Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu

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Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga
Gunnlaugr and Helga the Fair meeting by Charles Fairfax Murray

Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu (About this sound listen ) or the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue is one of the Icelanders' sagas. Composed at the end of the 13th century, it is preserved complete in a slightly younger manuscript. It contains 25 verses of skaldic poetry attributed to the main characters.[1]

It is an important work in both Norwegian and Icelandic literary history. Gunnlaugr is sometimes Anglicized as Gunnlaug. The cognomen can also be translated as Worm-Tongue or Snake-Tongue. [2]

The saga has similarities to earlier sagas of poets, such as Kormáks saga and Bjarnar saga, but it is more refined and elegant with strong characterization and emotional impact. Long considered a masterpiece, the saga is often read by beginning students of Old Norse literature.[3] Printed with a Latin translation and commentary in 1775, it was the first of the Icelanders' sagas to be published in a scholarly edition.[4] [5]


The saga, said to have taken place around the introduction of Christianity[6] in Iceland, tells the story of two Icelandic poets, Gunnlaugr Ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson. Their love of Helga the Fair, granddaughter of Egill Skallagrímsson, which results in a competition leading to a deadly duel of honor.[7] The story opens with a prophetic dream of two eagles who fight over a swan before killing each other. A hawk then arrives to comfort the swan, foreshadowing the rest of the saga and the love triangle element of the story.

The saga then transitions to Gunnlaug and his upbringing. After Gunnlaugr has an altercation with his father, Illugi the Black, Gunnlaugr rides away to Borg where he meets a farmer, Thorstein, Son of Egil Skallagrímsson. Thorstein graciously invites Gunnlaugr to stay with him where he spends a year studying law. During this year, Gunnlaugr and Helga, Thorstein’s daughter, begin a friendship which cumulates in them taking a liking for one another. Gunnlaugr then decides to travel abroad, but before asks Thorstein for Helga’s hand in marriage—a customary practice in that day. Thorstein quickly rejects Gunnlaugr's proposal because of his decision to travel abroad, but after him and Illugi discuss the matter further, they agree that if Gunnlaugr returns in 3 years, he can have Helga as his wife.[8]

Despite his feelings for Helga, Gunnlaugr travels to the courts of Northern kings to recite his poetry. He first visits Norway and earl Eric Haakonsson, where his initial poem is received indifferently. Gunnlaugr eventually is banished from the country after Gunnlaugr replies to the Earl’s followers with disrespect further cementing his nickname as "Serpent-Tongue”.[8] Gunnlaugr quickly leaves Norway and heads to England, where King Æthelred rewards Gunnlaugr handsomely for his poem[9] with cloak of scarlet and requests that he return next autumn. After this, Gunnlaugr travels to Ireland and the court of Cedric-Sitric Silky-Beard. The king has no idea what the proper reward for a poem is and initially offers a lavish prize before he is counseled to give a more reasonable gift of scarlet clothes, an embroidered tunic, a cloak lined with exquisite furs, and a gold bracelet.[9] Next to be visited is the Orkneys, where Gunnlaugr receives an axe from Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson. After this comes Sweden, where Gunnlaugr recites a poem in praise of the Norwegian earl Erik, who finally appreciates Gunnlaugr's verses. [10]

To cement his relationship with Ethelread, Gunnlaugr returns to England. He is delayed for the winter before heading to Sweden to visit King Óláfr Skötkonung. Here, Gunnlaugr meets Hrafn Önundarson—the antagonist of the saga. The two have a falling out after both reciting poems for the king and told to discuss the others poems where they both make back handed comments.[6] Hrafn then returns to Iceland where he discusses with Skafti the Lawspeaker about the possibility of asking Thorstein for Helga’s hand in marriage. Skafti references the agrrement between Gunnlaugr and Throstien previously made, but Hrafn ignores the objection and states Gunnlaug’s so proud these days that he "won’t take any notice of this or care about it at all”.[8] After Hrafn and Skafti discuss the issue with Illugi and Thorstein, they agree that if Gunnlaugr breaks the vow of returning after three years to claim his wife, Hrafn then has permission to marry Helga.

The story then transitions back to Gunnlaugr and his adventures abroad, where he fulfills his oath to King Ethelred and returns to England. Upon the king’s insistence, Gunnlaugr stays an extra summer in England, which ultimately causes his original agreement with Thorstein to be void.[8] Gunnlaugr returns to Iceland too late to stop the marriage and, consequently, Gunnlaugr and Hrafn become embroiled in a bitter rivalry. It is apparent throughout the wedding that Helga still possesses feelings for Gunnlaugr. After the ceremony, Gunnlaugr approaches Helga and they talk for a while. Their talk concludes with Gunnlaugr giving the cloak King Ethelred gave to him to his beloved Helga.

With Gunnlaugr returning to Iceland, Helga loses all interest in Hrafn causing him increasing disdain for the tragic hero. They first compete with Hrafn in verse and later in battle. After their first altercation ends anticlimactically, Hrafn and Gunnlaugr agree to travel to Norway to end their dispute once and for all. It should be noted that dueling became outlawed after their first physical altercation.[6] Their feud in Norway describes Gunnlaugr cutting off Hrafn's leg. Hrafn, in one final act of spite, tricks Gunnlaugr into lowering his guard and mortally wounds Gunnlaugr before he is ultimately defeated. Gunnlaugr dies a short time later and Helga is married off to another poet named Thorkel, fulfilling the prophecy. Helga dies a short time late in life after peering upon the cloak that Gunnlaugr gave to her. [11]

Court Culture and Gift-Giving[edit]

The Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue is the strongest example among the Icelandic sagas of court culture and the culture of culture of gift giving in the late Viking age. The exchange of gifts was common in many parts of Viking society outside of court culture as a means of settling disputes and showing respect, but gift-giving in a court context had a special significance in Viking culture. Making expeditions from Iceland to Norway and England traveling to the courts of wealthy and powerful men and offering them gifts was a way to gain favor with influential people and make a name for one’s self. Honor was a crucial part of one’s character in this society, and most interactions were based on people’s reputations and the honor that they had accrued over their lifetime, so it was a constant struggle to increase one’s honor to make one’s life easier. By giving gifts to an earl or a king, the honor of both the giver and the receiver are increased.

When a visitor to a court comes bearing a gift, it is usually something unique or significant that is intended to catch the eye of both the receiver and anyone who enters their court. In Gunnlaug’s saga, Gunnlaug gives the gift of poetry to the leaders of the courts he visits. Poetry was greatly respected during this time because it was not only an art form that could be dedicated to a specific person, but if the poem was good enough and happened to speak well of its subject, then there was a chance that it would be remembered and recited for generations, carrying on the story of the person for whom it was written. In another saga, Audun of The West Fjords, Audun brings the gift of a polar bear from Greenland to a Danish king, and gains much honor as well as material wealth because of the rarity and extravagance of his gift.

Because honor played such a large role in these transactions, the heads of court who would be receiving these gifts were obliged to reciprocate these gifts in one form or another for a number of reasons. In Viking culture, people in power often maintained their positions of power by maintaining favor with their subjects, usually by hosting large feasts and ensuring their well-being in terms of food and shelter. The most important part of this was being willing to be conspicuous with one’s wealth, sharing it with the people who supported you, and if a visitor comes from far away with a specific gift to pay tribute to you, it would be in the leader’s best interest to repay their gift, showing that not only were they being honorable by repaying a gift, but these leaders would often attempt to go above and beyond in their gift giving in order to bolster their reputation and forge strong relationships with new people. The remnants of this culture can still be seen in Iceland today[12] with a culture of charitable donations.


A detailed family tree connecting major and minor characters through blood and marriage can be found here.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue", Penguin Classics, (Penguin, 2015), inside the front cover
  2. ^ Knut Ødegård (February 14, 2009). "Gunnlaug Ormstunge". Store norske leksikon. Retrieved October 21, 2015. 
  3. ^ Poole, Russell (2001) Skaldsagas: Text, Vocation, and Desire in the Icelandic Sagas of Poets. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016970-3
  4. ^ Hansen, Anne Mette et al. (2005) The Book As Artefact : Text And Border. Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-1888-7
  5. ^ "Romeo and Juliet of The North: Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu". The Saga-Steads of Iceland: A 21st-Century Pilgrimage. September 25, 2011. Retrieved October 21, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c Attwood, Katrina (2000). The Sagas of Icelanders. New York, New York: Penguin Group. p. 587. 
  7. ^ "With a particular focus on Njáls saga, Bandamanna saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, consider what is presented as most effective in Icelandic saga literature, the legal system or feuding violence?" (PDF). INNERVATE Leading Undergraduate Work in English Studies, Volume 5 (2012-2013), pp. 158-64. Retrieved October 21, 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d Attwood, Katrina (2000). The Sagas of Icelanders. New York, New York: Penguin Group. p. 579. 
  9. ^ a b Poole, Russell (1989). The Sagas of Icelanders: Verses and Prose in Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc. p. 163. 
  10. ^ "Gunnlaugr Ormstunga (Iceland, 983 – 1008)". Writers History. 2008. Retrieved October 21, 2015. 
  11. ^ Randolph Quirk (translator), Peter G. Foot (edtor) (1957). "Gunnlaugs Saga Ormstungu" (PDF). Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd. Retrieved October 21, 2015. 
  12. ^ Rice, James G.. “Icelandic Charity Donations: Reciprocity Reconsidered”. Ethnology 46.1 (2007): 1–20. Web...

Other Sources[edit]

  • "The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue" translated by Katrina C. Attwood in The Sagas of Icelanders edited by Örnólfur Thorsson (2001), pp. 558–94. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100003-1

Related Readings[edit]

External links[edit]