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Fljótsdæla saga

Updated: Aug 14

Fljótsdæla saga was the last of the forty family sagas written. It was likely written in the 15th or 16th Century. Most believe it was written by an author in East Iceland and it is considered a sequel to Hrafnkel's Saga. Flótsdalur borders South Múlasýsla. And, much of this saga takes place along the mountainous coast of South Múlasýsla.

The saga has two prominent themes. The first is the special privileges of royalty and their effect on social roles and the lives of individuals. The second is to demonstrate and discuss the strong genealogical connections between the people of Fljótsdalur and those of the Vöpnafjorður region. This connection is plausibly a fact and may have been passed down in stories to strengthen alliances between chieftains in these neighboring regions.

Fljótsdæla Saga places (powered by Icelandic Roots and the Saga Map project, Emily Lethbridge)

The saga mostly revolves around the lives and times of people in this region of Iceland with a considerable share of the time devoted to saga characters from Northeast Iceland who marry into local families. The most prominent characters are Grímur (I728538) and Helgi (I728539) Droplaugarson, two sons of the widow Droplaug Spak-Bersadóttir (I136687). This pair of brothers have their own saga, "The sons of Droplaug" which tells much the same tale. It is unusual for children to have a matrilineal name, but in this saga, Droplaug is depicted as a powerful and cunning woman. She is also a princess of the Shetland Islands who was rescued from a giant, by an Icelander who she later marries. That Icelander is Þorvaldur Þridrandason, son of Þiðrandi "gamli" (IR# I128355) a chieftain and patriarch of the Njardvikings of the Fljótdalur region. Þorvaldur later drowns when his boat capsizes in a storm. Similar to other sagas, some of the violence in this saga is encouraged by women and carried out by men. Droplaug provides "cold counsel" to her sons, demanding discretely and indirectly that they execute violent acts against other men on her behalf. Specifically, she grows distant from her boys until they kill a man named Þorgrim "Dungbeetle" who has besmirched her name by linking her romantically to a slave named Svartur. In one scene, her boys are out hunting Ptamagrin. Upon their return, she asks them to not go hunting for birds. This seems strange to them. They ask "What is it better for us to do?" Droplaug replies that because of this hunting they appear to Þorgrímur Dungbeetle to take after the slave Svartur more than Þorvaldur Þridrandason, their esteemed father who is of the Njarðvikinga.

In writing about social class in this scene, the saga writer may have drawn inspiration from the second to last stanza of the Eddic poem, Rígsþula which discusses the social expectations of the first king, it reads as follows...

Young King rode with his arrows; he killed birds.

Then a crow sitting on a high branch said to him:

"Why do you kill birds, young king?

It would be better for you to mount our horse and kill men."

This advice given by the crow to the King parallels the advice Droplaug gives to her sons. So as not to appear like slaves "don't kill birds". It also appears to be the advice taken by Helgi to "kill men" as he seeks revenge on Þorgrímur Dungbeetle. Further, the slave who Þorgrim "Dungbeetle" ties in gossip to Droplaug is named "Svartur", which in Rígsþula is the name of the man who starts the social class of slaves.

The special interest in social class may have to do with the appearance of this saga around 1500 AD. The Kalmar Union placed Iceland under the control of the Crown of Denmark beginning in 1380. While early sagas, sought to describe Icelandic independence and democratic governance in the settlement period, one possibility is that this later saga writer found him or herself compelled to write about social class under the rule of the Danish monarchy, which by this time was entrenched and perhaps closer to his or her own life experience.

For enthusiasts of the Icelandic family sagas, it is instructive to review family connections that are drawn in this saga to families in other sagas. So that you can infer the full names of characters, FIGURE 1 below identifies the patrilineal relations among four prominent families described in the saga. The most famous saga to take place in East Iceland is Hrafnkels saga freysgoða. In Fljótsdæla saga, the grandson of Hrafnkell, Helgi Asbjörnsson (I136686) marries Þórdis "Todda" (I136075) the great-grandaughter of Þortsteinn "Hviti" (I136064) the main character in "The Saga of Þorsteinn the White". Þorsteinn "Hvita" lives at Hof in Northeast Iceland in the Vöpnafjorður region. Þórdis "Todda" is also the daughter of Brodd-Helgi (I136068) of the "The Saga of the people of Vöpnafjordur". Further, Geiter Lýtingsson (from Krossavik in Vöpnafjorður I136086) marries Hallkatla (I136118) daughter of Þiðrandi "gamli" (I128355) the chieftain and patriarch of the Njardvikings of the Fljótdalur region in East Iceland. Full genealogies of both parents and siblings, as well as, additional information on these persons are available at Icelandic Roots.

FIGURE 1. In Fljótsdæla Saga, families from East Iceland (Hrafnkell and Þiðrandi "gamli") intermarry with families from the Northeast (Lýtinger and Þorsteinn)

In one part of the saga, the son of a Norwegian "Hersir" (Viking military commander) accidentally kills Þiðrandi Geitersson (I136120) who is much beloved. Again the saga writer focuses on the upper-class and their special privileges. The saga writer weaves in marital strife that arises among couples from these two neighboring areas (Vöpnafjordur and Fljótsdalur) as well as other parts of Iceland. The households divided must either protect the Norwegian, possibly in return for a reward or turn him in for justice. The exchange between Þórðis "Todda" of Hof and her husband Helgi Asbörnsson of Flótsdalur described below is notable.

What a strange man you are, Helgi,’ answered Thordis, ‘if you think I am going to protect the man who has caused us so much loss of life. If I get my hands on him, I’ll have him killed to avenge Thidrandi as I promised. It seems to me there’s been a lot of violence among our kinsfolk, and it’s not unlikely there’s worse to come. Tomorrow I shall send the man to my brother Viga-Bjarni and he shall have that honor.’

‘Do as you like,’ said Helgi, ‘I will give him to you. All the same, you might bear in mind how much respect was paid you when you lived at home; you had only one gown and looked after the housework. Before I married you, you were treated no better than a slave as far as I could see. You might consider what you owe to me, because now people respect your opinion no less than mine. You are so looked up to now that almost every man will sit or stand as you wish. Now I’m telling you that as soon as you give this man up to Bjarni’s axe you’ll have to leave here and be sent north to Hof, to such honor as your brother Bjarni thinks fit to give you; and you’ll never come into my house again as long as you live.’

‘I don’t care how you threaten me,’ she answered, ‘Bjarni won’t keep me any worse than you do.’

Later, once the Norwegian reaches safety, Helgi and Þordis "Todda" get paid for their assistance. Here the writer may be trying to convey that justice often will not prevail when rich and powerful people can pay off those who administer it.

Overall, Fljótsdæla Saga is an interesting read. It gives a clear picture of the relations among settlement-era families in the East. It describes the rather exciting and entertaining adventures of regional characters. Some are purely fantastical, like the rescue of Droplaug from a giant in Shetland. And, it describes the effects of social class on the lives of both the powerful and the weak as Iceland was settling into hundreds of years of colonial rule.

If you would like to read the saga there is an English translation available at the Viking Society.

Please note the family relationships and farm names in the sagas have many inconsistencies and contradictions. The database at Icelandic Roots works to depict the most accurate information with direct sources but using the old Sagas and oral histories is not an exact genealogy.

To order amazing aerial photos of ancestral farms and famous locations in Iceland, see the website by Mats Wibe Lund.

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