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THE SAGA OF GISLI
SON OF SOUR
TRANSLATED FROM THE OLD ICELANDIC
BY RALPH B. ALLEN
ILLUSTRATED BY ROCKWELL KENT
HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY • NEW YORK
By HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY, INC.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
BY QUINN & BODEN COMPANY, INC., RAHWAY, N. J.
The saga of Gisli is one of the great stories of the world's literature; it speaks for itself. It seems, therefore, necessary merely to identify the tale here and to relate it to the literature of which it is so small, though so magnificent, a part. Those who would make further inquiry into Old Icelandic literature are referred to the exposition and bibliography of the sagas in such works as A. G. Jayne's translation of Knut Liestol, The Origin of the Icelandic Family Sagas, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1930; and W. A. Craigie's The Icelandic Sagas, Cambridge [England], 1913.
Iceland, the home of the sagas, was settled shortly after 874 by Norwegian franklins and freemen, who refused to acknowledge the overlordship of Harold the Fair-haired after he had made himself, by his victory at Hafrsfjord, the first king of all Norway. Not the least remarkable achievement of these expatriate Norwegians on their island home was the genius of some for telling stories and the craving of others for listening to them. The greatest sagas were composed by Icelanders of Icelanders. Their greatest literature was a purely native one. It recorded events in the lives, generally, of famous ancestors of those who were listening to the recital. Far more moving, more real, more vital to the auditors we can judge it to have been than were to knights and ladies the fictitious, riotous, continental romances written of the lives of Arthur, Roland, Alexander, and all the other true and fabled heroes of Britain, France, Greece, and Rome.
The saga periods are generally listed as follows: (a) the time of the settlement (874-930); (b) the time of action (930-1030), when most of the events recorded in the sagas happened; (c) the time of peace (1030-1120), when oral tradition grew into saga telling; (d) the time of writing (1120-1230), when men began to write down the sagas to preserve them; and (e) the time of civil strife (1230-1262), which ended with the collapse of the republic and Iceland's consequent annexation to Norway.
Gisli lived during the third quarter of the tenth century, but the saga, comprising the story of his life, was handed down through oral tradition for over two hundred years before it was committed to writing in the twelfth century.
It is impossible to say how many sagas were never committed to writing, and again how many that were written down were subsequently lost. All the manuscripts were vellum up to the year 1630. The loss of vellums through one cause or another during the later Middle Ages is an irreparable one and, almost too late, after 1630 copies on paper were made to preserve the literature.
Of the Gisli saga there are three valuable manuscripts extant, one of the fifteenth century and two copies made by Asgeir Jonsson of a fourteenth-century manuscript now lost. Several unreliable paper manuscripts, taken from the four better ones mentioned, have come down. The fifteenth-century and the fourteenth-century manuscripts were completely edited by K. Gislason (Copenhagen, 1849).
Since 1849 there have been several editions and translations, notably G. W. Dasent's translation into English (Edinburgh, 1866) and Finnur Jonsson's edition (Halle, 1903), which appeared first as volume X of the invaluable Altnordische Saga Bibliothek and has since been reedited (Copenhagen, 1929) for "Det kgl. Oldskrifts Selskab." The present work is a translation of the definitive and scholarly text by Finnur Jonsson.
Gisli is mentioned in only two other works, Eyrbyggja and Landnamabok, but the references are important and two interesting facts may be deduced, namely, that the events in the saga had a local fame; and that they go way back in time, before the establishment of the Althing, before the recording of the great national figures. It is Liestol, I believe, who wisely deduces in substance that the Gisli saga is older even than the Landnamabok, for certain minor inconsistencies (which need not concern us here) would otherwise have been corrected.
It may seem to the reader that the saga is somewhat encumbered at the beginning with genealogies, but he is urged merely to note the identification and, further, to remember that these genealogies were vital and interesting in the saga age and furnish part proof by whlch we know that the events of the thirty-two (twenty-six minor, of which Gisli is one, and six major) Icelandic family sagas, are authentic. Throughout Icelandic literature we find how completely the historical and family sagas can be depended upon. Numerous references to the same event in different sagas and in extra-Icelandic sources enable the historian to write with certainty upon events that are not so truthfully depicted in other less reliable and often purposely distorted and excessively imaginative medieval records.
The author of the Gisli saga, as is true of most of the others, is anonymous. He was probably of the priestly class, as can be judged by the appearance in the story of the good and evil dream women, who undoubtedly represent the struggle between the old religion and Christianity. There pervades the whole story a greatness and nobility of spirit that leaves the reader himself silent, almost ennobled by the events he has just witnessed, by the man he has just met – a hero ever honorable, essentially peace-loving, who first for the honor of his family and then in even greater devotion to his friend, is driven, partly as the creature of fate and partly as the victim of intrigue, to perform deeds that one never forgets, nor the actor in them.
RALPH B. ALLEN
University of Pennsylvania