Her Own Life
The Icelandic sagas offer readers insight into the lives of the Icelandic people that lived so many years ago in the 9th through 11th centuries. Their lives were very different then than the lives that we live now in modern times, and these sagas give modern readers a better understanding of their culture and how they told their stories and passed down their wisdom in those times. The Saga of the People of Laxardal is a well-known saga that contains a wide variety of the cultural themes present in the lives of the Icelandic people during those distant times. This saga contains common story-elements that are characteristic to the Icelandic saga genre as a whole. One of these story elements is that characters often have dreams that seem to symbolize or prophesize events that are to come. Dreams are a substantial part of the Icelandic sagas, playing a role in the development of the plot as well as the characters. One of the most significant events of “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” is brought up after the introduction of the character Gudrun. In the middle of the saga, Gudrun has a series of dreams, each in which she loses a possession of hers. In her first dream, Gudrun “tore the head-dress from [her] head and threw it into the stream,” after she went against the advice of others to keep the head-dress (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 329). In her second dream, Gudrun lost a silver arm-ring, however she states, “I was filled with a sense of loss much greater that I should have felt at losing a mere object,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 329). This dream clearly indicates that the arm-ring was an object of significance to Gudrun and she cared for it greater than the head-dress mentioned in the first dream. Gudrun speaks of a gold arm-ring in her third dream, stating that it “seemed to make up for [her] loss” of the silver-arm ring (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 329). However, in the third dream, she falls and the gold arm-ring breaks. In the fourth and final dream, a gold helmet is in Gudrun’s possession. She states that the helmet was too heavy for her head yet she did not intend to get rid of it. She loses the helmet, as it “fell suddenly from [her] head and into the waters of Hvammsfjord,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 329). During this portion of the saga, Gudrun is with Gest Oddleifsson, an old chieftain who had the ability to see the future. Gest interprets Gudrun’s dreams as a prophecy regarding her relationships with her future husbands; four dreams for four husbands, and each object in the dreams representing a husband. Throughout the rest of the saga, readers find out that Gest’s interpretations of the four dreams come true, and the interpretations play out as the fate of each husband as well as Gudrun’s relationships with the four men.
The dreams mentioned in the saga bring up themes of prophecy and foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a literary element that many storytellers use to build anticipation in the minds of readers about what might happen next in the tale. The elements of foreshadowing in “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” put an aura of curiosity into the readers’ minds as they continue to read the saga and wonder if Gudrun’s dreams will come true as Gest predicted. Foreshadowing ultimately keeps the reader engaged in the content of the saga. However, Ármann Jakobsson, author of “Laxdæla Dreaming: A Saga Heroine Invents Her Own Life”, claims that “this dream narrative is not merely a symbolic illustration of the future. It raises many other questions,” such as the personality of Gudrun herself (“Laxdæla Dreaming: A Saga Heroine Invents Her Own Life”, p. 36).
In the context of the saga, readers come to learn that Gudrun has a personality that should not be messed with. Gudrun’s relationship with her first husband, Thorvals, was strained, seeing as she did not like him. As a result of her marriage to the man, she was “avid in demanding purchases of precious objects” and she “vented her anger on Thorvald if he failed to buy them,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 332). Gudrun’s behavior towards Thorvald shows that Gudrun was a high-maintenance person, but it also shows that her demanding behavior could have been a manipulative way to get Thorvald to divorce her, seeing as Gudrun did not like this marriage. During the Viking Age, it was considered suitable grounds for divorce if a person of one gender wore the clothes of the opposite gender. Thord Igunnarson suggests that Gudrun make Thorvald a low-cut shirt, and then that would give her a reason to get out of the marriage. Gudrun follows the plan and ends up marrying Thord, after he divorces his wife on the same circumstances of cross-dressing (p. 332-333). Alice Spruit, author of “Judging Vikings: Ethics and morality in two Icelandic family sagas Laxdaela saga & Vatnsdaela saga,” notes that it is unclear “whether Gudrun really saw Thord's wife wearing men's clothing. It could be that Gudrun made up the rumor, so that Thord would have a reason to divorce his wife,” (p. 45). These events show how manipulative Gudrun is in order to get what she wants. Jakobsson states, “the saga itself, on the other hand, draws attention to [Gudrun’s] mental powers rather than her looks,” (“Laxdæla Dreaming: A Saga Heroine Invents Her Own Life”, p. 38). This is an interesting aspect, seeing as women from the Viking Age were not often shown as the masterminds of plans but rather as the pawns of physical beauty in a man’s eyes.
For the majority of the sagas presented in The Sagas of Icelanders, women are described based on physical beauty rather than intellect however, in “The Saga of the People of Laxardral,” women are given a new spotlight. The saga starts by describing a woman named Unn. She is revered as a very respected woman with a lot of supporters, which male Vikings would normally have. As well, she is noted to travel and many women during this time were not allowed to travel by the males in their family and, instead, were forced to take care of children and the home. Gudrun’s character only adds to the diverse perspective about women in this saga.
Gudrun is described as being “the most beautiful woman to have ever grown up in Iceland,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 327). She is also noted to be “no less clever than she was good looking,” as well as “highly articulate,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 327). For Gudrun, it is her wit and willpower that drives her life in the saga, and her mental and emotional characteristics allow readers to see a different perspective on Viking women other than physical attributes. Jakobsson notes that the description of Kjartan, Gudrun’s third husband, “draws special attention to his face, eyes, hair and body,” and that “nothing is explicitly stated about [his] accomplishments” based on his wisdom and cleverness. During the feud between Kjartan and Bolli for Gudrun’s love, Spruit states “Gudrun and Kjartan act completely out of self-interest; even though Gudrun seems to be thinking about the honour of herself and Bolli, Kjartan might be only thinking of taking vengeance,” (“Judging Vikings: Ethics and morality in two Icelandic family sagas Laxdaela saga & Vatnsdaela saga”, p. 50). Throughout the saga, Gudrun mental ability seems to be a step ahead of everyone else’s and this supports why she is such an innovative woman. Although her love life is not great by the end of the saga, Gudrun becomes “the first woman in Iceland to be a nun and an anchoress,” and “it was also widely said that [she] was the most noble among women of her rank in this country,” (“The Saga of the People of Laxardal”, p. 420). Despite the blatant gender roles that may be presented in other sagas, “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” offers a different perspective in presenting the women of the Viking Age as powerful figures, both intellectually and morally.
“The Saga of the People of Laxardal” is a captivating piece of historic literature containing many literary themes that can be found in other sagas from The Sagas of Icelanders, as well as in sagas that are not in this collection. The element of foreshadowing, through Gudrun’s dreams and Gest’s interpretation of the dreams, determines many of the events of the latter half of the saga. This saga also presents new thematic elements that open the eyes of readers to comprehend more of what is generally perceived to be aspects of the Viking Age. The character of Gudrun is portrayed as a headstrong, independent woman and her actions are credited to her personality and mental ability, rather than the way she looks. The characteristic perspectives on the men and the women of this saga can be considered reversed, seeing as some of the men are described with lavish detail on their appearance, and the women are revered for being intellectual. This perspective can also be considered as comparable to the ever-changing social structures of the Viking Age as well as the changes in religious structures, after the introduction of Christianity to the Vikings.“The Saga of the People of Laxardal” ties together themes found in many sagas and themes that are specific to the storyline of this saga, thus enabling a tale to show the progression of Viking culture and presenting an intriguing piece of literature for readers to analyze.