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  • Hon stóð ok starði:Vision, Love, and Gender in Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu
  • M. A. Jacobs

The Icelandic sagas are famous for their female characters: they are often memorable, vividly drawn, with an independence and individuality unusual among women in medieval literature.1 They might express their opinions forthrightly, run their own farms, even engage in battle. Helga in fagra (the fair), the romantic interest of Gunnlaugr in Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, appears to be the opposite of this. She is known for her beauty, not her wits or her deeds; she does not take up a sword or urge others to do so. Though the story of Gunnlaugr and Helga’s star-crossed love is well known and popular, Helga herself tends to be quickly passed over in scholarship. Compared to characters such as Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir of Laxdæla saga or Hallgerðr Hǫskuldsdóttir of Njáls saga, there is not much to say about her: she does not have a bold personality or take drastic actions; she has only a single line of dialogue in the entire saga. Her main action is looking at her unattainable love.

Critical reception has focused on this aspect of her character. Theodore M. Andersson dismisses her as “sad-eyed and futile” (1967, 129), Vésteinn Ólason calls her “completely passive” (1983, 16), and Bjørn Magnússon Ólsen states that she is “uden Initiativ, en Bold i Skæbnens Haand” (1911, 32) [without initiative, a ball in the hands [End Page 148] of fate]. Furthering Ólsen’s opinion, Laurence de Looze sees Helga as virtually without subjectivity: she “serves largely as an excuse for composing poetry” and “is viewed almost as an artistic object” by those in the saga; in fact, “our last glimpse of her is of a Helga translated into poetry: Þorkell’s verse on her death” (1986, 491–3). Even Else Mundal, who is perhaps the most generous of her critics, writes that “ikkje i alle islendingesoger er kvinnene like passive som Helga i Gunnlaugs saga” (1980, 18) [nowhere in all the sagas of Icelanders are the women as passive as Helga in Gunnlaugs saga]. For some scholars, such as Andersson, this characterization is due to an authorial inability to create three-dimensional characters, or three-dimensional female characters. For others, Helga’s complete lack of agency is due to influence from continental romances: she is more closely kin to Ísönd than to Hallgerðr (Andersson 1967, 129).2

Though the primary assessment of Helga’s character is one of passivity—even to the point of being boring—it is not the sole attitude toward her. Several scholars have noted that the saga is in fact organized around her: it opens with the lineage of her family, followed by a dream that her father Þorsteinn has before her birth that pre-figures the events of her life and the saga.3 The story then takes up with Gunnlaugr and his romantic rival Hrafn, but once they are killed, the saga returns to Helga and ends with her death. Vésteinn writes that Helga is “exceptionally human and memorable in the few scenes which give us a close-up of her” (Vésteinn Ólason 1983, 17), an assessment with which Mundal agrees. Furthermore, she makes a case for Helga’s importance to the saga. She follows Robert Cook’s assessment of Gunnlaugr as deeply flawed, but argues that he becomes a hero in Helga’s eyes: “det er hennar kjærleik og hennar sorg som har gjort Gunnlaugr til ein av dei mest populære heltar i den norrøne sagalitteraturen” (Mundal 1980, 27) [it is her love and her sorrow which have made Gunnlaugr one of the most popular heroes in Old Norse saga literature].4 Daniel Sävborg goes even further, arguing that Helga’s love for Gunnlaugr is in fact the main theme of the saga (Sävborg 2007, 387–8). What has also on occasion received comment [End Page 149] are her moments of looking at Gunnlaugr (or, in one instance, at the cloak that he gave her) at multiple points in the saga. Most notable is Preben Meulengracht S...


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