Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Inside Outlawry in Grettis Saga Asmundarsonar and Gisla Saga Surssonar: Landscape in the Outlaw Sagas

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Inside Outlawry in Grettis Saga Asmundarsonar and Gisla Saga Surssonar: Landscape in the Outlaw Sagas

Article excerpt

THE IMPORTANCE OF LANDSCAPE as a narrative device in the sagas has been a largely neglected area of research, and little detailed analysis of it has been attempted in the context of traditional saga scholarship. However, recent work by scholars such as Ian Wyatt has focussed on the role of topographic references that function as elements within the "narrative grammar" of the Islendingasogur, in which features of the saga landscape act as literary devices employed by the saga author to direct the action (273). With such research in mind, this paper will examine the contrasting roles of the narrative landscape in the two outlaw biographies Grettis saga and Gisla saga. The texts represent a particularly interesting case study, for outlaws by definition are forced to move beyond the known world, existing on the peripheries of the wilderness outside the human communities. Their special relationship to the landscape allows for the construction of a significant test case that examines how the sagas describe the men in their surroundings, both in the social world and beyond. By focussing on the way in which both protagonists interact with their physical surroundings, Wyatt's hypothesis will be extended in order to demonstrate that descriptions of geography within such texts not only shape the plot, but also contribute towards the complexity of the narrative layers and the characterisation of the saga protagonists. Consequently, the following analysis will begin with a general discussion of the legal and social implications of outlawry in medieval Icelandic society as mediated through the world of the sagas and law codes, before focussing more closely on the two outlaw biographies and the function of the narrative landscape in both texts.


As the severest punishment that might be imposed during Iceland's free state period, outlawry effectively placed an individual outside the bounds of society. This is reflected in a description of outlawry found in the Icelandic law code Gragas, which states, "hann skal sva vida vargr heita, sem vidast er verold byggd, ok vera hvarvetna raekr ok rekinn um allan heim" (Finsen 406) [he shall be known as a wolf, as widely as the world is inhabited, and be rejected everywhere and be driven away throughout all the world]. Similar sentiments occur in Grettis saga, where (with an ambiguous blend of legal reality and literary invention) it forms part of the protracted oath of safe conduct made at the Hegraness Ping:

   Se sa gridnidingr, er gridin ryfr eda tryggdum spillir, rokr ok
   rekinn ... ok hvergi hofr manna i milli ok sva fra ollum ut flomdr
   ... hann skal firrask ... heim hvern, nema helviti. (232-3) (1)

   Let him be known as a recreant truce-breaker who violates the truce
   or breaks the pledges, outcast and banished ... and allowed to be
   nowhere among men and thus driven away from everyone ... He shall
   shun ... every world except hell. (230) (2)

Such attitudes towards outlawry can be contextualized with reference to the anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup's cosmographical model of medieval Icelandic society based on the mythological world view of the Snorra Edda (Island 26). The model, which informs Snorri's description in Gylfaginning, is a horizontal one with concentric circles consisting of Midgardr, the world of humans and gods, and Utgardr, where giants and other non-humans reign. The model is inverted when transferred to saga society for the uninhabitable interior becomes synonymous with Utgardr, while the social world shifts to the coastal peripheries. Law now defines the theoretical margins of society for in medieval Norse society the social sphere was regarded as being synonymous with law, with a number of law texts opening with the proverb "med log skall land byggjast" (Haugen 186) [the country shall be built by law]. Consequently, outlaws must live in uneasy affiliation with the outer sphere outside society, belonging to neither one world nor the other. …

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