Isolation, Loneliness and Risk Taking in Medieval Icelandic Outlaw Sagas

By Matthew Firth and James Kane, Flinders University

In recent months, ‘isolation’ has become part of our core vocabulary. For many of us, COVID-19 has imposed our first experience of widespread social isolation. However, among medieval North Sea cultures, where urbanisation was limited and population density low, isolation was a part of life. This was particularly true in Iceland, a primarily agrarian society isolated by the sea, by the weather, and by winters that could see kin-groups sequestered on their farmsteads for months on end. This sort of enforced isolation, then as now, took its toll.

Tabula Islandiæ, Georgius Carolus Flandrus, 1638.
Tabula Islandiæ, Georgius Carolus Flandrus, 1638. Wikimedia Commons.

Even voluntary isolation was fraught with risks. In his assessment of the biography of the eighth-century English monk St Guthlac, who spent two years preparing for isolation as a hermit, Graham Jones suggests that Guthlac’s loneliness rapidly took on ‘two clinical forms’, extreme anxiety and depression.[1] Reflecting on the psychological impact of exile and isolation in early medieval cultures that privileged personal connection to one’s kin and one’s lord, Elise Louviot observes the ubiquity of literary portrayals of the ‘sorrow of the lonely person’.[2] As a melancholic emotional response to loneliness, this imagery is central to the Old English poems The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament.

Tropes of exile and isolation also permeate the corpus of ninth- to eleventh-century Icelandic texts known as the sagas of Icelanders. Notably, experiences of loneliness underpin the stories of Iceland’s two most famous outlaws, Grettir Ásmundarson and Gísli Súrsson. But how did medieval Icelanders react to, and cope with, their own experiences of isolation? For Grettir and Gísli, the need to experience human connection manifests remarkable risk-taking behaviours.

The societies of the early medieval North Sea world were keenly aware of the practical necessity of community to physical survival and mental wellbeing. This was what made enforced isolation—outlawry and exile—such effective punishments. Medieval Icelandic law allowed for two kinds of outlawry. Lesser outlawry usually entailed banishment for three years, though could be tailored to specific legislative requirements. The men outlawed at the end of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings (The Saga of Havard of Ísafjörður), for example, are banished for the lifespan of one of the elderly men being compensated.[3] Full outlawry, on the other hand, meant permanent exclusion from Icelandic society.

In both cases, outlawry entailed exclusion from society, the forbidding of aid, the denial of legal protection. The outlaw was a wholly vulnerable being, liable to be hunted down and killed by those who had sought his outlawry with no legal repercussion. In a society that lacked formal capital punishment in most respects, outlawry functioned as a death sentence.

Outlaws had two choices, then. They could flee into exile, leaving Iceland and its law behind, or they could live on the margins of Icelandic society, isolated within the landscape, hoping for the goodwill and transgressive aid of their family and allies.

In the sagas, most of those sentenced to lesser outlawry leave Iceland, aided and protected in their departing passage by supportive family. This is often a narrative platform for three years of adventuring before returning to Icelandic society, sometimes wiser, sometimes foolhardier. Thus, we are told of the men outlawed in Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings:

Those who had to go abroad travelled west to Vaðil and from there abroad in the summer. They had favourable winds and arrived in Norway … in the spring they got a ship and went raiding and became the most renowned of men. They pursued this occupation for several years. Then they returned home to Iceland, and Þórarinn was then dead. They became excellent men. There are many stories of them here in the land and in other places far and wide.[4]

While this passage neatly summarises the trope, as a literary conceit, the peripatetic Icelandic exile is one that underlies an entire sub-genre of the sagas: the sagas of warrior-poets. In contrast, the decision to go abroad for those sentenced to full outlawry is portrayed as much harder. On the one hand, departure meant the permanent absence of culture, of home, of family; on the other, remaining meant a life of being hunted, of criminality, of burdening family and allies. This latter is the path taken by Grettir and Gísli.

Grettir Ásmundarson, Reykjavík AM 426, c. 1670
Grettir Ásmundarson, Reykjavík AM 426, c. 1670. Wikimedia Commons.

Grettir lived as an outlaw in the Icelandic landscape for 19 years. His is a complicated tale and his outlawry was not entirely just; as such, he found support from family and allies during his long exile. Yet this was not without risk for those who extended aid, and Grettir lived in transience, rarely spending any length of time with any individual supporter. But Grettir’s isolation was also fated, cursed to his life on the margins by the vindictive revenant Glámr prior to his outlawry. From that time, the saga author builds the sense of Grettir’s loneliness until, at the end of the saga, we find him living on a rocky island called Drangey, with only his teenaged brother Illugi and a lazy servant named Glaumr for company. It is Grettir’s ‘extreme loneliness,’ according to Slavica Ranković, that compels him to overlook the manifest shortcomings of his servant, an oversight that leads to Grettir’s death.[5]

Bromr, Photo of Drangey, an island in Iceland, June 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

Grettir’s desperation for human connection and the risks he takes to experience it are on display all throughout this final period of exile. In taking up residence on Drangey, Grettir has taken control of grazing lands and livestock belonging to the men of Skagafjörðr. There is little legal recourse for them to evict an already outlawed man, yet Grettir is not a welcomed visitor. Despite this, Grettir goes alone and in disguise to the regional þing, or local assembly, where legal judgements are passed and where his enemies in the district have gathered. Grettir even manages to extract an amnesty from the attendees before revealing his true identity and participating in wrestling games, besting Skagafjörðr’s strongest men. Grettir departs unmolested, happy with his brief experience of connection and, of course, with having shamed his opponents.[6] Yet this does little to engender goodwill. Caught unawares as Glaumr sleeps on his watch, Grettir and Illugi will soon be dead, overwhelmed in an isolated shelter on Drangey’s windswept plateau by those same men.

Gísli, Auð and their foster daughter, C. E. St. John Mildmay, 1866
Gísli, Auð and their foster daughter, C. E. St. John Mildmay, 1866. Wikimedia Commons.

Similar themes permeate Gísla saga Súrssonar (Gísli Sursson’s Saga). Described by Lars Lönnroth as Gísli’s ‘miserable life and loneliness,’ Gísli’s thirteen-year outlawry too is characterised by a need for human connection and consequent risk-taking.[7] His regular visits to his wife Auð on their farmstead place him within reach of bounty-hunters and, indeed, prove his downfall. Yet Gísli and Auð’s relationship is often considered one of the great love stories of the sagas of Icelanders, and certainly their devotion to one another is a feature of the tale.

In contrast to Grettir, Gísli’s outlawry is somewhat more straightforward in that he committed the killing he was accused of. We are, nonetheless, meant to think of him as poorly treated. His action was part of a feud-cycle and as vengeance for the uncompensated killing of his brother-in-law. It does not follow under Icelandic law that Gísli will necessarily be outlawed for this act, yet Gísli too is fated to his isolation. Bork, the brother of Þorgrim, the murdered man, arranges for a cursing ritual to be conducted with the intent that:

there should be no hope for the man who had killed Þorgrim, however much men might want to give it to him, and there should be no rest for him in the country.[8]

These tropes of cursing in the sagas speak to the same cultural anxieties as the institution of outlawry itself: the worst punishment a person could face was isolation, to be deprived of belonging. Gísli and Grettir, who both survive for extraordinarily long periods on the periphery of Icelandic society, experience the same psychological repercussions of prolonged isolation. The Gísla saga author, just like the Grettis saga author, builds the intensity of the outlaw’s loneliness through the narrative. Just before setting out to Drangey with his brother, Grettir confesses to his mother that he has grown to fear the dark and fear his loneliness to such an extent that he is not willing to live alone any longer simply to preserve his life. Gísli’s final years, too, are punctuated by a fear of the dark and of the nightmares that plague him, and he grows to fear being alone.

It is small wonder in this context that Gísli seeks the companionship of his wife, Auð. Yet their farmstead is also the most logical place for Bork and his bounty-hunters to seek Gísli. But Auð protects her husband. Even as the bounty hunters face her down in her house and Gísli hides in the outbuildings, she lies to them, and in one case even attacks their leader. By the same token, it is Gísli who brought them to her door, and it is his risk-taking behaviour in seeking the human connection Auð provides that brings about his death. The bounty hunters spot Gísli’s tracks in the frost leading away from Auð’s steading and pursue him to a last stand. Gísli dies, overwhelmed by the men, as the wife he had risked everything to remain connected to fights alongside him.

These are, of course, dramatic tales of heroism, written down some two or three centuries after the time of the tales they recount. Yet their themes of exile and loneliness, and portrayals of the practical and psychological challenges these bring, speak to a cultural unease with prolonged or enforced isolation. This sense of unease resonates perhaps more than ever in a world gripped by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew Firth is a PhD candidate and James Kane is Lecturer in Medieval History, both at Flinders University. This article is part of a Flinders College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences project funding grant – Exiles: Medieval Responses to Isolation. The project seeks to analyse medieval experiences of, and responses to, isolation and loneliness, focusing on strategies of mitigation and their reported effects.

[1] Graham Jones, ‘Ghostly mentor, teacher of mysteries: Bartholomew, Guthlac and the Apostle’s cult in early medieval England,’ in Medieval Monastic Education, ed. by George Ferzoco and Carolyn Muessig (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), p. 136.

[2] Elise Louviot, Direct Speech in Beowulf and Other Old English Narrative Poems (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2016), p.141.

[3] The Saga of Harvard of Isafjord 22, trans. by Fredrik J. Heinemann, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders V, ed. by Robert Cook et al. (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997), p. 345.

[4] The Saga of Harvard of Isafjord 23, p. 346.

[5] Slavica Ranković, ‘The Exquisite Tempers of Grettir the Strong,’ Scandinavian Studies 89 (2017), p. 392.

[6] The Saga of Grettir 72, trans. by Anthony Faulkes, in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001), pp. 221–26.

[7] Lars Lönnroth, ‘Dreams in the sagas,’ Scandinavian Studies 74 (2002): 459.

[8] The Saga of Gisli 18, trans. by G.A. Hight, in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001), pp. 221–26.

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