The Laxdaela Saga
is a family saga which belongs to the canon of Icelandic Sagas. These narratives are set between the 9th and 11th centuries and are some of modernity’s best examples of early Icelandic literature. The author of The Laxdaela Saga
is unknown, because the sagas were passed through many generations by oral storytelling and only recorded centuries later. The Laxdaela Saga
was first published in 1245 and by Penguin Classics in 1969, and tells the story of love, family and rivalries over 150 years in the town of Laxriverdale.
There are three parts to The Laxdaela Saga
. The first part, or the early chapters, set up the lineage, settings and conflicts for the remainder of the narrative. The second part covers the origins of a vendetta between two families and a deadly love triangle, and the final part tells of the aftermath and how the families move forward.
The first major character we are introduced to is Ketill Flatnose. He’s a prominent Norwegian and he wants to improve his status, wealth and landholdings. He has at least five children, but two are especially important to the love story that follows—Unnr, his daughter, and Bjorn, his son. Their respective lines will produce the heroes and heroine of the love triangle.
Ketill leaves Norway at the start of the saga, in the late 9th century, so he can escape the tyrannical King Harald. King Harald wants to control everyone. He decides who can own what land and makes everyone his underling. Ketill doesn’t want the king telling him what to do and preventing his ambitions. Instead, he rallies his kinsfolk and asks them to join him on a journey to Iceland. He promises them fortunes, but they’re motivated mainly by a sense of kinship and family duty. It doesn’t take long before they assemble and leave for Iceland with him.
Unnr and Bjorn are also there. However, Ketill leaves them to visit Scotland around 890 A.D. The Scots welcome him, and he claims some titles there. Some of his most loyal kinfolk settle there with him, and they’re content to live as a family. One member of his family, Thorstein, can’t settle and instead goes to war with Scottish clans to achieve his own titles. After he seizes one half of Scotland for himself, he’s murdered.
When Ketill later dies, Unnr, who’s now in Caithness, secretly commissions a ship which is large enough to hold all her kinsfolk and she plans on returning to Iceland. Great men and nobles are impressed by the ship, her wealth and her following. Before arriving in Iceland, Unnr uses her status to her advantage and arranges prosperous marriages for some of her kinsfolk in the Orkneys and Faroe Isles.
The second part begins around 80 years later. Now, we meet the three main characters who will become involved in a deadly love triangle. They are descendants of Unnr and Bjorn. These characters are Kjartan Olafsson, Bolli Thorleiksson, who is Kjartan’s half-cousin, and Gudrun, daughter of Osvifur. Bolli and Kjartan are close friends and spend most of their childhood together—it’s Gudrun who will cause a rift between them.
Gudrun meets Kjartan and they fall in love. He wants Gudrun to marry him, and she agrees. However, they can’t marry for three years, because Kjartan must travel to Norway. He’s going on a mission to earn wealth and status, which will make him a better husband for her. Gudrun is happy to wait, because she loves him, and she’s looking forward to welcoming him back.
Bolli goes with Kjartan to Norway. He hasn’t met Gudrun. However, the reigning Norwegian king wants Icelanders to convert to Christianity, and he holds Kjartan hostage until he agrees. Bolli gets to return home to Iceland where he expects to rally support for Kjartan. However, Bolli meets Gudrun, and he’s torn between loyalty to his best friend and family, and his own happiness.
Eventually, Bolli can’t resist his feelings and he falls in love with Gudrun, who also loves him. They haven’t given much thought to what they’ll do if Kjartan gets released. When Iceland converts to Christianity and Kjartan arrives home, he pretends to be happy for the couple who are now wed. Inside, however, he’s enraged, and he plans on getting revenge.
It’s not long before Kjartan marries another, and war breaks out between his family and Bolli’s. Bolli ends up killing him in a rage—Gudrun encourages him, because she’s jealous Kjartan ever married anyone else. Kjartan’s family then kill Bolli to avenge him. Finally, Bolli’s own sons kill their father’s murderer.
This blood feud between the two families is now at an irreversible place. It seems there is no end in sight for the violence and distrust. After many years of bloodshed, one of Gudrun’s trusted priests manages to reconcile the families, and the cycle of vengeance ends.