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.


Peter C said...

I'm now well into Njal's Saga, struggling manfully (as it were) through the forest of unfamiliar names, many of whom are then summarily dispatched.

I do have a couple of questions, John:

1. How should we pronounce 'Njal'?

2. Could you tell us something about the 'Thing'. Obviously it was a large gathering which addressed legal matters, but presumably it also had some social, political, religious or ceremonial roles?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John - I’m now about halfway through, fighting to remember all the similar names! I do have two questions:

1. How is 'Njal' pronounced?

2. Could you tell us something more about the Thing. Obviously it's a large gathering where legal issues are resolved, but did it have other political, social, ceremonial or religious roles?

Peter C

John Kennedy said...

Good to hear, Peter, and best wishes from Hanoi, where I arrived from Cambodia a few hours ago.

Njal is pronounced by modern Icelanders something close to 'Knee owl'. Most saga scholars use Modern Icelandic pronunciation when reading saga texts, as the modern language is very close to the medieval.

In the Commonwealth period (930-1264) there were local assmeblies called 'things' and there was the far more important Althing. The Althing (often referred to as 'the thing') was a meeting of all the local leaders in Iceland, and everyone else who wanted to go along, for two weeks each summer at Thingvellir ('thing plains'), not far from the modern Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. Officially it was a meting of the Icelanidc parliament, and a sitting of its principal law courts. However, it was also the great social occasion of the year, when families met up, marriages were arranged, parties were held, and sporting contest took place. It also functioned as a market. People camped in tents, or more accurately in booths which were covered with canvas for the occasion. It seems to have met every year during the Commonwealth period. It lasted long after 1264 and was not abolished until 1800, but in its later years it was a fairly smallscale law court.

Parliament, still called the Althing, now meets in Reykjavik, but Thingvellir retains great symbolic significance for the Icelanders. Independence, after seven centuries of Norwegian and Danish rule, was proclaimed at a ceremony there in 1944. It is a magnificent spot, a huge sunken volcanic plain with looming cliffs and a river flowing through.

John K.

Faye said...

Dear John,
I am enjoying Njal"s Saga very much. it took me a while to get into the rhythm of it but now I am hooked. I am up to the conversion to Christianity section - wow it is muscular christianity indeed.
Mostly however I am enjoying the story of the peoples - it has given me a new lively sense of the word"SAGA" .
As one with a working class / lower middle class white Australian background the written record and storyline of a people like the Icelandics is exciting and quite evocative for me of a strange sense of older inter-connected cultures be they Indigenous and land centred , Biblical , and /or simply genealogical . It is so different to my sensibilities of who I am that I am almost hypnotised by it. The cleverness of the story line has made this enlarged sensitivity possible for me whereas another ancient story may have just interested me but this saga in translation has caught my deeper imagination and feeling.

I am very happy with the edition translated by Robert Cook and I am finding the additional, information in this penguin edition most useful. i love the maps and the notes.


John Kennefy said...

Thanks for your fascinating comments, Faye, and apologies for the tardy response. I have spent the last week on 'whistlestop' visits to Sydney and the Gold Coast.

I am glad (and a little relieved) that you have found racing the saga rewarding. I suspect my first reading of it all those years ago evoked a far shallower response to something that was hundreds of years old but also apparently very accessible. One can enjoy 'Beowulf' or 'The Iliad', and I did enjoy the Penguin Classics versions I read at about the same time as I encountered 'Njála', but both the style of narrative and the characterization of the saga struck me as far more immediately appealing.

Fayelawrence said...

Dear John,
Having now finished "Njala" and re-read your commentary I am resolved to read more early heroic literature. It was a strong imaginative experience for me. I want to follow up with the other sagas you mentioned - Gudrun's and "Eric the Red" are drawing me. Thank you very much. I love the theatre and I am fascinated by how well big heroic stories (I am thinking Greek probably and written to be performed ) ,well presented, work on the modern stage . I think these grand heroic stories/histories do suit that vehicle sometimes better than film (which i also like but have found that often the big imaginative heroic adventures dont always work that well with cinematic presentation) . Do the Iclelandic/Norse people dramatise these stories for their theatre?

John Kennedy said...


I have just seen your message of 2 January, in which you ask about dramatic renditions of the Icelandic sagas. I don't think adapting them for stage or film is in fact very common, though I know of one film based, somewhat loosely I think, on a saga. In the early days of radio saga reading over the air was, I believe, quite popular, but I am not aware of a television equivalent.

The Icelanders are rather proud of the sagas, and a nicely bound set is likely to be found on the family bookshelves, but they aren't really something that figures large in the lives of most Icelanders today.