Traveling Island Grettir the Strong and his Search for a Place

Reprinted from Cotepra Reader Subproject n.7
Beyond the Floating Islands
Edited by Stephanos Stephanides and Susan Bassnett
Cotepra, University of Bologna, 2002

He wanted an island all of his own: not necessarily to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.
D.H. Lawrence, “ The Man Who Loved Islands”

She was defensive, like most of her family, on the subject of the island. Knowing that they were often regarded as slightly eccentric because of how and where they lived. Always anticipating questions  about the island’s loneliness.    
Alistair MacLeod, “Island”

Islands seduce us because sometimes the universe seems too big.
Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands


Islands align with the self in obvious and mysterious ways. John Donne’s famous pronouncement that no man is an island is at one level an attempt to obfuscate the clear reflectional ties between an individual human body, moving through the air and an island an isolated piece of the earth, surrounded and demarcated by a body of water. Even more urgently, though Donne is crying out against mapping the soul or the life of the mind onto a locale bounded on all sides for an island is the edge of the world in a way that no continental coastline or promontory can be.  
This is where the alignment of self and island becomes complicated, for while an island provides a clearly demarcated human territory a separate and surveyable sphere the notion of an island also often indicates a state of marginalization.  Islands exist in a dependent relation to a continent, and the only way this can be changed is for the island to turn itself into some sort of continental space and take insularity to its extremes blocking pathways to other lands. But this implies a social effort and the metaphor - as well as in many historical cases the actual layout of the island may serve well to illustrate and translate even in a manipulative manner the cohesiveness of a social group even a whole society, or a nation. Or indeed it may ironically foreground a dividing line between such groups that split an island between them.
While the metaphoric quality of islands in expressing individual fate may seem a far cry from their service as iconic or actual vehicles of a society, these two dimensions ultimately create a mesh of interconnected threads. The island as utopia, the island as a colony or prison, the island as a fortress, the get-away island, the island of the castaway, the island as a place of new settlement, a New World: in all of these are to be read the insignia of individual self as well as social identity (see Eysteinsson).

II
The Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur (or “Family Sagas” as they are sometimes called in English) constitute one of a number of saga genres that flourished in Iceland in the late middle ages, especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These particular sagas, forming a genre wavering magnificently between history and fiction, usually tell of feuds between key individuals and families in a country unique at this point in European history in that it was a stratified society with a parliament but without a sovereign or state executive machinery. While each of the main sagas tends to focus on events in a particular district within Iceland, they open with a historical and genealogical account of the central figures relating their origins in Norway in the ninth century and their emigration as Norway was in the process of being unified under one king. Many chieftains first move to the northern regions of the British Isles - an area ruled largely by Norsemen and where there is a great deal of Viking traffic at this time - but then set sail for Iceland, an island on the farthest known edge of the North Atlantic and either claim virgin land there or accept a share sold or given to them by an earlier settler.
The course of events described before and during the settlement of this island, a separate and liminal sphere on the world map was clearly seen as an entry into the saga proper, almost like a legitimation for the subsequent scenes of life and conflict unfolded in the narrative. The crossing of the ocean - very much a translation, a carrying across - was referred to as going "out to Iceland,'" and it is noteworthy that this phrase became fixed in the language so that even generations later Icelanders returning home from a stay in Norway would talk about “going out” (''fara út"). Voyaging back and forth across the Atlantic is crucial to many of the sagas, some of the heroes joining Viking groups abroad, or enjoying the hospitality of royal courts where their talents as fighters or poets are appreciated. They bring back to their island country the oral and material capital of fame and fortune - even those forced to leave because they were outlawed for a certain period by the parliament, the Althing.
In their portrayal of this society,  both in its separate sphere and in its relation to and dependence on the outside world, the sagas thus frequently remind us that they are island literature. This island, Iceland, exists in a peculiarly translational sense to the outside world, especially the old home country, Norway. It retains certain elements of that world’s past, yet fuses them into what can only be called a surprising social experiment, which gradually would also emerge as a rich literary culture even as that experiment was floundering. The literature of the island is therefore also a boundary literature - in more than one sense. It asserts the existence of the island as a separate sphere, yet constantly explores the ties to the other realm, generally shown as anchored by the king (for the Icelanders appear to have been as fascinated by king and court as they were unwilling to accept such elevated power structures in their own society). The sagas portray characters who could translate themselves powerfully into this other system if the need or desire arose. The Saga of Grettir the Strong is no exception in this regard, and in fact adds a significant twist to the saga location and the various saga boundaries.     

III
The early part of The Saga of Grettir is characterized by locational fluidity; all seems aflutter with seafaring, warring Viking expeditions and the struggle against king Harald Finehair, who is about to conquer all of Norway and expel those who have fought against him. Many of these independent-minded people are spread throughout the Celtic islands and regions, caught in an interim space in a sort of floating diaspora. Gradually as if out of a mist, Iceland emerges on the horizon of the saga providing a haven for transients, including Grettir's great-grandfather. Onund called Onund Treeleg, as he had lost a leg in battle.
The family prospers: Onund's grandson Asmund becomes a major farmer. But Asmund's son Grettir turns out to be a troublesome child. In some sense Grettir resists “growing up” in the time-honored sense of social adaptation, while in fact he grows to be a large man of tremendous strength and considerable acuity. Governed by his great temper and silent sense of justice, he gets into serious trouble at an early age, killing a man in self-defense in a rather “childish” skirmish. Thus he is brought before the general assembly, the Althing, here called the “Thing''.
The case was brought by the slain man’s heirs. Grettir was sentenced to lesser outlawry and was banished from Iceland for three years.
When they rode back from the Thing, the chieftains rested their horses at Sledaas before going their separate ways. Grettir lifted up a boulder lying in the grass there, which is now called Grettishaf (Grettir’s Lift). Many people went up to look at it and were astonished that such a young man could lift such a huge rock.
(The Saga of Grettir the Strong 70)

After this “useless” show of strength - but a marvellous foreshadowing of modern sports - Grettir leaves for Norway, returning the narrative to the floating arena of its origins. Apart from fishing, the ocean generally brings to mind the activities of sailing and swimming and the fate of drowning. But water is Grettir's element as much as it is that of islands. Their ship leaks, but Grettir bails it out, exhausting several men who empty the buckets for him. Later the ship breaks near an island in Norway and this is where Grettir performs his first truly heroic tasks, ridding the island of both human and supernatural titans. The saga moves with ease into the realm of the supernatural for Grettir is a border figure, capable of taking on foes from both sides. One anthropologist goes so far as to say that “Grettis saga is essentially about separating the human from the non-human world” (Hastrup 309). While I find this a little too narrow a reading of a work that is quite complex, especially in terms of Grettir’s character, it is true that this liminality runs through the saga, at times intersecting with the border separating the individual from society. For Grettir's struggle with the radically other and his clear urge to undertake such battles imply an unwillingness to step fully into the socialized realm. As another critic puts it addressing the issue in psychoanalytic terms. Grettir “fights the law [law of the father] instead of submitting to it and becoming a man” (Tulinius 307).

IV
But the border is a slippery place and things have a way of turning against this exceptional figure who defies the elements – who swimming, twice conquers the ocean waves to reach another element, fire and bring it back. But the first time he does so in Norway this Promethean “culture hero” is mistaken for a troll as he enters the house. He takes the fire, but as he leaves a scuffle breaks out by the fireplace. The fire spreads and the men who had been staying there die in the blaze. Among them are Icelanders and this results in Grettir's being sentenced to the greater outlawry of twenty years.
Instead of making his third trip across the ocean, Grettir tries to stick out this long period as an exile in his own country, leading a perilous life, with bounty money on his head knowing no safe place. This makes the saga especially interesting as a narrative of travel and place, as well as the tale of the hero's acts and sufferings. The last phase of the nineteen consecutive years he survives as an outlaw in Iceland, Grettir spends on a small island, Drangey, in the middle of a fjord in northern Iceland. Drangey literally means “rock-island” and as such it refers the reader to the rocks Grettir is reputed to have lifted in various places in Iceland (see above) and to his physical prowess: but perhaps it refers also to his rock of a head, which is so hard that when his arch-enemy finally wrests his fabulous sword from his dead hand (by cutting the hand off) and chops at Grettir' s head... the sword could not withstand it and a piece broke off half-way down the edge” (The Saga of Grettir, 176). The reader knows however, that there are soft spots within this skull, no less than in the sword.
Grettir' s settlement in and occupation of Drangey is a story of a beleaguered life on an island which is both within and outside a larger island - Iceland. This story both impacts on and echoes the fate of Iceland, paradoxical though that echo may be. The structure and gestalt of the narrative, along with the representation of character and place, result in Grettir’s merging with Drangey as an enigmatic iconic entity at the end of his life. This fusion of character and place has in fact been carefully foreshadowed in the saga, as we follow Grettir from one “island” to another. For the saga bears out, quite strikingly, the island-like character of many places. A mountain, a valley, a farm - especially when the dweller must constantly look out for comings and goings, and even for the possible treachery of those in his company - such places become islands. Grettir lives in some of the most barren places in Iceland, yet not all of his "islands" look quite that forbidding. In fact, he even once comes upon a valley surrounded by glaciers, a sumptuous place with plants and sheep aplenty (see excerpt. chapter 69).

V
Although Grettir seems safe in this Icelandic and to some extent supernatural Shangri La (he is on good terms with a hybrid figure, a half-troll who reigns over the valley) he is brought down by the solitude and lack of human company and he leaves. This can be partially explained by an earlier event in the saga, where Grettir goes right to the limits of his powers fighting the ghost Glam. "Just as Glam fell, the clouds drifted away from the moon and Glam glared up at it. Grettir himself said that this was the only sight that ever unnerved him.”  Then before Grettir is able to cut off Glam’s head (common practice when eliminating ghosts), the ghost casts a spell on him, closing with these words: “And this curse I lay on you: my eyes will always be before your sight and this will make you find it difficult to be alone. And this will lead to your death” (106-107).
A Freudian reader, remembering that Grettir descends from a tree-legged man and noticing the drama of the eyes here (what Grettir sees or doesn't see), will hardly be surprised when a leg wound later immobilizes Grettir and leads to his death. Such an interpetation of the saga, relying on the Oedipal symbolism of debilitated legs and eyes, revealing as it may be, will not be pursued here. Suffice it to say that while Grettir may claim that this was the only sight “that ever unnerved him,” he is in fact made insecure of what he does not see, he becomes afraid of the dark. For most of the year this is a sorry state for an outlaw in Iceland. His horizon draws in on him: he becomes a border figure in yet another sense. This terror, thrown upon him by a supernatural force, is echoed in his social situation for here again the divide between the human and nonhuman is similar to that between the solitary figure and society. Descending from the hidden valley, he continues to roam the country, seeking help. He:
went across the south of Iceland to the East Fjords. He spent the whole summer and winter travelling: and went to see all the leading men, but he was turned away everywhere and could find neither food nor a place to sleep. Then he went back to the north, staying in various places (146)

As Grettir travels around Iceland, the reader, following along, drawing up a mental map, gradually experiences, and comes to understand in a stirring and somewhat terrifying manner, that this country, in spite of its considerable size, really is an island. There is no way out: the border becomes ever clearer. This island emerges for Grettir and his reader as a non-place in social terms. At the same time Grettir becomes a more complicated character, a social outcast as much as an outlaw, a living legend but a “poisoned” individual. As Iceland reveals itself as a limited and insular social space in the saga, Grettir himself emerges as an island. The saga is in part a study of the lonliness of this long-distance runner, of the many borders that encircle his life and fate, borders that also run right through him. One of the characters notes of Grettir “sitt er hvort, gæfa eða gjörvileikur (Grettissaga l 05), or that good fortune need not to along with great ability or gift.1  “Gjörvileikur” is a difficult word to translate, for while it may refer to Grettir’s physical looks and abilities, also it may refer to other qualities and talents: he is a poet when he wants to be and in the saga there are several references to Grettir as a clever and resourceful man, not unlike another great traveller and island figure, Odysseus. Odysseus was away from home for twenty years, though there is no returning home for Grettir. He is estranged from society in a more radical sense than Odysseus. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot argues that the truly original poet or “individual talent” breaks with tradition in such a way as to change it and be united with it once it has reformed its “ideal order” (5). One assumes that this may hold true for all truly talented individuals who find a forum for their gifts. They make their mark, apparently outside the existing order, but this mark is assimilated as the order slightly adjusts itself.

VI
Grettir' s talents lead to a radical break with the social order. He is an outlaw, someone whose life is not worth that of those who live within the law, except perhaps in monetary terms when his life is extinguished and the bounty collected. In an attempt to step outside the constant threat of ambush or attack, this travelling island of a man decides to go to Drangey where he is told he will prevail over “weapons or trickery provided you keep a close watch over the ladders” (The Soga of Grettir 155). His brother Illugi, in part to alleviate Grettir’s fear of the dark, decides to accompany him. On the way there they agree to let the slave Glaum join them. The first desription of the island is reminiscent of the hidden valley: there is grass, birds aplenty and a fair number of sheep. “Grettir settled down there” (The Saga of Grettir 159; see excerpt, chapter  69).
In one sense, this may seem like a miniature version of the settlement of Iceland. The three men form a little society, ranging in power from Grettir to Glaum. The absence of women is perhaps somewhat alleviated when Grettir swims to get fire again (a feat that would make him the best-known swimmer in Icelandic history), for there is in fact not only fire but a woman at the end of that swim. It is noteworthy in fact that Grettir's connection with women constitutes a separate kind of sphere; he more than once helps women in need; he and his mother are very close; and the one time he is captured in the saga, it is a woman who sets him free. But women in this society do not have the power to provide a secure haven for Grettir; they can only help him on his way.
The "settlement" of Drangey is however, crucially different from the original settlement of Iceland, for the former is also an invasion and an occupation. The island is indeed a fortress and when the farmers come to fetch their sheep, the new lord of Drangey is standing tall and looking down at them in their boat. “I’m not letting go of what I've got my hands on” the outlaw says (The Saga of Grettir 160).
For a while, Grettir eludes the weapons and tricks of the farmers' leader, a man appropriately called Thorbjorn Hook. But Grettir' s little dominion seems fated to fall. Perhaps there is no way of escaping society and the outside world on a get-away/cast­away island. Perhaps the social structure replicated on the island was doomed - certainly slavery only lasted a short time in Iceland after its settlement, and the saga may also be signalling the end of a heroic age. It is interesting that Grettir's doom is sealed by two parallel factors, as so often in the story, a human and a supernatural one: the slave fails the brothers at crucial moments and witchcraft is used to cause Grettir's axe to hit his own leg.


VII
The reception of The Saga of Grettir seems to confirm the theory that the mark of the gifted will be assimilated by society. This mode of reception actually begins within the saga, for as soon as he is dead, Grettir seems to have paid his debt. The poison disappears and he is hailed as a man of remarkable strength and abilities, one who is avenged by his only surviving brother in Constantinople, which seems as much the centre of the earth as Drangey appears to be its very periphery. Thus the sagaman (or narrator) appears to approve of the killing of the evil Thorbjorn Hook, although he and his companions had “lawfully” killed Grettir the Strong who is called “our fellow countryman” at the end of one of the manuscripts of the saga.2 This attribute is picked up by the leading Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness in an afterword to his edition of the saga, where he states that the saga shows us, “in a supernatural size, the picture of Iceland and its man, with the middle ages as a backdrop. Here is the story of the man who alone and bereft is condemned to fight the wilderness, tempests and the dark, the story, perhaps, of the strong man who has no ally, except the heart in his breast, in his struggle with nature, human society, godly powers - and himself” (284).
Laxness aptly conveys the manner in which many readers have taken The Saga of Grettir to heart. In this reading Grettir the outlaw has become a national hero, someone who personifies and sums up the travails of many an Icelander in dark times of hardship, restricted movement and an island's loneliness (cf. Hastrup’s useful summary of the reception of the saga). This interpretation even finds in the Drangey occupied by Grettir a true Iceland, a world of his own making and seems to recast the "other" Iceland as a space hostile to more than just the single outlaw, perhaps viewing it as the colonial island it had become when the saga of Grettir was written – or in any case, as a universe too big.

1  In the new English translation this is rendered thus: “fate and fortune do not always go hand in hand” (The Saga of Grettir. 105.) i.e., “fortune” here seems to stand for "gjörvileikur,” which is a little misleading.
2  As in the case of other sagas of lcelanders  there is no original manuscript of The Saga of Grettir, only later copies. The new English translation used here does include the words from this manuscript: "Here ends the Saga of Grettir Asmundarson, our fellow countryman'' (The Saga of Grettir 1911.

Works Cited
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays. 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt. Brace. 1932. 3-11.
Eysteinsson, Astradur. "Icelandic Resettlements." Symploke, 5.1-2 (1997): 153-166. Grettissaga. Eel. Halldór Laxness. Reykjavík: Helgafell. 1946.
Hastrup, Kirsten. “Tracing Tradition - An Anthropological Perspective on Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar.” Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism. Eds. J. Lindow, L. Lönnroth & G.W. Weber. Odense: Odense UP, 1986. 281-313.
Holm, Bill. Eccentric lslands: Travels Real and lmaginary. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2000.
Lawrence. D.H. “The Man Who Loved Islands.” The Collected Short Stories. London: Book Club Associates, l 975. 671-93.
Laxness, Halldór.  “Eftirmáli” Grettissaga. Helgafell. I946. 283-88. Ed.  Halldór  Laxness. Reykjavík: Macleod. Alistair. “Island.” lsland: The Collected Stories. Toronto: Emblem Editions. 2000. 369-412.
The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Trans. Bernard Scudder. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Viðar Hreinsson. Vol. 2. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997. Tulinius. Torfi. “Framlionir feður. Um forneskju og frásagnarlist í Eyrbyggju, Eglu og Grettlu.”  Heiðin minni. Greinar um fornar bókmenntir. Eds. Haraldur Bessason and Baldur Hafstað. Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1999. 283-316.