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Gisli the Outlaw

George Webbe Dasent

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Gísla saga Súrssonar (the saga of Gísli Súrsson) is one of the sagas of the Icelanders. It tells the story of Gísli, a tragic hero who must kill one of his brothers-in-law to avenge another brother-in-law. Set during the introduction of Christianity to Iceland, there are numerous details about pagan practices which are dotted through the narrative. The Gisli saga is notable for its deep psychological treatment of its lead character, who is tormented during his exile by vivid foreshadowing dreams of two wives, one good and one evil.

This book has 111 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1866.

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Excerpt from 'Gisli the Outlaw'

THE events described in the Saga of Gisli the Soursop reach from the end of Harold Fairhair's reign to the middle of the reign of Earl Hacon the Bad, or from about the year 930 to 980. Nothing can be livelier or more truthful than the account contained in it of Norwegian and Icelandic life and manners during those fifty years. In Norway itself, about the beginning of that period, Harold Fairhair, now grown old, had shared the kingdom which he had won with so much toil and blood among his sons, to be ruled over by Eric Bloody-axe as overking. Eric's incapacity and his wife Gunnhillda's cruelty soon lost what his politic father had won. He was forced to fly the land, and was succeeded by Hacon, another son of Harold Fairhair, who was called Hacon Athelstane's Fosterchild, because he had been sent by his father to be fostered by that famous English king. Of this prince, whose memory was held very dear by his people as Hacon the Good, the Saga of Gisli Soursop contains a sketch which, as a mere interpolation, has been banished from the body of the text, but which well deserves to stand here:--"As soon as he heard of his father's death Hacon came west from England and went straight north to Drontheim, where he sought out first Sigurd the jarl of Hladir, and promised to give him up the jarldom which his father had held if he would back his claim as king. 'Methinks,' he said, 'that would be a good bargain if thou put me forward as king, and I gave thee such honour as thy father held before thee. Then thou wouldst be free and not fettered, as all now are in this land.' It had been one of, the imposts of Harold Fairhair that he claimed as his own all the soil in Norway, both tilled and untilled, and the sea and lakes as well. Every man was to be his tenant and vassal. Now the jarl thinks over the matter; and it seemed to him that Hacon spoke fair, and so they struck a fast friendship. Then the jarl calls together a Thing of the three districts round Drontheim; and as soon as the Thing was set, up rises Hacon and spoke thus:--'It is well known to all men who have now come hither how Harold Fairhair laid all Norway under his feet--all the way north from Finmark down to the Gotha-Elf. He was, in truth, absolute king over all men. He had, too, as ye well know, a host of sons, most of them proper men; but he loved them very unevenly. Some he sent away to other lands, but some be kept with him about his court; and of all of them it was Eric Bloody-axe whom he weened would rule first and foremost of all his sons. So all obeyed him well in that matter as long as he lived; but now my kinsman Eric has wrought very many things which are beyond bearing. And so I will ask this boon of all ye good men of Drontheim, that ye shall try to stay and strengthen him who will be more forbearing to the people, and who will rather let his kinsmen and the folk lift their heads a little, than him who strives to pull the people down. As for me, I wish to make it known that I will give up their freeholds to all those men who will cling to me and call me king.'

"'Then many men spoke to one another, and said:

"'Well, now, this is a strange thing! Here Harold Fairhair has come back, and has grown young again a second time; but be was old and gray when we last saw him. What can it all mean? Can he have any son so like him that we cannot tell the one from the other, save that one is young and the other old, and that this man gives us back with goodwill our freeholds and heritages which his sire took from us with overbearing might?'

"Then all the crowd shouted, and said they would have that man for their king who was likest to King Harold and showed most goodwill to the people; but as for Eric they would never have him to rule over them--a man who thrust out his own kith and kin into holes and corners. No; they would never have him, nor Gunnhillda, nor any of her sons. So the end of that Thing was, that Hacon was chosen to be king; but as fast as these tidings spread from district to district, what amends the men of Drontheim- had got for their wrongs, then all men sent word to King, Hacon and offered to do him suit and service. But about the same time that he became king in Norway Thorbjorn the Soursop and his sons were the leading men in Surnadale."

Such was the state of things in Norway when Hacon the Good was chosen king in the year 935. Tribe after tribe, and district after district, took him as their king as soon as ever he gave back to the freeman that right of freehold, that primeval allodial claim to the soil, which marks the freeborn man of the Scandinavian stock. His father had claimed a right in the soil from every man, and had levied a poll-tax as a quit-rent, but the son was unable to bold what the father had grasped; and though Hacon was king of Norway, the freeman remained his own lord and master over his own land so long as he paid the king his customary service. This is not the place to enter at length into the relations which existed in the tenth century between the king and the freemen in Norway. It is enough to say, that where the king's arm reached he was powerful, where it fell short he was weak. At no time, even under the grinding system of Harold Fairhair, was the weight of the monarch evenly felt all over the land at once. When be was south-east in the Cattegat, the freemen of Drontheim and Helgeland snapped their fingers for a while at his authority; and, in like manner, when he went north the dwellers round "the Bay" did pretty much as they chose. All over the country the rude law of arms, the sacred right of wager of battle, in which the gods were thought to smile on manly worth, was regarded as something binding on all; and thus it is that in this Saga of Gisli a challenge to fight on the island for wife and land was looked on as a call which no man could neglect without the loss of all respect. Thus it was the Bearsarks, men of great bodily strength and well skilled in the use of weapons, roamed over the country, like Bjorn the Black, and thrust weaker men out of their homestead by brute force.

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