Aside from all of the killing, this is the heart of Njal’s Saga, said by the wise man who gives the book its title: “’With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste’” (Ch. 70).
I am thinking about where the author spends his time, especially what parts of the story he describes in detail. The art is in the details.
I do not always understand the significance of the details. Just before the legendary murder-on-ice scene I used yesterday is this:
It so happened that Skarp-Hedin’s shoe-thong broke as they ran down along the river, and he stopped.
“What keeps you back, Skarp-Hedin?” asked Grim.
“I am tying up my shoe,” he replied. (Ch. 92)
After which he launches himself onto the ice into the midst of his enemies.
So one place where the author pauses is at the many killings in the saga, where every question – who, what, where, etc. – is answered in depth. Which limb is severed by which weapon in what order.
The second place is the law, the first part of Njal’s dictum. I called Njal’s Saga a legal thriller as a joke, but the joke is not so funny when, near the end of the saga in Chapter 142, several pages are spent on the process of jury selection, along with some other matters of Icelandic law less recognizable from television legal dramas.
Law and lawlessness. In a comment, Alison of The Congeries asks ”how much it” – the author, the saga – “really disapproves of its Skarphedins.” Perhaps this is just an artifact of the nature of storytelling, of drama. The violence is so intense and enticing. But there is something else. The heroes of Njal’s Saga are clearly, from its rhetoric and focus, wise Njal and his friend Gunnar, men who try to avoid violence and tamp down the impulse for revenge. Yet they obviously fail. The story of the saga traces how small injuries lead to violence that spirals and expands until it seems to involve all of southern Iceland. The law merely delays the violence.
I think I prefer the individual scale of two other stories, Egil’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga. They both center on men who are superhuman, part-troll maybe, and capable of amazing, horrifying feats of violence. Egil is quite openly a sociopath, while Grettir is more of a tragic figure, a monster-slayer who would have been a great hero in earlier times but has trouble finding a place in a society of laws. Both men are useful to society in some ways and extremely dangerous in others.
Njal’s Saga and its cousin, Laxdaela Saga, another tale of a cycle of revenge that operates on a smaller scale, reflecting the more private cause of the conflict, a love triangle, feature characters closer to humans who nevertheless spend a good part of their energy destroying each other. They are as much a threat to society as the homicidal Egil. Maybe more of a threat.
I risk turning the sagas into political science case studies, but they are that, too, as well as history and fiction. Literature, they are literature.
Thanks to Alison and Scott, who helpfully joined in on Njal’s Saga.