On the occasion of the retirement in early 2023 of Hannes H. Gissurarson as Professor at the University of Iceland, the Public Book Club, Almenna bokafelagid, published in one boxed set the four condensations he has made in English of some Icelandic sagas, intended to be a handy and convenient present to foreigners interested in the Icelandic cultural heritage. The four works are 1) The Saga of Burnt Njal: The Greatest Saga of the Icelanders; 2) The Saga of Gudrid: The Icelandic Discovery of America; 3) The Saga of Gudrun: Her Four Husbands and Her True Love; and 4) The Saga of Egil: The Story of the Viking-Poet.
The Saga of Gudrun: Her Four Husbands and Her True Love has often and rather misleadingly been called the ‘saga of the people of Salmon River Valley’ (Laxardalur), but it is mostly about the beautiful and strong-willed Gudrun Osvifsdaughter, the great-granddaughter of Rollo the Walker, Normandy’s conqueror (while Rollo was the great-great-great-grandfather of English king William the Bastard, later called the Conqueror). The Saga of Gudrun is the most romantic of the sagas, about love, passion and honour.
The Saga of Gudrid: The Icelandic Discovery of America is Professor Gissurarson’s own merger of two Icelandic sagas about the well-documented discovery by the Icelanders of America in the year 1000 and the subsequent attempt to establish a settlement there, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Gudrid Thorbjornsdaughter is really the main protagonist in both of them. She tried with her husband Thorfinn and some other people to establish a settlement in America (probably where Manhattan is now) where she gave birth to the first European baby in America, Snorri Thorfinnsson, but the mission was abandoned after fierce attacks by native Indians. After her return to Iceland she went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Gudrid must have been the most widely-travelled person of her times.
The Saga of Egil: The Story of the Viking-Poet is probably written by one of the descendants of Egil Skallagrimsson, the chronicler Snorri Sturluson. It is quite hostile to the Norwegian royal family, as it describes a feud between it and Egil’s family. It is also remarkable for its description of Egil as a true individual with a rich inner life, expressed in his poetry, while outwardly an almost grotesque character.
The Saga of Burnt Njal: The Greatest Saga of the Icelanders is about the resolution of conflicts in a society ruled by law, but without government. In the Icelandic Commonwealth (930–1262), the law was privately enforced. Professor Gissurarson has expressed the opinion that one inspiration for the Icelandic sagas may have been the challenge to an Icelandic identity from the Norwegian kings who sought with increasing intensity in the thirteenth century to turn Iceland, a free commonwealth formed in 930 by mostly Norwegian settlers, into their tributary. The Icelanders wanted to stress their own identity, not being Norwegians, although they succumbed to pressure in 1262 and became subjects of the Norwegian king, while continuing to insist on their own laws and language.