Saturday, March 1, 2014

No one could stop people talking - bloody Njal's Saga

It is not just that there are a lot of deaths in Njal’s Saga.  It’s that they’re described like this (sensitive readers, avert thine eyes):

A huge sheet of ice had formed a low hump on the other side of the channel.  It was as smooth as glass, and Thrain and his men had stopped on the middle of this hump.  Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice-banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy-smooth, and he skimmed along as fast as a bird.

Thrain was then about to put on his helmet.  Skarp-Hedin came swooping down on him and swung at him with his axe.  The axe crashed down on his head and split it down to the jaw-bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice.  (Ch. 92)

The teeth are a nice Tarantinoish detail, aren’t they?  If we were watching the film adaptation of Njal’s Saga, this is a point where we might hear around us in the theater “Aw, c’mon!” as well as “Cool!” and “Gross!”  It is maybe a little far-fetched, yet I will bet the passage is based on a true exploit of arms so amazing that the story was passed down for decades before being plugged into Njal’s Saga.

The book reminds me that the taste for this kind of aestheticized violence was not the invention of Hollywood.

One the same page of my edition is another of my favorite deaths:

Hrapp swung his axe at Grim, but Helgi, seeing this, hacked off Hrapp’s arm.  The axe fell to the ground.

Hrapp said, “What you have done certainly needed doing; that hand has brought harm and death to many.”

“This will put an end to all that,” said Grim, and ran him through with a spear.  Hrapp fell dead.

I have not made a transcription error.  Hrapp is commenting sardonically on the severing of his own arm.  The Icelanders are mostly perfect stoics, shrugging at predictions of their own deaths, shrugging at their actual deaths.

An example, again not for the sensitive:

Thorhall Asgrimsson was so shocked when he heard that his foster-father, Njal, had been burned to death  that his whole body swelled up; a stream of blood spouted from his ears and could not be staunched, until he fell down unconscious and the flow ceased of its own accord.  Then he got up and said that he had not behaved like a man.  “My only wish now is to take vengeance for what has just happened to me upon those who burned Njal to death.”

The others said that no one would call his behavior disgraceful; but Thorhall replied that no one could stop people talking.  (Ch. 132)

If there is any truth to the story at all, people talked for two hundred years or more, and here I am talking about it another six hundred years later.

Perhaps I will move to a less horrible subject tomorrow.


  1. This is great stuff; the teeth are excellent!

    "The older peasants probably knew the use of a small fighting-axe, but it was merely a pleasant, heavy little thing that nestled comfortably in the hand. The newcomers had a weapon the peasants had never seen before, and it was quite fantastic: a battle-axe, a masterly piece of stone sculpture, ingenious, splendid, beautiful in line, deliciously worked, a masterpiece and a work of art, an instrument of murder on which loving care had been expended--and only people who intend to make good use of such a weapon do that." --Palle Lauring, A History of the Kingdom of Denmark

  2. The subsequent use of one of those back-teeth is pretty gruesome, too.

    There sure are an awful lot of severed limbs in Njal's Saga, not to mention lopped off heads and spear injuries in every part of the body. It is one bloody book (the stoicism you mention calls to mind nothing so much as that skit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knight has all his limbs hacked off but still taunts his opponent). I found it morbidly fascinating that a legal challenge had to be brought by a witness to the specific injury that caused death - so if you only saw the arm chopped off and not the fatal axe blow to the head, get out - and that in the final Althing, there's a kind of legalese concerning the type of injury that could result in a complaint - "a brain wound or internal wound or marrow wound" - that reminds me of these more recent, nuanced "debates" about what constitutes torture.

  3. That axe passage is something else.

    You can tell from the law as stated the kinds of problems this society had been facing, where every wound has to be accounted for.

  4. Lauring's History is an excellent little book. The Middle Ages in Scandinavia were almost as bloody as the Bronze Age was. There's a great story about a king who leads his army along a road built atop a dike, far into a swamp in pursuit of a rival for the throne, only to find himself outnumbered once the battlefield is reached. The king retreats through his own lines, hacking and killing his way back down the dike to safety. These guys were insane. MP&THG is where my mind leaps when I read this stuff, too.

  5. In Egil's Saga there is a vomiting contest (spoiler alert: Egil wins). Talk about Python before its time. Someone in the troupe must have read some of this stuff.

  6. The second passage you quoted made me laugh out loud. I can't wait to read this thing - I can see it from where I sit. Perhaps tomorrow... :)

  7. Good, good - and there is better stuff than that.