From Iceland — Saga Spots: Island of Outlaws

Saga Spots: Island of Outlaws

Published May 15, 2017

Eli Petzold
Photo by

The island of Drangey stands like a naval fortress in the waters of Skagajförður in northern Iceland. Once a maritime volcano, its sheer tuff walls rise about 180 metres from the sea in the middle of the long fjord. Atop the rocky cliffs, however, a relatively flat field of abundant grass covers the island’s surface. This fertile pasture, along with the island’s strategic, defensible setting, made Drangey an excellent location for the medieval inhabitants of the Skagajförður district to keep and graze their livestock; for the same reasons, however, Drangey proved a choice refuge for Grettir Ásmundarson, the antihero of Grettis Saga and the most notorious outlaw of medieval Icelandic literature.

Grettis Saga recounts the travels and troubles of Grettir, a strongman and perennial outlaw whose unparalleled might becomes tempered by crippling dread after an undead monster lays a curse on him. Afraid of the dark and of being alone, Grettir traverses much of Iceland seeking solace and security from an ever-growing list of enemies. After one of Grettir’s few allies suggests he make his home on the island, citing Drangey’s natural defences, Grettir secures passage to Drangey with his brother Illugi and an incompetent servant named Glaumur. With eighty sheep and an abundance of nesting seabirds, the ragtag trio last three years on the island, resisting intimidation from the Skagajförður farmers who, despite their efforts, find no way to evict Grettir from the natural fortress.

There is a light that goes out

When Glaumur accidentally lets the fire burn out one night, Grettir takes it upon himself to return to the mainland to procure a flame. After swimming a league in the cold sea to the farm of Reykir, he finds a natural hot pool and soaks for several hours before retrieving fire from the farm and ferrying it back to Drangey.

Ultimately, through a combination of witchcraft and Glaumur’s incompetence, the Skagajförður farmers reclaim the island. The foster mother of Þorbjörn Hook, one of the farmers, sends a cursed tree trunk floating to Drangey. Cutting the trunk, Grettir’s axe glances off the wood and cuts into his leg, dealing him a festering, debilitating wound. Soon after, Glaumur, growing impetuous and delinquent, neglects to remove the ladder that provides access to the clifftop. Þorbjörn and the farmers surprise the wounded outlaw and, after a fierce battle, defeat the hapless trio.

The storied island is visible from the modern-day towns of Sauðárkrókur and Hofsós. To this day, the farm of Reykir—where Grettir procures fire—has a source of naturally occurring hot water, and the modern-day owners of the farm have built hot pools beside the sea, one of which—Grettislaug—takes its name from the saga’s antihero. The same family operates boat tours from Reykir to Drangey, where the purported ruins of Grettir’s dugout can still be seen. Although swimming between Drangey and the mainland is a herculean task best left to legendary strongmen like Grettir, it’s still possible to retrace the path of this colourful, flawed hero.

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