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NESP Reviews


Njal's Saga
Translated by Magnus Magnusson & Hermann Paulsson

Review by Hringari Óðinssen

       Njal's Saga was written at a crucial period of Iceland's history, political as well as literary. The institution of the Althing had broken down only a few years before it was written, and it undoubtedly affected the entire epic.
       The rights of the law under the Althing were based on the rights of the individual, which were being eaten away by the creeping influence of christianized traders with the island, and the christianization of travelers from the island who through either coercion by foreign principals under the guise of resource allotment, or through inter-marriage, had surrendered their independence to its sway. A party in the 980's attempted to convert the island but failed under the sway of intrigue and bloodshed.
       Even after the conversion, the law codes, based chiefly on the words of the Havamal, did not much change, and neither did the native spiritual belief. Thor was seemingly the chief god of the island, although other gods are called upon in various cases. The social structure on the island did not change either, until much later, and the goðis retained their titles and authority, which many of them reinforced by becoming leaders in the church. The most drastic first effect seems to be the decline of the individual freeholding farmer, upon whom the chieftains depended. Householders were bound by law to adhere to a chieftain, but they could freely choose to which in their quarter they gave allegiance. They paid him hof-dues and were committed to attend the Althing to support him, or in lieu of that, pay him a tax to defray the expenses of his visit. In return, the chieftain was committed to them for granting protection and aid.
       The conversion brought change to the extent that landlordism on a large scale came into being, of course being amassed by the church, which in turn turned over most of its authority to foreign interests. By 1262 the republic of the Althing fell, and it took another seven centuries for Iceland to regain its independence.
       Njal's birth was in the year 930, and the chronicle runs through to the year 1016, a fifty-five year span. It therefore encompasses the christianization of Iceland in the year 1000.
       It tells also of the Battle of Clontarf outside Dublin in 1014.
       Striking is the manner in which the saga is presented. It tells of several families , principally those of Njal himself, Gunnar of Hlidarend, Flosi Thordasen, and Gizur the White, a goði of high order. The narration runs simply and smoothly, illustrating the morality and ethics of the time - including strong devotion to family, a higher devotion to one's pledged word, an understanding of the wisdom that can be imparted by recognized men of faith, a reliance on friendship, the frail and sometimes hostile nature of women, a remarkable knowledge of the law based on the natural order set by the gods, and last but not least the community, socialist institution of shared property, including farms, forest lands, and shorelines, amongst agreed parties.
       The holding of the title of goði at this time was based on wealth, kinship, and the allegiance of followers. The goðis were called upon to decide cases at the Althing and in local things, to uphold the given laws throughout the years, and were responsible for upkeep of the hofs.
       Most of the intrigue, nay, all of the intrigue amongst these families was started by ego-centric individuals bent on some type of petty vengeance. And honestly, all of it start to finish was begun by women. Perhaps the fact that murder or accidental death could be paid for through the rulings of the Thing with silver or wool made such murder and retribution easier to enact, but few of the men of prominence were inclined to such dealings. Killing was always looked upon with distaste by the wise.
       Njal himself, a prophet of some account, was able to redirect many of the actions that would have been taken by parties friendly to himself and his family, but allowed for the fact that once a man was enticed by his senses, it would be hard for him to escape the action his mind and heart had already set upon.
       In the end, Njal helped set up the Fifth Court, the fimmtardomr, around 1005. He did so in order to have his foster-son rise to the rank of chieftainship, over Hvitaness, and therefore marry his betrothed, who would only marry a man of such rank. Although Ari the Learned claimed it was Skapti Thoroddsson who was responsible for this constitutional development, according to this writing, and the time-line involved, it is very possible that the facts presented are correct.
       Sagas were written to be read at public functions, which explains the character of the composition, its style, its flights into intrigue that are perhaps ancillary to the main story, and its heights of brilliance in conservation of wordiness. The saga remains a timeless entertainment both moral and practical, and this one is a fine example of the wordsmith's achievement. It is a pity we do not know the author.

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