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.