The Story Of Grettir And The Undead Glam—One Of The Greatest Medieval Horror Stories

 

According to the medieval Icelandic text, Grettir’s Saga, an unlucky 11th-century farmer named Thorhall had an extensive farmstead in the Vatnsdal region of northwestern Iceland. His land was called Shady Valley (Forsaeludal) and he had a very grim family—literally, his father and his son were both named Grim. As befitting a grim family living in a place called Shady Valley, Thorhall’s lands were notoriously haunted. His farmstead had such a bad reputation that Thorhall was constantly short on farmhands and herdsmen. Each year he traveled to the Althing, the governing body of Iceland, to beg for farmhands and to seek advice on how to keep his employees around for longer spans of time. Thorhall became so desperate that he sought out the wisest man on Iceland, Skapti Thoroddsson, hoping that the wiseman could find a solution to his problems.

Skapti did not know how to stop the hauntings, but he did know of a Swedish immigrant to Iceland who was hardy enough in strength and skeptical enough of spirits to thrive at Thorhall’s farm. The man Skapti had in mind was Glam, a blue-eyed, grey-haired giant of great size and strength. Glam happened to be at the Althing, so Thorhall interviewed him and determined that he would be a fine herdsman. With the interview over, they arranged for Glam to arrive at Shady Valley in October.

 

Glam came to the farm at the appointed time and, as wise Skapti had promised, he was not unnerved by the hauntings. Thorhall was pleased by the man’s willingness to stay on the farm, but the farmer’s family and other loyal farmhands simply detested the new arrival. Glam had a lot of unlikable characteristics—he was crude, rude and completely uninterested in the religion held by the Christianized Icelandic community.

On Christmas Eve, Glam did not show up to mass. Thorhall and his people did not make much of it, because Glam was known to be an irreligious person, but when everyone noticed stray sheep wandering around the farmstead, they began to worry. Thorhall and his farmhands mounted a search party and scoured the land for Glam. They came across a large disturbed area in Shady Valley where the snow was trampled over a large area, with rocks and soil churned up to the surface. There, they found the body of Glam. It was a horrible sight. The corpse was horribly swollen and his flesh had turned an unnatural black color. Leading away from Glam’s body was a trail blood that had soaked into the snow. The blood was not Glam’s own, so observers concluded that the trail was made by whatever massive creature had killed the herdsman.

Glam’s body was of such immense weight that the farmhands had trouble bringing the remains back to civilization. They tried for three days to drag the body to a local church for burial, but all attempts to move the deceased herdsman failed. On the third day, Thorhall and the farmhands led a priest to where they had left the body of Glam. Yet, when they arrived at the spot with the priest, Glam’s body had disappeared. The absence of the body frightened the priest and he refused to continue searching. Oddly, when the priest left the party, the farmhands quickly located the misplaced body. They buried Glam where he lay, fashioning a makeshift burial mound out of nearby stones.

A shallow scattering of rocks in the wilderness, however, was not enough to let Glam rest in peace. The people of Shady Valley quickly learned that the deceased herdsman was having a very restless afterlife. In fact, he dug his way out of his grave to become the new haunt of the valley. Glam had become a draugr, a bigger, badder and more intelligent version of a zombie. Glam was undead, but unlike modern zombies, he did not decay or become scrawny. Instead, his moving corpse grew bigger in size and strength, with his ghastly head eventually extending high enough to reach Thorhall’s farmhouse rafters.

The undead creature began to play all sorts of tricks on the people of Shady Valley. Glam would break into farmhouses and scare people. He would keep residents up all night by climbing on top of their homes to kick his heels violently against the roofs while everyone tried to sleep. Yet, Glam’s pranks were not always so peaceful. He had a strange habit of killing any horse that entered Shady Valley—it got so bad that Thorhall had to preemptively warn people that if they entered his land, they would lose their horse. Still, at this point, Glam had shown no hostility against people, so Thorhall returned to his previous routine of trying to hire employees to work on his haunted farm.

Unbelievably, Thorhall found a replacement herdsman with ease. A powerful man named Thorgaut just happened to sail into Iceland at that time and he was as desperate for work as Thorhall was desperate for labor. Thorgaut took the job, happy for pay, and was interested in the challenge posed by Glam, who, at this point, could be found haunting the farm both during the night and day. Unlike Glam before him, everyone on the farm took an immediate liking to Thorgaut. Yet, his time in Shady Valley came to an abrupt end. Like his predecessor, Thorgaut disappeared on Christmas Eve. Again, a search party was formed and the farmhands spent Christmas morning searching for the lost herdsman. They found Thorgaut’s mangled body by Glam’s burial mound—every bone in Thorgaut’s body, from toe to neck, was shattered. When news spread that Glam had killed a human, all of the farmhands fled, leaving the farmstead empty except for Thorhall, his family and a loyal cowherd. Nevertheless, when that last loyal cowherd was found dead in the horse stables, with his back snapped like a folded piece of paper, Thorhall decided it was time to abandon the farm.

When winter passed, Thorhall tragically decided to give Shady Valley another chance. During the warmer days, there were fewer hauntings and he managed to hire another crew of farmhands. Yet, when the temperature began to cool, Glam came back with a vengeance, and he killed Thorhall’s daughter.

Luckily for Thorhall and the people of Shady Valley, there was an experienced monster hunter in Iceland at that time. His name was Grettir Asmundarson, and the young man was known to have once killed a draugr in a Norwegian burial mound. After the draugr incident, he went on to win a battle against twelve berserkers and hunted down a giant cave bear. Such feats earned the youthful adventurer the title of Grettir the Strong. As luck would have it, Grettir had an unhealthy drive to always test his strength against tougher opponents, no matter how difficult his last triumph had been. So, when the hero heard that there was a deadly draugr haunting Shady Valley, he was immediately determined to test his mettle against the supernatural foe.

Grettir traveled to Shady Valley in the dead of winter to face Glam. When the adventurer arrived at the farmstead, Thorhall gave him the usual warnings—his horse would surely be killed and a dead man would undoubtedly be seen walking about the farm. Grettir waved off the warnings, put his horse in the stable and announced that he would stay for the night.

While Thorhall barricaded himself in a bedroom, Grettir rested, fully equipped, on a bench near the entrance to the farmhouse. He covered his entire body with a rough sheepskin cloak, positioning the neck hole of the cloak by his face so that he could see what was happening in the house. Despite his hopes, nothing happened on the first night. No sightings. No sounds. No damage. Not even Grettir’s horse was harmed. It was as if Grettir’s presence intimidated the draugr.

Nevertheless, Glam could not stay in hiding for long. Grettir’s second day on the farm went without incident, but Glam returned to his usual mischief when night fell. In the morning Grettir found that his horse had been dragged out of the stable and every bone in its body had been smashed.

On the third night of his stay at the haunted farm, Grettir waited with eager anticipation, staring at the door from his usual spot on the farmer’s bench. The actual door to the farmer’s house was missing, replaced by a makeshift screen of planks and branches, so Grettir could slightly see what the moonlight was illuminating outside. Glam, however, did not approach Thorhall’s house from the front. Grettir was only alerted to the draugr’s presence when he heard thumps coming from the side of the house, each boom coming from further up the wall, heading toward the roof. As Glam often liked to do, he kicked his heels against the rooftop, filling the building with a cascade of noise. Then, the clamoring stopped, followed only by steady creaks and thumps as the creator of the sounds left the roof and climbed down the side of the house. With his eyes on the shabby doorway, Grettir realized that something huge was standing behind it, its bulk blocking the moonlight.

With surprising subtlety, Glam quietly pushed open the screen and peaked inside the home. Grettir watched as the huge black mass navigated itself through the doorway. Once the creature was comfortably inside, its head reached the rafters and it leisurely rested its arms on the crossbeams. Grettir remained tense and motionless on the bench, using his feet to wedge himself securely against the protruding end-board. As Glam scanned the farmhouse, the odd cloak-covered lump on the bench did not escape his notice. The draugr crept over to the bench and grabbed ahold of the sheepskin cloak and pulled. To Glam’s amazement, the cloak did not pull free. If anything, the whole bench moved along with the cloak. Using all of his might, Glam yanked at the cloak, causing it to rip in half.

Grettir, who had been holding the other end of the cloak, used the moment of surprise to jump up from the bench and tackle Glam. He thought he would be able to pin the creature to the ground, or at least knock it over. Yet, Grettir awkwardly found himself ineffectively hugging the gigantic dead man. For the first time in a long time, Grettir realized that he was facing something stronger than himself. At the same instant, Glam also realized that Grettir was a dangerous opponent, so he began retreating outside where he would have the advantage. Grettir, too, knew that his chances of success would decrease if the fight extended outside of the house, so he launched himself into a wrestling match with the undead thing to keep it from escaping.

As Grettir was the weaker of the two, he found himself losing the wrestling match. Glam was successfully pulling his opponent toward the doorway and Grettir found that he could only slow, not stop, the draugr’s escape. Realizing this, Grettir decided to change his tactics. He suddenly stopped pulling against Glam, and bracing his feet against the stone floor, Grettir put all of his power into pushing Glam toward the doorway. The quick change in direction caught Glam off guard, and he fell on his back through the doorway, where Grettir was able to pin him to the ground.

Grettir’s quick thinking unfortunately had some dire consequences. When Glam fell to the ground outside Thorhall’s farmhouse, the moonlight clearly illuminated the draugr’s unnatural face. The terrible sight stunned Grettir with terror, and while he was paralyzed by Glam’s disturbing face, the draugr spoke a dark and gloomy prophecy that haunted the monster-hunter for the rest of his days. When Grettir finally recovered, he chopped off Glam’s head and had the unnatural creature incinerated.

Although Grettir defeated Glam, the draugr had the last laugh. After the battle with the undead man, Grettir noticed some eerie changes in himself. From that point on, luck always seemed to be against him and he could no longer grow any stronger than he had been in Shady Valley. In addition to this, his temper, which was already notoriously bad, was even more easily inflamed. The worst of all the changes that occurred after the encounter with Glam, however, was the realization that Grettir, the powerful monster-hunter, had developed an intense and incurable fear of the dark.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (“The Sea Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • Grettir’s Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.

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