Grettis Saga Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Grettis Saga

c. 1320-25. (Also known as Grettir's Sagaand Saga of Grettir the Strong.) Icelandic prose.

The Grettis Saga is the last and highest praised work of the genre of family sagas of old Iceland. It tells the eleventh-century tale of Grettir, a warrior of phenomenal strength and an equally powerful temper. Banished and outlawed, the victim of curses, witchcraft, and magic, Grettir performs heroic deeds, including battles against monsters and ghosts; ironically, these deeds benefit the very society with which he is so often at odds. After his murder, he is avenged by his brother, Thorsteinn. The Grettis Saga presents complex characters with rich, wide-ranging personalities. Although much critical interest in the tale derives from its similarities to Beowulf, it continues to gain new respect and new readers in its own right. It is also invaluable to historians and folklorists for its vivid, highly detailed descriptions of Viking ways and for help in understanding their perception of the individual and society.

Plot and Major Characters

The story of the Grettis Saga is told in chronological order. The prologue, which consists of thirteen chapters, is both a history of the Icelandic region and a genealogical study of Grettir's ancestors. Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the tale, was a historical person who died in 1031, but probably few, if any, facts about his life remain unembellished by legend and myth. Grettir is introduced at age ten in chapter fourteen, portrayed as lazy, impatient, resentful, disrespectful, and antisocial. He does not hesitate to confront and even assault those who irritate him, including his own father, who has little love for his son. His mother, Asdis, however, loves him dearly no matter how sadistic his actions. The following chapter depicts Grettir at age fourteen, fighting over an unfair play in a ball game, but not losing his sense of reason. Chapter sixteen is the first time that his horrible temper lands him in serious trouble. In an argument over a bag of provisions, Grettir kills a servant, Skeggi, in self-defense. Banished for three years, he heads for Norway. When the ship he is on is hit by a storm, Grettir does the bailing of eight men—perhaps showing that he is not truly lazy, just selective in choosing what tasks warrant his attention. The remaining chapters describe Grettir's heroic deeds: he recovers stolen treasure after defeating the ghost who guarded it, kills a bear, and swims in ice cold water for several miles. Once back in Iceland, Grettir pits himself against one of the undead, who in life was Glamr, the shepherd. Although Grettir defeats him and thus saves the area's peasants from further attacks, Glamr curses Grettir. The curses are to keep his strength from increasing, to cause his deeds to go awry, and to have the effect of making him afraid to be alone, especially in the dark. Soon, as depicted in chapters 38 and 39, one of Grettir's feats does go astray and he accidentally burns down a hall, killing the twelve men inside, one of whom is the son of a chieftain. He is declared an outlaw and wanders the rest of his life in desolate parts of Iceland, at odds with the curse that makes him afraid to be alone. Chapters 42 through 45 offer accounts of Grettir's brother, Atli, and his death at the hands of Thorbjorn. Grettir eventually kills Thorbjorn and Thorbjorn's son, and is in turn murdered on his own deathbed. The last six chapters of the Grettis Saga have been described by Robert J. Glendinning as a novella in both structure and content. They describe the vengeance extracted by Thorsteinn for the murder of Grettir.

Major Themes

There has been much critical debate over the theme or themes of the Grettis Saga. Hermann Pallson interprets it as a warning against an overabundance of pride. Other critics see it as a warning against excessive violence. Kathryn Hume believes the theme has to do with the lack of place for the heroic in a modern society. Still other scholars view it in terms of the outlaw's role in civilization. Such diversity of opinion is part of what makes the Grettis Saga appealing to modern critics. With its ambiguous portrayals of Grettir and his motivation, and a wealth of examples to draw from, new interpretations of the main ideas at work in the saga will likely continue to be made.

Critical Reception

Similarities between the Grettis Saga and Beowulf have been recognized and discussed by scholars for well over a century. Much of the published work concerning the Grettis Saga involves comparisons with Beowulf; current consensus among critics is that the two works were written independently, but based on the same or similar variants of fairy tales, particularly the story of Bear's Son. Magnús Fjalldal challenges the popularly accepted notion that the works have a lot in common, asserting that similarities are superficial and based on very small portions of the tales, while differences are often ignored altogether. As one of the major Icelandic family stories, the Grettis Saga is vital to the study of old northern European literature. Scholars examine the work closely in trying to ascertain developments and progressions in the literary tradition, including the sharing of motifs. Lotte Motz explores how the factual basis of Grettir has been remodeled and transformed until the once-unique man fits in with a common pattern for heroes found in literature. Critics have pointed out that the Grettis Saga is flawed in its structure, with folk and romance elements interspersed among history, and with sudden shifts in Grettir's character. Hume argues that the very elements once attacked are now the most studied, and that the author's contrasting depictions of Grettir are a deliberate part of a pattern used to illustrate the theme of the work. Many critics have found fault with the final six chapters, which are believed, as evidenced by their romantic nature, to have been tacked on the tale at a later date. However, the overall merit of the Grettis Saga remains unquestioned and it endures as enjoyable reading several centuries after being written.