There are several types of sagas: family sagas, legendary sagas, and sagas of notable individuals. The Saga of Grettir the Strong is one of the longest, and possibly the best known of the third category. It is also one of the last of the great sagas, by an author thoroughly familiar with the saga tradition. He makes reference to earlier sagas throughout the work. Grettir’s story is semihistorical; locations are nearly all identifiable, and many characters also appear in other sagas. The overall feel is realistic, in spite of a number of supernatural beings and events. These may seem highly improbable to the modern reader, but the direction of the story is determined by Grettir’s character, not by the specific incidents, and these are all revealing of his nature, whether natural or supernatural.
The Saga of Grettir the Strong begins with Grettir’s ancestors. This section takes up thirteen of the ninety-three chapters and centers on Grettir’s great-grandfather Onund Tree-Foot. Onund is a Viking of the heathen era, who loses a leg during a turbulent and violent career. In old age he exchanges a good farm in Norway for the harsh climate of Iceland to escape the repressive rule of Harald Hairfair, the first king of Norway. Grettir is much like his ancestor, and even more violent and unruly, but he has no Iceland to which to escape. The Viking era is dying, and Christianity conquered the North. Grettir is an anachronism in a world becoming ever more settled and civilized.
The author is a master of characterization. One sees Grettir’s cruelty and his impatience with authority and routine in his childhood rebellion against his father, especially when he mutilates the favorite horse he is assigned to tend. It is not only rebellion against his father but also impatience with the horse’s leisurely grazing while Grettir waits in the cold. He is not always the instigator, but he seldom makes a situation better, and he insists upon satisfying his honor even when he has every reason to accept an offer of peace. Grettir’s behavior often seems thuggish, and yet he is honorable, intelligent, resourceful, and witty. He is physically big, but he has a big spirit as well. Though an outlaw himself, he is unlike the several outlaws he befriends and who try to murder him for the reward.
An important concept of the Viking age is “luck,” and one of the monsters Grettir kills predicts that his luck...
(The entire section is 998 words.)