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The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue

(Íslendingasögur/Sagas of Icelanders)

3.20  ·  Rating details ·  1,060 ratings  ·  145 reviews
'In two I'll slice the hair-seat / of Helga's kiss-gulper'

In this epic tale from the Viking Age that ranges across Scandinavia and Viking Britain, two poets compete for the love of Helga the Fair - with fatal consequences.

Introducing Little Black Classics: 80 books for Penguin's 80th birthday. Little Black Classics celebrate the huge range and diversity of Penguin Classic
Paperback, Little Black Classics, #03, 53 pages
Published February 26th 2015 by Penguin Classics (first published 1200)
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3.20  · 
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 ·  1,060 ratings  ·  145 reviews

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Leonard Gaya
May 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is one small specimen of the vast Icelandic literature that flourished between the 10th and the 14th century AD. Vikings had been settling in Iceland since the 8th century, but literary production began after the Christianisation of the island (around 999). Between that time and the annexation by the Norwegian crown (in the late Middle Ages), Iceland enjoyed a sort of literary golden age: the age of the sagas —a term that means “tale”, “story”, “narrative”.

These sagas, for the most part, re
Sean Barrs the Bookdragon
When the reader has first adjusted himself to the torrent of names, so frequently dumped on his lap, he will begin to enjoy this short tale. There are many sons of great men that are mentioned constantly, but that is the style of the saga. Much weight is put on the deeds of one’s forbears, and to criticise the tale because of this is to ignore a tale that is worthy of merit in its own right.


The plot of the book is centred upon the rivalry of Gunnlaug and Hrafn. Gunnlaugh loves Helga and has so
"I'm ready to tread the isle
where combat is tried
- God grant the poet victory -
a drawn sword in my hand;
into two I'll slice the hair-seat
of Helga's kiss gulper;
finally, with my bright sword,
I'll unscrew his neck from his head."

- Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue


Vol 3 of my Penguin Little Black Classics Box Set. Think of this as an epic poet rap battle between two Icelandic Vikings. In one corner, you have DJ Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue, son of Illugi the Black, the son of Hallkel Hrosskelsson. In the other c
Read all my reviews on

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue is the third of Penguin's Little Black Classics, and it is because of titles like this one that I picked up the series, as they represent the kind of books I would maybe not have read otherwise.

The story was quite enjoyable. A young Icelandic noble holds a gap-year (several in fact) traveling to the courts of Europe, where they all love his poetry and shower him with gifts. When he eventually returns
Liz Janet
Dec 20, 2015 rated it liked it
Does anyone know where exactly I can find a complete work of this? I have read many viking texts, but that was so long ago that I barely recall any, particularly if it is a different translation, and since I enjoyed this one, I wish to read more. This is the story of a man from Iceland, of one rich family, that goes on a journey across the world before returning home to marry his betrothed, and in doing so, wherever he visits, he receives some poetry and receives favours in the form of jewelry a ...more
I had misgivings to start with because there's a whole bunch of hard-to-pronounce names (unless you're from that geographical region, I imagine) and sons- and fathers-of which is pretty hard to keep track of. But once our G starts out on his overseas adventure, it's actually a fun tale.

At first, I wasn't a huge fan of the guy. He seems a bit arrogant, but at the same time I liked that he was unafraid to go after what he wanted. I'm not entirely sure why he pissed off the first king but then was
On top of everything else, I'm participating in a saga course at uni, where we read four sagas during the two months and discuss generally about Icelandic sagas and their features. This type of introduction is priceless, because it helps to understand how and why sagas are an integral part of Iceland and its history (even today they influence Icelandic authors, and twenty years ago The Book of Icelanders was read as fact in elementary schools).

I somewhat grew to like the simplicity. William Morr
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I did my BA in Scandinavian Studies/Northern European Studies and had several modules on medieval history as well as literature, so I'm no stranger to Icelandic sagas but I had not read this one before. I was however already used to the style they are written in and therefor not surprised by it. Sagas can seem rather clunky and tiresome at first and they take some time to get used to. It does seem counterintuitive to a good story to always have a character dream what will happen, as it takes awa ...more
Charles  van Buren
Charles van Buren


5.0 out of 5 stars

A relatively easy to read Icelandic saga.

March 21, 2019

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

This review is of the free Kindle Edition:
Publication date: May 11, 2012
Language: English

Many classical and modern writers have been inspired by the Icelandic Sagas. J.R.R. Tolkien and David Drake come to mind. If you want to sample them for yourself, this one is free from Amazon, relatively short and easy to read. Keep in mind that ea
Billy O'Callaghan
Dec 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Helga, the daughter of a nobleman, whose birth led to a prophesy that her beauty would cause men to kill for her, falls in love with Gunnlaug, a cocky young poet from a wealthy and honourable family, with a particular hunger for adventure. Her father is reluctant about the match, but eventually agrees to wait three years for Gunnlaug to travel the world before being free to marry Helga to someone else. But when the three years pass, a deal is struck with another poet, Gunnlaug's rival, Hrafn. He ...more
Ανδρέας Μιχαηλίδης
This is a very interesting little book (50 pages in all), which illustrates a great number of things. It is purportedly a transcript of the saga (as told by priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned) which begins with the birth of Helga the Fair, daughter of Thorstein Egilsson and the book mentions that among Egil's descendants there were many great people, including Snorri Sturluson, who wrote down the Eddas!

The story is basically the life's chronicle of two warrior-poets, Gunnlaug and Hrafn, as they
Apr 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was really impressed by how much I felt in this story unfortunately for me the end seemed told as if in a hurry...
Michelle Curie
Before I even say anything about this book, I have to admit to being an absolute sucker for anything even remotely related to Iceland. Since I have been learning the language and through that getting to know the culture better for about two years now, the sole prospect of reading this little saga already got me excited.

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue was written down around 1270-1300, even though it would have circulated much earlier in oral form. It's the heroic story of two poets competin
Adam  McPhee
The Icelandic poet Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue contracts to marry Helga the Beautiful, but puts it off in favour of travelling around Scandinavia and the British Isles. He meets Sigtrygg Silkbeard of Ireland and becomes a follower King Æthelred the Unready as he prepares to fight off King Cnut and gets outlawed by a Norwegian earl for being too insulting with his poems. Anyways, Hrafn, a rival Icelandic poet, marries Helga, but she's not into it. So Gunnlaug starts a feud with Hrafn when they meet a ...more
Mark Ryan
May 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
After getting used to the writing style I really enjoyed this story of personal growth and fighting over love and pride.

There is alot of family names and it can get confusing but I loved hearing about all the families and fjords.

Also there is an underlying humour which I think was unintended but came about through the translation
Rebecca Jane
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics-poetry
3.5 Stars.
I really liked this, although I'd like it better if I understood the language and the way the Icelandic people wrote.
Jun 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Pretty interesting. This Viking-age epic was written down around 1270-1300, which is cool. It features a landscape of kings, goddesses and warrior-poets, which I loved. In that society, poetry and fighting prowess are equally prized, which is awesome -- writers for the win! -- and the poems throughout the book were quite lovely. Overall it was an interesting look at an old and brutal world.
A short Icelandic saga. Follows the travels of Gunnlaug Serpent Tongue, as he travels from Iceland to various places, including England and Norway. He leaves betrothed to the lovely Helga by arrangement that he return in a set timeframe. He doesn't return in the agreed time, and events unfold from there. No more without spoilers I would think, it is a short book!
Noelia Alonso
Not my cup of tea at all. I can't even remember half the names featured in the book and I've just finished it! Seriously, it was painful sometimes. And the way the story was told was not of my liking either.
Lukas Sotola
A very good, quick read. Gunnlaug and Hrafn are both noble-born poets and bitter rivals for the hand of Helga, the beautiful, noble-born woman both men desire but who really loves Gunnlaug. The main plot of the story involves the two men’s mutual dislike and resulting duel stemming from an incident where Gunnlaug criticizes a poem that Hrafn composes—and their shared desire to marry Helga, of course.

The plot is fast-paced and Gunnlaug has a very strong personality, both of which kept me turning
Jul 28, 2017 rated it liked it
I have a love hate relationship with Icelandic sagas. I find the history of the time period in which they were written to be fascinating, but to read the stories themselves, I always leave a little disappointed. Instead of character growth and a look into the psyche of each character, we get a list of places each character went and what they said. Occasionally, there are a few verses, but I feel any punch they might've had has been muddled in translation.

That being said, once you get past the li
Clem Way
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Apart from all the names (dear lord there were so many freaking names and just as hard to pronounce) and attempting to keep up with who was who and from where - not to mention the brief googling of certain historical figures on the side - this was a dazzling Icelandic saga. I was enchanted with it from the get go and it sort of reminded me of a fairy tale... it didn't feel "real", reading it felt more like experiencing a dream.

Besides that, this story was just fascinating. It's themes and the "
Corianne Oosterbaan
It has been a long while since I read a saga (probably for those Old English and Medieval Lit courses), and it takes a few pages before you're into the story (because of the tendency to mention the whole family tree when introducing a new character) - but the stories, such as this one, are great fun. If I had to summarize this one it is basically a several years-long rivalry / poetry battle between two poets over the most beautiful girl in Iceland.
I basically don't know anything about Norse Mythology and I'm not familiar with the writing style of these Sagas. I wondered why they kept listing the whole family trees at the start of chapters and it was hilarious that they wrote "... who went away this summer. He is now out of the Saga."
I enjoyed the story and reading something else entirely.
I have always loved the Icelandic sagas and this is just a small piece. I find them fascinating, these stories that were orally shared and spread long before they were written down. This little bit of a long-ago culture that has survived against all odds. Also, I just found thr story rather funny and especially enjoyed the two poets’ posturing.
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was not set to read a long saga but this one was just short enough to address a desire for a saga without derailing my other reads.

Interesting note: some of the names dropped as older rulers and heroes a generation back in this tale are main characters in the Lars Walker piece I am also reading.
A great way to get a taste of the Icelandic sagas. Prose and poetry are both presented, in a good mix of authenticity and accessibility.

Another fine entry in Penguin's Little Black Classics series, No. 3.
John Isles
Apr 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
A very readable story from the Icelandic sagas: the dramatic story of a love triangle that ends ... but I won't spoil it. Don't expect Norse gods or Valkyries, but there are 25 short poems included in Norse tradition.
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this! The poems were a little challenging to read, but the overall story was great!
Sep 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a very old Icelandic story of two doomed warrior-poets fighting over Helga the Fair. It's simply and delicately written, told partly through poetry. The poems themselves have an unusual, but timeless, beauty and I liked the way they are interwoven into the story.
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Books can be attributed to "Anonymous" for several reasons:

* They are officially published under that name
* They are traditional stories not attributed to a specific author
* They are religious texts not generally attributed to a specific author

Books whose authorship is merely uncertain should be attributed to Unknown.

Other books in the series

Íslendingasögur/Sagas of Icelanders (1 - 10 of 27 books)
  • Islendingesagaene I: Skalder / Grønland og Vinland
  • Islendingesagaene II: Fredløse / Skalder og helter
  • Islendingesagaene III: Njålssoga / Helter og eventyrere
  • Islendingesagaene IV: Lokale feider
  • Islendingesagaene V: Rikdom og makt / Tro og kamp
  • Egil's Saga
  • Vatnsdæla saga
  • Laxdæla Saga
  • Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Icelandic Stories
  • Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoda