Njála geekery

There’s a minor character in Njál’s Saga I’m finding more and more interesting.

Þorgerður Glúmsdóttir is Hallgerður’s only daughter (that we know of), by Hallgerður’s second husband, a man who Hallgerður just might have loved (to my reading), but who Hallgerður’s foster father killed just the same.

In the summer she [Hallgerður] gave birth to a girl. Glum asked what her name should be.

She shall be named after my father’s mother, Thorgerd, because she was descended on her father’s side from Sigurd Fanfnisbani [Fafnir’s Bane].

The girl was sprinkled with water and given that name. She grew up there at Varmalaek and came to be like her mother in appearance.

That’s all we hear from Þorgerður until her father Glúmur dies and her mother marries Gunnar. Þorgerður, now fourteen, accompanies her mother to the wedding. She’s described again as a “very beautiful woman.”

Certainly Gunnar’s uncle, Þráinn thinks so. Þráinn is married to a woman–a poet–who was fond of mocking verses. It’s hard to blame her for aiming a few of these verses at Þráinn, though, when he spends his nephew’s wedding oogling his new niece’s fourteen-year-old daughter. Þráinn, not the sort to stand for this sort of thing, apparently, jumps across the table, declares himself divorced from his sharp-tongued wife, and insists she leave the premises at once.

And then, just as the rest of the wedding guests are returning to their drinks and trying to pretend nothing has happened here, that their extended family really isn’t all that dysfunctional, Þráinn speaks up again, and asks Hallgerður’s father if he might have Þorgerður as his wife.

There’s some hemming and hawing–Hallgeður’s father, to his credit, is a little disturbed by Þráinn’s hasty departure from his last wife, but no one’s really willing to speak ill of Þráinn, in the way no one ever wants to be the one to admit that any troublesome relative is, well, troublesome. Even Njáll, who can see the future and so ought to know better, says only that it’s a good match.

So what does fourteen-year-old Þorgerður think of all this? The saga says only that she, like her mother, had nothing against it. I have to assume Hallgerður, at least, meant that, given that she has no trouble at all speaking up when she does disapprove of someone. Þorgerður is betrothed, and seats are hastily shifted about to acknowledge this. The scene concludes, in what seems a pretty tame fate for Hallgerður’s daughter:

Thorgerd took over the [Þráinn]’s household at Grjota and was a good housewife.

I keep wondering–did Þorgerður want this marriage, and if so, what were her reasons? Was she attracted to Þráinn, even after the way he treated his ex-wife? Was she attracted not to him, but to his material possessions and position in the world? Was the marriage maybe simply a convenient way out of her mother and new step-father’s home? Or did Þorgerður somehowfeel pressured into accepting it? It’s not hard to feel pressured into a lot of things at fourteen, after all.

There’s something else that I’ve realized about Þorgerður Glúmsdóttir, which I also keep thinking about: she suffers some of the largest losses from tangled blood-feud that is Njál’s Saga. First her father, Glúmur (though his death had nothing to do with the main blood feud). Then her stepfather Gunnar. Then her husband, Þráinn. (According to the saga, Þorgerður may have been present for her husband’s death.) Then finally, her son, Höskuldur, in one of the story’s most disturbing slayings. (The only time Þorgerður speaks directly on stage is to urge that her brother-in-law take action for that slaying.)

I’m not sure about this, but after Kári Sölmundarson (whose brothers-in-law, father and mother-in-law, and young son are all burned alive), Þorgerður just may be the person who suffers the saga’s most devastating losses.

More and more I find myself wondering just what Þorgerður’s thoughts were during the saga–and what she was really like, beneath the surface of the story, whether she really was simply a good housewife and beautiful woman, or whether there was more there that we never see to this daughter of Hallgerður and descendant of Sigurður Fafnir’s bane.

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