Thursday, February 27, 2014

There’s nothing half-hearted about your way of doing things - on the pleasures of Njal's Saga

How about some notes about Njal’s Saga, one of the great Icelandic sagas?  I have no argument, just notes.  On the Pleasures of Icelandic Sagas.

For some reason Iceland experienced a literary boom in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Iceland was hardly unique – this is the High Middle Ages.  The form of the literature is strange, though, and even unique.  The sagas are prose tales that mix history, genealogy, legends, fiction, and anything else the typically anonymous author wants to include.  They ought to be incoherent, and I suppose some of them are.

Njal’s Saga begins:

There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red.  Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains.  He was also a very experienced lawyer – so skillful, indeed, that no judgement was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it.  He had an only daughter called Unn; she was a good-looking, refined, capable girl, and was considered the best match in the Rangriver Plains.  (Ch. 1)

The sagas I know – not that many – are always written in this kind of plain style.  Lots of proper names.  Lots of real places, well identified, stops for saga tourists.  See Nancy Marie Brown, who writes about Vikings and posts at God of Wednesday, visit the site of the Althing, the annual assembly of the chieftains, where so much of the action of Njal’s Saga takes place (it is an early legal thriller).  I have borrowed her photo of the Law Rock, where one-third of the law was recited from memory every summer, and where the characters declare their lawsuits.

I read an edition of Grettir’s Saga that included numerous photographs of the Icelandic sites.  The one I cannot forget is a photo of a boulder, the very boulder that the super-strong Grettir moved.  I think it also had the ravine where he fought the ghost.  There is obviously a lot of fiction in these old identifications, but also a lot of something else.

The plain style is sometimes tedious.  I do not believe that the opening above would by itself entice too many readers.  But the style sets off the moments of tension or weirdness or wild violence peppered throughout the saga.  Or, say, when one of the men tries to avoid violence only to be insulted and goaded to revenge by his wife or mother or daughter.

An example.  Hallgerd is the foster-daughter of Thjostolf.  She has already had her foster-father kill one of her husbands for slapping her.  She has married Glum, and is happy with him, but during a fight he slaps her.  Hallgerd forbids vengeance this time, but “Thjostolf walked away with a grin on his face” (Ch. 16).

Hallgerd was outside.  She saw the blood on his axe.  Thjostolf tossed the gold bracelet to her.

“What has happened?” she asked.  “Why is your axe covered with blood?”

“I don’t know how you’ll take this,” replied Thjostolf.  “Glum has been killed.”

“Then you must have done it,” said Hallgerd.

“Yes,” he replied.

Hallgerd laughed.  “There’s nothing half-hearted about your way of doing things,” she said. (Ch. 17)

There, that is what I am looking for.  “Hallgerd laughed.”  Yikes.

I am using the Magnus Magnusson translation, the old Penguin edition, now replaced.


  1. That's a nice observation about how the "tedious" style helps set off the (many) moments of "nothing half-hearted." I'm having a more difficult time seeing how the law really helps set off all the killing, other than acting as a financial incentive for restraint in the number of people on whom one takes vengeance, so as not to have to pay too much compensation. But I am enjoying the efficient ease with which the narrator introduces characters ("There was a man named ___") and, especially, eliminates them ("___ is now out of the saga").

    I'm about 70 pages from the end of the new Penguin edition (Cook); the Magnusson in the library looked like it had been in constant, transatlantic circulation since about the 13th century.

  2. They are a devoted, bloodthirsty bunch, the modern saga readers.

    I will not speak to the author's intent, but in practice Njal's Saga appears to be about the failure of the law, how it breaks down under pressure. Hobbesian would enjoy this book.

  3. Well, here is an embarrassing admission: I lived in Iceland for over a year, but I never read the Iceland sagas. Your posting reminds me of my shame. I think I need to go -- tail between my legs -- to the library and check out a copy of Njal's Saga without further delay. Thanks.

  4. I think I actually prefer Egil's Saga and Grettir's Saga, but it is a question of interest. They are more about individuals, while Njal's Saga and maybe Laxdaela Saga are bigger, pulling in an entire society. Njal's Saga seems to include all of Iceland in its cast.

    Maybe I will write more about this.

    The main setting of Njal's Saga is just a half hour by car from Reykjavik, or so I have read, with lots of recognizable features and traditionally identified locations for all of the various farmsteads and murders.

    I think I saw, at Nancy Marie Brown's site, the possibility of horseback tours of Njal's country. Wouldn't that be something.

  5. Despite the proximity of so many of the sites mentioned in Njal's Saga (the maps in the back of my Penguin edition are great), I'm really astounded - even knowing what little I know about Nordic seafarers making it across the Atlantic to Vinland - by the degree to which the figures in the saga go sailing all over the place: Denmark, Norway, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Gotland, the Hebrides, Scotland. And they seem to do it with such pick-up-and-go nonchalance, like, "Hey, how 'bout we go raiding in the Orkneys this weekend?" "Ooo, yeah, okay, sounds fun. But I've gotta be back for the Althing on Monday."

  6. I meant to join in with this and predictably haven't got round to it. My attention is being taken up by Trollope at the moment but I want to read at least Njal's saga this year. Your notes and thoughts are, as always, a motivation to read more.

  7. I love the way the geography is scrambled. The center of the world is Trondheim in Norway. The Orkneys and Hebrides are more important - richer, more culturally significant - than mainland Scotland and England.

    And you just travel between these places in open boats - no big deal. I should read the Vinland Sagas someday.

    Desperate - Njal's Saga would sure be a contrast to Zola and Trollope. I hope you get the chance to read it.

    I doubt I will get another post up today, so tomorrow I will move on to my favorite ultra-violent Fangoria-style splatter scenes.

  8. I read the Robert Cook translation, which is, it tells me, even plainer. It eschews present participles, generally avoids subordinate clauses, and sticks to a limited vocabulary, in an attempt 'to dupiclate the sentence structure and spare vocabulary of the Icelandic text'.

    The language works interestingly when we come to issues like conversion to Christianity.


    'What features does this angel [Michael] have?' said Hall.

    'Many,' said Thangbrand. 'He weighs everything that you do, both good and evil, and he is so merciful that he gives more weight to what is well done.'

    Hall said, 'I would like to have him for my friend.'

    'That you may,' said Thangbrand; 'give yourself to him today, in the name of God.'

    'I'll do it on this condition,' said Hall: that you promise, on his behalf, that he shall be my guardian angel.'

    'I promise,' said Thangbrand.

    Hall and all his househould were then baptized.

    [Chapter 100]


    Religion is simple. And although there are disagreements over Christianity, once it has been pronounced the official religion, that seems to be that -- sorted. (Though the existence of valkyries is apparently not impeded.) The language is of a part with the hardheaded approach to life that seems to be held by most of the characters. And to death. '"Our father has gone to bed early,"' says Skarphedin, when Njal has lain down to await his end.

    One of the best sections -- also one where my ignorance of context is most apparent to me -- comes at chapters 119-20, when everyone says Skarphedin is funny-looking, and Skarphedin insults everyone, often by referring to events of other sagas. He has probably read (listened to?) a complete set. Skarphedin is really something of a perpetual teenager: surly, belligerent, knowing but not wise. And capable of ice-sliding action heroics which I'm sure generations of Icelandic teenagers have attempted to role-play.

    More plain language when his body is found: 'his legs were burned off almost up to the knees, but the rest of him was unburned. He had bitten into his upper lip. His eyes were open and not swollen.' He doesn't quite attain the miraculous preservation of his father. And his death has not been as peaceful as Njal's appears to have been: 'He [Skarphedin] had drive his axe into the gable wall so hard that half the blade was buried, and it had not lost its temper.' The axe is still sharp and has more killing to do. The saga has great respect for characters like Njal with knowledge of the law and skill at reaching arbitrated settlements, to avoid violence, but it does enjoy a good fight scene. I'm not sure how much it really disapproves of its Skarphedins.

  9. An "early legal thriller," that's a good one!

    I'm currently reading Aeneid, but this post makes me think, "I could be reading more entertaining ancient epics instead, full of violence and deadpan humour." I'm just lousy at choosing books to read...

  10. I borrowed the ice scene from you for today's post. Amazing. As is that Skarphedin insult scene, with repetitions like a folk tale.

    You have picked a lot of great examples - "Our father has gone to bed early" was startling, even though we are late in the saga and I am familiar with how it operates. Same with the death of Skarphedin.

    How much does the saga disapprove of Skarphedin and his peers? That is such a good question. Gunnar and Njal are exemplars, but they do not prevent all of this killing but just slow it down.

    Miguel, I do not want to promise humor, but the violence is on its way. The Aeneid is a dark book.

  11. I actually find the beginning passage you quoted to be something that would lead me to be interested in the work. It seems to raise the possibility that some interesting characters are on the way.

    The passage that you quoted involving the killing of Glum is fantastic and sounds strangely contemporary.

  12. I guess there are no end of possibilities inherent in that opening paragraph.