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Literature / The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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Grettir in a 17th century manuscript.

"I don't care for a monotonous life."
Grettir Ásmundarson

Grettis Saga Asmundarsonar–-translated as The Saga of Grettir Son of Asmund, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, or simply Grettir's Saga–-is an Icelanders' saga from c. 1320 AD.

Like many sagas, the narrative goes through several generations before introducing its eponymous hero. It starts out with Onund Tree-Foot, a Norwegian viking who tries to combat Harald Finehair's rise to power and loses one of his legs in the struggle. The handicap, however, does not prevent him from further swashbuckling until he ends his days of adventure by settling down on Iceland.

Onund's son Thorgrim and grandson Asmund do their best to live up to their ancestor's format until Asmund's son Grettir steals the spotlight. Grettir is rebellious, bad-tempered, lazy, impatient, disrespectful, antisocial, and exceedingly strong. Predictably, he commits his first manslaughter at the age of sixteen. Sentenced to a three-year exile, he looks for adventure in Norway and earns early fame by vanquishing a haugbui (an undead spirit), an entire band of marauding berserkers, and a dangerous bear.

But ever true to his uncompromising ways, Grettir is soon entangled in blood-feuding and forced to go back to Iceland. Still uninterested in productive civilian work, he decides to take on Glámr, an exceptionally vicious draugr or revenant that has nearly depopulated the district of Vatnsdal. Grettir prevails, but in his last moments Glámr places a curse on him, declaring that Grettir will always be in fear of the dark and be followed by bad luck.

When King Olaf Haraldsson takes over Norway, Grettir again sails abroad, hoping to attain a prestigious position in the king's retinue. But a chain of unfortunate events leads to Grettir being blamed for the death of the two sons of Thorir, an Icelandic chieftain. The accusation of murder shatters his hopes for a career in the king's service, and what's more, back in Iceland, the bereaved Thorir files suit against Grettir. Only on his return to Iceland, Grettir learns that he has been outlawed.

Forced into a life of hiding, Grettir's only chance is to fend for himself in the wilderness of Northern and Western Iceland, supported only by the few people that are kind or bold enough; for sheltering an outlaw is itself a punishable offense. Year after year, Grettir, living mostly by theft and robbery, has to combat not only the forces of nature, but also hired assassins, bounty-hunters, and vengeful farmers, only narrowly escaping death several times. Still he is eager to prove his prodigious strength, ridding the people of Bardardal of two murderous trolls, and avenging his brother Atli who has been killed in a blood feud.

The years on the run take their toll even on a man like Grettir. Yet all is not hopeless, as Grettir's friends obtain the concession that Grettir's sentence will be considered fulfilled if he completes twenty years in outlawry – if only he can survive.

As a public domain work, there are translations online. Here is one from 1914. Or if you like to go 19th century, take Morris/Magnússon 1868 online or as an e-book.

Grettir's Saga contains examples of the following tropes:

  • All Trolls Are Different: The trolls of Bardardal are just as terrifying, evil and demonic as trolls get. It's not spelt out, but the reason they killed their victims was probably to eat them.
  • Ambiguously Human: Grettir's fellow outlaw Hallmund is of gigantic stature and lives in a cave far from anywhere that is very difficult to find. The generally mysterious air around him hints that he may not have been human.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Grettir tries to fashion his life after the model of the monster-slaying heroes of old, and he has the format for it; but his pride, his desire to test his strength, and his aversion to do productive civilian work make him a social misfit in his own time.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: The secret hide-out of the Bardardal trolls behind the waterfall at Sandhaugar.
  • Closet Shuffle: The closing comedy subplot has this happen several times when Spes is having her affair with Thorstein.
  • Crossover: Grettir's Saga has appearances of many well-known characters from other sagas in supporting roles, such as Snorri Godi (Eyrbyggja Saga), Gudmund the Mighty (Njal's Saga), Bjorn the Hitdale-Champion (Saga of Bjorn the Hitdale-Champion) and Thorgeir Havarson and Thormod Kolbrunarskald (Saga of the Sworn Brothers).
  • Deadly Gaze: The revenant Glam's power to curse resides in his eyes. Grettir is able to throw Glam to the ground, but as Glam is lying on his back, a cloud is drifting from the moon, making the moonlight fall on Glam's face. Grettir is struck with terror at the sight of Glam's eyes, and is paralyzed; Glam then speaks his curse on Grettir.
    Grettir himself has related that all else that he had endured, when he saw the horrible rolling of Glam's eyes his heart sank so utterly that he had not the strength to draw his sword, but lay there well-nigh betwixt life and death.
  • Downer Ending: In the end Grettir is killed through treachery and witchcraft which is definitely a sad finish to a heroic life.
  • Dying Curse: Defeated and right before his (second and final) death at the hands of Grettir, the revenant Glámr curses Grettir to never grow any stronger, to never live in peace, to be outlawed, and to always see Glámr's dreadful eyes in the darkness before him.
  • Exact Words: To clear herself of adultery, Spes swears a solemn oath that no man had touched her intimately except for her husband, and the perverted old beggar who groped her while lifting her over a puddle that morning. The beggar was actually her lover in disguise.
  • Handicapped Badass: Onund Treefoot lost a foot in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, but after getting a wooden leg, he is described as the bravest and most agile one-legged man ever to live in Iceland.
  • Hero of Another Story:
    • The life of the outlaw Hallmund is apparently quite a story in its own right. When he lies dying, he recites a poem commemorating his adventures, and "many exploits of his did Hallmund recount in the lay, for he had been in every land." Only a short piece of it is given, but it hints at a most extraordinary tale:
      The giant-kind and the grim rock-dwellers,
      demons and blendings fell before me,
      elves and devils have felt my hand.
    • The outlaw Grim who kills Hallmund goes on to become a famous adventurer himself: "Grim became a great traveller and there is a long saga about him."
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: The saga reflects the medieval belief that Christmas ("Yule") is a dangerous time for people that shirk Mass: On Yule Eve, the shepherd Glam is killed by a ghost, and every year the troll woman of Bardardal raids the farmhouse at Sandhaugar.
  • Improvised Weapon: When the Battle of Rifsker breaks out over a stranded whale, "Ivar's brother Leif beat one of Steinn's men to death with a rib of the whale. Then they fought with anything they could get”.
  • In Harm's Way: Grettir frequently takes on powerful enemies or puts himself in dangerous situations so as to prove his mettle, not because he must. In Grettir's own words: "I don't care for a monotonous life."
  • Jerkass: Grettir himself. Most of his troubles are caused by his arrogance and bad temper.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Having captured Grettir, the farmers of Isafjord prepare to hang him. They have already erected a gallows, when Thorbjorg, wife of the local chieftain Vermund, intervenes and uses her influence to save Grettir's life.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Atli's response to opening his front door only to find himself be fatally stabbed by an overly large spear is a very dry retort:
    "It seems that broad spears are now in fashion."
  • The Mole: Bribed by Grettir's enemies, the outlaws Grim and Thorir Redbeard befriend Grettir only to get a chance to kill him. In the case of Thorir, it took two years.
  • Mutual Kill: The morning after Glam has not returned from his job of herding sheep in the haunted valley of Forsaeludal on Christmas Eve, the people of Thorhallsstadir find his dead body at the end of the valley, alongside the traces of a great fight and a Trail of Blood left by an unknown creature leading away into the crags. They infer that the creature has killed Glam but that Glam likewise wounded it so severely that it died, as it is never heard of again.
  • One-Man Army: With only marginal help from the women and servants at Haramarsey, teenage Grettir dispatches a troop of twelve berserks. Also, the two outlaws Grettir and Hallmund, defending themselves in a narrow gorge, fight off no less than eighty attackers.
  • One-Steve Limit: Disregarded — no less than three of Grettir's (human) antagonists are called Thorbjorn: Thorbjorn Slowcoach who insults Grettir, Thorbjorn Oxmain who kills Grettir's brother Atli, and Thorbjorn Angle who kills Grettir. There are two more Thorbjorns in the story of Grettir's grandfather Ofeig, and another one in the vagrant nicknamed Glaum who follows Grettir to Drangey.
  • Outlaw: Grettir, and several others who cross his path.
  • Pocket Protector: Dark Ages variant: Thorgeir Flask-back is so named because of an incident where somebody attacked him from behind with an axe, but the blow was blocked by a flask of drink he was carrying over his shoulder.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Grettir to Thorbjorn Slowcoach:
    "Defend yourself if you will; you never will have better occasion for it than now."
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Thorfinn had made a (botched) attempt on Thorgeir's life and left his axe behind. Years later, cue the following exchange:
    "Here I bring you your axe!", said Thorgeir. Then he struck at Thorfinn's neck and cut off his head.
  • Price on Their Head: After Grettir is blamed for causing the fire in which the two sons of Thorir of Gard have perished, Thorir uses his influence to bring about Grettir being outlawed, and puts a price of three marks of silver on his head, to which Thorodd (whose brother Grettir killed in an unrelated feud) adds another three marks. This is considered exceptional because "no higher price than three marks had ever been put on a man's head before." Later again, after Grettir has already resisted several attempts to kill him, Thorir raises the offered bounty by another three marks. When, years later, Thorbjorn Hook finally succeeds in killing Grettir, he cuts off his head and brings it to Thorir preserved in salt to collect the reward; however, Thorir has heard that Thorbjorn could only defeat Grettir by use of abominable sorcery, and refuses to pay out the reward.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The haugbui Kar and (even more so) the draugr Glámr are undeads of great strength and magic power.
  • Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead: The morning after Glam has not returned from his job of herding sheep in the haunted valley of Forsaeludal on Christmas Eve, the people of Thorhallsstadir look for him and find his dead, blackened body at the upper end of the valley, with nearby traces of a great fight indicating he has been killed by the unknown creature that haunts Forsaeludal.
  • Trail of Blood: The morning after Glam has not returned from his job of herding sheep in the haunted valley of Forsaeludal on Christmas Eve, the people of Thorhallsstadir look for him and find his dead, blackened body at the upper end of the valley. Nearby are the traces of a great fight and a track of superhumanly large footprints leading up into rocky crags, with "splashes of blood [running] alongside". They infer that before his death, Glam must have severely wounded the unknown creature that killed him, and believe that the creature must have died from it.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: After being cursed by Glámr, Grettir is afraid of the dark, because he then always sees Glámr's eyes and other frightening "apparitions" before him.
  • Whole-Plot Reference:
    • Grettir's adventure with the Bardardal trolls is remarkably similar to the first part of Beowulf: A troll comes every Yule Eve to the farm of Sandhaugar and kills anyone staying in the farmer's bedroom. Grettir goes to Sandhaugar voluntarily, wrestles with the troll-woman and finally cuts off her arm, while she flees into a waterfall. Later, Grettir dives into the waterfall and finds a hidden cave where he kills another giant, presumably the troll-woman's mate. In Beowulf, the "farm" is the royal hall of Denmark, and Beowulf kills a male troll first and then his mother in a underwater cave.
    • Spes's trick with the oath mentioned above comes from certain versions of the Tristan and Iseult legend.
  • Who You Gonna Call?: Grettir makes a habit of dispatching undead and trolls.
  • World's Strongest Man: Grettir is considered the strongest man of Iceland.

Alternative Title(s): Grettirs Saga, Saga Of Grettir The Strong