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Thursday, 28 April 2016

‘Behind the Text 34. ‘The Wanderer’ 4 : ‘Blood Feud’


This book is the fourth in ‘The Wanderer’ saga and is set in Iceland (984-85). This meant an abundance of ‘historical’ evidence in the form of the Icelandic Sagas. However, these were written down at least two hundred years after this period and, from my long experience, play down the peaceful aspects of Viking life (e.g. farming) The picture they provide of 10th century Iceland is like the Wild West with gunfights replaced by duels. Perfect for wanderers like Ethelwulf and his followers? Not quite, if, as in the case of Ethelwulf, the exiled Thane of Arne, you tumble into a violent dispute which becomes a blood feud. I should add that I include much procedural detail of how the community was managed – as well as how they celebrated Yuletide and organised the Althing (the earliest Parliament in the world).

I especially enjoyed having Ethelwulf ‘interact with  several of the personalities seen in the ‘Saga of Burnt Njal’ and the ‘Laxdaela Saga’. Of course, he doesn’t get on well with Skarp-Hedin nor Hallgerd, is nonplussed by Njal’s interrogation but irritated by Snorri the Priest and challenged by the Gunnar Hamundarson. Some of the tales appearing in the sagas are repeated here.

I added several characters to this rich mix. Here are some of them: the basic villain is Grim Gillisson who starts the feud by killing Ketil Clubfoot; the obnoxious Kalle Sigurdsson, whose story had to be omitted in the printed trilogy; the witch, Thorkalata, whose predictions haunt the exiles for the rest of the saga and her rival, Thurid, whose pleasant exterior hides a matching evil; and Thorleik the Black, a farmer who dies fighting at Ethelwulf’s side and is buried with a reminder of his killing of Eric Tin. There are several encounters between the few Christians on the island and the pagan bulk of the population. There is no sign that within 20 years Iceland was going to reject paganism in the manner as described in the ‘Saga of Burnt Njal’.

The climax is reached at the Althing where the dispute is not settled by judgement but in blood.   Even so, a key part of the book is played by women. Naturally there’s the rivalry of Hallgerd (Gunnar’s scheming wife) and Bergthora (Njal’s ruthless spouse) which fill several pages in the ‘Saga of Burnt Njal’. I must add Hallgerd, widow of Ketil, who draws Ethelwulf into the feud, the two witches. Thorkalata & Thurid,  Brid, the slave and the gentle Gudrun who, along with husband Hoskuld, are victimised by Kalle Sigurdsson before he comes to a sticky end.

This was written somewhat late (started 17/8/2004)- chiefly due to hesitation about how to best use such source material. However, this proved to be one of my favourite parts of ‘The Wanderer Saga’. I wonder if you can identify some of the reasons.


Bob Hyslop

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