Reinventing sources

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An annotated leaf of Þorgils saga ok Hafliða with marginal notes referring to underlined passages, including the mention of which sagas were recited at the wedding feastManuscript AM 115 fol., held at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik. 

In the course of his scholarly investigations, Torfæus stayed in close contact with his friends and acquaintances in Denmark and Iceland, while he himself was based in Norway. As indicated in one of his letters to Rev. Torfi Jónsson, the saga of Hrómundur son of Gripur (or Greipur), was among the sagas that Torfæus was trying to gain access to. This story not only has a unique position in the history of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, as the oldest legendary saga mentioned by name, but more importantly its protagonist, Hrómundur, is considered a forefather of the first settlers of Iceland. 

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The landscape of Reykhólar in 1991, almost 900 years after the wedding feast. Photograph by Hjálmar R. Bárðarsonheld at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik.

Wedding feast at Reykhólar

The story of Hrómundur apparently existed in one form or another already in the Middle Ages, as according to another Old Norse-Icelandic saga, Þorgils saga og Hafliða (part of the thirteenth-century Sturlunga compilation), the story of Hrómundur was recited for entertainment at a wedding feast at Reykhólar in the year 1119.

The famous passage from Þorgils saga ok Hafliða describing the entertainment provided at the wedding feast reads as follows in Old Norse-Icelandic: 

Hrólfr af Skálmarnesi sagði sǫgu frá Hrǫngviði víkingi ok frá Óláfi liðmannakonungi ok haugbroti Þráins berserks ok Hrómundi Gripssyni, ok margar vísur með. En þessarri sǫgu var skemt Sverri konungi, ok kallaði hann slíkar lygisǫgur skemtiligastar. Ok þó kunnu menn at telja ættir sínar til Hrómundar Gripssonar. Þessa sǫgu hafði Hrólfr sjálfr samansetta. (Brown 1952, 17–18)

Below you can read the English translation of the passage and hear the Icelandic text read aloud.

Hrólf from Skálmarnes told a story about Hröngvið the viking and Ólaf liðmannakonungr and the mound-breaking of Þráin the berserk and Hrómund Gripsson, with many verses in it. This story was used to entertain King Sverrir and he declared that such lying sagas were most amusing; men can however trace their genealogies to Hrómund Gripsson. Hrólf himself had composed this saga. (Foote 1953–1957, 226)

Audio recording of the famous passage from Sturlunga saga, which refers to Hrómundar saga, in Icelandic. 

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The settlement of Iceland by J. P. Raadsig, painting held at the Reykjavík Art Museum.

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The settlement of Iceland by Oscar A. Wergeland, painting held at The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Hrómundur in Landnámabók

It is not surprising that Torfæus wanted to gain access to this saga, since, as he stated in his letter, the story of Hrómundur could be potentially useful for his research into Norwegian genealogies. In Landnámabók ('Book of Settlements'), Hrómundur is presented as a native of Telemark in Norway and a great-grandfather of Ingólfur and Leifur, the first settlers of Iceland. 

According to tradition, Ingólfur Arnarson left Norway, and when he arrived in Iceland, decided to make his settlement in the place where his high seat pillars – which he had thrown to the sea – washed up. This happened to be south of today's capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. 

This event served as an inspiration to various artists, for example the Danish painter Johan Peter Raadsig, whose depiction of the settlement of Iceland by Ingólfur was first exhibited in Copenhagen in 1850, or the Norwegian painter Oscar A. Wergeland, whose painting Nordmennene lander på Island år 872 ('Norwegians land on Iceland year 872') was created to commemorate 1000 years of Norwegian settlement on the island.

New saga of Hrómundur

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A marginal note by Torfæus in one of the oldest manuscripts of Hrómundar saga, AM 587b 4to, the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.

Torfæus and the new saga of Hrómundur

This new Hrómundar saga was also disseminated in Denmark and Torfæus eventually received a copy of this text, as at least two manuscripts of Hrómundar saga contain marginal notes in his hand. Despite the fantastic contents of the story, featuring ghosts, shapeshifters, and magic stones, Torfæus attempted to read this saga as a source for his historical research. In his notes, he commented on the genealogical connections between various saga characters, probably trying to establish which saga gives a reliable account of the distant past. Hrómundar saga clearly did not meet his expectations as he, according to Árni Magnússon’s account, ended up considering it “worthless” for his research.

Dissemination of the new saga

Jón Eggertsson’s prose retelling of the medieval poem became quite popular in Iceland and beyond. Between its creation in the late seventeenth century and the beginning of twentieth century, the saga was transcribed over thirty times in manuscript form, appeared in print, and was translated into various languages. The materials related to the story of Hrómundur served as an inspiration for multiple adaptions, which continue to inspire artists even today.