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Gudrun's Four Husbands

Four dreams, summer 988 (possibly 987) by Gudrun Osvifursdottir of Laxdael, Iceland
with one dream, spring 1026, by Thorkell Eyjolfson of Broadfirth

This is only an extract. For the full story (and it's quite a read!) see The Laxdale Saga at the Icelandic Saga Database. Based on the English translation by Muriel A. C. Press (1880) from the original 'Laxdæla saga'. I have simplified the worst of Press's mock-medievalisms; transitions and headings are mine. --C.W.
Gest Oddleifson lived west at Bardastrand, at Hagi. He was a great chieftain and a sage; was foreseeing in many things and in good friendship with all the great men, and many came to him for counsel. He rode every summer to the Thing [law-meet], and always would put up at Hol.

One time it so happened once more that Gest rode to the Thing and was a guest at Hol. He got ready to leave early in the morning, for the journey was a long one and he meant to reach Thickshaw that evening, where lived his sister Thorunn and her husband Armod. Gest rode all that day from Saurby and came to the Sælingsdale spring, and tarried there for a while.

Gudrun [then 14 or younger] came to the spring and warmly greeted her relative Gest. He gave her a good welcome, and they began to talk together, both being wise and of ready speech. And as the day was wearing on, Gudrun said, "I wish, cousin, you would ride home with us with all your followers, for it is the wish of my father, though he gave me the honour of bearing the message, and told me to say that he would wish you to come and stay with us every time you rode to or from the west." Gest received the message well, and thought it a very manly offer, but said he must ride on now as he had purposed.

Gudrun said, "I have dreamt many dreams this winter; but four of the dreams do trouble my mind much, and no man has been able to explain them as I like, and yet I ask not for any favourable interpretation of them."

Gest said, "Tell me your dreams; maybe I can make something of them."

Gudrun said, "I thought I stood out of doors by a certain brook, and I had a crooked coif on my head, and I thought it misfitted me, and I wished to alter the coif, and many people told me I should not do so, but I did not listen to them, and I tore the hood from my head, and cast it into the brook, and that was the end of that dream."

Then Gudrun said "This is the next dream. I stood near some water, and there was a silver ring on my arm. I thought it was my own, and that it fitted me exceeding well; and was most precious; long I wished to keep it. But when I was least aware of it, the ring slipped off my arm and into the water, and nothing more did I see of it afterwards. I felt this loss much more than it was likely I should ever feel the loss of a mere keepsake. Then I awoke."

Gest answered this alone: "No lesser a dream is that one."

Gudrun still spoke: "This is the third dream, I thought I had a gold ring on my hand, which belonged to me, and I thought my loss was now made good again. And the thought entered my mind that I would keep this ring longer than the first; but it did not seem to me that this keepsake suited me better than the former at anything like the rate that gold is more precious than silver. Then I fell, and tried to steady myself with my hand, but then the gold ring struck on a certain stone and broke in two, and the two pieces bled. What I had to bear after this felt more like grief than regret for a loss. And it struck me now that there must have been some flaw in the ring, and when I looked at the pieces I thought I saw sundry more flaws in them; yet I had a feeling that if I had taken better care of it, it might still have been whole; and this dream ended."

Gest said, "The dreams are not waning."

Then said Gudrun, "This is my fourth dream. I had a helm of gold upon my head, set with many precious stones. And this precious thing belonged to me, though it was rather too heavy, and I could scarcely bear it, so that I carried my head on one side; yet I did not blame the helm for this, nor had I any mind to part with it. Yet the helm tumbled from my head out into Hvammfirth, and after that I awoke. Now I have told you all my dreams."

Gest answered, "I clearly see what these dreams betoken; but you will find my unravelling savouring much of sameness, for I must read them all nearly in the same way. You will have four husbands, and I fear when you are first married it will be no love match. Since you thought you had a great coif on your head and thought it ill-fitting, that shows you will love him but little. And whereas you took it off your head and cast it into the water, that shows that you will leave him. For that, men say, is 'cast on to the sea,' when a man loses what is his own, and gets nothing in return for it."

And still Gest spake: "Your second dream was that you thought you had a silver ring on your arm, and that shows you will marry a nobleman whom you will love much, but enjoy him for but a short time, and I should not wonder if you lose him by drowning. That is all I have to tell of that dream.

"And in the third dream you thought you had a gold ring on your hand; that shows you will have a third husband; he will not excel the former at the rate that you deemed this metal more rare and precious than silver; but my mind forebodes me that by that time a change of faith will have come about, and your husband will have taken the new faith. And whereas you thought the ring broke in two through some misheed of yours, and blood came from the two pieces, that shows that this husband of yours will be slain, and then you will think you see for the first time clearly all the flaws of that match."

Still Gest went on to say: "This is your fourth dream, that you thought you had a helm on your head, of gold set with precious stones, and that it was a heavy one for you to bear. This shows you will have a fourth husband who will be the noblest of the four, and will bear somewhat a helm of awe over you. And as you thought it fell into Hvammfirth, it shows that that same firth will be in his way on the last day of his life. And now I go no further with this dream."

Gudrun sat with her cheeks blood red whilst the dreams were unravelled, but said not a word till Gest came to the end of his speech. Then she said, "You would have fairer prophecies in this matter, if my delivery of it into your hands had warranted; have my thanks all the same for unravelling the dreams. But it is a fearful thing to think of, if all this is to come to pass as you say."

The Laxdale Saga is a long braided tale of family intrigue, but here's the gist of Gudrun's strand of it:
Husband #1: the Crooked Coif

In 989, when Gudrun was still just 15, her father arranged a marriage with Thorvald Haldorson, a wealthy but unheroic man. She didn't love him, and consoled herself by spending quite a bit of his gold on finery. She left him two years later, a divorcee at age 17.

Husband #2: the Silver Bracelet

While married to Thorvald she'd met Thord Ingunson, who was married too. But Gudrun persuaded him to divorce his wife for wearing pants (an unforgivable fashion crime) and marry her, in 991. Thord had a little trouble with his ex (she stabbed him) but this was a love match--until his ship sank in 993. She was a widow at 19.

Husband #3: The Golden Ring

In the late 990s, Gudrun fell in love with Kjartan Olafson; he planned to wed her after a voyage to Norway with his best friend Bolli. But Kjartan was delayed by the king of Norway, though it may be that Princess Ingebjorg had something to do with it; at least that was the tale that Bolli brought back to Gudrun. Discouraged by Kjartan's tarrying, Gudrun finally gave in to Bolli and her family, and married Bolli in 1000. To her surprise, they got on well. Kjartan returned and married a woman named Hrefna. But jealousy and suspicion festered between Gudrun and Hrefna, and in 1003, partly at Gudrun's urging, Bolli reluctantly killed Kjartan. He was never safe thereafter, and was killed in revenge in 1008. She was widowed (and pregnant) at age 34.

Husband #4: The Jeweled Helm

For years Gudrun quietly raised her sons; eventually they avenged Bolli's killers, in 1020. She then felt at peace and free to wed Thorkell Eyjolfson, a chieftain who matched her force of character. They lived happily for years, until Thorkell had a dream in 1026:

"I dreamed," he said, "that I had so great a beard that it spread out over the whole of Broadfirth." Thorkell bade her read his dream.

Gudrun said, "What do you think this dream betokens?"

He said, "To me it seems clear that in it is hinted that my power will stand wide about the whole of Broadfirth."

Gudrun said, "Maybe that such is the meaning of it, but I rather should think that it hints that you will dip your beard down into Broadfirth."

On Maundy Thursday, early in the morning, Thorkell got ready to sail to Norway. His kinsman Thorstein was much against it: "For the weather looks to me uncertain." Thorkell said the weather would do all right. "And you must not hinder me now, kinsman, for I wish to be home before Easter." So now Thorkell ran out the ferry-boat, and loaded it. But Thorstein carried the lading ashore from out the boat as fast as Thorkell and his followers put it on board. Then Thorkell said, "Give up now, kinsman, and don't hinder our journey; you can't have your own way in this."

Thorstein said, "You choose to ignore sound counsel, for your voyage will change all." Thorkell now bade them farewell till their next meeting. Thorstein went home exceedingly downcast. He went to the guest-house, and bade them lay a pillow under his head, which was done. The servant-maid saw how the tears ran down upon the pillow from his eyes. And shortly afterwards a roaring blast struck the house, and Thorstein said, "There, we now can hear roaring the slayer of kinsman Thorkell."

...Thorkell and his party sailed till they came to Bjorn's isle, and people could watch them journey from both shores. But when they had come thus far, suddenly a squall caught the sail and overwhelmed the boat. There Thorkell was drowned and all the men who were with him.

LOOKING BACK

Gudrun took much to heart the death of Thorkell, yet bore her bereavement bravely. She became a very religious woman, the first in Iceland who knew the Psalter by heart. She would spend long time in the church at nights saying her prayers, and her granddaughter Herdis always went with her at night. Gudrun loved Herdis very much.

Now Gudrun began to grow very old... It is told how once upon a time Bolli [Bollison, Gudrun's son by her third husband Bolli] came to Holyfell, for Gudrun was always very pleased when he came to see her, and how he sat by his mother for a long time, and they talked of many things.

Then Bolli said, "Will you tell me, mother, what I want very much to know? Who is the man you have loved the most?"

Gudrun answered, "Thorkell was the mightiest man and the greatest chief, but no man was more shapely or better endowed all round than Bolli. Thord Ingunson was the wisest of them all, and the greatest lawyer; Thorvald I take no account of."

Then said Bolli, "You have told me how each of your husbands was endowed, but you have not told me yet whom you loved the best. Now you need not keep that hidden any longer."

Gudrun answered, "You press me hard, my son, for this, but if I must tell it to anyone, you are the one I should first choose." Bolli bade her do so.

Then Gudrun said, "To him I was worst whom I loved best."



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