80 for 80, No.3: The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue

It may surprise you somewhat, but the idea of doing something out of a perceived order scares me. A palpable, nervous fear rocks my body and my hands flap and I get sweaty, and eventually give in and accept that I can’t go against numerology.

This, my friends, is why a *year* exactly on from beginning my 80 for 80 challenge, I have yet to get past book three. A combination of ill-health, quitting my job, and taking up a new one as a bookseller has meant that this little blog has been neglected in general (and is in dire need of a rebrand), but add that on top of Icelandic sagas and you can see a predicament.

I don’t generally have trouble with more archaic or classical versions of English, but something about the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue was something I picked up so many times, started, and failed to continue. In all likelihoods, this is partly because the times when I’d think HEY I have time to carry on my blog were usually times when I was sick – like that month when I was concussed or my recent bout of hallucinatory fever flu – and an addled brain does not make good friends with sagas of warrior-poets from the 12th century.

However, I have finally found some time, one year on from beginning this endeavour and one year on from being a very stressed person trying to conform to a job that just really didn’t suit her. SO, let’s talk Iceland.

This book is composed of extracts from Sagas of Warrior-Poets, published by Penguin in the early 00’s. We have this book at work and it is a huge thing that I have struggled repeatedly to place somewhere that shows it off. Perhaps my discomfort at reading it translated to displaying it in the shop, where I’d move it between cool gift books to anthologies at the beginning of fiction repeatedly, not really feeling it sat right in either place.

Anyway, we move on. The sagas themselves take place between the 9-11th century in Iceland, though were documented a couple of hundred years later by unknown authors (however, the opening of the book does mention that the priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned was the teller of this particular story).

I really enjoyed a minor contribution of a Norwegian, who interprets the dreams of Thorstein to foresee Gunnlaug vs Hrafn, and is told he is wicked and unfriendly, with the following closing that section: “He is now out of the saga”.

Gunnlaug is noted as being a “gifted… somewhat abusive” poet, which is possibly my favourite description of someone’s occupation to date. Essentially, the book tells of Gunnlaug who decides he is going to marry beautiful Helga, but first decides to go on a minor quest and visit northern European kings, whereupon he delivers impromptu poetry slams. At one such, he chastises opponent warrior poet Hrafn, who decides the best revenge is to steal his betrothed, which seems to happen without Gunnlaug really doing much about for quite a while. He and Hrafn duel in Norway so that no one can intervene – this time with swords and words, leaving Hrafn de-legged and Gunnlaug with a split head and they both die. Helga meanwhile feels pretty annoyed but has a fancy cloak Gunnlaug gave her so that’s nice.

I genuinely love tales rooted in cultural history – many of my friends having heard my retelling of the Welsh story of the Afanc, a river dwelling beast who is lulled to sleep by singing maidens and dragged up Snowdon by oxen. It’s not often you get to read Icelandic stories of itinerant poets, but I feel the better for having done so. Maybe I’ll pick up that big book from work.

Running Tally

Okay so the problem here is that we can’t be completely assured that the narrator is male, buuuuut given our patriarchal society that prevented women from being educated and still does I’m going to hedge a bet that this is also a male authored book. Feel free to take umbridge with this in the comments.

Authors: Male 3 Female 0

Media type: Short stories 2, Poetry 1

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