Outlawed but Not Alone: Friendships Out of Bounds in Grettir’s Saga

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Sophie Pavey

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Miranda Burgess Seminar)


Icelandic Sagas all have in common the ubiquitous presence of friendships – among strangers, families, rulers, and members of a community. Two major currents of thought have aimed to explain the presence and function of these networks in Icelandic Sagas: friendship as a product of socially accepted morality, and friendship that exists to uphold Iceland’s legal and social infrastructure. I will be building on this work by examining friendships in Grettir’s Saga which do not fit into the prevalent theoretical frameworks. This essay will be interested in how Grettir’s friendships function when they are removed from their moral and societal contexts. I will first explore scholarship on the moral and socio-contextual grounds for friendship. Next, I will argue that Grettir’s status as an outlaw simultaneously relegates him from society and points to a lack of morality in accordance with eleventh century Icelandic society. I will explore three of Grettir’s friendships and what they accomplish for the outlaw. I will begin with the friendship between Grettir and his brother Illugi, arguing that their friendship demonstrates the distance between Grettir’s ideas about heroism and the Icelandic state’s; Grettir’s closeness to Illugi near the end of the text might point to a reconciliation with his community and its values. I will then investigate Grettir’s friendship with the Norwegian Thorfinn –– stemming from exchange and debt –– which allows Grettir to cultivate the heroic status he is unable to obtain in Iceland. Finally, I will argue that Grettir’s friendship with Hallmund, born of mutual kinship and respect, addresses the fundamental problem of solitude and isolation the outlaw faces. Grettir’s friendships invite readers to consider what elements of society are vital, and how one adapts when one is banished from a community.

Explaining friendship as a moral action is a common trend in Icelandic Saga analysis. The romantic perspective has been the prominent view, being one of the longest standing currents of thought.  It continues to be a common theoretical framework (Árnason, 157-158). The romantic perspective accepts the driving force of actions in sagas as morality, and analyzes morality in terms of personal qualities and attitudes; these qualities are governed by honour and the heroic character (Árnason,159). The actions of the hero are not necessarily good or bad, but they do align with a code of actions which stems from honour and is accepted by society. Action in sagas is driven primarily by the desire to embody these noble traits, and feuds often start when someone’s accrued honour is challenged. Subjective beliefs govern actions, and individuals who act poorly must have undesirable morals, or at least a morality that does not align with what their societal context demands. For the romantics, Icelandic saga friendships are a product of a certain type of heroic morality and noble character traits.

More recently, scholars have considered the social setting of Icelandic Sagas as a contributor to friendships, which also form the fabric of the social order of the Icelandic Free state. Vilhjálmur Árnason considers the view that actions of the saga characters can be explained in terms of the cultural norms and sociomoral principles that were operating in the Icelandic Free State at the time (Árnason, 165). Duties, virtues, and moral principles are underscored by the social context of medieval Iceland (Árnason, 165). To illustrate his point, Árnason references Hegel’s principle of Sittlichkeit. Sittlichkeit is the “objective ethical order that is the structure of rules, obligations, and normative principles which people internalize by living in a particular ethical community” (Árnason, 163). In traditional societies –– such as the one presented in Gretir’s Saga –– Sittlichkeit is strong (Árnason, 163). Árnason maintains that while individual qualities are still important, they are shaped predominantly by social practice and circumstance, rather than a personal ethic. Jesse Byock also argues that friendship creates legal and social order in Iceland. What Byock calls a “system of advocacy” is the process by which friendships act as a socially stabilizing process (Byock 193). Free State Iceland lacked an executive arm of government, and for the first 300 years of its existence, Iceland was self-regulatory (Gíslason, 14). Parties themselves administered and enforced claims, which required people to press or defend cases or act as moderators acting in the best interest of the community (Árnason, 166). For Byock, friendships placed disputes into socially accepted channels and prevented them from escalating to the point of rupturing the social fabric(Gíslason, 15). Byock, Árnason, and other academics sharing this socio-contextual perspective find friendships to be both an element of society in place of structured government and consequently a product of social setting.

While morality and social context explain friendship’s existence within Icelandic society, Grettir’s status as an outlaw removes him from both situations where friendship exists by default: as an outlaw he is considered amoral and is banished from society. The discord between Grettir’s ethical code and that accepted by agrarian Free State Iceland contributes to his outlawry; his ethical code and actions don’t align with his social context. Grettir’s actions are inconsistent and change based on the situation –– sometimes he is overbearing and arrogant, other times kind and helpful (Hume, 469). Grettir has an “unusual, aristocratic set of values” (Hume, 471), which are highly influenced by setting. In contexts where heroism is needed, Grettir acts accordingly. When his brother Atli is killed, Grettir is able to heroically demand vengeance (Hume, 474): “Now recompense comes to me / for the theft of my brother’s life / a deed unrevenged since Atli / sank in death on his fair lands” (Grettir’s Saga, 132). The only heroic thing to do is avenge his brother, and Grettir is determined to do so. His heroism is validated by his mother Asdis, who is pleased and declares him to be descended from the men of Vatnsdal (Grettir’s Saga, 132). Unfortunately for the aspiring hero, situations where heroism is needed are rare in peaceful Iceland, and though Grettir can avenge his brother, little other heroism is called for. When trying to work on his family’s farm, Grettir remarks that the work is “a weakling’s job” (Grettir’s Saga, 35). As a result of his prejudice towards agrarian labour, Grettir is generally unable to work on the farm. Icelandic society has moved on from needing a hero that works on Grettir’s terms, and he is unable to live peacefully in his community (Hume, 472). Grettir’s morality leads him to outlawry. He loses out on friendships because his morality, which outlaws him, is incompatible with that of the members of the Icelandic Free State.

Outlawry was the severest form of punishment that could be inflicted on someone during Iceland’s Free State period –– the individual was placed outside of the bounds of society (Barraclough, 366). Because the social sphere in Free State Iceland was synonymous with the law (Barraclough, 366), Grettir’s banishment by law resulted in his expulsion from society. The outlaw Grettir, no longer a member of society, is cut off from the particular friendships that form his community and enable it to function efficiently. Networks of friendships common in Icelandic sagas create obligations of support and alliance (Gaskins, 202). Friendship is presented as vital and networks in sagas are more resilient than individuals acting alone (Gaskins, 210). When individuals like Grettir disturb the social equilibrium they “meet with constraints signalled variously by determined adversaries, by customs embodied in law or public opinion” (Gaskins, 205). In Grettir’s case, these obstacles take the form of Thorir and his kinsmen, who “rode with a large following to the Althing… there was no chance for Grettir’s acquittal ( Grettir’s Saga 122-123). Thorir has many friendships which he uses in the Althing to push forward Grettir’s outlawry. In Grettir’s Saga, Thorir’s large network determines the outcome of the case and demonstrates what society believes to be best at that time. Friendships and networks dictate the decisions of the legal system which is designed to be a reflection of society’s needs in relation to a crime. The society which Grettir has disturbed reacts by ejecting him. When he is removed from society, Grettir also loses his network of trust, a key force driving friendship and social networks in Iceland (Gaskins, 212). While trusting oneself is reliable, being able to trust others is an added advantage that proves much more useful: “No man can trust / in his own unaided / strength” (Grettir’s Saga, 168). Though Grettir has great mental and physical strength, these traits have limited range and can only be supplemented by a network of friendships. These networks create reliable alliances of support. Grettir is robbed of these connections when living on the Arnarvatn Heath because “outlaws are untrustworthy” and several outlaws are sent to dispatch him ( Grettir’s Saga 148-149). By being outlawed, Grettir is cut off from friendships based both on morality and social obligation.

Grettir’s friendship with his brother Illugi serves as a way to show how far removed from society Grettir is, and how much his personal understanding of heroism differs from that of his community. The two brothers sit opposite each other, Illugi representing the ideal for eleventh century Iceland, and Grettir the pariah. Though Grettir is the hero of the saga, he is not heroic by eleventh century Iceland’s standards; valour is granted to his younger brother Illugi who embodies many heroic tropes found in Icelandic Sagas. This friendship highlights the stark contrast between both men; displaying how much Illugi acts within the bounds of morality and social context demonstrates just how much Grettir does not. Illugi embodies the heroic character, leading a life of honour and fulfilling his tragic duty to die rather than give up his honour. He wishes to die honourably, stating: “There is no chance that I would seek to spare my life by becoming a coward like you” (Grettir’s Saga, 215). Illugi would rather preserve his honour in death than live an honourless life –– a sentiment praised by those around him (Grettir’s Saga, 215). Illugi’s heroism is considered more appropriate than Grettir’s; he conducts himself heroically when it is socially acceptable, and in Grettir’s Saga this is when he must exact revenge or die trying. The act of vengeance was strongly sanctioned in the Icelandic Free State, and anyone who did not fulfil this obligation was seen as useless (Árnason, 172). Kinship obligations for revenge and inheritance were reckoned out to the fifth degree (Byock, 164). For the Icelandic Free State Illugi is a perfect hero –– he lives a peaceful agrarian life, and in the acceptable channels takes his heroic revenge. Illugi dies for his honour, and his character is granted the heroic motif of laughter at death (Hume, 481): “When Illugi realized that they intended to kill him he laughed” (Grettir’s Saga, 215). Although Grettir is the hero of the saga itself, he is not the hero of the Icelanders; his friendship with his brother highlights the difference between the story’s hero and the community’s hero.

The contrast between Illugi’s heroic character and Grettir’s outlawed one makes the pair’s friendship unlikely. Yet the brothers are friends, and Illugi loyally goes with Grettir to Drangey: “I will go with you, brother… and not desert you” ( Grettir’s Saga, 184). Though Illugi is only fifteen, he heroically gives his life to Grettir’s cause. The brothers’ cooperation coincides with the end of Grettir’s story and with the potential for him to return to society. While Grettir is on Drangey his case is reevaluated, and the Althing determines that he had been an outlaw only eighteen years and “Grettir would be pardoned the following summer” (Grettir’s Saga, 201). With one year left in his sentence, Grettir seems to be approaching a return to the Icelandic community. For scholar Lotte Motz, “Grettir’s struggles are part of a pattern of initiation in which the goal for a successful hero is to return and to be welcomed by society, hopefully with new status” (Motz, 93). By the end of the tale Grettir is exhausted, has no fight left in him (Grettir’s Saga, 214) and wishes to return to society, which he may do in a year. Grettir and Illugi’s friendship illustrates the potential reconciliation Grettir could have with society. The closeness of the brothers –– with such opposing ideas on heroism –– signals Grettir’s inclination to give up his heroic ideals and be potentially “welcomed back by society.” By demonstrating this need for reconciliation, Illugi and Grettir’s friendship speaks to the harshness of being an outlaw; much of Grettir’s success as an outlaw is based on his ability to merely survive outside (Hawes, 31) and by the end Grettir approaches the idea of giving up his personal honour (quite un-heroically) to be let back into Icelandic society. Grettir’s shift away from his perceived heroism together with his connection to the heroic Illugi illustrate the sacrifices Grettir will need to make in order to return home.

While Illugi is the hero for Icelanders, Grettir forges a friendship in Norway which allows him to act as a temporary hero in the saga. Because Grettir’s outlawry prevents him from being a hero in Iceland, he must go elsewhere for his heroism to be accepted. Grettir’s Iceland greatly limits him; the social patterns have shrunk to a narrow range of permitted behaviour and tasks were so “trivial, if necessary” that the hero like Grettir had no place within them (Hume, 477). As an outlaw Grettir fails to become a hero, and instead becomes an outsider. Grettir’s friendship with Thorfinn in northern Norway exemplifies Grettir’s heroism when removed from his home. Though typically the home of enemies in Icelandic sagas (DeAngelo, 265-266), northern Norway provides Grettir with the context he requires to become a hero. In Icelandic society there are “given rules which assign men their place in order and with it their identity also prescribes what they owe and what is owed to them and how they are to be treated and regarded” (MacIntyre, 116). In Iceland, Grettir’s heroic code outlaws him and he is owed little by society. Yet in Norway Grettir garners high status for saving Thorfinn’s estate from berserkers. By defending the hall, Grettir is a hero and preserves the honour of the family: “We would never have rid ourselves of the shame, if your guest had not helped us” ( Grettir’s Saga, 63). As a result of his actions, Grettir is owed a great deal and is afforded a hero’s friendship: “They parted in great friendship, and Thorfinn asked Grettir to stay with him if he ever returned to Norway” ( Grettir’s Saga 75). Thorfinn’s means of repaying Grettir involves lasting friendship –– the men do not trade in material goods, but rather in loyalties. Thorfinn swears enduring loyalty to Grettir: “I wish that you will find yourself in need of help … I will never be able to repay you for this deed of generosity if you do not find need for me” (Grettir’s Saga, 63). Grettir’s friendship with Thorfinn cements Grettir as a hero in Norway, and one who must be repaid in a way typical of heroes.

Grettir enjoys a friendship based on exchange with Thorfinn in Norway but one based on kinship with Hallmund in Iceland. Grettir and Hallmund’s friendship functions outside of both society and morality because neither man is part of society and morally there is no reason for the men to be friends –– neither will gain honour from the other. The kindness that the two express towards each other has no inherent value insofar as gaining honour. Grettir and Hallmund’s friendship speaks to the aloneness of being an outlaw. While outlaws were meant to be excluded from society and “shunned from every world except hell,” practically speaking outlaws were still human beings (Barraclough, 366). While Grettir isn’t meant to be a part of society, he also can’t fit into the chaotic wilderness (Barraclough, 368). Grettir’s friendship with Hallmund addresses the issue that “[he] has to be somewhere” and can’t avoid all worlds while he is alive (Grettir’s Saga, 142). Grettir’s alienation from society might be caused by his different ethical code, and that he is unlike any other characters: “None of the young men were thought his equal” ( Grettir’s Saga 81). Because none are thought Grettir’s equal he is further isolated. In Hallmund, Grettir senses a kindred spirit. Hallmund is Grettir’s equal if not his superior: “It is said that Grettir killed six men in the fight, and Hallmund twelve” ( Grettir’s Saga 154). The two are vicious fighters, and the saga illustrates them as having a similar spirit. Grettir is no longer alone, and this friendship of mutual respect and similarity resolves some of his feelings of isolation: “Hallmund said ‘it is my wish that you come home with me, because you must find it lonely here on the heath.’ Grettir said he would gladly do that” ( Grettir’s Saga 153). Hallmund shows an appreciation for the struggle Grettir must face as an outlaw, and the kinship the two men share creates a lasting friendship of trust.

Grettir and Hallmund’s friendship works in Grettir’s Saga to exemplify the importance of the dark. Darkness is explored throughout the saga as Grettir is plagued by a fear of being alone in the dark. Scholar Katherine Hume has analyzed Grettir’s heroism and the dark, discussing that what Grettir wants is a world “in which human society is a small stronghold surrounded by darkness and chaos, and he, the hero, can venture beyond the pale to grapple with the forces of darkness, and be welcomed back as a savior” (Hawes, 21). Grettir wants to be a hero, yet the dark stands in his way. When Grettir goes out to fight Glam –– a typical enemy for saga heroes –– he expects to conquer the monster who lives in the dark. Instead, Grettir finds himself cursed: “You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further, I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone” (Grettir’s Saga, 102). Rather than returning to society as a hero who conquers the dark, Grettir is resigned to fear and inhabit it; he cannot grapple with the forces of darkness. The challenges of isolation by outlawry are heightened by Grettir’s fear of the dark: “He had become a man so scared of the dark that he did not dare travel alone after darkness fell” (Grettir’s Saga, 103). In the dark, Grettir can’t reach anyone, and he can’t see dangers coming. He can’t be the hero conquering the dark. Yet Grettir’s friendship with Hallmund takes on a heroic character when Hallmund brings Grettir away from the dark into a cave with a “fire [that] burned brightly” (Grettir’s Saga, 166). The heroic nature of their friendship implies “reliability in times of need, a test of a friend’s character, but it is the situation which decides the nature of the test” (Árnason, 169). Hallmund is reliable in Grettir’s times of need during a fight and when he is trapped in the dark. The two men fight together: “It is said that Grettir killed six men in the fight, and Hallmund twelve” (Grettir’s Saga 154). Without Hallmund’s help Grettir might not have survived the ambush. Grettir’s test occurs when Hallmund is killed by Grim. As he dies, Hallmund states: “I believe Grettir would seek to avenge me, if he were able to come” (Grettir’s Saga 169). Hallmund is sure Grettir would avenge him if he could. However, without assistance, Hallmund seems skeptical that Grettir could succeed: “Still, it will not be easy to go against this man’s good luck, because his future is bright” (Grettir’s Saga, 169). While Grettir will be thrown back into the dark without Hallmund, Grim is surrounded by good luck and brightness –– the reverse of Grettir’s circumstance.

Friendships in Grettir’s Saga often function outside of the bounds of morality and social contracts. While extensive scholarship exists on friendship within society — as a binding agent of the Icelandic Free State’s social system and as a morally driven effort — little work has been done to explore friendships outside of these constraints; this essay has begun to explore how friendships of outlaws function and what they accomplish. Grettir’s friendship with Illugi serves to illustrate how far removed from society Grettir is and how different his heroic ideals are from what is appropriate for eleventh century Icelandic society; the two brothers are heroes in different ways. Being friends with Thorfinn allows Grettir to recoup heroism he can’t accrue in Iceland. By becoming friends with Hallmund, Grettir tackles the fundamental issues with being isolated as an outlaw. The friendships Grettir forges invite us to contemplate not only their place in sagas, but what their presence and function in sagas tells us about Icelandic values and society. The longevity of Grettir’s success as an outlaw is in part attributable to his ability to establish a trusting network of friends with similar values. Grettir seems to take his outlawry in stride –– rather than being caught in limbo between civilized society and the wild he adapts friendships to accomplish what his community might have. The friendships Grettir enjoys provide insight into the ethical intention of saga authors, and what they might be trying to explore; Grettir’s Saga proves useful in examining which elements of society are fundamentally necessary, and which one can survive without. Grettir serves as a study of this idea of vital elements –– for the outlaw uses friendships to reclaim the things most important to him: feeling like a hero and not being alone. Readers are left to consider in what capacity an eleventh century Icelandic outlaw saga addresses the crux of what it means to interact with a community.



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