THE events described in the Saga of Gisli the Soursop reach from the end of Harold Fairhair's reign to the middle of the reign of Earl Hacon the Bad, or from about the year 930 to 980. Nothing can be livelier or more truthful than the account contained in it of Norwegian and Icelandic life and manners during those fifty years. In Norway itself, about the beginning of that period, Harold Fairhair, now grown old, had shared the kingdom which he had won with so much toil and blood among his sons, to be ruled over by Eric Bloody-axe as overking. Eric's incapacity and his wife Gunnhillda's cruelty soon lost what his politic father had won. He was forced to fly the land, and was succeeded by Hacon, another son of Harold Fairhair, who was called Hacon Athelstane's Fosterchild, because he had been sent by his father to be fostered by that famous English king. Of this prince, whose memory was held very dear by his people as Hacon the Good, the Saga of Gisli Soursop contains a sketch which, as a mere interpolation, has been banished from the body of the text, but which well deserves to stand here:--"As soon as
he heard of his father's death Hacon came west from England and went straight north to Drontheim, where he sought out first Sigurd the jarl of Hladir, and promised to give him up the jarldom which his father had held if he would back his claim as king. 'Methinks,' he said, 'that would be a good bargain if thou put me forward as king, and I gave thee such honour as thy father held before thee. Then thou wouldst be free and not fettered, as all now are in this land.' It had been one of, the imposts of Harold Fairhair that he claimed as his own all the soil in Norway, both tilled and untilled, and the sea and lakes as well. Every man was to be his tenant and vassal. Now the jarl thinks over the matter; and it seemed to him that Hacon spoke fair, and so they struck a fast friendship. Then the jarl calls together a Thing of the three districts round Drontheim; and as soon as the Thing was set, up rises Hacon and spoke thus:--'It is well known to all men who have now come hither how Harold Fairhair laid all Norway under his feet--all the way north from Finmark down to the Gotha-Elf. He was, in truth, absolute king over all men. He had, too, as ye well know, a host of sons, most of them proper men; but he loved them very unevenly. Some he sent away to other lands, but some be kept with him about his court; and of all of them it was Eric Bloody-axe whom he weened would rule first and foremost of all his sons. So all obeyed him well in that matter as long
as he lived; but now my kinsman Eric has wrought very many things which are beyond bearing. And so I will ask this boon of all ye good men of Drontheim, that ye shall try to stay and strengthen him who will be more forbearing to the people, and who will rather let his kinsmen and the folk lift their heads a little, than him who strives to pull the people down. As for me, I wish to make it known that I will give up their freeholds to all those men who will cling to me and call me king.'
"'Then many men spoke to one another, and said:
"'Well, now, this is a strange thing! Here Harold Fairhair has come back, and has grown young again a second time; but be was old and gray when we last saw him. What can it all mean? Can he have any son so like him that we cannot tell the one from the other, save that one is young and the other old, and that this man gives us back with goodwill our freeholds and heritages which his sire took from us with overbearing might?'
"Then all the crowd shouted, and said they would have that man for their king who was likest to King Harold and showed most goodwill to the people; but as for Eric they would never have him to rule over them--a man who thrust out his own kith and kin into holes and corners. No; they would never have him, nor Gunnhillda, nor any of her sons. So the end of that Thing was, that Hacon was chosen to be king; but as fast as these tidings spread from district to district, what amends the
men of Drontheim- had got for their wrongs, then all men sent word to King, Hacon and offered to do him suit and service. But about the same time that he became king in Norway Thorbjorn the Soursop and his sons were the leading men in Surnadale."
Such was the state of things in Norway when Hacon the Good was chosen king in the year 935. Tribe after tribe, and district after district, took him as their king as soon as ever he gave back to the freeman that right of freehold, that primeval allodial claim to the soil, which marks the freeborn man of the Scandinavian stock. His father had claimed a right in the soil from every man, and had levied a poll-tax as a quit-rent, but the son was unable to bold what the father had grasped; and though Hacon was king of Norway, the freeman remained his own lord and master over his own land so long as he paid the king his customary service. This is not the place to enter at length into the relations which existed in the tenth century between the king and the freemen in Norway. It is enough to say, that where the king's arm reached he was powerful, where it fell short he was weak. At no time, even under the grinding system of Harold Fairhair, was the weight of the monarch evenly felt all over the land at once. When be was south-east in the Cattegat, the freemen of Drontheim and Helgeland snapped their fingers for a while at his authority; and, in like manner,
when he went north the dwellers round "the Bay" did pretty much as they chose. All over the country the rude law of arms, the sacred right of wager of battle, in which the gods were thought to smile on manly worth, was regarded as something binding on all; and thus it is that in this Saga of Gisli a challenge to fight on the island for wife and land was looked on as a call which no man could neglect without the loss of all respect. Thus it was the Bearsarks, men of great bodily strength and well skilled in the use of weapons, roamed over the country, like Bjorn the Black, and thrust weaker men out of their homestead by brute force.
So, too, it was when gallants like Kolbein came day after day to a freeman's house, sat for hours with his daughter, and yet never asked for her hand, 1 that the vengeance of the family fell on the wrongdoer's head; as when Gisli, after warning Kolbein again and again, dealt him that one blow which was "more than enough."
Thus it was, again, that Kolbein's kith and kin could fall on Thorbjorn's house at Stock, burn it to the ground, and go their way, deeming that they had rooted out the whole household, root and branch. So it was that Gisli and his brother could burn Bard the traitor, kill the king's tax-gatherers, sell
house and land, and sail for Iceland with all their goods and a great following. In Norway, in those days, the king was weak and the freeman strong save when be was in the royal grasp; and the rule was, that every man did what was right in his own eyes.
In Iceland the settlers found another state of things. About the year 950, when Thorbjorn the Soursop left Norway, Iceland was already shared among the heads of an aristocracy of chiefs, the offspring of the first settlers, who ruled in each valley as priests. Such men were Thorgrim, the priest of Frey, and Bork, his brother, grandsons of the old Thorolf Mostrarskegg, who had settled on Thorsness, on the east side of Broadfirth, and there established a Thing of such sacredness, and hallowed by such senseless rules, as to entail on his children a long succession of bloodshed in the vain struggle to render them binding. It is no little proof of the power of this great family that Thorgrim could leave his priesthood at Helgafell in Broadfirth in the hands of his brother Bork, and go west to wed Thordisa in Hawkdale, and yet gather followers enough in that strange country to set up a priesthood and take a haughty lead in the Valsere Thing. No doubt the support of such champions as Gisli, Thorkel, and Vestein stood him in good stead; but he, the grandchild of the mighty Thorolf, is the chief figure in that gallant group, and so long as he stood straight he was a great stay to Gisli and his brother.
At that time the Althing was already established; we hear of it about twenty years before the Soursops went to Iceland but that venerable assembly, which plays so great a part in the history of the island half a century later, was then struggling in its infancy, and very weighty matters, which, half a century later, in the days of Njal or Snorro the Priest, would have been carried to the Althing, were settled summarily at the District Things, and never came before the Althing at all. At these District Things the chiefs who lived near them were all-powerful. The Quarter Things, which were a great remedy against injustice, were not yet established. So it is that we may explain the ease with which Bork had Gisli outlawed at the Thorsness Thing. He summoned his enemy to come to his very door to plead his cause; and we can readily understand why all the efforts of men so young and inexperienced as Bjartmar's sons failed to throw any hindrance to the sentence which made their brave kinsman an outlaw. That such a sentence could be passed against such a darling as Gisli tells much both for Bork's influence and the respect felt for law, when a decision was once given.
But besides all this load of influence and law which weighed Gisli down, there was another burden which he found it heavier to bear. He was doomed already, even before his birth. He and his were under a curse. They kept the broken bits of "Graysteel,"
the thrall's good sword, but along with them went his withering spaedom, uttered as he drove his axe into the first Gisli's brain--"This is but the beginning of the ill-luck which it will bring on thy kith and kin." The deepest trait in the character of Gisli, the helpful, faithful man, is the background of brooding melancholy against which his noble nature stands. He tries to render Gest's words harmless by the solemn oath of foster-brothers, but it is of no avail. What must be, must be. He is not angry with Auda for gossipping with Asgerda, "because when things are once fated, some one must utter the words that seem to bring them about." He does everything that man can do to keep Vestein afar off, but Vestein rushes on his doom in spite of every warning. "Fate rules in this too." There is no help for it. After his outlawry he warns his brother that ill-luck was following him too-that he would be the first to feel the thrall's curse--but Thorkel laughs him to scorn. As for himself, for fourteen years his evil destiny pursues him even in his dreams. He roams over the land seeking shelter and support, but with the best will no-one is able to give him any help. Something always stands in the way. No wonder that while all thought there never had been a man of readier hand or more daring heart than Gisli, all felt at the same time that "he was not a lucky man, as was proved from the very first."
This feeling alone, quite apart from any of Thorgrim's spells,
was quite enough to account for Gisli's misfortunes. Then, as now, a man's fate was in his own hands, and men are ever willing to believe of another the misfortune which he is the first to spread of himself. The wizard's wicked art, indeed, was not without its power in that early state of society. It bore its victims down because they put faith in it; and like the Obimen of Africa, the worker of spells was very powerful in the tenth .century. But that power was as nothing compared with that dead weight of destiny which marked whole families for ruin for causes quite out of their control, but which were not the less real though the doomed had no hand in them.
It remains to point out some things for the knowledge of which we are indebted to this Saga alone. When it is said that the first Gisli married his brother's wife "because he would not let a good woman go out of the family," we might think that step the result of a mere natural liking or material convenience, did we not find further on in. the Saga another passage which stamps these marriages as a common custom. When Thorgrim the Priest is slain Bork takes his brother's widow to wife as a matter of course. "In those days wives were heritage like other things." Here we have the veil lifted for a moment, and we catch a glimpse at that early state of society which underlies and is before all law, when wives and children are mere matters of property taken by a man's heirs, just as they would
inherit his cattle and sheep. It is not of course meant by this that the state of Icelandic society was such in the tenth century, but the custom of inheriting a wife on such conditions must be looked on as a common custom, though not perhaps as an universal rule.
In no other Saga do we find the rites of burial in a "howe" or barrow so well described. Thorgrim, the Priest is laid in his boat or ship, and then the howe or cairn is heaped over him. Vestein, the daring sailor, we may be sure, was buried in his ship too; both had the hellshoes fitted to their feet, on which in heathen times the dead were fancied to walk to Valhalla 1 and both had their ships steadied and kept upright in the howe by great stones. Though Thorgrim only mentions the hellshoon when he binds them on Vestein, and Gisli the stone when Thorgrim's
ship is steadied, it is certain that the burial rites were alike in both cases--that Vestein's ship was steadied like Thorgrim's, and 'that the hellshoon were bound on Thorgrim's feet, just as he had bound them on Vestein. But both these customs are remembered alone in our Saga.
The case is the same with the games of ball on the ice. They are more exactly described in Gisli's Saga than anywhere else. Here we have the gathering of the players from the whole countryside on the frozen tarn, the crowd of beholders whose praise spurs on each player to do his best, the women clustered on the howe which overhangs the scene of strife, the choosing sides, the struggles between the foremost players, the big ball, the striking it with the bat, the hurling it with the hand, the heavy falls on the smooth ice, and the quarrels which arise when the blood grows hot. Were it not that the bat or stick is always mentioned, one might fancy that the Icelandic game of ball in the tenth century was our game of football. As it is, we must imagine it something between hockey and football--that the ball was sometimes struck with the bat, and sometimes caught and kicked, or thrown with the hand. Certain it is that both "shinning" and "hacking" were allowed by the rules of the game to almost any extent.
Of the heathen worship, and of Christianity, then slowly feeling its way towards the North, we have some very interesting
particulars. When Thorgrim's career is over, and he lies in his howe, it is a beautiful trait that the god whom he had faithfully worshipped--Frey, the sun-god of the North--should look down with his bright beams on his servant's grave, and so warm it through the winter that no snow could fasten on it, or, as the Saga well expresses it, "that the frost should not come between them." This seemed something new and strange--so strange, that Gisli, in an evil hour, as his eye fell on the green grave of the man who had slain his brother-in-law, and on whom he had taken due vengeance, as in duty bound, could not forbear from breaking out into that dark song of triumph which Thordisa's quick ears caught and understood, to her brother's speedy ruin.
But another trait we find which reveals in few words a deed of one of the early settlers so revolting and accursed as to be almost beyond belief. Of Hallsteinsness, on the western shore of Broadfirth, not far from Thorskafirth, we are told: "They landed just beyond the farm where Hallstein offered up his son, that a tree of ninety feet might be thrown up by the sea, and there are still to be seen the pillars of his high seat which he had made out of that tree." Drift-timber of that length was scarce in Iceland, and so Hallstein could find it in his heart to offer up his son for such a prize. Such offerings then were not more unknown in the West than in the East, and here again we see that rude power of the father over his children, his right to do as he
would with his own, even though his own were his flesh and blood. This Hallstein was no ignoble man. He was the eldest son of Thorolf Mostrarskegg, the grandfather of Thorgrim the Priest. He had left Norway and gone to the Hebrides before his father made up his mind to settle in Iceland. But in the Hebrides he could find no rest. Many of the Northmen settled there had already been converted to Christianity, and especially Helgi the Lean and Auda the Wealthy, his friends. So he and Bjorn, Help's brother, sailed for Iceland two years after Thorolf had reached it. When they met Thorolf, Bjorn was not beneath asking him for a share of his land, and there he settled at Bjornshaven, side by side with Thorolf; but Hallstein was too proud to ask his father for land, so he went west across Broadfirth, and took waste land for himself at Hallsteinsness, and then and there it was that, something after the manner of Jephthah, he made his vow and offered up his son when the god of the sea threw up on the strand the mighty tree. It should be remembered, however, that Hallstein was unshaken in his heathendom, and that the victims offered in this way were fancied to be welcome to Woden, and at once bidden to all the joys of Valhalla.
The notices which we find of Christianity are curious. "At that time"--that is in 960, when Gisli and Vestein were at Viborg in Denmark--"Christianity had come into Denmark,
and Gisli and his companions were marked with the cross, for that was much the wont in those days of all who went on trading voyages; for so they entered into full fellowship with Christian men." So that commerce was as instrumental in spreading Christianity in the tenth century as in the nineteenth. The Christians of England and the West would not deal at all with heathens, or felt easier in dealing with those who had at least received the first initiation into Christianity, the primsigning, or marking with the cross--a sort of baptism, as distinct from. christening; and Gisli and Vestein, who were not such stubborn heathens as Hallstein or Thorgrim, allowed themselves to be so marked for the sake of doing a good trade. That Gisli had even gone a little beyond this is shown by the passage in which we are told he "had left off all heathen sacrifices since he had been in Viborg." Here, again, it is "precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, and there a little." Thus, like a little leaven, did Christianity work in the North till it had leavened the whole mass. 1 Of Gisli himself it may be said that the verses in which he recites his dreams represent the struggle which was passing in his mind between the old religion and the new. His two dream-wives
are but personifications--the one of the mild and forgiving spirit of Christianity, the other of the bloody and relentless superstition of the North. Valkyrie and Guardian Angel, as it were, fight for the body of the great champion while he is alive, and for his soul after his death. His last verses would seem to show that he died trusting in nothing but his own daring and hardihood. 1
Very curious is the passage about the change of name of Thorgrim's and Thordisa's posthumous son. At first he was called Thorgrim after his father, but from his snappish, snarling temper he was called "Snerrir" the Snarler, and afterwards Snorro. 2 But to this snappish child, afterwards well known in Icelandic story as Snorro the Priest, we owe the preservation and perhaps the existence of Gisli's Saga. The fame of that
great Icelander made every event in his life a matter of public interest, and the memory of the uncle was embalmed in the history of the nephew. Every one knew the tragic circumstances that attended the birth of Snorro, as well as the fourteen weary years during which his uncle was an outlaw, while the snarling boy was growing up under Bork's roof. At last, when Snorro is hardly fifteen, Gisli falls by Eyjolf's hands, and the news is brought to Helgafell. The year after, Snorro, who up to that time, like another Brutus, had been despised by the stupid Bork, claimed his own from his uncle, made him give up Helgafell, and began a career of almost uninterrupted success. That was in the year 980. In the year 1031 he died, sixty-seven years and a half old, having been born in October 963. 1
In one or two points our Saga is inaccurate, owing probably to the fact that it was written in the south of Iceland from information given to Ari the Learned by Snorro's daughter, Thurida the Wise, who died in 1112; eighty-eight years old. Thus, when it speaks of Thorgrim the Priest having a son old enough in 961 to send to deal with the Easterlings about his planks, this must be a mistake; for Thorgrim was only twenty-five, as we know from the Eyrbyggja Saga, when he died in 964. The Thorodd mentioned on that occasion must have been Thorgrim's nephew or younger brother.
So, too, the Saga is wrong in making Ingialld the tenant of Bork. We know from Landnama that Hergilsisle was Ingialld's own property, and that Bork, as a priest, took it from him because he harboured a man outlawed at the Thorsness Thing, which had jurisdiction over Hergilsisle. 1 "Ingialld was their son--that is, the son of Hergil and Thoruna--and he dwelt in Hergilsisle, and helped Gisli the Soursop. For that Bork the Stout made him forfeit the island, but he bought the farm Hlid in Thorskafirth." Instead of being a tenant, he was the son of a
[paragraph continues] Landnam's man, or original settler, and lived on the island which his father had taken for himself. His courage in sheltering Gisli lost him his land by legal process, which Bork, as priest at Thorsness Thing, brought against him in that capacity.
Graysteel, the spear-head scored with runes made out of the thrall's good sword, did not pass away with Gisli or his time. Two hundred and fifty years after, it was a well-known weapon. In the year 1221 the Sturlunga speaks of it as follows at the battle of Breidabolstad in the south of Iceland: "Then Gunnlaug rushed forward and thrust at Bjorn Thorvalddson of Breidabolstad with the spear which they called 'Graysteel,' and said Gisli the Soursop had owned. The thrust fell on his throat, and he, Bjorn, then turned back to the church and sat him down there. Gunnlaug went to Lopt, and tell s him that Bjorn was wounded. Lopt asks who dealt the wound. 'I and Graysteel,' says Gunnlaug. 'How deep was the wound?' asks Lopt. Then Gunnlaug showed him the spear, and the barb of the spear high up was smeared with fat. Then they were sure that wound would be a death-wound."
Again, in some verses on the same battle, in which the poetry of Snorro Sturluson is roughly handled:
"I heard that Bjorn from whetted steel--
O happy deed!--had taën a thrust;
The closefist, turning on his heel,
Hard kissed by Graysteel, bit the dust." 1
Again, twenty-five years later, in 1238, at the battle of Orlygstad, so disastrous to the Sturlungs, Graysteel was in the hands of Sturla Sighvatson. "Sturla defended himself with the spear, hight Graysteel, deftly and well. It was a great spear of the olden time, scored with runes [mála spiot], but not well tempered. He thrust so hard with it that men fell fast before him. But the spear-head bent, and he put his foot upon it oftimes to straighten it." 1
The author of the Sturlunga was present at this battle, and speaks of the spear as an eye-witness. The bad luck predicted by the thrall followed Graysteel to the last. In a few moments after he had so gallantly wielded the fatal weapon, Sturla, the descendant of Thordisa the Soursop, was taken prisoner and massacred by his bitter foes.
At that time Graysteel, forged in 963, would have been 275 years old--a good old age for a weapon. Length of days, and often cleaning and sharpening, may have been the cause why the spear-head of Thorgrim the Priest should have so bent under Sturla's strong arm as to need straightening over and over again under his foot. But in those days it was no uncommon thing for a good weapon to be treasured up for centuries. In the will of Athelstane the Atheling, the brother of Edmund Ironside, who died young in the days of Ethelred the Unready,
we have a most curious list of weapons owned by that prince--swords of all sorts--which he bequeathed to his kinsmen and followers: "The sword with the notch in the blade [ðes sceardan swurdes],"--"the sword with the 'pitted' or fretted hilt,"--"the sword which King Offa owned," which must have been then two hundred years old, and which he leaves to his brother Edmund Ironside; and, though last, not least, a "mal" sword [mál swurd], which has been ignorantly rendered "the sword with a cross on it," but which is nothing more than own brother to our "mála" spear--that is, a sword with runic figures or characters scored on it, whose mystical meaning was thought to impart a peculiar virtue to the weapon.
Lastly, we have only to call the reader's attention to the boldness with which the characters are drawn. From the least to the greatest--from Ingibjorga, "who did not love her first husband so well that she would not rather have been married to his brother," to Gisli, the man of thought and work, who toiled day and night, whose poetry was the best of its kind, and whose arm was no weaker when be struck his last blow than when be began the fight--all have a sharpness and clearness of their own. Thorkel, the lazy dandy, who thinks more of dress than work, who lets Gisli do all the labour about the farm, while he sleeps or listens to women's gossip, is ever true to himself. He is lazy to the last; and had he known how to work, would not have
fallen as he did. But while Bork--the stupid, heavy Bork--is busy setting up their booth, Thorkel sits idly on the seashore, with his fine clothes and good sword, till vengeance overtakes him at the hand of a mere boy. Indeed, they are all the same. Vestein, the bold sailor, who will not turn back because he has already passed the watershed; Ingialld, the busy man, who rowed out to fish every day that a boat would swim--the bold heart who stood by Gisli to the last; the crafty Ref and his shrewish wife; the sharp-eyed, hare-footed and hare-hearted Spy-Helgi; the wary, backward Eyjolf; the tender, faithful Auda; the fat, stupid Bork;--all are masterpieces in their way. True for all time, and coming home to ever noble heart, they are realities which have lived for nine hundred years, and which can never pass away so long as human nature remains the same.
xix:1 This was called "at glepja" or "at fifla," to beguile or befool a woman.
xxiv:1 The second and later text of the Saga makes no mention of Valhalla. That happy home of Woden's champions had been forgotten, and so, too, had the belief in Hell, as the goddess to whose lot the vile and cowardly belonged. The divinity who ruled over the place of torment had sunk into the place of torment itself. Thus it happens that the later text adds this curious bit: "For it was said in those days that men went to hell when they were dead; and that is why a man is still said to busk him for hell who puts on many clothes, or is long in dressing himself when he goes out" a passage which shows the care which was bestowed even in later days on laying the dead out for burial, and which may also explain the frequency with which the name of the old goddess is taken in vain by swearers in modern times.
xxviii:1 This custom among heathens, of being marked with the cross on entering into relations with Christians, was very common. In the Egil's Saga we are told that Egil and his brother Thorolf underwent the rite on entering into the service of King Athelstane in London.
xxix:1 The word "lmingi" in the verses on p. 106 has puzzled critics; and some have thought the word meant no bird at all, but the Norwegian "Lemming," a kind of rat which Gisli must have seen in Norway, but which is not found in Iceland. In this version it has been rendered "night-hawk," as more poetical; but there is little doubt that it really means the "Loom," or Great Arctic Diver, whose shrieking, heard in these vast solitudes at night, is most weird and doleful.
xxix:2 There is a very curious extract from the Hauksbok in G. Vigfússon's edition of the Eyrbyggja, p. 126, to the effect that in the olden time it was a common custom to join the name of one of the gods to a child's first name. Thus Grimr would become Thorgrimr--Steinn, Thorsteinn--Oddr, Thoroddr--and the same with other gods, though it was more common to compound them with Thor so that says the old writer, "most men had two names in one, and they thought it likeliest to lead to long life p. xxx and good luck to have double names; for, even though any one cursed them by the gods under one name, still they thought no harm would come of it if they had another name besides." With which we may compare what is said in the story of Thorstein the White (p. 46)--"It was the belief of men that these men would live longer who had two names:' Nowadays, if some of us had a fresh life for each of our names we should be very long-lived.
xxx:1 The Eyrbyggja Saga, one of the most trustworthy of the Icelandic Sagas, corroborates the accounts of the Gisli Saga. Of Thorgrim the Priest it says: "Thorgrim took him a wife west in Dyrafirth. He got Thordisa, the daughter of the Soursop, and he went west to set up his abode with his brothers-in-law, Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim. slew Vestein, Vestein's son, at an autumn feast in Hawkdale. But the autumn after, when Thorgrim was twenty-five years old, his brother-in-law Gisli slew p. xxxi him at the autumn feast at Sæbol. Some nights after, Thordisa his wife bore a son, and that boy was called Thorgrim, after his father." According to the Eyrbyggja, therefore, the tragical event would seem to have hastened Snorro's birth, and he was not only posthumous, but born before his time. According to our Saga, the event was not hurried, but Bork married Thordisa as his brother's heir before the birth of his nephew.
xxxi:1 Landnama, ii. 19. Gullthoris S. ch. 9.
xxxii:1 Sturlunga, iv. 26.
xxxiii:1 Sturlunga, vi. 17.