Welcome to Winter Tales: The Folklore Edition!
I’m starting off with Sabine Baring-Gould’s version of a story from the Grettis saga (or as Baring-Gould refers to it, the Gretla), a thirteenth century Icelandic saga about the outlaw hero Grettir Ásmundarson. It details Grettir’s fight with the draugr (a vengeful revenant of Norse mythology), Glámr. The bulk of story occurs during the winter months, and the key events on the eve and day of Christmas, making this a perfect way to kick off this winter tales season.
The story first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Baring-Gould’s Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1863), under the title “The Valley of Shadows,” then again in his Book of Ghosts (1904) under its present title. In his earlier work, Baring-Gould prefaced the story with this quaint footnote:
Gretla, chaps. 82–85. I give this story as a specimen of a very remarkable form of Icelandic superstition. It is so horrible, that I forewarn all those who have weak nerves, to skip it.
The reading public’s nerves have hardened a bit in the intervening century and a half, but it’s still a great story.
As many folk stories are, “Glámr” is really at least two stories mashed together. The story begins as a simple haunting:
At the beginning of the eleventh century there stood, a little way up the Valley of Shadows in the north of Iceland, a small farm, occupied by a worthy bonder, named Thorhall, and his wife. The farmer was not exactly a chieftain, but he was well enough connected to be considered respectable; to back up his gentility he possessed numerous flocks of sheep and a goodly drove of oxen. Thorhall would have been a happy man but for one circumstance—his sheepwalks were haunted.
Not a herdsman would remain with him; he bribed, he threatened, entreated, all to no purpose; one shepherd after another left his service, and things came to such a pass that he determined on asking advice at the next annual council. Thorhall saddled his horses, adjusted his packs, provided himself with hobbles, cracked his long Icelandic whip, and cantered along the road, and in due time reached Thingvellir.
But this haunting serves only as the catalyst for another haunting, the one at the heart of the story. We never learn why the sheepwalk was haunted to begin with.
While researching for this post, I came across another retelling of the Glámr story, “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” (1903), by American journalist and fiction writer Frank Norris. While Norris was best known as a writer in the naturalist vein, he was also interested in European legends, and wrote at least two retellings of stories from the Grettis: this one and “Grettir at Drangey,” which I’ve not read. I liked Baring-Gould’s version of the Glámr story better, but it’s interesting to read another writer’s take on this legend. Norris skipped the preliminaries about the already-haunted sheepwalk, and simplified the story a bit (merged two of the deaths into one; slightly shortened the timeline).
You can read Frank Norris’s “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” here (link to Library of America’s Story of the Week website).
And if you want to read all of the Grettis, or even just the original version of this story, you can find a 1914 English translation of the Grettis, by G. H. Hight at sagadb.org. There’s a 1900 English translation by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson on the same website, as well. And the original Icelandic version, of course.
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
Featured Image: Vatnsdalr from Underfell, illustration from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, Sabine Baring-Gould (1863)
Illustration for “Grettir at Thorhall-stead,” Everybody’s Magazine, April 1903 by Joseph J. Gould. Source: Story of the Week website.