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Literature / Gautrek's Saga

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Gautrek's Saga is an Icelandic saga from the late 13th century. Different from most other sagas that deal with Norse Mythology, it is light-hearted and humorous.

King Gauti of Götaland gets lost in the woods on a hunting trip and hits upon a family of crackbrained hillbillies. Before he leaves, it so happens that he impregnates the one hillbilly daughter that isn't quite as loony as the rest of the lot.

The result of the royal one-night stand is King Gautrek, a brave and popular fellow as there ever was, if not particularly bright. His neighbour and friend is Jarl Neri of the Uplands, who is clever and even wise, only that his pathological miserliness forbids him to ever repay a gift with another. Thus the jarl is put in a quandary by the courtesy of Ref, a down-on-his-luck youngster who presents Neri his only possession, a fine ox. As he cannot possibly reward Ref with something that belongs to himself, Neri devises a plan to let Ref profit from the famous generosity of King Gautrek.

Despite the title, Gautrek's Saga is more concerned with the dealings of Ref and Neri than with Gautrek himself, although the remark that "[Gautrek] is mentioned in many of the old sagas" suggests that the saga is incomplete and that there were more amusing tales involving King Gautrek which have not come down to us.

In a deviation from the main plot, Gautrek's Saga also narrates the youth of the hero Starkad.

Can be read online here.


  • Chain of Deals: Ref receives a gold ring from King Gautrek for giving him a whetstone to throw after his hawk. By presenting the gold ring to King Aella of England, he receives a ship with cargo and two pet dogs with collars of gold in return; by presenting the dogs to King Hrolf Kraki of Denmark he gets another ship and an armour and helmet. He then gives the armor to the warlord King Olaf who lends Ref his army so Ref can blackmail Gautrek to give him his daughter in marriage. This works because every king wants to surpass the generosity of the others, and especially Gautrek's.
  • Curse: Thor curses Starkad to never have children, to never own land, to be wounded in every battle he fights, to never remember his own poems, and to commit three great crimes in his life.
  • Foil: King Gautrek is a simple mind and irrationally generous, his friend Jarl Neri is clever but insanely stingy.
  • Human Sacrifice: When King Vikar and his crew cannot get good weather for sailing, they resolve to hang one of their own as an offering to Odin. Unfortunately for Vikar, the sacrifice turns out to be himself.
  • The Marvelous Deer: King Gauti hits upon the hillbillies after vainly pursuing a stag for a whole day. This is somewhat of a parodied trope, as instead of the supernatural beings usually encountered in this way, Gauti only meets a bunch of crazy forest-dwellers.
  • Miss Conception: When Snotra realizes she is pregnant from Gauti, she makes her brother Gilling believe he (Gilling) impregnated her by accidentally touching her cheek with his hand. Neither Gilling nor any of the other hillbilly siblings see through this fib.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Jarl Neri is a brave warrior, a clever advisor and a reliable ally to his friends and relations, but he is absurdly stingy. Yet he is very open about it and is very reluctant to accepts gifts, because he just cannot bring himself to give something in return, and yet does not want to rip people off.
  • Suicide as Comedy:
    • The hillbillies are so shaken by a series of trivial or imaginary mishaps that, by and by, all of them opt to follow the proud family tradition of jumping from Family Cliff—or, as they put it, "going to Odin". Eventually Snotra is the only one of her family to survive and leave the forest.
      The young people helped their parents to pass on over Family Cliff, and off they went, merry and bright, on the way to Odin.
    • The term used for the family cliff (ætternisstapi) survives in modern Swedish as ättestupa. It's mostly used as a joke (ie: "work harder or we'll throw you of the ättestupa!")
  • Trivial Tragedy: The hillbillies discovered by King Gauti in the forests of Gotaland, who are both extremely stingy and extremely stupid, have a family tradition of committing suicide by jumping from a nearby precipitous rock called Family Cliff whenever something so terrible happens they feel they cannot deal with it. The hillbilly patriarch, Skinflint, sees his family threatened by starvation after King Gauti ate his supper, so he divides his property among his sons Fjolmod, Imsigull and Gilling, and then jumps from Family Cliff. Soon after, Imsigull sees a sparrow snatch a single grain of wheat from his wheat field; not wanting to live in poverty, he choses suicide by Family Cliff. Fjolmod owns a bar of gold; one day he sees two snails crawling over it and gets it into his head that the bar is now smaller than it used to be. Unwilling to live on with the terrible knowledge that snails have gobbled up practically all his gold, he hops from Family Cliff. Gilling eventually follows the example of his brothers when his fine ox dies.