I just finished reading Njal’s Saga again today (actually Magnusson’s and Pálsson’s translation, not the new one pictured above). It would be pointless to review such a classic, but I thought I’d jot down a few reader’s impressions, fancying myself (as I do) a fairly knowledgeable reader.
Njal’s Saga is often named as the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas. It’s not my favorite; I prefer the more action-oriented sagas like Egil’s and Grettir’s. That’s not to say Njal’s Saga lacks action. There’s plenty. The body count piles up like kills in a Stallone movie. But Njal’s is perhaps the most reflective saga, the saga that worries most about its soul.
The central character, of course, is the title character, Njal Thorgeirsson. He’s not the hero; there are actually two heroes, Gunnar and Kari, both mighty warriors of whom Schwarzenegger is not worthy. Njal, by contrast, is a man of peace. He’s famed for his wisdom and shrewdness, not for his martial skills. He can’t even grow a beard, a fact that makes him the target of some contempt. In spite of his efforts, his family gets caught in a cycle of killing and revenge that leads to his death (and his family’s) by burning, in his own house.
It occurred to me that reader identification in this book depends purely on point of view. It’s traditional to see Mord Fiddle, a conscienceless master manipulator of men, as the villain. But it would be just as possible to write the story from the other side, making Njal’s abrasive, homicidal son Skarp-Hedin the villain. When it gets down to it, the saga could have ended around the middle (which admittedly would have lost us a literary treasure) if Skarp-Hedin had just been willing to live by the terms of a legal settlement.
The real climax of the story (it seems to me; it could be disputed) is a big scene at the Althing, the Icelandic national assembly, where a long, complicated legal battle ends in general combat. Those of us who dream of old Norse law as something pristine and natively honest have to be disappointed that the case against the Burners consists of a series of legal tricks. It’s all about technicalities, not justice.
After that bust-up, it’s a war of attrition, as Kari Solmundarson, sole survivor of the Burning, hunts down all the Burners (except for one) and kills them. This part of the story includes an account of the Battle of Clontarf (some readers may be surprised to find that the saga writer sides entirely with Brian Boru of Ireland). Finally, when all the principals are dead except for Kari and one Burner, they’re reconciled and both go on pilgrimages, on foot, to Rome.
Njal’s Saga is an account written by a Christian, who seems to look both in fascination and in horror at the excesses that were possible in Viking times. The story of Njal is a sort of worst-case scenario, in which the Icelandic system, intended to provide a fire wall against anarchy, broke down to an unimagined degree. The saga writer may have meant it as a cautionary tale. It’s not a tragedy in the classic sense, just a (generally) authentic account of men doing what men gotta do.