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Literature / The Saga of the Faroe Islanders

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Færeyinga saga—the Saga of the Faroe Islanders—is an early 13th century Icelandic saga which purports to chronicle the history of the leading families of the Faroe Islands in the time period from about 970 to 1035 CE.

Hafgrim, chief over half of the Faroe Islands, gets the idea he could lead a much more fulfilling life if he was chief over the entire archipelago; which means that Brestir and Beinir, the brothers who hold the other half of the islands, have to die. Before Hafgrim makes his move, he secures the support of Thrand of Gotu, a wealthy farmer and cousin to Brestir and Beinir. Thrand is shocked! at the suggestion he could ever participate in an assault on his own kinsmen, but not so shocked that a big heap of Hafgrim's money cannot heal the shock.

Advised by Thrand, the conspirators waylay and kill the brothers. Hafgrim has the courtesy of dying in the fray, leaving Thrand as the most powerful man in the islands.

Thrand's only remaining problem are Sigmund and Thorir, the boy sons of the brothers who have watched their fathers die. At first, Thrand wants to kill the boys, but he gets scrupulous and instead sells them as slaves to a merchant sailing to Russia. The merchant has a heart and sets the boys free in Norway. Sigmund and Thorir grow up in Norway, and having won the favour of the country's ruler, Jarl Hakon, Sigmund becomes a great warrior. Thirteen years after his fathers' death, Sigmund returns to the Faroe Islands at the head of a Norwegian host. Luck saves Thrand's life, but he has to submit to Sigmund in shame.

But Sigmund's fortunes change again when Norway is taken over by King Olaf Tryggvason. The new king tasks Sigmund with the mission to convert the Faroes to the newfangled foreign faith of Christianity. Outraged at this sacrilegious Norwegian arrogance, the good people of the Faroes turn away from Sigmund. Maybe the pious pagan Thrand will yet have the last laugh, after all.

The 1896 translation of Færeyinga saga can be read online here.


  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: Sigmund and Thorir spend six years in seclusion with farmer Ulf and his small family at their hidden homestead in the mountains of Dovre. When they depart, Ulf tells them a story of a young man called Thorkel Crispfrost who carried off a woman called Ragnhild when her father refused to give her in marriage to him. This caused a feud in which Ragnhild's father and nineteen others were killed; Thorkel was outlawed and made a secret homestead for himself and Ragnhild in the mountains. His story ends with the predictable revelation that he himself is Thorkel Crispfrost.
  • Artifact of Doom: King Olaf urges Sigmund to trade the golden arm ring he got from Jarl Hakon and which was earlier worn by the statue of Thorgerd Hordabrud, because he foresees it will be the cause of his death. Sigmund does not want to let go of the ring. Years later, when Thorgrim finds Sigmund helpless from exhaustion on Suduroy beach, the ring induces Thorgrim to kill Sigmund from avarice. King Olaf's warning suggests this may be Thorgerd's revenge for Sigmund's conversion to Christianity.
  • Camping a Crapper: On his voyage to Norway to talk with King Olaf about the vanishing of the king's messengers in the previous year (implied to be the doing of Thrand and his nephews), Thoralf Sigmundsson makes camp on a small island. The nephews of Thrand, "coincidentally" on a trading trip to Norway, camp on the same island. At nightfall, Thoralf goes up on the island with the intent to ease himself, and later is found dead "cleft down to his shoulders".
  • Death by Despair: When Thrand hears that his nephews Sigurd, Thord and Gaut have all been killed, he dies of grief. According to the internal timeline, he must be beyond 80 years of age at the time.
  • Died Standing Up: As Sigurd Thorlaksson tries to get away from the ambush on Skufoy, Leif Ossurson reaches him and gives him a wound in the vitals, yet Sigurd jumps into the boat and escapes. Thord asks Sigurd whether his wound is serious, but Sigurd does not give a clear answer. When they reach Streymoy, Sigurd leans against the boatshed wall and keeps standing there while his companions clear the boat. When they are finished, they notice that Sigurd is dead and stiff, still leaning against the boatshed wall.
  • Easy Evangelism: Sigmund is immediately persuaded by King Olaf's speech in favour of Christianity and acknowledges that the new religion "is in all respects brighter and more blessed than the other heathen men hold to". This is handwaved in-story with Sigmund's disclosure that he did not really believe in the heathen gods even before.
  • Evil Uncle: For personal gain, Thrand participates in the murder plot against his own cousins Brestir and Beinir, and sells their sons Sigmund and Thorir into slavery, thus setting off their life-long conflict. When Sigmund returns to the islands triumphantly, Thrand fakes remorse and tries to capitalize on his blood ties to Sigmund to escape punishment, but weasels out of the peace agreement as soon as the opportunity presents itself, and again plots against Sigmund. Thrand's behaviour contrasts with that of Sigmund, who spares Thrand's life twice on account of their kinship, even though he knows Thrand feels no such compunctions.
  • Heroic Ambidexterity: After fighting "a very long while" with the viking Randver, Sigmund "throws his sword and sent it flying into the air, and he catches the sword with his left hand and takes his shield with his right and strikes with his sword at Randver and cuts away his right leg below the knee." Later he uses the same move on the Swedish coast-guard Vandill and then again on the Jomsviking Bui, his greatest victory;
    "for he is equally skilful with either hand in a fight, and against this few men could defend themselves, or none."
  • Ironic Nickname: Thrand's nephew Thord is called Thord the Short, but actually he is exceptionally big and strong.
    [H]e was called Thord the Short; yet he was the tallest of men and moreover he was thickset and very powerful.
  • Living Statue: Before Sigmund sails off to the Faroes, Jarl Hakon urges him to seek the support of Hakon's personal patron goddess, Thorgerd Hordabrud. He takes him to a temple where there is a statue of Thorgerd, wearing a ring of gold on her arm, and says that Thorgerd will give him that ring if she favours him. After Hakon has prayed to the statue and has made Sigmund offer a sum of silver, Hakon tries to take the ring off the statue, but "it seems to Sigmund that she is clenching her fist towards it", and the Jarl cannot take it. The Jarl then prays more ardently until he is weeping, and when he tries to take the ring again, it comes loose.
  • Made a Slave: Subverted: Thrand intends to rid himself of the boys Sigmund and Thorir by selling them as slaves. But the merchant Hrafn does not want to buy them, until Thrand gives him money to take the boys, and ultimately Hrafn thwarts Thrand's plan by setting the boys free in Norway.
  • Mutual Kill:
    • In the ambush laid by Hafgrim for Brestir and Beinir, Hafgrim runs Brestir through with a spear but is himself killed by a sword-blow of the dying Brestir.
    • When Thrand and his party attack Sigmund's farm on Skufoy, Eldjarn Cresthood is the first to reach the top of the cliffs and engage Sigmund's watchman. In fighting, they topple over the cliffside and both fall to their death.
  • The Nose Knows: When Thrand and his followers attack Sigmund's farm on Skufoy and they realize Sigmund has got away under cover of darkness, Thrand "walks withershins around the steadings and whistles" (obviously a magical ritual), then "put[s] one hand down on the ground and bring[s] it up from time to time to his nostrils." Thrand correctly determines where Sigmund went and follows him, "sniffing the air as though he was picking up a scent like a dog".
  • Pull Yourself Down the Spear: Brestir is defending himself on higher ground when Hafgrim, attacking from below, thrusts him through with a spear. Brestir pulls himself down on the spear and kills Hafgrim with a sword blow.
  • Summoning Ritual: When Thrand tries to prove that Thorgrim of Suduroy has murdered Sigmund Brestisson—who was last seen swimming toward Suduroy from Skufoy, accompanied by his supporters Einar and Thorir—Thrand has fires kindled in Thorgrim's hearth room, sets up hurdles in a square shape, and "scratches nine squares out from the hurdles every way". He sits down on a stool between the fires and the hurdles and orders that nobody is to talk to him. After sitting in silence for a while, Einar (i.e. his ghost) walks in soaking wet and warms his hands at the fire, then leaves. The ghost of Thorir appears and behaves exactly the same way; lastly the ghost of Sigmund appears, drenched in blood and carrying his own head in his hand. Thrand deduces that Einar and Thorir drowned in the sea, but that Sigmund reached Suduroy and was killed by beheading there.
  • Terrible Trio: In the latter half of the saga, Thrand's nephews and foster-sons Sigurd Thorlaksson, his younger brother Thord, and their cousin Gaut the Red act as Thrand's top enforcers and are implied to frequently execute his devious schemes, even when they (as they often do) pretend to act independently from Thrand. Sigurd is the leader, on account of being the smartest, the oldest of the three, and generally the most accomplished and handsome, and Thord and Gaut mostly follow his leadership. All three are "big men and strong", but Thord is the biggest and strongest; Gaut does not display any unique traits.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • On the day Thorhall the Rich is murdered, the narration informs us that Sigurd Thorlaksson—now Thorhall's top enforcer and also lover of Thorhall's wife Birna—spends the day out of house, being "busy about some work and doing what he thought needed doing". In the evening Sigurd comes home and, expressing surprise that Thorhall is not at the dinner table, looks for him and finds his dead body in his bedroom. Immediately Sigurd infers that the merchant Bjarngrim must have killed Thorhall because of the run-in they had earlier that winter; accordingly Sigurd, Thord and Gaut run to Bjarngrim's ship and kill Bjarngrim and his two brothers (and also seize their cargo). Though "[i]t seems to [Sigurd] that he has properly avenged Thorhall", "ill talk went round about Sigurd and all three kinsmen over the death of Thorhall"—pointing to the obvious possibility that Sigurd murdered Thorhall himself and killed Bjarngrim as a scapegoat. This would mean that Sigurd was not actually away from the farm for the whole day, but that he secretly returned to the farm to murder Thorhall.
    • Sigurd Thorlaksson asks his winter guest Leif Thorisson to help him collect the money which his quarrelsome neighbour Bjorn owes him, and the two of them go to confront Bjorn. The narration then goes on to tell how Bjorn gives Sigurd a rude answer, leading to a scuffle in which Bjorn attempts to strike at Sigurd with his axe but Leif runs between and is instantly killed by the axe hitting his head. Sigurd in turn instantly slays Bjorn, avenging Leif. However, "ugly talk again comes up about Sigurd"—because Sigurd is the only witness of the killings, and it is conceivable that he himself killed both Bjorn and Leif, and the narration simply reproduces his cover story.