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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).
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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.

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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.


Tropes:

  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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: Laxdæla saga has a cameo of Skofnung, the legendary sword of the ancient Danish king Hrolf Kraki told about in The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, which supposedly was robbed from Hrolf's gravemound and brought to Iceland by the Icelander Skeggi of Midfirth.
  • 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.
  • 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 Laxdæla 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."

Alternative Title(s): Laxdaela Saga

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