Independent Women, Strong Family Ties and Dreams

in The Saga of the People of Laxardal
The Icelandic sagas offer readers insight into the lives of the Icelandic people that lived so many years ago in the 9th through 11th centuries. Their lives were very different then than the lives that we live now in modern times, and these sagas give modern readers a better understanding of their culture and how they told their stories and passed down their wisdom in those times. The Saga of the People of Laxardal is a well-known saga that contains a wide variety of the cultural themes present in the lives of the Icelandic people during those distant times. These cultural themes include that women in Viking society were very independent beings and that family was an extremely important aspect of everyday life. This saga also contains common story-elements that are characteristic to the Icelandic saga genre as a whole. One of these story elements is that characters often have dreams that seem to symbolize or prophesize events that are to come.

The Saga of the People of Laxardal is a saga packed full of strong female characters. The notion that women were very independent in the Viking era is a common cultural theme. In Armann Jakobsson’s scholarly article he points out that in this particular saga “the activities of the Laxardal saga women are in no way atypical for the saga genre… They [women] are less visible ‘onstage’, as it were. And, last but not least, the women are not described as carefully, even lovingly, as the men are” (43) and by lovingly he also goes on to add that the men in the saga are described in much more detail physically while the women are not. Jakobsson’s viewpoints are present throughout the Laxardal saga with various female characters. One female character that stood out most to me in following with the views of Jakobsson was Joruun, the wife of Hoskuld. Joruun definitely falls under the category of being a female character that was “less visible ‘onstage’” as it seems on a surface level that she doesn’t have a very important role, but in reality she is actually a very smart woman and is the reason that Hoskuld eventually agrees to share his inheritance from his mother with his half-brother Hrut, saving both of them and those around them a lot of trouble.

Joruun’s mental capacity is described more than her physique in contrast as to how the men are described in the saga just as Jakobsson suggests. Of Joruun it is said that she “showed herself to be both clever and experienced, and skilled at many things, though often somewhat headstrong” (284), which again highlights her mental ability as opposed to physical appearance but is also describing her in the less loving tone than men as it adds in one of her flaws, but in reality being headstrong can be a good thing depending on the connotation. Joruun strikes me as an independent, strong-willed Viking woman because she is not afraid to stand up to her husband and speak her mind. In the saga she is very straight forward with Hoskuld and calls him out, telling him that his “intention is vile if it includes killing a man of your brother’s stature…I think you’d better do right by your brother Hrut, for a hungry wolf is bound to wage a hard battle” (302). Here Joruun plays a very important role in the saga as she makes Hoskuld realize that keeping good familial relationships is much more important than keeping all of the money to himself. Alice Spruit discusses in her thesis how family is an extremely vital aspect of Viking culture saying that, “the ethics of the community, concerning family, are stronger than those of one person, because they perceive family as very important… family was vital to one’s survival” (32). This quote is directly demonstrated by Jorunn as she makes Hoskuld realize and understand that he needs to do right by his brother or an even bigger issue will be coming their way which is not fair to anyone else around Hoskuld. Hoskuld was thinking solely of himself, one person, and not of those in his community and the rest of his family just as Spruit explains. Joruun also made Hoskuld realize that in the long run family is more important as family really did mean survival back in those days as family was the backbone of Viking culture and they were the only people they could count on to support them in times of trial no matter what.

The major plot line of the Laxardal saga centers around the life of Gudrun. Towards the beginning of the saga Gudrun has a set of four dreams about losing a series of precious items that she has interpreted by one of her kinsmen, Gest, who was a very wise man. A characteristic story element in many Icelandic sagas is that of somewhat cryptic dreams that characters have which then, through interpretation reveal that character’s fate. Gest interprets Gudrun’s dream for her and tells her that she is to have four husbands, the first “will not be a match to your liking…this means that you will leave him” (330), of the second husband he says that “it would not surprise me if he were drowned” (330), he says of third “this husband will be killed” (330) and finally the fourth husband “will have an encounter with that same fjord [Hvammsfjord] on the final day of his life” (30). When characters in sagas have dreams like this it is often thought that they are the fate of that character, but the interesting thing is that even though the character then knows what is coming they never try and do anything to change their fate. This is true for Gudrun as she never tries to change what is going to happen in her life. Gudrun could have done numerous things to change her fate that would also in turn affect the fate of the men she married. After hearing the interpretation of her dreams from Gest she could have decided to just never marry and then could potentially have saved the lives of three men while changing the course of her life.

In Jakobsson’s scholarly paper he presents the notion that “Dreams and riddles are the polite woman's way of expressing herself” (46) and says that “this also makes it feasible to regard Gudrun's dreams as a statement of her inner life rather than as a prophecy about the fate of four men” (41). With this in mind, Gudrun could have purposefully gone to Gest to ask him about her dreams even though she already knew what they meant so that later on when these events actually occurred fate was the only one to blame and not herself. In the saga Gudrun commits acts that reveal to the reader that she is a very smart, calculated woman. One of these actions being that at one point in the saga Gudrun has just divorced her first husband and then she cunningly manipulates a man named Thord into divorcing his wife and then conveniently swoops in directly after his divorce and marries him. The idea that the dreams explain the inner life of Gudrun and not those of her four husbands supports the fact that she never ends up with Kjarten who she seemed to be most taken with in the saga. The fact that Kjarten is missing from Gudrun’s dreams shows that he is the one prized possession that she could never have and it was one of the only parts of her life that she did not have control over like she did with the other men because she knew what was coming with them and not with Kjarten. In contrast to Jakobsson’s ideas though there is no way that Gudrun could have had full control of her fate. The deaths of her husbands were out of her control; she did not control what exactly happened to them except with the divorce of her first husband. The deaths of her other three husbands were inevitable as she could not force them to just stay at home all of the time in order to avoid death. Gudrun herself did not kill them, outside forces did and her “fate” was fulfilled regardless.

Overall, The Saga of the People of Laxardal is an extensive family saga that intricately weaves the lives of this specified group of Icelanders together and offers readers a broad history of how all of the characters’ lives intertwine. Most importantly though this saga exhibits common cultural themes found throughout the Icelandic saga genre such as the strength of women in society as well as the strong emphasis on family. The saga also demonstrates for the readers the common story-element of characters interpreting their dreams to see what is to come in the future.


Works Cited
Jakobsson, Ármann . “Laxdæla Dreaming: A Saga Heroine Invents Her Own Life,” Leeds f     Studies in English, n.s. 39 (2008), 33-51.
Smiley, Jane, and Robert Kellogg. "The Saga of the People of Laxardal" The Sagas of f Icelanders. New York: Penguin, 2001. 270-421. Print.
Spruit, Alice. Utrecht University: “Judging Vikings Ethics and Morality in two Icelandic family     f    Sagas Laxdaela saga & Vastnsdaela saga”. (Thesis unpubl.) Web. 3/24/16.


By: Hayley Lundstrom
Major: Accounting
Expected Graduation Date: May 2019
Hometown: Oak Harbor, Washington
Although I am pursuing a degree in accounting I have always really enjoyed reading and analyzing literature. My family always talks about how my great, great grandparents and other family members immigrated to the United States many years ago from Norway so I figured taking this course would be a great opportunity to learn about the countries from which some of my family originated. This particular assignment offered me the opportunity to analyze the roles that women in Viking society held and how they were regarded in comparison to the men based off of The Saga of the People of Laxardal. In addition, I enjoyed this assignment because I think learning about the social status of women presently and in the past is very interesting and tells a lot about different cultures.