Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One of my favorite stories: Njal's Saga

Njal's Saga was my first introduction to Norse literature, and I don't think I could have picked a better place to start.  Before I get into what makes this story so worthwhile, I want to delve into the Icelandic Sagas themselves.  The sagas are a large selection of stories--49 of them to be exact, along with multiple short tales.  The action in the sagas takes place anywhere from the 9th century to the 11th, though they weren't written down until the 13th and 14th century.  Essentially, they were the precursor to the European novel.  They were written as prose, not poetry, albeit rather sparse in much of its description.  You never see inside the minds of the characters, rather, the story is moved along primarily by simple dialogue.  Unlike many of its popular poetic cousins, such as the Nibelungenlied, it did not tell the tales of kings and queens.  Iceland lacked kings and queens; it was a land of farmers, whom the sagas focus on.

Njal's Saga has a diverse group of characters.  There is Njal, wise lawyer and farmer; Gunnar, the mighty warrior with an aversion to killing; the manipulative Mord; beautiful Hallgerd who seems to have no regard for the lives of others; the noble Kari.  Nearly every archetypal character is present to some degree or another.

The saga opens with the betrothal of Hrut to Unn.  Before the marriage occurs, however, Hrut goes away to raid and pillage across northern Europe like any good Scandinavian did.  He is not faithful to his bride-to-be, and when the woman he has an affair with finds out, she curses his upcoming marriage.  Early on in the marriage, things fall apart and Hrut and Unn divorce.  The dowry that Unn's father paid to Hrut should revert back to her father, but Hrut challenges his former father-in-law to a duel over the dowry, an act which is perfectly within Icelandic law.  But because of his reputation, Hrut's challenged goes unanswered.

The saga then follows Hrut's niece, Hallgerd, a woman of impeccable beauty, through her first two marriages; they both end with the death of her husbands.  They are killed by Hallgerd's foster-father in response to arguments between the married couples.  Hrut, proving himself to have some honor and compassion, avenges the two deaths by killing Hallgerd's foster-father, despite the blood ties between the two men.

The saga then changes focus to Gunnar and his close friend Njal--the two main characters in the epic.  Hrut is an outstanding warrior and Njal is one of the wisest lawyers in the country.  In disguise, Gunnar goes to Hrut's farm and tricks Hrut into starting the legal process to reclaim Unn's dowry from Hrut.  Using the same threat of force used by Hrut, Gunnar manhandles Hrut into giving the dowry back.

Despite such tenuous beginnings, a bond of friendship develops between Gunnar and Hrut, enough that Hrut intercedes on Gunnar's behalf to make a formal marriage proposal for Hrut's niece, Hallgerd.  Despite the warnings of both Hrut and Njal, Gunnar marries Hallgerd.

Not too long after their marriage, Hallgerd and Bergthora (Njal's wife) find themselves in an angry dispute.  Hallgerd escalates things when she charms a newcomer to her farm to go and kill one of Njal's men.  Retaliation and vengeance are had by both women in constant escalation while their husbands Gunnar and Njal settle with each other each time and remain on excellent terms.

Things come to a head when Hallgerd has the foster-father of Njal's sons is killed.  One final act of vengeance occurs; Thrain, a kinsman of Gunnar and Hallgerd, is present for this final act, an event that will deepen later conflict.

The saga then turns towards Gunnar's feuds.  The first of these is caused by his wife--no surprise there.  She has one of their slaves break in and steal from the house of an unsavory man named Otkell.  While chastising his wife for her harmful actions, he slaps her.  Hallgerd promises to repay him one day.  Gunnar then tries to make immediate amends with Otkell, but his offer is refused.  With Njal's help, Gunnar wins the ensuing lawsuit.

The narrative then winds its way amongst the rest of Gunnar's plentiful blood fueds; the lives of many men are given up so that each man may attain the honor he believes is due to him.  While Gunnar is at the forefront of these events, a shadowy figure worms his way behind the scenes, manipulating situations to the disadvantage of Gunnar.  This man's name is Mord.  He is the daughter of Unn, the first wife Hrut.  The same Unn whom Gunnar reclaimed a dowry for.  (If you ever wondered where Tolkien recieved inspiration from for some of his complicated genealogies, look no further).  Mord despises Gunnar, and learns that Njal prophesied that if Gunnar killed twice in the same family, it would cause his death.

Like a masterful chess player, Mord maneuvers and manipulates people with grudges against Gunnar until Gunnar is forced to kill again to save his own life.  As part of his punishment, Gunnar is forced to leave Iceland for three years; if does not comply with this, he will be labeled as an outlaw and anyone who wishes to kill him without fear of legal recourse.

As Gunnar is departing, he is overcome with love for his homeland, and opts to stay instead of leave.  Knowing the time has come, Mord gathers together a large force of people who still hold a grudge against Gunnar.  The small army attacks Gunnar in his home where he fends them off until his bowstring is cut.  He implores his wife for a strand of her hair to restring his bow with but she refuses, enacting her revenge for the slap she received from her husband.  Finally, Gunnar is slain after collapsing from exhaustion.  He has killed two and wounded 16 others.

On behalf of the fallen Gunnar, as well as his family and friends, Njal helps institute a settlement to prevent further bloodshed.  Conflict doesn't stop there, however.  It continues with the introduction of Kari and revisiting the minor bit that Thrain had in the killing of the foster-father of Njal's sons.  For this and another episode that brought shame and discomfort to Njal's sons, they ambush and attack Thrain.  Njal, the master politician, helps arrange a settlement that is agreeable to both sides.  Part of the settlement involves Njal adopting Thrain's son Hoskuld as his foster-son.  Njal loves the boy and raises him well, eventually finding him a wife named Hildigunn.  In the process, Njal alters the political structure of Iceland and is able to bestow a formal "chieftain" title on his foster-son Hoskuld.  During this tangent that describes how the "modern" Iceland of the author's time came to be, the coming of Christianity to Iceland is also recounted.

Finding himself forgotten as a chieftain, grows jealous of Hoskuld's power.  He manipulates Kari and Njal's sons into attacking and killing Hoskuld while he is planting a field.  Flosi, Hoskuld's wife's uncle, is chosen to take vengeance.  A settlement is nearly reached at the Althing, a yearly assembly of local leaders, until peace talks break down from an insult by Njal's grim and fatalistic son, Skarp-hedinn.  Both sides leave the Althing knowing that this will only be settled by blood.

Flosi leads a 100-man army to attack Njal's farm, which is only held by 30 men.  Flosi allows the women to leave unharmed, though one of Njal's sons is beheaded for disguising himself and trying to escape with the women.  Flosi then implores Njal and his wife to leave the farm so that they are not killed; they stay because they would rather die with their children and grandson.  Even though it is dishonorable, Flosi knows the easiest and quickest way to win is to burn the farm down, so he does.  Kari is able to escape, but none of Njal's sons are able to, nor is Kari's son Thord.  Flosi knows Kari will take vengeance upon Flosi and all present for the burning.

At the next Althing, both sides gather to settle the dispute.  Flosi's side bribes one of the finest lawyers in all of Iceland to represent their side, while Kari blackmails Mord for his side.  Kari is also backed by Thorhall, a foster-son of Njal and the best lawyer in Iceland.  Thorhall is kept away from the legal battle, however, because his infected leg prevents him from walking very well.

The legal battle then follows, each side drawing proverbial blood while drawing upon laws and statutes that seem rather archaic at times.  Finally, Thorhall has had enough.  He lances his boil and escalates the legal battle to a physical one.  Several people die, including Flosi's brother-in-law.  Eventually a few clear-minded men are able to separate the two sides and garner a peace agreement.  One man, Hall of Sida, refuses compensation for his newly slain son in order to bring about peace.  Moved by his sacrifice, all but Kari and Njal's nephew Thorgeir agree to the settlement.  All of those who had a hand in Njal's burning are exiled.

The final chapters of the saga detail how Kari hunts the burners down, both within the borders of Iceland and abroad.  One of my favorite moment of the saga is when Kari hunts one of the burners down to the Orkney islands.  The burner is sitting in an Earl's hall while giving a very slanderous account of those killed in the burning.  Kari cuts him down in the middle of his story.

As Kari is returning to Iceland, he is shipwrecked.  He goes to Flosi for help, and the two are reconciled.  Kari marries Flosi's daughter, Hoskuld's widow, and we get the equivalent of a medieval "happily ever after."

Njal's Saga is a beautifully complex tale of vengeance and reconciliation.  Some of the characters, such as Gunnar and Njal, were more than likely real people.  Other characters were pure fiction.  Some events such as the advent of Christianity and the beginning of the Fifth Court actually happened, while other events are fanciful.

This is the first of the Icelandic sagas I read, and it has been the best of the nearly dozen I have had the pleasure of reading.  It's too bad that the sagas are ignored by the education system; they should be required reading alongside Beowulf, The Odyssey and Shakespeare.  The sagas are one-in-a-kind prose that sweep you away to the lives of farmers in medieval Iceland.  I have yet to read a bad saga, though Brennu-Njáls saga is by far the best of them all.  It is definitely worth a read.


  1. Great article. In my mind the best part of the saga is how the power of Skarp-hedinn's (one of Njal's sons)character builds and builds until the climax of his death in the burning house. I've never read a book or story that had me at the edge of my seat like that scene!

    1. Agreed. It's been about two years since I've read it, and I think I'm going to re-read it as soon as I get the book back from the person I lent it to. It's a shame that the sagas aren't studied in American schools like other classics are.