The sagas reveal that surprisingly complex laws and legal procedures played an important role in the Viking lands. These form the background to another supposedly true story of the late 10th century, recorded in the medieval Njal’s Saga.
Njal is an Icelandic lawyer, renowned throughout the country for skilfully contriving peaceful monetary settlements to end some of the long blood feuds that blighted all Viking societies. Despite this, he is unable to prevent his wife, best friend and finally his sons from being caught up in vendettas of their own.
Eventually he too is drawn in, and finds himself burned alive in his own house – a common act of revenge at the time. It’s a long and chilling cautionary tale full of twists and turns. Like Laxdaela Saga, it also offers plausible information on the Norse conversion to Christianity.
Chapter 1 – Of Fiddle Mord
There was a man named Mord whose surname was Fiddle; he was the son of Sigvat the Red, and he dwelt at the “Vale” in the Rangrivervales. He was a mighty chief, and a great taker up of suits, and so great a lawyer that no judgments were thought lawful unless he had a hand in them. He had an only daughter, named Unna. She was a fair, courteous and gifted woman, and that was thought the best match in all the Rangrivervales.
Now the story turns westward to the Broadfirth dales, where, at Hauskuldstede, in Laxriverdale, dwelt a man named Hauskuld, who was Dalakoll’s son, and his mother’s name was Thorgerda. He had a brother named Hrut, who dwelt at Hrutstede; he was of the same mother as Hauskuld, but his father’s name was Heriolf. Hrut was handsome, tall and strong, well skilled in arms, and mild of temper; he was one of the wisest of men – stern towards his foes, but a good counsellor on great matters. It happened once that Hauskuld bade his friends to a feast, and his brother Hrut was there, and sat next him. Hauskuld had a daughter named Hallgerda, who was playing on the floor with some other girls. She was fair of face and tall of growth, and her hair was as soft as silk; it was so long, too, that it came down to her waist. Hauskuld called out to her, “Come hither to me, daughter”. So she went up to him, and he took her by the chin, and kissed her; and after that she went away.
Then Hauskuld said to Hrut, “What dost thou think of this maiden? Is she not fair?” Hrut held his peace. Hauskuld said the same thing to him a second time, and then Hrut answered, “Fair enough is this maid, and many will smart for it, but this I know not, whence thief’s eyes have come into our race”. Then Hauskuld was wroth, and for a time the brothers saw little of each other.
Chapter 2 – Hrut woos Unna
It happened once that those brothers, Hauskuld and Hrut, rode to the Althing, and there was much people at it. Then Hauskuld said to Hrut, “One thing I wish, brother, and that is, that thou wouldst better thy lot and woo thyself a wife.”
Hrut answered, “That has been long on my mind, though there always seemed to be two sides to the matter; but now I will do as thou wishest; whither shall we turn our eyes?”
Hauskuld answered, “Here now are many chiefs at the Thing, and there is plenty of choice, but I have already set my eyes on a spot where a match lies made to thy hand. The woman’s name is Unna, and she is a daughter of Fiddle Mord one of the wisest of men. He is here at the Thing, and his daughter too, and thou mayest see her if it pleases thee.”
Now the next day, when men were going to the High Court, they saw some well-dressed women standing outside the booths of the men from the Rangrivervales, Then Hauskuld said to Hrut –
“Yonder now is Unna, of whom I spoke; what thinkest thou of her?”
“Well,” answered Hrut; “but yet I do not know whether we should get on well together.”
After that they went to the High Court, where Fiddle Mord was laying down the law as was his wont, and alter he had done he went home to his booth.
Then Hauskuld and Hrut rose, and went to Mord’s booth. They went in and found Mord sitting in the innermost part of the booth, and they bade him “good day”. He rose to meet them, and took Hauskuld by the hand and made him sit down by his side, and Hrut sat next to Hauskuld, So after they had talked much of this and that, at last Hauskuld said, “I have a bargain to speak to thee about; Hrut wishes to become thy son-in-law, and buy thy daughter, and I, for my part, will not be sparing in the mattes”.
Mord answered, “I know that thou art a great chief, but thy brother is unknown to me”.
“He is a better man than I,” answered Hauskuld.
“Thou wilt need to lay down a large sum with him, for she is heir to all I leave behind me,” said Mord.
“There is no need,” said Hauskuld, “to wait long before thou hearest what I give my word he shall have. He shall have Kamness and Hrutstede, up as far as Thrandargil, and a trading-ship beside, now on her voyage.”
Then said Hrut to Mord, “Bear in mind, now, husband, that my brother has praised me much more than I deserve for love’s sake; but if after what thou hast heard, thou wilt make the match, I am willing to let thee lay down the terms thyself”.
Mord answered, “I have thought over the terms; she shall have sixty hundreds down, and this sum shall be increased by a third more in thine house, but if ye two have heirs, ye shall go halves in the goods”.
Then said Hrut, “I agree to these terms, and now let us take witness”. After that they stood up and shook hands, and Mord betrothed his daughter Unna to Hrut, and the bridal feast was to be at Mord’s house, half a month after Midsummer.
Now both sides ride home from the Thing, and Hauskuld and Hrut ride westward by Hallbjorn’s beacon. Then Thiostolf, the son of Biorn Gullbera of Reykiardale, rode to meet them, and told them how a ship had come out from Norway to the White River, and how aboard of her was Auzur, Hrut’s father’s brother, and he wished Hrut to come to him as soon as ever he could. When Hrut heard this, he asked Hauskuld to go with him to the ship, so Hauskuld went with his brother, and when they reached the ship, Hrut gave his kinsman Auzur a kind and hearty welcome. Auzur asked them into his booth to drink, so their horses were unsaddled, and they went in and drank, and while they were drinking, Hrut said to Auzur, “Now, kinsman, thou must ride west with me, and stay with me this winter.”
“That cannot be, kinsman, for I have to tell thee the death of thy brother Eyvind, and he has left thee his heir at the Gula Thing, and now thy foes will seize thy heritage, unless thou comest to claim it.”
“What’s to be done now, brother?” said Hrut to Hauskuld, “for this seems a hard matter, coming just as I have fixed my bridal day.”
“Thou must ride south,” said Hauskuld, “and see Mord, and ask him to change the bargain which ye two have made, and to let his daughter sit for thee three winters as thy betrothed, but I will ride home and bring down thy wares to the ship.”
Then said Hrut, “My wish is that thou shouldest take meal and timber, and whatever else thou needest out of the lading”. So Hrut had his horses brought out, and he rode south, while Hauskuld rode home west. Hrut came east to the Rangrivervales to Mord, and had a good welcome, and he told Mord all his business, and asked his advice what he should do.
“How much money is this heritage?” asked Mord, and Hrut said it would come to a hundred marks, if he got it all.
“Well,” said Mord, “that is much when set against what I shall leave behind me, and thou shalt go for it, if thou wilt.”
After that they broke their bargain, and Unna was to sit waiting for Hrut three years as his betrothed. Now Hrut rides back to the ship, and stays by her during the summer, till she was ready to sail, and Hauskuld brought down all Hrut’s wares and money to the ship, and Hrut placed all his other property in Hauskuld’s hands to keep for him while he was away. Then Hauskuld rode home to his house, and a little while after they got a fair wind and sail away to sea. They were out three weeks, and the first land they made was Hern, near Bergen, and so sail eastward to the Bay.
Chapter 3 – Hrut and Gunnhillda, kings mother
At that time Harold Grayfell reigned in Norway; he was the son of Eric Bloodaxe, who was the son of Harold Fairhair; his mother’s name was Gunnhillda, a daughter of Auzur Toti, and they had their abode east, at the King’s Crag. Now the news was spread, how a ship had come thither east into the Bay, and as soon as Gunnhillda heard of it, she asked what men from Iceland were aboard, and they told her Hrut was the man’s name, Auzur’s brother’s son. Then Gunnhillda said, “I see plainly that he means to claim his heritage, but there is a man named Soti, who has laid his hands on it”.
After that she called her waiting-man, whose name was Augmund, and said –
“I am going to send thee to the Bay to find out Auzur and Hint, and tell them that I ask them both to spend this winter with me. Say, too, that I will be their friend, and if Hrut will carry out my counsel, I will see after his suit, and anything else he takes in hand, and I will speak a good word, too, for him to the king.”
After that he set off and found them; and as soon as they knew that he was Gunnhillda’s servant, they gave him good welcome. He took them aside and told them his errand, and after that they talked over their plans by themselves. Then Auzur said to Hrut –
“Methinks, kinsman, here is little need for long talk, our plans are ready made for us; for I know Gunnhillda’s temper; as soon as ever we say we will not go to her she will drive us out of the land, and take all our goods by force; but if we go to her, then she will do us such honour as she has promised.”
Augmund went home, and when he saw Gunnhillda, he told her how his errand had ended, and that they would come, and Gunnhillda said –
“It is only what was to be looked for; for Hrut is said to be a wise and well-bred man; and now do thou keep a sharp look out, and tell me as soon as ever they come to the town.”
Hrut and Auzur went east to the King’s Crag, and when they reached the town, their kinsmen and friends went out to meet and welcome them. They asked, whether the king were in the town, and they told them he was. After that they met Augmund, and he brought them a greeting from Gunnhillda, saying, that she could not ask them to her house before they had seen the king, lest men should say, “I make too much of them”. Still she would do all she could for them, and she went on, “tell Hrut to be outspoken before the king, and to ask to be made one of his body-guard”; “and here,” said Augmund, “is a dress of honour which she sends to thee, Hrut, and in it thou must go in before the king”. After that he went away.
The next day Hrut said –
“Let us go before the king.”
“That may well be,” answered Auzur.
So they went, twelve of them together, and all of them friends or kinsmen, and came into the hall where the king sat over his drink. Hrut went first and bade the king “good day,” and the king, looking steadfastly at the man who was well-dressed, asked him his name. So he told his name.
“Art thou an Icelander?” said the king.
He answered, “Yes”.
“What drove thee hither to seek us?”
Then Hrut answered –
“To see your state, lord; and, besides, because I have a great matter of inheritance here in the land, and I shall have need of your help, if I am to get my rights.”
The king said –
“I have given my word that every man shall have lawful justice here in Norway; but hast thou any other errand in seeking me?”
“Lord!” said Hrut, “I wish you to let me live in your court, and become one of your men.”
At this the king holds his peace, but Gunnhillda said –
“It seems to me as if this man offered you the greatest honour, for me thinks if there were many such men in the body-guard, it would be well filled.”
“Is he a wise man?” asked the king.
“He is both wise and willing,” said she.
“Well,” said the king, “methinks my mother wishes that thou shouldst have the rank for which thou askest, but for the sake of our honour and the custom of the land, come to me in half a month’s time, and then thou shalt be made one of my body-guard. Meantime, my mother will take care of thee, but then come to me.”
Then Gunnhillda said to Augmund –
“Follow them to my house, and treat them well.”
So Augmund went out, and they went with him, and he brought them to a hall built of stone, which was hung with the most beautiful tapestry, and there too was Gunnhillda’s high-seat.
Then Augmund said to Hrut –
“Now will be proved the truth of all that I said to thee from Gunnhillda. Here is her high-seat, and in it thou shalt sit, and this seat thou shalt hold, though she comes herself into the hall.”
After that he made them good cheer, and they had sat down but a little while when Gunnhillda came in. Hrut wished to jump up and greet her.
“Keep thy seat!” she says, “and keep it too all the time thou art my guest.”
Then she sat herself down by Hrut, and they fell to drink, and at even she said –
“Thou shalt be in the upper chamber with me to-night, and we two together.”
“You shall have your way,” he answers.
After that they went to sleep, and she locked the door inside. So they slept that night, and in the morning fell to drinking again. Thus they spent their life all that half-month, and Gunnhillda said to the men who were there –
“Ye shall lose nothing except your lives if you say to any one a word of how Hrut and I are going on.”
[When the half-month was over] Hrut gave her a hundred ells of household woollen and twelve rough cloaks, and Gunnhillda thanked him for his gifts. Then Hrut thanked her and gave her a kiss and went away. She bade him “farewell”. And next day he went before the king with thirty men after him and bade the king “good-day”. The king said –
“Now, Hrut, thou wilt wish me to carry out towards thee what I promised.”
So Hrut was made one of the king’s body-guard, and he asked, “Where shall I sit?”
“My mother shall settle that,” said the king.
Then she got him a seat in the highest room, and he spent the winter with the king in much honour.
To the rest of the story: https://sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga.en