THE SAGA OF GISLI THE OUTLAW - A Viking Saga - Anon E. Mouse - ebook

THE EVENTS described in the saga of Gisli the Soursop reach from about the year AD930 to AD980, in a time when the law of Iceland had not yet been established.  Men were ruled by their conscience and Gisli, a champion of Iceland, was outlawed for murder by the Chieftain Bork at the Thorsness Thing, or Council Meeting.  But besides his sentence he was doomed, even before his birth. He and his kin were under a curse, for they had kept the broken bits of "Graysteel", bits of the thrall's good sword, which came with a withering spaedom, or divination. So under sentence and under a curse Gisli went on the run. For fourteen years with the help of family, friends and those who really knew the truth, he managed to evade Bork’s men and bounty hunters alike.To the end Gisli fought hard, taking with him eight of the fourteen who eventually cornered him one snowy night on the crags. It has been said by many that there never was a more famous and honourable defence made by one man in times of which the truth is known. Even as death approached Gisli managed to compose and sing one final verse to his wife who stood nearby.As with many champions through the ages, Gisli was also a true poet and his verses have genuine thought and feeling lying underneath, as you will frequently find in this volume.It has also been said that this is one of the finest, if it be not the very finest, of the lesser Sagas. When translating it is difficult to grasp the full spirit of the story, but here it has been accomplished with the detail of scenery and costume thoroughly mastered.33% of the net profit from the sale of this book will be donated to Charities.TAGS: Viking, Norse, Saga, adventure, action, Northern, Northmen, chase, on the run, curse, sentence, graysteel, Bork, cruel leader, Iceland, Norway, Scandinavia, divination, fight, freedom, bounty hunter, search, verse,

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from the Icelandic





Originally published by




* * * * * * *

Resurrected by




The Saga of Gisli the Outlaw

Typographical arrangement of this edition

© Abela Publishing 2017

This book may not be reproduced in its current format in any manner in any media, or transmitted by any means whatsoever, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, or mechanical ( including photocopy, file or video recording, internet web sites, blogs, wikis, or any other information storage and retrieval system) except as permitted by law without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Abela Publishing,


United Kingdom






The Publisher acknowledges the work that

George Webbe Dasent

did in translating and publishing

Gisli the Outlaw

in a time well before any electronic media was in use.

* * * * * * *

33% of the net from the sale from this book

will be donated to charities.


THIS English version of the Gisli Saga is formed out of a fusion of the two Icelandic texts which have come down to us; the elder text having been generally followed, and the younger used to supply deficiencies.

It is needless to speak of the story unless it can speak for itself in the English tongue. It is enough, therefore, to say that this is one of the finest, if it be not the very finest, of the lesser Sagas, among which it holds the same rank as Njala among those of greater length.

In one respect it is perhaps superior to any Saga. Gisli was a true poet, and his verses, though full of the periphrases and involutions common in that class of Icelandic composition, have genuine thought and feeling lying underneath them. It is hoped, if the English renderings run smoother than the Icelandic originals, the spirit which warms them may not be found utterly wanting. In this, as in other respects, Gisli must speak for himself.

But one thing may surely here be spoken of--the kind deeds and help of friends. To the skilful hand that drew the illustrations which adorn this volume the Translator and the reader owe special thanks. It is seldom that the spirit of a story has been so fully grasped, and details of scenery and costume so thoroughly mastered.

To his friend Guðbrandr Vigfússon, an Icelander of profound knowledge in the language and literature of his country, the Translator's thanks for many valuable explanations and suggestions are most justly due and most heartily given.

The sword on the title-page has been most daintily drawn from an original, just such as "Graysteel" must have been, by the accomplished pencil of Mr. Drummond. To him, too, a meed of praise is due.

December 15, 1865.






































THE events described in the Saga of Gisli the Soursop reach from the end of Harold Fairhair's reign to the middle of the reign of Earl Hacon the Bad, or from about the year 930 to 980. Nothing can be livelier or more truthful than the account contained in it of Norwegian and Icelandic life and manners during those fifty years. In Norway itself, about the beginning of that period, Harold Fairhair, now grown old, had shared the kingdom which he had won with so much toil and blood among his sons, to be ruled over by Eric Bloody-axe as overking. Eric's incapacity and his wife Gunnhillda's cruelty soon lost what his politic father had won. He was forced to fly the land, and was succeeded by Hacon, another son of Harold Fairhair, who was called Hacon Athelstane's Fosterchild, because he had been sent by his father to be fostered by that famous English king. Of this prince, whose memory was held very dear by his people as Hacon the Good, the Saga of Gisli Soursop contains a sketch which, as a mere interpolation, has been banished from the body of the text, but which well deserves to stand here:--"As soon as he heard of his father's death Hacon came west from England and went straight north to Drontheim, where he sought out first Sigurd the jarl of Hladir, and promised to give him up the jarldom which his father had held if he would back his claim as king. 'Methinks,' he said, 'that would be a good bargain if thou put me forward as king, and I gave thee such honour as thy father held before thee. Then thou wouldst be free and not fettered, as all now are in this land.' It had been one of, the imposts of Harold Fairhair that he claimed as his own all the soil in Norway, both tilled and untilled, and the sea and lakes as well. Every man was to be his tenant and vassal. Now the jarl thinks over the matter; and it seemed to him that Hacon spoke fair, and so they struck a fast friendship. Then the jarl calls together a Thing of the three districts round Drontheim; and as soon as the Thing was set, up rises Hacon and spoke thus:--'It is well known to all men who have now come hither how Harold Fairhair laid all Norway under his feet--all the way north from Finmark down to the Gotha-Elf. He was, in truth, absolute king over all men. He had, too, as ye well know, a host of sons, most of them proper men; but he loved them very unevenly. Some he sent away to other lands, but some be kept with him about his court; and of all of them it was Eric Bloody-axe whom he weened would rule first and foremost of all his sons. So all obeyed him well in that matter as long as he lived; but now my kinsman Eric has wrought very many things which are beyond bearing. And so I will ask this boon of all ye good men of Drontheim, that ye shall try to stay and strengthen him who will be more forbearing to the people, and who will rather let his kinsmen and the folk lift their heads a little, than him who strives to pull the people down. As for me, I wish to make it known that I will give up their freeholds to all those men who will cling to me and call me king.'

"'Then many men spoke to one another, and said:

"'Well, now, this is a strange thing! Here Harold Fairhair has come back, and has grown young again a second time; but be was old and gray when we last saw him. What can it all mean? Can he have any son so like him that we cannot tell the one from the other, save that one is young and the other old, and that this man gives us back with goodwill our freeholds and heritages which his sire took from us with overbearing might?'

"Then all the crowd shouted, and said they would have that man for their king who was likest to King Harold and showed most goodwill to the people; but as for Eric they would never have him to rule over them--a man who thrust out his own kith and kin into holes and corners. No; they would never have him, nor Gunnhillda, nor any of her sons. So the end of that Thing was, that Hacon was chosen to be king; but as fast as these tidings spread from district to district, what amends the men of Drontheim- had got for their wrongs, then all men sent word to King, Hacon and offered to do him suit and service. But about the same time that he became king in Norway Thorbjorn the Soursop and his sons were the leading men in Surnadale."

Such was the state of things in Norway when Hacon the Good was chosen king in the year 935. Tribe after tribe, and district after district, took him as their king as soon as ever he gave back to the freeman that right of freehold, that primeval allodial claim to the soil, which marks the freeborn man of the Scandinavian stock. His father had claimed a right in the soil from every man, and had levied a poll-tax as a quit-rent, but the son was unable to bold what the father had grasped; and though Hacon was king of Norway, the freeman remained his own lord and master over his own land so long as he paid the king his customary service. This is not the place to enter at length into the relations which existed in the tenth century between the king and the freemen in Norway. It is enough to say, that where the king's arm reached he was powerful, where it fell short he was weak. At no time, even under the grinding system of Harold Fairhair, was the weight of the monarch evenly felt all over the land at once. When be was south-east in the Cattegat, the freemen of Drontheim and Helgeland snapped their fingers for a while at his authority; and, in like manner, when he went north the dwellers round "the Bay" did pretty much as they chose. All over the country the rude law of arms, the sacred right of wager of battle, in which the gods were thought to smile on manly worth, was regarded as something binding on all; and thus it is that in this Saga of Gisli a challenge to fight on the island for wife and land was looked on as a call which no man could neglect without the loss of all respect. Thus it was the Bearsarks, men of great bodily strength and well skilled in the use of weapons, roamed over the country, like Bjorn the Black, and thrust weaker men out of their homestead by brute force.

So, too, it was when gallants like Kolbein came day after day to a freeman's house, sat for hours with his daughter, and yet never asked for her hand, 1 that the vengeance of the family fell on the wrongdoer's head; as when Gisli, after warning Kolbein again and again, dealt him that one blow which was "more than enough."

Thus it was, again, that Kolbein's kith and kin could

fall on Thorbjorn's house at Stock, burn it to the ground, and go their way, deeming that they had rooted out the whole household, root and branch. So it was that Gisli and his brother could burn Bard the traitor, kill the king's tax-gatherers, sell house and land, and sail for Iceland with all their goods and a great following. In Norway, in those days, the king was weak and the freeman strong save when be was in the royal grasp; and the rule was, that every man did what was right in his own eyes.

In Iceland the settlers found another state of things. About the year 950, when Thorbjorn the Soursop left Norway, Iceland was already shared among the heads of an aristocracy of chiefs, the offspring of the first settlers, who ruled in each valley as priests. Such men were Thorgrim, the priest of Frey, and Bork, his brother, grandsons of the old Thorolf Mostrarskegg, who had settled on Thorsness, on the east side of Broadfirth, and there established a Thing of such sacredness, and hallowed by such senseless rules, as to entail on his children a long succession of bloodshed in the vain struggle to render them binding. It is no little proof of the power of this great family that Thorgrim could leave his priesthood at Helgafell in Broadfirth in the hands of his brother Bork, and go west to wed Thordisa in Hawkdale, and yet gather followers enough in that strange country to set up a priesthood and take a haughty lead in the Valsere Thing. No doubt the support of such champions as Gisli, Thorkel, and Vestein stood him in good stead; but he, the grandchild of the mighty Thorolf, is the chief figure in that gallant group, and so long as he stood straight he was a great stay to Gisli and his brother.

At that time the Althing was already established; we hear of it about twenty years before the Soursops went to Iceland but that venerable assembly, which plays so great a part in the history of the island half a century later, was then struggling in its infancy, and very weighty matters, which, half a century later, in the days of Njal or Snorro the Priest, would have been carried to the Althing, were settled summarily at the District Things, and never came before the Althing at all. At these District Things the chiefs who lived near them were all-powerful. The Quarter Things, which were a great remedy against injustice, were not yet established. So it is that we may explain the ease with which Bork had Gisli outlawed at the Thorsness Thing. He summoned his enemy to come to his very door to plead his cause; and we can readily understand why all the efforts of men so young and inexperienced as Bjartmar's sons failed to throw any hindrance to the sentence which made their brave kinsman an outlaw. That such a sentence could be passed against such a darling as Gisli tells much both for Bork's influence and the respect felt for law, when a decision was once given.

But besides all this load of influence and law which weighed Gisli down, there was another burden which he found it heavier to bear. He was doomed already, even before his birth. He and his were under a curse. They kept the broken bits of "Graysteel," the thrall's good sword, but along with them went his withering spaedom, uttered as he drove his axe into the first Gisli's brain--"This is but the beginning of the ill-luck which it will bring on thy kith and kin." The deepest trait in the character of Gisli, the helpful, faithful man, is the background of brooding melancholy against which his noble nature stands. He tries to render Gest's words harmless by the solemn oath of foster-brothers, but it is of no avail. What must be, must be. He is not angry with Auda for gossipping with Asgerda, "because when things are once fated, someone must utter the words that seem to bring them about." He does everything that man can do to keep Vestein afar off, but Vestein rushes on his doom in spite of every warning. "Fate rules in this too." There is no help for it. After his outlawry he warns his brother that ill-luck was following him too-that he would be the first to feel the thrall's curse--but Thorkel laughs him to scorn. As for himself, for fourteen years his evil destiny pursues him even in his dreams. He roams over the land seeking shelter and support, but with the best will no-one is able to give him any help. Something always stands in the way. No wonder that while all thought there never had been a man of readier hand or more daring heart than Gisli, all felt at the same time that "he was not a lucky man, as was proved from the very first."

This feeling alone, quite apart from any of Thorgrim's spells, was quite enough to account for Gisli's misfortunes. Then, as now, a man's fate was in his own hands, and men are ever willing to believe of another the misfortune which he is the first to spread of himself. The wizard's wicked art, indeed, was not without its power in that early state of society. It bore its victims down because they put faith in it; and like the Obimen of Africa, the worker of spells was very powerful in the tenth .century. But that power was as nothing compared with that dead weight of destiny which marked whole families for ruin for causes quite out of their control, but which were not the less real though the doomed had no hand in them.

It remains to point out some things for the knowledge of which we are indebted to this Saga alone. When it is said that the first Gisli married his brother's wife "because he would not let a good woman go out of the family," we might think that step the result of a mere natural liking or material convenience, did we not find further on in. the Saga another passage which stamps these marriages as a common custom. When Thorgrim the Priest is slain Bork takes his brother's widow to wife as a matter of course. "In those days wives were heritage like other things." Here we have the veil lifted for a moment, and we catch a glimpse at that early state of society which underlies and is before all law, when wives and children are mere matters of property taken by a man's heirs, just as they would inherit his cattle and sheep. It is not of course meant by this that the state of Icelandic society was such in the tenth century, but the custom of inheriting a wife on such conditions must be looked on as a common custom, though not perhaps as an universal rule.

In no other Saga do we find the rites of burial in a "howe" or barrow so well described. Thorgrim, the Priest is laid in his boat or ship, and then the howe or cairn is heaped over him. Vestein, the daring sailor, we may be sure, was buried in his ship too; both had the hellshoes fitted to their feet, on which in heathen times the dead were fancied to walk to Valhalla 2 and both had their ships steadied and kept upright in the howe by great stones. Though Thorgrim only mentions the hellshoon when he binds them on Vestein, and Gisli the stone when Thorgrim's ship is steadied, it is certain that the burial rites were alike in both cases--that Vestein's ship was steadied like Thorgrim's, and 'that the hellshoon were bound on Thorgrim's feet, just as he had bound them on Vestein. But both these customs are remembered alone in our Saga.

The case is the same with the games of ball on the ice. They are more exactly described in Gisli's Saga than anywhere else. Here we have the gathering of the players from the whole countryside on the frozen tarn, the crowd of beholders whose praise spurs on each player to do his best, the women clustered on the howe which overhangs the scene of strife, the choosing sides, the struggles between the foremost players, the big ball, the striking it with the bat, the hurling it with the hand, the heavy falls on the smooth ice, and the quarrels which arise when the blood grows hot. Were it not that the bat or stick is always mentioned, one might fancy that the Icelandic game of ball in the tenth century was our game of football. As it is, we must imagine it something between hockey and football--that the ball was sometimes struck with the bat, and sometimes caught and kicked, or thrown with the hand. Certain it is that both "shinning" and "hacking" were allowed by the rules of the game to almost any extent.

Of the heathen worship, and of Christianity, then slowly feeling its way towards the North, we have some very interesting particulars. When Thorgrim's career is over, and he lies in his howe, it is a beautiful trait that the god whom he had faithfully worshipped--Frey, the sun-god of the North--should look down with his bright beams on his servant's grave, and so warm it through the winter that no snow could fasten on it, or, as the Saga well expresses it, "that the frost should not come between them." This seemed something new and strange--so strange, that Gisli, in an evil hour, as his eye fell on the green grave of the man who had slain his brother-in-law, and on whom he had taken due vengeance, as in duty bound, could not forbear from breaking out into that dark song of triumph which Thordisa's quick ears caught and understood, to her brother's speedy ruin.

But another trait we find which reveals in few words