born: 945 in Iceland
died: 992 at Hlíđarendi in Fljótshlíđ in Iceland
married: 975 Hallgerđur Höskuldsdóttir
Gunnar was an imposing fighter, and the saga author says that no man has ever been his equal. He was handsome, fearless, generous and even-tempered. He fought equally well with either hand, and his sword strokes were so fast that it seemed like he wielded three swords at once. He could jump more than his own height while wearing full battle gear, either forward or backwards. There was no sport at which anyone could compete with him.
Gunnar was involved with many disputes which he tried to settle peaceably, but with weapons if no agreeable settlement could be reached. Gunnar's desire to settle without bloodshed caused him to wonder aloud if he was more cowardly than other men, because he disliked killing more than other men. Yet, his actions throughout the saga confirm his ability to use his weapons when called upon.
Gunnar often used an atgeir, one of several unknown Viking-age weapons that are described in the sagas, yet no examples are known to have survived. It was a long-shafted weapon, and Gunnar used his atgeirr to vault on to the back of his horse. In battle, he used it for cutting and for thrusting. In English translations, the word "atgeir" is often but erroneously translated as "halberd". The weapon we know today as a halberd was not created until centuries after the end of the Viking age.
In this episode from the saga, Gunnar used his atgeir for yet another terrible purpose.
Thorgeir ran at Gunnar in great anger and thrust his spear through the shield and through Gunnar's arm. Gunnar twisted the shield so hard that the spear broke apart at the socket. Gunnar saw another man come within reach of his sword and struck him his death blow and then seized the halberd in both hands. Thorgeir Otkelsson had meanwhile moved in close, with his sword at the ready. Gunnar turned toward him quickly and in great anger. He thrust his halberd through him and lifted him up high and threw him out into the river. The body drifted down to the ford and was stopped there by a boulder.
Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 72.
Gunnar's atgeir is thought to have survived until the 18th century when it was lost in a shipwreck off the west coast of Iceland.
Gunnar's wife, Hallgerđur, betrayed him during his last battle when he single-handedly defended his home against many attackers. She refused his simple request to give him a few locks of her hair to replace his broken bowstring. After he was killed, his opponents remarked that Gunnar's heroic defense will be remembered as long as this land (Iceland) is lived in.
©2013-2023 William R. Short