This painting, by the Swedish artist August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), was inspired by a scene from Njal’s Saga, written in Iceland during the 13th century. Njal’s Saga recounts folkloric and fictionalized tales about families in southern Iceland, all woven around two historical crimes—the killing of a formidable man named Gunnar (around the year 992), and the burning of Njal, who died when his house was set on fire around 1010. This painting, in particular, involves Gunnar.
August Malmström’s painting features a medieval Icelandic horse fight, set in the late 10th century. Gunnar was the owner of one of the horses seen above, while the other animal participating in the fight belonged to a man named Starkad. During the fight, Gunnar controlled his own horse, while the rival beast was managed by Starkad’s sons, Thorgeir and Kol. Gunnar wanted the fight to be a fair and friendly match, yet Starkad’s sons were the mischievous type, and they were solely focused on spurring their horse to victory, no matter the cost.
Not long after the horse fight began, the Starkadarsons soon showed that their friendly exhibition match would not be as friendly or fair as Gunnar had been led to believe. The underhanded tactics of Starkad’s sons, and the resulting anger of Gunnar eventually caused the horse fight to spiral out of control, ending with the horse handlers battling it out amongst themselves. Njal’s Saga described the scene:
“Then Thorgeir and Kol made a plan that the next time the horses went at each other they would give their horse a push and see if this would knock Gunnar down. The horses went to it, and Thorgeir and Kol shoved their horse from behind. Gunnar pushed back with his, and in no time at all Thorgeir and Kol were flat on the ground, with their horse on top of them. They sprang up and rushed at Gunnar. Gunnar jumped to the side and grabbed Kol and threw him on the ground so hard that he lay senseless. Thorgeir Starkadarson struck such a blow at Gunnar’s horse that its eye fell out. Gunnar hit Thorgeir with his stick. He too fell senseless” (Njal’s Saga, Chapter 59).
August Malmström’s painting depicts the calm before the storm—a scene of the horse fight before it turned into a brawl between the handlers. In the saga, this fight sparked a feud between Gunnar and Starkad’s family. Due to the bloodshed that would ensue, Gunnar soon found himself outlawed. It was during this time of outlawry that Gunnar was killed by a posse of armed assailants.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Njal’s Saga, written anonymously in the 13th century, translated by Robert Cook. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.