Njal come back now, ya hear?

I’ve seen the artifact pictured above, in an exhibition. It’s one of the main reasons we believe the Vikings wore “nasal” helmets like the one I wear, even though none of that sort from the period has ever been found in Scandinavia.

I’d seen it pictured in books many times before I saw the real thing. Its size surprised me. It’s only about as big as a man’s thumb, an object somebody probably carved for fun out of a piece of antler, for no reason other than to pass the time.

A friend who reads this blog recently complimented me, in a personal note, on my “erudition” in Viking studies. I suppose I know a fair bit, when graded on the curve (I describe myself as a knowledgeable amateur), but I keep getting surprised by things.

Grim of Grim’s Hall has been moderating a reading of Njal’s Saga this summer, over at his blog. I drop in my two cents now and then, but I’m constrained slightly by the fact that a lot of things that confuse ordinary readers actually confuse me just as much. Especially when it comes to Norse law.

I’ll be honest—when it comes to Norse law in my novels, I fake a lot of it. You almost have to. The earliest extant Norwegian law codes date from after the Viking Age. So you have to guess what’s old and what’s new. But I’ll be honest—I haven’t even read the later codes that are available, such as the Gulatingsloven. I pick up bits and pieces from secondary sources. And when it comes to judicial procedures at the Things, I have some general guidelines I’ve researched, but I wing a lot of it.

And when I re-read Njal’s Saga, I feel kind of justified.

Because the law makes no sense at all to the modern mind.

The titular character is Njal Thorgeirsson, a man known for his wisdom and shrewdness, not for his warlike skills. He almost always tries to avert violence through the clever use of the law. When his good friend Gunnar of Hliderend and his brother are attacked by an overwhelming force, and nevertheless defeat them, killing several, Njal negotiates a settlement that involves Gunnar and the brother being outlawed for three years. This seems unjust to us, especially in a clear case of self-defense against amazing odds, but the point in Viking law seems to be less about right and justice than about relative social status and balancing economic loss.

Then Gunnar (acting in the insane manner Viking heroes often do—heroism seems to be a form of madness sometimes) decides he won’t leave the country to wait out the time of his outlawry after all. This puts him technically outside legal protection. Anyone can slay an outlaw without penalty (in theory).

So Gunnar’s enemies assemble to attack his farm, and Gunnar is killed at the end of one of the legendary last stands of the sagas. And what does Njal do? Even though Gunnar was an outlaw, he advises his sons to kill some of the killers, and they get away with it in the legal proceedings that follow, apparently because public opinion was sympathetic to Gunnar.

So when I say I don’t understand Norse law, it’s not the same as saying I haven’t tried. Frankly, I doubt if anyone understands Norse law.

6 thoughts on “Njal come back now, ya hear?”

  1. Maybe the boring cases where the law was applied straightforwardly didn’t make the sagas.

    What would one of our descendants make of our legal system if he had to reconstruct it from legends of the OJ Simpson case?

  2. Hrm, that does sound a lot like part of the plot of Viking Sagas with Ralf Moeller and Sven Ole Thorsen. I have to say that because I’ve only read Njal’s Saga in Old Norse and so didn’t undertand a bit of it.

  3. Piggybacking on Adam’s point, weren’t the sagas intended to teach the hearers about how to navigate feuds, law cases, etc.? In that case it would make sense to show the tricky “edge cases” that may follow from taking various approaches to handling conflict.

  4. I’m not sure that’s the case. The earliest written sagas were composed about two centuries after the events described, and by that time the law had changed a lot.

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