By M.A. Marion Poilvez
Brathair, Vol.12:1 (2012)
Abstract: The legal and historical aspect of Icelandic outlawry in the Middle Ages has been widely studied and commented by scholars, either by following formal indications from the Grágás or through the use of literary examples spread in the sagas. The two main Icelandic outlaw sagas, Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar and Gísla saga Súrssonar have been so far mainly discussed in connection with other tales on outlaws from Europe (Robin Hood, Hereward), but surprisingly not often together. Through the analysis of the concepts of exile and liminality, this paper will attempt to relocate the two sagas in their specific Icelandic context and underline the specific nature of the Icelandic full outlawry as well as its consequences in the narrative. Icelandic medieval outlaws were excluded from the social space of the island, yet forbidden to leave it (óferjandi). The fact to be stuck on the island but out of the public scene leads to the creation of new original and individualized narrative spaces: the supernatural wilderness for Grettir, the tortured dreams for Gísli.
Introduction: Why should he live for long? This cruel but nevertheless wise rhetorical question sounds like an echo of the condition of Icelandic outlaws. In a society where social ties and solidarity were needed in order to endure the unwelcoming weather and landscape, exclusion and isolation appear as the worst punishment that man can inflict to man, even worse than death. Indeed, being excluded from the social space, the Icelandic full outlaws were still forbidden to leave the island (óferjandi), while other remarkable medieval outcast figures from continental Europe were not. For example, when Tristan is suspected of being improperly close to queen Yseut, he is banned from the court, but with the possibility to go away and start a new life under the protection of another lord, and wishing to be one day reintegrated. On the other hand, when he is found guilty of sexual intercourse with the queen, he is directly sentenced to death with his beloved one. He succeeds in escaping and inhabits the marginal space of the forest for a time, but in the end, he achieves his goal and joins another court.
That very possibility is theoretically denied to the Icelandic full outlaw, and a direct death penalty only applied in few cases. Other well-known outlaws (like Robin Hood), decide to recreate an alternative society in order to threaten the power of the authority. The same applies to Hereward, who became a national figure of resistance against the invader William the Conqueror. Some Icelandic outlaws followed that path according to the Landnámabók and to Harðar Saga ok Hólmverja, yet those were not the ones who attracted the most attention from the sagamenn (saga-writers) and their audience. The geographical and social particularities of Iceland triggered a specific way to treat outcasts, as well as a special way to narrate their life. As a consequence, surviving in such a harsh natural and (un)social environment makes the story of such men söguligr (worth-telling).