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Gunnar's Daughter: A Brief Synopsis

Updated: Jan 24, 2021


Fortellingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis.

This was Sigrid Undset's first historical and second full length novel, modelled after the Icelandic sagas of old and it seems to me, a warm up for Kristin Lavransdatter.

Travelling Icelander Viga-Ljot falls in love with Vigdis, daughter of Gunnar, Ljot’s host. Vigdis is initially unimpressed with his egotism but he ventually he wins her over. He then becomes jealous of her longtime friendship with Kaare and challenges him to a horse fight. Kaare’s horse wins, but Viga-Ljot fatally wounds it (we are told accidentally). There is enmity between Gunnar and Viga-Ljot.

Vigdis realises she is with child and contemplates suicide. Eventually she leaves home for the mountains with her foster-mother Æsa and gives birth to a son, alone in the wild. She wraps the baby boy in a cloth and abandons him between two rocks and covered with moss and twigs. She returns to the mountain hut and does not venture out again.

Viga-Ljot returns to collect Vigdis, but she is filled with hatred and will not go. She tries to stab him with the knife he returns her from a previous meeting. In the end, she curses him: “May you have the worst of deaths - and live long and miserably - you and all you hold dear. And may you see your children die most wretchedly before your eyes.”

Vigdis has her fortune told her: great joys after sorrow, but “that dark edge to the last petal is a bad sign, it betokens no good for your old age.”

Kaare wants to marry her, but she is without joy, having had her maidenhood taken from her.

Vigdis is haunted by the thought of her child, but it is revealed by her foster-mother Æsa that she and her son saved this, “the fairest child alive”. Vigdis knows not what to think.

Æsa tells her story: a girl of noble birth, she was taken captive by Vikings and kept as a sex slave by one. Eventually freed by Gunnar, who came to love her and give her a child. The child was taken from her by Gunnar’s wife and she was wedded off to a thrall. After Gunnar took another wife - Vigdis’ mother - who died in childbirth, Æsa was given Vigdis to rear on Gunnar’s behalf. She also governed his household.

Vigdis has the child returned to her. Gunnar comes to learn of it. “I had better been childless than hear you allied wanton and see your bastards grow up in this house in my old age.” Vigdis is torn between hatred of the child and pity for him.

Gunnar is fatally wounded by Eyolv of Grimelundar (son of Arne, and associate of Viga-Ljot). Vigdis slips into Eyolv’s cabin and slays him, leaving her knife in his chest. She returns to Gunnar (who is impressed and in return forgives his daughter for any wrongdoing) and commands her to take the boy to Kaare for safety. Æsa remains with Gunnar.

Koll Arneson burns Vadin (Vigdis’ home) and with it Gunnar and Æsa while Vigdis makes an epic escape on skis with her son. “And the farther she went the wearier she grew, and now it seemed that in the end she would have to lie down under a pine-tree with the boy and move no more - nor did she think that any great loss. But still she went on and on..."

She is found by the bandit Illuge who takes her to his hut and has to amputate three fingers. He wishes her to stay with him in the forest as his wife, but she tells him they might talk of that - after she wins back Vadin and destroys Koll. They go to King Olav (a Christian) to appeal for help, though he attempts to seduce Vigdis himself and make her his mistress. She is unwilling: “Greater sorrows did he bear for you that god of yours in whom you believe, that will be yours if you let me go my way”.

The king releases her unharmed and after several days promises to send men with her to right her wrongs. He asks if she will marry Illuge.

“You think far too meanly of me, my lord, if you believe I would rather play with the wolf than with the lion. But now, since I see you have shown me such great kindness that I am well assured there is none like you among chieftains, I have another book to ask: let a priest go with me to Vadin and grant that I may be taught and baptised in your faith. For this I see - my father put all his trust in his own strength, and I too once held the same belief - but now I understand that your faith is the best.”

She is baptised (as is Illuge; he and his companions are pardoned) and returns to her country with a priest. She learns that already on the night of the fire, Kaare killed Koll. Vigdis rebuilds the estate and has her son baptised and named Ulvar; she builds a church and settles down at Vadin.

In the meantime, Viga-Ljot, after a smarting from the loss of Vigdis, becomes fascinated by the stunning twenty-year old Leikny, his uncle’s step-daughter. She arranges for her step-father to speak to Viga-Ljot about marriage, he eventually agrees and they settle well into married life.

When a troublesome youth - Halstein - speaks of Vigdis’ rejection of Viga-Ljot in scornful tones, the latter kills him with the throw of a spear in the presence of Leikny. He settles with Halstein’s father, to the fury of Odd, an old enemy. Odd likewise brings up the matter with Viga-Ljot, and suffers a similar fate (but with an axe). Leikny presses Ljot on the subject of quarrel and the “Norwegian maid” as she seeks to throw into the fire a red cloak Vigdis had made (for Ljot’s uncle, who passed it on to him). Ljot beats her with his fists, but is then contrite and they reconcile immediately. They come to speak of the matter and after promising not to bring it up again, Leikny elicits the maid’s name from Ljot: “At last, he uttered the name, very low: Vigdis”.

Some time later, Leikny happens to overhear Ljot talking with his uncle about his undying love for Vigdis. He finds her, not knowing if she sleeps but suspecting she heard it all. The following day she reveals that she did hear him, but will have him still.

Time goes by, and they live serenely together and “were always good friends”. They had three children: Lyting (who died as a child), Gissur and Steinvor, who drowned together at a young age before Ljot who tried to save them, but was too late. After this, their farm was a sad place, and Leikny took up sleeping in the weaving house. She asks Ljot to allow her to leave him: “Grant that I may go from here and live in chastity and fasting, as women do - elsewhere in Christian lands.” (They are now both Christians.) Ljot protests sincerely that he cannot live without her. They are reunited and live together again “in great affection and unity”, though not without grief.

Leikny, again pregnant, begins to see the two drowned children calling for her to come and warm them. She gives birth to “a wretched babe”, but Ljot will not expose him as advised by the midwives. Leikny becomes feverish and one morning “pointed both hands at the door. Then she threw her arms about [Ljot’s] neck and fell backwards, dragging him with her. The next moment, she loosed her hold and lay stretched out in the bed; she was dead”. The poor boy was taken by convulsions in the next spring. Ljot sells his estate, buys a ship to leave Iceland and sail to Normandy.

Back in Norway, Illuge and Kaare both wish to marry Vigdis, but she would not have her son Ulvar be the inferior to a legitimate born heir. They agree to other arrangements that will benefit them both, arranged by Vigdis. She asks only that they train Ulvar (her son) in arms.

[Parenthetical story of a woman who exposed her baby, taught a lesson by Christ and given to a life of prayer and penance, taking in as many unwanted children that she could find.]

Ulvar, now a well respected but quiet young man, learns of the great escapade of his mother from Illuge.

Vigdis inquires of passing Icelanders of VIga-Ljot. They recount that when he was but thirteen he slayed three men, including his own father’s killer. Ulvar praises him and wishes that he would one day meet him, and take after him, but Vigdis would have it otherwise: “If you take after him - and if you are son of mine, then the end of that meeting must be that you brought me Viga-Ljot’s head and laid it in my lap.” In the end, Ulvar “made answer that she might be sure he would always do as she willed in everything.”

At age seventeen, Ulvar embarks with Illuge upon a journey to Iceland in search of his father, to see what manner of man he is and how he would receive him. Instead, they are shipwrecked off the Scottish coast and Illuge dies at the hands of the attacking Scots. At the last minute, another ship arrives, and Ulvar with the remaining crew are taken aboard by the captain, who calls himself Uspak [Imprudent]. The subject comes around to Ulvar’s mother and father, and Uspak asks many questions. He promises if he journeys with him for the maurading season, Ulvar will share half the booty. As they part, Uspak showers Ulvar with costly gifts, and the latter asks for a ring he wears. He asks Uspak to visit him and his mother in Norway, and he promises that he will.

At Christmas midnight Mass in Vain, Uspak arrives and Vigdis, who recognises him as Ljot, is terrified. After swooning, she runs from the church and takes her horse. Ljot chases after her, but she will not speak with him. She rides past her own farm to another and bars the door there. Ljot reveals to Ulvar he is his father, and Ulvar begs that he stays. Ljot agrees and they search for Vigdis. When they find her, Ljot wishes to reconcile but Vigdis will have none of it, pouring out hatred upon him. Both decry the pain they have each suffered, believing it to be worse than that of the other. Ulvar wishes that they make their peace, but Vigdis makes him choose: mother or father. When he tells her he cannot, she affirms he has already chosen; a stranger over his mother. After Ljot states that he is not sure whether he is indeed the father or whether Kaare is, he takes Ulvar by the arm and they ride off.

Ulvar reproaches Ljot for the insult, and they ride to a secluded place for a duel. Ljot lets Ulvar wound him, but Ulvar declares it is enough. He would never have fought his father had he not insulted his mother. Ljot tells him that is exactly why he insulted her, so that Ulvar could take his life. Before an unwilling Ulvar, Ljot falls on his sword and as he dies, requires of Ulvar that he do his mothers bidding. “Long have I yearned that my head might lie in her lap.”

Ulvar returns to Vigdis and silently places Ljot’s head in her lap, wrapped in the red cloak she had made long ago. As she looks into Ljot’s eyes, she sees the years of pain he endured and realises that this is no recompense for her own misfortunes. As Ulvar is about to ride off from “all the horrors of these parts”, he asks her to have Ljot decently buried. Vigdis promises to do so. He tells her that Ljot “was his own slayer”, and asks if Vigdis ever loved him. In tears she answers: “I could not have hated him so long - it was the worst of all, that I would rather have loved him than any man.” Ulvar rides off, promising to return one day, “if I live”.

Vigdis has Ljot buried by the church she built at Vadin (site of the Old Aker Church in the north of Oslo), and was herself buried there ten years later. Ulvar never returned, and Vadin was passed to the children of Illuge.

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