Njáls Saga

(Njála)

anonymous

1270-1290

(A sage in medieval Iceland attempts to restore order in the face of bloody vengeance and warrior's honor)

GunnarBillDetail from Gunnar at Rangá, an illustration of an event in Njáls Saga by Andreas Bloch (1898). This drawing originally appeared in Vore fædres liv: karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden, or Our Fathers' Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga, by Nordahl Rolfsen.

 

The mighty deeds of a free people in struggle are frequently represented in timeless literature—such stories will never go stale. Whether tossed on the stormy Mediterranean, afoot in the forests and scrublands of India, or galloping through prairie grasses among stalwart buttes in the American West, there is something deeply inspiring about a small people forging a life in the face of privation, violence, and treachery. We who live in the comfort of civilization can be tempted to think that a reasonably stable government and the rule of law are guaranteed, automatic, assumed. Or, even if we endure corruption, are wary of the tyranny or selfishness of our leaders, or have suffered at the hands of criminals, we are among millions and are likely to see ourselves as puny actors on an immense stage—what can we possibly do?! How fascinating, then, are the tales of those who managed to defend some fragile order amidst a storm of chaos—those whose survival was assured not by the actions of others, whether their venerated ancestors or soldiers on distant front lines, but by themselves: by the wisdom of their own minds, the words that passed through their own lips, and the swords that hung from their own belts. The Icelandic Sagas—the Íslendingasögur—are epic narratives of this very sort. A man in the Age of Saga, so we are told, could cut his own destiny, no matter what coarse fabric sought to hem him in. And a woman could make the best of things by controlling the men. Anyone who wishes to see how this sort of lifestyle could play out can do no better than to read Njáls Saga (or, in the alternative title that is at once a spoiler, the Saga of Burnt Njál). The professionals tend to consider this the greatest and most well-developed of the 40 or so Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 13th-14th centuries. Whatever the critics say, here we certainly find hefty measures of all the most engaging ingredients in that genre: the bloody swinging of swords and thrusting of spears, the uncompromising defense of honor, the defiant challenge of the sea, the tenuous rise of God over the idols and of Law over bloody feuds, the disastrous fruits of pride and envy, the sly instigations of women, the mystic power of prophecy and fate, the iron duty of loyalty, and the deathgrip of revenge!

NjalsSaga_grayskinnedoneWhy is Njáls Saga so great? Here are three reasons that do it for me, all of which are thematic. First is the concept that an early evil sows the seeds of eventual destruction. Prophecy is doom—but not because it is a curse, and not entirely because the prophet is infallible either. Prophecy is doom mainly because of a natural law that actions have inexorable and snowballing consequences. The sage of Saga, such as Njál Bergþórshváll (Niall—or Neil—Bergthorsknoll), has a balanced mixture of occult powers of divination, and a mere (if we are to call it mere) extraordinary perceptivity regarding human nature and knowledge about the way society works—that is, a balance between being a wizard and being wise. (Despite the etymology of the honorific, only a few excellent wizards in literature are actually wise.) Back to the explosive boomerang of evil, reading histories like this that document the swirling descent of a culture into the chaos of violence makes one wonder what social structures or tendencies tend to make corporate karma so much more destructive in some peoples and places and times than others. (This is not to say every culture deserves or is responsible for its fate!—but this idea is implicit in Njáls Saga so we will follow it where it goes).

The second reason I find Njáls Saga great is that it—like the Morte D’Arthur—develops an answer to this question of the causes of corporate karma, and it’s a pretty good one. It is the dark side of honor. Honor is another idea like wizard that makes a much higher moral claim than it can usually deliver. To fight for honor is not always honorable: it can easily descend into blood feud and violent revenge. Surely there must be an even higher code, to which even honor would ideally submit. “I could not love thee, Dear, so much / Loved I not Honour more,” wrote Richard Lovelace. The idealist, perhaps, might say “I could not love honour so much / Loved I not goodness more.” The person who can see the proper place of a code of honor arguably has a deeper understanding and respect for honor than the blind adherent. Among some contemporary thinkers the dark side of honor in Njáls Saga and in other works has been interpreted instead as the destructiveness of radical masculinism. I think this is less to the point, and is potentially misleading. Although we can certainly agree that vengeance by the sword is hypermasculine in some sense, there is nothing unmasculine about courageously rising above such a drive, nor about being morally critical of pride in name, family, and clan. Even in stereotype it is not clear that the sexes have unequal claims on such virtues. Another source of confusion is that although the women of Saga do not often bear arms, they do wage psychological warfare on behalf of honor with great ardor and proficiency, and can be powerful prods to their husbands’ actions. In extreme cases the mettle of a man seems to be little more than the fear of his wife. Granted, it’s possible that since men presumably wrote the sagas, men will portray women in whatever way they like, and perhaps no genuine female voice or perspective is represented, even in the female characters. Still, the women of saga are formidable forces.

The third theme that makes Njáls Saga stand out is the undertow of social transition: specifically, the struggle between individual force of arms and the rule of law, and the transformation from paganism to kristnitaka, the “Taking of Christianity”. The events recorded here, insofar as they are historical, took place between 960 and 1020. This was a revolutionary time in Iceland, dominated by a half-century blood feud amid the fragile rise of a more civilized social institution, the Assembly: Alþing—the Thing (and yes, from this specific political meaning the concept of a “thing” expanded until it became one of the most common and general words in English and other Germanic languages, just as the Latin legal causa descended into the word for “thing” in the Romance languages). In the time depicted by Saga, the Law of the Thing laid claim as arbiter of the disputes and terms that previously were decided by personal diplomacy, including the thoroughly unambiguous communication of sword and axe. Moreover, one giant matter was increasingly on the table: religion. The coming of Christianity to the north led to discord with the pagans, and something had to be done or religious battles would ensue. One of the most exciting things about Njáls Saga is that it covers the time in 999 (traditionally 1000) when the Speaker of the Thing, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, the most highly respected goði (gothi) or priest-chieftain, was charged with the responsibility of singly deciding whether or not Iceland would become Christian. He rested under a fur blanket for a day and a half thinking the matter over. When he emerged, he announced that Iceland would indeed become Christian, but to placate the people, private pagan worship would still be permitted, as well as infanticide and the eating of horse meat. (Eventually these too were outlawed according to Christian practice).

But law has not won, yet. Njál is burnt alive. The feud killed him. Again like the Morte D’Arthur, the Saga of Burnt Njál is named for the culminating tragedy. There is something deeply wrong about this event, the Icelandics realize, and the uncomfortable mixture of this realization and the continued glorification of arms puts Njáls Saga—in this respect at least—not too far away from the moral ambiguity of the modern novel. But there is hope. The honor-driven fighters Kári and Flosi meet at the end, after Kári has wreaked his vengeance on all of the burners of Njál. Would Flosi forgive him? Is the feud ended? Indeed they come to terms peacefully, and Kári marries Flosi’s niece. As translator Robert Cook writes, the terrible events "lead finally and at great cost to a dignified resolution, bearing the promise of a better time".

One odd note: despite everyone’s agreement that this is the best of the Icelandic sagas, very little hay has been made of it. Supposedly a couple of novels exist. A short movie was made in 1981 and a more recent short Norwegian film is viewable on YouTube, but to my knowledge this great story has seen no extended media treatment or enduring literary reinterpretation.

Following is a guide to the Icelandic alphabet and pronunciation, from Omniglot.com.  The pronunciation key uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (for help on this, check out the Wikipedia IPA key for English speakers or Peter Lagefoged's phonetics page at UCLA.


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PLOT SUMMARY

Ch.I-VIII: Hauskuld and Hrut and the dowry.

The story begins in the Rangrivervales in Iceland. Hauskuld and Hrut are brothers, and Hrut makes known a mistrust for Hauskuld's daughter Hallgerda. Hrut is betrothed to Unna, daughter of Fiddle Mord, but the wedding plans are interrupted by Hrut’s need to travel to Norway to claim an inheritance. Hrut has an affair with the King's mother Gunnhilda in Norway, and gains his inheritance plus some by fighting on the seas. He returns to Unna and weds her, but she complains to her father that she is not happy, and the two separate. Mord seeks his dowry back, but fails to obtain it.

Ch.IX-XVII: The instigations of Hallgerda.

A man named Thorwald marries Hallgerda, but after hitting her is killed by her foster-father Thiostolf at Hallgerda's prodding. Another man Glum seeks to wed Hallgerda; he is warned by Hrut about her, but marries her anyway. Thiostolf comes to live with Glum and Hallgerda, and sees Glum hit her. Hallgerda tells him not to avenge it, but he slays Glum anyway.

Ch.XVIII-XXVII: Gunnar and Njal and the dowry.

A good and strong man named Gunnar is friends with a sage and prophet named Njal. As her father Fiddle Mord has died, Unna pleads with Gunnar to win back her goods from Hrut. Njal gives Gunnar a plan to sue Hrut face to face without him knowing it, by posing as a cantankerous trader Huckster Hedinn. At the Thing (a public assembly) the suit is pursued, and Hrut decides to give over the money rather than fight Gunnar. Unna then elopes with a rogue Valgard, and has a son Mord.

Ch.XXVIII-XXXIV: The rise of Gunnar.

Gunnar and a Norwegian named Hallvard decide to go a-roving. They amass goods by warfare and thus Gunnar makes a name for himself. Among his spoils is a magic singing bill (a weapon). Gunnar pleads for Hallgerda's hand and is warned by Hrut and Hauskuld as well as Njal, but he weds her anyway. At the wedding a man named Thrain sends his own jeering and jealous wife away, and replaces her that very day.

Ch.XXXV-XLV: The feud of Bergthora and Hallgerda.

Njal's and Gunnar's wives, Bergthora and Hallgerda, have a feud which is perpetuated by the incessant slaying of house-servants. After repeated occurrences of this, Njal and Gunnar remain friends, delivering payment to each other to atone for the deaths. The wives ignore this, however, and continue to order the slayings. One of these is a good man who had never before killed anyone, Thord Freedmanson. A man named Sigmund kills Thord, and then mocks the sons of Njal who had refrained, at Njal's bidding, from vengeance. These sons then kill Sigmund and his accessory Skiolld, and the feud appears to be over.

Ch.XLVI-LVI: Hallgerda causes strife between Otkell and Gunnar.

A food shortage occurs, and Njal helps Gunnar with food, after a man Otkell refuses. But Hallgerda sends someone to steal from Otkell. This is discovered, and although Gunnar offered to atone for this, Otkell refuses by his friend Skamkell's bad counsel. The latter told a lie to Otkell that Gizur the White thought they should sue Gunnar for it. At the Thing this lie is discovered, and Gunnar warns Otkell never more to give him reason for quarrel. But Otkell negligently rides over Gunnar with his horse. Gunnar pursues them with his brother Kolskegg, and slays them in battle. Eventually peace is made with Gizur the White and his kinsman Geir the Priest at the Thing.

Ch.LVII-LXV: The fruit of men's envy of Gunnar: I. An attack.

A haughty man named Starkad and his sons challenge Gunnar to fight their horses together; a quarrel ensues. They later wait with 30 men in ambush on Gunnar and Kolskegg and another brother Hjort. The ambushers flee after the brothers kill 14 of their number are killed, but Hjort dies. By Njal's counsel and despite the prosecutions of an enemy Mord, Gunnar is acquitted of murder since the victims were outlaws.

Ch.LXVI-LXXX: The fruit of men's envy of Gunnar: II. Battles and Gunnar's death.

Two Thorgeirs attempt to set upon Gunnar but he is saved by Njal's foresight. Gunnar is given a hound with the ability to tell friend from foe. They try at him again when he is away from home with Kolskegg, and the two of them fight a great battle and slay many of the attackers, but as atonement Gunnar and Kolskegg are banished for three years. Kolskegg does so and lives an illustrious life, but Gunnar stays home in defiance. Gizur, Starkad, and a band of men come to his house and besiege it, and Gunnar fights them off bravely, killing many men, but his wife Hallgerda's treachery gets him killed in the end. After his death he is heard by his son Hogni and Njal's son Skarphedinn singing a battle song, and these two avenge him by slaying those at fault, except Mord from whom they gain an atonement.

Ch.LXXXI-XCI: Strife between Njal's sons and Thrain.

Thrain, an uncle of Gunnar's, has adventures abroad, as do Grim and Helgi sons of Njal. The latter join with a man named Kari and stop at Scotland. A rogue Hrapp stirs up trouble in Norway but becomes friends with Thrain. Njal's sons are captured by an Earl Hacon of Norway who is enraged that Hrapp was hidden by them and Thrain, but these two also escape and return to Iceland with Kari. Hrapp corrupts Thrain and the two of them insult Njal and his sons until the sons, including the eldest Skarphedinn wielding an axe called the "ogress of war", battle them and kill Thrain.

Ch.XCII-CI: Attempts at peace: Njal fosters Hauskuld, Iceland is converted.

Njal fosters Thrain's son Hauskuld and comes to love him more than his own sons. Christianity spreads throughout Northern Europe. Thangbrand brings it to Iceland, incurring many battles, debates and tests, including one where a berserker who does not fear fire is made to fear hallowed fire, thus providing evidence for the truth of Christianity. After political upheaval, the men at the Hill of Laws pronounce Iceland as a Christian nation.

Ch.CII-CV: Vengeance for the slaying of Thrain.

Njal's foster-son Hauskuld is married to a woman Hildigunna after becoming a priest as she wished (which Njal had to arrange by setting up a new court and new seat at Whiteness). An evil man named Lyting, goaded by his wife, takes men and slays a son of Njal (also named Hauskuld) for the slaying of Thrain, and Lyting's brothers are slain by Njal's other sons in vengeance. A man Amund the Blind receives his sight just long enough to slay Lyting, which is taken for a sanction from God.

Ch.CVI-CXXII: Mord stirs the enmity which will lead to the burning.

The antagonistic Mord stirs enmity in Njal's sons towards the innocent Hauskuld of Whiteness, and ultimately they slay him. His wife Hildigunna charges a man Flosi to avenge him, and Flosi begins to discuss matters with many people. The death is disapproved throughout the land, and lamented by Njal, who prophesies doom. Njal's sons, with the help of a man Asgrim, are unable to gain any for their side at the Thing. But since Mord, who is one who brought the suit forward, took part in the killing of Hauskuld, the suit is dropped.  Njal sees to it nevertheless that judges are appointed to decide the atonement between him and Flosi, and things go well between them. However, Njal's eldest son Skarphedinn goads Flosi until he is insulted and will no longer accept an atonement of mercy.

Ch.CXXIII-CXXIX: The burning of Njal.

Flosi gathers men together (especially Sigurd's sons) for an attack on Njal's home at Bergthorsknoll. An old carline foresees that a pile of vetches will be burned to light the house, and a man Runolf sees a portent called "The Wolf's Ride" which always comes before great tidings. Njal's family readies itself peacefully, eating their last meal together, and stand outside together when Flosi comes. They fight from inside the house at Njal's bidding, and do well until Flosi sets the house on fire. Njal and his wife refuse a last-minute offer of escape from Flosi, Njal not wishing to live in shame and being too old to avenge his family, and his wife Bergthora wishing to share Njal's fate. They decide to spend their last moments in their bed and they die under a hide without being burnt.  Their friend Kari escapes the house, and the other sons die. Skarphedinn buries his famous axe into the wall so it does not soften in the fire. A song of spite is heard from within the house as it burns.

Ch.CXXX-CXLIV: The Thing and the attempt at legal resolution.

Kari and a man Ingialld who defected from Flosi before the burning, spread the news and seek for aid, and the bodies of the slain are found in the house. Kari loses sleep over the incident. Ingialld escapes the wrath of Flosi and kills one of his men, but is wounded in the leg. Flosi has a dream that many of his men and allies are fated to die soon. He journeys, gaining pledges of help from many. Tension gathers between them and Kari and his followers; eventually all meet at the Thing, which is the most crowded one in memory. The heroes are divided according to their choice for loyalty, and Eyjolf comes forth as lawyer for Flosi's side, and Mord for Kari's side. The suits are declared by Mord. Eyjolf tries to find loopholes in Mord's procedure, and concocts with Flosi many schemes to undermine the suits. Eventually the case goes to the Fifth Court because Eyjolf has accepted money in the case (and is thus in contempt of the Thing). Mord is caught in a legal misstep, and there is to be a mistrial; but his ally Thorhall, hearing of this, is enraged and starts a battle at the Althing, where Eyjolf and others are killed. When everything quiets, atonements are finally made for the burning, with the peacemaking Hall of the Side presiding: a triple fine is given for Njal, and the whole matter is settled with money, except for Thord the son of Kari, who is unatoned. The burners are to be banished, some temporarily and some permanently.

Ch.CXLV-CLVIII: Kari's retribution.

Kari decides to take full revenge on the burning, from which he escaped. He travels with Thorgeir Craggeir and slays five of the burners. Flosi wishes to be atoned for the deed, but others are still malevolent. Hall of the Side makes peace between Thorgeir and Flosi. Kari travels then with a cowardly braggart Bjorn and in a series of battles kills 8 more of the burners. Kari is determined to kill two others, who have traveled abroad for their banishment. Flosi has taken the place of one of Njal's sons in the bodyguard of an Orkney earl, and the two Kari is looking for are there as well. As one boasts of the burning, Kari bursts in and decapitates him, and Flosi accepts this, along with the other killings, without retaliation. A Viking battle between Christians and pagans off the coast of Ireland is interposed here, during which supernatural wonders are seen. Fifteen of the burners die in this battle, which concludes with an eerie chant about bloodshed.  Finally Kari hunts down the last of the burners, Kol, and slays him. Returning to Iceland, Kari hopes to determine whether hostility is ended by testing Flosi's hospitality. Flosi receives him kindly, and the saga is ended.

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE  (translation from the Icelandic by Robert Cook)

 

“Fair enough is this maid, and many will smart for it”

-Hrut, ch.I

 

“Well,” says Atli, “the upshot of our meeting will be, that thou shalt not be left alive to tell the tale”.

-ch.V

 

Swan took a goatskin and wrapped it around his own head, and said, “Become mist and fog, become fright and wonder mickle to all those who seek thee.”

-ch.XII

 

There was a man whose name was Gunnar... He was a tall man in growth, and a strong man-- best skilled in arms of all men. He could cut or thrust or shoot if he chose as well with his left as with his right hand, and he smote so swiftly with his sword, that three seemed to flash through the air at once. He was the best shot with the bow of all men, and never missed his mark. He could leap more than his own height, with all his war-gear, and as far backwards as forwards. He could swim like a seal, and there was no game in which it was any good for any one to strive with him; and so it has been said that no man was his match. He was handsome of feature, and fair skinned. His nose was straight, and a little turned up at the end. He was blue-eyed and bright-eyed, and ruddy-cheeked. His hair thick, and of good hue, and hanging down in comely curls. The most courteous of men was he, of sturdy frame and strong will, bountiful and gentle, a fast friend, but hard to please when making them.

-ch.XIX

 

“This Hedinn is ill-tempered and a chatterer—a fellow who thinks he alone knows everything.”

-Njal, ch.XXII

 

Karli ran his ship along side the other side of Gunnar's ship, and hurled a spear athwart the deck, and aimed at him about the waist. Gunnar sees this, and turned him about so quickly that no eye could follow him, and caught the spear with his left hand, and hurled it back at Karli's ship, and that man got his death who stood before it.

-ch.XXX

 

Hallgerda took the housekeeping under her, and stood up for her rights in word and deed.

-ch.XXXIV

 

Now it was the custom between Gunnar and Njal, that each made the other a feast, winter and winter about, for friendship's sake.

-ch.XXXV

 

Njal spoke and said, “’Slow and sure,’ says the proverb, mistress! and so it is with many things, though they try men's tempers, that there are always two sides to a story, even when vengeance is taken.”

-ch.XLIV

 

“Good are thy gifts,” says Gunnar, “but methinks thy friendship is still more worth, and that of thy sons.”

-ch.XLVIII

 

“It will often be found,” says Hildigunna, “that Gunnar is slow to be drawn into quarrels, but a hard hitter if he cannot avoid them.”

-ch.LVII

 

“...with law shall our land be built up and settled, and with lawlessness wasted and spoiled.”

-Njal, ch.LXIX

 

Bearing battle-shield, he spake,
“I will die the prop of battle,
Sooner die than yield an inch,
Yes, sooner die than yield an inch.”

-Gunnar, ch.LXXVII

 

Tjorvi turns against Kari and hurls a spear at him. Kari leapt up in the air, and the spear flew below his feet. Then Kari rushes at him, and hews at him on the breast with his sword, and the blow passed at once into his chest, and he got his death there and then.

-ch.XCI

 

Hildigunna was the name of the daughter of Starkad Flosi's brother. She was a proud, high-spirited maiden, and one of the fairest of women. She was so skilful with her hands, that few women were equally skilful. She was the grimmest and hardest-hearted of all women; but still a woman of open hand and heart when any fitting call was made upon her.

-ch.XCIV

 

Then many men spoke so that Njal heard it, that it was a strange and wicked thing to throw off the old faith. Then Njal spoke and said, “It seems to me as though this new faith must be much better, and he will be happy who follows this rather than the other; and if those men come out hither who preach this faith, then I will back them well.”

-of Christianity, ch.XCVI

 

“Hast thou heard,” she said, “how Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and how he did not dare to fight with Thor?”

“I have heard tell,” says Thangbrand, “that Thor was naught but dust and ashes, if God had not willed that he should live.”

-Steinvora and Thangbrand, ch.XCVIII

 

“women's counsel is ever cruel”.

-Flosi, ch.CXV

 

“...put your faith in God, and believe that he is so merciful that he will not let us burn both in this world and the next.”

-Njal, to his family, ch.CXXVIII

 

“but a short while is hand fain of blow”.

-Hall of the Side, ch.CXXXIII

 

“There are few men like Kari,” said Flosi, “and I would that my mind were shapen altogether like his.”

-ch.CXLVI

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READ THIS WHEN...

 ...you want to be transported to a land of battle and honor, peopled by heroes with spears and battleaxes as their tools;

or

...to be introduced to the culture and lifestyle of the hardy Northern civilizations of the Middle Ages.

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the sword-wielding rover of the Northern saga:)

  • The Kalevala (oral tradition until 1849)
  • The Saga of Gisli (early 13th century)
  • Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla: The Olaf Sagas and The Norse King Sagas (c.1220)
  • The Laxdale Saga (c.1250)

(for the medievalistic epic fantasy adventurer:)

  • Beowulf  (before 10th century)
  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur  (c.1460)
  • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene  (c.1589)
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings  (1955)
 
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FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

Sadly, I do not believe any hardcover edition of Njáls Saga is currently in print! Ridiculous. You can always try to get the 1955 NYU Press edition used:

 

Paperback

I'd heartily suggest the epic-styled Robert Cook translation from which the quotes here were taken:


Or you could go for Lee Hollander's translation for more modern phrasing:

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