sister Þórdís todda and demands that she hand Gunnarr over. The narrator seems therefore to be either ignorant of or oblivious to the bitter feuding that we know of from elsewhere between Bjarni and Þorkell. Þorkell conducts the case himself when Gunnarr is declared outlaw, and so we can suppose that his status within society was well known, and perhaps also his knowledge of the law.

In the passage dealing with the foray against Sveinki the narrator includes the comment that ‘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). This is interesting, since there is no mention of this in Droplaugarsona saga, and so it seems reasonable to take these words as evidence that the writer knew about Helgi and the reliance the Droplaugarsons placed on Geitir and Þorkell without having read the written version of their saga that we know today. This reference also suggests that the audience of the saga was expected to be familiar with Þorkell Geitisson’s family connections without there being any need for a detailed presentation of his genealogy.

All things considered, it appears that Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana was written for an audience with a fair degree of familiarity with the saga characters of the east of Iceland. This runs directly counter to the view taken by Jón Jóhannesson, on the basis of the apparently limited knowledge of local geography displayed in the saga, that it was written in the west of Iceland in the first quarter of the 13th century and then brought east, where it provided the impetus for the first saga writing in this part of the country too (1950:xci; see p. 229 f. below). It is easier to make sense of the saga’s familiar references to eastern chieftains and their relations and marriage ties if it was written for an audience that already possessed a reasonable knowledge of this particular saga world. Viewed in this way, Jóhannesson’s argument that the apparent lack of interest in the distances between places in the east is evidence of a general lack of local knowledge loses much of its force. It is certainly true that little is made of the distances people had to travel when moving between Vopnafjörður and Njarðvík, but Jóhannesson himself concedes that the saga displays a degree of familiarity with the Njarðvík and Borgarfjörður areas (1950:xci), which ought therefore to indicate a personal knowledge of the region on the part of the writer. Had the saga been written in the west of Iceland, we might expect the writer to have given rather fuller details of the main places and chieftains of the east mentioned in the text.

After Gunnarr Þiðrandabani has escaped to the west, Droplaugarsona saga makes no mention of Þorkell Geitisson in the discussions between Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir and her betrothed Þorkell Eyjólfsson as to whether she should extend her protection to this man who has been sent to her. This silence is all the more interesting when viewed against the corresponding passage in Laxdœla saga, which is certainly from the west of Iceland and which names Þorkell Geitisson specifically in connection with Gunnarr and what should be done about him.

  • Citing ‘saga Njarðvíkinga’ (‘the saga of the people of Njarðvík’) as its source, Laxdœla saga says that ‘Gunnarr hafði sekr orðit um víg Þiðranda Geitissonar ór Krossavík’ (‘Gunnarr had been declared guilty of the killing of Þiðrandi Geitisson of Krossavík’) (F V:202). As in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir and Þorkell Eyólfsson argue over whether she should shelter him. During the conversation, ‘Þorkell lézk því hafa heitit nafna sínum, Þorkatli Geitissyni, at hann skyldi drepa Gunnar, ef hann kœmi vestr á sveitir,—“ok er hann inn mesti vinr minn”’ (‘Þorkell said he had promised his namesake Þorkell Geitisson that he would kill Gunnarr if he turned up in their part of the country in the west,—“and he is a very great friend of mine”’) (F V:203).

The parallels between these two accounts and scholars’ ideas about this *Saga Njarðvíkinga are discussed in greater detail below (p. 229 f). So far as Þorkell Geitisson and the people of Krossavík are concerned, what is interesting here is that Laxdœla saga should associate Þiðrandi so unequivocally with Krossavík, even though this connection is never stated directly in Gunnars saga. Þorkell Geitisson is brought into Laxdœla saga without introduction and his interest in the case is never explained. We must therefore assume that the audience of Laxdœla saga was already aware that Þorkell lived at Krossavík, or that the mere mention of his patronymic was enough to link him and Þiðrandi as brothers. It is obvious from Laxdœla saga that this Þorkell Geitisson is to be viewed as a man of considerable stature, if a friend of his from a completely different part of the country promises to kill someone for him. The two Þorkells, Geitisson and Eyjólfsson, are said to be particular friends without further explanation. But, as it turns out, this friendship counts for little when the great politician Snorri goði makes it clear to Þorkell Eyjólfsson that his obligations lie rather with his friends in the west and that he must not allow this affair to jeopardize his marriage to Guðrún.

The appearance of Þorkell Geitisson’s name in Laxdœla saga makes little sense unless we assume that the audience was supposed to know who he was, or at least have some idea that he was a chieftain seeking vengeance for his brother. If this is so, the friendship between the two Þorkells probably needs no further explanation than what is provided in the text. In view of the background knowledge we possess from other written sources, it is perhaps plausible that some people may have been aware of Þorkell Geitisson’s competence in the law, as described in Droplaugarsona saga, and associated the two Þorkells through this shared interest. Þorkell Eyjólfsson came from a distinguished family of lawmen, being the son of Eyjólfr the Gray and thus closely related to the lawspeakers Gellir Bǫlverksson and Steinn Þorgestsson (see above pp. 71–72). Eyjólfr is also with Þorkell Geitisson in the clique of goðar [28] in Ǫlkofra þáttr that owns the wood at Goðaskógur by Þingvellir (see pp. 174–175). It is possible that the genealogies appended to the end of Þórðar saga hreðu (in the text derived from the Vatnshyrna manuscript) and perhaps related to the information on these families found in other sagas may also have a bearing on what was known of Þorkell Geitisson’s connections in the west of Iceland. From these genealogies it appears that Þorkell Geitisson’s wife, Jórunn Einarsdóttir, was the aunt of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir and Þorkell Eyjólfsson’s daughter-in-law. It is interesting that this reconstructed text from Vatnshyrna names certain otherwise unknown offspring of Einarr Þveræingr and traces a tripartite line from him down to Jón Hákonarson of Víðidalstunga (who ordered the compilation of Flateyjarbók in the late 14th century) and his probable wife Ingileif (see Ólafur Halldórsson 1990:200). This information, which is not found in other sources, ties in well with what is said elsewhere about people we do know about (see Jón Jónsson 1898) and could thus be an indication that knowledge of genealogies reaching all the way back to the 10th century was still alive in the 14th century— in the sense that genealogical lore that went so far back might still be considered reliable even though it was only preserved orally and not recorded in written form.

Figure 4-6: Þorkell Geitisson’s relations through marriage to Snorri goði, Þorkell Eyjólfsson, etc., according to the addendum to Þórðar saga hreðu in Vatnshyrna, with (in bold) additions from Laxdœla saga and Ljósvetninga saga.

N.B. According to Heiðarvíga saga, Þorgils Arason was married to a daughter of Einarr Þveræingr but it is uncertain whether this was Helga, or whether Valgerðr was Einarr’s granddaughter, as stated by Björn Sigfússon (1940:83-4; see also Jón Jónsson 1898:103-4). Both Flateyjarbók and Vatnshyrna were probably compiled on the orders of Jón Hákonarson of Víðidalstunga in the second half of the 14th century.

  • In Droplaugarsona saga, Geitir Lýtingsson’s name first appears within the genealogical details of his wife, the sister of the Droplaugarsons’ father. No further explanation is therefore necessary to account for his readiness to shelter Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson after they kill Þorgrímr torðyfill and Droplaug sends them off ‘til Vápnafjarðar í Krossavík til Geitis’ (‘to Geitir at Krossavík in Vopnafjörður’) (ÍF XI:146). Their visit places something of a burden on Þorkell Geitisson, who accompanies them to the assembly, arranges the settlement for the killing of Þorgrímr with Helgi Ásbjarnarson, pays off their fine, and instructs Helgi Droplaugarson in the law.
  • Helgi uses his newly acquired knowledge of the law to pick quarrels with the clients of Helgi Ásbjarnarson, and it is in the context of such litigation at the Alþingi that Þorkell is next mentioned: ‘ok váru þeir Helgi Droplaugarson ok Þorkell Geitisson allfjǫlmennir. Var þar með þeim Ketill ór Njarðvík. Helgi Ásbjarnarson hafði ekki lið til at ónýta mál fyrir þeim’ (‘Helgi Droplaugarson and Þorkell Geitisson were there with a large band of followers. With them was Ketill of Njarðvík. Helgi Ásbjarnarson did not have enough men to have their case overturned’) (ÍF XI:150). Helgi Droplaugarson gets his way and emerges with his reputation enhanced.
  • Things go rather less well the next time Þorkell lends Helgi his support in his legal adventures. Helgi has persuaded his mother Droplaug to get her slave Þorgils to kill Hallsteinn, Droplaug’s second husband, to whom her sons have taken a disliking. Helgi kills the slave immediately after he has killed Hallsteinn, but the plot is revealed and Helgi Ásbjarnarson pursues the case against his namesake: ‘Mál Helga Droplaugarsonar urðu óvinsæl, ok vildu engir honum veita nema þeir Þorkell Geitisson ok Ketill Þiðrandason’ (‘Helgi Droplaugarson’s cause became unpopular and no one wanted to help him except Þorkell Geitisson and Ketill Þiðrandason’) (ÍF XI:154). This support, however, is of little avail. Droplaug moves away to the Faeroe Islands and Helgi Droplaugarson is sentenced to three years’ outlawry and is otherwise fair game to his opponents if found anywhere ‘milli Smjǫrvatnsheiðar ok Lónsheiðar. Helgi Droplaugarson leitaði ekki við útanferð. Þá fór Grímr, bróðir hans, frá búi sínu ok til móts við bróður sinn, ok váru á vetrum með Þorkatli í Krossavík. Þeir fóru um allt herað til þinga ok mannfunda, svá sem Helgi væri ósekr’ (‘between Smjörvatnsheiði and Lónsheiði. Helgi Droplaugarson made no attempt to leave the country. His brother Grímr moved out of his home and went to be with his brother, and they spent the winters with Þorkell at Krossavík. They traveled all around the district, to assemblies and gatherings, just as if Helgi had been acquitted’) (155).
  • ‘Um várit eptir sendi Flosi frá Svínafelli orð Þorkatli Geitissyni, at hann skyldi fjǫlmenna norðan til hans. Vildi Flosi stefna til óhelgi Arnóri Ǫrnólfssyni, bróður Halldórs í Skógum. Þann mann hafði Flosi vega látit. Þorkell safnaði sér liði, ok váru þeir saman þrír tigir. Hann bað Helga Droplaugarson fara með sér. Helgi sagði: “Skyldr ok fúss væra ek at fara þessa ferð, en krankr em ek, ok mun ek heima vera.” Þorkell spurði Grím, ef hann vildi fara, en Grímr lézk eigi mundu ganga frá Helga sjúkum. Síðan fór Þorkell með þrjá tigu manna suðr til Svínafells. Þaðan fóru þeir Flosi vestr í Skóga með hundrað manna’ (‘The following spring Flosi of Svínafell sent word to Þorkell Geitisson that he should gather support and come south to meet him. Flosi intended to bring a case against Arnórr Ǫrnólfsson, the brother of Halldórr of Skógar, whom Flosi had had killed, and have him declared an outlaw. Þorkell mustered a band of supporters, amounting altogether to thirty men. He asked Helgi Droplaugarson to go with him. Helgi said: “I would be honor bound and eager to make this journey, but I am ill, and I will stay at home.” Þorkell asked Grímr if he would go but Grímr said he would not leave Helgi while he was sick. So Þorkell took his thirty men south to Svínafell. From there he and Flosi went west to Skógar with a hundred men’) (ÍF XI:156-7).

In this episode Helgi Droplaugarson lets his kinsman down badly, the chieftain who had looked after him and supported him in every way; he feigns sickness so as to be able to pursue his own interests while Þorkell is off elsewhere. The killing of Arnórr is known from other written sources but they disagree as to who was responsible. There is much about this discrepancy that strongly suggests that the writer of Droplaugarsona saga had obtained his material from oral sources rather than from written books.

  • Landnámabók (S 330, H 289-90) has the following paragraph about Ǫlvir, the first settler at Höfði to the east of the river Grímsá: ‘Hans son var Þórarinn í Hǫfða, bróðir sammœðri Halldórs Ǫrnólfssonar, er Mǫrðr órœkja vá undir Hǫmrum, ok Arnórs, er þeir Flosi ok Kolbeinn, synir Þórðar Freysgoða, vágu á Skaptafellsþingi’ (‘His son was Þórarinn of Höfði, the half brother (same mother) of Halldórr Ǫrnólfsson, whom Mǫrðr órœkja killed under the rockface at Hamrar, and of Arnórr, who was killed at the Skaptafell assembly by Flosi and Kolbeinn, the sons of Þórðr Freysgoði’).

This entry in Landnámabók is probably based on unrecorded oral accounts of a chieftainly feud, since the list of the most powerful men in Iceland in Kristni saga (see p. 147) mentions the sons of Ǫrnólfr of Skógar, apparently referring to Halldórr and Arnórr. The very next names on this list are the sons of Þórðr Freysgoði, i.e. Flosi and his brothers, suggesting some kind of connection. The killing of Arnórr of Skógar is mentioned in the annals for the year 997, the same year that Þangbrandr the priest led his mission to Iceland and a year before the battle in Eyvindardalur—all of which ties in excellently with the chronology of Droplaugarsona saga.

  • In the famous scene from Njáls saga, just before Hildigunnr lays the bloodied cloak of her husband Hǫskuldr over her kinsman Flosi and spurs him to take revenge, she reminds him of the killing of Arnórr: ‘“Minna hafði misgǫrt Arnórr Ǫrnólfsson ór Forsárskógum við Þórð Freysgoða, fǫður þinn, ok vágu brœðr þínir hann á Skaptafellsþingi, Kolbeinn ok Egill”’ (‘“Arnórr Ǫrnólfsson of Forsárskógar had done less to your father Þórðr Freysgoði, and your brothers Kolbeinn and Egill killed him at the Skaptafell assembly”’) (ÍF XII:291). More can be deduced from Njáls saga about this feud, since it names Halldórr Ǫrnólfsson as a chieftain associated with Gizurr the White (ÍF XII:142) and later says that Mǫrðr órœkja (who according to Landnámabók killed Halldórr) was a kinsman of Þráinn Sigfússon and killed ‘Odd Halldórsson austr í Gautavík í Berufirði’ (‘Oddr Halldórsson at Gautavík in Berufjörður in the east’) (ÍF XII:220). This Oddr’s patronymic has tempted scholars (Sveinsson 1954:142; Benediktsson, J. 1968:333) to read the two sources in tandem and come to the conclusion that the two men killed by Mǫrðr órœkja, Halldórr Ǫrnólfsson and Oddr Halldórsson, were in fact father and son.

The nature of these sources would seem to indicate that there were once more detailed and widely known accounts of the killing of the Ǫrnólfssons than we now know from the extant texts. This appears from the fact that each describes the killing of Arnórr in its own way:

Table 4-3: The three varying versions of the killing of Arnórr Ǫrnólfsson of Skógar

Droplaugarsona saga Landnámabók Njáls saga
Flosi has Arnórr killed Flosi and his brother Kolbeinn kill Arnórr at the Skaptafell assembly. Flosi’s brothers Kolbeinn and Egill kill Arnórr at the Skaptafell assembly in revenge for wrongs done to their father.

Njáls saga contains clear references to the killings of Mǫrðr órœkja that we know of from Landnámabók, though without any connection being drawn between Halldórr Ǫrnólfsson and Oddr Halldórsson. However, Þorkell Geitisson and his part in the subsequent events are mentioned nowhere outside Droplaugarsona saga. These written sources perhaps allow us to form some kind of idea of the oral tradition that lies behind them, as if we can discern a muffled echo from the common fund of stories that provided the material for each of the extant sources.

  • In Droplaugarsona saga, while Þorkell is away supporting Flosi, Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson have their battle with Helgi Ásbjarnarson in Eyvindardalur. Helgi Droplaugarson is killed and Þorkell is not mentioned again before Grímr has been secretly nursed back to health by Ásgerðr, the medical woman from Ekkjufell: ‘Síðan fór Grímr norðr í Krossavík til Þorkels Geitissonar, ok var honum þar vel fagnat’ (‘Then Grímr went north to Krossavík to Þorkell Geitisson and was given a warm welcome there’) (ÍF XI:166). Nothing is said of the way the brothers deserted their kinsman when he needed their support on his journey south to Flosi. A few years later it is said that Þorkell made ‘fǫr til Eyjafjarðar at sætta þingmenn sína, ok reið hann heiman, en Grímr var heima ok annaðisk um bú’ (‘a journey to Eyjafjörður to settle disputes among his clients and rode away from home, but Grímr stayed behind and took charge of the household’) (167-8).

This is the first we hear of Þorkell having clients in Eyjafjörður in the north of Iceland. The saga offers no explanation, but Jón Jóhannesson (1950:167n1) suggests that Þorkell’s political influence in Eyjafjörður may have come about as a result of his wife Jórunn’s family being from there. This conjecture is in all probability correct; however, up to this point in the saga Jórunn has not even been mentioned and the audience thus has no grounds for thinking that Þorkell might have any political interests in the north. The justification appears only later, when Þorkell has already left and Grímr sets off on his campaign to exact revenge on Helgi Ásbjarnarson. It is at this point that we first hear of Jórunn, ‘kona Þorkels—hon var dóttir Einars frá Þverá’ (‘Þorkell’s wife—she was the daughter of Einarr of Þverá’) (ÍF XI:168). The information on Jórunn’s background here is parenthetical, almost as if entered as an after-thought. It also assumes a familiarity with Einarr of Þverá, implying that the audience of the saga must have known more than is said in plain words. In this case, the audience needs to realize that Jórunn is from Eyjafjörður and from this be able to deduce that this is presumably how Þorkell acquired his clients in that part of the country.

Droplaugarsona saga twice uses the device of sending Þorkell Geitisson off to some other part of the country, leaving Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson to pursue their own schemes at home; and on each occasion we have evidence of ancillary knowledge of people and events from those parts of the country. Though this knowledge is never spelled out, the audience clearly needs to know things that are not specified in the text we have before us in order to make sense of what is going on. It may also be significant that in manuscript AM 162 C fol., from the first half of the 15th century, Droplaugarsona saga (only fragments of chapters 3 and 4 are preserved) is found together with Ljósvetninga saga (including Vǫðu-Brands þáttr, which mentions the marriage of Þorkell and Jórunn) and Vápnfirðinga saga (see Helgason, J. 1975); thus the audience of this manuscript was in a position to know all that was needed of Þorkell’s connections with the people of Eyjafjörður. It may also be that the text of Droplaugarsona saga in AM 162 at one time gave a more detailed explanation of Jórunn and Þorkell’s clients in Eyjafjörður; there is, unfortunately, no way of knowing. One thing that is clear, however, is that there are considerable differences between the text in the AM 162 fragments and the Mǫðruvallabók text (see Jóhannesson 1950:lviii-lxiv). In view of the fact that Jórunn’s paternity is given in Mǫðruvallabók in a sentence that looks very much like an interpolation, it is well conceivable that the copyist realized that there was a need to introduce her in some way. This kind of introduction was perhaps not necessary in his exemplar; for instance, it may have contained more sagas from the east of Iceland, as in AM 162 C fol.

  • While Þorkell is away in the north, Grímr kills Helgi Ásbjarnarson. When Grímr gets back to Krossavík, Jórunn remarks that they can ill afford not to have their leader there with them with Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, Helgi’s brother-in-law, living so close at hand. She hides Grímr until Þorkell returns. ‘Nú kemr Þorkell heim ok fór til fundar við Grím ok spurði tíðenda ok um atburðinn um víg Helga’ (‘Now Þorkell comes home and goes to see Grímr and asks him his news and about the events surrounding the killing of Helgi’) (ÍF XI:173). Grímr answers his kinsman with three verses in dróttkvætt meter. Nothing is said of Þorkell’s reactions. ‘Þorkell reið þá til þings, en Grímr var í tjaldi í fjalli því, er Snæfell heitir, upp frá Krossavík ok þeir félagar’ (‘Then Þorkell rode off to the Alþingi and Grímr and his companions stayed behind in a tent up on a mountain called Snæfell above Krossavík’) (175). Þorkell offers compensation on Grímr’s behalf but Helgi’s nephew Hrafnkell goði refuses it, and so Grímr is forced to stay on into the winter up on the mountain. Some Norwegian merchants who are staying with Þorkell notice the tent. Þorkell realizes he can no longer keep Grímr’s presence secret and gets him off his hands by sending him to Ingjaldr of Arneiðarstaðir, Grímr’s father-in-law. From this point the saga follows Grímr, and Þorkell of Krossavík is not mentioned further.

In general, Þorkell remains behind the scenes in Droplaugarsona saga, but we hear enough about him to see that his characterization here ties in with the way he is presented in other sources. He is a legally astute chieftain who attempts to settle disputes but is not personally involved in the machinations of his kinsmen. When it comes to describing Þorkell’s dealings with Flosi and the men of Svínafell in the south, and with regard to his family relations in Eyjafjörður in the north, the writer assumes a knowledge on the part of his audience of saga worlds outside their own immediate locality. In neither case are full details made explicit in the saga; things are rather alluded to in a way that suggests that the audience is expected to be able to understand what lies behind the allusions. Thus the only way of understanding the role of Þorkell Geitisson in Droplaugarsona saga seems to be to assume an interplay between the saga itself and a living body of oral tales that people once told about him.

  • Þorkell Geitisson is mentioned only once in the A text of Ljósvetninga saga (in chapter 6) and not at all at the corresponding place in the C text, which in other respects is much fuller at this point. The passage in question describes a dispute between Guðmundr ríki and Þórir Helgason, who is a friend of Guðmundr’s brother, Einarr Þveræingr (i.e. Einarr of Þverá): ‘En um sumarit riðu menn til þings, ok fjǫlmenntu hvárirtveggju; ok var Guðmundr fjǫlmennari. Þorkell Geitisson var þar ok leitaði um sættir með þeim. En Guðmundr vill eigi sættask’ (‘That summer people rode to the Alþingi. Each of them gathered a large band of supporters, but Guðmundr had more. Þorkell Geitisson was there and tried to arbitrate between them. But Guðmundr refuses to make peace’) (ÍF X:38).

The poor state of preservation of the A text of Ljósvetninga saga makes it impossible to say whether Þorkell had been introduced in it at some earlier point. However, the fact he is mentioned here gives us reason to doubt that the A text is an abridgement of the C text, or that the C text is an expanded version of the extant A text, as scholars have argued over—as opposed to Knut Liestøl’s view (1929:50-5) that where the A and C texts differ they are based largely on differing oral traditions. Hallvard Magerøy (1957:54-64) appears to make nothing of Þorkell Geitisson in his comparison of the variant texts, and the same applies to Andersson and Miller (1989:72-3), though they do put forward the idea that the A text is based on more than just the C text and that the copyist had access to other stories from Hörgárdalur, from people who knew accounts presented from the point of view of Þorgils Akrakarl. Liestøl (1929:51) pointed out that each text contains material that is not found in the other and put this down to memory failure. Cases such as this also permit us to speak of variant narratives without any need to adopt a stance on whether the storytellers had forgotten some correct ‘original version’ of their story. This is how things appear in the case of Þorkell: the audience of the A text could, apparently, be trusted to know who Þorkell Geitisson was (even if he does not appear elsewhere in the extant fragments of AM 561 4to). The writer could not have gotten his name from the corresponding passage in the C text, so the only possibility seems to be that he got it from the tradition outside the written texts and could rely on the audience to work out for themselves how Þorkell came to be involved in the affairs of Guðmundr ríki and Einarr Þveræingr.

The case is very different with the C text of Ljósvetninga saga, in which Þorkell Geitisson figures prominently early on in the story, at the beginning of Vǫðu-Brands þáttr.

  • Vǫðu-Brandr, a difficult and aggressive farmer’s son from Mýrr, has killed a man in Norway and arrives in Reyðarfjörður well on into autumn. At this point Þorkell Geitisson is introduced: ‘Hann bjó í Krossavík í Vápnafirði’ (‘He lived at Krossavík in Vopnafjörður’) (ÍF X:128). A man from Reykjadalur called Einarr, who is working for Þorkell at Krossavík, immediately takes fright when he hears about Vǫðu-Brandr and wants to get away, convinced that Þorkell will invite Brandr to come and stay with him. Þorkell asks Einarr to stay on and makes Brandr welcome. At first Vǫðu-Brandr behaves himself, but then he starts running riot among Þorkell’s client farmers and refuses to sit and drink with Þorkell as Þorkell wishes, preferring to go out womanizing. Brandr initiates a game called ‘Syrpuþingslǫg,’ a grotesque and unseemly travesty of court procedure. Þorkell objects to this and asks Brandr to lay off. Brandr takes umbrage and leaves and goes west to his father. There he injures a man at some games and, as mentioned previously (p. 147), is sent back to Krossavík to Þorkell—to Þorkell’s embarrassment, since he had previously out of pride refused to release Brandr from his terms at Krossavík when he first wanted to storm off.
  • Þorkell offers to compensate Guðmundr ríki for Brandr’s misdeed but Guðmundr refuses and prepares to take the case to the spring assembly at Vöðlaþing. Þorkell goes east to Álftafjörður to his friend Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson (who is mentioned directly without other introduction) and they plan their defense of the case—which is to have it thrown out on technicalities and by strength of numbers. Þorkell and Þorsteinn ride together though the farmlands with only three companions on their way to the assembly but send their main band of supporters over the mountains and down into Eyjafjörður. Guðmundr fails to see through this deception, though he realizes there is a flaw in his own case, i.e. that as one of Þorkell’s household Brandr cannot be prosecuted at the Vöðlaþing assembly. The case is brought to the Alþingi and Bjarni Brodd-Helgason becomes involved: see above, p. 147. Þorsteinn goes behind Þorkell’s back and tries to thrash out peace proposals with Ófeigr Járngerðarson. They agree to go to Guðmundr’s brother, Einarr of Þverá, and seek to arrange a marriage between Þorkell and his daughter Jórunn. The conversation includes an excellent description of Þorkell as an ambitious but rather poor chieftain who is willing to support his own men financially in their legal disputes and ‘sitr hann yfir virðingum allra Austfirðinga’ (‘has a monopoly of power and status throughout the eastern fjords’) (ÍF X:136).
  • Agreement is reached and nothing remains for Þorsteinn but to inform his friend about his prospective marriage: ‘“Eigi veit ek nú, at hverju verða vill, en konu hefi ek beðit í morgin til handa þér.” Þorkell mælti: “Mikit er um liðveizlu þína við mik, er þú gerir þat ekki síðr, er ek býð þér um eigi. Hver er sjá kona?” Þorsteinn svarar: “Sjá mær heitir Jórunn ok er dóttir Einars frá Þverá.” Þorkell mælti: “Þá mey vilda ek ok helzt eiga á Íslandi.” Þorsteinn mælti: “Þá er nú ráð at ganga til festarmálanna.”’ (‘“I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I’ve made a marriage proposal on your behalf this morning.” Þorkell said: “There’s a lot to be said for your support for me, when you’re just as willing to do what I don’t ask of you. Who is this woman?” Þorsteinn answers: “The girl is called Jórunn and she’s the daughter of Einarr of Þverá.” Þorkell said: “That’s the girl I’d like to marry more than any other in Iceland.” Þorsteinn said: “So it’s time to get the wedding plans sorted out.”’) (ÍF X:137). Everything is arranged and the wedding is fixed for Þverá in a half a month’s time, before Guðmundr is even told of his niece’s forthcoming marriage. Þorsteinn starts off by telling him that Þorkell is betrothed and in Guðmundr’s reply we get another description of Þorkell: ‘“Sú kona er vel gefin, er honum er, því at hann er inn mesti hreystimaðr, þótt nú sé með okkr fátt. Eða hver er sú kona?’” (‘“That woman has a good husband who gets him, because he’s a man of great courage and fortitude, even if we don’t see eye to eye at present. So who is this woman?”’) (137). After this Guðmundr accepts the original offer of compensation and settles the claim for injury and Þorkell carries out his side in the case ‘svá, at báðum hugnaði vel. En þó eldi hér lengi af með þeim brœðrum. En Þorkell sat yfir sœmdinni allri’ (‘so that both were well satisfied. Even so, for some while there was some friction between the brothers. But Þorkell came out of it with all the credit’) (138). After the wedding at Þverá, Þorkell concedes the case to Guðmundr and then goes ‘heim með konu sína, ok þótti hann mjǫk vaxit hafa af þessi ferð’ (‘home with his wife, and seemed to have grown greatly out of this venture’) (139). As mentioned earlier (p. 148), Jórunn succeeds in reconciling the relatives ‘ok heldu þá sætt vel ok drengiliga síðan. Þorkell bjó í Krossavík til elli ok þótti ávallt inn mesti garpr, þar sem hann kemr við sǫgur. Vǫðu-Brandr fór austan ok bjó á fǫðurleifð sinni ok samðisk mikit ok þótti góðr bóndi ok þóttisk aldri fulllaunat geta Þorkatli Geitissyni sína liðveizlu ok góðvilja’ (‘and they kept the peace like men of honor after this. Þorkell lived at Krossavík until old age and was always considered a bold and brave man wherever people tell of him. Vǫðu-Brandr left the east and took over his inheritance from his father and calmed down a great deal and was considered a good farmer and never felt he could repay Þorkell Geitisson sufficiently for his support and goodwill’) (139).
  • Much later in Ljósvetninga saga there is an account of how Hrólfr, son of Þorkell, son of Tjǫrvi, son of Þorgeirr of Ljósavatn, goes to Þorkell Geitisson and asks for his support against Eyjólfr, the son of Guðmundr ríki: ‘Ok er hann fann Þorkel Geitisson, mælti hann slíkum málum við hann. Hann svarar: “Þú mælir sannara, en eigi nenni ek at ganga í móti Eyjólfi”’ (‘And when he met Þorkell Geitisson he talked these matters over with him. He answers: “You have the better grounds on your side, but I have no wish to take on Eyjólfr”’) (ÍF X:101). No more is said of Þorkell in the saga.

Doubts have been expressed as to whether Þorkell of Krossavík could have still been alive at the time he is last mentioned in Ljósvetninga saga. According to Björn Sigfússon’s reckoning (1940:xxviii-xxix, 101), based on a comparison with other written sources, Þorkell would have needed to be in his nineties at this point in the saga. But, as noted previously, comparison with different sources can prove a treacherous basis on which to interpret the chronologies of individual sagas. Within the particular world of Ljósvetninga saga it makes perfect sense to name Þorkell Geitisson here as the person Hrólfr applies to for support; the world of the saga is not a ‘real’ historical world and the audience would presumably have accepted the account on the basis of the information given in the opening chapters that Þorkell lived to a great age at Krossavík and remained a man of great determination and courage throughout his life. The reconstructed chronology of modern scholarship, which is able to show that such narrative devices are factually ‘incorrect’ within the overall framework of the saga tradition, is irrelevant here. A further function of this episode would have been to draw a contrast between Þorkell and Skegg-Broddi Bjarnason of Hof, who is also mentioned in the saga at this point and has previously refused to lend Eyjólfr his support.

Ljósvetninga saga is silent on the subject of Þorkell’s first wife whom we know about from Vápnfirðinga saga and Landnámabók, both of which say that Þorkell was the son-in-law of Egill Steinbjarnarson from Egilsstaðir in Vopnafjörður. So it is unclear whether Ljósvetninga saga contains any notion of Þorkell’s rise to power in Vopnafjörður after the death of his father in 987, or that his marriage to Jórunn as described in Vǫðu-Brands þáttr was in fact his second marriage.

  • In Ǫlkofra þáttr, Þorkell Geitisson is named among a group of powerful goðar (priest-chieftains) that owns a wood near the site of the Alþingi at Þingvellir. The wood is destroyed in a fire which starts from Ǫlkofri’s charcoal pits ‘upp frá Hrafnabjǫrgum ok austr frá Lǫnguhlíð […] Þar brann skógr sá, er kallaðr var Goðaskógr. Hann áttu sex goðar. Einn var Snorri goði, annarr Guðmundr Eyjólfsson, þriði Skapti lǫgsǫgumaðr, fjórði Þorkell Geitisson, fimmti Eyjólfr, sonr Þórðar gellis, sétti Þorkell trefill Rauða-Bjarnarson’ (‘up from Hrafnabjörg and east from Lönguhlíð […] The wood there known as Goðaskógur burned down. It was owned by six goðar. One was Snorri goði, the second Guðmundr Eyjólfsson, the third Skapti the lawspeaker, fourth Þorkell Geitisson, fifth Eyjólfr, son of Þórðr gellir, sixth Þorkell trefill son of Bjǫrn the Red’) (ÍF XI:84-85).

On the evidence of other sources, at least three of these goðar were linked to Þorkell by bonds of either family or friendship: Snorri and Þorkell were both married to daughters of Guðmundr ríki Eyjólfsson’s brother Einarr (see above, p. 166); Þorkell, the son of Eyjólfr Þórðarson, describes Þorkell Geitisson as his friend in Laxdœla saga (see p. 164); and his son Gellir was also married into the family (see p. 166). Although it is difficult to see how, according to the conventional chronology, all these men could have been alive at the same time (see Jóhannesson 1950:xxxv-xxxvi), it is not improbable that there is some kind of tradition behind the family and other connections supposedly linking these men that would explain why they are portrayed as sharing ownership of a wood near Þingvellir ‘til nytja sér á þingi’ (‘for their personal use at the Alþingi’) (ÍF XI:85). It is also true, as Jóhannesson points out in his introduction to ÍF XI, that these were all men of considerable power, influence, and skill in the law. We may suppose that the audience must have known who these men were, since the þáttr gives no details of their genealogies. But this makes it all the more peculiar that Broddi Bjarnarson, ‘Skegg-Broddi,’ who is married into this extended family (see p. 166), should be able to call on the support of Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson, his sister’s father-in-law and a colleague of Þorkell Geitisson in Vǫðu-Brands þáttr, when defending Ǫlkofri against this powerful coterie of legal experts.

  • When Broddi starts casting aspersions at the goðar and Skapti the lawspeaker threatens him with dire reprisals, Þorkell Geitisson remarks that Broddi has got his overbearing spirit from the man he was named after, viz. Brodd-Helgi. To this, Broddi retorts that there is no reason to bring up an old family misfortune, and that anyway Þorkell’s father Geitir was made to pay for the killing of Brodd-Helgi, ‘en hitt ætla ek, ef þú leitar at, er þú munir fingrum kenna þat, er faðir minn markaði þik í Bǫðvarsdal’ (‘and anyway, I reckon that if you look you’ll see from your fingers how my father left his mark on you at Böðvarsdalur’) (ÍF XI:93). This angers Þorkell, but Broddi comes to him the next day and apologizes, blaming it on his youth, gives Þorkell a sword as a peace offering, and invites him to visit him during the summer. Þorkell responds favorably and makes up with his kinsman—Broddi needs all the support he can get against Guðmundr ríki, whom he accuses of cowardice and sexual deviance; later, on the way home from the Alþingi, Broddi only manages to evade Guðmundr ríki as he rides through the pass at Ljósavatnsskarð and on into Vopnafjörður because he has Þorkell and his ‘in-law’ Einarr with him. ‘Þat sumar fór Þorkell at heimboði til Brodda, frænda síns, ok þá þar allgóðar gjafar. Hǫfðu þeir þá ina beztu frændsemi með vináttu, ok helzk þat, meðan þeir lifðu’ (‘That summer Þorkell went and stayed as a guest of his kinsman Broddi and received fine gifts from him there. From then on they enjoyed the best of friendly family relations, and this is how it stayed as long as they lived’) (ÍF XI:94).

Ǫlkofra þáttr assumes a wide knowledge of various other disputes that the chieftains mentioned had previously been involved in. Some of them we know little about, but others are recorded in extant texts, like the feud between the people of Krossavík and Hof in Vopnafjörður. We also know about the relationship between Broddi and Þorkell that the þáttr alludes to without giving precise details. The same is true of the connection between Þorkell and Einarr Eyjólfsson of Þverá, who is said to be Þorkell’s ‘mágr’ (in-law) without it being specified that Þorkell is in fact married to Einarr’s daughter Jórunn. The vices Broddi accuses the chieftains of appear to provide further examples of a writer alluding to accounts that he supposed his audience would have been familiar with, though the vicissitudes of preservation have resulted in only a small fragment of them having found their way onto vellum and down to us. In the case of Ǫlkofra þáttr it is difficult to point to supplementary information that may have been available in the same manuscript, since it is found only in Mǫðruvallabók and thereafter in no source earlier than AM 426 fol. from the second half of the 17th century in a miscellany of material from the east of Iceland. The conclusion however seems inescapable that Ǫlkofra þáttr works with and refers to the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the family relationships linking the characters and the events in which they were involved in other narrative accounts (without which the þáttr’s sarcasm misses its point), and it seems not unlikely that these accounts would have been oral.

  • In Vápnfirðinga saga itself, Þorkell Geitisson is first mentioned as the husband of Hallfríðr Egilsdóttir (see above, p. 158). When the feud between Brodd-Helgi and Geitir is at its height, after Helgi has killed Hallfríðr’s uncle Þormóðr of Sunnudalur, the saga says: ‘Þorkell, sonr Geitis, fór útan ok jafnan landa í millum, þegar er hann hafði aldr til þess, ok varð hann lítt við riðinn mál þeira Brodd-Helga ok Geitis, fǫður síns’ (‘Once he was old enough, Geitir’s son Þorkell went abroad and spent most of his time traveling from country to country, and was little involved in the affairs of Brodd-Helgi and his father Geitir’) (ÍF XI:43). After Bjarni has killed Geitir, it says: ‘Þorkell Geitisson var eigi á Íslandi, er faðir hans var veginn, en Blængr varðveitti bú í Krossavík með umsjá Egilssona, er þá váru mágar Þorkels Geitissonar […] Nú kemr Þorkell Geitisson út, ok ferrhann þegar til bús síns til Krossavíkr ok lætr sem hann eigi ekki um at vera’ (‘Þorkell Geitisson was not in Iceland when his father was killed, but Blængr [Geitir’s brother] looked after the farm at Krossavík with the help of the Egilssons, who were Þorkell Geitisson’s brothers-in-law at the time […] Now Þorkell comes out to Iceland and goes immediately to his farm at Krossavík and acts as if he does not mean to get involved’) (53). Bjarni offers Þorkell ‘sætt ok sœmð ok sjálfdœmi’ (‘reconciliation and honor and terms of his own choosing’) (53) but Þorkell turns a deaf ear, which people interpret as him having his mind set on vengeance.
  • Þorkell tries to hunt Bjarni down in the mountains during the autumn roundup but Bjarni has received word of Þorkell’s intentions and no encounter ensues. Þorkell continues to look for ways of getting at Bjarni and, after a failed attack at the summer pastures on the heaths, sends for Helgi and Grímr Droplaugarson and tells them he wishes to attack Bjarni at home at Hof with fire and sword. The brothers are all for this, but when the time comes Þorkell cannot act because of ill health and refuses to send Helgi alone. Helgi accuses him of cowardice when push comes to shove and they part on bad terms.

Droplaugarsona saga has nothing to say about this abortive reprisal raid on Bjarni, but it may perhaps contain a resonance of the sickness that Helgi feigns when Þorkell asks him to accompany him south in support of Flosi (see p. 167). If Þorkell’s vacillation here was known outside Vápnfirðinga saga, it is worth asking ourselves whether the audience of Droplaugarsona saga would have set it against Helgi’s sickness and interpreted the latter as Helgi getting his own back on Þorkell—as Helgi feeling he was, as it were, ‘owed’ a sickness after the fool’s errand he had once been put to when summoned up to Krossavík. If it is permissible to put such a construction on this episode, it would provide another example of supplementary information that an audience was supposed to be able to supply for itself to fill out the story being told.

  • Things come to a head in Vápnfirðinga saga when Þorkell and Bjarni both go to the Fljótsdalshérað spring assembly. Þorkell is accompanied by Blængr, the Egilssons, Eyjólfr of Víðivellir, and nine others ‘ok fóru til Eyvindarár til Gró, ok annaðisk hon þat, er þeir þurftu’ (‘and they went to Gróa at Eyvindará and she saw to whatever they needed’) (ÍF XI:58). This Gróa is not introduced in any other way and it is clearly assumed that she is already familiar to the audience. On the way home, Þorkell’s party ride down into Böðvarsdalur and spend the night with Kári, a farmer client of Þorkell’s. Bjarni and his men try to sneak past the farm very early in the morning while Þorkell and the others are still asleep, but Þorkell wakes just afterwards and urges his men to chase after them to Eyvindarstaðir, where the kinsmen fight until the farmer Eyvindr and the women of the farm throw clothes over their weapons and stop the battle. Þorkell is wounded but Bjarni sends him a doctor who tends his wounds. With Þorkell incapacitated things go badly on the farm at Krossavík; at this point, a sentence is inserted giving the information that Þorkell’s wife is now Jórunn (see above, p. 169). One of Þorkell’s retainers goes to Hof and returns with an offer from Bjarni to feed and house all of Þorkell’s domestic staff or to send food down to Krossavík. Þorkell is bemused by this offer but Jórunn wishes to leave for Hof right away and her counsel prevails. Þorkell accepts Bjarni’s offer to appoint his own terms for the killing of Geitir and they come to a full and sincere reconciliation. The saga’s final comment on Þorkell is that he ‘var hǫfðingi mikill ok inn mesti hreystimaðr ok málafylgismaðr mikill. Fé gekk af hǫndum honum í elli hans, ok er hann brá búi sínu, bauð Bjarni honum til Hofs, ok eldisk hann þar til lykða. Þorkell var kynsæll maðr’ (‘was a great chieftain and a man of enormous prowess and a great expert in the law. His wealth dried up in his old age, and when he could no longer keep his farm going Bjarni invited him to live at Hof, and he grew old there and stayed there to the end of his life. Many fine men are descended from Þorkell’) (ÍF XI:65). The saga ends with the line of his descendants (see diagram).

Figure 4-7: Þorkell Geitisson’s descendants as named at the end of Vápnfirðinga saga

This generalized description of Þorkell’s nobility, prowess, and tenacity in legal matters ties in with what we find in other sagas. He is single-minded in his pursuit of his brother’s killer, Gunnarr Þiðrandabani, and his knowledge of the law and determination in pressing through with his legal disputes are features of his character in a number of sources. It is interesting that Vápnfirðinga saga says nothing about the circumstances of his marriage to Jórunn, and his brothers-in-law from his former marriage fight at his side in Böðvarsdalur, so that someone listening to the story would have no reason to think that Þorkell was not still married to Hallfríðr Egilsdóttir at this point. In fact, the only sources to mention Hallfríðr are Landnámabók and the genealogical details at the start of Vápnfirðinga saga. The primary function in the saga of the link between Þorkell and Hallfríðr seems to be to explain the connection between Geitir and the descendants of Steinbjǫrn kǫrtr and the Egilssons’ support of Þorkell at Böðvarsdalur. Beyond this, the only period of Þorkell’s life in which we can envisage him as married to Hallfríðr is the very time when he was mostly on his travels—which the saga says he began as soon as he was old enough to leave home. He was still abroad when his father was killed, and two years later when he gets back from the battle in Böðvarsdalur his wife is Jórunn. The accounts of Þorkell’s later life agree in his having lived to a great age.

  • In Njáls saga there is a certain parallelism between Þorkell Geitisson and his kinsman Víga-Bjarni Brodd-Helgason. Þorkell is introduced early in the genealogy of Hallr of Síða, who was married to Jóreiðr Þiðrandadóttir, the sister of the mother ‘Þorkels Geitissonar ok þeira Þiðranda’ (‘of Þorkell Geitisson and Þiðrandi, etc.’) (ÍF XII:239). (Bjarni is connected with this family later on: see p. 150.) On his journey through the east of Iceland mustering support, Flosi goes from Bjarni at Hof on to Krossavík: ‘Þorkell Geitisson var vin Flosa mikill áðr […] Þorkell kvað þat skylt vera at veita honum slíkt, er hann væri til fœrr, ok skiljask eigi við hans mál. Þorkell gaf Flosa góðar gjafir at skilnaði’ (‘Þorkell Geitisson was already a great friend of Flosi’s […] Þorkell said it was his duty to support him to the best of his ability and never let him down. Þorkell gave Flosi good gifts at his departure’) (ÍF XII:352-3).

As was the case with Bjarni, it seems that the audience of Njáls saga was supposed to take Þorkell’s response as a sign of readiness on the part of a relative of Hallr of Síða to go to the aid of his friend and ally Flosi. The reference to Þorkell’s already being a friend of Flosi’s might refer to stories like the one we know from Droplaugarsona saga, when Þorkell goes south to support Flosi in his feud with the Ǫrnólfssons (a feud that is also mentioned in Njáls saga: see p. 168). However, the context does not demand any such extensive knowledge of Þorkell’s previous relations with Flosi; the emphasis here is placed on the kinship connections with Flosi’s closest friend and advisor, and the audience has to take on trust the saga’s word about the friendship between the two men.

  • Þorkell is next mentioned in Njáls saga in a conversation between Bjarni and Flosi at the Alþingi when they discuss who they can get to defend them in the litigation following the burning of Njáll. The only person Flosi can think of from the east of Iceland is Bjarni’s kinsman, Þorkell Geitisson. ‘Bjarni mælti: “Ekki munu vér hann telja; þótt hann sé lǫgvitr, þá er hann þó forsjáll mjǫk. Þarf þat engi maðr at ætla at hafa hann at skotspæni, en fylgja mun hann þér sem sá, er bezt fylgir, því at hann er ofrhugi. En segja mun ek þér, at þat verðr þess manns bani, er vǫrn fœrir fram fyrir brennumálit, en ek ann þess eigi Þorkatli, frænda mínum. Munu vit verða at leita annars staðar á”’ (‘Bjarni said: “Let’s not count him; he may be skilled at law but he is extremely cagey. He’s nobody’s fool, and he will pursue your cause as well as anyone, as he is full of ambition. But I tell you this: it will be the death of whomever pleads our defense for the burning, and I don’t wish this on my kinsman Þorkell. We’ll have to look elsewhere’) (ÍF XII:364).

The passage underlines Bjarni’s sense of honor and his description of Þorkell ties in with what is said in other sources about his skill in law and his combative qualities. Bjarni can personally attest to Þorkell’s bravery and tenacity; if his experience from other sagas can be taken as relevant here, this may be a reference to Þorkell’s attempts to kill Bjarni himself, as related in Vápnfirðinga saga. Bjarni’s comments also serve to confirm the heartfelt reconciliation between the kinsmen—if we imagine the audience as being aware of the fact that they had once been bitter enemies.

Þorkell’s knowledge of the law, however, is not on a par with that of Njáll and the lawspeaker Skapti Þóroddsson when Mǫrðr Valgarðsson digs out from Þórhallr Ásgrímsson some obscure points of legal procedure (which Þórhallr has learned from Njáll himself) and uses them in his prosecution. Flosi is represented by Eyjólfr Bǫlverksson, the brother of lawspeaker Gellir, but it is Þorkell Geitisson who is sent to ask Skapti whether Mǫrðr’s pleading is in accordance with proper legal procedure—which Skapti confirms, though he admits that he was not aware that anyone had known of this particular point of law since Njáll had died (ÍF XII:389). The purpose here is to demonstrate Njáll’s superior knowledge by contrasting it with the perplexity of two other highly regarded lawyers.

  • There is a brief mention of Þorkell in the battle at the Alþingi when he is forced back by Þorgeirr skorargeirr, and he is named again when Sǫlvi soðkarl is describing the flight of the men of the east: ‘“Hvárt munu þessir allir ragir Austfirðingarnir, er hér flýja?” segir hann, “ok jafnvel rennr hann Þorkell Geitisson, ok er allmjǫk logit frá honum, er margir hafa þat sagt, at hann væri hugr einn, en nú rennr engi harðara en hann”’ (‘“What a load of pansies, aren’t they, these easterners running away like that?” he says. “Even Þorkell Geitisson is running, so there must be a lot of lies going around about him, when lots of people say he’s all heart and courage, and now no one’s running harder than him”). Sǫlvi is made to pay dearly for his words, for at that very moment Hallbjǫrn the Strong (an otherwise unknown in-law of Sǫrli Brodd-Helgason who was used a little earlier to force Eyjólfr Bǫlverksson into a seat between Bjarni and Flosi when he wanted to abandon their case) just happens to be passing by and picks Sǫlvi up and dunks him ‘at hǫfði í soðketilinn. Dó Sǫlvi þegar’ (‘headfirst into his cooking pot. Sǫlvi died immediately’) (ÍF XII:407).
  • The biform of Þorkell’s name, ‘Þorketill,’ appears in a satirical verse by Snorri goði about the battle at the Alþingi, which includes the line ‘vegr Þorketill nauðigr’ (‘Þorkell is forced to fight,’ presumably because he cannot escape) (ÍF XII:411).

By the time Þorkell disappears from Njáls saga his chief qualities have been put to the test and found wanting; his legal expertise proves to be of no avail and his courage fails him in his hour of need. This provides a pretext for a bit of good-natured fun, as in Snorri goði’s epigram. So far as the audience is concerned, it is notable that the salient details of Þorkell’s character here should be the same as those we find in the other sagas that tell of him.

A similar picture of Þorkell appears in Íslendingadrápa. The poem refers to his astuteness and reiterates through the conventional kennings of dróttkvætt diction that he was no coward and that he was a brave warrior, even if vengeance for his father proved beyond this ‘ættgóði skǫrungr’ (‘well-born man of character’). There is thus a consistency in Þorkell’s portrayal across the range of sources, without there being any question of literary relations, strongly suggesting that this image was already fully developed in the story tradition, viz. of a chieftain of noble birth from the eastern fjords, a courageous peacemaker and expert in the law who, like Skapti the lawspeaker himself, managed to live down his failure to avenge his own father.

  • In Fljótsdœla saga Þorkell is fully introduced in chapter 3 at his first appearance. After providing details of his parents, the saga describes Þorkell and his younger brother Þiðrandi: ‘Þessir bræðr vóru báðir vel menntir ok þó sinn veg hvór. Þorkell var jarpr á hár, dökkr maðr, lágr ok þrekligr ok kallaðr manna minnstr, þeirra sem þá vóru, manna skjótligastr ok hvatastr, sem raun bar á, því at hann átti opt við þungt at etja ok bar sik í hvert sinn vel’ (‘These brothers were both accomplished, though each in his own way. Þorkell had auburn hair, he was a dark man, small in stature and heavily built and reckoned to be the smallest man around at the time, very quick and alert and vigorous, as came out later, since he often found himself up against it but bore himself well on every occasion) (ÍF XI:220). The saga also says that Hróarr of Hróarstunga offered Geitir to foster Þiðrandi, in return for which he would leave Þiðrandi his ‘fé ok staðfestu ok ríki. En Þorkell taki þitt mannaforráð eptir þinn dag’ (‘wealth [or livestock] and lands and power. But Þorkell can have your chieftaincy when you are dead’) (221). The brothers are six and ten years old at the time.

The description of Þorkell’s appearance here is unique. It is interesting that Fljótsdœla saga should differ from Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana on the circumstances of Þiðrandi’s fostering, i.e. by Hróarr at Hróarstunga rather than Ketill at Njarðvík. Here too all ambiguity about the relationship between Þorkell and Þiðrandi has been removed, implying that the audience is not expected to fill in the gaps for themselves in the same way as in the other accounts. Here, therefore, the material is presented in a way better suited to the needs of people with only a limited knowledge of the characters and story world from which the saga arose.

  • Þorkell is not mentioned again in Fljótsdœla saga until after the death of his brother Þiðrandi. The news is received by Þorkell, his kinsman Bjarni (Brodd-)Helgason of Hof, and Þórdís todda, the wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson and Bjarni’s sister, ‘svó þeir bræðr Þorvaldssynir Þiðrandasonar, Grímr ok Helgi. Þeir vóru allir í eptirleit við Gunnar Austmann ok vildu allir Þiðranda hefna’ (‘as well as the brothers Grímr and Helgi, sons of Þorvaldr son of Þiðrandi. They were all involved in the hunt for Gunnarr the Norwegian and all wanted to avenge Þiðrandi’) (ÍF XI:267). Gunnarr gets away on this occasion and the following spring Þorkell sets off from Krossavík with nine others, picking up the Droplaugarsons at Arneiðarstaðir on the way, to go and search for Gunnarr. With them is Gunnsteinn Kóreksson, and by the time they arrived at Njarðvík Helgi Droplaugarson has become the leader of the party. He leaves Þorkell, the instigator of the expedition, behind at Njarðvík to keep a watch on Þorkell fullspakr (‘All-Wise’) Ketilsson until midday while the others continue to search for Gunnarr. Þorkell Geitisson is happy to get out of this game of hide-and-seek, saying to Helgi: ‘því at vér erum ófráir Vópnfirðingarnir. Mun hér lítils við þurfa. Þyki mér meiri hamingjuraun eptir honum at leita. Treysti ek þér betr ok þinni giptu eptir honum at leita’ (‘because we men of Vopnafjörður are slow on our feet. There is little we need to do here. It seems to be more of a game of chance to be off searching for him. I have more trust in you and your luck to do the searching’) (270). After a long manhunt, in which Gunnarr narrowly escapes with the help of a pair of brothers from Borgarfjörður with supernatural powers, Helgi turns back to Arneiðarstaðir with his followers. ‘Hitta þeir Þorkel Geitisson. Hann spyrr, hversu farit hafi, en Helgi segir alla atburði, svó sem gengit hafði. Þorkell kvað mjök vaxa ófrið, en ekki við meðalmenn at eiga, þar sem þeir vóru bræðr. Þorkell kvaðst þar hafa setit yfir nafna sínum til hádegis í Djúpahvammi’ (‘They meet Þorkell Geitisson. He asks how things have gone and Helgi tells him everything just as it happened. Þorkell said that things were now looking much worse, that they didn’t have just ordinary men to contend with in the case of these brothers. Þorkell said he had stayed there on guard over this namesake at Djúpihvammur until midday’) before eventually letting him go (281).Þorkell stays at home at Krossavík and takes no further action before he rides to the Alþingi and places ‘fé til höfuðs Gunnari ok fekk öllum höfðingjum umboð, at hann skulu höndum taka. Allir hétu góðu um þetta, en þeir þó mestu, er Þorkell átti heitast vinfengi við, ef hann kæmi því fram. Þat var Þorkell Eyjólfsson. Hann bjó vestr at Helgafelli ok átti Guðrúnu Ósvífursdóttur […] Hann hafði heitit Þorkeli Geitissyni at taka Gunnar af lífi, ef hann næði honum’ (‘money on Gunnarr’s head and gives all the chieftains a commission to have him captured. They all promised to do this, most of all the ones Þorkell had the closest friendship with, if he could manage it. That was Þorkell Eyjólfsson. He lived in the west at Helgafell and was married to Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir […] He had promised Þorkell Geitisson that he would have Gunnarr executed if he could get hold of him’) (F XI:286). This is the last we hear of orkell Geitisson in the saga.


Fljótsdœla saga stands out among the sources on Þorkell Geitisson in being both more diffuse and making explicit various points that appear to be left unsaid elsewhere. Thus Fljótsdœla saga is specific about Þorkell and Þiðrandi being brothers and growing up together at Krossavík before Þiðrandi is sent away for fostering, and provides a detailed account of Þorkell Geitisson at the Alþingi getting the chieftains to commit themselves to arresting Gunnarr Þiðrandabani if they get the chance (on this episode, see also p. 229 f). It is perhaps possible to explain this as the compiler of the saga having read the other sagas and deciding to provide a fuller account by filling in the gaps with reasoned guesswork. The problem here is that in many cases Fljótsdœla saga goes its own way, as in the examples presented below, and deviates from the other written sagas in all kinds of minor matters that can hardly be explained in terms of an ‘author’ recasting material from a written book. It therefore seems more profitable to imagine the saga as having been written with a different kind of audience in mind, i.e. an audience that was not familiar with the conditions and saga world of the east of Iceland and that consequently required a much more detailed presentation than would have been the case with an audience already reasonably familiar with the main family relations and personal characteristics of figures such as Þorkell Geitisson.

Viewed in this light, there is much to recommend Valdimar Ásmundarson’s conjecture, taken up by Jón Jóhannesson in his introduction to the ÍF edition (1950:xcix), that the saga was written in Eyjafjörður in the north of Iceland. The basis for this conjecture lies in the description of Gunnarr’s swim across Njarðvík: ‘Því hafa þeir menn saman jafnat, er hvórt tveggja hafa komit ok kunnugt er um, at þat sé jafnlangt sund, er Gunnar hefir lagizt yfir þvera Njarðvík, ok frá Naustadæli ok yfir til Vindgjár’ (‘People who have been to both places and are familiar with them have made comparison between Gunnarr’s swim from one side of Njarðvík to the other and the distance from Naustadæli across to Vindgjá, and reckon them to be about the same’) (ÍF XI:272). As Jóhannesson explains in his footnote, the idea is that this ‘Naustdæli’ lay somewhere near the modern farm of Naust just south of Akureyri on Eyjafjörður, and that ‘Vindgjá’ is a copyist’s error for ‘Varðgjá’ on the opposite side of the fjord; this sentence was thus written for an audience that was more familiar with Eyjafjörður than the east coast of Iceland. Taken on its own, of course, this point proves little, since it requires both an emendation of the text for one of the place names and the conjectured existence of the other, a conjecture that has no support from independent textual evidence. But the basic idea, that Fljótsdœla saga was written some way away from the east of Iceland, ties in well with the points presented in greater detail below (p. 184), that the saga shows signs of having been written for an intended audience with less background knowledge of the east than the other sagas set in that part of the country.


As regards the historicity of the sagas, it is interesting to see how far the events of Þorkell Geitisson’s life can be arranged into a reasonably plausible chronological order. As a youngster at home in Krossavík he teaches his cousin Helgi Droplaugarson the law before and during the time when he is otherwise off sailing the world. After his father is killed, and now presumably in his twenties, Þorkell returns home and becomes an assertive chieftain, bent on vengeance and litigation. Some time earlier he has married a girl from a neighboring farm, but at this point she disappears from his life and he marries a chieftain’s daughter from the north as part of his campaign to extend his political influence more widely. At home in his own quarter, Þorkell makes peace with his father’s killers and shelters his kinsmen the Droplaugarsons from the arm of the law. He rides south in support of Flosi Þórðarson and later tries, without success, to take vengeance on the killer of his brother Þiðrandi. By this point, perhaps approaching forty, Þorkell has emerged as a national figure, obtaining agreements from the leading chieftains of the country that they will arrest Gunnarr Þiðrandabani wherever they can lay their hands on him. In his forties he has acquired a reputation as an expert in the law, for instance at the Alþingi in the litigation following the burning of Njáll. Around this time too, he has formed alliances of common interest with all the most powerful men in Iceland, to whom he is now linked by bonds of kinship or friendship. But he sees fit to offer Skegg-Broddi invaluable support when Broddi thwarts the chieftains’ persecution of Ǫlkofri, and emerges with his reputation enhanced still further. In the ensuing years he is mentioned in Ljósvetninga saga as taking part in peace negotiations, but then nothing further is heard of him until he reappears in his late eighties turning down Hrólfr Þorkelsson’s request for support against the sons of Guðmundr ríki, a man whom Þorkell had himself crossed swords with when he was in his prime. The sagas state specifically that Þorkell lived to a ripe old age, so it need not surprise us that he should be depicted as still attending the Alþingi not far short of his ninetieth year.

The main events in the life of Þorkell Geitisson as related in the various sources can be arranged in chronological order as follows. The dates given are based on the chronologies in the introductions to the relevant volumes of Íslenzk fornrit.

Table 4-4: The *immanent saga of Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík

Fljótsdœla saga Þorkell grows up at Krossavík with his brother Þiðrandi.
Droplaugarsona saga
As a youth, Þorkell teaches his cousin Helgi Droplaugarson the law before and during the years he spends traveling abroad (Vápnfirðinga saga).
Vápnfirðinga saga
After his father is killed, Þorkell returns home and becomes an assertive chieftain with his mind fixed on vengeance. However, he fails in his attempts to avenge his father (Íslendingadrápa). He is actively involved in legal cases well on into his twenties.
Vápnfirðinga saga,
Ǫlkofra þáttr
He fights a battle in Böðvarsdalur against his neighbor, Víga-Bjarni of Hof. Around the same time, the love of his early years, Hallfríðr Egilsdóttir from a neighboring farm, disappears from his life (Landnámabók, Vápnfirðinga saga) and he marries Jórunn Einarsdóttir, a chieftain’s daughter from the next quarter as a step in the expansion of his powerbase (Ljósvetninga saga C text).
Droplaugarsona saga
Þorkell is now approaching thirty. He settles disputes in his own part of the country and protects his kinsmen the Droplaugarsons from the arm of the law. He goes south to support Flosi Þórðarson.
Laxdœla saga,
Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana,
Fljótsdœla saga
He attempts without success to exact vengeance for the killing of his brother Þiðrandi. Þorkell is now around forty and is making his mark at a national level through agreements with the leading chieftains in the country to arrest Gunnarr Þiðrandabani and deny him any succor. Around the same time he hides Grímr Droplaugarson after the killing of Helgi Ásbjarnarson (Droplaugarsona saga).
Njáls saga
Now in his forties, Þorkell is recognized as an accomplished lawman at the Alþingi during the litigation following the burning of Njáll.
Ǫlkofra þáttr
Þorkell has now formed alliances of common interest with the most powerful chieftains in the country, based on bonds of kinship or friendship. He rides his luck by supporting his kinsman Skegg-Broddi when Broddi thwarts the chieftains’ persecution of Ǫlkofri but emerges with his reputation enhanced still further.
Ljósvetninga saga A text
Þorkell is mentioned as a negotiator in peace settlements.
Ljósvetninga saga C text
Þorkell is not heard of again until approaching ninety, when he refuses to support Hrólfr Þorkelsson against the sons of Guðmundr ríki, a man Þorkell had himself clashed with in his younger days. The sources state specifically that Þorkell lived to a ripe old age, either at Krossavík (Ljósvetninga saga C text) or with Bjarni at Hof (Vápnfirðinga saga); this lends some credence to the idea that he could still have been attending the Alþingi into his eighties.

Superficially, therefore, it is quite possible to draw up an apparently consistent and plausible account of the life of Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík, with the main events from the various sources arranged in chronological order. But if we wish to be strictly historical it is easy to point to contradictions in this chronology and therefore to events that cannot be true in any literal sense. For instance, while we are prepared for Þorkell’s longevity, that he should still be active in political disputes well on into his eighties perhaps stretches credulity. Also, Vápnfirðinga saga says that Þorkell moved to Hof to be with Bjarni in his old age, while Ljósvetninga saga has him still living at Krossavík. Perhaps more damningly to any view of the sagas as unalloyed purveyors of historical truth, there is a straightforward clash in the sources regarding the possible part of the Droplaugarsons in the events following the killing of Þiðrandi Geitisson; if we go by the internal chronology of Laxdœla saga, Helgi Droplaugarson should have been dead for some years by this time. If we restrict ourselves to a historical perspective, we can perhaps detect in the accounts a development and broadening of Helgi’s part in this episode that might have taken place in the story tradition: according to Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (ÍF XI:204), ‘some people say’ that Helgi was with Þorkell on the search for Gunnarr; by the time we get to Fljótsdœla saga Helgi is said to have taken over the leadership of the manhunt instigated by Þorkell. These kinds of developments, and the inconsistencies they give rise to, are precisely the kinds of things one might expect of tales in oral transmission.

From the fact that it is possible to draw up a reasonably coherent and consistent overview of Þorkell’s life, it is tempting to take the view that the stories we have about him are largely historically accurate and go back to real people and events from around and before the year 1000. But it is also possible to look at this another way and say that it was the tradition that built up and passed on to us a coherent and consistent image of the life and character of Þorkell Geitisson. Audiences in the 13th century would have been familiar with this man, and the stories about him would have backed each other up, even though there is no sign of borrowing among the written sources in the presentation of his character. The simplest way of interpreting the consistencies and inconsistencies among the sources is to view them as evidence that each of the sagas assumed knowledge of certain ‘facts’ about this man and his circumstances, a knowledge that made it possible for their audiences to know broadly what to expect of him from the mere mention of his name—as in Laxdœla saga. Nobody took the trouble to write down a special saga of Þorkell Geitisson, but there is clearly sufficient material in the extant sources for such a saga, and audiences would have been able to recognize it from the amorphous body of oral tales on which it was based. To use Carol Clover’s term (1986), there was an immanent saga of Þorkell Geitisson, even if no *Þorkels saga Geitisson ever came to be written. Things are different when we come to Fljótsdœla saga; here it appears that the writer was unable to assume this kind of prior knowledge and background information on the part of his audience. This makes it tempting to think that this saga, unlike the other Austfirðingasögur, was not written in the east of Iceland itself but in the north, in Eyjafjörður, where it was not possible to rely on the audience being able to fill in the gaps to the same degree. When we add to this the widely held view that Fljótsdœla saga was written later than the other sagas (anywhere between the 14th and 17th centuries has been suggested: see below, p. 240)—i.e. when we add distance in time to the distance in space from the ‘real’ people and events—the possibilities decrease still further that the audience had any clear idea of the character of Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík in Vopnafjörður to bring to bear on the saga.

Literary Relations between Vápnfirðinga Saga and Other Sources

The widely accepted view that the writer of the saga took material from Landnámabók is based on Jóhannesson’s assertion (1950:xv-xvi) that the use of Landnámabók in chapters 1 and 3 is patent and unambiguous. To Jóhannesson, this is seen above all in the general genealogical information in the saga, which he believes must have come from Landnámabók. However, this is more than questionable in view of the fact that the saga fails to give any family details about Brodd-Helgi’s mother (which were available in Landnámabók) and yet includes information not found in Landnámabók, as Jóhannesson himself points out. To explain these discrepancies, Jóhannesson was forced to postulate that, as well as Landnámabók, the ‘author’ of the saga had also had some parallel written genealogical source (‘eitthvert ættartölurit samhliða’; 1950:xvi). It never occurs to Jóhannesson that the writer might rather have had access to his own sources of information on the family relations of his characters, obtained from the lips of learned people in the Vopnafjörður region who may never even have seen a copy of Landnámabók in its written form, a book that can hardly have been widely available in the east of Iceland at the time. The one thing that might genuinely point to the saga writer having used the text of Landnámabók is that Þorkell Geitisson is first mentioned as the son-in-law of Egill of Egilsstaðir, in the same sequence of names as in Landnámabók, rather than as the son of his father Geitir. However, as noted above (p. 158), this introduction of Þorkell through his marriage relations may serve a purpose within the saga and thus cannot be viewed as unequivocal evidence of a slavish following of sources such as Jóhannesson envisages. There is thus still reason to doubt that Landnámabók acted as a source for Vápnfirðinga saga. The same applies to the supposedly indisputable familiarity with Sturlubók and material from Þórðarbók (from Melabók) apparent in Vápnfirðinga saga; as pointed out above, the similarities extend only to general matters of content and so cannot be interpreted as firm evidence of a direct literary relationship in a society where people could tell each other stories and recite genealogies without needing to look them up in books.

Heller’s conclusions center around three references in Vápnfirðinga saga that appear to show such familiarity with characters from Droplaugarsona saga that a literary relationship seems probable:

  1. Geitir is introduced with the words: ‘Geitir átti Hallkǫtlu Þiðrandadóttur, fǫðursystur Droplaugarsona’ (‘Geitir was married to Hallkatla Þiðrandadóttir, the sister of the Droplaugarsons’ father’) (ÍF XI:27). Jón Jóhannesson considered this to be evidence that the ‘author’ of Vápnfirðinga saga assumed that his readers would be familiar with the Droplaugarsons from their written saga, which he considered beyond question older than Vápnfirðinga saga (1950:27).
  2. The saga describes Geitir as going ‘heiman í Fljótsdalsherað til Eyvindarár á kynnisleið’ (‘from home to the Fljótsdalur lowlands on a visit to Eyvindará’) (ÍF XI:43). Jóhannesson notes that the ‘author’ is here assuming his readers will know who it was that lived at Eyvindará, viz. Gróa, who is not mentioned until later in the saga (cf. point 3 below).
  3. Þorkell Geitisson rides to the Fljótsdalur spring assembly and the saga says they were ‘fimmtán saman ok fóru til Eyvindarár til Gró’ (‘there were fifteen of them all told and they went to Gróa at Eyvindará’) (ÍF XI:58).

Heller notes, quite properly, that these points do not necessarily mean that the writer of Vápnfirðinga saga is referring his readers to the Droplaugarsona saga we know from Mǫðruvallabók. He points out that there are other possibilities: we know, for instance, from the fragment in AM 162 C fol. of a different version of the saga; and there might even have been an earlier saga about the Droplaugarsons, perhaps the source postulated by Jóhannesson and named by him *Ævi Droplaugarsona (‘Life of the Droplaugarsons’). A text of this sort would have provided the necessary background information to explain these three references in Vápnfirðinga saga where characters from Droplaugarsona saga are treated as already being familiar. Heller does not even mention the possibility that the writer of Vápnfirðinga saga might have had oral stories to thank for his obvious confidence that the Droplaugarsons, the nephews of Gróa of Eyvindará (who was the sister-in-law of Geitir of Krossavík), would already have been reasonably well known to his audience. The knowledge of people and families required here is hardly enormous or particularly abstruse, and so it would not have been unreasonable of the writer to expect his audience in the east of Iceland to be familiar with it without his, or their, having to read up on it in books. But on the basis of these and a number of other, less cogent, points, Heller eventually feels justified in concluding that: ‘Der Vápnf.-Verfasser hat die Dropl. gekannt und als Stoffquelle benutzt’ (‘the author of Vápnfirðinga saga knew Droplaugarsona saga and used it as source material’) (1963:146).

The three places in the sagas that Heller cites as evidence of literary relations are, however, probably better explained through a common saga tradition than as direct influence. Two of them rely heavily on the correspondence of single words. The first is ‘kynnisleið/kynnisleit’ (‘visit’), used in both sagas in the context of journeys to the farm of Eyvindará: in Droplaugarsona saga when Helgi and Grímr ‘sǫgðusk fara skyldu á kynnisleit til Eyvindarár til Gró’ (‘said they would go on a visit to Eyvindará to Gróa’) (ÍF XI:145), and in Vápnfirðinga saga (ÍF XI:43) when Geitir visits his sister-in-law, as quoted above. The other is ‘fullsofit’ (‘full-slept,’ ‘having slept enough’), which appears both in direct speech in Droplaugarsona saga (171) when Grímr wakes Helgi Ásbjarnarson just before he kills him, and in indirect speech in Vápnfirðinga saga (60) when Þorkell wakes his men in Böðvarsdalur. The repetition of words of this sort hardly constitutes proof of literary relations between two texts emanating from the same geographical area. [31] It is easily imaginable that pithy and memorable sayings like the one ascribed to Grímr at the climactic moment in his feud with his brother’s killer might have become part of the vocabulary of oral performance and been used to trigger associations of ideas when similar conditions occurred elsewhere—as if by using the word ‘fullsofit’ a storyteller was giving a nod towards the casual remark attributed to Grímr Droplaugarson and so implying some kind of comparability of situation.

The other points raised by Heller seem more characteristic of a common saga tradition and formalized motifs and narrative structures than of literary relations between texts:

  1. Heroes remain silent and tight-lipped when taunted but later act decisively.
  2. Men are pierced with spears.
  3. Men fall ill.
  4. Men want to take the lead in expeditions of vengeance.
  5. Women weep when saying goodbye to men who will die shortly afterwards.
  6. Kinsmen encounter difficulties reclaiming the property of women who have separated from their husbands.
  7. Chieftains are spurred to take action when their clients start to desert them.
  8. People play board games.
  9. People possess silver.

The first thing to be said about shared elements such as these is that they are all the kinds of things that were considered worth telling stories about. As already mentioned, it is entirely to be expected that similar circumstances should turn up in different oral tales from the same cultural environment. But this is better regarded as evidence of a common story tradition than as direct literary relations, especially when the similarities in diction are as few and as insubstantial as we have here. And in fact Heller is forced to surmise that the ‘author’ of Vápnfirðinga saga had read Droplaugarsona saga (the similarities being strong enough to suggest that it was the saga rather than any postulated *Ævi Droplaugarsona) but remembered only snippets from it, which he later incorporated into the writing of his own saga. When the similarities are so weak that people are compelled to fall back on speculation of this sort, it seems altogether simpler to assume that the saga writers had only heard stories about the people and events they refer to as if common knowledge, stories that were based on the same kind of tradition and thus composed of the same kinds of motifs and narrative elements as the sagas they themselves sought to produce in writing.

To some extent the same comments apply to the relationships between the eastern sagas and Laxdœla saga. Heller discusses the fact that all these sagas contain scenes in which men cradle the shoulders or head of a dying or wounded man, in two cases one who has previously been dear to them but whom they have been compelled to kill by force of circumstance: in Droplaugarsona saga (ÍF XI:163) Bjǫrn the White supports the shoulders of his friend Helgi Ásbjarnarson after he is struck down by Helgi Droplaugarson’s spear at Eyvindardalur (in this case Helgi survives his wounds); in Vápnfirðinga saga (ÍF XI:53) Víga-Bjarni holds Geitir’s head; and in Laxdœla saga (ÍF V:154) Bolli Þorleiksson cradles the shoulders of Kjartan Óláfsson (or head in the Vatnshyrna text). Heller also draws attention to various common features in the events leading up to these scenes and in the circumstances of those who are killed or wounded. All these examples, however, can be viewed as reflections of a theme of the kind central to oral transmission and performance. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of shared diction between Vápnfirðinga saga and Laxdœla saga—‘andaðisk í knjám’ (‘died [with his head] on [his] knees’), ‘iðraðisk’ (‘regretted,’ ‘repented’), and ‘settisk undir herðar/ hǫfuð’ (‘sat down under, i.e. cradled, his shoulders/head’)—which might indicate written literary links between these two texts. [32] This is certainly the view of the respective editors in the ÍF series (Jón Jóhannesson 1950:xviii; Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1934:xli). However, Hermann Pálsson (1964) has also pointed to similarities to the killing of Kjartan in Laxdœla saga in an Irish saint’s life. In fact, the wide distribution of this motif is a testament above all to the power of the image of a fallen man being cradled in the arms of his killer; there is no need, and in some cases no possibility, for us to posit links through literary relations and borrowings.

It is difficult to see anything particular here to indicate that these episodes in Laxdœla saga had their origins in written sagas from the east of Iceland, though the direct verbal correspondences in the scenes dealing with the deaths of Kjartan and Geitir suggest a literary connection of some sort between Laxdœla saga and Vápnfirðinga saga. Below (p. 238) it is shown that there are probable literary relations between Laxdœla saga and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana on the one hand, and Laxdœla saga and Fljótsdœla saga on the other, thus establishing a connection between Laxdœla saga and the east. The evidence in these cases seems to point to Laxdœla saga being the giver rather than the recipient. On the other hand, there seems no good reason to posit a particular literary relationship between Vápnfirðinga saga on the one side and Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga on the other. If this is accepted, then the picture hitherto drawn of Vápnfirðinga saga’s literary relations with other texts can be greatly simplified, and we are able to assume instead that the saga’s main source of information on characters and events lay in material attributable to a common oral tradition.


[ back ] 1. Knut Liestøl 1929:40-45 collected a large number of instances of material conflicts between sagas, most of which he put down to variation within the underlying oral tradition. This matter is also discussed by Heusler 1969 (1930). Vogt 1921a investigates the idea that the stories and short narrative episodes in Landnámabók might be evidence of older versions of sagas.

[ back ] 2. It should be borne in mind that it was the general practice of medieval writers and copyists to record whatever they were presented with, whether it was read to them by others or simply passed on by word of mouth.

[ back ] 3. For instance, this equating of oral tradition with real events lies at the heart of Walter Baetke’s (1956) arguments against oral origins in the sagas of Icelanders. In his Baetke-esque study of Vápnfirðinga saga, Ernst Walter (1956:3) expresses the key question as being ‘in welchem Maße Dichtung und Wahrheit ihren Anteil hatten bei der entstehung der Ísl. sǫg. […] die Frage nach der Tradition und historischen Glaubwürdigkeit einerseits, nach dem dichterischen Kunstwerk anderseits’ (‘how great a part fiction and truth respectively played in the origins of the Icelandic sagas […], the question of, on the one hand, tradition and historical credibility, and on the other of a literary work of art’). Walter applies similar arguments when discussing the Christian ways of thinking that he identifies in the saga (pp. 44-5): by demonstrating that the ideology of the saga is not ‘heathen’ (without actually considering the problem of defining heathen ideology) but rather in spirit closer to that of the 13th century, he feels justified in concluding that any potential connection between the saga and oral tradition has been disrupted. Walter also appears to misunderstand Jón Helgason’s comment (1934:133) that the sagas are secular literature rather than Christian in the sense of writings ‘hvor livet betragtes gennem et klostervindue med kristelig nidkærhed og moraliseren’ (‘in which life is contemplated through a monastery window with Christian zeal and moralization’). What Helgason means here is that the understanding of humanity exhibited in the sagas is fundamentally different from what we find in religious literature, thus revealing the ideological independence of the sagas. No one would deny that Christianity is presented in a positive light in many of the sagas and that the resolutions and reconciliations accomplished in them can often be traced to Christian influences on the characters of the sagas. But general attitudes of this sort are not presented in the same way as in the intrinsically Christian literature, and this is the crucial point in all discussion of Christian ideology in the Icelandic sagas—as Jón Helgason makes clear in the words quoted above. The Conversion takes place during the ostensive period described in many of the sagas of Icelanders, and so it is only natural to draw parallels between the equilibrium achieved at the end of a saga and the Christian ideals of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it is often difficult to see whether conflict is viewed as a particular characteristic of heathendom and whether reconciliation should be associated specifically with Christianity—it is a general property of narratives that they begin with equilibrium, which is then disturbed, before finally being restored at the end. Whatever the truth of this matter, it remains highly dubious practice to use, as Walter does, possible influences from Christian thinking to draw inferences about the links between the written sagas and oral tradition (see also pp. 23–32 on the influence of Latin learning on the sagas). Despite the considerable improvements in recent years in our understanding of oral narrative tradition and its unreliable relationship with historical truth, similar argumentation continues to find its way into scholarly writings: see, for instance, Bjarni Guðnason’s rejection of the idea that the ‘author’ of Heiðarvíga saga made any significant use of traditional oral material (1993:265): ‘Sagan er þess vegna ekki sannsöguleg frásögn af fornum atburðum sögualdar, heldur myndasafn af ódæmum ritunartímans’ (‘The saga is thus not a true historical account of ancient events from the Saga Age, but rather a picture gallery of the evils and excesses of the time when it was written.’)

[ back ] 4. On friendship in Vápnfirðinga saga, see also Byock 1988.

[ back ] 5. Gísli Skúlason 1981 investigates stories about a famous robbery in the south of Iceland in 1827 (the ‘Kambsrán’) and shows how these stories take on an increasingly heroic aspect the greater the distance from the actual events

[ back ] 6. See for instance Baldur Hafstað’s (1995:35-66) treatment of the ‘head ransom’ motif in the sagas, which he ascribes to literary relations and the influence of one saga on another. The same applies to Bjarni Einarsson’s (1975) treatment of the relations between Egils saga and other sagas; Einarsson fails entirely to take account of perhaps the most salient feature of oral story traditions, i.e. the way they report traditional ‘newsworthy’ events by means of formalized structural elements and using the same kinds of formulas.

[ back ] 7. It seems truer to the facts to use the word ‘audience’ (rather than ‘readership’) to denote the recipients of works of literature in the Middle Ages; access to literature was generally through its being read aloud to groups rather than individually and in silence as is now the norm

[ back ] 8. For Jón Jóhannesson’s views on the relationships between Vápnfirðinga saga and Landnámabók and other writings, see the introduction to his Íslenzk fornrit edition of the Austfirðingasögur (1950:xv ff.). Ernst Walter 1956:4-7 collected all the references in the various versions of Landnámabók to characters, places, and incidents mentioned in Vápnfirðinga saga and used this as the basis for a discussion of Jóhannesson’s ideas on the literary relations. Walter is generally much more circumspect in his conclusions than Jóhannesson; for instance, he considers it impossible to say for sure whether or not Sturla Þórðarson was familiar with a written version of the saga when compiling his redaction of Landnámabók (Sturlubók), though he thinks this likely in view of how Sigurður Nordal envisages Sturla’s general working practices (Walter 1956:10). The argumentation here smacks of circularity; I repeat, it is simply not permissible to use general probabilities of this sort, based as they are on the particular theory of saga origins to which an individual subscribes, as grounds for postulating literary relations between individual sources.

[ back ] 9. Much has been written about these genealogies and the family connections in them: see ÍF X:113n1. The most important suggestion is that Guðríðr may have been said to be the daughter of Sǫrli. She was the grandmother of the historian Ari fróði and probably the wife of the lawspeaker Kolbeinn Flosason (see p. 74). According to Hungrvaka, a lawspeaker, who Barði Guðmundsson (1936:55-7) thinks may have been Kolbeinn, married both a mother and her daughter and perhaps died under excommunication; Sǫrla þáttr says that his body was exhumed and reburied.

[ back ] 10. On the literary relations of Ljósvetninga saga, see also p. 171

[ back ] 11. To account for these inconsistencies, Ernst Walter (1956:14) chose to view the sagas ‘als Dichtungen’ (‘as works of fiction’), whose ‘authors’ had felt free to construct their own chronologies. The problem with this is that it is based on the premise that the ‘authors’ were in a position to know better and were thus deliberately ‘tweaking’ things that had appeared differently in their ‘sources.’ On the inconsistencies in the chronologies of Vápnfirðinga saga and related sources, see further below, p. 185 f.

[ back ] 12. Ernst Walter (1956:1-16) investigated Landnámabók, the annals, the accounts of Þorleifr the Christian, and the inconsistencies in chronology as compared with Vǫðu-Brands þáttr, Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana, and Heimskringla with a view to assessing the truth value of Vápnfirðinga saga. His conclusion was that the source value of the saga could not be confirmed on the basis of these writings and that it was therefore possible to assess the extent of the author’s role in shaping his limited materials

[ back ] 13. See Jóhannesson 1950:24n1; Walter 1956:17-8.

[ back ] 14. On Geitir and Brodd-Helgi’s legal position with respect to Hrafn’s estate, see Berger 1981:72-5. Ernst Walter (1956:20-6) gives an excellent critical appreciation of the literary handling of this case and draws attention to parallel incidents and themes in other sagas.

[ back ] 15. Jesse L. Byock (1988a:203-20, 1994b) has analyzed the account of this feud, bringing out how it escalates with the increasing involvement of the chieftains. See also Walter 1956:26-8.

[ back ] 16. The same kind of false reasoning appears in Ernst Walter’s study of the accounts of the battle in Böðvarsdalur. Walter ably demonstrates the artistic treatment of the battle in Vápnfirðinga saga (and equates it with authorial creativity), but of the material that shows signs of being direct information he states that it ‘können unmöglich auf einer mündlichen Tradition von Ausgang des 10. Jahrhunderts her beruhen, sondern sind einzig und allein dem Dichter der Vápnf. zuzuschreiben’ (‘could not possibly be based on an oral tradition going back to the late 10th century, but should be ascribed solely to the author of Vápnfirðinga saga’) (1956:38). That is, Walter appears to assume a priori that it is out of the question that there could be any unbroken tradition behind the text. The problem is, this is simply not true: modern studies have shown beyond doubt that there is absolutely no reason not to think that information going back three hundred years could have survived in folk memory as part of an oral storytelling tradition: see Fentress and Wickham 1992:41-86; see also p. 254 f.

[ back ] 17. Jakob Benediktsson (1968:292n1) remarks that the text here is wrong about Rannveig being the daughter of Eiríkr, since in Landnámabók S 195 and Vápnfirðinga saga ch. 14 she is said to be the daughter of Þorgeirr Eiríksson of Goðdalir. We in fact have no way of knowing the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of the case, so it would perhaps be safer to say that Landnámabók is inconsistent on the subject of Rannveig’s paternity.

[ back ] 18. On the basis of his ideas on the literary relations, Sigfússon (1940:lii) puts the þáttr as younger than Ljósvetninga saga but older than Njáls saga. This goes against the view of Björn M. Ólsen that the þáttr dates from well after the end of the Icelandic commonwealth (1264). On the evidence of its authorial perspective and knowledge of local geography, Sigfússon concludes that the þáttr was written in the east of Iceland.

[ back ] 19. ‘The nature of the relationship to Vápnfirðinga saga is unclear, but it is likely that the author was using it from memory. An oral narration would have required the dispute between Þorkell and Bjarni to be explained more circumstantially than is done in the þáttr. The author avoids doing this, presumably because he knew it to be recorded in another saga. On the other hand, there are several deviations from Vápnfirðinga saga in the þáttr, or more correctly new variants of the narratives from it.’

[ back ] 20. In the ÍF edition of Njáls saga Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1954:353) notes (translated): ‘Þorgilssonar in mss. K, O, Gr.—On Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, see particularly Vápnfirðinga saga, but he is mentioned in many other sources. Landnámabók and Vápnfirðinga saga give his paternal line as here, except that Eyvaldr (written Ay– in R; Aul– in M; Gey-in Sv) is there named Ósvaldr (Ǫlvir in Hauksbók, Ásvaldr in Vápnfirðinga saga), and in Þorsteins saga hvíta Gǫngu-Hrólfr is added between Ósvaldr og Øxna-Þórir.’

[ back ] 21. Sveinsson (ibid.): ‘The maternal lines of Bjarni and Brodd-Helgi are as in Landnámabók’—though, as mentioned previously, they do not appear in Vápnfirðinga saga.

[ back ] 22. Sveinsson (ibid.): ‘ǫrðig– in Gr, O, RKχ; ǫrðum– in M, ζ; ǫrgum– in Sv; cf. 30012.—Both Landnámabók and Vápnfirðinga saga mention Bjarni’s marriage.’

[ back ] 23. Both Jón Jóhannesson (1950:xxi ff.) and Ernst Walter (1956:43) discuss this inconsistency but make no attempt to explain it other than in so far as it affects the historical credibility of the sources

[ back ] 24. It is frequently claimed that Vápnfirðinga saga was composed in some part of the country well away from Vopnafjörður: see for instance Ólason, V. 1993:109. This view is based on the belief that there are serious flaws in the writer’s knowledge of the geography of the Vopnafjörður region: see in particular Jón Jóhannesson in the introduction to the Íslenzk fornrit edition (1950:xxv-xxvi, 54). Jóhannesson acknowledges that in many places the saga exhibits considerable familiarity with the geography of the region, so much so that the ‘author’ probably got his stories from someone with local knowledge, but claims that he reveals his lack of personal knowledge by his ignorance of the location of Síreksstaðir. This conclusion is based on the incident where Þorvarðr læknir (‘Þorvarðr the Doctor’) of Síreksstaðir runs into Kollr from Krossavík late one evening when Þorvarðr is returning from visiting a patient at the next farm to Síreksstaðir. Kollr is supposed to be on his way home from Egilsstaðir, in the center of the region, coming back from a spying mission for Þorkell Geitisson of Krossavík to find out what kind of manpower Bjarni Brodd-Helgason has with him at Hof. At first sight it might appear that Kollr has wandered badly off track from Egilsstaðir to Krossavík if he is now somewhere close to Síreksstaðir, which is in completely the opposite direction from the one we might expect. However, it is worth noting the following, describing Kollr’s departure from Egilsstaðir: ‘Nú snýr Kollr heim á leið, ok varð honum síð farit’ (‘Now Kollr turns home, and he was late on the way’) (ÍF XI:54). This strongly implies that Kollr gets delayed on the way home. When we are told a little later that he is on the move past Síreksstaðir that same evening, the explanation suggests itself that he has been doing a round of the farms, perhaps visiting the servant girls and bondwomen, rather than that whoever wrote this was unfamiliar with the lie of the land in an area about which he otherwise obviously knew so much. The other argument, that Þorvarðr could hardly have passed on his information to Bjarni since he lived well up the valley of Sunnudalur, carries little weight, since the saga states specifically that Þorvarðr was on his way around the district for medical reasons. Neither does the stated location of Fáskrúðsbakki ‘í miðju héraðinu’ (‘in the middle of the district’) (55) lend any support to Jóhannesson’s claims one way or the other, since no one has any idea where this Fáskrúðsbakki was supposed to be. There is thus no reason to say that Vápnfirðinga saga demonstrates anything other than an excellent knowledge of the local geography of the Vopnafjörður region, and it might therefore offer a genuine reflection of the stories that were current about the people of Hof and Krossavík among their successors in this area.

[ back ] 25. The actual words in the text are ‘Ketils sonar þrymssonar’ (‘son of Ketill, son of Þrymr’). The emendation is accepted in Jón Jóhannesson’s ÍF edition (1950:19 note) in accordance with Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga. Jóhannesson notes that something must have fallen out of the text here, though there is no gap in either manuscript.

[ back ] 26. This saga is not in the Íslenzk fornrit series but was published with a modern spelling in the complete saga edition of Grímur M. Helgason and Vésteinn Ólason in 1972.

[ back ] 27. Going by the chronology of Laxdœla saga, the events in Gunnars saga ought to have taken place some time around 1007-8 (see Jóhannesson 1950:xc-xci), but following the chronology of Vápnfirðinga saga Brodd-Helgi was killed in 974 (ibid:xxii). This inconsistency suggests that the sagas cannot be used and compared in this way, as if we were dealing with works of primarily historical intent (see Jóhannesson’s comments, ibid:xxii-xxv). The more justifiable approach is to examine the consistency and credibility of the internal timescales of each saga independently. Looked at this way, there is nothing anomalous about finding Brodd-Helgi’s friend Þórir Englandsfari and Þorkell Geitisson riding side by side in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana on their mission to Njarðvík.

[ back ] 28. goði, pl. goðar, one of the group of chieftains who constituted the Lǫgrétta, or central legislative court at the Alþingi. The number was limited to 39 (later 48). The office was known as a goðorð. The name goði probably implies that in pre-Christian times the position also carried religious functions.

[ back ] 29. From his general discussion of the literary relations of Vápnfirðinga saga, Ernst Walter (1956:57-81) came to the conclusion that it was impossible to prove unambiguous relations with all the works proposed by Jóhannesson. But although Walter is more guarded in his claims, all his findings tend in the same direction and are based on the same premise, that literary borrowing is probable even when two sources share no more than a generally comparable patterning of events.

[ back ] 30. Walter’s argument is based on the view that the author of Vápnfirðinga saga deliberately ironed out inconsistencies in the narrative in Laxdœla saga, but that the account of the killing itself is more circumstantial in the latter than the former, thus making it unclear which of the two is the older and which received from which.

[ back ] 31. The word ‘kynnisleit/-leið’ also occurs in Fljótsdœla saga (of Þorlaug, the wife of Helgi Ásbjarnarson, when she goes to visit her father) and in Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana (of Þiðrandi going to Njarðvík), as well as in Grettis saga and Sturlunga saga. The synonymous forms ‘kynnisvist,’ ‘kynnissókn,’ and ‘kynnisleitun/kynnisleitan’ also occur in similar contexts.

[ back ] 32. Heller (1968) draws attention to another parallel with these scenes, this time in Knýtlinga saga (the saga of the kings of Denmark), where Bishop Absolon nurses the mortally wounded King Knútr: ‘En hann mátti þá ekki mæla ok andaðisk í knjám honum’ (‘But he did not have the strength to speak and died upon his lap’) (ÍF XXXV:289). Like Geitir, Knútr first receives a fatal wound to the head and then dies ‘again’ in the arms of his friend (though it is not Absolon who has wounded Knútr—thus paralleling the case of Bjǫrn the White and Helgi Ásbjarnarson in Droplaugarsona saga). Heller goes on to examine Knýtlinga saga in light of certain stylistic affinities to Vápnfirðinga saga identified in an earlier article (1963): for instance, the adverbial use of ‘heim’ (‘home’) is very common in both sagas; the phrase ‘meðan þeir lifði/lifðu báðir’ (‘while they both lived’) occurs several times in Knýtlinga saga and once in Vápnfirðinga saga (ÍF XI:65); Knýtlinga saga says of Knútr and his ancestors ‘at þeir váru engir spekingar at viti’ (‘that they were no great thinkers in intellect’) (ÍF XXXV:127) and the same kind of litotic negation appears in Vápnfirðinga saga: ‘Ekki hafa Hofverjar verit spekingar miklir’ (‘The men of Hof were not great thinkers’) (ÍF XI:65); and finally both sagas show a marked preference for the verb ‘jarða’ over ‘grafa,’ both meaning ‘bury’—in Knýtlinga saga by six to one, in Vápnfirðinga saga by three to none. These are certainly interesting stylistic observations but Heller refuses to draw any particular conclusions from them. Neither does Bjarni Guðnason (1982) in his ÍF edition of Knýtlinga saga, which he considers probably the work of Óláfr Þórðarson hvítaskáld (clxxix-clxxxiv).

[ back ] 33. Ernst Walter (1956:68-72) discusses the two Jórunns and concludes that there was probably a literary relationship between them on the grounds of their similar functions as peacemakers in the two sagas, though he also considers the possibility of both these Jórunns being based on a historical character, the Jórunn in Þorgils saga skarða in Sturlunga saga who acts as a peacemaker between Þorgils and Earl Knútr. Björn Sigfússon (1940:lv) discussed Jórunn in terms of a literary relationship with Vǫðu-Brands þáttr; Björn M. Ólsen (1939:377), on the other hand, considered it possible that the writer of the þáttr had used a traditional oral tale consonant with the account in Vápnfirðinga saga.