The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Numerous long epics, or sagas, were composed in Iceland during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but relate events from mythic history several centuries earlier. The character of Grettir, if real, may have lived around the year 1000. Grettir’s saga has gained a prominent role because the character is so imperfect; his exaggerated bad behavior turns him into an outlaw, but overcoming these impulses and showing incredible bravery also show how he earns his fame as noble.

As he learns to combine his incredible physical strength with good judgment and strategic decision-making, Grettir matures into a leader rather than just continuing as a solitary maverick. However, when he kills a supernatural opponent, he is cursed and banished, so he continues to operate outside rather than within conventional social boundaries.

To set the stage and establish Grettir’s lineage, the saga’s first 13 chapters tell of his ancestors’ deeds, including the great Viking Onund, who was his great grandfather. Despite his descent on both sides from brave nobles, Grettir is born with a mischievous temperament that propels him into disobedience. His parents despair that he will never amount to anything, unlike his conventionally virtuous older brother, Atli.

Through Grettir’s adolescence and early adulthood, he comes through numerous escapades and fights relatively unharmed physically, but his hot temper and poor judgment incur many punishments, including banishment after killing a man and blaming it on trolls. Through brave deeds, however, he gains allies and earns a reputation that make him a sought-after ally in a fight. These attributes come together at last when he tackles a terrifying ghostly giant, or draugr, called Glam. Hiding in a barn and realizing he must confine the giant indoors, Grettir outsmarts it and cuts off its head—but not before Glam can curse him. The curse, unfortunately, holds, and Grettir is outlawed and his deeds rarely bring wealth. After twenty years of such wanderings, Grettir finally returns and achieves some measure of peace, before dying because of evil magic.

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