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Literature / The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal

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Vatnsdæla saga—the Saga of the People of Vatnsdalr—is an Icelandic family saga from c. 1300 AD. It covers the history of a distinguished Norwegian-Icelandic family for five generations, from c. 870 to 1000 AD.

Ingimund son of Thorstein, an aspiring viking, helps King Harald Tangle-hair win the Battle of Hafrsfjord, and gains the king's friendship. Much to his irritation, a soothsayer tells him that he is destined to settle in Iceland and become a great chief there. Ingimund thinks this is ridiculous, as he has no intentions of giving up his excellent prospects in Norway.

But you can't fight fate, can you? Long story short, Ingimund sails for Iceland and builds his farm in the valley the soothsayer spoke of, which he names Vatnsdal ('Waterdale'). For many years, Ingimund's wisdom and prestige guarantee peace and security to the settlers of Vatnsdal. But Ingimund meets his fate sooner than expected, leaving his five young sons with the task of filling their father's considerable shoes and holding up the old honor of the Vatnsdal people.


  • Almost Dead Guy: Thorstein Ketilsson stabs the highwayman Jokul with a sword, so the sword gets stuck in the bed under Jokul. Nevertheless Jokul manages to tell Thorstein his own name and family and instructs him to bring the news of his death to his parents. Only then he tells Thorstein to pull out the sword, upon which he dies.
  • Ancestral Weapon: Aettartangi ("family pole"), the sword Ingimund got from the viking Hrafn by a trick, is after Ingimund's death worn by Thorstein at formal occasions, but wielded in combat by Jokul. After Thorstein's and Jokul's death it is carried by Ingolf Thorsteinsson, who wields it in his last fight when he routs a troop of bandits but also receives a deadly wound. Obviously ownership of Aettartangi signifies the leadership of the clan.
  • Assassin Outclassin': The outlaw Thorir, hired by Ottar of Grimstunga to take revenge on the sons of Thorstein, botches his attempt on Gudbrand's life; he tries to flee but Gudbrand pursues and kills him. The second assassin, Svart, manages to get the job done but also dies in the process.
  • Because Destiny Says So: When a "Lapp enchantress" prophecies that Ingimund will settle in Iceland, Ingimund rejects it as ridiculous, because he has absolutely no intention to leave Norway. The soothsayer then tells him that a certain precious amulet, which has mysteriously disappeared from Ingimund's purse, is now lying in the wood in Iceland where he is destined to settle. Ingimund is still forcefully opposed to the idea, but come time he gets curious whether the amulet is really in Iceland and when three Lapp magicians ensure him it is, he decides there is no use fighting fate, and sets sail for Iceland.
    "I have decided on a change in my life; I am thinking of going to Iceland, more because of destiny and the decree of mighty forces than out of any personal desire."
  • Cool Boat: Stigandi, the ship King Harald selects for Ingimund as a parting gift, is, although not large, very fast and "the best ship of all upwind under sail and better voyaging than any of the others."
  • Dangerous Backswing: Ingolf Thorsteinsson, who carries the sword Aettartangi, with one supporter picks a fight with a gang of eighteen outlaws. The outlaws attack from all sides, but Ingolf swings Aettartangi so that "the sword fell on the head of the man standing behind him so that he met his death, and it delivered a death blow to the man standing in front and thus Ingolf killed them both with a single blow."
  • Ethnic Magician: The soothsaying woman who tells Ingimund that he will settle in Iceland is a 'Finn' (i.e. a Sami), and so are the three wizards whom Ingimund hires to undertake a spirit-journey to Iceland.
  • Improvised Armor: Ingolf and six of his men go after a party of thieves and discover them in a hideout where eighteen of them are together. Not wanting to turn back, Ingolf picks up two flat stones from a nearby ravine and fastens one to his chest and the other between his shoulders. With only one companion to help him, he attacks and routs the robbers but also receives a lethal wound.
  • Lady Macbeth: Hrolleif, a notorious troublemaker and eventual killer of Ingimund, is encouraged by his mother Ljot to behave aggressively and confrontationally to their neighbours. Eventually it turns out she is also a witch who uses sorcery to protect her son, and prepares to put a curse on the sons of Ingimund.
    "[H]e was provocative and overbearing and, under his mother's influence, repaid good with bad."
  • Mutual Kill: Svart has gained the trust of Gudbrand, but is only waiting for an opportunity to kill him. When Gudbrand's horse gets stuck in a swamp, Svart suddenly pierces him with a spear. Gudbrand manages to draw his sword and hit Svart in the midriff. Both die from their wounds.
  • Named Weapon: The family sword Aettartangi, the "family pole", is given its name by Ingimund when he acquires it. It is always owned by the current head of the Vatnsdal clan.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Ottar of Grimstunga is angered by Ingolf Thorsteinsson carrying on an overly intimate relationship with Ottar's daughter Valgerd. When Ingolf refuses to stop his visits to Valgerd, Ottar twice hires an outlaw to kill Ingolf; when the assassins find Ingolf is too much on his guard, they go for his brother Gudbrand instead. The second time, the plot is successful.
  • Secret Stab Wound: When the aged Ingimund chastises the villainous Hrolleif for unlawfully fishing in Ingimund's fishing waters, Hrolleif throws a spear at him which hits Ingimund mortally. Ingimund, who still wants to prevent bloodshed, especially as he himself has formerly offered his protection to Hrolleif, does not tell anyone and rides home hiding the wound under his cloak. Ingimund's serving-boy is the first to notice the wound when he helps Ingimund dismount, and when his sons come home in the evening they find Ingimund sitting dead in his high seat.
  • Slain in Their Sleep: Hidden in the house of the highwayman Jokul, Thorstein Ketilsson is so impressed by Jokul's size that he does not dare to attack him until he is fast asleep in his bed. He then skewers him with a sword so "that the sword-tip was stuck in the bed."
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Thorir botches an attempt on Gudbrand's life, then runs away and leaps over a chasm. Gudbrand throws his sword after him and hits him in the midriff, from which Thorir dies within a short time.
  • When I Was Your Age...: When Thorstein Ketilson is eighteen, his father (a former viking) chews him out for supposedly being a lazy coward for not going out and putting his life at risk for money and fame. Thorstein is so upset, he sets out all alone on a forest road preyed on by bandits, and ends up killing the highwayman Jokul. As he returns victoriously, he meets Ketil and his family looking for him, and Ketil admits that he has been regretting his tirade already.
    "The behaviour of young men today is not what it was when I was young. In those days men hankered after deeds of derring-do, either by going raiding or by winning wealth and honour through exploits in which there was some element of danger. But nowadays young men want to be stay-at-homes, and sit by the fire, and stuff their stomachs with mead and ale; and so it is that manliness and bravery are on the wane."

Alternative Title(s): The Saga Of The People Of Vatnsdalr