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Literature / The Saga of the People of Laxardal

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"The seal circles the boat all day". Illustration by John Vernon Lord (2002).

Laxdæla saga—the Saga of the People of Laxárdalr—is an anonymous Icelandic saga from about the middle of the 13th century.

As the grasp of King Harald Finehair tightens on Norway, the Norwegian hersir Ketil Flatnose has it with the king's arrogance and sails to the West to carve out a new dominion in Scotland. But fortune is not kind on Ketil's folks, and after the death of Ketil and his warlike grandson Thorstein the Red, it is up to Ketil's daughter Unn the Deep-Minded to gather the remnants of her clan and lead them to Iceland, where she claims land in Breidafjord in Western Iceland. When Unn's retainer Koll marries Unn's granddaughter Thorgerd, Thorgerd receives Laxardal, the valley of the Laxá (the 'Salmon-river'), as a dowry from her grandmother.

The descendants of Unn and her companions thrive and multiply, but so do conflicts and rivalries. The saga culminates in the life story of Gudrun Osvifsdottir and her four marriages, and the tragic love-triangle that leads to a long and painful family feud that pits the progeny of Thorgerd and Koll against each other.

Laxdæla saga is the most famous of the Icelandic family sagas, and stands out for its focus on women.

Available online as a translation from 1899.


  • Cradling Your Kill: On the urging of his wife Gudrun and her brothers, Bolli finally participates in an ambush on Kjartan, his own cousin, foster-brother, and formerly closest friend. Bolli is still unwilling to fight Kjartan, but when the attackers cannot get the better of him despite their superior numbers, Bolli himself has to deal Kjartan the death blow. Then he "took up his body and held him in his arms when he died."
  • Died Standing Up: At the marriage feast of her grandson Olaf, the old Unn the Deep-Minded transfers ownership of her farm to Olaf, then retires to her chamber. The next day, Olaf finds Unn dead sitting upright on her bed. This is met with admiration.
    Everyone was impressed at how well Unn had kept her dignity to her dying day.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: The young Gudrun has a series of dreams in which she wears a cap she tears off, a silver bracelet which drops into a fjord, a gold bracelet which breaks, and a helm which drops into a fjord. Asking her relative Gest, a clairvoyant, to interpret the dreams, she receives the answer that she will have four husbands of which she will divorce the first, the third will be killed, the second and the fourth will drown. All this comes true.
  • Elective Mute: Melkorka, an Irish princess, pretends to be mute after she is taken captive and enslaved at the age of fifteen. Hoskuld buys her and brings her to Iceland, where she gives birth to Hoskuld's child. When the boy is two years old, Hoskuld overhears her talking Irish with her son, and finally gets her whole story out of her.
  • Face Death with Despair: Thorkel of Hafratindar sees the sons of Osvif lying in ambush for Kjartan, but does nothing to warn Kjartan, and passively watches Kjartan die. Afterwards he adds insult to injury by badmouthing Kjartan and mocking his death throes. For this Kjartan's brothers seize him in his farmhouse and "when [he] was brought outside to be killed, his behaviour was anything but courageous."
  • Foreshadowing: In Kjartan's swimming contest with King Olaf, Olaf pushes Kjartan under water three times. This is a foreshadowing of Olaf bringing about Kjartan's conversion: In medieval baptism ceremonies, adults were submerged in water three times.
  • Friend to All Children: The young Kjartan is not only generally admired for his beauty, strength and his physical skills, but is also unassuming, cheerful and popular so that "every child loved him".
  • Legendary Weapon: Before Thorkel Eyjolfsson sets out to kill the outlaw Grim, he borrows Skofnung, the sword of the legendary Danish king Hrolf Kraki, from his relative Eid, the son of Skeggi of Midfjord who had robbed the sword from Hrolf Kraki's gravemound.
  • Losing Your Head: Audgisl Thorarinsson looks for an opportunity to kill Thorgils Holluson at the Althing and comes upon Thorgils as he is counting out the money he is to pay for the killing of Helgi. As Thorgils is counting 'ten', Audgisl strikes, and "everyone thought they could hear his head say 'eleven' as it flew off his body."
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Before Olaf departs for Ireland, his mother Melkorka, formerly a slave, gives him a golden arm ring which she got from her father Myrkjartan as a child. In Ireland, King Myrkjartan recognizes the ring and is therefore convinced that Olaf's tale is true and that he is really his grandson.
  • Revealing Reflection: Thorkel Eyjolfsson wants to kill the outlaw Grim Helgason to avenge a distant relative, and discovers Grim fishing at a lakeside with a cloak drawn over his head. He approaches Grim from behind with his sword drawn, but at the last moment Grim sees Thorkel's reflection in the water and leaps up to face Thorkel. Though Thorkel wounds him in the arm, Grim manages to overpower Thorkel.
  • Revenant Zombie: Hrapp turns into a draugr after death.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: Hrapp has turned into a draugr (a malicious undead) after his death, and has killed or scared away everyone trying to live on his farm. Hrapp's brother-in-law, Thorstein, intends to take over Hrapp's farm and travels there on a ship with all his family and belongings. As they come near their destination, they are troubled by strong winds and run aground on a rock. While they are waiting for the tide to set the ship free, an unusually large seal appears and continues to circle the ship. Its flippers are unusually long, "and everyone aboard was struck by its eyes, which were like those of a human." The weather is worsening, until the storm capsizes the ship, drowning everyone, and only one man survives to tell the tale. The suggestion is that the seal was the ghost of Hrapp, and it was him who summoned the storm so that nobody would take over his farm.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The central relationship of the saga is one, with foster-brothers Kjartan and Bolli becoming competitors for the hand of Gudrun. It doesn't end well: in the final chapter, she eventually tells her grandson "He I loved most, I treated the worst."
  • Vengeance Denied: Thorleik Hoskuldsson gets into a quarrel with Eldgrim because Thorleik is unwilling to sell him his best stud of horses, leading to Eldgrim insulting Thorleik. Later, Eldgrim attempts to steal the horses, but is held up by Thorleik's uncle and neighbour, Hrut. The encounter ends with Hrut killing Eldgrim, thinking he is doing his nephew a favour; however hearing the news Thorleik is furious, as he believes Hrut has purposefully humiliated him by depriving him of the possibility to kill Eldgrim himself. His conviction that Hrut has offended him is so strong that he tries to avenge himself on Hrut, leading to a serious feud between uncle and nephew.

Alternative Title(s): Laxdaela Saga