Places: The Saga of Grettir the Strong

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: Grettis Saga, c. 1300 (English translation, 1869)

Type of work: Folklore

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: Eleventh century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Iceland

*Iceland. Saga of Grettir the Strong, TheNorthern Atlantic island nation, populated mainly by farmers and ruled by chieftains, that is Grettir’s homeland. Much of the saga’s actions occur in its farmsteads built from turf, timber, and stone or in its icy wastes, sparse woods, rugged mountains, and remote smaller islands. Amid these settings, the saga writer pits the world of community, social interaction, and protection under the law against the harshness of the wilds. Grettir, as an outlaw, must continually navigate the threats and dangers of both. Often enough, these places are under the control of powerful, malevolent, fantastic beings and creatures, as the hero finds himself battling trolls, revenants (people who have returned from the dead), and evil spells.


*Biarg (by-AHRG). Icelandic birthplace of Grettir. It is here that the hero’s stubbornness, strength, and irascible attitude first manifests itself in his interactions with his father, Asmund Longhair. After his father’s death, Grettir’s mother remains there to bear the loss of her husband and the outlawry and deaths of her children. Grettir’s occasional secretive visits are constant reminders of his alienation from his kinsmen.


*Drangey (DRANG-ay). Remote island in a fjord along the northern coast of Iceland. After years, of outlawry, Grettir, his younger brother Illugi, and a servant withdraw here and are able to defend themselves easily because the island, having no inlet, is only accessible by rope ladders. After succumbing to evil spells, Grettir is given his deathblow there by Thorbjorn Angle, who seeks to regain control of the island. In many ways Drangey’s rugged landscape and remoteness are apt metaphors for the hero’s own strength and isolation.


*Norway. Northern European Scandinavian land that was the ancestral home of most Icelanders and a destination for the outlawed Grettir. For most saga heroes, one’s reputation at home is enhanced by adventures abroad. Grettir’s raiding of a haunted tomb as well as slaying of berserkers and a ravenous bear there ensure his fame and reputation throughout Scandinavia. These initial heroic acts are later juxtaposed with the bad luck he encounters on his second trip abroad. Grettir’s bungled attempt to obtain fire from the occupants of an inn cause the burning death of all those inside and brings down upon the hero contempt and banishment by the king of Norway. This event illustrates that Grettir’s ill luck, predicted in Iceland after the death of the revenant Glam, is not linked to place and is therefore inescapable.


*Constantinople. Capital of the Byzantine Empire, in which is now Turkey, and home of the Varangian guard, a troop of Viking warriors who serve the emperor. After his outlawry for the slaying of Grettir, Thorbjorn Angle flees to this capital and enlists in the emperor’s guard. His later death there at the hands of Grettir’s half brother, Thorsteinn Dromund, is remarkable for the great distance traveled, essentially spanning the entire known world, in order to reap revenge. Moreover, the setting of this act of revenge, amid a throng of people in a city known for its size, culture, and law, stands in contrast to the culturally and physical remote scene of Grettir’s death on Drangey.

BibliographyAndersson, Theodore M. The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Unlike the many saga studies which focus on history and origin, this book examines the sagas as narrative. Chapters on structure, rhetoric, and heroic legacy are followed by insightful commentary.Arent, A. Margaret. “The Heroic Pattern: Old Germanic Helmets, Beowulf, and Grettis Saga.” In Old Norse Literature and Mythology, edited by Edgar C. Polomé. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969. Discussion of the pictorial ornamentations found on Germanic helmets, and how the cultural and religious themes depicted on typical helmets shed light on the literature. Twenty-seven illustrations.Hastrup, Kirsten. “Tracing Tradition: An Anthropological Perspective on Grettis Saga Ásmundarsonar.” In Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature, edited by John Lindow et al. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1986. Traces the perception of Grettir the Strong by Icelanders over the past seven hundred years, showing how the meaning of the outcast-hero has changed.Hume, Kathryn. “The Thematic Design of Grettis Saga.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73, no. 4 (October, 1974): 469-486. Explains the puzzling contrasts in Grettir’s character and the narrative tone between different episodes. The theme of the unacceptability of the heroic in a modern society accounts, Hume demonstrates, for the differences.Schach, Paul. Icelandic Sagas. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Contains a brief but excellent introduction to this saga, including a discussion of its authorship, structure, and themes of intergenerational conflict and tragic isolation. Other sections provide historical and literary contexts, a chronology, and a bibliography.
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