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Sabine Baring-Gould - Grettir The Outlaw (1860)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



This story is a transcription of an Icelandic saga entitled Grettir the Strong. With only a Danish grammar of Icelandic available, Mr. Baring-Gould began the translation, first having to learn Danish. He was then a schoolmaster, and wrote after school hours. He had visited Iceland (1861) and had gone over the ground of Grettir's experiences, so that he had a full knowledge of the country. When Iceland was actually discovered is not known, nor is it known when the first Europeans made it their home, but the definite settlement began about 870, when many Norwegians refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of Harold Fairhair. By the year in which Grettir was born, 997, more than fifty thousand persons were distributed along the coast of the island, where haymaking was practicable, the interior being largely a volcanic desert interspersed with rounded mountains of ice, called jokulls. Many of the settlers came from the northern portions of the British Isles, some Norse and some Gaelic. There was no government, each first settler of a locality directing affairs around him. Feuds among the various groups, as well as among individuals, were common, and blood atonement and blood-money settlement were a part of the unwritten law of the time. A sort of parliament was established in 930, called the Althing, with four Things, or subcourts, one for each quarter of the island. The Althing convened once a year, at a place called Thingvellir, for the Lawman to hear grievances and pass judgment. There were no primitive people in Iceland, Eskimos or the like, so far as known, when the Europeans discovered it. The population is, and always has been, entirely European. The farmhouses are built mainly of turf, with front and rear gables of wood. Being almost under the Arctic Circle, Iceland has no darkness in summer and no sunlight in winter. About two hundred and fifty years after the death of Grettir his history was committed to writing, and during this time deeds of other men, as well as fantastic legends, were grafted upon it; but the main facts of his life are true history.

RETTIR THE STRONG was the son of a well-to-do farmer of Biarg, in Iceland, and was descended from some of the great nobles of Nor-way. He was not good-looking as a boy. He had reddish hair, a pale face full of freckles, and light-blue eyes. But he was broadly built, and he grew to be an immense man. His disposition was wilful, headstrong, and obstinate. Never did he do anything cheerfully, and it was easier to let him alone than to receive his sullen assistance.

When Grettir was fourteen years old, a friend of his father, Thorkel Krafla, passing on his way to the Althing at Thingvellir, took him along to see what he was made of. From one of the camps their horses strayed. Grettir finally found his horse, but not his provision-bag, which had fallen from the saddle. Presently he saw another man, also hunting for a provision-bag. The rest of the party had moved on. Just then the stranger, Skeggi, found a bag; a dispute ensued, for Grettir thought the bag was his. During the quarrel, Skeggi struck at Grettir with an ax, which the boy deftly caught, and, wrenching it from his opponent's grasp, cleft his skull with it. Then he went on with the bag, which he was sure was his own. When he was asked what had become of Skeggi, he replied by singing a stanza of his own composing after the fashion of the time—a periphrasis of what had happened. He was understood, and some men went back to the place where Skeggi was lying dead; but Grettir continued the journey, well pleased with his skill, to lay the matter before the Lawman at the Althing. The rule was for the slayer to appear by proxy and offer blood-money to the nearest of kin. If this form of settlement was refused, they had the alternative of pursuing the offender to the death. Thorkel appeared for Grettir, with the result that Skeggi's relatives were satisfied with the money offered, so Grettir was free from hindrance by them; but the Lawman decided that Grettir must be outlawed and leave Ice-land for three winters. Should he set foot there within that period his life was forfeit. Thus began the long outlawry of Grettir, and he departed for Norway.

His father refused to give him weapons, fearing he might put them to bad use; but his mother went with him a distance down the valley and, unobserved, presented him with a good sword she had carried under her cloak—a sword that had belonged to his grandfather. On the voyage Grettir was unruly, as usual, and made himself disliked. They lost their bearings and one night ran on the rocks of the Norwegian coast. With great difficulty all got ashore, with their goods, on a sandy island where lived a wealthy farmer named Thorfin. This man helped the castaways on their road, but Grettir, though not much wanted, remained with him. About Yule-time, Thorfin, with all but his wife, his daughter, who was ill, and some serving-men, departed for a Yule-feast at a distance. Grettir was not desired for any merrymaking, and he too was left at the farm. On Christmas Day, toward evening, as he sat gazing disconsolately over the sea, he spied a suspicious-looking boat stealing toward the shore. Twelve armed men were in it. They broke open Thorfin's boat-house and placed their own boat in the place of his. Grettir sauntered down in his nonchalant way, and asked them who they might be, They replied: "Thorirwi'-the-Paunch and Bad Ogmund." These two were brothers and the most desperate of all Red Rovers, burning, murdering, and laying waste everywhere they went.

"We have come to settle a little reckoning," they said. "Is Thorfin at home?"

"You are lucky," laughed Grettir. "He's away with all his fighting men for a couple of days. Follow me and I'll do what I can for you."

Everybody at the house hid in terror. Grettir dried the weapons, set them by the fire lest they should rust, exchanged their wet garments for dry ones from Thorfin's wardrobe, and waited on the pirates till they declared he should be one of them. Before a roaring fire he gave them the best and strongest ale in abundance, and presently they grew tipsy. Then Grettir pro-posed that before bedtime they should take a look into Thor-fin's great log warehouse and see the fine treasures there. Across the yard and into the building they staggered, yelling their joy, and immediately began to quarrel over the stores. In the midst of this turmoil, Grettir extinguished the torch, stepped out, and slid the bolt on the heavy door. He then called for help from the house, but the eight serving-men remained hidden. Securing a spear and helmet, and girding on a sword, he rushed again to the storehouse, arriving just as the pirates had broken through into a lean-to and were smashing the door of that structure. They came out on a landing, armed with pieces of plank, and in the moonlight the two fierce brothers dashed down upon Grettir. Planting the butt of the spear on the ground, he received one upon it, at the same time badly wounding the other with the blade. The other men he cut right and left till those in the rear ran, believing a large number against them; those in front speedily followed. Grettir pursued and killed all but two, who, the next day, were found frozen under a rock.

Another of Grettir's adventures at this place was the entrance into the tomb of Karr-the-Old, which was on a desolate promontory. Flames were said to dance over hidden treasure, and often he saw them dance over this lonely tomb. He persuaded a friend named Audun to go there with him, and was lowered into the black chamber after he had broken a hole at the top. There sat the long-dead Karr on a throne. Grettir helped himself to the treasures he saw and placed them in a vessel to be hauled up. Then he took from the dead man a short sword, and finally began to unhook a gold torque from the neck, when, amidst a glare of phosphorescent light, as hls hands were undoing the clasp behind Karr's neck, the body stood up with a roar like a bull, and embraced Grettir in an iron grip. Then began a fearful wrestle. Grettir was well-nigh smothered by the long gray beard of the dead chief. The two staggered to and fro about the chamber, kicking bones about, stumbling against the walls, and bringing down masses of turf and planks from above. At last Karr's feet gave way, and Grettir fell over him. Then with the short-sword Grettir smote off Old Karr's head and laid it beslde his thigh, the only way in which to pre-vent the evil spirits from making a dead man walk. Audun had run away, so Grettir climbed the rope with his treasures and made his way home.

In the spring he left Thorfin's farm and went along the coast, being made much of, as the story of his defeat of the rovers had spread.

The next winter he passed with another farmer called Thorgils, a very pleasant man. Among the visitors was one Biorn, with whom Grettir was soon at odds. While the whole party one day were engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to kill a troublesome bear, this man threw Grettir's fur coat into the lair. Grettir said nothing, but on the way home he stopped, pretending to repair his shoe, and as soon as the others had gone, he went back to fight the bear alone. Creeping up the narrow path, the animal came fiercely down to destroy him. The battle was desperate, till finally both rolled off the ledge.

Grettir landed on top, and as the fall had broken the bear's back, he took one paw and carried it to the house, where all rejoiced at his triumph except Biorn. He sneered, and Grettir would have fought him had it been permissible on his friend's estate. Later, he met him at a seaport and killed him. Earl Sweyn, who had dominion here, named a sum which should be paid to Biorn's brother, but the latter refused it and lay in wait for Grettir, giving him a bad wound in the back. The brother was killed also, as well as some of his men. The Earl wished to banish Grettir for this, but he remained over the third winter, and in the spring, his outlawry being ended, he returned to Iceland.

Horse-fights were the sport of the time, and in one of these Grettir was imposed upon and resented it. A feud resulted between Grettir and Kormack, the owner of the opposing horse. Not long after that, the two young men met on the plain, and a fight followed, which was stopped by the arrival of a man named Oxmain. The feud was dropped, and all would have been well had not a brother of Oxmain's, nick-named "Slowcoach," sneered at it.

Grettir now heard of a haunted valley, and he went to stay with the frightened farmer that lived there, named Thorhall, to see what might happen. It was said that the corpse of a former shepherd, named Glam, haunted the place. Grettir wished to meet it, though it was reported to be a fierce wraith, and had killed the shepherd who was employed in his stead: Nothing happened to Grettir himself the first night of his stay at Thor-hall's, but his horse's neck was broken by some mysterious force. The next night Thorhall locked himself within his bed, much frightened. Iceland beds were like portable closets. Grettir lay by the fire wrapped in a fur cloak, which he pulled over his head. Suddenly he heard something that shook all the sleep out of him. A heavy tread crunched the snow around the house. Then a crash overhead told that the visitor was on the roof. Grettir, peeping from his cloak, saw the monster's eyes glaring down the smoke-hole. Sounds of wreckage were heard outside, and then the door yielded. It was Glam. He prowled around, and finally pulled at the bundle by the fire. Grettir grappled with him; he drove his powerful head into Glam's breast, then tried to bend him backward and break his spine. Then followed a fearful struggle for mastery, Glam trying to drag Grettir outside where he could easily kill him. Grettir clung to the door-posts, but presently down crashed the gable-trees, ripping beams and rafters from their places. Glam fell on his back and Grettir on top of him, weak but still able to hold Glam down. Then Glam said:

"You have done ill, matching yourself with me; now know that never shall you be stronger than you are to-day, and that to your dying day, whenever you are in the dark, you will see my eyes staring at you, so that for very horror you will not dare to be alone." At this moment Grettir saw his short-sword in the snow, where it had fallen—the same he had taken from Karr-the-Old—and with it he severed Glam's head and laid it beside his thigh. On a pile of fagots the body was burned.

In the spring of 1015, Grettir decided to go to Norway. It chanced that Slowcoach, the brother of Oxmain, was a passenger on the same ship. His friends tried to dissuade him from going when it was learned that Grettir was on the boat. But Slowcoach defied Grettir and made insulting remarks about his father and about Grettir himself. Grettir had not forgotten the ending of the battle over the horse-fight, and was ready for a quarrel. The result was an immediate encounter, and Grettir's skilful sword did its work. The ship carried him to Nor-way, and, landing in a cove one night without fire, Grettir swam to a light on the other side, which proved to be from an inn where two sons of an Iceland chieftain, Thorir of Garth, were holding revelry. Grettir's clothing had frozen on him and he was a wild-looking object as he scraped embers from the inn fire into an iron pot he had brought. The company attacked him, and he defended himself with a heavy firebrand. The burning coals were scattered through the straw on the floor, and amidst the flames and smoke Grettir made his escape.

He swam back across the arm of the sea, carrying the burning embers in the iron pot. In the morning the skipper recognized the locality, and Grettir was accused of maliciously destroying the inn and the sons of the distinguished Thorir with it. To preserve themselves from a similar charge, the company expelled Grettir, who made his way on foot to Drontheim.

There he laid the matter before the King and was sentenced to go through the ordeal of fire. He was fed on bread and water for a week and taught to pray that if he were innocent God should reveal it by enabling him to pass unscathed through this trial. A great procession, with the King at the head, led him to the test, and all went smoothly till Grettir resented the insults of a bystander by tossing him into the air. This caused a general disturbance; and it was reported that the Icelander was fighting the whole town. By this time the hot irons had cooled, and the King gave up the ordeal and passed a sentence of banishment instead. As no ship could be taken to Iceland till spring, Grettir was tolerated until that time. He went to stay with a farmer called Einar, in a lonely place exposed to the raids of bandits who wore bearskins with the heads pulled over their faces and were called Bearsarks. Their custom was to pretend mad frenzy when making their demands. Snoekoll, one of the worst of these, came to Einar's on a huge black horse, with several followers on foot. Snoekoll threatened to go into a paroxysm.

"Let us see how you look in a fit," calmly said Grettir, whereat Snoekoll bellowed, roared, rolled his eyes, blew foam from his lips, and bit hard on his iron shield. At a moment when he was clenching the shield furiously between his teeth, Grettir gave it a sudden kick upward, and the leverage broke the Bearsark's jaw. Quickly pulling him from his horse, Grettir killed him with his own sword, while the followers ran away.

Einar had a beautiful daughter, of whom Grettir was much enamored, but as he knew a man of his reputation would have no chance in that direction, he departed to live for a time with a half-brother, Thorstein Dromund, a man of wealth. Dromund, on parting, swore to avenge Grettir if anyone should kill him, a promise which he fulfilled.

Meanwhile more ill luck was befalling Grettir in Iceland. Oxmain, whose brother, Slowcoach, Grettir had killed, went to Biarg and killed Atli, Grettir's brother; and Thorir of Garth, hearing of the burning of his two sons at the inn fire, went to the Althing and charged Grettir with their murder. The Law-man declined to pass judgment on this one-sided evidence; but the power of Thorir's influence compelled the proclaiming of Grettir an outlaw throughout the whole of Iceland, and a price was put on the absent man's head.

So when Grettir at last returned to his native shores he was met with thrice bad news. His father had died; his brother was killed, and he was again declared an outlaw. A few days he remained at home with his mother and his remaining brother, young Illugi; then he went to Oxmain's farm and had a battle with him and his son, killing both in the open field. In this fight he lost a silver-inlaid spear-head, which never was found till the year 1250. He was now an outlaw indeed, for the kinsmen of Oxmain and Thorir, with all their power, were continually in pursuit of him. His relatives laid the whole matter be-fore the Althing. Snorri, a new judge, suggested that a fine imposed should be dropped; that the outlawry should be set aside, and that the slaying of Thorbiorn Oxmain should be balanced by the slaying of Atli, Grettir's brother. This arrangement would have prevailed had it not been for the implacable Thorir of Garth. He even increased the price set on Grettir's head to three marks of silver, and to this Thorod, the kinsman of Oxmain, added three more.

Grettir was now hunted like a dog, and never could remain long in one place, unless it was out in the desert of lava and jokulls, where he found it difficult to secure provisions. In winter he could stay with some friendly farmer in an out-of-the-way place, but in summer he must be continually moving. Once he took up his quarters for the winter at a place called Eagle Lake Heath, a hard day's journey from his home, and a bleak locality. Other outlaws wished to join him here, and Grettir's enemies, who were all afraid of him, arranged with one called Grim to pretend friendliness and find an opportunity to kill him. But Grettir was on his guard and gave no chance. Another outlaw, named Redbeard, was hired to do the same thing. Grettir would have remained alone, but Glam's words haunted him, and he was nervous about being without some companion and feared the dark. Redbeard had no chance the first winter, but during the second he formed a plan that nearly succeeded; but Grettir triumphed over him and killed him. A large body of armed men then tried to capture Grettir, but he found a place of vantage and defeated them. He would not have succeeded in this had not a friend of his, unknown to Grettir, beaten off the attacking party from his rear. This friend was Hallmund, who lived in a cave some distance away, and Grettir went with him to his home. It had now come to such a pass that even those who favored Grettir's cause were afraid to shelter him or give him food.

Grettir consequently became a nuisance in every neighbor-hood, for he was obliged to steal sheep and forage on the farms. At one time three separate bodies of armed men closed in on him, but, with the help of two friends, who defended his back, on a point of rocks jutting into a river, Grettir defeated them by his great strength and his skill in swordsmanship.

After this, Grettir, with his brother Illugi and a servant named Glaum, went to the island of Drangey, which lay five miles off the shore and was bounded by precipitous cliffs. A rope ladder led to its grassy summit. This ladder had been put there by farmers who had right to graze sheep on the island. Eighty sheep were wandering there when Grettir arrived. He drew up the ladder and prevented the farmers from recovering their stock, which meanwhile he used for subsistence. The exiles also had plenty of eggs and birds, but they lacked vegetables. There was also driftwood for fuel, and the island offered a comfortable refuge till Grettir's term of outlawry should expire. In the summer of 1031 his friends brought up the subject at the Althing. He had now been in outlawry nine-teen years, and the judge ruled that no man could be outlawed more than twenty years. Grettir, then, had one year more of exile to pass. One of the farmers, named Hook, who had rights on Drangey, was a brutal fellow, and he determined to destroy Grettir. He caused his foster-mother, who was a witch, to cast a spell upon him from a boat. She cut some runes on a log of driftwood, which later was washed on the shore of Drangey. Grettir, in attempting to chop this log, cut his leg severely. Blood-poison set in; Grettir lay in fever and distress; and one stormy night Hook and a band of men gained the summit and attacked the hut. Grettir and Illugi fought desperately, but they were overpowered, Grettir, indeed, being in his death-throes when he struck his last blow. They killed Illugi too, as he refused to swear a truce, and they. killed Glaum.

Hook cut off Grettir's head and rode to the Biarg home, where he flung it at the feet of Grettir's mother.

The Althing decreed that as Hook had cut off the head of a man who was already dead, and as he had brought about that death by the help of witchcraft, he should receive nothing of the money reward and should be outlawed from Iceland. So he went to Constantinople, where he enlisted in the Emperor's guard. Dromund, Grettir's half-brother, secretly followed him and enlisted in the same guard. Dromund did not know which was the murderer of Grettir till one day Hook boasted of having killed a great outlaw with a peculiar sword he had: the short-sword which Grettir had taken from Karrthe-Old.

"And his name?" asked Dromund.

"His name was Grettir the Strong," Hook replied. There was a pause, and in that pause the sword was handed to Dromund to look at.

"Then is Grettir avenged!" cried Dromund, and whirled it in the air. So great was the stroke he dealt that it smote through Hook's skull to his teeth, and he fell without a word, dead.



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