Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu

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This article is about Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga. For other uses, see Gunnlaugr(disambiguation).
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[1] is one of the Icelanders' sagas. Composed at the end of the 13th century,[2] it is preserved complete in a slightly younger manuscript. It contains 25 verses of skaldic poetry attributed to the main characters. It is an important work in both Norwegian and Icelandic literary history.


The saga relates the story of two Icelandic poets Gunnlaugr ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson, and their competition for the love of Helga the Fair, granddaughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. 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 prefiguring the love triangle element of the story. Despite his feelings for Helga, Gunnlaug wishes to travel to the courts of Scandinavian kings to recite his poetry. He first visits Norway and earl Eirik, where his initial poem is received indifferently. A follower of the king, Thorir, challenges Gunnlaug and the two engage in a poetic competition, which the king is again indifferent toward. This new attitude toward poetry is markedly different from Egils Saga. Gunnlaug quickly leaves Norway and heads to England, where Ethelread rewards Gunnlaug and requests that he return next autumn. After this, Gunnlaug travels to Ireland and the court of Cedric-Sitric Silky-Beard. The king has no idea what the proper reward for a poem is (another textual commentary on the shift from Egils Saga) and initially offers a lavish prize before he is counseled to give a more reasonable gift. Next to be visited is the Orkneys, where Gunnlaug receives an axe from Earl Sigurd Hlodvesson. After this comes Sweden, where Gunnlaug recites a poem in praise of the Norwegian earl Eirik, who (finally) appreciates Gunnlaug's verses.

To cement his relationship with Ethelread, Gunnlaug returns to England. He is delayed for the winter before heading to Sweden to visit King Olaf. Upon arriving, Gunnlaug is welcomed due to his family rather than his poetry – a further instance of the de-valuation of poetry. Here Gunnlaug meets Hrafn. The two have a falling out after both reciting poems for the king and Hrafn, who knows of Gunnlaugr's love for Helga, resolves to marry her as revenge for the perceived slight. Gunnlaugr returns to Iceland too late to stop the marriage and Gunnlaugr and Hrafn become embroiled in a bitter rivalry. He first competes with Hrafn in verse and later in battle. Their feud culminates in a battle in Sweden in which Gunnlaugr cuts 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.

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]


  1. ^ Gunnlaugr is sometimes Anglicized as Gunnlaug. The cognomen can also be translated as Worm-Tongue or Snake-Tongue.
  2. ^ "The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue", Penguin Classics, (Penguin, 2015), inside the front cover
  3. ^ Poole 2001:2.
  4. ^ Hansen 2005:62.


  • Hansen, Anne Mette et al. (2005). The Book As Artefact : Text And Border. Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-1888-7
  • Poole, Russell (2001). Skaldsagas: Text, Vocation, and Desire in the Icelandic Sagas of Poets. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016970-3
  • "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

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