Sunday, March 2, 2014

With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste - Icelandic sagas as cases studies in conflict resolution

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.


  1. Thanks to you! A couple of months ago, reading Njal's Saga was about the last thing I expected to be doing now, but I'm glad I joined in. It may not go on my favorites list for the year, but I did find it worthwhile and fascinating, especially the difficult struggle to try to get law to work in a society where clan tribalism and vengeance is a way of life (there are all too many examples of this still around today; a screenwriter for a film about the Mafia might do well to raid Njal's Saga for some ideas). It's a little depressing that 1,000 years after the events that make up the saga, refusing to adopt a faith (in this case Christianity) can still result in slaughter, and suggesting femininity or homosexuality in a man can still be enough to unleash a violent response.

    Despite the tedious accounting for family relations (akin to the "begat" passages in the Old Testament), I did very much enjoy many of the names: Thorfinn Skull-splitter; Ketil Flat-nose; Thorhild the Poetess; Helgi the Lean; Thorstein Cod-biter; Raguar Shaggy-breeches; Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye; Hjorleif the Womanizer; Eystein the Noisy; Audun the Rotten; Jorunn the Unborn (what's the story behind that one, I wonder?). Somewhere on the Internet there must be an Icelandic saga name generator.

    Cook notes that the broken shoelace is a motif in a lot of the sagas, but unfortunately offers no further insight.

  2. The names are wonderful, and a number of them link the different sagas together. It is all too complex for me to remember the details, unfortunately. Snorri Sturluson is a descendant of his own character, Egil!

    Meine Frau and I were actually speculating about how Njal's Saga could be turned into a Western. The theme is universal, even if many societies have done a better job of suppressing the violence. It is never entirely gone.

    I knew I had seen that shoelace before somewhere.

  3. That shoe-tying scene seems/seemed so strange (is it used as a narrative breather before more mayhem in the style of a TV cliffhanger right before a commercial break?), and then I see Scott mentioning the broken shoelace thing as a saga motif. Utter weirdness at this remove in time/cultural space!

  4. And little details like that accumulate as the sagas move along. You can see why Borges loves this stuff - sagas are fantasy novels that are more or less true.

  5. There's another great thing in this book that I wanted to mention, and it's the legal process at the final Althing (before it all devolves into mayhem). I loved the back and forth sense of where the decision might go (Cook compares it to watching a tennis match), but was also struck by the nefariousness of the lawyering of Flosi and his team, who attempt to undermine the case by engineering a charge of inappropriate trial venue. It's a scene right out of a TV courtroom drama or John Grisham thriller. Flosi would play the oil company executive.

  6. The saga seems so invested in the workings of the law, even as it only ever shows the law failing. And failing easily -- legal settlements are ridiculously fragile. Thus in chapter 123, twelve arbitrators, very important men of high standing granted special authority by the law, talk things over seriously and with a fair bit of intelligence, and seem briefly to have arranged a good, legal settlement to a case. Which settlement falls apart even as it is being enacted because of a piece of clothing.

    Legal technicalities -- schemes such as the procedure Njal recommends to Gunnar in the case of Unn's dowry; all that trumping and countertrumping as to correct procedure in the case following the burning -- get an awful lot of text-time. Characters put effort and thought into this stuff and really seem to think it's important. Perhaps it is -- important to go through with procedure to a certain point, to display legal ability, to navigate historical socio-cultural waters I don't understand? And yet, after all Gunnar's time in disguise, he abandons his legal suit for the dowry after the first technical difficulty. When Njal suggests that the case can be retrieved, Gunnar has a typical, hardheaded Icelandic reply: "I don't want to" (chapter 24). He challenges Hrut to a fight instead, and gets his way. He also apparently 'gained much honour from the case' (chapter 24). The procedure of law --> fed up with law --> fists sometimes looks like the best way to win good repute in 10th century Iceland.

    I'm interested by one incident that shows taking someone to court as an action that in some circumstances could be classed as an act which itself required compensation. I'm thinking of the case between Otkel and Gunnar when, finally granted self-judgement, Gunnar 'find[s] that you summoned me [to court] with intent to disgrace, and for that I award myself nothing less than the value of the shed and the contents that were burned.' Thus cancelling out what he finds he should pay to make up for his wife and slave's theft and arson.

    The example of Gunnar and Njal, determinedly getting along in spite of repeated provocation between members of each family, makes a nice counterexample to all the failed settlements. Of course, they don't take their problems to court, but arrange everything through the kind of (to use an anachronistic term) gentlemanly arbitration that seems to offer a somewhat similarly binding yet less formal alternative to law. And elsewhere, arbitration often fails. It's used in the case between Otkel and Gunnar, but they are at odds again pretty quickly after chapter 51. It's tested and tried out in perhaps as many permutations as the law, but it doesn't seem to come out quite as badly.

    Or perhaps what's most important is individual will. Njal and Gunnar have a will to be at peace with each other. Mord Valgardson has a will to make trouble and does, with immense success. After Kari's extra-legal revenge spree, he and Flosi have a will to make peace, and do -- without even the language of settlement. '[Flosi] recognised Kari at once and jumped up to meet him and kissed him' (chapter 159), and that's more or less it. Law and arbitration are important but still not quite powerful enough, or functional enough, or developed enough, to knock a hardheaded Icelander off his chosen course (with his axe, towards someone else's body).

  7. Alison, you did a better job of keeping track than I did - thanks. I now feel like I should have offered a guest post. But visitors to Wuthering Expectations know to read the comments, don't they? That's where we find the good stuff.

    There is a point in the book - no, a long stretch - where the sense I got was that Gunnar and Njal, the sensible characters, did have things under control. They can contain the violence, and they do, for years. I realized I had to keep the chronology in mind at least enough to understand that years, not months, were passing by.

    But no matter what the gods do, someday it will be Ragnarok. The giants, the Mord Valgardsons, are always out there.

    The build and sudden collapse of Ch. 123 is amazing.

    Scott, it is amazing how much of the legal business is recognizable. The change of venue, the alcoholic lawyer going for a final win, the one nurse with the integrity to - now I am describing The Verdict, but you get my point.