This tragic love story forms the central thread of the 13th-century Laxdaela Saga, probably based on real 10th and 11th-century people and events.
The beautiful and capable Gudrun – twice married, divorced and widowed at an early age – falls in love with the charismatic Kjartan. However, his father believes Gudrun to be very unlucky, so he tries to extricate Kjartan from the relationship by sending him on a trading expedition to Norway.
There he is held hostage by the king, and during his prolonged absence, Kjartan’s cousin and foster-brother, Bolli, persuades the reluctant Gudrun to marry him instead. Kjartan returns shortly afterwards, and Gudrun realises she has made a terrible mistake. Her regret sparks off a series of inflammatory events, which culminate in Bolli slaughtering his beloved foster-brother – who dies in his arms – and then being killed himself in revenge.
Intriguingly, the saga reveals elements of Viking Age culture that are mirrored in the modern world – for example, pre-nuptial agreements, freely available divorce, forced religious conversion and youths going on ‘gap year’-style travels abroad.
Laxdæla saga (Icelandic pronunciation: [ˈlaksˌtaiːla ˈsaːɣa] (listen)), also Laxdœla saga (Old Norse pronunciation [ˈlɑksˌdøːlɑ ˈsɑɣɑ]), Laxdoela saga, Laxdaela saga or The Saga of the People of Laxárdalr, is one of the Icelanders’ sagas. Written in the 13th century, it tells of people in the Breiðafjörður area of Iceland from the late 9th century to the early 11th century. The saga particularly focuses on a love triangle between Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, Kjartan Ólafsson and Bolli Þorleiksson. Kjartan and Bolli grow up together as close friends but the love they both have for Guðrún causes enmity between them.
Second only to Njáls saga in the number of medieval manuscripts preserved, Laxdæla saga remains popular and appreciated for its poetic beauty and pathetic sentiment.
Laxdæla saga begins in Norway in the late ninth century as Ketill Flatnose and his children leave Norway to escape the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. The saga focuses in particular on Ketill’s daughter Unnr the Deep-Minded. Unnr leaves Norway to travel with her family to Iceland. Later in the saga when she hears that her father and her son are dead, she has a ship built so that she can take all of her surviving kinsmen as well as a great deal of wealth to safety. Unnr goes on to travel to Scotland and the Orkney and Faroe Islands before claiming lands in Breiðafjörður in Western Iceland. Later in life, Unnr decides to leave her wealth to Olaf, the youngest of Thorstein’s children. She decided to leave her inheritance to him because he was very good looking and likable. The saga describes Unnr’s dignified death and her ship burial.
The next principal character is Höskuldr Dala-Kollsson, great-grandson of Unnr. He is married to a woman named Jorunn. He travels to Norway to acquire wood for house-building. While abroad, he purchases a mute but beautiful and expensive slave-girl. He also meets King Hákon the Good, who gives him wood, as well as a ring and a sword. Höskuldr then travels back to Iceland. Höskuldr and the slave-girl have a child named Olaf, later nicknamed Olaf the Peacock. One day, when Olaf is two years old, Höskuldr finds Olaf and his mother talking by a stream. Höskuldr tells the slave-girl that she can no longer pretend to be mute and asks for her name. She reveals that she is Melkorka, daughter of King Mýrkjartan of Ireland, and that she was taken captive at the age of fifteen. Höskuldr also fights the reanimated Hrappr.
Olaf the Peacock grows up to be a handsome and well-mannered man. When he is eighteen years old he travels abroad. He first goes to Norway where he pays his respects to King Harald Greycloak and befriends his mother, Gunnhildr. When Gunnhildr learns that Olaf wants to travel to Ireland to seek his grandfather, she orders a ship to be made ready for him and gives him a crew of sixty men. Olaf sails to Ireland but ends up with his ship stranded in an unfavorable area, far from any port. Local Irishmen lay claim to all property on the ship, according to Irish law on ship strandings. Olaf, who is fluent in Old Irish, refuses to give up the ship. The Irish attempt to take the ship by force but Olaf and his men successfully resist.
King Mýrkjartan happens to be nearby and arrives at the scene. Olaf tells the king that he is the son of Melkorka, his daughter, and offers him a gold ring from Melkorka as proof. Mýrkjartan had given his daughter the ring as a teething present. As the king examines the ring, his face grows red and he acknowledges Olaf as his kinsman. Olaf and his men spend the winter with the king, fighting with him against raiders. Mýrkjartan offers Olaf to inherit the crown but he rejects the offer and travels back home.
Olaf’s journey abroad has brought him great renown and he now settles in Iceland. He marries Þorgerðr, daughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. Olaf and Þorgerðr have a number of children, including the promising Kjartan. As Höskuldr dies, he gives Olaf, his illegitimate son, the ring and sword which King Hákon had given him. Olaf’s half-brother, Þorleikr, takes offence at this. In order to make peace with his brother, Olaf offers to foster Þorleikr’s son, Bolli, “as he who raises the child of another is always considered as the lesser of the two”.
Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is introduced as “the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking”. Guðrún has dreams that cause her concern. A wise kinsman interprets the dreams to mean that Guðrún will have four husbands; she will divorce the first one, but the other three will die. And indeed, Guðrún marries her first husband (Þorvaldr Halldórsson) at the age of 15 and he turns out to be a man she cares little for. She makes him a shirt with a low-cut neck and then divorces him on the grounds that he wears women’s clothes. Guðrún’s second marriage (to Þórðr Ingunarsson) is happy but short; her husband drowns through the witchcraft of a Hebridean family, Kotkell, his wife Gríma, and their sons Hallbjörn slíkisteinsauga and Stígandi.
Kjartan and Bolli grow up together as close friends, the affection between them “such that both of them felt something was missing in the other’s absence”. Kjartan and Guðrún start spending time together and are considered a good match. Kjartan and Bolli decide to travel abroad. Guðrún is displeased by this and asks Kjartan to take her with him. Kjartan refuses, reminding Guðrún that she has responsibilities at home. He asks her to wait for him for three years. Guðrún refuses and they part in disagreement.
Kjartan and Bolli arrive in Norway at Nidaros and learn that there has been a change of rulers. The arch-pagan Earl Hákon has been killed and Olaf Tryggvason has ascended to the throne, eager to spread Christianity as widely as possible. A number of prominent Icelanders are docked at Nidaros, forbidden to put to sea because they refuse to adopt the new religion. Kjartan and Bolli resolve not to convert and Kjartan suggests burning down the king’s quarters with the king inside. Eventually Kjartan warms to the king and relents and all the Icelanders at Nidaros are baptized.
King Olaf makes repeated attempts at converting Iceland to Christianity but meets with resistance. He decides to hold Kjartan and several other sons of prominent Icelanders as hostages in Norway to force a conversion. Bolli however, is allowed to go and sails home to Iceland. He tells Guðrún that Kjartan is held in high favor by King Olaf and she shouldn’t expect him back in Iceland in the coming years. He also tells her, correctly, that Kjartan has become friendly with the king’s sister, Ingibjörg. Bolli asks Guðrún’s hand in marriage and although she is very reluctant the marriage eventually goes through.
News reaches Norway that Iceland has converted and King Olaf grants Kjartan leave. Kjartan visits Ingibjörg for the last time and she gives him an embroidered head-dress, saying that she hopes Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir “will enjoy winding this about her head” and that Kjartan is to give it to her as a wedding present. When Kjartan arrives in Iceland he discovers that Guðrún is already married to Bolli. When Kjartan, by coincidence, finds a beautiful woman named Hrefna trying on the headdress he tells her, “I don’t think it would be a bad idea if I owned both together, the bonnet and the bonnie lass”.Kjartan gives Hrefna the headdress and marries her.
Bolli attempts to mend his relationship with Kjartan and offers him some fine horses as a gift. Kjartan flatly refuses and hard feelings remain. In a subsequent feast, Kjartan insists that Hrefna sit in the high-seat. Guðrún, used to having this honor, turns red. Later in the feast, Kjartan discovers that his sword has been stolen. It is discovered in a swamp without its scabbard and Guðrún’s brother is suspected of the theft. Kjartan is deeply rankled by the event but his father, Olaf, persuades him that the matter is too trivial to quarrel about. At the next feast, Hrefna’s headdress disappears. When Kjartan calls Bolli out on the matter, Guðrún tells him: “And even if it were true someone here was involved in the disappearance of the head-dress, in my opinion they’ve done nothing but take what rightfully belonged to them.”
Kjartan is now no longer able to withstand the insults. He gathers some men together and goes to Bolli’s farm, stationing guards at all the doors of the farmhouse. He prevents everyone from exiting for three days and so forces them to relieve themselves indoors. Later, he further humiliates Bolli and Guðrún by preventing the sale of some land which they had intended to buy.
Death and vengeance
Guðrún goads her brothers into attacking Kjartan and they start laying plans to waylay him. Guðrún then asks Bolli to go along with them. Bolli refuses, reminding Guðrún that Olaf the Peacock had brought him up kindly and that Kjartan was his kinsman. Guðrún then tells him that she will divorce him if he does not go and he relents.
Guðrún’s brothers find Kjartan with one companion and attack him while Bolli stands aside. Seeing that, despite superior numbers, they cannot overpower Kjartan, they urge Bolli to join them, pointing out that there will be dire consequences for all of them if Kjartan escapes. Bolli then draws his sword and turns toward Kjartan. Seeing that his kinsman is about to attack him, Kjartan throws away his weapon and Bolli deals him a death blow. Immediately filled with regret, Bolli holds Kjartan in his arms while he dies.
Kjartan’s killers are prosecuted at the local assembly and Guðrún’s brothers are exiled from Iceland. Out of affection for Bolli, Olaf the Peacock asks for him to pay a fine rather than be outlawed. Kjartan’s brothers are outraged by their father’s lenience and say that they will find it difficult to live in the same district as Bolli.
Olaf dies three years after Kjartan’s death. His widow, Þorgerðr, then starts inciting her sons to avenge their brother. She reminds them of their great ancestors and says that their grandfather Egill would most certainly not have failed to avenge a man like Kjartan. Unable to resist their mother’s taunts, the brothers start planning an attack. Riding out with a party of ten, including their mother, they find Bolli and Guðrún in a shieling. A man named Helgi Harðbeinsson deals Bolli a heavy blow with a spear and one of Kjartan’s brothers then severs his head. Helgi wipes his spear clean on Guðrún’s shawl and Guðrún smiles. Helgi remarks that his “own death lies under the end of that shawl”.
Guðrún gives birth to a son and names him Bolli for his dead father. When Bolli is 12 years old, Guðrún shows him and his older brother the bloody garments their father was wearing when he was killed and her own bloody shawl. They start planning vengeance and some time later Bolli, wielding his father’s sword, kills Helgi. Eventually the cycle of killing and vengeance peters out and Bolli and his brother make peace with Kjartan’s brothers.
Bolli Bollason travels abroad and makes a good impression on King Olaf Haraldsson in Norway. He then travels to Constantinople where he gains renown as a member of the Varangian Guard. Guðrún marries for the fourth time but her husband drowns. In her old age she becomes a nun and an anchorite. The last chapter of the saga relates a conversation between Bolli and Guðrún. Bolli wants to know who his mother loved the most. Guðrún responds by listing her four husbands and their different qualities. Bolli says that this doesn’t answer his question and presses his mother on the point. Finally Guðrún says, “To him I was worst whom I loved most.”