Laxdaela Saga Essay - Critical Essays

Laxdaela Saga


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.”

Principal Works

Laxdale Saga (translated by Muriel A. C. Press) 1899

Laxdaela Saga (translated by Thorstein Veblen) 1925

Laxdoela Saga (translated by A. Margaret Arent) 1964

Laxdaela Saga (translated by Magnus Magnussen and Hermann Pálsson) 1969

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W. P. Ker (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: Ker, W. P. “Tragic Imagination.” In Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, pp. 207-24. New York: Dover Publications, 1908.

[In the following essay, Ker describes the tragic quality of Icelandic sagas, with particular reference to the Laxdaela Saga as a historical and epic romance.]

In their definite tragical situations and problems, the Sagas are akin to the older poetry of the Teutonic race. The tragical cases of the earlier heroic age are found repeated, with variations, in the Sagas. Some of the chief of these resemblances have been found and discussed by the editors of Corpus Poeticum Boreale. Also in many places where there is...

(The entire section is 2441 words.)

Thorstein Veblen (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: Veblen, Thorstein. Introduction to The Laxdaela Saga, translated by Thorstein Veblen, pp. v-xv. New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc., 1925.

[In the following introduction to his English translation of the Laxdaela Saga, Veblen enumerates the underlying characteristics of the work, including its depiction of a blood feud, its rendering of a society situated between paganism and Christianity, and its idiomatic status as the product of thirteenth-century Iceland.]

It has been something of a convention among those who interest themselves in Icelandic literature to speak well of the Laxdæla Saga as a thing of poetic beauty and of high literary merit. So,...

(The entire section is 3348 words.)

A. Margaret Arent (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Arent, A. Margaret. Introduction to The Laxdoela Saga, translated by A. Margaret Arent, pp. xv-xlii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt from her introduction to her English translation of the Laxdaela Saga, Arent probes the work's literary contexts, authorship, manuscript history, and sources, then concludes by providing an overview of its plot, structure, and style.]


With the Christianization of Iceland (a.d. 1000), a new era in the life and letters of the nation can be said to have begun, although the conversion was not marked by any great upheaval, politically or...

(The entire section is 10102 words.)

Peter Foote (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Foote, Peter. Introduction to The Laxdale Saga, translated by Muriel Press, pp. v-xvi. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1964.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to a revised edition of Muriel Press's 1899 translation of the Laxdaela Saga, Foote discusses the epic subtext of the poem, its idealized characters, and its generally clear, unassuming style.]

Laxdæla saga, the saga of the men of Salmon-river-dale, was written in Iceland about a.d. 1250. The author was at home in the Dales, the inner districts of Breiðifjörðr, the scene of most of the action of the story.

The saga is the work of a mature and...

(The entire section is 2921 words.)

Magnus Magnussen (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Magnussen, Magnus. Introduction to Laxdaela Saga, translated by Magnus Magnussen and Hermann Pálsson, pp. 9-44. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Magnussen summarizes the plot, theme, style, and historical and literary contexts of the Laxdaela Saga.]

Of all the major Icelandic sagas, Laxdæla Saga has always stirred the European imagination the most profoundly. More than any other of the classical prose sagas of medieval Iceland it is essentially a romantic work; romantic in style, romantic in taste, romantic in theme, culminating in that most enduring and timeless of human relationships in story-telling, the...

(The entire section is 10821 words.)

A. Margaret Arent Madelung (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Madelung, A. Margaret Arent. “Literary Perspectives.” In The Laxdoela Saga: Its Structural Patterns, pp. 147-96. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

[In the following excerpt, Madelung presents a detailed structural analysis of the Laxdaela Saga, emphasizing such features as balance, symmetry, recurrence, comparison, and temporal patterning in various elements of the work.]


Although knowledge of the historical, social, and cultural background of a literary work often contributes appreciably to the better understanding of it, an artistic interpretation may, conversely, illuminate...

(The entire section is 12032 words.)

Arnold R. Taylor (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Taylor, Arnold R. “Laxdaela Saga and Author Involvement in the Icelandic Sagas.” Leeds Studies in English 7 n.s. (1974): 13-21.

[In the following essay, Taylor investigates the subtle use of authorial intrusion in the Laxdaela Saga, focusing principally on the author's characterization of Gudrun through the use of her prophetic dreams.]

Laxdæla saga has recently attracted detailed consideration by many eminent scholars who have concerned themselves either with the date of composition or the name of its author.1 What I have to say will also relate to the author, though I am not concerned with his name nor with the rival...

(The entire section is 4090 words.)

Florence S. Boos (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Boos, Florence S. “Morris' Radical Revisions to the Laxdaela Saga.Victorian Poetry 21 (1983): 415-20.

[In the following essay, Boos details Morris's reworking of the second half of the Laxdaela Saga into his poem “The Lovers of Gudrun,” calling it the transformation of “a feud-narrative of property negotiations and family rivalries into an exemplum of doomed friendship and heterosexual love.”]

“The Lovers of Gudrun” provides one of the most interesting examples of Morris' reworking of an earlier narrative, for both the Laxdaela Saga and “The Lovers of Gudrun” are in their divergent ways impressive literary works....

(The entire section is 2497 words.)

Paul Schach (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Schach, Paul. “Major Sagas about Icelanders.” In Icelandic Sagas, pp. 97-130. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following essay, Schach offers a brief overview of the subject, story, and artistry of the Laxdaela Saga.]


Like Egils saga, the “story of the people of the Laxárdal” begins at the time when Harald Fairhair is extending his dominion over the whole of Norway, and the picture of the king is similar in both sagas. The introduction is equally long in both works, although considerably more intricate in Laxdæla. Greed for money and power, which motivated most of Egil's deeds and...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)

Jonna Louis-Jensen (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Louis-Jensen, Jonna. “A Good Day's Work: Laxdaela Saga, ch. 49.” In Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology, edited by Sarah M. Anderson, pp. 189-99. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Louis-Jensen attempts to correct possible textual corruptions in Laxdaela Saga chapter 49 in order to unveil a subtle, ironic reading of Gudrun's character in her response to Kjartan's death.]


A notable feature of the “saga style” is the emphatic phrase (apophthegm, laconism), which marks the dramatic peak of a dialogue, and thereby of a scene. Well-known examples are the heroic understatements...

(The entire section is 4857 words.)

Further Reading


Beck, Heinrich. “Laxdaela Saga—A Structural Approach.” Icelandic Journal (1974): 383–402.

Focuses on the structure of the Laxdaela Saga, stressing its discontinuity between narrative and objective time, repetition of narrative elements, and thematic patterning of narrative sequences.

Bouman, A. C. “Patterns in the Laxdaela Saga.” In Patterns in Old English and Icelandic Literature, pp. 107–32. Leiden: University of Leiden, 1962.

Studies structural patterning, character portrayal, and the motif of prophetic dreams in the Laxdaela Saga.

Julian, Linda....

(The entire section is 168 words.)