Laxdaela Saga Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Laxdaela Saga

Thirteenth-century Icelandic poem.

The Laxdaela Saga, a story of the men and women of the Salmon River valley, is an Icelandic family saga believed to have been composed in the middle of the thirteenth century. The author of the work is unknown. It relates the history of some five or six generations of prominent individuals descended from emigrant Norwegian chieftains, tracing the tragic sweep of many lives during the early Icelandic Commonwealth period. These years were a time of settlement, Christianization, and national independence prior to Iceland's annexation by Norway in 1262. The saga begins with two branches of the family: those of Unn the Deep-Minded and Bjorn the Easterner, whose lines respectively produce the heroic Kjartan and fiery Gudrun. An amalgam of historical fact, myth, epic, romance, anachronism, and literary invention, the Laxdaela Saga is, in essence, a dramatization of the circumstances surrounding a blood-feud between two sides of a great dynasty; in its second and decisive portion, it treats a love triangle that re-ignites the feud and its adjoining intrigues. Principal among its unique narrative features is the central role of women, especially that of its main protagonist, Gudrun. The story itself, though filled with myriad episodes and vignettes from the lives of dozens of characters, is carried forward by the mysterious workings of fate, symbolized by the prophetic dreams of Gudrun. Noted for its detached narrative style and ornately-patterned structure, the Laxdaela Saga remains a highly influential work of Scandinavian literature and is considered an outstanding example of medieval prose romance.

Textual History

Extant manuscripts of the Laxdaela Saga include six complete or partial parchment editions dating from around the fourteenth century and numerous older, fragmentary manuscripts, including one dated approximately 1250, which some believe to be the archetype text. Historical dating of events in these texts can be traced from about 892, the arrival of Unn in Iceland, through the death of Saint Olaf in 1030, and to the time of the saga's actual composition, sometime after 1228. Modern versions of the Laxdaela Saga include the 1826 Copenhagen edition, a standard text that was used by Thorstein Veblen for his English translation of the saga a century later. His adaptation was preceded by that of the Muriel Press, whose complete translation, the first in English, appeared in 1899 and has been frequently revised and reprinted. Additional English editions were published in the 1960s, including A. Margaret Arent's 1964 standard, and a more popularly-oriented adaptation published by Magnus Magnussen and Hermann Pálsson in 1969. The work also inspired English poet William Morris's 1869 “The Lovers of Gudrun,” a loose adaptation in verse of the prose original, and the first partial translation into English.

Plot and Major Characters

Scholars generally separate the Laxdaela Saga into two chronological parts. The first half centers on the sons and daughters of the Norwegian chieftain Ketill Flatneff (Flatnose) and their offspring as they settle the valley of the Salmon (Lax) River in western Iceland beginning in the late ninth century. The first portion of the narrative is comprised of a somewhat episodic account of the ensuing century in Iceland, and features the commanding presence of family matriarch Unn the Deep-Minded. As generations pass, Unn's descendants consolidate possession of Laxdale under her great-grandson Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson. Hoskuld marries Jorunn, but later takes a young concubine, Melkorka, whom we subsequently learn is an Irish princess. Hoskuld and Melkorka have a child, Olaf Peacock. As time passes, squabbles break out regarding the rightful possession of lands among the various scions of the expanding family line. Before his death, however, Hoskuld manages to secure much of his land for Olaf. Upon reaching adulthood, the wise and moderate Olaf marries and sires Kjartan Olaffson, a man of matchless valor and physical beauty who will become the central male heroic figure in the main portion of the saga. In addition to Kjartan, the primary focus of the saga's second half is on Gudrun Osvifsdottir, great-great-granddaughter of Bjorn the Easterner (son of Ketill). Extremely vain, beautiful, and proud, Gudrun experiences four dreams in the winter of her fifteenth year, later explained to her by the prophetic wise woman Gest Oddleifsson, who tells her she will have four husbands. Gudrun's first two marriages, to Thorvald and later Thord, are unhappy and relatively brief. Later, she discovers Kjartan and a third pivotal figure, Bolli Thorleiksson, whose strength and heroic prowess the narrator tells us are unsurpassed, save by Kjartan himself. Both of these men, Bolli and Kjartan, come into possession of preternatural weapons; Bolli's sword, Leg-biter, is said to be cursed, while Kjartan wears the majestic blade Konungsnaut, which carries a charm of protection. According to the seer Gest, Leg-biter will play a pivotal role in the death of Kjartan, although the young men, as yet, remain unaware of this portent. Half-brothers Kjartan and Bolli are close but later become rivals for the attention of Gudrun. As their desire for her matures, Kjartan's father, Olaf, senses approaching doom and warns his headstrong son. Ignoring his counsel, Kjartan continues his affair with Gudrun and rivalry with Bolli. The half-brothers then travel together to Norway, but Kjartan is delayed, ostensibly to marry into Norwegian royalty. Bolli returns to Iceland first, and delivers this news to Gudrun. Disappointed, she accepts Bolli's marriage proposal to become her third husband. Having converted to Christianity, Kjartan returns to Iceland shortly thereafter, still unmarried. The conflict within the family deepens. Meanwhile, Kjartan chooses the demure Hrefna as his bride—a woman unlike Gudrun in temperament but matching her in beauty. Soon the feud between families, spurred by Gudrun's hatred and jealousy, ignites. As acts of aggression on both sides escalate, Gudrun finally urges Bolli to kill Kjartan. Bolli agrees and devises a cowardly plan to outnumber and surprise his former friend. As Bolli attacks him, Kjartan drops his sword, refusing to fight his kinsmen. Bolli advances nonetheless, killing him with Leg-biter, thus fulfilling Gest's prophecy. Upon Bolli's return, Gudrun delights in the death of Kjartan, but only briefly. Meanwhile the slain hero's brothers set a trap for Bolli and avenge Kjartan's death, making him pay with his life. While plotting further revenge, Gudrun marries Thorkel, a mighty war chieftain, and gives birth to Bolli Bollason. Her plans to retaliate for the death of the elder Bolli, however, are thwarted and, in a final closing movement, Bolli's son asks his mother Gudrun whom she loved the best of all the men in her life. She replies, “I was worst to the one I loved the most.”

Major Themes

As a multigenerational family romance with historical elements and an epic story inspired by mythological tradition, the Laxdaela Saga combines thematic material from many genres. On an ethno-historical level, it depicts the circumstances of Icelandic settlement in the Commonwealth period, detailing individual and social adaptation to new circumstances of life, the amassing of property, and the grounding of a new society in transition from the pagan Viking Age to the early Christian epoch in Scandinavia. In this sense, its principal theme centers on disputes over lands, marriages, divorce settlements, and inheritances that culminate in a violent blood-feud. Some, like Olaf the Peacock, recognize the senselessness of the feud and its destructiveness to the community. Others, particularly Gudrun, place their personal codes of honor and lust for revenge far above communal bonds. From this perspective, the Laxdaela Saga can be categorized as the tragedy of a passing way of life and of a shifting moral and social order. Critics also view Gudrun as central to the saga's epic themes, which privilege dreams, prophecy, curses, visions, and the deterministic path of fate. To varying degrees, Gudrun personifies the proud pagan spirit. Her character is thought to resemble the mythological Brynhild of the Nibelungen cycle, a figure who jealously urges the death of her heroic lover Sigurd, following his plot, which tricks her into marrying another man. Other significant characters in the story have also been examined as symbols of competing worldviews in a society positioned between Christian and pagan ideals of community and justice. Thus, the saga narrator uses Kjartan as a symbol of medieval Christianity, a pious and faultless warrior-saint, while Gudrun's son, Bolli Bollason, is thought to embody the chivalric and courtly ideals of the high Middle Ages as a synthesis of antique honor and Christian virtue. While most critics hesitate to completely reduce these and other characters to symbolic signifiers, they also suggest that the Laxdaela Saga is principally concerned with rendering patterns and developments in social life on a very broad scale, rather than with the minutia of individualized psychological analysis.

Critical Reception

Conventional critical assessment of the Laxdaela Saga has tended to compare the work with other outstanding pieces of medieval Scandinavian literature, admiring it for its complex depiction of life in the early Commonwealth period, while also praising its evocation of romantic beauty. Over the years, however, considerably more measured estimations have been offered by some, including early-twentieth-century translator Thorstein Veblen, who called the Laxdaela Saga “a somewhat prosy narrative, cumbered with many tawdry embellishments and affections of style and occasional intrusive passages of devout bombast.” Veblen identified these contrivances as the additions of the work's thirteenth-century author-editor and denounced the insertion of Christian piety into what he viewed as an essentially pagan and romantic narrative. While Veblen's opinions continue to reflect a minority view, tensions within the mixed thematic character of the Laxdaela Saga have largely informed scholarly evaluation of the work in the modern period. Most scholars recognize the saga as a valuable historical document concerning the Scandinavian peoples in social transition between the pagan Viking age and early Christian eras. Commentators interested in the literary qualities of the work, however, have often remarked on its epic substructure. In 1908 W. P. Ker was the first to describe the Laxdaela Saga as the prose actualization of heroic epic, stripped of supernatural elements in order to better convey the conditions and events of everyday life. Observing affinities between the saga and the tragedy of the Nibelungen, the critic noted the manner in which mythological figures like Sigurd and Brynhild were sublimated by the Laxdaela author into those of Kjartan and Gudrun. A number of contemporary critics have also been drawn to the overarching design of the saga and have analyzed its characteristic rhetorical and structural patterns, including its sophisticated use of parallelism, repetition, balance, and contrast. Additional areas of scholarly interest include the work's elaborate compositional patterns and narrative techniques which elegantly combine epic metaphor with the speech rhythms of ordinary life. Having thus begun the process of analyzing the saga's underlying structure, contemporary scholarship has generally aligned in support of A. Margaret Arent Madelung's appraisal of the Laxdaela Saga as “one of the most remarkable and brilliant prose works of the medieval period.”