Meeting Gisli

Written 2001



Almost certainly, somewhere in the seventh decade of the tenth century, perhaps in 963, Gisli Thorbjornsson killed Thorgrim Thorsteinsson on a farm on the southern shores of Dyrafjord in the north-west coast of Iceland. Although violent deaths were common in Iceland in the period, and in fact even more so in the centuries that followed, this must have been a killing of particular significance. The victim, Thorgrim, was an important man. He was the grandson of one of the first settlers, Thorolf, who had taken land on the great peninsula of Snæfellsness which juts out west into the Atlantic below the Western Fjords; he was significant enough to be a goði – an untranslatable term meaning both priest and chieftain – and he must have seemed essentially aristocratic. He was married to Gisli’s sister, and her brothers, Gisli and Thorkell, may well have been forced to contribute their existing farm as part of her dowry. Equally certainly, the cousin of Thorgrim, Eyjolf the Gray, avenged Thorgrim and the family’s honour by killing Gisli after he had survived as an outlaw for fifteen years.

Three hundred years later an Icelandic writer made out of these facts, out of surviving poems said to be by Gisli Thorbjornsson but probably composed a hundred years or so after the events, and out of surviving oral traditions, one of the great examples of the genre known as the Family Sagas. Though only a very short work, Gisli’s Saga stands alongside masterpieces like Njál’s Saga, Egil’s Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Eyrbyggia Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and it is worthy of the exalted company it keeps. Although all the authors are anonymous, each of the sagas bears the imprint of a distinct set of concerns: Laxdæla, for example, is the saga most influenced by the contemporary European code of courtliness and it is no accident that, as it proceeds on its narratively complex way, a woman emerges as the dominant character – a character with whom the author is manifestly besotted. Gisli’s Saga, on the other hand, is thematically obsessed by loyalty and the complex ethical dilemmas that are involved when different loyalties conflict; especially when loyalty to lover or spouse conflicts with loyalty to family. Aesthetically it is obsessed by balance. It is a saga which has been an important part of whatever imaginative life I have had for over twenty years. I don’t know exactly why it should exercise the hold that it does, but as I enter middle-age, Gisli’s story shows no signs of loosening its grip.

On the surface the narrative is not complex , not complex at least for a Family Saga. There are three siblings: a woman, Thordis, and her two brothers, Thorkell and Gisli. They are the children of a Norwegian, Whey-Thorbjorn (Súr-Thorbjorn in Icelandic), and they arrive in Iceland, after some messy killings, around 952 after the end of the “Landtaking” period when Iceland was settled from Norway and the British Isles. They are given land in Dyrafjord and farm at a place called Sæbol where the valley, Haukadalur, runs down to the fjord. Thordis marries Thorgrim goði from Snæfellsness, Thorkell marries a local girl called Asgerd, and Gisli marries Aud the sister of a man called Vestein Vesteinsson who lives by the fjord to the north. Gisli and Thorkell make over the farm of Sæbol to Thorgrim and his new wife and build a separate, adjoining farm for themselves called Holl, about two hundred and fifty metres up the valley.

The core of the events derives from the relationship between four men: in order Thorgrim, Thorkell, Gisli and Vestein. Thorgrim is the brother-in-law of Thorkell and Gisli; Vestein is Gisli’s brother-in-law but has no close relationship with either Thorkell or Thorgrim – they are, after all, only the brother and husband of the sister of Vestein’s sister’s husband! At the opening of the major part of the story, however, the tensions are, if anything, strongest between the two brothers. In Norway a friend of Thorkell’s had been seducing Thordis and Gisli killed him (with their father’s approval). Thorkell left home to live with the kin of the murdered boy – an extraordinary course of action. Their characters are entirely in conflict as well. Gisli is a straightforward man who lives by an inflexible and slightly old-fashioned moral code: there is a touch of John Wayne in The Searchers about him. Thorkell, for whom the author doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy, is embroiled in ethical conflicts as complex and harrowing as those of Gisli. Temperamentally, we feel, Thorkell is aristocratic: lazy, ill-adjusted to the hard life of an Icelandic farm, desirous of being with powerful men as a friend or, if necessary, a mere hanger-on.

For a while everything goes well between the four men, Thorgrim, Thorkell, Gisli and Vestein. They travel together to the local Thing – a kind of regional legal assembly – and overhear a wise man say that they will not be such close friends in three years’ time. Gisli has the idea that they should swear blood-brotherhood. This is not a thing to be undertaken lightly since it binds the participants to the responsibilities of true brotherhood: avenging a brother’s death, for example, or supporting him physically and financially when a law court exacts a fine from him. If we can believe the author – and I suspect that, by the mid-thirteenth century, the blood-brotherhood ceremony was as exotic and vague to him as it is to us – the procedure involved cutting a semi-circular strip of turf free but leaving the ends attached to the earth. The turf was then lifted up through ninety degrees by a spear to make an arch under which the participants passed. Clearly it is a rebirth ritual in which close friends are born again as true brothers. At the last moment, having gone through the other parts of the ceremony – the mixing of blood etc – Thorgrim pulls back; he cannot bring himself to become family with someone as remote from him as Vestein. Gisli, in response, pulls back as well: “I will not bind myself to a man who will not bind himself to Vestein, my wife’s brother.”

The conflict is brought to a head when Thorkell, who doesn’t do farm work, overhears his wife talking to Gisli’s wife, Aud, as they work in the women’s bower. They reveal that Asgerd rather likes Vestein, and may have been involved with him in some compromising way, and that Aud rather liked Thorgrim (though not, she says, after her marriage to Gisli; Aud is as ethically proper as her husband). Horrified when they know they have been overheard, each woman works out a plan. Aud confesses all to her husband, who receives the information fatalistically, but Asgerd, who knows how to deal with her man, waits till Thorkell is sulkily lying in his bed and then climbs in as well. When Thorkell turns away she offers him the choice of divorce or letting her into the bed. When he chooses the latter, “they were not side by side together for long before they settled the matter between them as though nothing had happened”. Afterwards, however, Thorkell insists on his share of the estate from Gisli and, much to Gisli’s distress, moves over to live with his sister, Thordis, and her husband, Thorgrim, at Sæbol.

In autumn Gisli holds a feast. Knowing how explosive the tensions are, he warns Vestein away by sending messengers to Vestein’s farm in the north but the messengers are too late and do not find Vestein until he has gone so far toward Dyrafjord that he cannot turn back. During the night there is a storm and someone enters the house and stabs Vestein. The murderer leaves the weapon, a family heirloom called Grásiða (Greyflank) in the wound. Gisli removes it and throws it in a box. He sends a girl over to Sæbol to tell his brother and Thorgrim what has happened and she reports their compromising behaviour: she found them sitting up, fully dressed with weapons at the ready. At the burial of Vestein, Thorgrim, as the most important man in the area, ties shoes on the corpse – a tradition which enabled the dead man to walk into Valhalla. But as he does so he says, “I cannot tie on Hel-shoes if these come loose”. The author doesn’t tell us who killed Vestein, but it is clearly either Thorgrim or Thorkell. There is a touch of exciting mystery about this and it may be that its author intended his saga to be the world’s first who-dunnit: it is usually assumed that Thorgrim was the killer, but a good case can be made for Thorkell and it changes how we interpret Gisli’s behaviour. There is a magnificent scene after the killing in which Gisli talks to his brother and Thorkell repeatedly asks how Aud takes the death of her brother: “Does she weep much?” He cannot tolerate the knowledge that Aud should know of his sexual humiliation and be unpunished.

Exactly twelve months later, in the following autumn, the families hold separate feasts. Gisli asks a boy of his household who had moved to Sæbol with Thorkell to leave the doors unbarred. He silently enters Sæbol and kills Thorgrim using the same sword and leaving it in the wound. Afterwards, at the burial of Thorgrim, he places a boulder in the ship in which the dead man is being interred and says, matching Thorgrim at Vestein’s funeral, “I cannot make fast a boat, if the weather moves this one”. Thordis, the widow, marries Thorgrim’s brother, Bork the Stout, a figure not much loved in Family Saga literature. While games are being played in winter on the iced-over rush-pond which lies at the mouth of Haukadalur, Gisli makes up a riddling poem which, when decoded, acknowledges that he is Thorgrim’s killer. Thordis hears it and betrays her brother by telling her new husband that Gisli killed his brother. Gisli is outlawed, a twenty year sentence during which he can be killed with impunity, and the second half of the saga follows his increasingly desperate attempt to stay hidden from his pursuers and retain his good spirits. Eventually he is hunted down and killed by Eyjolf the Gray in the fjord south of Dyrafjord near a hideout which is in the mountains above a farm he has built for Aud.

* * * * *

Iceland converted to Christianity in the year one thousand. In typically Icelandic fashion the issue was discussed at the Althing – the annual, national assembly – and a decision to convert was reached which was binding on all. Christianity brought with it literacy and, by the twelfth century, Icelanders were writing histories, including histories of the kings of Norway. To do this they evolved a kind of writing usually called “saga style”. It is a beautiful, flexible, prose instrument, that is in many ways extraordinarily modern; it is a long way from the flowerier excrescences of medieval Latin. It is highly denotative and fixes its eyes resolutely on the external – it deals with interiority only with the greatest reluctance, usually transferring interpretive comments to some hypothesised individual or group: a sentence like “Some people say that x was greatly upset by y’s behaviour” is about as far as it goes. But since, in the greatest of the Family Sagas, intense emotions are boiling volcanically underneath, the reader is required correctly to interpret the surface. Saga style ought to be easy to translate and usually is, though saga translation into English has its share of duds. The sagas also often include poetry which is usually in a very difficult verse form and is the opposite of the prose: it is riddling, highly allusive and thoroughly ambiguous.

Gisli’s Saga was translated into English by George Johnston, a Canadian scholar and poet, in 1963. It is a most unconventional translation and deserves a chapter to itself in the history of translation theory. It belongs to that kind of translation which creates a new style in the target language by retaining aspects of the source language. This can be an unsuccessful ploy because, while it continually reminds us of the sexy otherness of the original, the features it retains are usually the ones which readers associate with the source language. This mires the translation in the prejudices of its own time. In the various translations of the sagas in the nineteenth century – by people like Dasent and William Morris – the retained features are a number of archaisms which are brought across in accordance with the expectations of Victorian readers approaching these texts. A century and a third later these are pretty unattractive if not downright silly – “Flosi busked him from the east when two months were still to winter . . .” The alternative approach, used in the recent retranslation of the entire Family Saga corpus (Reykjavik: Leifur Eiriksson, 1997), but also best known in pioneering translations by people like Magnus Magnusson, Hermann Palsson, Denton Fox and Paul Edwards, uses a neutral contemporary English, with, in the case of Magnusson and Palsson’s translation of Njal’s Saga, a bit of what might be called “interpretive pointing” in the prose. Johnston’s translation is quite different to these. The stroke of genius is to avoid archaising but to bring across syntactic features of the Icelandic – such as the subtle shifts into the present tense which Icelandic narration uses – which are close enough to English syntax to be nothing more than unusual variations. Actually to describe it as a technique is really an over-simplification. Johnston’s is really a very free translation and many of the examples of the most memorable un-English phrasing are not direct translations of the Icelandic. Johnston’s achievement is more to create a foreign style which always sounds eloquent – he is obviously a man blessed with a sure verbal touch.

Just how good the results are can be seen from Johnston’s translation of the great scene in which Gisli kills Thorgrim. It occurs at the double Autumn feast held exactly one year after the killing of Vestein. Bork, Eyjolf, Thorkell and a young boy sympathetic to Gisli, Geirmund (whom Gisli has asked to unlock the doors), are at Sæbol; Gisli and his friends, including another Thorkell, Thorkell the Rich from the northern shore of Dyrafjord, are at Holl. The farms are built alongside a small creek which runs down Haukadale and into Dyrafjord. Those whose readings of medieval narrative are derived from poetic and prose versions of the Arthurian material are in for a surprise.

Bork and Eyjolf come in the evening with sixty men; there were a hundred and twenty men altogether at Sæbol, and half that number at Gisli’s. They started the drinking during the evening, and then they went to bed and slept. Gisli spoke to Aud, his wife: “I have not fed his horse for Thorkell the rich. Come with me and lock the door after me, and stay awake while I go out, and unlock the door for me again when I come back.”

He takes the spear Greyflank from the chest, and is wearing a blue cape over his shirt and linen under-breeches, and he goes now to the stream which runs between the two steadings, and from which water was taken for both. He goes by the path to the stream, and then wades down the stream to the path which led to the other house. Gisli knew the lay-out at Sæbol because he had put up the buildings; there was a way in through the byre. This is where he goes; thirty cows are stalled on either side; he ties the cows’ tails together and closes the byre, and fixes the door in such a way that it may not be opened from the other side. Then he goes to the dwelling-house; and Geirmund has done his work, because the doors were not barred. He goes in and shuts the door after him, in the way it had been closed up during the evening.

Now he takes his time over everything. After shutting the door he stands and listens to hear if anyone is awake, and he finds that all are asleep. There were three lights in the room. He takes the sedge from the floor and twists it together; then he throws it on one of the lights, and it goes out. He stands again and waits, in case anyone wakes up, but he hears nothing. He takes another twist of sedge and throws it on the nearest light and puts it out. Then he knows that not all are asleep, because he sees that a young man’s hand reaches for the third light, and pulls the lamp down and snuffs it. Now he goes farther into the room into the bed closet where Thorgrim slept, and his sister [Thordis], and the door was ajar, and they are both in bed. He goes up and gropes about inside and puts his hand on his sister’s breast; she was sleeping next the outside.

Then Thordis spoke. “Why is your hand so cold, Thorgrim?” and she wakes him.

Thorgrim asked: “Do you want me to turn your way?” She thought he had put his arm over her.

Gisli waits yet for a while, and warms his hand in his shirt, and they both go to sleep; then he takes hold of Thorgrim gently, so that he wakes up. He thought that Thordis had roused him, and he turned to her. Gisli pulls back the covers with one hand, and with the other he thrusts Greyflank into Thorgrim so that it goes through him and sticks in the bed. Then Thordis calls out and says, “Wake up, men in the room! Thorgrim is killed, my husband!”

Gisli turns away quickly towards the byre and goes out as he had intended, and makes the door fast behind him; he goes home then by the same way as he had come, and his tracks could not be seen. Aud unlocks the door for him when he comes home, and he goes to bed and behaves as though nothing has happened, and as though he has done nothing. But the men were still full of drink at Sæbol and did not know what ought to be done; this caught them unawares, and because of this nothing was done that was either fitting or useful.

To most readers the virtues of this passage will be obvious and medievalists will have an even better idea of just how extraordinary it is. It is a punishment killing – though whom it is punishing, Thorgrim or Thorkell, will depend on whom we think killed Vestein – and has an acute sense, as the Family Sagas so often do, of the aesthetics of behaviour. Gisli exactly matches the actions of Vestein’s killer, even to using the same weapon and leaving it in the wound. Then there is the unprecedented, amazingly intimate speech of the sleep-befuddled couple (Thordis is near the end of a pregnancy) who do not realize that the killer stands just next to them. Of course it also has its difficulties for readers trying to work out exactly what Gisli is doing, where and when. Why does he tie the cow’s tails together, for example, or exactly which doors are bolted and unbolted? Serious saga readers also know that this killing is remarkably similar to a killing in an interesting but far less overwhelming saga, The Sons of Droplaug, and that there all the preparations make more sense. We might also ask what one hundred and twenty men are doing in Sæbol in the late tenth century as minor players in what is, essentially, a domestic murder. Numbers like this might well have been possible in the continuing semi-civil-wars of the thirteenth century when the saga was written but are unimaginable at the time the saga is set. But, all in all, I don’t think medieval narrative, even passages as celebrated as Inferno V and Purgatorio V, has anything to equal this. I first met it more than twenty years ago and, as seems to happen with those special moments occasionally granted to readers, I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read it.

* * * * *

Meeting the ghost of Gisli, his doomed family and his friends and enemies is not easy. In literary terms you have to acclimatize yourself to the conventions of saga-style; magnificent as they are, these are not texts to be simply picked up and browsed through. You also have to learn something of the strange world that engendered them; a feud culture in which one’s honour is more important than one’s life but in which desperate aspirations towards unity and peace are discernible. It is a world where the social and legal codes and practices can seem dauntingly complex just because they are so unfamiliar and it is not easy for contemporary readers to get emotionally close to a protagonist who kills as regularly as Gisli does.

But even at a simple physical level, it is not easy to get to Haukadale, especially if you are enough of an obsessive to want to see it in autumn – the time of the killings of Vestein and Thorgrim. In summer it is a matter of driving all the way into the Western Fjords or taking a ferry across Breidafjord to the Fjords’ southern coast and then working one’s way over the highlands between successive fjords before arriving at Dyrafjord. In late autumn, with the temperature generally just below freezing, this is not possible.

So after many false starts influenced by the weather, Kari Gislason and I flew from Reykjavik to Isafjordur, the main town of the Western Fjords, hired a car and drove south to Dyrafjord. Not all of this went smoothly. On the eve of our flight the weather, very changeable in Iceland, turned bad and we suffered a frightening gale: strong enough to shake the house we were staying in in Reykjavik and drive a trawler aground in a fjord just south of Dyrafjord. The flight was canceled. Next day the weather was fine but our plane wasn’t: it was delayed for three hours, irreplaceable when you have only six or seven hours of light. The Isafjordur hire car, booked the week before, turned out to be unavailable and only good luck meant that the representative of another company happened to be at the airport and happened to have an available and affordable (by Icelandic standards) substitute. None of this dented our good spirits and we were able to absorb it – slightly hysterically, it is true – as part of the gorgeous comedy of travel.

The next fjord south after Isafjord is Onunarfjord. Vestein’s home, the place from which he rode south to Dyrafjord and to his death, is on the inner north shore. On the map the road from Isafjordur to Onundarfjord looks daunting. It is a high heath which in early November is snow-covered. It was, then, a pleasant surprise to find that a six kilometer long tunnel through the mountains had thoughtfully been provided. How a country with a population of less than three hundred thousand people can afford to do this in such an out of the way place is a visitor’s mystery. Coming down, out of the tunnel, to Onundarfjord, we found the site of Vestein’s farm, “undir Hesti”. The Hestur, or “horse”, that it is under is a massive slab of rock of the kind not uncommon in Iceland, formed where two steep valleys meet. Here the valleys are very close together and so their mouths meet in a sharp V. We thought we found, without much confidence in the result, the place where the men sent by Gisli to warn Vestein not to attend the feast, miss him. They ride at the top of a ridge while he passes below them at river level. By the time they have got to his farm, learned that he has left, doubled back and caught up with him, it is to late. As Vestein says, “but now the streams all run towards Dyrafjord”. The current road exactly retraces Vestein’s path.

The first sight of Dyrafjord comes when our road emerges from the valley which has enabled us to cross the heath on the northern side. It is mid-afternoon, the day is cold and clear, the light is good and we have at least another couple of hours before darkness. Directly across the calm waters we can see, on the southern shore of the fjord, the tiny town of Thingeyri, itself only a short distance from Haukadale. Dyrafjord is a classic Icelandic fjord. A U-shaped valley, scoured out in the last Ice Age by a glacier, has been flooded but not to any great depth. There is a stretch of reasonably level ground for farming extending from the shores of the fjord to a point where the slope of the valley wall becomes too steep and grass is replaced by detritus eroded from the mountains. Again, typically, the walls of the fjord, far from being remorseless curtains of rock, are interrupted regularly by the mouths of valleys running at right angles to the fjord itself. These valleys slope upwards and are probably formed by erosion as millions of litres of water run continually off the high heath into the fjord through waterfalls and then, as the land levels out more, through streams. The road follows the shore and we have to take a long circular trip to the head of the fjord before getting around to the south side. Haukadale is the third valley on the left past Thingeyri.

You know you are there immediately. The road is only a few metres from the shore but there, between the two, is a pond with reeds in the clear ice of the surface. This is the seftjörn (reed-pond) of the saga where Gisli and Thorgrim played a kind of ball-game at the Christmas festivities after the murder of Vestein and where, when Thorgrim was knocked down on the ice by Gisli, he said, looking up at Vestein’s burial mound:

Spear in the wound sharply
sang, I feel no anguish.

Of course, in this saga, one admission on the ice requires its double and it is here, one year later, where Gisli, stopping to repair one of the players’ bats, recites the verse which admits his guilt as the murderer of Thorgrim. Thordis, sitting on the high ground above the pond with the other women to watch the men’s game – presumably near where the road now passes – hears, understands and betrays her brother to her new husband. It has been said, in her defence, that she wants her husband to kill her brother so that her new-born son will be spared this task. Attempting to kill one’s uncle would be not only ethically unpleasant but, in Gisli’s case, extremely dangerous. But Gisli himself is not so forgiving. When he discovers what she has done, he makes up a brilliant verse contrasting her to the great Germanic heroine, Gudrun the daughter of Gjuki, who, when she discovered that her husband, Attila the Hun, had killed her brother, killed her sons by Attila before killing him.

To the left is the valley, sloping up, away from you, to meet the snow covered heights of the heath. Haukadale is not a small valley, but it does convey an impression of constriction and oppression: the ideal setting for a pressure cooker of emotional and ethical conflicts. Obviously, neither Holl nor Sæbol survive, but there is a new farm next to the road on the western end of the valley’s mouth. Both the rivers are there: the major one and the stream alongside which both the farms were built and down which Gisli waded on his mission of revenge. All farms in Iceland grow grass, as they have for a thousand years, and, though it is late in the year, there are a dozen or so small Icelandic horses grazing at different parts of the valley.

What do you do at moments like this? You potter around, take photos, stare at the valley, stare at the horses (who stare back at you with that canny expression that Icelandic horses have), talk excitedly and sense, perhaps, that some part of you has briefly touched something that the unknown and unknowable author of a great work touched. But what sort of magic is that? Somehow no rationalization describes either the desire to experience this or the experience itself. I don’t actually know what I am doing here, anymore than I know why Gisli’s Saga affects me as much as it does. And is such an experience available anywhere but in Iceland? Is there, in the world, any country which possesses a great medieval literature, and which has remained essentially untouched by seven centuries of the usual changes: the invention of towns, dams, new methods for the business of agriculture? Of course where the actual, tenth century, murder of Thorgrim took place we will never know – it might have been in a drunken brawl or an ambush anywhere – but there is no doubt that the author of Gisli’s Saga set it here, in Haukadale, in a place he knew intimately.

* * * * *

Gisli’s Saga has a head and a tail that should not be lightly passed over. The opening pages, as often in the Family Sagas, describe the generation preceding the one central to the narrative and, in this case, the early events are set in Norway. There are three brothers named Ari, Gisli and Thorbjorn – the Gisli is of course not our hero, but his uncle. The former is married to a woman named Ingibjorg. A wandering berserk challenges Ari to a duel and kills him. Ingibjorg then tells Gisli – in Johnston’s rather beautiful prose – “when I was married to Ari, it was not because I would not rather have been married to you” and that she has a thrall who has a magic sword which will win the battle. Gisli borrows the sword and fights and kills the berserk but is killed when he and the thrall fight over the sword (Greyflank) which he is reluctant to return. Ingibjorg’s betrayal of her husband – she never told him about the sword when he was waiting to fight for his life – is not commented on specifically in the text and this not only sets the tone of the saga’s obsession with betrayal but also tells us how to read the saga: we will only understand what is happening if we read carefully between the lines.

The Gisli of the saga survives as a outlaw for fifteen or sixteen years, time for his nephew (Thorgrim and Thordis’ son) to grow up. This boy was originally called Thorgrim in memory of his father but he is such a difficult child that Thordis and his step-father Bork change his name to Snorri – which has connotations of “stormy”. Bork, Thordis and Snorri live at Helgafell, the holy mountain of Snæfellsness consecrated by Bork and Thorgrim’s grandfather, Thorolf. One of the saga’s concluding scenes describes the day when Eyjolf the Gray (a relation of Bork) arrives to announce Gisli’s death. Bork is delighted and tells Thordis to prepare food to celebrate. Thordis brings only gruel and when she puts Eyjolf’s plate in front of him, reaches down to pick up his sword (left peaceably on the floor) and stab him. But the hilt of the sword catches on the edge of the table and Eyjolf is merely wounded. (Thordis, in keeping with the saga’s structural obsessions, is the second woman to strike out at Eyjolf.) It is an expensive wound as the miserly Bork is forced to give Eyjolf “self-judgement” – the right to set his own value on his injury and receive it as a fine. Snorri protects his mother from her husband’s fury and she eventually declares herself divorced from him. Snorri goes on to trick Bork out of the ownership of Helgafell and to become the most influential character of the Saga Age – his dealings are described in a number of sagas, most importantly, Laxdæla Saga and Eyrbyggia Saga – a clever manipulator and a really dangerous man to have as an enemy. What should we make of Thordis’ behaviour? Is it done out of the sense that, though the revenge was important for her dead husband’s honour, it does not imply that one need have anything more than contempt for the avenger? Or is Thordis trying to make a final reconciliation with her brother by behaving instinctively as he would have done, for, as he says at an earlier point in the saga, “I think I have shown more than once that her honour was as important to me as my own”? The romantic in me hopes that it is the latter and that, in some way, it is a gesture that enables Gisli’s ghost to rest in peace.