Tag Archives: medieval literature

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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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.

Beowulf and The Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes

Sutton Hoo Helmet

My photo of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, pre-dating the composition of Beowulf but still awesome

When I was in Grade 13 (‘OAC’) English, I wrote a comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf. I do not wish to resurface that essay. However, I recently read The Hobbit for the fifth time, and over the summer was my second reading of Beowulf,* so I feel like revisiting the topic.

JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Germanic philology, specialising in mediaeval literatures such as those of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds; his literary interests rarely ranged to the modern or the ancient, equally rarely to the literature of the Romance languages. His was the world of ‘Northernism’, the world of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, the world of the Ruthwell Cross and Beowulf. I have talked here about how his work on Norse philology led to the production of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (here and here).

In the realm of Anglo-Saxon philology, Prof. Tolkien’s work included an essay on Beowulf called ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and a book on Finn and Hengest published postumously with co-author Alan Bliss, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, drawing on an episode referred to in Beowulf. It was inevitable that when Tolkien decided to write his adventure novel for boys (as I heard somewhere he thought of The Hobbit) his other life and the other worlds where he dwelt would make themselves felt.

In this first post, ‘The Epic and the Episodes’, I shall turn our attention to Beowulf and The Hobbit and the nature of mediaeval literature. Our other posts shall be ‘The Monsters and the Magic’, and ‘On Hero-Stories’. In each of these blog posts, I shall show us how Tolkien’s fiction was indelibly touched by Beowulf and the wider mediaeval world, yet at the same time, no matter how ‘anti-modernist’ the mead-drinking, Old Norse-speaking, Roman Catholic philologist was, he was in many ways inescapably of his own age.

The Epic and the Episodes

A feature of most pre-modern (and much early modern) narrative literature of any length is its tendency towards episodic storytelling. This is visible in Gilgamesh and Homer, Virgil and — especially — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Rather than telling a single, perfectly united story that builds in tension through a series of interrelated crises that are released at the climax and resolved by the denouement, episodic literature tells us a string of stories which often have no bearing upon one another or what comes next.

They are simply interesting tales in and of themselves that happen to be about the same people — even in The Aeneid, one cannot help but wonder what role the magnificent katabasis of Book 6 plays plotwise. Aeneas knows where he must go and what he must do without visiting Anchises, does he not?

If I remember Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy correctly, such episodes are a feature especially of oral literature (and we do not move into something new until we have thoroughly technologised the word). And Beowulf is, at some stratum, oral literature. Like Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey you should really read, as I argue here and here), the Beowulf poet stands at the end of a long string of oral poets who have been telling these same stories over and over again, each changing things for the audience, each leaving his own artistic stamp. By the time we have it, a pagan tale has been Christianised. This is sometimes called ‘primary epic’.

Beowulf is certainly episodic. Grendel. Beowulf vs. Grendel. Grendel’s Mom. The Dragon. Along the way, we have the tale of Beowulf’s full-armour swimming contest. Now, Grendel through to Grendel’s Mom is part of the same story arc, of the sorrows of Hrothgar and Heorot.  Undeniable. Yet each story is still, in its way, inescapably its own little story. You could (and sometimes do) tell Grendel without his Mom; and often people tell both without the Dragon. The swimming contest is merely incidental detail; it tells us of Beowulf, but does not contribute to the action necessarily.

And so The Hobbit. The unexpected party certainly leads into the road that goes on and on. But then the Trolls. Rivendell. The goblins which lead to the wargs. The eagles as a rescue. Beorn. Mirkwood. Spiders. Elves and escape. Laketown. From Laketown to the death of Smaug. From the death of Smaug to the Battle of the Five Armies. Back again.

These all appear, as we look at them, to be episodes. They are simply the things that happen to our merry band of fourteen-fifteen as they journey to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent. The connecting thread seems to be the desire to get to the Lonely Mountain.

But here we see Tolkien is a man of his age. Despite his insistence in the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, these mediaeval episodes are connected together by a very modern literary element — the development of the character of Bilbo Baggins, Esq. In said essay, Tolkien rightly proclaims that the main business of stories is telling them. Stories, that is. The main business of stories is not the exploration and development of characters. This, he says, is often forgotten in English literature because our best-known and possibly greatest author was a playwright and poet. But the psyche of Hamlet, an appropriate focus for a play, is not the appropriate focus for a story. A story should focus on the story. On the narrative.

But there we have Bilbo. He starts his journey a very comfortable Englishman — I mean, hobbit, who has no inclination for adventures and is set in his ways with little about him of ingenuity or scheming or burgling. But as the adventure continues, Bilbo emerges as a savvy burglar and even the leader of the party. He schemes and uses his wit to get them out of jam after jam, his prominence really beginning with the spiders but reaching its peak in his dealings with the elf king and the Arkenstone.

Bilbo becomes an extraordinary hobbit.

Beowulf, however, is not the focus of his story. Not as a character, at least. He stands before Hrothgar an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He dies beside Wiglaf an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He is ever concerned for the well-being of his people. He is always courageous.

Yet do not chastise Beowulf and his poem on this account. Welcome to the world of ancient and mediaeval literature! This is not the point of the story. I believe Tolkien hit Beowulf on the head in ‘The Monsters and the Critics.’ The stories show us the changes, although the changes are never the focus. Beowulf stands before Grendel naked but for his God-given strength. Easily victorious. With a magic sword, he confronts Grendel’s Mom and almost dies. With a war-band and full armour, he meets the dragon and is slain at the moment he saves his people.

The lesson is to trust in the things of God, not the things of the world. This is the timeless about Beowulf, and it is not portrayed through psychology but through the story and through the episodes.

Do not fault Beowulf. It performs its function and produces its own art masterfully.

And so we see how Beowulf and mediaeval literature have left their mark upon The Hobbit at the macro-level, the level of narrative (narratology??). Tolkien writes us an episodic narrative, not unlike Beowulf, but with a modern twist in the growth of Bilbo Baggins as a protagonist and as a hero of small stature.

Next in this series: ‘The Monsters and the Magic’.

*NB: Besides this, I’ve read Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel twice and I’ve seen the film starring Christopher Lambert as well as the film Beowulf and Grendel starring Gerard Butler and the animated cartoon narrated by Derek Jacobi; I’ve also seen the stilt play, and I’ve read the novel Grendel by John Gardner.