Gunnar Hámundarson

Summary

Gunnar son of Hamund or Gunnar of the End of the Slope (henceforth: Gunnar Hámundarson, 10th century) is an Icelandic hewding, one of the main characters in the Njala Saga, who is also mentioned in other “clan sagas”. The first half of the saga details the events that led to Gunnar’s death on his manor at the End of the Slope in Southern Iceland in the late 10th century.

Gunnar son of Hamund is considered a typical “light hero” of the Icelandic sagas as opposed to “dark heroes” such as Egil. The saga portrays the ideal of the man of the time:

“He was a tall, strong man, and very skilled in battle. He chopped with his sword with both hands and at the same time threw spears if he wanted to. He swung his sword so fast that it seemed as if there were three swords in the air. There was no equal in archery, he always hit the target without a miss. He could jump more than his own height in full armor and jumped backwards as well as forwards. He swam like a seal. There was no game in which anyone could compete with him. He was said to be superior in agility. He was good-looking. His face was white, his nose straight but slightly upturned, his eyes blue and sharp-sighted, his cheeks ruddy, his hair blond and thick. He knew perfectly well the rules of socializing, was hardy, generous and reserved, faithful in friendship and strict in his choice of friends. He had all sorts of good things.

The image of Gunnar shows the reader “a post-classical and national type – brave but calm, always ready to fight in the name of justice and the preservation of peace, standing above parochial interests.

Gunnar was the son of Hamund son of Gunnar and Rannveig daughter of Sigfus. He had two brothers, Kolskegg and Hjort, and a sister, Arngunn, wife of Hroar Godi of the Inbetween, grandson of Gardar, who discovered Iceland. Gunnar’s wife was Hallgerd Longshanks, daughter of Höskuld of the Salmon Valley people, twice a widow, who was said to have killed her husbands (this was only true of the former). Hallgerd bore Gunnar two sons, Grani and Högni. The younger was “of good disposition,” and Grani “in many respects like his mother.

Gunnar was born and raised on the manor of the End of the Slope in South Iceland. As an adult he spent several years in Scandinavia, where he went on successful Viking campaigns at the head of his own squadron of up to ten ships. He had been invited by Harald the Blue-toothed to enter his service, but Gunnar replied that he wished to go to Iceland first, which sounded like a refusal.

Gunnar was a close friend of Nyal’s and often came to him for advice, but he did not always follow the advice, which ultimately ruined him. Njal warned him on his return from the south not to go to the mountaineering. Gunnar went nonetheless, and there he met by chance with Hallgerd Longfoot. The result of this meeting was marriage (for Gunnar the first, for Hallgerd the third). Because of his wife, Gunnar gradually became embroiled in a tribal feud.

Njal warned Gunnar against killing two men of the same clan, saying that it would lead Gunnar to death. But still he killed two of the kin of the powerful Håvdinger Gitsur the White. Njal then advised his friend to leave Iceland to save his life. He set out, but when he looked back at his homestead as he left, he was so struck by the beauty of the scenery that he could not leave.

When Gunnar’s blood enemies, numbering forty men, surrounded his house, he spent a long time firing back with his bow. The bow was cut by one of his enemies, and Gunnar asked Hallgerd for two strands of her hair to make a new one. She refused him, as she wanted to avenge a blow she had once given him during a family quarrel. Gunnar had to engage in hand-to-hand combat, in which he died. Thus Hallgerd became responsible for the death of her third husband as well.

Gunnar was buried sitting in the mound. Rannveig, his mother, did not put the spear near the body, saying that it should be taken by the one who would avenge the dead. Therefore no one touched the spear. Later Gunnar’s son Högni took it in order to kill two of his father’s assailants with it and make the others pay viruses. The British researcher H. E. Davidson regards the story of the dead Gunnar uttering a vista from the mound as one of the proofs of the Scandinavians’ belief in rebirth immediately after death.

“The Book of the Settlement of Iceland” tells another version of Gunnar’s lineage: his mother Rannveig was not the granddaughter of Sigvat the Red, but a daughter. In this case he was Unn, whose dowry he demanded from her former husband Hrut son Hjolv, a cousin. The circumstances leading to Gunnar’s death are described there in much the same way, only his killers were, according to the “Book…” not forty, but thirty.

“The Saga of Kurin Thorir” calls Gunnar son of Hamund one of the two best archers in Iceland, along with Gunnar son of Hliv.

The Icelandic poet Joonas Hadlgrimsson, in the first half of the 19th century, visited Gunnar’s Island in southern Iceland, a patch of grassy land in the middle of a desert created by the constant flooding of rivers. According to local legends, standing there, Gunnar saw how beautiful his homeland was and decided not to go anywhere. In the poem “Gunnar’s Island,” the poet portrayed Gunnar son Hamund as an Icelandic patriot who preferred his imminent death in his homeland to emigration.

The British poet Louis MacNeice described Gunnar’s demise in his poem “The Saga of Nyala:

Gunnar is one of the main characters in the historical novel The Burning Njal by Henry Trees, which uses the plot of the Njal Saga and was published in 1964. The novel begins with an episode in which Gunnar seeks the return of his former wife Unn’s dowry from Hrut son Hjolv, and includes a description of Gunnar’s later life until his death.

Icelandic writer Bjarni Hardarson published the novel Mård in 2014, in which the events of the Saga of Njal, including the strife that proved fatal to Gunnar, are described from the perspective of Mård son of Valgard.

In Björn B. Björnsson’s The Saga of Nyala (2003), which begins with the conflict between Gunnar and Otkel, Gunnar was played by Hilmir Snaer Gudnason.

Gunnar is the main character in the second series of Ragnar Handsson’s documentary-artistic film Legends of Iceland. (2013). Here he was played by Bjartur Gudmundsson.

Sources

  1. Гуннар сын Хамунда
  2. Gunnar Hámundarson
  3. «Сага о Ньяле», XIX.
  4. Мелетинский Е. М. Исландские саги // История всемирной литературы: В 8 томах / АН СССР; Ин-т мировой лит. им. А. М. Горького. — М.: Наука, 1983—1994. — На титл. л. изд.: История всемирной литературы: в 9 т. Т. 2. — 1984. — С. 478.
  5. Сага о Ньяле, LXXV.
  6. Íslendingabók og Landnámabók (1891; filmed 1948), Ari Þorgilsson; búið hefir til prentunar Vald. Ásmundarson, (Reykjavík: Sigurður Kristjánsson, 1891. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmet av the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1948), FHL film 73228 Item 7., vol. 1, pt. 2, p. 301, 326, 327, 348, 351, 353, 355, 356-358, 388, Table 29, 325, 354.
  7. Według innych źródeł nazywała się Rannveig Sigmundardóttur.
  8. Atgeir jest często błędnie mylony z halabardą.
  9. Ten wątek jest fikcją literacką.
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