Njal's saga

I have just finished rereading Njal's saga. There is probably no book length work I have read, in English or Icelandic, more often since my first encounter with it as an undergraduate student in 1967. I enjoyed it this time, as always, but my enjoyment was tinged with concern. What would any readers of this blog make of it?

It was not hard to identify aspects which could be offputting. The genealogies, which the old Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson Penguin version relegated to footnotes, are one. If you know saga literature, there is an interest in encountering names you have met in other sagas, and in tracing interrelationships, but for the reader new to sagas they are probably an irritation. The Njal's saga author's apparent fascination with legal technicalities, which distinguishes this saga from all the others, does have some historical interest and serves to raise the tension before the great fight breaks out at the Althing, but it probably tries the patience of most readers.

But perhaps the main stumbling block for modern readers is the seemingly incessant cycle of 'tit-for-tat' slayings, often involving improbable sword strokes which hew off heads or limbs. (They have been described as the fantasies of a people who had to live with blunt and far less effective weapons.) I think one has to accept that this had an interest for the saga author and his original audience that it does not have for us. The original hearers and readers, and Icelanders for centuries afterwards, doubtless believed that they were hearing about the deeds of ancestors. The characters had a reality for them that they do not have for us.

Hopefully the modern reader can accept these things as aspects of a literature from a different time and place, and as contributing to one of the glories of this saga, its rich and rounded picture of a society. To a remarkable degree Njal's saga ranges over Iceland, and over virtually all levels of society. It has a rich gallery of memorable characters, and while there are stereotypes, even minor characters are often interestingly fleshed out. (A fairly minor example is Bjorn the White, who when first introduced seems no more than a comic cowardly boaster, but who turns out to be capable of just a little more, and gains stature as a result.)

Njal's saga is remembered particularly for its major characters, notably Njall, Bergthora, Gunnar, Hallgerd, Flosi, and Kari. It probably needs to be acknowledges as rather 'masculine' literature, but some of the female characters do take on considerable depth and complexity.

Another powerful characteristic is its success in creating memorable scenes. Few readers forget Gunnar's fateful decision to go back to his farm and abandon plans for exile abroad (the wording of which most educated Icelanders have by heart), his last stand in the presence of his treacherous wife, or the burning of Njall, Bergthora, and their family. But even minor scenes can be well done. An example is the first scene in the saga, which sees the brothers Hoskuld and Hrut together at table, and Hoskuld very realistically seeking praise from his brother for his beautiful daughter Hallgerd, then a child. Hrut does what is asked, but cannot quite refrain from adding a note of foreboding, creating for a time a coldness between the brothers. Hallgerd, of course, does turn out to be a thief, and far worse. It is noteworthy that we last encounter her as the friend of Killer-Hrapp, a worthless rogue who is strangely attractive to women.

I would share the general view that this is the finest of the Sagas of Icelanders. Perhaps now I am a bit less certain that I would recommend it as the one to be read first. Maybe The Saga of the People of Laxdale , also in Penguin, might have been a better choice. Seriously proposed as possibly having a female author, the saga has a central narrative focusing on Gudrun Osvifsdottir (mentioned briefly in Njal's saga), her four marriages, and her central role in a famous 'eternal triangle'. Or perhaps two short sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga, translated in the Penguin volume The Vinland Sagas, might be a better place to start. They tell a fascinating story about the Norse discovery of America about the year 1000 and the attempts to found a settlement there, but they are also interesting stories of family life in Greenland and the attempted American colony.

I do look forward to reading some reactions to this saga.

Icelandic sagas

The Icelandic word 'saga' has found its way into English and most other Western European languages. It means 'narrative' or 'history' and is used today in Iceland both for histories and for novels. But when speakers of English refer to 'the Icelandic sagas' they normally have in mind prose narratives composed in Iceland during the Middle Ages. Generally they are thinking primarily of one genre in particular, referred to in English as the 'Sagas of the Icelanders' (or as the 'Family Sagas', though this latter term is somewhat out of favour as many of the sagas in questions focus on individuals, or the inhabitants of a district, rather than on a family).

There survive about forty 'Sagas of Icelanders'. All are anonymous. During the second half of the twentieth century the usual view was that they were mostly composed in Iceland during the thirteenth century, but more recently the idea that they may be largely fourteenth century in their present form has gained currency. These sagas deal mainly with the deeds of people who are said to have lived in Iceland during a hundred year period, the so-called 'Saga Age', extending from about 930, shortly after the initial colonisation of Iceland was completed, to 1030. Thus the sagas are dealing with a period several hundred years before the time in which they were composed. Clearly it was regarded by later generations of Icelanders as a seminal period.

Two questions have long exercised the minds of saga scholars. Are the Sagas of the Icelanders history or fiction? And are the sagas as we now have them literary compostions by writers not very different from modern authors, or should they be regarded as faithful reproductions of oral stories told around the firereside by storytellers? The general view today is that there may be elements of history in them, but that what we have are in large measure works of fiction (a little like modern historical novels), and that while the sagas doubtless owe much to oral tradition, the versions we now have are in large measure literary compositions.

The Sagas of the Icelanders are works from the European Middle Ages, but they are unusual for their time. They were written by Christians but they are not overtly religious, nor do they have the aim of hammering home a moral. They strike modern readers as realistic narratives, though emanating from a society a bit more superstitious and credulous than our own: ghosts may briefly appear, and wise men and women may have some ability to foretell the future, but we are not in a world of superheroes and dragons, nor do they deal with chivalric knights and beautiful princesses. The Sagas of the Icelanders deal with the feuds of farmers and farmer's wives, and the men and women we encounter in them are readily recognisable to any reader of modern novels.

Icelandic narrative prose is one of the glories of saga literature. English translations inevitably cannot do it full justice, though good English translations do a reasonable job. The prose is remarkably lucid and subtle, and well suited to the presentation of dialogue, which is prominent in most of the Sagas of Icelanders. Saga objectivity is famous: we as readers seem to be presented with the facts as an observer on the scene might encounter them. We are not generally told how to judge a character, or how to respond to a scene. We are not told what characters are thinking: we have to work it out from what they say and do. (In fact there are subtle clues as to how the writers want us to react, but they are indeed quite subtle.)

'Njal's saga', at which we will be looking in Classic Readers this month, is the longest of the Sagas of the Icelanders - about 300 pages in the Robert Cook translation for Penguin Classics. It is almost universally regarded as the finest of these sagas. It has some features that may deter modern readers, such as the large cast of characters with names unfamiliar to English speakers, and genealogies that usually accompany the introduction of a significant figure into the narrative. But its characterisation is exceptionally rich, and it tells a powerful and moving story which moves inexorably to a satisfying conclusion, providing a vivid picture that extends beyond Iceland to Norway and Ireland at the time of the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014.