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Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #34

Heitharvtga saga, as a literary product, is unquestionably the oldest of all the sagas of Iceland. Unfortunately it has come down to us in a sadly mangled state. Ours being the first attempt at an English rendering of the difficult original, we consider that a concise account of the "fata libelli" containing it, is in place at the head of our prefatory remarks.

It was acquired by purchase from Iceland by the Royal Academy of Antiquities in Sweden, through the agency of the Icelander, Jon Eggertsson, in the year 1682. (1) It is now incorporated in the Royal Library at Stockholm, bearing the signature 18 among the Icelandic quartos. At the time of its purchase it may or may not have been a perfect book, probably the latter was the case; (2) at any rate, when Arni Magnusson ascertained its existence in Sweden, after 1722, it was but a remnant of a book, consisting of thirty-six leaves. Of these the first 25-1/2 contained a fragment of the story of Slaying Stir and the saga of the Heath-slayings complete, with the exception of one leaf (see our translation, Chapter XXXIV). The remaining 12-1/2 leaves contained the text of the saga of Gunnlaug the Wormtongue, the best existing of that saga.

Arni Magnusson having applied to the Swedish Academy for the loan of the MS, obtained, fortunately, only the first twelve leaves of it, the obvious reason being that those leaves had become disconnected from the rest, of the existence of which, for a long time afterwards, no one had the least idea. Of these twelve leaves Arni caused his able amanuensis, Jon Olafsson from Grunnavik (1705-1778), to take a copy, in the latter part of the year 1727; but original as well as copy were both destroyed in the Copenhagen conflagration of 1728. In the following year Olafsson wrote down from memory the contents of the destroyed leaves, from which we have drawn the brief introductory matter to the story. On a journey of antiquarian research to Stockholm in 1772, Hannes Finnsson (son of the famous Church historian of Iceland, Finnur Jonsson) discovered the lost remainder of the precious fragment, the best edition of which is Jon Sigurdsson's in the second volume of Islendingasogur, 1847. On his edition our translation depends.

Of all the Icelandic sagas this is the most quaint in style. The author knows not yet how to handle prose for the purpose of historical composition. In one and the same sentence allocutive speech and historic narrative are blended together in the most unconscious manner. The author assumes tacitly all throughout that the reader knows all about his tale; hence he hardly ever takes the trouble to add to the Christian names of the actors the patronymic. In one instance this confidence in the reader's knowledge carries him even so far as in chap. xxxix. to refer to a person mentioned in the beginning of chap. xxxvi. (Thorod Kegward) as "he". This, more than any other Icelandic saga, affords us an insight into what the saga-telling was like during the period of oral tradition. It was the common property of teller and listener alike. This the former knew, and need not be on his guard against disjointed, loopholed delivery; the listener's knowledge supplied all troublesome little details, the teller took care of facts, characters, dramatic action.

We deemed we had no choice but to let our translation represent the peculiarity of the style of the original as faithfully as possible.

With regard to the plot of the story, it is as dramatically arranged a plot as there is in any existing Icelandic saga, and much more naively than in any. The sage of Lechmote, Thorarin, a most perfect type of a devoted foster-father, half distrustful of the ability of his fosterling, arranges the whole thing most quietly and carefully at his Willowdale retreat. He makes his fosterling pray for atonement for his brother, with the most dignified moderation, at the Althing, until, as he calculated, the rash and reckless Gisli should turn everybody's sympathy in favour of Bardi, which, in the event of a blood-feud, would be of the greatest avail to him. Next there were two important things to look to. Since at the hands of the men who stood next to make honourable satisfaction for the slaying of Bardi's brother, Hall, nothing but insult was obtained instead of atonement, and peaceful arrangement was thus excluded,.the revenge must be of the most insulting nature possible. No insult could exceed that of being fought, wounded, slain by one's own faithful weapon. So Thorarin secures, in a very slippery way, the best weapon possessed by Gisli's father, Thorgaut, (3) and hands it to Bardi, while from another among the Gislungs he obtains also one for his son Thorberg, weapons that make good execution in the Heath- battle. The second point was to be well informed as to the doings of the Gislungs and other folk in Burgfirth, without arousing any suspicion of espionage with a view to a sudden raid upon the country. For this purpose the old foster-father caused two pet-horses to be removed from their pastures at Thingvellir during the last Althing at which Bardi craved atonement for his brother, while their owner, Thord of Broadford, from the North country, was attending to public business there. Burgfirth being the nearest country-side with fine pastures to the tracts of Thingvellir, everybody would naturally suppose that Thord's pets must have strayed thither and, not turning up, did elude search hidden in some of Burgfirth's many valleys. Thus Thorarin had a specious pretext for repeatedly sending his spies to Burgfirth to inquire, in Thord of Broadford's name, for these horses while, in reality, they went to find out all about the Gislungs and their numerous allies. These plans of Thorarin, carefully veiled from the outset, are first allowed to come out in their true aim and importance in the story, when the hour of action has struck, and the effect is really artistic. In much the same wary vein are conceived Thorarin's last injunctions as to the tactics to be adopted by Bardi. One third of his company of eighteen was to be stationed up at the Bridge by Biarnisforce as a last reserve, the second third midway between this spot and Goldmead, and the last third, consisting of Bardi himself, his two brothers, two fosterlings of his own house, and his housecarle Thord -- as being the most obedient to Bardi's word -- were to make the attack on the mowers of Goldmeed, Gisli and his brothers. On the field of deed, therefore, no one knew that the attacking party consisted of more than six, and this, Thorarin accurately calculated, would serve to rouse the ardour of the pursuit to such an extent, that those who got first ready would not care to lose time by waiting for reinforcements coming up. Thus the Southerners plunged into the fight against great odds, and got the worst of it.

Our saga tells of events which throughout the whole saga-age of Iceland most seriously threatened to disturb the general peace of the land. A family feud had developed into a state of war between North and South, and it was really due to the cool peacemaker of Saelingsdale-tongue, Snorri, that the end was peace instead of prolonged civil feud. After the general manner of our saga, his interest in Bardi's affair seems at first to have something mysterious about it. Bardi meets him in the dusk with dropped visor, as he is crossing the Blanda in company with Thorgils Arison his brother-in-law, and forthwith Snorri tricks Thorgils, who knows nothing of Bardi's presence, into solemnly proclaiming truce for all present, whereby Thorgils unwittingly dissociated himself from his kindred and friends of Burgfirth as an active ally in case of continued feud. Then Snorri goes to Lechmote, and the two deep chiefs take counsel together, when, we may take for granted, Bardi's alliance to Snorri was first bespoken, and the latter's goodwill in the forthcoming blood-suit secured. Circumstances favoured Bardi all round now. Snorri was not forgetful of old grudges. At the head of a band of four hundred strong the Burgfirthers had foiled him but a few years before when seeking to serve a lawful summons on the slayer of his father-in-law. In the blood-suit which afterwards he brought into court at the Althing, he was non-suited by Thorstein Gislison, backed by his Burgfirth kin and neighbours. Then he took Thorstein's life, but came ingloriously out of the blood- suit, as the Ere-dwellers' story clearly hints. Bardi's case was therefore Snorri's opportunity for restoring his shaken prestige. And when at the Althing the Burfirthers saw that he had thrown the great weight of Broadfirth into the scale of the Northlanders, they had no choice but peacefully to make the best of a serious case. In the light of this situation only we can understand, how the Burgfirthers could put up with such a galling award as to have four of their well-born men that fell in the Heath-fight left unatoned.

A remarkable popular tradition, linked to our saga, lives still in the country of Hunawater, to the effect that, after the battle of the Heath, Bardi built up the work to this day called Burg-Work, and there defended himself against the Burgfirthers, being twice attacked by them in force. The learned Paul Vidalin (1667-1727), in his "Skyringar yfir fornyrthi logbokar theirrar er Jonsbok kallast," p. 625, s.v. "virki", thus recounts the legend, as told him by his uncle, Gudbrand, son of Arngrim Jonsson (1568-1648): "So it is said, that Bardi Gudmundson of Asbiornsness caused the same work to be reared against expected attacks by the Burgfirthers, after he had avenged his brother Hall, and this, people aver, is related in the story of the Heath-slayings. Bardi set out watches in two places, one on Thorey's-nip, to keep a look-out on the Burgfirthers should they ride over Two-days' Heath, the other on Rednip, watching their ride over Ernwater Heath, whether descending into Willowdale or Waterdale. As soon as aware of their approach, the watches were to light a beacon. Even as he had guessed the Burgfirthers made their appearance (by what road the tale does not say), and Bardi with his followers went into the work, which the attackers besieged, making several attempts to carry it, but being repulsed, resolved to starve those within it, and invested it for a fortnight; but the besieged being plentifully provisioned, the Burgfirthers had to retire, having effected nothing. This narrative by Gudbrand Arngrimson, according to tradition, says that the statement is found in the story of the Heath-slayings." Vidalin was evidently much interested in this tradition, and collected further evidence relating to it which, though evidently later, agreed in all essential points with his uncle's.

This Gudbrand was born in 1639 (ob. 1719), and was thus forty- three years of age, when Jon Eggertsson secured the MS. of our story in Iceland. Gudbrand's father was in his day by a long way the most learned man in Iceland, his great rival, Bishop Brynjolf, appearing on the scene first towards the close of Arngrim's life. He was a collector of MSS. and author of standard works upon the history and antiquities of his country. A learned contemporary of his was Magnus Olafsson, priest of Vellir and Laufas (1591-1636), both livings being within the diocese of Holar, of which Arngrim was "officialis" for five-and- thirty years (1596-1628). These two men knew one another well enough; and both were ardent pursuers of one and the same line of study. Now Magnus made himself famous in the literary world by compiling a rearranged edition of the "Prose Edda" from "Codex Wormianus", which goes by the name of "Laufas Edda". Into this edition is incorporated a strophe and a half by Guest, son of Thorhall, the slayer of Stir, in which the killing of Stir in particular is commemorated. This being the only edition of "Edda" containing these verses, it is evident that they were culled from a copy of our saga at least six-and-forty years before that copy which Jon Eggerrsson secured left the country, in all probability a good many years earlier. Now Jon Eggertsson got his copy from the Northland, so presumably it was the same that Magnus Olafsson had used for his "Edda". It stands obviously to reason that Arngrim the Learned should have known of this work in his friend's possession, and should have obtained the loan of it, and thus a possible link between the tradition known to his son, Gudbrand, and "Heitharviga saga" itself would be obtained. On the obliterated page of the original of our saga (Chapter XXXII) there certainly is reference made to Bardi's bargaining with friends and kindred for supplies for a "seta", body-guard, but apparently it seems to refer to Asbiornsness. So much seems certain, however, that what Bardi required must have been very considerable, since one man contributed no less than twelve wethers.

But whatever may be the real origin of the popular tradition, the incontestable fact remains, that once upon a time the peak-shaped fell, now called Burg-work (Borgarvirki), towering to the height of some 800 feet above the level of the sea between the two steads of Mickle-Burg (Storaborg) and Little-Burg (Litla-Borg) in Willowdale, was transformed by the labour of man into a military fortress. We ourselves had an opportunity of visiting the work in our trip to Iceland in 1871, and to inspect the by no means inconsiderable fortifications thrown, in the shape of walls made of large flat slabs, across all clefts in the natural basaltic rock which offered access to the top, standing over four feet thick, and in some places as many as ten feet high. An interesting and minute description of the work is given by Dr. B. M. Olsen, a native of the neighbourhood, in "Arbok hins islenzka fornleifafelags 1880 og 1881," pp. 99-113, accompanied by a critical dissertation on the Burg-Work tradition, and he, a first-rate antiquary and scholar, comes to the conclusion that, since in the whole history of that country-side there is no event with which the really great works of fortification on the peak can be connected, unless it be Bardi's war with the Burgfirthers, we are not authorized at present to reject the existing tradition as utterly unhistorical.

The chronology of our saga has given great trouble hitherto. Its central date is, of course, the year of the Heath-slayings, which by some is placed at 1013, others at 1014 or 1018, and by the saga itself at 1021. Vigfusson declares in favour of 1014, relying on the statements of "Grettir's saga", "that the Heath- slayings befell in the autumn that Grettir spent in Iceland after his first journey abroad, but that year was 1014" ("Timatal", 460, cf. 473-474). He attaches particular weight to the evidence of the old Resenius' annals, which also place the Heath-fight in 1014.

At the time when Vigfusson wrote his "Timatal", he, in common with contemporary scholars, believed that the annalistic writings of Iceland were as old as the historical, and the dates of the former were independent of the latter. This opinion, which originated with the Northland annalist, Bjorn Jonsson of Skarthsa, in the seventeenth century, is radically refuted by Gustav Storm in his excellent edition of "Islandske Annaler indtil 1578", where a whole array of evidence is brought together to show, that annalistic writing in Iceland could not have begun till a few years before 1300. For the saga period, therefore, the evidence of the annals has no real weight, since their dates depend on the evidence of the sagas themselves, according as the annalists were able to reason them out in each particular case. In this instance, thus, the evidence of Resenius' annals falls through as worthless, since evidently it depends on Grettir's saga. But what does that saga's evidence amount to?

In chapter xxviii we are told that Grettir came on a visit to his kinsman and former superior playmate, Audun of Audunstead in Willowdale, and let loose his horse to graze in the home-mead "where the grass was highest" (lothnast, highest and thickest). This visit then happened in June, before the mowing of the home-mead began; mowing of home-fields having at all times in Iceland begun, in ordinary years, at the end of June or in the first week of July. Grettir, wanting to square old scores with Audun, falls to wrestling with him, in the midst of which scuffle Bardi arrives and separates the wrestlers. Grettir now offers Bardi to join his expedition, "for I have heard that thou art bent on going south to Burgfirth this summer." Bardi accepted the offer gladly and (chap. xxxi) rode home to Asbiornsness, and then to his foster-father, "who gladly received him, and asked what he had earned in the way of helpful following," etc.

This statement of Grettla's we can pronounce at once as false. It is invented on the basis of the Heath-slayings' story; but as we know it now, at least, there is no mention made in it of any meeting between Bardi and Grettir at any time, much less of Thorarin's disapproval of Bardi's engagement of Grettir, which in "Grettir's saga" is circumstantially related, and Thorarin's harangue kept exactly in his wary, half-pious vein and anxious care not to spoil his fosterling's chances by the admission into his band of any whose fetch was one of lucklessness. It would be incomprehensible how such an incident could ever have dropped out of the Heath-fight's story having once got into it. But there are more serious objections to be noted. Grettir could not possibly have heard rumours in June or July of that which was not resolved upon till "seven weeks were left of summer," i.e., the latter end of August, and then in strict secrecy, no one knowing the least about it till the Sunday, when six weeks were left of summer, that Bardi broke the secret in the folk-mote at Thingere. That Bardi, therefore, as the Grettla clearly gives to understand, should have been abroad recruiting his force in June or July, is out of question, of course. Why, the whole plot of the Heath-slayings' story turns really on one hinge, namely, the observance of absolute secrecy as to Thorarin's intentions, until they could be carried out in a shorter time than it would take the rumour of them to cross the mountains. This statement of Grettla, therefore, which hitherto has served as a key-stone of the chronology of our saga, is in itself of no worth, being a mere fabrication. If it should happen to relate to the right year, it would be by accident only.

Now the landmarks of time that our story itself supplies are the following: the year that Bardi was outlawed at the Althing he went abroad, but was shipwrecked on the northern coast of Iceland, and spent the winter with Gudmund of Maddervales (Mothruvellir) in Eyiafirth; the next winter he was in Norway; the next to that in Denmark, and in the following summer he set sail for Iceland, arrived on the north coast, and -- "By this time Gudmund was dead." Now the year of Gudmund's death was 1025; so, counting back these years of Bardi's outlawry, we see that he was in Denmark, 1024-1025, in Norway, 1023-1024, at Maddervales, 1022-1023; consequently the Thing at which he was outlawed was that of 1022, and the Heath-fight accordingly befell in 1021. Against this evidence of the saga itself Grettla's fictitious statement goes for nothing, of course. Vigfusson is by no means indifferent to these chronological facts, though he does not, on account of the great importance he attaches to Grettla's evidence, see his way to accept them. And it cannot be denied that a variety of difficult points is raised by accepting the evidence of our story. But to disallow it, considering that we have to deal with the oldest Icelandic saga, preserved in the oldest of all the saga vellums from Iceland, is obviously contrary to all rules of sound criticism. However, the whole question requires fresh overhauling, which it would be idle to attempt within the limited space of a preface to a translation of the saga.

(1)  See Sturlunga, i, Proleg. cxlvii.

(2)  Vigfusson says the beginning of it was lost ere it came to
     Stockholm, Prol. liv.

(3)  The parenthesis, to the effect that this Gisli was the one
     that Grettir flogged, goes out.  "Thorstein" in the line
     preceding we ought to have changed into Thorgaut, and have
     done so in the index.