“I was worst to the one that I loved the most.” This 10th-11th century woman married four times, helped plan her true love’s murder, and became Iceland’s first nun and anchoress, a hermit who alone lived in a cell.
“If I wished to say this to anyone, you would be the one I would choose.”
From Keneva Kunz, trans, The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale. Ed. Bergljót S. Kristjánsdóttir. London: Penguin Books, 2008), 174.
Creative writer Kaitlin (KT) Marroquin was inspired to imagine Gudrun writing her own story. Here is KT’s beautiful depiction, imagining a young woman’s life from her own perspective.
My name is Gudrun, and I have a story to tell. I am the youngest of my five siblings, all boys. Between my brothers and my father I did not have much say in matters, whether they were trivial or of great importance. I especially did not have a say when it came to things that would directly effect me. Although my will went unheard for the majority of my life, it does not mean that it also went unspoken. From the time I was but a small girl I have kept a journal. In it I would record all the things I wished for the world to hear: my hopes, my fears, my dreams. For years I have kept this journal hidden from everyone for fear of what would happen if it were ever to be found. But now, I see that the world has changed and I feel that I must finally share my story. If a wish goes unwhispered, how is it ever to be answered? The heart may be warm but it will wither from loneliness if it does not embrace openness. Furthermore, I feel that this story is no longer for me but more so for you. Time is frozen for me. My mistakes have long since been made and are unable to be erased. Yet, for you there remains boundless hope and infinite possibility. If I wished to say this to anyone, you would be the one I would choose. Because you can grow and learn from all that I have done.
With all my love,
The Diary of Gudrun
I’ve been having strange dreams as of late. They are both strange in their occurrence as well as in their content. They worry me so. I have decided to start this journal as to better understand their meaning and perhaps reflect on them later if need be. I have had the same four dreams for many nights now and I feel that they hold an important message for me. I only wish I knew what the message could be.
In the first dream, “”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.”
In the second, “I thought I stood near some water, and I thought there was a silver ring on my arm. I thought it was my own, and that it fitted me exceeding well. I thought it was a most precious thing, and 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.”
In the third, “I thought I had a gold ring on my hand, which I thought 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…Then I thought 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 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 in the last dream, “I thought I had a helm of gold upon my head, set with many precious stones. And I thought this precious thing belonged to me, but what I chiefly found fault with was that 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.”
I do hope one day I will understand what these dreams mean.
I met the most curious of men today. His name was Gest Oddleifsson and we had such an interesting conversation. I had heard we was a most wise man and when I ran into him down at the hot springs I was very eager to speak with him. They say he has the gift of foretelling and it was my desire to seek his opinion upon the weird dreams. He was more than happy to do so but his interpretation has left me quite puzzled.
Upon telling him each of my dreams he was quick to respond with a similar interpretation for each of them. He said to me that for each dream I will have “four husbands”. The first, “will be no love match.” The second, “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.” The third, “husband will have taken the faith which we are minded to think is the more exalted.” And the fourth, “who will be the greatest nobleman (of the four), and will bear somewhat a helm of awe over you.”
His interpretations frighten me. Does this mean that I will never find true love? I have not yet reached the age of a woman but soon enough I will be ready to wed and I have many hopes of happiness and children. I think it would be best to not dwell on the musings of Gest. Perhaps he is mistaken. For who could foresee an entire life through the interpretation of their dreams?
They say I’m “the most beautiful woman to have ever grow up in Iceland”, but I certainly don’t feel like it. Father has just returned from the annual Althing and upon his arrival he tells me that I am to be married this spring. He didn’t even bother asking for my opinion! I realize that as his youngest child and only daughter I will have little say in these matters, but this is to be my husband. The man who I will spend my life with, raise our future children with! Yes, Thorvald may be “wealthy”, and I have been promised rights to “half the estate”. But, he is “hardly a hero” and certainly not the type of man I had planned on marrying one day. I am so upset right now, and don’t know what to do. Father tells me that Thorvald has promised to buy me “whatever finery” I shall desire in exchange for my hand. Perhaps there will be a silver lining after all, who knows, maybe even a gold one.
I can’t believe it! That no-good husband of mine struck me, in the face no less! I made sure to not let him see my pain, or let him see me cry. He will get no joy from his violent ways. I told him, and with the slightest of smiles, “Fine rosy colour in her cheeks is just what every woman needs, if she is to look her best…” I hate him. If he thinks he is to mistreat me in such a way for the rest of our lives he is surely mistaken.
I told Thord, a dear friend and neighbor, about what happened and he is entirely on my side. He says that a brute such as Thorvald is in no way deserving of a beauty like me. I didn’t realize there could be men out there with proper sense. He offered me a solution as well. He says I should, “make him a shirt the neck so low-cut that it will give you grounds for divorcing him.” I’m not sure this plan will work, but I would be a fool not to give it a try.
Thord was right! That worthless husband of mine didn’t suspect a thing. I made the shirt for him and he wore it almost every night and day. Yesterday I rode to the Althing and made the announcement that I suspected my husband of wearing women’s clothing. Thord was there and he backed up my claim, saying he witnessed Thorvald in a shirt so low-cut that it could not have been anything but meant for a woman to wear. The chieftain’s acknowledged my petition and the divorce is complete. And because of father’s stipulation about our marriage agreement I get to acquire half of his estate! This is a great day and I cannot wait to return home to my father in Laugar.
Today Thord and I went to the Althing together and something amazing happened. I had meant it to be a joke at first but it took quite the unexpected turn. I told Thord that his wife Aud, “is often dressed in breeches, with a codpiece and long leggings.” Also, that some have taken to calling her, “Breeches-Aud.” I was expecting him to laugh and make some smart retort but instead he took my claim and ran with it. He asked what would be the consequences of such an action, and quite coyly I responded that the only proper course of action would be divorce. That very afternoon he went to Law Rock and in front of the chieftains announced his divorce from Aud! I could not believe it! Thord is quite the bold man. He has definitely gotten my attention.
Thord has just asked my father for my hand in marriage! It has only been two days since the announcement of his divorce. Father has agreed and I see no harm. Thord would make an excellent husband, as he is both kind and cunning.
It is Winter once again and the weather has grown cold. Things between Thord and I have been well. I have been quite weary early in the mornings these days and my woman’s cycle has not come for some time. I believe Thord has gotten me with child. I could not be happier but the thought of giving birth scares me. I know that as Thord is the father my child will be strong. I only hope I can match that strength in bringing him into this world.
Thord’s mother Ingunn came to us a few nights ago. She has been having great difficulty on her farm. She says her neighbor, Kotel, has been, “making her life miserable, stealing her livestock and practicing sorcery…” Being the man that he is, Thord made plans at once to travel and aid his mother. Before they left I got a chance to speak with Ingunn about my future child. She is happy for us both and was able to give me some advice about what to expect. I hope that Thord returns home soon.
Life is cruel. My husband has been lost to me at the hands of truly evil men. Snorri the Godi, father’s old friend, came and told me how the men who were practicing sorcery sought revenge on my Thord after he put an end to their harassment of Ingunn. Snorri said, “they chanted powerful incantations,” and soon after, “a great blizzard came up.” They have been outlawed, but I wish nothing less for them but death.
My son was born to me yesterday. He is as strong and beautiful as I knew he would be. He looks so much like his father. I lost a husband and gained a son. I will call him Thord, for his father. Snorri has offered to foster the boy and I accepted. Young Thord will be in need of father figure in the years to come.
I have spent many months in a daze now. Not sure what it meant to be alive, truly, but now something has changed. I met a man and his name is Kjartan. I spend many of my days soaking at the hot springs and I tend to befriend those who also come down to relax. One who has been coming down nearly every day now has been Kjartan. He provides me with excellent conversation. He is no less attractive than he is clever. I love discussing with him everything both seen and unseen. I fear that people have started to talk about us. It’s no matter to me though. Let them talk. Perhaps their gossip would persuade Kjartan into asking father a certain question.
Sadly, now I know that such an act will have to wait. Kjartan has told me that he plans to sail abroad before returning to Iceland to settle down. I begged him to stay, or to let me go with him. Risking ridicule, I professed, “it’s not Iceland that I love.” Yet, he was still avid in going about his voyage with only his foster-brother Bolli at his side. It’s a rite of passage for all men of Iceland, he explained. He asked that I “wait” for his return in three years time. I said I would do no such thing.
It has been three years and, although I never said it out loud, I have waited eagerly for Kjartan to return to me. While he has been gone I have missed him dearly. Yet, today Bolli returned and he was without Kjartan. I was so worried, I had thought perhaps the sea had stolen my new love just as it had the old. But Bolli explained to me that Kjartan has decided to remain abroad. He claims he has found friendship with not only the King but also the King’s sister. He told me that I should expect to, “see little of him here at home during the coming years.” Could he have forgotten about me? Why would he ask me to wait if he did not intend to return? I still have faith in Kjartan’s promise. And speaking of faith, Bolli has brought back with him a new religion called Christianity. He says that him and Kjartan had been converted in their travels. He believes it is his duty to share it all over Iceland. I wonder if it is this new religion or this new woman that has stolen Kjartan from me.
Bolli has been visiting me here at Laguar quite often as of late. I do enjoy his company, as he reminds me quite a bit of my lost love. He has been explaining to me the finer details of Christianity. He told me that there is but one true God and if we believe in him and life our lives according to his laws we shall receive eternal life in heaven. To go against his laws is to commit a sin. The punishment for a life of sin is to be cast into the painful fires of hell and suffer forever. He said that all of us are God’s children and we all have within us an immortal soul. Christianity also has a different view of marriage than that of our own. Bolli said that to be married is to bound to another person in such a way that their souls intertwine and are unable to be without the other. It is considered a sin to separate them. He then asked me, “what [my] answer would be if he asked [me] to marry him.” I told him that, “There’s no point in even discussing that…I’ll marry no man as long as I know Kjartan is still alive.” He got less enthusiastic after that and shortly returned home. While his stories of Christianty do excite me, I find the idea of marrying Bolli much less romantic.
So much for Bolli’s beautiful idea about marriage. That sneak has gone behind my back and made a marriage proposition to father. This is so absurd. Last night father came into my room and told me the news. I immediately expressed my displeasure with the whole matter. I didn’t care if Bolli “made a large profit from his voyage” or if everyone “valued his courage and strength highly.” Bolli was not the man for me to marry. I am so tired of being told to marry. How many times must I be put through this?
What have I ever done to deserve this? Kjartan has returned despite what Bolli told me last year. Upon his return all of Iceland was telling him of my marriage to Bolli. Now it is I who look to play the part of traitor and not Bolli. He must hate me, as he has yet to even stop by. How could I possibly make him understand that this was not my fault? I heard a rumor that he was to marry Hrefna. Everyone says she’s a “lovely woman” but I know in my heart there is no better match for Kjartan other than me. I don’t dare say all of this to Bolli. He claims to love me but still I cannot help but feel lied to. I said as much when I told him I “felt that not everything he had told [me] about Kjartan’s return was true.” He claims that he only said what “he knew was the truth.” But still, it wouldn’t be so bad if he had just stayed gone. Or if he had returned to me when he had promised to.
Finally after over a year Bolli and I were invited to feast with Kjartan. Ever since his return he has held ill feelings towards us. We had tried our best to keep things friendly at the affair but Kjartan was just miserable. While everyone was conversing in the main room I snuck off to find Kjartan and explain to him what had happened between Bolli and I. “Kjartan was dressing at that moment” and I paused at the “point opposite the bed”. But before I could get a word out his servant came in and asked about “the women’s seating plan”. Kjartan just stared straight at me and told her, “As long as I’m alive, Hrefna will have the seat of honour and be treated in everyway with the greatest respect.” Who does he think he is?! I said nothing but I could feel that my face had “changed color”. I was so embarrassed that I turned and left right away. If he was going to play games I refused to lose. After dinner I asked that silly Hrefna to see her precious headdress, the gift Kjartan had given to her when she became his wife. I begged to “see one of the greatest treasures ever brought to Iceland.” She was no match for my tongue and secretly we stole away to “the storage of fine possessions.” I “looked at it for a while, without praising it or criticizing it, until Hrefna took it and put it away.” Today I heard she has lost it and Kjartan has misplaced his sword as well. A girl so naive and a man so foolish are in no way deserving of such precious objects.
All of Iceland has gone mad! Kjartan has gathered “sixty men” and they have “set up tents” surrounding all of Laugar! They are being openly hostile towards us and we are trapped inside of our homes. There is nothing Bolli and I can do. We’re stuck here without food , water, or even the means to “relieve” ourselves! This is so humiliating! I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!!
This has been the final straw. Earlier this week Kjartan has once again displayed “open enmity” towards Bolli and I. We had made arrangements with Thorarin to purchase the Tunga farm for our livestock. I guess somehow word had reached Kjartan and he has gone and purchased it out from under us. This farm was supposed to be our way out. Out of all the fighting and a way to get Kjartan out of our life. Ever since his return he has been nothing but cruel to us. I felt that the only way was to pursue retribution for all of that we have been forced to endure. This morning I gathered the so-called men of my household and gave it to them forthright. I said to them all, “you’d have made some farmer a good group of daughters… After all the abuse and shame Kjartan has heaped upon you, you don’t let it disturb your sleep while he goes riding by…” After several more insults they finally understood what I was saying and started to make “preparations to ambush Kjartan.” Bolli took much more convincing however. He told me, “it was not right for him to attack his kinsman”. And what kind of kinsman is that, one who openly treats you and your wife with such bad taste? He would not see reason and so I was made to force him. I told my dutiful husband, “if you refuse to go along it will be the end of our life together.” He and my brothers left no more than an hour ago, I hope they come back with good news or return not at all.
Kjartan has been slain. And with him I hope all of my bad luck. Finally I have a husband I can count on. My beloved Bolli has proven that he “won’t go against my will”.
Apparently all of Iceland has been in an uproar since the slaying of Kjartan. They are calling his death the loss of a national treasure. I have to disagree, he was a nuisance and downright wicked. Were we meant to simply accept his abuse? Was I to allow him to have control over my heart after he had broken it…? I hear Hrefna is now the one with a broken heart. At least I will not be the only one. At the Althing compensation was demanded from us for killing Kjartan. They wished to answer for the death of Hrefna’s husband by the death of mine. I don’t see how they could expect such a thing; her and I are far from being considered equal. Besides, we were only trying to even the score and protect our livelihood. Olaf, Kjartan’s father and a prominent chieftain, seemed to understand this reason for action. He had fostered Bolli when he was a boy and perhaps that added to his judgment. He “refused to have Bolli outlawed and pronounced a fine as his compensation.” To say the least, Bolli and I are relieved to have this all put behind us. We have decided to move to “Saelingsdalstunga”. A son is to be born to us in the next couple of weeks. I plan to call him Thorleik, for his grandfather. Things are starting to appear better. Perhaps I could be able to finally put away these worrisome writings.
Who was I fooling by thinking I could stop worrying for even a second? My husband Bolli has been murdered. Last night, as we slept, the traitorous monsters came to our home seeking revenge for Kjartan. We were woken by movements outside of our bedroom window. We could hear the sound of “men dismounting” and listened as they argued “who should be the first to enter the building and attack”. How could such cowardly fools end my dear husbands life? Bolli claimed that he “recognized the voices of Halldor and several of his companions and told” me to quickly leave through the back door. I begged him to let me stay, that I would “not prove any hindrance” to him but to our enemies. He fought with me and said “he intended to have his way this time.” Those were the last words we exchanged with one another and, my God, they were in disagreement. Upon my return to our home it had been ransacked and my Bolli was slain. Luckily, Thorleik had been staying over at Father’s. Without wasting anytime at all I ran out to confront the group of men who had ruined my peace. Helgi was the leader of the group along with Halldor as Bolli had suspected. I would be a fool to not admit to being terrified as they surrounded me. Helgi was the first to approach and casually he took my shaw and used it “to dry the blood off the spear with which he had” used to kill my husband. It “was a vile thing to do” and not a single one of these men shall be spared from my wrath.
By Kaitlin (KT) Marroquin