Book review: The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue


The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue is an introduction to an epic tale from the Viking Age. I thought I had left epics long ago, withered in university reading lists but this particular epic has rekindled my enjoyment of the literary style. This narrative spans across Scadinavia and Viking Britain, with two poets – Gunnlaug and Hfran – competing for their freedom, their reputations and above all, the love of Helga the Fair.

The epic begins with Gunnlaug who wants to marry Helga, but also wants to travel across the kingdoms. Permission for the marriage is granted to him by Helga’s father, but only if Gunnlaug returns within a set timeframe and as a more mature man. As Gunnlaug travels around, he woos kings instead of his wife to be with witty words and clever poems, winning himself hospitality, honour and a large amount of gifts. Hrafn, another poet who also travels, finds himself in the same kingdom. Similiar to the battle for Helga, the two poets try to outdo one another to win the King’s favour. The saga is largely structured around a poetic battle, but also the clashing of egos and a competition between two men who wish to assert themselves as the alpha-male of their country. This competition returns to Helga and her heart becomes a trophy in a very conflicted love triangle.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Helga, who is not only silenced by the male characters in the saga, but also in the use of the author’s (who remains anonymous) wit. I found The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue quite entertaining and light hearted, but this does create a distraction from the reality that Helga is nothing more than property to be swapped around, man to man.

 I particularly loved the way the saga is structured. Rather than pages and pages of stanzas, this prose has a nice scattering of poetry. It is also subdivided into sections, almost as if each is a short story. This was a nifty characteristic throughout the saga as it meant I could pick it up and put it down, without ever getting confused on my return. As is typical of sagas, it included a lot of unnecessary history and a huge list of Scandinavian and Icelandic names that often slowed my reading down.

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue was written in the thirteenth century so there were many expected language barriers, particularly in the verses. With the help of the translation guide, I actually enjoyed the challenge of getting to grips with the linguistics. It’s a great introduction to the style, and I can safely say I really enjoyed my first Icelandic saga. The short bursts of dramatic storytelling and undertones of enimity made  The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue a delightful little tale. A great short read that entertains and amuses, I’d put this on my pile of ‘to read again’.








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