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The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Originally published in November 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 40 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Unknown
Year published: this edition: 1985; original: 14th century
Pages: 141
Genre: Saga, medieval literature
Where got: Present from my parents

Today we Icelanders celebrate the Day of the Icelandic Language, and therefore I decided to read something in my native language for a change, and what is more Icelandic than a Saga? I chose The Saga of Grettir the Strong because I have special ties to it, having lived in Skagafjörður and visited Drangey, the island where Grettir spent the last years of his life.

The version I am reading is from a controversial modernised spelling edition of the Sagas.

This Saga is available in English for reading online: Saga of Grettir

Click here to visit my Drangey page. It contains a short summary of the Saga of Grettir, along with a couple of legends about the island.

The Story:
The life story of one of the greatest warriors in Icelandic history. He is thought to have really existed, although of course by the time the Saga was written everything about him had reached legendary status. I hesitate to call him a hero, because although he did many brave and heroic things, he was also a thief, a highwayman and a murderer who sometimes killed just because he didn’t like someone. Many of his misfortunes are entirely due to his own temperament, although some may be attributed to ongoing feuds or just plain bad luck. Grettir was a hunted man for nearly half of his life. First he was outlawed for 3 years for a killing, and then he was outlawed for life. The second sentence is blamed on his having been cursed by a monster that he fought and overcame. He is described as having been the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, and could only be overcome and killed by magic.

Not only is the Saga about Grettir alone, it begins with some history about his family, and ends with the story of how his brother tracked down his killer all the way to Byzantium to kill him (Icelanders in the Sagas were big on blood feuds and could be extremely tenacious and patient when it came to revenge).

Technique and plot:
The story is well plotted, but those who don’t like to read about the “begots” in the Bible may find parts of this (or indeed any) Saga equally uninteresting, as it contains a lot of genealogy and quite complicated family connections, which nevertheless are important to the story, as they explain the ongoing feuds, who gets compensation for whose death and who is bound to avenge whom, and so on. Other than the genealogical information, the structure and plotting of the story is quite similar to a modern novel, albeit one that rambles a bit and takes a while to get to the central plot. Once the central plot (Grettir’s life story) is reached, the story starts to move faster, and also becomes more fantastic, with Grettir coming up against not only human opponents, but also trolls, ghosts and a witch.

In his youth, Grettir is not at all a likeable person. He’s lazy, arrogant, impertinent, rude, violent, and cruel to animals. Not a very nice boy at all. As he gets older and his misfortunes start piling up, he becomes slightly more sympathetic, but only a bit. I know there are people who admire him and call him a hero, but I am not one of them. I think he brought his misfortunes upon himself, although he did not deserve to die the way he did.

Rating: A medieval Saga that should appeal to all fans of heroic literature. 4 stars.


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