The Icelandic Sagas might not be best known for the romance, but it’s there. Among the sea voyages, sword fights and poetry of the Vikings there is love and loss. These stories are what makes the Sagas so compelling.
In this series, we are recapping the tales of the heroines of these romantic plots in the Icelandic Sagas. Each known for an infamous quote and their notorious actions, these women are just as legendary as the men who loved them.
See also: Part One: Helga the Fair
This time it’s the tough as nails Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir. If Helga the fair’s story is a love triangle, Guðrún’s is more of a love pentagon.
Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir – Laxdaela Saga
“Þeim var ég verst er ég unni mest”
The quote translates to “I was worst to the one I loved most”. It was spoken by Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, a main character in the story of the people of Laxárdalur valley. Her story leaves little room for debate about which of the men in her life she loved most.
Our leading lady was, according to the Saga, “the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking” (transl.Keneva Kunz). She was also considered both polite and good with words.
As a young woman, Guðrún has a series of elaborate dreams which she asks her kinsman, Gestur, to decipher the meaning of.
In the first dream, she has a hat on. She dislikes the hat and throws it in a river, despite people telling her not to get rid of it.
In the second dream Guðrún has a silver ring on her finger. She likes and wants to keep the ring but it falls in a lake and she never sees it again.
In the third she has a gold ring and feels like she’s been compensated for the loss of the silver ring. She thinks she’ll keep this ring longer, but she falls and the ring breaks on a rock.
In the fourth and last dream, Guðrún has a golden helmet on. The helmet is covered in jewels and very heavy. It’s hard for Guðrún to keep her head straight but she doesn’t blame the helmet. Eventually, the helmet falls off her head and tumbles into the sea in Hvammsfjörður fjord.
Gestur tells her that each dream represents one of her four future husbands and how she’ll feel about them and how she will eventually lose them. Guðrún blushes at this and says there is a lot to think about if he’s right. Spoiler alert: Gestur was completely right.
See also: Getting Married in Iceland
First Marriage – The Hat
Guðrún’s first husband, Þorvaldur (represented by a hat in the first dream), is described as being ‘a rich man and no hero’. They marry when Guðrún is 15-years-old and the marriage is not a happy one. He is known to slap her if she goes against his will.
Þorvaldur has a friend named Þórður who often stays at their house. People would often gossip about his close friendship with Guðrún. Guðrún goes to Þórður to complain about Þorvaldur slapping her and Þórður tells her to divorce him, which she does.
Second Marriage – The Silver Ring
Þórður and Guðrún spend a lot of time together and she keeps bringing up that his wife, Auður, likes to wear trousers, an uncommon act in the times of Vikings. Auður’s fondness for trousers ends up being what Þórður cites as his reason for divorcing her.
Guðrún and Þórður are now both free to marry and they do so (Þórður is the silver ring from the second dream). Shortly after the wedding Þórður’s ex-wife, Auður, shows up in the middle of the night—wearing trousers—and hits him with a sword but doesn’t kill him.
Þórður meets his end, however, on an errand for his mother, who’s accused her neighbour of stealing. The neighbour and his sons are thought to practice magic. They cast a spell as Þórður is away sailing and the ship is lost at sea. After Þórður’s death, Guðrún births a son and names him after his father.
See also: Witchcraft and Sorcery in Iceland
Kjartan and Bolli
Next, we are introduced to two young men, Bolli and Kjartan. They are cousins and great friends and go everywhere together. They often hang out with Guðrún but she and Kjartan are especially good friends, wink wink.
One day, Kjartan decides to go on a trip abroad. Guðrún is sadden by this but he says he’ll make it up to her. Guðrún says he can make it up to her by taking her with him but Kjartan reminds her that she has responsibilities at home; unmarried brothers and an elderly father.
Kjartan asks Guðrún to wait three years for him while he travels to Norway with his friend Bolli, she says she can’t promise anything and they part on bad terms.
See also: Time in Iceland
In Norway, Kjartan has a great time at the court and doesn’t really want to leave. Partially because everyone loves him—especially the King’s sister, Ingibjörg, but also because the King is keeping him hostage to try and convert Icelanders to Christianity.
Bolli, however, is free to go. When he arrives back in Iceland, he meets up with Guðrún who asks about Kjartan. Bolli says that she should not expect him back any time soon and mention’s Kjartan’s friendly relationship with the King’s sister. Guðrún is clearly hurt by this but pretends she thinks it’s great news.
Third Marriage – The Golden Ring
Bolli often comes to visit Guðrún, and one time, he asks her what she’d say if he proposed. Guðrún answers that there’s no need to talk about that since she’ll not marry any other man while Kjartan is still alive.
Still determined to marry, Bolli goes to Guðrún’s father, Ósvífur, to ask for her hand. However, Ósvífur answers that this is completely Guðrún’s decision. However, in a later conversation with Guðrún, Ósvífur tells his daughter that she shouldn’t refuse a fine man like Bolli.
Even though her feelings towards Kjartan are still the same, Guðrún decides to accept Bolli’s proposal and the couple is married. (Bolli is the golden ring from the third dream).
News reaches Norway that Iceland has now converted to Christianity and so Kjartan is free to leave. When he arrives in Iceland, he hears about Guðrún and Bolli’s marriage which saddens him although he pretends he isn’t fazed. He later goes on to marry a woman named Hrefna.
Bolli attempts to mend his relationship with Kjartan by offering him some fine horses as a gift. Kjartan flatly refuses and claims he doesn’t like horses. The hard feelings remain between the once best friends.
Now, there is a party where all of our players are in attendance; Bolli, Guðrún, Kjartan and his wife Hrefna. Kjartan insists that the seating arrangement should be so that his wife is sitting in the place where the most dignified woman sits. This makes Guðrún angry as she is usually the one who sits there.
At the party, Kjartan’s sword goes missing but later turns up broken and Guðrún’s brother is suspected of the theft.
At the next party, Hrefna’s fancy headdress, which the king’s sister had given Kjartan so that he could give it to his future wife, is stolen. Kjartan and Hrefna accuse Bolli and Guðrún of stealing and damaging their prized possessions.
To get revenge and try to get Hrefna’s headdress back, Kjartan and his men go to Bolli and Guðrún’s home and lock all the people in for three days. This is especially cruel since toilets at the time were not inside people’s houses but in an outhouse.
Kjartan has now pissed off Guðrún’s brothers and Guðrún herself is positively furious at him. Guðrún goads her brothers and Bolli to attack Kjartan. However, Bolli doesn’t want to go but very reluctantly fights Kjartan. They aren’t evenly matched since Kjartan has lost his good sword.
Bolli draws his sword on Kjartan who throws away his own weapon, stating that he would rather die by Bolli’s hand than have to kill him. Knowing that Guðrún brother’s (and Guðrún herself) will make him pay if he let Kjartan go, Bolli delivers a death blow to Kjartan but is immediately filled with regret.
Kjartan’s mother sends some of the men in the family to avenge the death of her son and Bolli gets his head chopped off. And so, Guðrún is now a widow again. Shortly thereafter, Guðrún gives birth to Bolli’s son and names him after his father.
Twelve years pass and young Bolli and Guðrún’s other son are now grown up enough to carry weapons. She gets them to avenge their father and persuades them by showing them the clothes Bolli was killed in covered in blood.
The 12 and 16-year-old boys kill a man and it looks like a cycle of killing and vengeance is about to begin. However, before more murders happen, the matter is settled with monetary compensation.
The Fourth Marriage – The Golden Helmet
As the dreams predicted, Guðrún marries a fourth time. Her husband is a man named Þorkell, a wealthy and famous man from a good family (the jewelled golden helmet). They have a son.
Guðrún’s new hubby, Þorkell, dreams that his beard grows so big, it fills all of Breiðafjörður fjord. He thinks it means he’ll own the entire fjord but Guðrún says it probably means he’ll “dip his beard in the fjord” (as in, drown in it). Guðrún is, of course, right.
See also: Things That Can Kill You in Iceland
The night Þorkell drowns, Guðrún sees a ghost by the church. The ghost tells her there’s big news but she simply tells it to shut up. She then sees her husband and his men by the church, drenched in seawater, and realises they are all dead.
The One She Loved Most
After having lost her fourth husband, Guðrún devotes herself to the church and becomes the first nun in Iceland.
When she is an old woman, her son Bolli Bollason visits and asks her which man she loved most. She tells him that Þorkell was the richest and highest ranking, Bolli was physically the strongest, Þórður was the wisest and she didn’t really care for Þorvaldur.
Bolli says that this doesn’t answer his question; he wasn’t talking about her husbands. That’s when she says that famous line: “I was worst to the one I loved most”. Although she never explicitly says it, her son and readers of the Saga are sure she is talking about Kjartan.
Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir was feistier than Helga the fair but our feistiest subject is yet to come. The next heroine of Saga romance is Hallgerður langbrók.
See also: How to Travel in Iceland