Gautreks saga (Gautrek's Saga) is a Scandinavian legendary saga put to text towards the end of the 13th century which survives only in much later manuscripts. It seems to have been intended as a compilation of traditional stories, often humorous, about a legendary King Gautrek of West Götaland, to serve as a kind of prequel to the already existing Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar (Saga of Hrólf son of Gautrek). See also king of the Geats.
About the saga
As it stands, the saga seems incomplete, for a promise is made that the tale will return to King Gautrek of Götaland and his sons, to "the same story as told in Sweden", and that promise is not kept. Indeed, other than the reference to Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, no sons are mentioned. But it seems that Gautrek was noted in many tales for his generosity and bravery, but not for deep thinking, according to a passage near the end. It is probable there were more amusing anecdotes to that effect that the author planned to include.
There are actually two main versions of Gautreks saga. Both versions begin by relating how Gautrek's father-to-be, King Gauti of West Götaland, became lost while hunting and spent the night in an isolated homestead of strange, arguably insane, backwoods bumpkins: a stingy farmer named Skafnörtung 'Skinflint', his equally stingy wife Tötra 'Tatters', and their three sons and three daughters. That night Gauti fathered Gautrek on Snotra who was the eldest of the farmer's daughters and supposedly the most intelligent of the bunch. The account bristles with grisly humor as it relates how one by one the members of this family of boobies committed suicide over the most trivial losses, believing that they will go to Odin in Valhall, until at last only Snotra and her child survived. At that point Snotra took the child Gautrek to Gauti's court; years later, on his deathbed, King Gauti made Gautrek his heir. This section is sometimes referred to as Dalafífla þáttr ("The Tale of the Fools in the Valley").
Both versions of the saga conclude with a folk-tale-like account of how Ref, the lazy son of a farmer, forced his father's stupendous ox as gift upon the stingy but extraordinarily intelligent Jarl Neri and requested only Neri's advice in return. Jarl Neri normally never accepted gifts because he was too stingy to repay them. But he took the ox and gave Ref a whetstone in return, telling him how to employ it as a gift to King Gautrek to get greater wealth. The saga has mentioned Gautrek's marriage to Alfhild, daughter of King Harald of Wendland, and Alfhild's subsequent death by illness years later, which has driven the grieving Gautrek somewhat out of his mind; ignoring all matters of state, he spends all his time on Alfhild's burial mound, flying his hawk. On Neri's advice, Ref gives the whetstone to Gautrek at the moment that the king needs something to throw at his hawk; Gautrek promptly gives Ref a gold ring. Ref goes on to visit king after king, in each case giving part or all of that which he received from the previous king, and getting in return a greater gift, since none of the kings want to be outdone by Gautrek, who "gives gold in exchange for pebbles." At last, through Neri's advice and trickery, Ref gained the hand of Gautrek's daughter Helga and an earldom that Neri held from King Gautrek.
The younger and much better known version of the saga inserts between these two lighthearted tales an account of the ancestry, birth, and earliest exploits of Starkad who is perhaps the grimmest and strangest of Scandinavian legendary heroes. This account, sometimes known as Vikars þáttr ("The Tale of Vikar") was probably extracted or retold from a lost saga about Starkad; it contains extensive poetry, ostensibly from Starkad himself, and it ends tragically. A high point of this section is the evocative episode where Starkad's foster-father Grani Horsehair awakens his foster-son Starkad at about midnight, takes him to an island where eleven men were at council, and sitting in a twelfth chair reveals himself as the god Odin. In a long dialogue between the gods Thor and Odin, the gods alternately bestow curses and blessings upon Starkad. When this is done, Odin requires Starkad to sacrifice King Vikar, his sworn lord, friend, and benefactor. Starkad persuades the king to put his neck in a noose of stretchy calf intestines and be stabbed with a fragile reed, thus undergoing a mock sacrifice. Unfortunately, the sacrifice turns real when the noose becomes rope and the reed turns into a spear, leaving Vikar stabbed and hanged, and bringing down grief and disgrace on Starkad for killing his lord.
This middle section is so stylistically unlike the happier stories that "bookend" it that some have questioned whether it should have been included at all. The only obvious link is because King Vikar, who appears prominently in it, is father of Jarl Neri who plays a very important role in the material following and also because Eirík king of Sweden who appears in it was prominent in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar. Nonetheless, there are themes that connect all three sections of this saga; for example, both Starkad and Ref are unpromising youths, and both Neri and Skafnortung are misers. The entire saga seems to be a meditation on generosity: Sacrifice to the gods is useless, and stinginess is not admirable—but giving and receiving gifts, participating in networks of reciprocal exchange, is the way to good fortune.
The shorter version of the saga ends with an account of King Gautrek's remarriage to the fair Ingibjörg, daughter of a powerful hersir in the Sogn region of Norway. Ingibjörg chooses Gautrek for his fame and generosity, despite his age, over the young prince Olaf who has also asked for her hand. Gautrek fights off an attack by the rejected and disappointed Olaf, marries Ingibjörg, and fathers two sons named Ketil and Hrolf with her. The longer version does not include the story of Gautrek's remarriage, but essentially the same account appears at the beginning of Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar.
Snorri Sturluson introduces Gauti and Gautrek in his Ynglinga saga where Gauti "after whom Gautland (Götaland) is named" is mentioned as the father of Gautrek the Generous the father of King Algaut the father of Gauthild who married Ingjald the son of King Önund of Sweden. This should make Gautrek live in the early 7th century, approximately contemporary with Önund's father Yngvar or possibly Yngvar's father Eystein in whose days, according to Snorri, the Danish king Hrólf Kraki died. And indeed Hrólf Kraki is one of the kings whom Ref visits in the saga. Another king visited by Ref is Ælle of England and the historical King Ælle of Deira could well be contemporary to the legendary Hrólf Kraki of Denmark. However in the section concerning Starkad, the kings of Sweden are the brothers Alrek and Eirík which, if one trusts the order of kings in the Ynglinga saga, would put Gautrek generations earlier.
In popular culture
Bibliography and external links
- English translations:
- Ancestry: Gautrek's saga
- "King Gautrek" in Seven Viking Romances. Trans. Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul (1985). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044474-2.
- "King Gautrek" in Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales. Trans. Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul (1968). London: University of London Press. ISBN 0-340-09396-X.
- Gautrek's Saga. Trans. Fox, Denton and Pálsson, Hermann (1974). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-1925-0.
- Waggoner, Ben (2014). Six Sagas of Adventure. New Haven, Conn.: The Troth. pp. 1–33. ISBN 978-1941136041.
- Original text: