The Laxdaela Saga

By Thomas Jefferson, Oriental Institute

1,140 ratings - 3.98* vote

The Laxdœla saga is an Icelandic saga (story) of the men and women of the Salmon River valley involving the clan of Laxárdalur. It is one of the most important Icelandic sagas, originally written in Old Icelandic; probably sometime around the year 1245 AD. It is noted for its mention of the first known Norseman in the Varangian Guard: the Icelander Bolli Bollason.An amalga The Laxdœla saga is an Icelandic saga (story) of the men and women of the Salmon River valley involving the clan of

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Book details

Paperback, 228 pages
February 25th 2008 by BiblioBazaar

(first published 1245)

Original Title
Laxdæla saga
143751927X (ISBN13: 9781437519273)

Community Reviews


'Tell me one thing, Mother,' he asks, 'whom did you love most?'

One of the most well-known of the Old Norse sagas, the Laxdæla Saga follows Guðrún Ósvifsdóttir and her kinsfolk in the Icelandic region of Laxriverdale. Guðrún is mythically revered as the most beautiful woman in the history of Iceland, and the saga details the history of her life and her four very different marriages, through romantic and violent tragedies of all sorts. In the end, the twists and turns and mysteries of her love life are left up to the reader to wonder about.

As one of the Icelandic family sagas, the story of Guðrún is based on true events, but with a rather fluid sense of historical truth beyond this. Most of the saga should be treated as fictitious embellishment, but appreciate it as simply a fantastic story, and that is what you shall receive. An excellent tale of a strong and independent woman and her changing fortunes, in love, grief and vengeance.

Much of medieval literature remains rather obscure to the modern reader (aside from those few of us who spend our lives living in the past), especially when it comes from such a small and seemingly insignificant corner of the world. But the Laxdæla Saga is a rather accessible story which not only has withstood the test of time remarkably, but commands a literary quality beyond the capabilities of most modern authors.


I'm well aware that the Laxdaela Saga is considered the "most important of the Icelandic sagas", so it's probably good that I chose this as my first Icelandic saga. However... if this is touted as being the best, I'm not sure what I'll do about reading the others.

There's a lot of cool stuff here, and I learned quite a bit actually - like how if a woman wanted a divorce she could dress more manly (a man could get a divorce by dressing more effeminately as well), and that one hundred marks of refined silver is about the same as approximately 425 milch cows. Y'know, to give you perspective and all. (Where was that latter tidbit in my math classes in school I ask??)

I made the mistake (perhaps) of reading the Introduction first, which broke down in some detail the different chapters of the book. Considering the chapters are generally about a page and a half long, the Introduction was rather lengthy. I also felt that the summaries were quite sufficient. By the time I got to the text I felt like I had already read the stories (because I basically had), so the joy of the experience was sort of lost. Swordplay, however, is always pretty neato, and the chicks here would... well, slaughter me with their bare hands if they heard me call them "chicks". All of these things I can respect.

Also worth noting are the names in this text. You can't make this stuff up. Ketil Flat-Nose? Unn the Deep-Minded? Olaf the Peacock? Thorgrim Hoary-Head? Snorri! Bolli! Lambi! No one took any shit off of Lambi either, despite the soft quality of the name.

Still, I wasn't engrossed throughout this reading as I had hoped to be. The chapters were short as I've already mentioned, which provides very little time to really get into the meat of the story. Just when I was ready for it to go somewhere, the chapter ended and it was on to the next story. In a lot of ways the text is somewhat clinical, very matter-of-fact. I'm not sure if that's typical of 13th-century Icelandic literature or not, but eventually I'll continue my foray into the world of the Vikings and I'll let you know.

It's like that time in college when my English professor told the class about an Alaskan story in which a boy who was very close to his mother was unable to cope well with her death, and so he kicked her head around and chased it over the world and that's how the story ended. I remember one girl, Toni, who nearly had a breakdown. "What, but how does it end?" The professor had to explain over and over again for the rest of the semester that that was it, that was the story, The End. I can respect the storyteller's choice to end a story in that manner, but holy crap. Seriously? He just kicked his mom's head around the world a bunch?

I still can't do algebra, but that Alaskan story has stayed with me. That'll get me far. Thanks, Professor.


Laxdaela Saga is a multigenerational soap opera focused on several families of 10th and 11th century Icelanders. There are unlucky lovers, long schemes, extemporaneous versifyings, magic swords and blood feuds galore. The story also provides fascinating cultural and historical perspectives on topics like civic governance, women’s rights, notions of honor, luck and cursing, and the inconveniences of living with murderous, misanthropic ghosts.

If you read Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships and enjoyed it as much as I did, Laxdaela Saga strikes me as a good first step into the actual Scandinavian literature of the era. Two bits of advice, however: Don’t get bogged down trying to keep all the names straight – the main characters will stick. And read the footnotes or else you’re going to miss some of the best stuff.

For example, if you didn’t read the notes you’d never know that when Thorgills Holluson has a strange encounter with a large woman on his way to the Althing, he’s just seen his fylgja, or “fetch.” A fetch is, according to the note in my Penguin edition, “the personification of [a person’s] luck... Fetches often manifested themselves before death or at other times of crisis. Elsewhere in the sagas, these fetches are said to have passed on from one member of the family to another.”

Manuel Alfonseca

One of the great Icelandic sagas. It revolves mainly around the life of Gudrun, a strong woman of four husbands and three sons, who have an important role in the saga.

At some point this text becomes a typical saga, with a chain of murders and revenges. But the most interesting point is its telling of the first introduction of Christianity in Iceland, which took place during the time of king Olaf I of Norway.

Three Norwegian kings are important in the saga: Harald, Olaf I and Olaf II (the holy). Harald was a Pagan, the two Olaf were Christians. Nothing is said about their death in battle and the relapse of Norway into Paganism between Olaf I and Olaf II.


Some of the founding sagas of Iceland and in part the basis for Wagner's Ring Cycle (or at least some of the Brunhild parts). Not only is the founding of Iceland described, but also the drama of kidnappings, jealousy, and freezing cold winters. While this saga doesn't directly take place too close to Reykjavik, the landscapes of the Icelandic countryside are 100% more exciting knowing how much drama there is imbedded in the history and literary tradition of the place.


It's interesting how the way people tell stories differs between times and places. This sage does not have the kind of storyline that I'm used to, which makes it more difficult to read and appreciate. Yet I was still drawn into it and still appreciated the story and characters.

The advantage of this difference is that you do really get a sense of what was important to the culture of those who wrote it. In many ways medieval Iceland came alive for me by reading this. It's a fascinating culture that was in some ways unique in medieval Europe. Without kings, families governed themselves and each other by making laws together. Since there was no police force or legal system, however, it was left up to individual family members to enforce these laws, which could lead to cycles of violence. This saga shows the preference for peaceful solutions and the difficulties the system could run into. Life may have been very different then, but the obstacles faced in living together peacefully were quite similar.

It's also a classic love triangle story, for those who are into that.

This translation reads well. The introduction was useful and not overly long.

Bob Newman

Bad Dudes with Axes Run Amok---NOT !

The past is clouded over, dark and murky. Once in a while, a hole opens up and we peer in, not sure what we are going to behold. Sometimes the view is understandable, more often, it is difficult to fathom, given our contemporary attitudes and expectations. For a view of another culture far away in time and place, you cannot do better than to read the various Icelandic sagas, though "The Tale of Genji" is certainly up there too. Some people may think Beowulf is only about fighting with monsters. Similarly, if you approach the sagas, like this one, with the idea that it's about fighting and vengeance (which it is in a way), you are going to miss the most interesting aspect of it. The Laxdaela Saga is named after a river in northwest Iceland where the events told about took place in the early 11th century. In my opinion, aside from its literary merits---which I will leave to others to discuss---this saga gives us a wonderful window on an ancient society. We see how they talked, how they worked, traded and travelled, their relations with other parts of the ancient world, from Norway to Byzantium, and how they related to each other. Most of all, as you can read in great detail in Jesse Byock's "Viking Age Iceland", we can learn how they managed their king-less society in which women had a strong voice (compared to any other European society of the day). Laws, negotiation, and an annual `parliament' called the Althing helped control the usual human impulses. Vengeance took place only when all else failed and even then, negotiation and compensation could stop feuds in their tracks. So far from being a `blood and guts' adventure, this is a document unparalleled in its drama, human emotions, tragedy, color and depth. Family and breeding are far more salient than fighting. If you are at all interested in history, you can't miss this and others of the sagas.


The Laxdaela Saga contains various figures and events, some legendary, some historical, all exaggerated to epic proportions. Though I was drawn in by by the odd names, traditions and blood lust of the Icelandic Viking culture, what set this story apart was the striking modernity at the heart of the plot. It is essentially a strung out love triangle and tale of revenge centering around a woman of extraordinary courage and ambition, Gudrun Ósvífrsdóttir.
Unlike in other pre-modern literature, the women of Viking sagas retain their power and influence beyond their youth. They are responsible for defending their land and rights while their husbands raid foreign shores. Gudrun, in her quest for avenging a wrong between clans, plays a of Lady Macbeth minus the stigma as her fixation on the revenge coincides with the cultural norm and is a triumph over the weaker wills of her clansmen.
The story contains various subplots and a rich insight into the Icelandic family structure. Key among practices is fosterage, in which an adolescent is taken into another family of equal rank, thus forging an alliance between the young man and his foster family. At any hint of dishonor- and there are some comically trifling ones here- a vast array of characters is forced into a continuing cycle of violence and retribution.

Meredith Miller

Love the episodes with Olaf. All have gothic elements - going to meet his grandfather the Irish king and getting lost in a strange fog of the coast, battling a ghost in the barn. Love reading through to what signifies, what counts for people, in this different time and place, what things motivate the drama. Wonder if any sagas tell stories of peasants and servants? We only ever glimpse them here and in Gunnlaug Serpent's Tongue. I guess sagas were an elite art form.
Read somewhere that this remarkable genre - unique in medieval europe - developed out of the marriage between literate Irish women (captives) and Norse men with a strong oral culture. Pretty fascinating.
Also, any genre that has characters with names like Half the Troublesome Poet is all right by me!


This is not only my favorite saga but also in the top five of my all time favorite books. I can read it over and over and never tire of it. I love the cast of strong, interesting women. Gudrun is an amazing character! I love how Gudrun's description, although it does contain some physical details, focuses on her intelligence and shrewdness. In contrast, Kjartan's description is almost all physical. This contrast seems to indicate that this is a very different type of saga. Gudrun intrigues me to the end--I'm still not sure which man she loved the most.