Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Strand from a Saga

By that time, Gunnar had wounded eight men and killed two. Now he received two wounds himself, but everyone is agreed that he flinched neither at wounds nor death itself.

He said to Hallgerd, ‘Let me have two locks of your hair, and help my mother plait them into a bow-string for me.’

‘Does anything depend on it?’ asked Hallgerd.

‘My life depends on it,’ replied Gunar, ‘for they will never overcome me as long as I can use my bow.’

‘In that case,’ said Hallgerd, ‘I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not.’

‘To each his own way of earning fame,’ said Gunnar. ‘You shall not be asked again.’

Rannveig said, ‘You are an evil woman, and your shame will long be remembered.’

Gunnar defended himself with great courage, and wounded eight more so severely that many of them barely lived. He kept on fighting until exhaustion brought him down. His enemies then dealt him many terrible wounds, but even then he got away and held them at bay for a long time.

But in the end they killed him.

~ I strayed onto Njal’s Saga in my last post about hair, surmising that Hallgerd Long-Legs would in the end do for the hero Gunnar, her third husband. I didn’t know then just how importantly her attribute of flowing hair would feature at his death. It must be a celebrated episode: the hero holed-up, with his homestead surrounded. At the first approach, Thorgrim foolishly climbs onto the roof (“Gizur looked up at him and asked, ‘Is Gunnar at home?’ ‘That’s for you to find out,’ replied Thorgrim, ‘But I know that his halberd certainly is.’ And with that he fell down dead.”) Thorbrand Thorleiksson, before dying on the same weapon, managed to slash Gunnar’s bowstring. And so, in the end, Gunnar turns to his reliably recalcitrant wife. Roberto Calasso says somewhere in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony that betrayal is a woman’s heroic act: Hallgerd refuses with that kind of heroism, and Gunnar accepts it – that’s his fate, and how it must be. He doesn’t get his mother to subject Hallgerd to an impromptu trim, but implicitly acknowledges that her superb implacability is her gambit for fame, and replies with a laconic rebuke that ensures his own dignity, and carries on fighting his own lost cause.

The image is the Franks casket, in the BM, with its lid depicting a lone defender with his bow, and a woman watching. It's whalebone, so I have not completely strayed from whale-relatedness. I'm off to Iceland in the summer: my first saga-holiday, you might say.

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