Medieval Icelandic Sagas
The Saga of Grettir the Strong
13th century, Old Norse.
Giantsagain and again
Dead and yet alive again and again
Disguise again and again
In an upland valley surrounded by glaciers Grettir finds sheep that are twice the normal size. The valley is inhabited by a friendly giant and his daughters.
Grettir’s Saga is a powerful tale and near its end lies a Medieval account of witchcraft. Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian banality of the closing chapters following Grettir’s death; a sort of apology, or possibly a smokescreen for those who will check only the first few chapters and the last.
Near the end of the tale a woman casts spells over a piece of driftwood, the base of a tree trunk, which then seems to acquire an uncanny ability to seek Grettir out. By manipulating, seemingly, both tides and the actions of men, almost as though it has been given an intelligence of its own, it arrives, despite firm instructions from Grettir forbidding its arrival, at Grettir's woodshed, where, desperately if carelessly, he aims an axe blow at it, the iron head flies off the axe and wounds him in the groin. The wound grows septic and will prove fatal.
Earlier in his life, Grettir had dug into a grave mound in order to seize the treasures buried within. The man interred there, perhaps significantly, was depicted as being alive and still in a corporeal body. The dead can live on in earthly form in these Icelandic stories, as trolls. Grettir had fought with another troll later in the story, a dead shepherd named Glam, placing the man's decapitated head, perhaps even more significantly, between the body's thighs, like a head emerging in childbirth, in a ritual act that brought final rest to this re-animated corpse.
But the troll Glam had cursed Grettir with a lifelong curse that has culminated. now, in the arrival of the bewitched tree stump on the island of Grettir's last refuge. During a career that degraded into outlawry and the steady erosion of his last few remaining friends, Grettir moved about Iceland from place to place, staying a winter here, a year there, evading capture for homicide and theft. On his travels, Grettir once encountered a shadowy figure who gives one familiar with these stories a strong suspicion that he might be Odin. He gave his name as Hallmund.
One autumn, Grettir journeyed up onto the glaciers and found a valley that nobody knew of, warmed by thermal springs and lush with vegetation, even in winter.
It is thought that he was following directions given to him by Hallmund. He found sheep grazing there that were twice the normal size. The valley was inhabited by a friendly giant and his daughters. Grettir spent some time here, and when he returned again into the world of men and travelled first to the Eastern Fjords and then onto Modrudal Heath:
Now we must take up the story where Grettir came back from the Eastern Fjords and now travelled in disguise...