17 September 2008

Women: The Laxdaela Saga

By Michelle Styles

Much of what we know about the Vikings and their way of life comes from the sagas--stories which celebrate the male warrior culture. However, one saga in particular is devoted to the female and how she shapes history--the Laxdaela Saga.

It is believed to have been written around 1245 by an unknown author. But how much faith can the reader put in the story? And was the author a woman?

It is best known for the complex love story of Gudrun Osvif's-daughter. Gudrun is a spoilt beauty who married against her will to her lover's best friend succumbs to a fit of jealousy and rage and compels her husband to murder her former lover and thereby to forfeit his own life. She eventually ends up a nun but she is considered to be one of the great tragi-romantic heroines of all time.

But a Gudrun Osvif's-daughter existed. there are references to her four husbands in the Book of Settlements. Iceland's first historian, Ari Thorgilsson the Learned was her great grandson, and her daughter apparently lived to a very old age. It is speculated that she might have died a few years before Ari was born and that many of the stories about his great grandmother were handed down. Exactly how forceful the historical Gudrun and exactly who she loved best remains lost in the mists of time.

The early part of the saga is dominated by the matriarch, Unnr the Deep minded and her influence in settling Iceland. Magnus Magnusson points out in his introduction to the Laxdaela Saga that is probable she existed. Too many places names appear to be derived from her and her descendants.

However, it is improbable that the Irish princess who became a concubine and whose son becomes fabulously wealthy actually existed. It appears to be a bit of female wish fulfillment along with the wife who is able to sink a sword into an unfaithful husband and emerge triumphant.

What is striking to the modern reader is the strength of the women characters. These are not meek or mild mannered women. These are women who fight back and who used all the weapons at their disposal including sex to achieve their aims. They are intelligent women who rule and shape events through the forcefulness of their character, rather than the strength of the sword arm.

Ultimately the Laxaedala saga is a classic feud saga but it is unique in that it is told from the strong women's point of view. Women and their concerns dominate this saga in a way that they dominate no other saga.

It is easy to imagine women in the audience cheering as again and again, women are shown to be strong and capable.

Was it written by a woman? We shall never know but it was certainly written with the women in the audience in mind and as such must rank as one of the earliest forms of women's fiction.