What I’m Reading: Robert Cook (ed.) – Njal’s Saga

Njal’s Saga is by far the longest of the sagas of the Icelanders, and it appears to be the general agreement that it is also the best among them, an assessment that I am not going to deviate from. In principle, Njal’s Saga is just like the other sagas – it has their freshness and immediacy that are striking for texts that are hundreds of years old, it has their sparse, laconic style, their reliance on action and dialogue, their absence of psychology and their emphasis on geographical and genealogical placement of their characters. In short, it has everything the other sagas have – only more so.

This is not just a matter of length – what I found most striking about Njal’s Saga is how very vivid it is. It’s language is not any more florid than of the other sagas, but just as reduced and simple, and yet it somehow manages to paint a much more colourful picture of the events it relates – it rather feels like the widescreen Technicolor version of a saga. It probably does have something to do with its length, and that it dwells just that tiny but decisive bit longer on what a character is dressed in or what exactly he does in a fight, but I don’t think that quite suffices to explains why people and events in this sage possess such an immense plasticity that makes their down-to-earth-ness almost tangible for the reader as if the book’s pages were just a thin, icy mist behind which we catch glimpses of the untamed, violent Norsemen feasting, sailing and fighting each other.

Njal’s Saga is also somewhat clearer structured than most other sagas – it consists of two quite distinct parts, the first being about Gunnar, the various strifes he got involved in and his final downfall, and the second the story of his friend Njal, his death and the vengeance for it. The first part takes place before the arrival of Christianity in Iceland, the second after its Christianization, in the first part most conflicts are solved peacefully, in the second most end in violence – one can’t help but wonder whether there might not be be some implied reflection on Christianity on part of the anonymous author implied in that. Another thing that places Njal’s Saga apart is the uncommon emphasis it puts on the law – not only is it stated several times that it is the law that keeps a society together and that it will come apart if the law fails (as is demonstrated by events in the saga), not only are there an uncommon lot of trials in this saga, but they are also described in unusual (and, it has to be said, occasionally tiresome) detail, to the point where Njal’s Saga reads almost like the Medieval Icelandic version of courtroom drama.

There are some issues with this saga for the modern reader, chiefly its repetitiveness – basically, events here consist of a seemingly endless succession of slayings, trials, and vengeance which causes more slayings, more trials and more vengeance. There is not much difference in the way those events unfold either, so things can get somewhat tedious if one tries to read too much of the saga in one go, and therefore judicious rationing is strongly recommended. And with the length of the saga, it becomes even more difficult to keep track of all the persons and there relations to each – thankfully, the Penguin Classics edition I was reading is not only excellently translated (as far as I can judge that, of course) but also very well-edited, with a helpful introduction and footnotes.

This is definitely the saga one should read if one wants to read only one of them, although it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to stop after this one, they’re as addictive as crisps (at least unless they tried to read the whole thing at once – just like crisps one can easily overstuff oneself), but significantly more nutritious. And while I don’t usually don’t do quote, I just have to put in this one, showing how just names mentioned in passing already are stories in a nutshell:

A man name Hoskuld lived there, the son of Dala-Koll. His mother was Thogerd, te daughter of Thorstein the Red, who was the son of Olaf the White, the son of Ingiald, the son of Helgi. Ingiald’s mother was Thorn, the daughter of Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye who was the son of Ragnar Shaggy-breeches. Thorstein the Red’s mother was Unn the Deep-minded; she was the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, the son of Bjorn Buna.

I doubt that ever before or after genealogy has been more fun. And maybe that is the reason why Njal’s Saga impresses itself so vividly on the reader’s mind: with all the fighting, the deaths and the maimings (there is an astonishing amount of limbs getting cut off in the course of the saga), with all the underlying fatalism, there also is an air of joyousness blowing through these tales, a boundless glorying in life and its pleasures; and no matter how rough those might appear to the modern reader some of that exuberance jumps over like an electric spark across the centuries and makes this saga so much fun to read.

(This post is part of my Iceland and Beyond reading project.)



  1. Agreed on Egil being probably the most interesting character in all the sagas – among the male ones, at least. I’m not sure I’d call him tormented, however – I rather had the impression that everyone in the sagas was quite at peace with what they were, and while many of Egil’s actions are (to say the least) ethically doubtful to us modern readers and probably still very wild to contemparory listeners to the saga I never got the feeling that he himself was in any way conflicted about them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s