Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998

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.

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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 will henceforth grow worse. Many events in Grettir’s later career seem unlucky, but again fate is character. Grettir seldom ameliorates bad fortune or takes advantage of good. For example, he swims across an icy estuary to get fire for the merchants with whom he is traveling. A scuffle takes place at the house he goes to for fire, and the people inside are burned. The merchants then accuse Grettir of murder. He is attacked first, but he might have retreated and tried to explain that, in spite of his appearance, he is not a troll and not there for an evil motive. The next day, when the merchants find the burned house, Grettir could stress his innocence. After all that, he is given a chance by King Olaf to clear himself by ordeal, but he loses his temper in the church and commits an act of violence so that the trial cannot take place, and he cannot clear himself. At the end, when terms are offered to Grettir and he refuses them, a witch calls him luckless because, “there are few things which lead to more certain disaster than not to want what is good.” She later contributes to his downfall by magic, but the ultimate cause is not magic, but Grettir’s unwillingness to seize an opportunity.

As the story progresses, Grettir’s sphere of action narrows. He is outlawed in Norway, returns to Iceland, and is...

(The entire section contains 998 words.)

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