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.
Translated by Magnus Magnusson & Hermann Paulsson
Review by Hringari Óðinssen
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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