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From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga

Outlaw (1981; Útlaginn), the only close film adaptation of an Icelandic saga, offers an everyday protagonist who suffers the inhumanity of honor culture. The scrawny actor who plays Gisli Sursson appears as similarly unexceptional as his former friends who hunt him down. They too are good people yet as helplessly trapped as Gisli within a social model that is portrayed as deeply dysfunctional. This early Icelandic heritage film gives the impression that the nation’s tenth-century inhabitants were similar to twentieth-century social democrats. Those ancestors were just stuck in a different time period with no choice but to subjugate their true nature to what their proto-democratic experiment in the North Atlantic allowed. By contrast, the protagonist we meet in Gísla saga is a Viking behemoth superior both physically and intellectually. Saga-Gisli slaughters his way to a fame of millennial persistence because that is what he feels like doing, as his emotions align with the former Viking morality that the thirteenth-century saga argues against (Pálsson). The saga author promotes his era’s more collaborative agricultural morality, yet acknowledges how emotionally satisfying it can be to give in to the violent darkness of one’s psyche, and that there was a glorious side, too, to their ancestors’ heroic ethos. Theodore Andersson views Gisli’s story as the “saga which most clearly borrows heroic forms, [although] also the saga which most clearly questions the transmitted norms of heroic conduct” (42).

By omitting these darker aspects of the protagonist, writer-director Ágúst Guðmundsson furthers a millennium-long tradition of adapting the story of Gisli Sursson to fit contemporary needs. Gisli was, plausibly, a historical person who rose to prominence in Icelandic storytelling in the 970s, as a violently and strategically capable outlaw on the run for thirteen years.1 If based on true events, the tale of Gisli’s glorious demise was likely shared through oral storytelling for over two centuries before local leaders commissioned his story to be written as a saga for cultural and political reasons during the violent, pivotal era of the thirteenth century (Byock “Saga Form”; Danielsson). How the story changed from the pagan times of its inception, through Christianization after year 1000, we do not know. Neither do we know the first written saga version. What we have are thirty-three manuscripts, or parts thereof, transcribed in the centuries that followed, and from those we could make assumptions as to how the story evolves as Icelandic culture changes (Guðjónsson). We also do not know how the written saga was re-oralized and told to farmhouse audiences during long, dark winters until the nineteenth century. What we can assess are the two remediations that arose from transitions of oral to text and text to screen: the common version of the written saga and Guðmundsson’s film, respectively.

I will argue that the film is successful in terms of updating the story to fit the contemporary cultural context. Yet by doing so through bowdlerizing the saga protagonist’s dark sides, Guðmundsson undermines the narrative itself, as he makes no attempt at creating an alternate character weakness for his protagonist, thus reducing the potential for audience engagement. The saga’s so-called S-version, which today is preferred by leading scholars, follows the narrative structure that accompanies what in Hollywood parlance is sometimes referred to as “the reluctant badass.” Saga-Gisli is a violently capable man who tries to be pro-social, but whose circumstance forces him to “break bad” in order to protect his family. Later, Gisli gets a new chance to be peaceful, until the story forces him, again, to unleash his murderous nature. This structure has become a trope in marital arts and lone-avenger films. After murdering dozens in Norway, Gisli settles on Iceland and lives a peaceful farmer life—until feud happens. The saga’s dramatic tension concerns whether Gisli will submit to the judicial system of his agricultural community, or if he will pursue the Viking heroics he was socialized into by his old-school father whose ethos represents simple-minded heroism with literary roots back to Achilles (Ker 139).

When Gisli makes his last stand against fifteen men, of whom he kills more than half, the saga climax revels in the glory that comes from impressive slaughter. The protagonist dies but fights so long and hard that “it is said everywhere that no man in this land had ever been known to put up a greater stand than Gisli” (Regal translation; chapter “36”).2 In addition, the saga offers a complex psychological split between Viking and Christian morality within Gisli’s psyche, which makes the climax be about personal fulfillment, too. By contrast, when Gisli meets his demise in the film, little is at stake which could offer audiences a satisfying theme beyond condemning honor culture as a gruesome relic of Icelandic past.

Guðmundsson’s adaptation of protagonist morality thus deprives one of the most beloved sagas of its core psychological tension. This choice appears motivated by the filmmakers’ wish to “do nothing to diminish the affection felt by all for this famous hero” (Þorsteinsson 59). In and of itself, that might be a prudent concern. Yet Gisli’s interior darkness is what makes him alluring as a character, and his struggle against these impulses structures his story. It may be culturally and aesthetically appropriate for an adaptation to remove a part of a protagonist’s psychological makeup that could be unacceptable in an audience environment radically different from that of the original source. But if that element is the story structure’s keystone, then a new element must take its place, or a new story structure must be devised. Guðmundsson does neither. The director’s exaggerated reverence for the source material, ironically, makes his adaptation stray so far from the saga that the result becomes psychological and thematic blandness. No alternative tension is offered that can drive the narrative, which results in a film that mostly furthers a process of cultural distancing from tenth-century savageness.

That approach can be seen as a moral whitewashing of problematic ancestors that also the Christian author(s) of the saga engaged in. The film thus fulfills a similar function for Icelandic reassessment of identity in the 1980s as what the saga offered in the 1200s. Aesthetically, however, Guðmundsson’s story changes result in the film not living up to the saga, which likely contributed to how no more close saga adaptations have been made. A critic notes how “a common misconception regarding Icelandic film history is the supposedly great role of the sagas.” In reality, the small nation’s medieval world literature has been “spectacularly ignored [likely due to] the extreme reverence in which the sagas are held and anxiety regarding the reception of filmed adaptations” (Norðfjörð “Adapting”). In the following, I will show how source confusion and a beloved work’s long tradition and high cultural standing can stand in the way of effective adaptation.

Hero on a Different Scale

How Outlaw introduces Gisli is dramatically different from how the saga introduces him. Guðmundsson’s first scene shows Gisli (Arnar Jónsson) about to swear a blood oath. His is the first face we see, next to those of his kin. While the saga describes Gisli as exceptionally tall and strong, Jónsson appears shorter than the other men (see Figure 1). His build is rather scrawny, not only compared to saga-Gisli but compared to that of most male actors in the film. The choice of Jónsson as protagonist seems informed by how the film strives to portray Gisli as an everyman, someone who is an equal within his community, in most respects. His clothing is of the same style as that of everyone else throughout the film—even when he becomes his community’s enemy—and in most scenes neither staging nor lighting suggests that Gisli is different in any way. The opening scene’s earthy colors and diffuse daylight give the impression of an everyday communal togetherness that aligns with the social ethos of contemporary Nordics. Guðmundsson thus puts forth ancestors with whom Icelanders can easily relate, and sympathize with. Except when enslaved by the logic of feud, these well-groomed people seem to be of similar temperament and outlook like present-day social democrats.3

By contrast, the saga’s “Norwegian prelude” introduces readers to the psychological journey of an exceptional human specimen who gets stuck in the transition between two moralities. Because readers learn how Gisli transforms psychologically as a result of feud and Viking raids, they can comprehend why the inevitable outcome of the story is that Gisli must sacrifice himself through a glorious death. Intuitive folk psychology lets us make sense of his psyche, as does twenty-first-century evolutionary psychology (Larsen “Evolutionary”). The saga thus explores the tension between a superior individual and the needs of a vulnerable agricultural community on a cold, barren island. For the saga’s thirteenth-century context, this was a culturally resonant conflict (Bredsdorff 105). After centuries of mostly limited feuding, the nation fell victim to widespread strife as regional leaders challenged each other for national power. Gisli functioned as an illustrious example of his Westfjord region’s warrior past, which Westfjord inhabitants could rally around should other regions want to attack them (Kristinsson 5). But Gísla saga also reads as a warning against the lose-lose destruction that was likely to follow should Icelanders give in to the still emotionally salient heroic ethos of their Viking ancestors.

It may have fulfilled some primordial human urges to slaughter, rape, and plunder one’s way through Europe in the past. We can even argue that such behavior was adaptive in its context (Raffield et al. 37–8). Furthermore, it seems plausible that quite a few thirteenth-century Icelanders were drawn to solving their era’s conflict by subjecting their enemies to similar horror. Gísla saga acknowledges the draw that these recesses of human nature still hold on post-Christianization citizens. Yet the saga narrative casts clear judgment on how maladaptive such archaic heroics would be within their current environment. Thus, the saga lets readers, or audiences during oral performance, accept the savage nature of their ancestors while at the same time maintaining that their own morality is preferable. Thomas Bredsdorff writes that Gísla saga and the other several dozen such sagas were the Icelanders’ “response to a psychic need in their struggle for self-understanding. The sagas of Icelanders delivered the answer” (127). That answer was that peace was preferable, even to national sovereignty. Icelanders therefore agreed to subjugate themselves to the Norwegian king, as a means to prevent the kind of mass slaughter that Gisli could have viewed as glorious.

The context that the film responds to was, of course, very different. The adaptation, too, offers an updated self-understanding that is relevant to its era in terms of culture, but which is also informed by the choice of medium. Agnes Schindler writes how “until 1979, Iceland had produced only a handful of films—normally in cooperation with international investors, and then only sporadically” (69). With the nation’s new film fund, a “‘spring’ of Icelandic film” (75) offered homegrown cinema to audiences who, at least for the first years, flocked to movie theaters to devour anything local. That was the intention, too, behind offering public financing that required films to connect to Icelandic culture. The first wave of film—of which Outlaw was part—was inward-looking, which means locally produced and financed, exhibited almost exclusively in Iceland, and “addressed in Icelandic to Icelanders only” (Norðfjörð “Iceland,” 47). Björn Norðfjörð argues that Outlaw’s narrative “is almost unfathomable without a prior knowledge of the Saga, making the film incomprehensible to most foreign viewers. However, at this early point the foreign market was of little concern to Icelandic filmmakers” (“Adapting”). I will argue against the film being incomprehensible to foreigners, but the above-mentioned economies of production inform the reverence with which the filmmakers approached Gísla saga. Outlaw became a typical “heritage film,” a term for cinema with an emphasis on “the reproduction of literary texts, artifacts, and landscapes which already have a privileged status within the accepted definition of the national heritage” (Higson 27). Tellingly, a 1981 book that adapts Gísla saga from both the saga text and Outlaw’s screenplay expresses a sentiment likely to have informed many of the film’s narrative changes:

The story of Gísli Súrsson and his fate has long been held in memory. And it is hoped that the present book, together with the film of the same name, will do nothing to diminish the affection felt by all for this famous hero of the Sagas of Icelanders. (Þorsteinsson 59)

Making Sense of Old Sources

An additional complication that likely contributed to Guðmundsson’s omission of the saga’s “Norwegian prelude” was confusion around diverging saga versions. Because Gísla saga exists in different versions, scholars have had to assess which version is more likely to correspond to a hypothesized original. At least in earlier saga scholarship, that was the common approach to questions of fidelity, or “authenticity” as it was often framed. Throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, Gísla saga’s shorter M-version was considered to offer the more authentic narrative. But, two years prior to Outlaw’s premiere, Kolbeinsson and Kristjánsson made a strong case for the S-version’s closer resemblance to an original. Much scholarship has since supported their position, yet not to the extent that a consensus has emerged (Berger; Clover; Danielsson; Jakobsen).

The primary difference between these two versions lies in the story’s opening. The S-version’s prelude is longer and offers a dramatically different characterization of the protagonist. Gisli, “the reluctant badass,” is likely to endear pro-social readers with his peaceful and collaborative attitude toward fellow Norwegians. Despite his physical talent, the nice young man resists being drawn into mindless violence for so long that, when he finally gives in, readers are likely to root for him. In the M-version’s prelude, Gisli instead acts like a homicidal sociopath within a page of his introduction. The story therefore becomes one of an innately destructive man, and the M-version’s dramatic question merely one of when the born-to-kill protagonist will begin murdering farmers again.

We can sympathize with Guðmundsson’s choice of omitting this morally problematic aspect of saga-Gisli, instead opening his film in media res on Iceland. When working on the screenplay, the writer-director appears to have used Björn K. Þórólfsson’s M-version as his source. At that time, only among a growing number of scholars had M’s prelude become discredited as a confused recreation for which the saga transcriber had insufficient sources (Berger). If Guðmundsson had adhered to how the M-version introduces Gisli, that could have alienated general moviegoers, as the protagonist simply murders his sister’s suitor “with no warning whatsoever” (“2”). Guðmundsson wanted to stay true to the narrative of the M-version. Yet at the same time, to avoid diminishing “the affection felt by all” for Gisli, the director must have felt pressure to construct a protagonist for whom Icelanders could easily root. As the first director to adapt the tiny nation’s world literature, questions of representation were pressing. Iceland’s first publicly financed films were connected to

an identity dilemma related to self-perception and the perception of one’s self by others. Iceland—as a colony of first Norway and then of Denmark—has long been subject to identity dilemmas, in which the desire for independence has played a constant role. (Schindler 74)

In this context, it seems inevitable that a filmed Gísla saga would be part of what Bredsdorff, in a saga context, refers to as a struggle for self-understanding. In the 1980s, Iceland was not threatened by civil war, but Icelanders were culturally unsettled by rapid modernization after World War Two, as the isolated, backward nation had caught up with modernity at a tremendous pace. After centuries of being spread out across a sparsely populated island, fishing for sustenance, and suffering intermittent catastrophe, Icelanders were about to emerge on the global scene as highly productive, trendy urbanites (Jez and Whelan). Who they had been, who they were, and what they should strive to become were themes through much artistic production in the 1980s and in the decades that followed (Larsen “Sealing”). To contribute to this Icelandic conversation, Gísla saga was an obvious choice for the nation’s first saga adaptation, not only due to the text’s aesthetic qualities and cultural status. Among all the sagas, Gísla saga is widely considered to offer the most unified, modern narrative, evocative of novel and film formats. But with the M-version still being considered as the more authentic, Guðmundsson made what seems a sensible choice in terms of not introducing Gisli as a homicidal sociopath. The result, however—while the film has many strengths—is a narrative mishmash of saga-Gisli traits, which remain unexplained within the film, and film-Gisli traits that never add up as an alternative to the psychological split that drives the saga.

By turning Gisli into an everyman, Guðmundsson offers a lead that his audience can recognize themselves or their friends in. Presumably, by the 1980s, few Icelanders harbored desires of reembracing their Viking ancestors’ murderous ethos, so there was little cultural need for making a case against the emotional lure of wholesale slaughter. The S-version’s Gisli could nonetheless have made for an alluring film protagonist, as many audiences are drawn to the particular lessons and enjoyment we derive from morally ambiguous antiheros (Kjeldgaard-Christiansen 106). But instead of crafting an alternative to the protagonist’s “reluctant badass” psyche and the accompanying narrative structure, the director mostly contents himself with a thematic focus. He adapts Gisli’s story so that it primarily reads as an argument against honor culture. That, as well, may seem like a moot point directed at audiences within Nordic social democracies, which are about as far from honor culture as you can get among today’s nations. However, Guðmundsson’s intention appears not to be to construct themes that engage contemporary issues, but to offer historical apologetics.

Gisli, the everyman, exemplifies how medieval social organization imposes adverse consequences on everyone. Some of saga-Gisli’s superior martial skills reveal themselves later in the film, but then no explanation is offered for why Gisli is suddenly able to swing his sword so effectively. Neither do we learn what his final stand means to him, nor does he pursue glory like in the saga. Film-Gisli is a hapless victim of social circumstance, and audiences should feel sorry for the unfortunate situation he finds himself in. Neither are those who hunt him portrayed as villains; they are but men following social duty or earning a buck. Agency, and thus guilt, is all but removed from the characters in question. Also, the lust for violence that marks some saga episodes is gone. The director thus continues the process of whitewashing the Nordics’ murderous ancestors, recasting Viking Age psychology as not that different from ours.

A Hero Without a Backstory

Gísla saga let thirteenth-century Icelanders accept the physical and psychological reality of tenth-century savagery. Yet the saga’s themes clearly oppose those behaviors, too. It seems plausible that such moral whitewashing continued through the centuries of re-oralized farmhouse performance, as Christianization and modern thought took hold. The film adaptation furthers this practice by removing most aspects of the psychology that underpinned unsavory Viking practices, so that film-Gisli and his brethren could be mistaken for social democrats on a nature retreat in authentic costume. Admittedly, when adapting character psychology from old literary sources, adjustments are commonly made so that psychological profiles fit what modern audiences expect. Robert Kellogg writes that for stories to be transmitted through centuries, “they have to make sense to their audiences from generation to generation. And to do this they must conform to the values, tastes and perceptions of successive new audiences” (xlii). Outlaw aligns its reinterpretation of identity with a millennium-long practice of reinterpreting Gisli as Icelandic culture transforms. The saga encouraged readers/audiences to conclude that current morality is preferable, and the film encourages the same for its audience. The film thus achieves thematic fidelity with its source material. Intriguingly, the film’s plot and dialogue show remarkable fidelity, as well. Yet what the plot means for Gisli’s character development strongly diverges.

With the opening to his film, Guðmundsson skips what is equivalent to the first fifth of the S-version’s entire narrative. His adaptation begins with Gisli mid-ceremony with his brother Thorkel (Þráinn Karlsson), his brother-in-law Vestein (Kristján J. Jónsson), and their chieftain Thorgrim (Benedikt Sigurðarson). The chieftain aborts the men’s swearing of allegiance, setting in motion Gisli’s Icelandic feud (see Figure 1). The events that follow are true to the saga narrative, yet by not including Gisli’s backstory, and by making a few but important changes, the director constructs an entirely different arc for Gisli’s interior journey. Not only does film-Gisli appear as a physical underdog. He is also morally unblemished, and audiences are given little reason to reconsider their sympathy for him at any point in the story. By contrast, the saga shows how Gisli’s psyche transforms into that of a warrior with an exaggerated sense of honor and with an expectation of unconditional support from allies (Larsen “Evolutionary”). Such an ethos may have been adaptive within a marauding Viking lið (Raffield et al. 37–8), but hardly among socially scheming farmers who strove to solve conflicts through a complex judicial system.

From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga
, Mads Larsen
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: In the film, Gisli (left) lacks the saga hero’s formidable skills, strength, and size (Guðmundsson, 1981).

His own archaic ethos informs saga-Gisli’s emotional responses when he and Vestein feud against Thorkel and Thorgrim. Thorkel becomes jealous when he learns that his wife is in love with Vestein, which triggers a conflict that Gisli, at first, attempts to solve by following local norms. Readers of the saga’s S-version know how challenging such restraint is for Gisli, the now-again reluctant badass who tries to fit in. Film audiences, however, are deprived of the suspense that this psychologically interesting tension offers. They are instead presented with Gisli as a reasonable man who falls victim to dysfunctional tradition. Guðmundsson seems too fearful of losing audience sympathy to let any aspect of Gisli’s maladapted Viking psyche play out, most consequentially by altering the story’s pivotal midpoint.

After Thorgrim has murdered Vestein under the cover of night, Gisli revenge-kills Thorgrim with similar stealth. If Gisli could only keep quiet about his own killing, Icelandic law would protect him. Instead, in “one of the saga’s most perplexing episodes” (Turco 278), Gisli confesses to the murder within earshot of his sister Thordis. She is the slain Thorgrim’s widow, so she is naturally upset when she hears, “I slew that [warrior]” (“18”). Thordis tells her new husband, Thorgrim’s brother, that Gisli admitted to being the nocturnal assassin. Her retelling of her brother’s confession leads to Gisli’s outlawry and, in practice, his certain eventual death. In the saga, Gisli thus brings upon himself his own demise through a confession which seems primarily motivated by his old warrior-self’s sense of moral superiority.

In the film, Gisli appears to prepare for a similar confession when he performs a ritual over flames that light up his face, signaling transformation. Instead he keeps quiet when his sister (Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir) confronts him, “Same old Gisli . . . Throwing stones” (see Figure 2). His admitting to the murder would undermine the impression of a reasonable man stuck in an unreasonable situation. So, to retain psychological continuity, the director lets Gisli keep a straight face during his sister’s confrontation. For the narrative to be able to still unfold as it does in the saga, Thordis is granted the power of reading guilt from Gisli’s inexpressive face. She walks off and tells Thorgrim’s brother, “My brother killed your brother. What are you going to do about it?” (Guðmundsson 43; translation from subtitles). Without any evidence but her own intuition, Thordis seals Gisli’s fate.

From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga
, Mads Larsen
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Thordis (left) must read from her brother’s bodily expression that he is guilty, as film-Gisli does not admit to the murder, unlike Gisli in the saga (Guðmundsson, 1981).

To understand how audiences would interpret this midpoint, we must consider the domestic reception. When Thordis refers to the “same old Gisli,” Guðmundsson could assume that many, if not most, local audiences were familiar with the saga protagonist’s troubled background. Later in the film, however, the narrative contradicts how the preludes of both the M and S-versions characterize Gisli. To understand the film adaptation, viewers cannot simply read saga-Gisli’s background into his cinematic incarnation. Such an approach, at best, offers a naturalistic reading of an incomprehensible protagonist, and we have no reason to believe that Guðmundsson intended such a characterization. Norðfjörð argued that Outlaw was nearly unfathomable for someone who does not know the saga. My position is that the film only appears as incomprehensible for someone who expects Gisli to offer an exploration of the heroic similar to what saga-Gisli offers. The film makes sense on its own, but it constructs a radically different character arc for its protagonist. Film-Gisli evolves from being a nice guy, to being unfairly persecuted, to becoming—in his wife’s words—"obsessed with killing” the nearer he comes to his demise (Guðmundsson 83). As an extension of this arc, Gisli’s last stand takes on a different meaning than what his impressive final slaughter does in the saga.

Germanic Heroism vs. Christian Values

With saga-Gisli’s confession, he makes an active decision at the midpoint, which becomes a point of no return that illuminates the content of his character and drives the story forward. With his silence, film-Gisli is a more passive protagonist at a midpoint that, instead of letting Gisli change the direction of the story, speaks to the individual’s powerlessness against social forces. While different themes arise from the two Gislis’ different actions, plot consequences are the same: Gisli must flee into outlawry on the margins of Iceland’s unforgiving geography.

The saga’s latter half is dominated by two dream women, one “good” and one “bad,” who haunt Gisli at night. Critics have read the women as voicing an ideological battle between Christian and Germanic traditions (Langeslag), or as a dramatization of Gisli’s own psychological split (Crocker). His morality appears torn between his old warrior ethos that is about to cause his death, and an emerging Christian ethos that he still struggles to understand. During an earlier voyage to Denmark, saga-Gisli had converted to Christianity, although perhaps mostly for reasons of commerce. His good dream woman now demands that Gisli—in order to earn redemption—must stop following his old faith, stop provoking fights, and be kind to the weak and poor (“22”). The saga’s final half thus dramatizes Gisli’s battle against his own murderous emotions, as he attempts to live up to an ethos that offers a different understanding of the heroic. With this challenge, Gisli succeeds. He does not practice Norse religion, he only fights back when he has to, and he frees slaves and is generous to a poor farmer. Therefore, when Gisli faces his last stand in the saga, he has already proven himself to his good dream woman. What remains is to demonstrate the power of his conviction, so that she “may boldly hear report of her friend’s brave stand” (“36”).

Although saga-Gisli embarks on a mission to transform his heroic values, his outdated approach to the heroic itself is dramatized through his dysfunctional sibling relationships. He may have found a Christian cross to guide his morals, but Gisli sneaks around with the self-righteous obstinance of an olden-days hero. His siblings, Thorkel and Thordis, have become successful collaborators among Icelandic farmers. Yet Gisli expects the same unquestioning obligation from them as he would from warrior brothers during mortal combat. He requests that Thorkel risks everything, but his brother is only willing to offer resources, not his own freedom. Gisli finds this choice ignoble and bids farewell, “I would never have treated you as you have treated me” (“24”). Film-Gisli shows little of this grandiose behavior (see Figure 3). At the brothers’ last farewell, Gisli acts passive-aggressively but asks for “nothing beyond your resources. A boat to row myself off into the sunset” (Guðmundsson 60). Similarly, his dream women are included in the film but do not directly influence the plot. They mostly contribute with an eerie atmosphere instead of giving voice to Gisli’s moral and psychological fissure.

From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga
, Mads Larsen
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Thorkel (left) is not willing to sacrifice his freedom for a heroic ideal that is a poor fit for Icelandic farmers (Guðmundsson, 1981).

A Family that Fights Together

When Gisli fulfills his destiny, he does so shoulder to shoulder with the only person who has stood by him, his wife Aud (Ragnheiður Steindórsdóttir). The concluding fight sequence takes up only 4 percent of the saga, but 10 percent of the film (see Figure 4). The more generous time allocation seems informed by film structure conventions, and also genre expectations for a film about Norse men with swords. While the adaptation’s battle sequence elaborates temporally, the saga elaborates with heroics of a type ill-suited for Icelandic film budgets and cultural preferences of the 1980s. Saga-Gisli waits until the first man attacks, then cuts “him asunder so that both halves of his body fell back off the edge of the ridge” (“34”). With manly quips, and swinging his sword and axe with otherworldly strength, Gisli slaughters his way to a glorious death. The narrator comments how “it was an amazement to all. They say that he never once retreated, and as far as anyone could see his last blow was no weaker than his first” (“36”).

From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga
, Mads Larsen
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: The plot structures show that the saga (S-version) offers more backstory for Gisli through a long Norwegian prelude, while the film is allotted a longer climax sequence.

The scrawnier film-Gisli makes a more modest impression, as he has done throughout his outlawry. During a chase, he almost choked on his own cape (Guðmundsson 47). In the final battle, his axe barely scratches his opponents' shields. Actor Jónsson’s physical prowess would be less likely to terrify tenth-century Icelanders and more likely to inspire what we today would consider politically incorrect ridicule. In addition to adhering to the social-democratic ideal of ordinariness, the smaller, less capable protagonist also aligns with underdog aesthetics of the early 1980s, before the rise of Hollywood’s muscle heroes. While film-Gisli, too, proves capable of mass murder—although audiences never learn why—the director changes one of his lines in a way which, again, seems informed by a reluctance to unsettle audiences through undermining film-Gisli’s good-guy persona. When saga-Aud clubs an opponent, Gisli praises her, “I knew long ago that I had married well, but never realized till now that the match was as good as this” (“34”). For battleground romance, that is quite heartwarming. Yet Gisli undermines the compliment by adding that she still ruined his battle play. He, the great warrior, would have “dispatched them both,” whereas Aud only made one enemy stagger back down. Saga critics have speculated on the purpose of this underhanded compliment, particularly those who apply gender perspectives to the medieval literary movement (Friðriksdóttir). Guðmundsson makes no attempt at incorporating this interesting insult into his film narrative, which would open his hero up to accusations of misogyny. Instead, film-Gisli says, “I always knew I had a good wife” (93).

In both the saga and film, Gisli dies after getting his entrails cut out and making one last kill (see Figure 5). In the saga, Gisli’s final words praise how his father’s Viking ethos provided Gisli with his courage. In the film, the last two minutes before his death are a wordless affair. The two version’s brief resolutions do not significantly diverge in respect to lending meaning to the narratives. The saga thus concludes with a Gisli who has lived up to his new Christian-inspired ethos, yet without renouncing the courageous—albeit now impractical—heroism of his father. With his last stand, Gisli fulfills his destiny with such bravery and skill that Icelanders would tell his tale for centuries to come.

From Oral Story to Film: A Millennium of Reassessing Icelandic Identity in Gísla saga
, Mads Larsen
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: In the film’s final battle, Gisli appears like less of an otherworldly hero and more of an everyday protagonist who falls victim to a dysfunctional social model (Guðmundsson, 1981).

By contrast, the film concludes with a Gisli who has merely fought well against a large group of men who try to kill him because they are paid to do so by the brother of the chieftain Gisli slew. Throughout the film’s latter half, Gisli has only fought to stay alive. He seems to be the same guy he was when the film began: a nice man who falls victim to medieval dysfunction. Audiences are thus led to conclude that they descend from people not that different from themselves, and that social-democratic organization, clearly, is much preferable to honor culture. Already when the sagas were written, considerable immorality were removed from Viking-Age Norsemen (Raffield, Price, and Collard 175–8). Pillaging, murderous rapists who practice polygyny and sexual and other forms of enslavement are challenging to incorporate within one’s ancestry. That a millennium has passed seems to be why we, even in the hypersensitive 2020s, accept our pop culture’s fetishization of Viking violence and other reprehensible practices.

Guðmundsson goes in the other direction, removing those aspects of Gísla saga that could antagonize audiences, but also allow a more honest assessment of what drove the Icelanders’ ancestors to such brutality. The director’s bowdlerization builds on previous whitewashing, which can be seen as a reasonable narrative evolution that lets Outlaw “conform to the values, tastes and perceptions” of 1980s Icelanders who were hardly in need of a warning against reverting to Viking raids. There are limits to the extent of cruelty or immorality that modern humanists can accept in depictions of their ancestors and still be proud of them. Statue toppling across the West in 2020 attests to this social need. Yet by removing Gisli’s dark psyche, without replacing it with another suitable character weakness, Guðmundsson crafts a protagonist who, admittedly, does not offend, but who also lacks the allure of his previous incarnations.


While Gisli’s character arc appears more interesting in the saga, the film is not without qualities. Outlaw was selected to be the Icelandic entry for the 1982 Oscars, although it was not accepted as a nominee. Critics have praised the film’s acting and cinematography; Norðfjörð emphasizes its precise cultural-historical adherence. Furthermore, Outlaw was a domestic box-office success and “well received [although] too expensive to ever recoup its cost” (Guðmundsson “Land og synir”). The film, as the only close saga adaptation, has remained a staple on the national curriculum of Iceland and on syllabi for Norse and related courses across the world.

Considering the film’s enduring standing, Norðfjörð finds it puzzling how Outlaw has not been followed by more saga adaptations. The Icelandic critic points to how the saga format’s highly objective third-person narration lends itself to the film medium, as do the sagas’ dramatic plots, colorful characters, and spectacular natural surroundings. Norðfjörð concludes that “the only credible explanation” for why the nation’s sagas continue to be ignored is that cultural reverence makes filmmakers fear an overly critical reception (“Adapting”). Considering Guðmundsson’s reluctance to letting Gisli embody any of the darker complexities that make him such a captivating saga hero, Norðfjörð could be onto something. If cinematic storytellers with saga ambitions would be willing to risk some of “the affection felt by all”—which has accumulated over a millennium of oral and written adaptations—new saga versions could be likelier to find resonance with contemporary audiences. Today, multiple serialized Viking dramas—with no lack of gore or psychological darkness—draw millions of viewers per episode and get renewed season after season. In this new media reality, more daring film adaptations, too, should have good potential for global reach.

For filmmakers considering other nations’ revered literatures of the past, Outlaw offers lessons on how not to exaggerate when toning down a previous era’s more uncouth heroics to fit a more sensitive present. If the reprehensible aspects of a protagonist’s nature contribute to make a story great, simply removing that interior darkness is unlikely to translate into a captivating film. If the story structure itself centers around a tragic hero’s demons and angels, as is the case with Gísla saga, then—if those demons are deemed inappropriate—an entirely new structure would have to be devised around an alternative tension. However, considering the antiheroes and outright psychopaths who endear audiences during our present era’s Third Golden Age of Television, a reluctant badass like Gisli should—in the hands of capable filmmakers—not overly antagonize moviegoers. On the contrary, allowing also the darker of our emotions to speak across centuries appears to be a better recipe for renewed relevance than to bowdlerize a classic due to misplaced respect for audience affection and a work’s cultural standing.


1  Saga scholarship has failed to provide hard evidence or consensus in respect to the oral origins of Gisli’s story, the temporal hierarchies of saga versions, or to the historical veracity of Gisli himself. Archaeological and other findings have, however, proven aspects of related sagas to be remarkably precise (see Byock “Egil’s Bones”). It may therefore very well be that Gisli Sursson was a historical figure, a violently capable Norwegian who joined the Norse diaspora to Iceland in the mid-tenth century.

2  Hereafter, parentheticals will refer to the chapter number of the saga in Regal’s 2000 translation.

3  The term “social democratic” refers not to members or voters of a political party, but to the shared political model of the Nordic countries. Social democracy is a pragmatic compromise between liberal and socialist politics, and its ethos is conformist, communitarian, and egalitarian.

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