Njal’s Saga

Not that this book is about Viking fleets, mind you

I recently read the 13th-century literary masterpiece Njal’s Saga — it will prove to be the last piece of Norse literature of this year in which I’ve read more Norse literature than any before. Some call Njal’s Saga the greatest of the Icelandic sagas. It is certainly, at least compared with the others I’ve read, the longest.*

Besides being long — or perhaps because of it — Njal’s Saga is a tale that spans the world of Icelanders at the turn of the Millennium. It has great sweep and great scope. The main characters are all farmers, most of whom are not lords of any variety, but all of whom have some degree of local power and personal, if not vested/legal/judiciary, power.

Like most lengthy mediaeval narratives, this is not a single story.** There is no single, tightened plot with setting, problem, rising tension, climax, resolution, dénouement.*** This helps contribute to the scope of the saga. We have a multitude of Althings (Iceland’s yearly assembly of free, adult males where law was enacted and transacted) spanning most of the lifetime of our title character, Njal, and then beyond. Various people get married, occasionally divorced, more often widowed, remarried, have children, and so forth. Friendships are forged, murders are plotted, revenge is served cold, and compensation made, time and again. People voyage to Norway, the Baltic, Orkney, Scotland (of which Orkney was not then a part), Ireland.

To try and discuss a work with such a vast number of episodes in terms of its ‘plot’ is very difficult. To do so would basically be to retell the entire saga. Therefore, I mention only one, although Gunnar’s Viking expedition, the conversion of Iceland, and the burning of Njal and family are as or more worthy of discussion, the last being the tightest of them all, a saga within the saga that ties a number of threads together and carries the plot forward for the last third of the book.

Instead, to save space, there is a series of murders of retainers/slaves/farmhands on the part of Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar, and Bergthora, wife of Njal, while the menfolk are at the Althing for several summers running. Each year, a wife gets a dependent to murder one of the other family’s dependants, and the next year the murderer is slain in turn. Each year, either Gunnar or Njal makes compensation for the killing, for Gunnar and Njal are great friends. Their wives, it is clear, are not. Eventually, this series of yearly killings escalates until the murderers are Njal’s sons. Hallgerd does not provoke revenge, and the saga moves on.

This bit of the story interests me because it reminds me of how Brunhilde and Kriemhilde’s petty jealousy in the Nibelungenlied (also 12th-13th-century) escalates first to Siegfried’s death and then the slaughter of all of the Nibelungs at Atli’s home, events I discuss here and especially here. The jealousy and envy of women leads to the death and downfall of men. Not a theme I’m willing to see represented in history any more than its inverse about men ruining women, but I do wonder how common it is in other Germanic literature of the Middle Ages.

And what is the main theme that drives Njal’s Saga? Fate. Inevitability. One of the main characters is warned that if he does not leave Iceland after he kills a man, he will die. The day he is meant to disembark, he decides to stay home instead. He is burned to death in his house. Fate seized him. Throughout the saga, Njal has prescient knowledge and tells people, ‘If you do x, y will be the result.’ At one point he tells his friend Gunnar, ‘This is the beginning of your career of killing.’ When his time finally comes, Njal, his wife, and their foster son go and lie down in bed as their house is burned in retaliation for their sons’ crimes. This attitude is summed up by one Icelander who states something to the effect that death is something all men meet.**** It is a prevailing theme in much Old English and Old Norse literature, one which Peter Jackson stole from The Hobbit, as I’ve said.

Njal’s Saga has everything — romance, violence, love, hate, farming, raiding, adventure, war, miracles, fate, doom. Try it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Available on archive.org in the Everyman’s Library translation. Or find the Penguin translation from a local independent bookseller or public library!

*If Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, of which King Harald’s Saga is but a part, counts as a saga, it probably is. Perhaps it counts as a history? I dunno how these genre divisions break down in Norse literature.

**See my first post on Beowulf and The Hobbit.

***Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, says that this is a trait of oral ‘literature’ and has a long hold on storytelling in societies that where literacy is still the domain of but a few.

****Only it was poetic, like ‘a friend’ or ‘a foe’ or ‘a game’, but I was reading on a train and didn’t note the exact quote.

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