Written by Rebecca Boyd
Njal’s Saga – the Story of Burnt Njall - is one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. Written down sometime during the 13th century, it tells the story of a decades-long blood feud between Njáll Þorgeirsson and Gunnar Hámundarson, two of Iceland’s most upstanding 10th century citizens. Njal’s Saga has a massive cast of characters, one of which is Sámr, an Irish hound gifted to Gunarr by Olaf Hoskuldsson.
Image: Gunnar Refuses to Leave Home, from Dasent, 1861
As befits Gunnar’s position as “the most outstanding person in the [Ice]land”, Sámr is no ordinary dog. Sámr is described as being as powerful and useful as a man-at-arms and of above average intelligence. Sámr accepts Gunnarr as his new master, laying himself at his feet. Olaf tells Gunnarr that Sámr will recognise Gunarr’s friends and enemies, raising the alarm if the latter approach.
Unfortunately for Sámr, it is this ability to distinguish between friends and enemies which leads to his downfall. Gunnar’s enemies are aware that to reach and kill Gunnarr, they must get around Sámr who is devoted to his master. Sámr’s role as guard dog sees him atop the roof of Njal’s house on the lookout for danger. Sámr spies Þorkell, one of Gunnar’s near neighbours, approaching and recognises him as a friend. Þorkell lures Sámr away from the house to a sunken lane whereupon Sámr realises his danger. He jumps at Þorkell, ripping his belly open but it is too late. Onund of Trollwood attacks Sámr with his axe, splitting the dog’s skull open and exposing his brain. Sámr howls more loudly than he has ever done before and dies. Gunnarr hears the howls and knows that, now that Sámr is gone, his own death is not far away.
The appearance of Sámr in Njal’s Saga is intriguing. Evans Tang (2021) suggests that the dog and the house are closely interlinked, but so too are the dog and his master. The dog’s role as companion provides a sense of security and the familiar for Gunnarr. Þorgeirsdóttir (2022) sees the presentation of a fine dog like Sámr as a nod to Gunnarr’s noble character and natural leadership. Þorgeirsdóttir likens this to the appearances of lions as companions in Arthurian romances such as the French poem “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”.
What concerns us today is the link between the guardianship and value of Sámr and his noted origins in Ireland. Sayers (1997) points out that guard dogs – árchú in Old Irish – are an important feature in Irish mythology. The most famous of these are, of course, Cú Chulainn – the hound of Ulster – and Bran and Sceolang – Finn mac Cumaill’s dogs. By giving Sámr an Irish origin story, the author of Njal’s Saga ties in this Icelandic dog to a long and well-known Irish tradition of guard dogs and close companionship.
Dasent, G. W. (1861) The Story of Burnt Njal or Life in Iceland at the End of the Tenth Century Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas. Available here: http://www.sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga.en
Þorgeirsdóttir, Brynja. 2020. “The Language of Feeling in Njáls saga and Egils saga: Construction of an Emotional Lexis”. Scripta Islandica 71: 9–50
Sayers, William, 1997 “Gunnarr, his Irish wolfhound Sámr, and the passing of the old heroic order in Njáls saga”, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 112 (1997): 43–66.
Harriet J. Evans Tang, 2021, “Feeling at Home with Anymals in Old Norse Sources”, Home Cultures, 18:2, 83-104, DOI: 10.1080/17406315.2021.1963622