From Grettir's Saga

The Old Icelandic Grettir's Saga (c. 1325) contains analogues of Beowulf's fights with both Grendel and Grendel's mother. A literary analogue is a story that bears similarities to another story, suggesting a common cultural background, even though the two are independent of one another and may be widely separated, as here, in place and time. Beowulf is an epic poem in an elevated style with a slow and stately movement; Grettir's Saga is prose, reading like a novel and moving swiftly with a lot of dialogue and action. The two heroes, except for their uncommon strength, are also very different. Beowulf, who rids a king of a pair of superhuman monsters and who eventually becomes the king of his own people, belongs to the nobility. Grettir is an Icelandic farmer's son with a sharp tongue and antagonistic disposition, who is constantly getting into trouble and finally is killed as an outlaw by one of his enemies. More as a challenge than as an act of generosity, and in spite of warnings, Grettir determines to spend the night in the house of Thorhall, a wealthy farmer whose entire district is being terrorized by a revenant from the dead. The latter is Glam, a big, powerful, and extremely surly man, recently arrived in Iceland. Thorhall hires Glam as a shepherd only because Thorhall's farm is haunted and he can get no one else to work for him. On Christmas Eve Glam is missing. When his body is found, it "was dark-blue in color and swollen up to the size of an ox." He has evidently been killed in a violent struggle with the other monster; the latter now disappears only to be replaced by Glam. This being is not a ghost but a reanimated corpse, one of the walking dead with all its physical powers. Thorhallstead is a far cry from Heorot; nevertheless, what happens there bears interesting resemblances to Beowulf's fight with Grendel.

The translation is by Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson from Grettir's Saga (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974)

Grettir's Fight with Glam

Grettir rode over to Thorhallsstead and the farmer welcomed him warmly. He asked Grettir where he was going, and Grettir said he would like to spend the night there, if the farmer didn't mind. Thorhall said he would be very grateful if Grettir stayed. "But lately few people have found it desirable to spend any time here. You must have heard about our trouble, and I shouldn't like you to come to grief because of me. Even if you manage to get safely away yourself, I know for certain that you will lose your horse, for no one who comes here can keep his horse safe."

Grettir said that horses were easy enough to get, if anything should happen to his. Thorhall was delighted that Grettir was staying and received him with open arms. They stabled Grettir's horse and put a strong lock on the door, and then they went to bed. The night passed and Glam did not come to the house.

Thorhall said, "Your visit has certainly brought about an improvement here, for Glam has been in the habit of straddling the roof or breaking the doors every night, as indeed you can see clearly for yourself."

Grettir said, "This can mean only one of two things: either Glam will resume his old habit very soon, or else he will give it up for more than one night. So I'm going to stay another night and see what happens."

Then they went to Grettir's horse, and he had not been tampered with. The farmer thought that every sign was pointing the same way. Grettir stayed for the second night, and the thrall did not come to the house. The farmer thought this very promising, and went to look at Grettir's horse, but this time the stable had been broken into, the horse dragged out through the door, and every bone in its body broken apart.

Thorhall told Grettir what had happened, and said that he should save his own life. "You are sure to die if you wait for Glam," he said. Grettir answered, "The very least I can have in return for my horse is to get a glimpse of the thrall."

The farmer said that it would do him no good to see Glam. "For he does not look like any human being," he said. "But every hour that you are willing to spend here is a great comfort for me."

The day passed, and when the people went to bed, Grettir did not take off his clothes, but lay down on the bench opposite the farmer's bedcloset. He covered himself with a shaggy fur cloak, wrapping one end of it around his feet and the other around his head in such a way that he could see out through the neck-hole. The front bench-board was strong, and Grettir put his feet against it. The entire frame of the outer door had been broken away, and a crude hurdle tied carelessly in its place. The wooden partition, which before had separated the hall from the entrance passage, was also broken away, both below and above the crossbeam. All the beds had been moved out of place, and the house seemed rather uninviting. A light was kept burning in the hall throughout the night.

When about a third of the night had passed, Grettir heard a great noise outside. Someone seemed to be climbing the house and then straddling the rooftop above the hall, and beating his heels against the roof so that every beam in the house was cracking. This went on for a long time, and then it was as if someone was climbing down from the roof, and coming to the door. Then the door was opened, and Grettir saw the thrall stretching his head through it, and the head was hideously huge, with enormous features.

Glam moved slowly, and when he was inside the door he stretched himself up to his full height so that he towered up to the rafters. He turned towards the hall, laid his arms on the crossbeam, and stretched his head into the hall. The farmer did not utter a single sound, for he thought that the noise outside had been quite enough. Grettir lay still and did not move at all.

Glam noticed a heap lying on the bench, so he crossed the hall and pulled hard at the cloak, but Grettir braced his feet against the beam and did not budge. Glam pulled at the cloak a second time, and much harder, but the cloak did not move at all. The third time Glam seized hold of the cloak with both hands and pulled at it so violently that Grettir was forced up from the bench, and then they tore the cloak in two between them.

Glam looked at the torn piece he held in his hand and wondered who could have pulled so hard against him. At that moment Grettir leapt under his arms, grasped him around the waist, and clasped him as hard as he could, hoping to bring him down. But the thrall gripped his arms so tightly that he was forced to break away. Grettir kept retreating from one bench to the other, and they started breaking up the beams and smashing everything that was in their way. Glam wanted to get outside, but Grettir braced his feet against anything he could, and yet Glam succeeded in dragging him out of the hall. Then they had a fierce struggle, for the thrall wanted to force Grettir out of the house, but Grettir realized that, difficult as it was to deal with Glam inside, it would be even worse in the open, and so he struggled with all his might against being dragged outside.

Glam was now using all his power, and when he reached the vestibule he pulled Grettir towards him. Grettir realized that he could resist no longer, and so he flung himself violently into the thrall's arms and at the same time braced his feet against a half-sunken boulder that stood in the entrance. Glam had been striving hard to pull Grettir his way, so he was unprepared for this. He fell backwards and crashed out through the door, his shoulders catching the lintel so that the roof was torn apart, both the rafters and the frozen roof-sods, and as he fell on his back out of the house, Grettir landed on top of him.

Outside the moonlight was bright but intermittent, for there were dark clouds which passed before the moon and then went away. At the very moment when Glam fell, the clouds cleared away, and Glam glared up at the moon. Grettir himself once said that that was the only sight he ever saw which frightened him. Then, because of exhaustion and the sight of Glam rolling his eyes so fiercely, Grettir was overcome by such a faintness that he could not draw his short sword, and so he remained there lying closer to death than to life.

Glam, who was endowed with more power for evil than any other revenant, then spoke the following words:

"You have been very determined to meet me, Grettir, but it will hardly surprise you if you do not get much luck from me. I will tell you this: you have acquired by now only half of the strength and vigor which you were destined to get if you had not met me. I cannot take away from you what you already have, but I can see to it that you will never be stronger than you are now, and yet you are strong enough, as many will find to their cost. Up until now your deeds have brought you fame, but from now on outlawry and slaughter will come your way, and most of your acts will bring you ill luck and misfortune. You will be made an outlaw and forced to live by yourself. I also lay this curse on you: you will always see before you these eyes of mine, and they will make your solitude unbearable, and this shall drag you to your death."

As soon as Glam had spoken these words the faintness that had come over Grettir left him. He drew his short sword, cut off Glam's head, and placed it against his buttocks.

Then the farmer came outside. He had put on his clothes while Glam was making his speech, but had not dared to come anywhere near until Glam was laid low. Thorhall praised God and thanked Grettir warmly for vanquishing this unclean spirit. Then they set to work and burned Glam to ashes, gathered them into a skin bag, and buried them at a place far away from all paths of men and pastures of animals. After that they went back home. It was about daybreak, and Grettir lay down to rest, for he was very stiff.

Thorhall sent for men from the neighboring farms, and showed them and told them what had happened. All who heard about this deed were greatly impressed by it, and said that no man in the entire country was Grettir Asmundarson's equal in strength, in courage, or in accomplishments. Thorhall gave him fine gifts when he left, a good horse, and splendid clothes, for the ones he had been wearing were torn into tatters. They parted the best of friends.

From there Grettir rode over to As in Vatnsdale. Thorvald gave him a good welcome, and questioned him closely about his encounter with Glam. Grettir told him all about their dealings and said that this long struggle had been the greatest test of his strength he had ever experienced. Thorvald warned Grettir to restrain himself. "If you do that, all will go well with you, but otherwise you will have much bad luck."

Grettir said that this incident had done little to improve his temper, and that he had now much less control over himself than before, and found it more difficult to put up with any offences. He also said that he could notice one change: he had become so frightened of the dark that he did not dare go anywhere alone after nightfall, because all kinds of phantoms appeared to him then. It has since become a common saying that people who suffer hallucinations have Glam's vision, or that Glam has lent them his eyes.

Afterwards Grettir rode back home to Bjarg, and he stayed there for the rest of the winter.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home