Iceland // The west coast //

The Laxdæla Saga

The Laxdæla Saga has three main characters – the tall, blonde and heroic Kjartan; the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir; and Kjartan’s cousin Bolli, who lurks in the background to complete a classic love triangle. It takes thirty or so chapters before the three figures are centre stage, but before they have met, a wise man predicts that Guðrún will have four husbands. After seeing Kjartan and Bolli swimming together, he later predicts that one day Bolli will stand over the dead Kjartan, and be killed for his deeds; and thus the inescapable template for the characters’ lives is set out to the reader.

Guðrún is married to her first husband against her will and divorces him after two years. She then marries Þord, who incurs the enmity of a family of sorcerers and is drowned as a result. Guðrún then meets Kjartan, and they become close, but Kjartan decides to seek his fortune abroad, and asks Guðrún to wait three years for him, but she refuses.

While in Norway, Kjartan is held hostage, but still finds time to have an affair with the beautiful princess Ingibjorg. Bolli, who has been with his cousin during his courtship and on Viking expeditions, now returns to Iceland and tells Gudrún that Kjartan intends to settle in Norway, whereupon Gudrún’s family persuade her to marry Bolli. Kjartan subsequently returns and marries another woman, Hrefna, giving her a priceless headdress as a wedding gift, a gift actually bestowed on him by Ingibjorg, who had told him to give it to Gudrún as a wedding present.

There is no love lost between the two neighbouring households, and things only worsen when the headdress is stolen. In revenge, Kjartan lays siege to Guðrún and Bolli and humiliates them by not letting them go to the lavatory for three days. Eventually, Guðrún goads Bolli and his brothers to try to kill Kjartan – Bolli is reluctant but eventually joins the fight, dealing a death blow to a barely injured but exhausted Kjartan, who gives himself to be killed by Bolli and dies in his arms. Guðrún gloats over his death but Bolli is inconsolable. Kjartan’s brothers avenge him by eventually killing Bolli – Guðrún is pregnant at the time, and one of the killers wipes his sword on her dress.

Eventually Guðrún gives birth to a son whom she names Bolli, after his father. She decides she won’t marry again until her husband is avenged, and makes a promise to Þorgils Hölluson that she will marry no other man in the land than him if he kills her husband’s murderer. This he does, at which point Guðrún reveals she is betrothed to another, Þorkel Eyjólfsson, who is abroad. She does indeed marry Þorkel, but he drowns, after which Guðrún becomes a nun. She dies a hermit at Helgafell but before she dies, her son Bolli asks her which man in her life she loved the most, to which she replies “I was worst to him I loved the most” – one of the best-known lines of saga literature.

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