The outlaw: The Saga of Gísli Súrsson

13/08/2014 14:16

Written by Andrew Evans

It has the plotline of a Shakespearean tragedy, the melodrama of a soap opera, and more fights than a Jerry Springer show.

The waters of Dýrafjörður may appear calm and unwavering but this scenic fjord is the opening scene for one of the most celebrated sagas in Iceland. The tale is rich with imagery of the West Fjords, including powerful sorcerers, elves, snow avalanches and strong winds that blow away the roofs of houses. It has the plotline of a Shakespearean tragedy, the melodrama of a soap opera, and more fights than a Jerry Springer show – truly, it is an amazing story (and it all really happened, between AD940 and AD980).

Once upon a time lived the hero Gísli, a strong and wise man who was known throughout Iceland for being a skilled craftsman and fighter. It was said that no matter what he aimed at, he hit the target dead-on. He settled in Haukadalur (‘hawk valley’) in Dýrafjörður after escaping the law in Norway where he had killed his sister’s ex-boyfriend, maimed the man who wanted to marry her and threatened another. In retaliation, the injured family burned down the farm of Gísli’s father. The old man narrowly escaped the flames with his sons by covering up with goatskins dipped in whey, hence Gísli’s patronymic nickname ‘Súrsson’ (súr means ‘whey’).

Once safe in Iceland, Gísli and his brother Thorkel build a successful farm and try to enter an oath of protection with their two brothers-in-law, Verstein (brother to Gísli’s wife) and Thorgrim (husband to their sister Thordis). Only after the men cut their arms and the blood is mixed into the earth does Thorkel back out, refusing to vouch for Verstein. A while later, Thorkel overhears his wife Asgerd gossiping with his sister-in-law (Gísli’s wife) Aud. He discovers that prior to their marriages, both of these women were romantically linked to one another’s brothers-in-law – Aud (Gísli’s wife) once had eyes for Thorgrim, and Asgerd (Thorkel’s wife) used to date Verstein. That night, Thorkel tells his wife to sleep on the couch but takes it back when she threatens to divorce him.

The tale is rich with imagery of the West Fjords, including powerful sorcerers, elves, snow avalanches and strong winds that blow away the roofs of houses

Later, in the midst of a vicious storm, Verstein is stabbed through the heart with a spear and dies. The spearhead is made from a piece of the powerful ancient sword (‘grey blade’), once owned by Gísli’s grandfather who had stolen the sword from his slave before bludgeoning him to death. Thorkel and Thorgrim hired a local sorcerer to fashion the magical spearhead, thus Gísli implicates Thorgrim for the murder of his friend. When the two are playing at sport, Gísli forewarns Thorgrim by throwing a ball at his back and knocking him to the ground. Then Gísli bribes Thorgrim’s servant to unbolt the doors at his master’s farm and that night, he sneaks in and plunges the spear right through Thorgrim so that he is pinned to the bed and dies – Gísli gets away because all the farmhands are drunk and cannot identify him in the darkness. As revenge, Thorgrim’s brother pays the same sorcerer to put a curse on anyone who gives help to Thorgrim’s killer. That winter, Gísli tracks down the sorcerer, stones him to death, and buries him in the muddy shores of the fjord.

Eventually, Gísli is found out and pronounced an outlaw by the West Fjords assembly. He goes into hiding – first in a hut in Arnarfjörður, then in the underground passage of an old widow’s house, and finally at his cousin’s farm on the island of Hergilsey. Thorgrim’s family are also out to kill him, but Gísli evades them with cunning and skill. He fakes his own death by capsizing his boat, and changes clothes with his servant to create a mistaken identity. When a spear is finally thrown at him, he catches it mid air and tosses it back, killing the aggressor. All the while Gísli is troubled by dreams that foretell his own death. He finally meets his end when Thorgrim’s gang catches up with him on the shores of Hjarðarnes. When his wife Aud brandishes a club and fights beside him, Gísli delivers a classic one-liner: ‘I always knew I married well, but only just realised what a great couple we make.’ Gísli defends himself with incredible strength, using rocks, an axe, and his sword to kill eight out of the 12 men, but finally succumbs to his wounds.

Breiðafjörður Iceland by Doin Oakenhelm, Shutterstock

The ferry across Breiðafjörður,‘Broad fjord’, passes right by the island of Hergilsey where  Gísli Súrsson spent many summers © Doin Oakenhelm, Shutterstock

Today, Gísli remains the homegrown hero of the West Fjords and it’s fairly easy to follow his own travels as an outlaw. The south coast of Dýrafjörður takes you into his farmland at Haukadalur (which you can hike through), and the Svalvogur road (Route 622) brings you around to Arnarfjörður where he spent three long winters. The ferry across Breiðarfjörður passes right by the island of Hergilsey (where he spent many summers), and Hjarðanes (where he died and was buried) is the mountain right across the fjord from the ferry dock at Bjarnslækur.

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