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A life scarce worth the living, a poor fame
Scarce worth the winning, in a wretched land,
Where fear and pain go upon either hand,
As toward the end men fare without an aim
Unto the dull grey dark from whence they came:
Let them alone, the unshadowed sheer rocks stand
Over the twilight graves of that poor band,
Who count so little in the great world's game!

Nay, with the dead I deal not; this man lives,
And that which carried him through good and ill,
Stern against fate while his voice echoed still
From rock to rock, now he lies silent, strives
With wasting time, and through its long lapse gives
Another friend to me, life's void to fill.



We do not feel able to take in hand the wide subject of the Sagas of
Iceland within the limits of a Preface; therefore we have only to say
that we put forward this volume as the translation of an old story
founded on facts, full of dramatic interest, and setting before
people's eyes pictures of the life and manners of an interesting race
of men near akin to ourselves.

Those to whom the subject is new, we must refer to the translations
already made of some other of these works,[1] and to the notes which
accompany them: a few notes at the end of this volume may be of use to
students of Saga literature.

[Footnote 1: Such as 'Burnt Njal,' Edinburgh, 1861, 8vo, and 'Gisli
the Outlaw,' Edinburgh, 1866, 4to, by Dasent; the 'Saga of Viga-Glum,'
London, 1866, 8vo, by Sir E. Head; the 'Heimskringla,' London, 1844,
8vo, by S. Laing; the 'Eddas,' Prose by Dasent, Stockholm, 1842;
Poetic by A.S. Cottle, Bristol, 1797, and Thorpe, London and Halle,
1866; the 'Three Northern Love Stories,' translated by Magnússon and
Morris, London, 1875, and 'The Volsunga Saga,' translated by the same,
London, 1870.]

For the original tale we think little apology is due; that it holds
a very high place among the Sagas of Iceland no student of that
literature will deny; of these we think it yields only to the story
of Njal and his sons, a work in our estimation to be placed beside
the few great works of the world. Our Saga is fuller and more complete
than the tale of the other great outlaw Gisli; less frightful than
the wonderfully characteristic and strange history of Egil, the son
of Skallagrim; as personal and dramatic as that of Gunnlaug the
Worm-tongue, if it lack the rare sentiment of that beautiful story;
with more detail and consistency, if with less variety, than the
history of Gudrun and her lovers in the Laxdaela; and more a work of
art than that, or than the unstrung gems of Eyrbyggja, and the great
compilation of Snorri Sturluson, the History of the Kings of Norway.

At any rate, we repeat, whatever place among the best Sagas may be
given to Grettla[2] by readers of such things, it must of necessity
be held to be one of the best in all ways; nor will those, we hope,
of our readers who have not yet turned their attention to the works
written in the Icelandic tongue, fail to be moved more or less by the
dramatic power and eager interest in human character, shown by our
story-teller; we say, we hope, but we are sure that no one of insight
will disappoint us in this, when he has once accustomed himself to
the unusual, and, if he pleases, barbarous atmosphere of these ancient

[Footnote 2: Such is the conversational title of this Saga; many of
the other Sagas have their longer title abbreviated in a like manner:
Egil's saga becomes Egla, Njal's saga Njála; Eyrbyggja saga, Laxdaela
saga, Vatnsdaeela saga, Reykdaela saga, Svarfdaela saga, become
Eyrbyggja, Laxdaela, Vatnsdaela, Reykdaela, Svarfdaela (gen. plur.
masc. of daelir, dale-dwellers, is forced into a fem. sing. regularly
declined, saga being understood); furthermore, Landnáma bók (landnáma,
gen. pl. neut.) the book of land settlings, becomes Landnáma (fem.
sing. regularly declined, bók being understood); lastly, Sturlunga
saga, the Saga of the mighty family of the Sturlungs, becomes
Sturlunga in the same manner.]

As some may like to know what they are going to read about before
venturing on beginning the book, we will now give a short outline of
our Saga.

The first thirteen chapters (which sometimes are met with separately
in the Icelandic as the Saga of Onund Treefoot), we have considered as
an introduction to the story, and have accordingly distinguished them
from the main body of the book. They relate the doings of Grettir's
ancestors in Norway, in the lands West over the Sea and in Iceland,
and are interesting and in many points necessary for the understanding
of the subsequent story; one of these we note here for the reader's
convenience, viz. the consanguinity of Grettir and King Olaf the
Saint;[3] for it adds strongly to the significance of the King's
refusal to entertain Grettir at his court, or to go further into the
case of the murder he was falsely accused of.

[Footnote 3:

Onund Treefoot brother to Gudbiorg
| |
Thorgrim Greypate Gudbrand
| |
Asmund the Greyhaired Asta (mother of)
| |
Grettir the Strong. Olaf the Saint.]

The genealogies of this part of the work agree closely with those of
the Landnáma-bók, and of the other most reliable Sagas.

After this comes the birth of Grettir, and anecdotes (one at least
sufficiently monstrous) of his unruly childhood; then our hero kills
his first man by misadventure, and must leave Iceland; wrecked on
an isle off Norway, he is taken in there by a lord of that land, and
there works the deed that makes him a famous man; the slaying of the
villainous bearserks, namely, who would else have made wreck of the
honour and goods of Grettir's host in his absence; this great deed,
we should say, is prefaced by Grettir's first dealings with the
supernatural, which characterise this Saga, and throw a strange light
on the more ordinary matters throughout. The slaying of the bearserks
is followed by a feud which Grettir has on his hands for the slaying
of a braggart who insulted him past bearing, and so great the feud
grows that Grettir at last finds himself at enmity with Earl Svein,
the ruler of Norway, and, delivered from death by his friends, yet
has to leave the land and betake himself to Iceland again. Coming back
there, and finding himself a man of great fame, and hungry, for more
still, he tries to measure himself against the greatest men in the
land, but nothing comes of these trials, for he is being reserved for
a greater deed than the dealing with mere men; his enemy is Glam
the thrall; the revenant of a strange, unearthly man who was himself
killed by an evil spirit; Grettir contends with, and slays, this
monster, whose dying curse on him is the turning-point of the story.

All seems fair for our hero, his last deed has made him the foremost
man in Iceland, and news now coming out of Olaf the Saint, his
relative, being King of Norway, he goes thither to get honour at
his hands; but Glam's curse works; Grettir gains a powerful enemy by
slaying an insulting braggart just as he was going on ship-board; and
on the voyage it falls out that in striving to save the life of his
shipmates by a desperate action, he gets the reputation of having
destroyed the sons of a powerful Icelander, Thorir of Garth, with
their fellows. This evil report clings to him when he lands in Norway;
and all people, including the King from whom he hoped so much, look
coldly on him. Now he offers to free himself from the false charge by
the ordeal of bearing hot iron; the King assents, and all is ready;
but Glam is busy, and some strange appearance in the church, where
the ordeal is to be, brings all to nothing; and the foreseeing Olaf
refuses to take Grettir into his court, because of his ill-luck. So
he goes to his brother, Thorstein Dromund, for a while, and then goes
back to Iceland. But there, too, his ill-luck had been at work, and
when he lands he hears three pieces of bad news at once; his father is
dead; his eldest brother, Atli, is slain and unatoned; and he himself
has been made an outlaw, by Thorir of Garth, for a deed he has never

He avenges his brother, and seeks here and there harbour from his
friends, but his foes are too strong for him, or some unlucky turn of
fate always pushes him off the help of men, and he has to take to the
wilderness with a price upon his head; and now the other part of the
curse falls on him heavier, for ever after the struggle with the ghost
he sees horrible things in the dark, and cannot bear to be alone, and
runs all kinds of risks to avoid it; and so the years of his outlawry
pass on. From time to time, driven by need, and rage at his unmerited
ill-fortune, he takes to plundering those who cannot hold their own;
at other times he lives alone, and supports himself by fishing, and
is twice nearly brought to his end by hired assassins the while.
Sometimes he dwells with the friendly spirits of the land, and chiefly
with Hallmund, his friend, who saves his life in one of the desperate
fights he is forced into. But little by little all fall off from him;
his friends durst harbour him no more, or are slain. Hallmund comes
to a tragic end; Grettir is driven from his lairs one after the other,
and makes up his mind to try, as a last resource, to set himself
down on the island of Drangey, which rises up sheer from the midst
of Skagafirth like a castle; he goes to his father's house, and bids
farewell to his mother, and sets off for Drangey in the company of his
youngest brother, Illugi, who will not leave him in this pinch, and
a losel called "Noise," a good joker (we are told), but a slothful,
untrustworthy poltroon. The three get out to Drangey, and possess
themselves of the live-stock on it, and for a while all goes well;
the land-owners who held the island in shares, despairing of ridding
themselves of the outlaw, give their shares or sell them to one
Thorbiorn Angle, a man of good house, but violent, unpopular, and
unscrupulous. This man, after trying the obvious ways of persuasion,
cajolery, and assassination, for getting the island into his hands, at
last, with the help of a certain hag, his foster-mother, has recourse
to sorcery. By means of her spells (as the story goes) Grettir wounds
himself in the leg in the third year of his sojourn at Drangey,
and though the wound speedily closes, in a week or two gangrene
supervenes, and Grettir, at last, lies nearly helpless, watched
continually by his brother Illugi. The losel, "Noise," now that the
brothers can no more stir abroad, will not take the trouble to pull
up the ladders that lead from the top of the island down to the
beach; and, amidst all this, helped by a magic storm the sorceress
has raised, Thorbiorn Angle, with a band of men, surprises the island,
unroofs the hut of the brothers, and gains ingress there, and after
a short struggle (for Grettir is already a dying man) slays the great
outlaw and captures Illugi in spite of a gallant defence; he, too,
disdaining to make any terms with the murderers of his brother, is
slain, and Angle goes away exulting, after he had mutilated the body
of Grettir, with the head on which so great a price had been put, and
the sword which the dead man had borne.

But now that the mighty man was dead, and people were relieved
of their fear of him, the minds of men turned against him who had
overcome him in a way, according to their notions, so base and
unworthy, and Angle has no easy time of it; he fails to get the
head-money, and is himself brought to trial for sorcery and practising
heathen rites, and the 'nithings-deed' of slaying a man already dying,
and is banished from the land.

Now comes the part so necessary to the Icelandic tale of a hero, the
revenging of his death; Angle goes to Norway, and is thought highly of
for his deed by people who did not know the whole tale; but Thorstein
Dromund, an elder half-brother of Grettir, is a lord in that land, and
Angle, knowing of this, feels uneasy in Norway, and at last goes away
to Micklegarth (Constantinople), to take service with the Varangians:
Thorstein hears of this and follows him, and both are together at last
in Micklegarth, but neither knows the other: at last Angle betrays
himself by showing Grettir's sword, at a 'weapon-show' of the
Varangians, and Thorstein slays him then and there with the same
weapon. Thorstein alone in a strange land, with none to speak for him,
is obliged to submit to the laws of the country, and is thrown into a
dungeon to perish of hunger and wretchedness there. From this fate he
is delivered by a great lady of the city, called Spes, who afterwards
falls in love with him; and the two meet often in spite of the
watchful jealousy of the lady's husband, who is at last so completely
conquered by a plot of hers (the sagaman here has taken an incident
with little or no change from the Romance of Tristram and Iseult),
that he is obliged to submit to a divorce and the loss of his wife's
dower, and thereafter the lovers go away together to Norway, and live
there happily till old age reminds them of their misdeeds, and they
then set off together for Rome and pass the rest of their lives in
penitence and apart from one another. And so the story ends, summing
up the worth of Grettir the Strong by reminding people of his huge
strength, his long endurance in outlawry, his gift for dealing
with ghosts and evil spirits, the famous vengeance taken for him in
Micklegarth; and, lastly, the fortunate life and good end of Thorstein
Dromund, his brother and avenger.

Such is the outline of this tale of a man far above his fellows in all
matters valued among his times and people, but also far above them
all in ill-luck, for that is the conception that the story-teller has
formed of the great outlaw. To us moderns the real interest in these
records of a past state of life lies principally in seeing events true
in the main treated vividly and dramatically by people who completely
understood the manners, life, and, above all, the turn of mind of the
actors in them. Amidst many drawbacks, perhaps, to the modern reader,
this interest is seldom or ever wanting in the historical sagas, and
least of all in our present story; the sagaman never relaxes his grasp
of Grettir's character, and he is the same man from beginning to end;
thrust this way and that by circumstances, but little altered by them;
unlucky in all things, yet made strong to bear all ill-luck; scornful
of the world, yet capable of enjoyment, and determined to make the
most of it; not deceived by men's specious ways, but disdaining to cry
out because he must needs bear with them; scorning men, yet helping
them when called on, and desirous of fame: prudent in theory, and wise
in foreseeing the inevitable sequence of events, but reckless beyond
the recklessness even of that time and people, and finally capable of
inspiring in others strong affection and devotion to him in spite of
his rugged self-sufficing temper - all these traits which we find in
our sagaman's Grettir seem always the most suited to the story of
the deeds that surround him, and to our mind most skilfully and
dramatically are they suggested to the reader.

As is fitting, the other characters are very much subordinate to the
principal figure, but in their way they are no less life-like; the
braggart - that inevitable foil to the hero in a saga - was never better
represented than in the Gisli of our tale; the thrall Noise, with his
carelessness, and thriftless, untrustworthy mirth, is the very pattern
of a slave; Snorri the Godi, little though there is of him, fully
sustains the prudent and crafty character which follows him in all the
Sagas; Thorbiorn Oxmain is a good specimen of the overbearing and sour
chief, as is Atli, on the other hand, of the kindly and high-minded,
if prudent, rich man; and no one, in short, plays his part like
a puppet, but acts as one expects him to act, always allowing the
peculiar atmosphere of these tales; and to crown all, as the story
comes to its end, the high-souled and poetically conceived Illugi
throws a tenderness on the dreadful story of the end of the hero,
contrasted as it is with that of the gloomy, superstitious Angle.

Something of a blot, from some points of view, the story of Spes and
Thorstein Dromund (of which more anon) must be considered; yet
whoever added it to the tale did so with some skill considering its
incongruous and superfluous nature, for he takes care that Grettir
shall not be forgotten amidst all the plots and success of the lovers;
and, whether it be accidental or not, there is to our minds something
touching in the contrast between the rude life and tragic end of the
hero, and the long, drawn out, worldly good hap and quiet hopes for
another life which fall to the lot of his happier brother.

As to the authorship of our story, it has no doubt gone through the
stages which mark the growth of the Sagas in general, that is, it was
for long handed about from mouth to mouth until it took a definite
shape in men's minds; and after it had held that position for a
certain time, and had received all the necessary polish for an
enjoyable saga, was committed to writing as it flowed ready made from
the tongue of the people. Its style, in common with that of all the
sagas, shows evidences enough of this: for the rest, the only name
connected with it is that of Sturla Thordson the Lawman, a man of good
position and family, and a prolific author, who was born in 1214 and
died 1284; there is, however, no proof that he wrote the present work,
though we think the passages in it that mention his name show clearly
enough that he had something to do with the story of Grettir: on the
whole, we are inclined to think that a story of Grettir was either
written by him or under his auspices, but that the present tale is the
work of a later hand, nor do we think so complete a saga-teller,
as his other undoubted works show him to have been, would ever have
finished his story with the epilogue of Spes and Thorstein Dromund,
steeped as that latter part is with the spirit of the mediaeval
romances, even to the distinct appropriation of a marked and
well-known episode of the Tristram; though it must be admitted that he
had probably plenty of opportunity for being versed in that romance,
as Tristram was first translated into the tongue of Norway in the year
1226, by Brother Robert, at the instance of King Hakon Hakonson, whose
great favourite Sturla Thordson was, and whose history was written by

For our translation of this work we have no more to say than to
apologise for its shortcomings, and to hope, that in spite of them, it
will give some portion of the pleasure to our readers which we felt in
accomplishing it ourselves.


LONDON, April 1869.


872. The battle of Hafrsfirth.
874. Begins the settlement of Iceland.
cca. 897. Thrand and Ufeigh Grettir settle Gnup-Wardsrape.
cca. 900. Onund Treefoot comes to Iceland.
cca. 920. Death of Onund Treefoot.
929. The Althing established.
997 (?). Grettir born.
1000. Christianity sanctioned by law.
1004. Skapti Thorodson made lawman.
1011. Grettir slays Skeggi; goes abroad, banished for three years.
1012. Slaying of Thorir Paunch and his fellows in Haramsey.
Earl Eric goes to Denmark.
1013. Slaying of Biorn at the Island of Gartar.
Slaying of Thorgils Makson. Illugi Asmundson
born. Death of Thorkel Krafla.
1014. Slaying of Gunnar in Tunsberg. Grettir goes
back to Iceland; fights with the men of Meal
on Ramfirth-neck. Heath-slayings. Thorgeir
Havarson outlawed. Fight with Glam
the ghost.
1015. Fight of Nesjar in Norway. Slaying of Thorbiorn
Tardy. Grettir fares abroad. Burning
of the sons of Thorir of Garth. Death of
Asmund the Greyhaired.
1016. Grettir meets King Olaf; fails to bear iron; goes
east to Tunsberg to Thorstein Dromund.
Slaying of Atli of Biarg. Grettir outlawed
at the Thing for the burning of the sons of
Thorir; his return to Iceland. Slaying of
Thorbiorn Oxmain and his son Arnor.
1017. Grettir at Reek-knolls. Lawsuit for the slaying
of Thorbiorn Oxmain. Grettir taken by
the Icefirth churls.
1018. Grettir at Liarskogar with Thorstein Kuggson;
his travels to the East to Skapti the lawman
and Thorhall of Tongue, and thence to the
Keel-mountain, where he met Hallmund
(Air) for the first time.
1019-1021. Grettir on Ernewaterheath.
1021. Grettir goes to the Marshes.
1022-1024. Grettir in Fairwoodfell.
1024. Grettir visits Hallmund again.
1025. Grettir discovers Thorirs-dale.
1025-1026. Grettir travels round by the East; haunts
Madderdale-heath and Reek-heath.
1026. Thorstein Kuggson slain.
1027. Grettir at Sand-heaps in Bard-dale.
1028. Grettir haunts the west by Broadfirth-dales,
meets Thorod Snorrison.
1028-1031. Grettir in Drangey.
1029. Grettir visits Heron-ness-thing.
1030. Grettir fetches fire from Reeks. Skapti the law
man dies.
1031. Death of Snorri Godi and Grettir Asmundson.
1033. Thorbiorn Angle slain.



Chronology of the Story


I. XIII. The Forefathers of Grettir

XIV. Of Grettir as a Child, and his froward ways
with his father

XV. Of the Ball-play on Midfirth Water

XVI. Of the Slaying of Skeggi

XVII. Of Grettir's Voyage out

XVIII. Of Grettir at Haramsey and his dealings with
Karr the Old

XIX. Of Yule at Haramsey, and how Grettir dealt
with the Bearserks

XX. How Thorfinn met Grettir at Haramsey again

XXI. Of Grettir and Biorn and the Bear

XXII. Of the Slaying of Biorn

XXIII. The Slaying of Hiarandi

XXIV. Of the Slaying of Gunnar, and Grettir's strife
with Earl Svein

XXV. The Slaying of Thorgils Makson

XXVI. Of Thorstein Kuggson, and the gathering for
the Bloodsuit for the Slaying of Thorgils

XXVII. The Suit for the Slaying of Thorgils Makson

XXVIII. Grettir comes out to Iceland again

XXIX. Of the Horse-fight at Longfit

XXX. Of Thorbiorn Oxmain and Thorbiorn Tardy,
and of Grettir's meeting with Kormak on

XXXI. How Grettir met Bardi, the Son of Gudmund,
as he came back from the Heath-slayings

XXXII. Of the Haunting at Thorhall-stead; and how
Thorhall took a Shepherd by the rede of
Skapti the Lawman, and what befell thereafter

XXXIII. Of the doings of Glam at Thorhall-stead

XXXIV. Grettir hears of the Hauntings

XXXV. Grettir goes to Thorhall-stead, and has to do
with Glam

XXXVI. Of Thorbiorn Oxmain's Autumn-feast, and the
mocks of Thorbiorn Tardy

XXXVII. Olaf the Saint, King in Norway; the slaying
of Thorbiorn Tardy; Grettir goes to

XXXVIII. Of Thorir of Garth and his sons; and how
Grettir fetched fire for his shipmates

XXXIX. How Grettir would fain bear Iron before the

XL. Of Grettir and Snoekoll

XLI. Of Thorstein Dromund's Arms, and what he
deemed they might do

XLII. Of the Death of Asmund the Greyhaired

XLIII. The Onset on Atli at the Pass and the Slaying
of Gunnar and Thorgeir

XLIV. The Suit for the Slaying of the Sons of Thorir
of the Pass

XLV. Of the Slaying of Atli Asmundson

XLVI. Grettir outlawed at the Thing at the Suit of
Thorir of Garth

XLVII. Grettir comes out to Iceland again

XLVIII. The Slaying of Thorbiorn Oxmain

XLIX. The Gathering to avenge Thorbiorn Oxmain

L. Grettir and the Foster-brothers at Reek-knolls

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