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Posted on 31 Mar 2022 in Fiction |

KÁRI GÍSLASON The Sorrow Stone. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Kári Gίslason, co-author with Richard Fidler of Saga Land, brings an ancient Icelandic saga to life in his new novel.

The snow is in drifts against the rocks. I use it to wipe the blood from my hands. Now Sindri’s the one pulling at me, wanting to go faster, and I’m crying with fear and disgust at the thought of what happened. I look at the sword and feel sick.

Disa and her 12-year-old son, Sindri, are fleeing to safety after a stabbing. She remembers the blade in the man’s leg, her hand in his blood, and being beaten, but we do not learn until later who she has stabbed or why. We know only that on this bleak, wintery night Disa and Sindri need to hide from those who will pursue and punish them. We know, too, that this is ancient Norway, a rocky place of storms, fjords and lava; a place of giants, trolls, myths and legends.

Disa carries the sword Grey Blade; Sindri has his shield, which is almost too heavy for him but he refuses to leave it behind, wanting to seem manly, older and stronger than he is. The fear and urgency of their escape are palpable and do not fade as they meet others and ask for help, not knowing who can be trusted. In icy conditions, they cross treacherous waters between Norway and Iceland, then negotiate hazardous paths as they make their way to Aud’s home, where Disa hopes her sister-in-law will give them shelter, but fears that she will not.

In The Sorrow Stone, Kári Gίslason has taken the Icelandic saga known as ‘The Saga of Gisli’ and given Gisli’s sister, Disa, a voice of her own. Icelandic sagas are complicated tales of rivalry, love, jealousy, killing and revenge. Women play small part in them, but Disa shows how they, too, were part of the story; how they, too, had powers and rights and could make choices which, at times, changed the course of events. In telling her story Disa makes this saga simple and compelling. She shows, too, how in a society where revenge killing was legitimate, and almost a moral imperative, she and other women lived with the deaths of their loved ones and the constant knowledge and fear of reprisals. It is this that underlies the urgency and tension running throughout the book.

That first night of their escape, as Disa and Sindri shelter in a hollow on their neighbour’s farm with only Sindri’s shield to protect them from the wind, Disa watches the ‘cloud mountains’ roll over them, and closes her eyes, trying to see her dead loved ones feasting in Valhalla, but what she sees is:

Not Valhalla. Not those I have lost. But me, and what will I tell Sindri if this is a story that is finally coming to an end.

So Disa begins to tell her story, remembering her childhood and how, as the eldest, she looked after her brothers, Kel and Gils (Gisli), when her mother was tired and in pain. She remembers how they would go to the beach and watch the ships return laden with treasures and, sometimes, with a girl from the slave market; and how, once, they joined a crowd around a preacher who talked of Lord Jesus. She tells of the way her brothers ‘jumped on each other’s backs and the high clouds circled the fjord and left space for the sun on the water’, and how she had watched a slave girl, ‘a little older than me’, and seen the fear in her eyes.

Disa recounts their journey from Norway to Aud’s farm in Iceland as it happens, so we feel the dangers, fear and emotions she experiences, her worries for Sindri, her awareness of his need to talk to people, her pride at his courage. At the same time, she tells her own story, interwoven with that of her brothers, their lives, and the code of honour that requires challenges, fights and deaths. We feel, even as she grows older and her life changes dramatically, her determination and courage, and her love of the land, which she expresses so beautifully.

There are other stories woven into Disa’s. Disa’s aunt, Inga, tells her of the making of the sword Grey Blade by her Irish servant, who wove Gaelic words into it to give it magical power. ‘He said it was a weapon that should only be used once or it would bring bad luck.’ No-one who used it ever wanted to part with it.

Another story is told by Disa’s father on the day that her marriage chest, carved with a pattern of ‘wild fire’, is delivered to their home:

Father drew a deep breath and pulled at his beard. He was no speaker. He never wanted to be the one to stand at the end of a long table and tell people why they were there, or who they were and why we all mattered so much. He didn’t recite poetry or genealogies. But now, he said he would speak. He was going to tell us a saga about a good sister.

So, Disa’s father tells them the saga of Gudrun and Attila, a saga typically full of ‘terror and betrayal and blood and loss’, which ends with Gudrun taking her horrific revenge in the manner of Ovid’s Procne in the Metamorphoses, before stabbing her husband and burning down his hall. ‘Gudrun was a good woman,’ Disa’s father yelled at her when she wept at the suffering and cruelty. ‘She did the right thing.’ This is the lesson Disa is expected to learn.

The Sorrow Stone is a gripping and exciting novel and it is, as Gίslason writes in his notes at the end of the book, based on a true story.

Thordis Sursdottir (Disa) was born in Surnadal in western Norway in the mid-tenth century. Her son, Snorri Thorgrimsson (Sindri), became ‘one of the most influential figures in Icelandic history and played a major role in the country’s Christianisation in the year 1000’. The sword Grey Blade also survived and was last used at the Battle of Orlyggstadir in 1238, after which it ‘disappeared for good’. Disa, sadly, ‘was judged very harshly by those who knew her, and by the generations that came afterwards’, and in 1183, when her body was moved to a new resting place, it was reported that it was ‘charred black, as confirmation of her evil nature’. In The Sorrow Stone, Kári Gίslason redeems her and shows her human frailties, her loyalty and her courage in the face of the violence through which she lived.

‘The sorrow stone,’ he said. ‘That’s another kenning I know.’

‘Oh? What does it mean?’ I asked.

‘The Heart,’ Gils said. ‘The heart is the sorrow stone.’

Separating passages in the book where Dias’s thoughts move from the present to the past, Gίslason has placed a small rune which represents dawn: the  meeting of darkness and light.

Kári Gίslason The Sorrow Stone University of Queensland Press 2022 PB 240pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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