Updated: Nov 21, 2021
The third installment of ancient writings about Vopnafjörður is the Saga of Þorsteinn Staff-struck. Many Western Icelanders emigrated from East Iceland. Sagas from this region are of special importance to us. The first installment, Þorsteins saga hvíta (the Saga of Thorstein "The White"), and the second, Vopnfirðinga saga (The Saga of the People Vopnafjörður) are mapped here. Þorsteinn Staff-struck follows these two sagas in time. It is a "Þættir" which literally means a "strand" of rope or yarn. A Þættir is a short story, much shorter than a typical saga.
The Saga of Þorsteinn Staff-struck is a continuation of the life of Víga-Bjarni Helgason (IR# I136073)*, the protagonist in The Saga of the People Vopnafjörður. In that Saga, Bjarni avenged the death of his father, who was a difficult and violent man. He then made peace with his enemies. He went on to lead others as a goði at the Hof farm.
The Saga of Þorsteinn Staff-struck is really about Bjarni's masterful approach to solving problems, his clever nature and his desire for abiding peace with others. The story begins with a simple introduction of the young Þorsteinn who lives nearby:
There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce Viking in his youth, and in his old age, he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better. The action takes off at a Hestavíg, a brutal sport consisting of a bloody confrontation between two stallions, prodded to fight by their owners. It often led to verbal and physical confrontations among the horse owners (as it will in this case).
Þord, an overbearing farm manager for Víga-Bjarni Helgason at Hof and two others, Þorhall and Þorvald also worked for Bjarni are story antagonists. One day, Þord and Þorsteinn arrange a Hestavíg.
During the fight, Þord's horse was losing. Þord becomes frustrated and hits Þorsteinn's horse. In response, Þorsteinn hits Þord's horse even harder. This causes Þord to take his horse-staff and strike Þorsteinn in the face. The skin breaks over Þorsteinn 's brow and he ties a piece of his shirt over it, acting as if nothing happened. Þorsteinn asks the farmhands present to keep this matter from his father. The event is kept quiet for a time until Þorhall and Þorvald give Þorsteinn the nickname "Þorsteinn Staff-Struck", which carries over East Iceland.
As expected Þorarinn does not take well the news of his son's nickname. He calls his son a coward and tells Þorsteinn he will not speak anymore of it. However, this exchange sets Þorsteinn off. He grabs a weapon and marches to the Hof farm. At the stable at Hof, he confronts Þord. He asks him if the blow last summer was intentional. Þord is unapologetic and taunts Þorsteinn, telling him in so many words he will never know and will never receive reparations. Þorsteinn charges at Þord and strikes him with a fatal blow.
After the killing, Þorsteinn walks to the house at Hof. Outside he meets a woman. He says to her, “Tell Bjarni that an Ox has gored his man Þord, alongside the stables”. The woman, seemingly annoyed replies “Get off home man. I will report this when I think fit.” So Þorsteinn went home and the woman went back to work.
The woman from the stable in a clever way covers for her apathy toward the matter by expressing an anti-feminist and self-deprecating excuse to Bjarni who asks of Þord's whereabouts:
"True it is what they often say of us women, how there is little sense to draw on where we she-creatures are concerned. Þorteinn Staff-Struck came here only this morning to report that an ox had so gored Þord that he was past helping himself." Bjarni went to the stables to see for himself. Then he has Þorsteinn outlawed. But, Þorsteinn did not leave he stayed and worked on his father's farm. In the autumn, some of the farmhands at Hof were sitting around the fire, including Þorhall and Þorvald. Bjarni was in earshot by the kitchen wall and overheard the conversation. Þorhall and Þorvald said, "We did not expect when we came to live with Killer-Bjarni that we would be cooking lambs´ heads while his forest outlaw, Þorsteinn, would be cooking the heads of wethers."
The two went on to say more disparaging things about Bjarni. Some men responded that the two should hold their tongues and that Bjarni had no mind to take food out of the mouth of Þorsteinn's blind father. Bjarni heard the whole thing but gave no indication of knowing what was discussed.
Early the next morning, Bjarni woke up Þorhall and Þorvald and bid them ride to Sunnudal and bring him Þorsteinn's head before breakfast. Bjarni said, in a sardonic tone:
"For you appear to be the likeliest to remove this stain from my honor, considering I have not the courage for it myself." The men now believed they had said too much but headed out to Þorsteinn's. Once at Sunnudal, Þorsteinn asks why they are there. The two men say they came to collect stray horses. Þorsteinn spots some strays, but the two men ask him to show them. Down by where the horses were grazing, Þorvald tried to catch Þorsteinn off guard. He came at Þorsteinn with an ax. But, Þorsteinn shoved him away and drove a short-sword through him. Then Þorsteinn finished Þorhall and bound the two men to one of the stray horses and set them off to Hof.
The dead men arrived by horseback and some farmhands notified Bjarni. Bjarni went outside to see for himself. He said nothing but had the two men buried. Bjarni, though having sent these men to retrieve Þorsteinn as punishment after overhearing their dissatisfaction with Bjarni's style of leadership, once again seems unconcerned about Þorsteinn. This may suggest that Þorsteinn had actually solved a problem for Bjarni by eliminating three troublemakers at Hof. Though others see the problem more concretely.
His wife Rannveig Þorgeirsdóttir (IR# I136080), for example, asks him, "What do you imagine is talked about most often in the district?"
Bjarni replies, "I have no idea...There are plenty whose chatter strikes me as not worth bothering about."
"Well, the most frequent subject of gossip is this," she told him. "Men just cannot imagine what Þorsteinn Staff-struck must do for you to decide you need to take vengeance on him. He has now killed 3 of your men." She goes on to say that his Þingmen cannot count on him for support if he does not act and states, "You do wrong, but leave right undone."
Bjarni agrees to take action but acknowledges that Þorsteinn had reason to kill all 3 men. This perhaps reveals his strategy to clean his own house at Hof. He also indicates that he will go it alone. This worries Rannveig, but he remains headstrong.
Bjarni finds Þorsteinn and says "You must come and fight me today".
Þorsteinn replies, "It is quite hopeless for me to fight with you, but I will get abroad by the first ship that sails".
Bjarni refuses but lets Þorsteinn see his father before fighting. Soon they went off to the mound, fighting hard, and in earnest, cutting away each other's shields. After much time, Bjarni says "Now I grow thirsty. He lay down his weapon and drank water from the stream".
Þorsteinn commented that Bjarni's sword was not the same one used at the Battle of Bardvarsdal. Bjarni did not reply. They returned to fighting and fought for a long while before Bjarni complained, "A lot goes wrong for me today...now my shoestring is loose". Þorsteinn replied, "Tie it up then". While Bjarni was tying his shoe, Þorsteinn went into his house to retrieve more shields and a better sword for Bjarni.
They fought on. But, soon they had cut away, entirely, each other's shield. It was now Bjarni's turn to strike. But, Bjarni stopped and said, "It would be a bad bargain to choose a foul deed in place of a good one. I shall count myself fully repaid for the lives of my 3 men, if only you will be true to me."
Þorsteinn agreed. He went home with Bjarni to Hof and followed him to the day of his death. Þorarin was relegated to spending his last years at Sunnudal after trying to kill Bjarni with a knife soon after the fight was over.
It is clear from the story, that Bjarni feels some commonality if not fondness toward Þorsteinn. Both are strong, yet gentle and peaceful men. Both also had violent and overbearing fathers who pushed to quarrel with others. For these reasons, Bjarni may have staged the fight with Þorsteinn as a way to test both his strength and his honor. On several occasions during their fight, such as when Bjarni drank from the stream or tied his shoe, he gave Þorsteinn the opportunity to kill him, but Þorsteinn did not. Notice that Bjarni did not bring his best sword to the fight, possibly because he did not want to kill Þorsteinn but rather bring him into the fold. Throughout the story, others perceive Bjarni as slow to act or out of touch with the problem at hand. But, we come to see that Bjarni's inaction is a form of action. He lets events unfold to his benefit as a leader. Þorsteinn dispenses with the men who question their loyalty to Bjarni. He then lets Þorsteinn demonstrate his strength and honor. And, at the end cuts a deal to make him one of his ranch hands at Hof. This story ultimately is about how effective leaders may not always take the most straightforward path to get what they want, but if they are good leaders, they nevertheless get what they want in the end.
If you would like to read the Saga of Thorstein Staff-Struck and its companion saga, The Saga of the People of Vopnafjordur, they are contained in:
* The IR# is the unique identifier for an individual in the Icelandic Roots database. Members can use this number to easily locate saga characters and their relationship to them in the family tree. If you have Icelandic roots and are not a member and would like to join please complete this form: https://www.icelandicroots.com/cousins-across-the-ocean