Does anything depend on it?

One interesting thing about the bowstring incident in Njal’s Saga is how differently men and women tend to react to it:

At this moment Thorbrand Thorleiksson leaped up on the roof and cut through Gunnar’s bow string … By this time Gunnar had wounded eight men and killed two. Then he received two wounds, and everyone said he flinched at neither wounds nor death.

He spoke to Hallgerd: ‘Give me two locks of your hair, and you and your mother twist them into a bowstring for me.’

‘Does anything depend on it?’ she said.

‘My life depends on it,’ he said, ‘for they’ll never be able to get me so long as I can use my bow.’

‘Then I’ll recall,’ she said, ‘the slap you gave me, and I don’t care whether you hold out for a long time or a short time.’

‘Everyone has some mark of distinction,’ said Gunnar, ‘and I won’t ask you again.’

I first noticed in Iceland that when I asked about Hallgerður, men tended to have very quick responses: “She was a bitch.” “She was a bad, bad woman.” Women tended to hesitate, think more, and then say things like, “She was a strong woman.” “Women aren’t like they were in the sagas now.”

When I came home, I noticed similar reactions among American men and women to the story. When I tell it (and one of the hazards of my having written worked on Thief Eyes is that I pretty much will talk about Hallgerður and the sagas to anyone who stands still too long), the men tend to sort of give a low whistle, or take a step back, or say words to the effect of “that’s harsh,” or in some other way express, pretty quickly and instinctively, that same sense that Hallgerður was a bitch.

But from the women I tell this story too? There’s a wider range of reactions, but under them all, I’m beginning to understand that there’s an undercurrent of admiration.

When I tell the story here, I don’t, of course, give the whole chain of events that led to that slap–Hallgerður sounds a little more of a victim when the passage above is given in isolation. But even so, the other day I finally articulated one of the things that makes Hallgerður’s action seem so … I want to say transgressive, though maybe that’s too strong a word. Radical, certainly.

It’s that women are trained, from an early age, not to say no, never to put their needs ahead of others, and to always be available when others need them. So when Hallgerður says no, at the very moment when someone needs her most–it is transgressive. She crosses a line we’re trained, from an early age, not to cross even when far less than someone’s life is at stake. We’re taught not to cross it even when someone’s discomfort is at stake.

I can sort of see Hallgerður’s contemporary counterpart telling her friends over coffee after the battle was long over how she really never wanted to give up her hair, how she really ought to have divorced that bastard Gunnar years ago and now she was stuck with him forever, but given the situation, what choice did she have? And all her friends would sigh with her and offer comfort and reassure her that of course she had no choice. And then they’d go on to complain to each other about men in general, and how there was just nothing to be done about them.

Not Hallgerður. By the time we get to the bowstring incident in Njal’s Saga, I think very few readers would say they like her, exactly. To say she was a difficult woman is an understatement. But when she says no at that moment when she’s most expected to act for others, not herself … it’s horrifying, yes … but it’s also daring, and compelling, and so for many of us there’s that admiration, too.

This is fascinating to me. I think I need to keep thinking about it.

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