Tag Archives: iceland

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.

Sagas and the wider world of mediaeval literature

17th-century image from Egils Saga

There’s an episode of Frasier wherein Frasier and Niles go out for dinner at a restaurant where everything is almost perfect — except for one, small detail (I forget which) that they can nitpick. Daphne says, ‘Ah, just the way you like it.’ Sometimes documentaries can be that way, especially when the interviewees include, amongst some very good scholars, ordinary people.

I just watched a very interesting documentary by Dr Janina Ramirez called The Viking Sagas (you may recall my blogging about another of her Viking docs before). It is about the culture of Iceland where the sagas were born and mostly follows the Laxdaela Saga to tell us more. A couple of things niggled me — one being the typical, ‘Nice cuddly pagans who are close to nature vs. institutionalised Christians from abroad’ sort of thing that ignores nuance in both belief systems (and, in this case, the origins and history of the term pagan). We’ll put that to the side, though.

At one point, one of the Icelanders interviewed — I missed reading whether he was an actual scholar or simply an Icelandic storyteller/writer — said that the thing that makes the sagas different from the rest of European literature at the time is that the rest of Europe is telling very ‘Christian’ stories, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In the sagas, on the other hand, a guy can do some terrible stuff, be a real a-hole, and prosper in the end.

He’s right about the sagas, and I would (mostly) grant the point he is trying to make, which is that the Icelandic sagas have a level/form of verisimilitude not always apparent in other mediaeval European literature.

However, to typify said literature as ‘good things for the good’-style literature which is, almost inevitably, Christian, is to miss out on what’s going on in a lot of that literature and, in some cases, its classical antecedents.

First, ‘good things for the good’ as typical mediaeval literature. Is this a fair assessment of more southerly European literature in the Central and High Middle Ages? (Recalling that sagas were usually written down in the 1200s, even if they may reflect history of the 800s and 900s.) Certainly, sometimes. Percival finds the Grail, for example. In the much earlier Beowulf (ca. 800?), the title hero kills Grendel, Grendel’s Mom, and a dragon (but still gets killed in the end). But wait. Isn’t there more to Beowulf? Yes! Beowulf’s ‘success’ (‘good things for the good’) is inversely proportionate to his level of reliance on external aid — perhaps the ‘Christian’ story here is to rely on god-given abilities, not things of the world.

Yet in the originally-titled Alliterative Morte Arthur, Gawain, best of knights, dies almost at the beginning of the climactic battle. Sigfried is slaughtered in The Nibelungenlied, as we have seen, and, as we have also seen, a lot of ‘good men’ are needlessly butchered in the second half. Bad things can happen to good men. What about good things happening to bad men? Ramirez’s Icelander may have me there; mind you, don’t you sometimes think that King Mark of Cornwall ultimately gets what he wants? And, really, Mordred vs. Arthur doesn’t really end up good for anyone, but Mordred’s penultimate prosperity is better for him than Arthur, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s a lay or two of Marie de France where the ‘bad guy’ (aka jealous husband) wins.

I’d have to have read a lot more to make a better case, I admit. But these are what come to mind.

Second, ‘good things for the good’ as typically Christian. This idea is not peculiar to Christianity and is, in fact, denied by the theologian who lies at the centre of western mediaeval Christian thought, Augustine of Hippo, in his massive City of God. We cannot leave it there, though, for we must admit that his contemporary Orosius believed in it, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle certainly believed that bad things (such as the French) were visited upon the English for their sins. So there is a stream of Christian thought that affirms this teaching, even if Augustine or John Cassian or Jesus (it rains on the just and the unjust alike) denies it.

But Graeco-Roman pagans seemed to agree with it, too. The evil of abandoning the old gods, they would say, has caused all of our troubles. The Christians to the lion! (What, all of them to one lion? asks Tertullian.) Odysseus constantly gets into trouble because his sailors do ‘bad’ things (that is, contravene the commands of the gods). One could go on.

When we typify southern European literature of the Middle Ages as ‘Christian’, we forget that its authors are very often very much also immersed in the world of ‘pagan’ thought, be it pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or pagan poets such Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. And so, although these influences create a literature that is the literature of once ‘Christian’ Europe, not all of the forces governing this literature are Christian. (On this last point, see C S Lewis, The Discarded Image.)

That said, there is something about the Icelandic sagas. There are somehow different. I like them. I also like classical literature alongside Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, and Arthurian romances. Go and try a saga or two. There’s a handy, affordable collection by Oxford World’s Classics called Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas.