The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Among the Icelandic sagas, Grettir’s saga occupies a central place. The character of Grettir is beloved for his all-too-human flaws as well as his might heroic acts. Despite curses, bad luck, and outlaw status, he show true greatness.

The late 19th-century extension of the saga’s popularity into England led to a translation by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon .

The early parts of the saga deal with the history of Grettir’s family and community. In fact, Grettir only enters the story in Chapter 14, which tells of his lineage and his rambunctious childhood. His parents were Asmund and Adis, and his older brother was Atli.

No matter what chore he is assigned, Grettir cannot resist doing it wrong; his father tries to ignore him, and his mother worries over his recklessness

When Asmund send Grettir with some relatives to attend an annual family obligation, the boy gets into an argument with another member of the party. Because he not only kills Skellig but lies about it, when he is found out, he is banished for three years. Upon leaving home, his father refuses to give him a weapon, but his mother helps him.

She took out from under her cloak a sword well wrought, and a fair thing it was, and then she said, "This sword was owned by Jokul, my father's father, and the earlier Waterdale men, and it gained them many a day; now I give thee the sword, and may it stand thee in good stead."

He sailed to the Island of Haramsey, where he was set ashore to begin his exile under its chief, Thorfinn. There Grettir begins to show his heroic qualities by reclaiming buried treasure from a barrow, and cutting off the head of its demonic guardian using his mother’s sword:

Grettir drew the sword, 'Jokul's gift,' and drave it at the neck of the barrow-bider so that it took off his head….

By bringing the treasure to Thorfinn, from whose family it had been taken, Grettir gains his first ally.

Returning to Iceland after more adventures and killing several men, Grettir sets out to claim a place in his own society. In numerous fights with stronger opponents, Grettir gains a reputation for being able to beat three opponents at once. In his meeting with the ghostly giant Glam, however, Grettir shows that he can outsmart as well as outfight a powerful adversary, and earns the respect of all his people. However, before dying, Glam cursed him and this spell stays on him. Glam says

“[H]enceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad….”

Grettir then kills him: he “drew the short-sword and hewed the head from Glam….” Thorhall, the local leader he was aiding comes out of hiding.

Thorhall praised God therefor, and thanked Grettir well for that he had won this unclean spirit….. All men who heard thereof deemed this a deed of great worth, and in those days it was said by all that none in all the land was like to Grettir Asmundson for great heart and prowess.

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