It took me a while to get the gist of Njal’s Saga. The first time through, I could have used a Cast of Characters; much of the effort was just keeping track of people whose names I couldn’t pronounce. In rereading key sections aloud with the group in Iceland – the mode of presentation the author intended – the drama and human passion began to emerge. And as I read these passages again while writing posts for this blog, a larger picture appeared.
Njal’s story is framed by the end of an era. The best minds of the time made wrong decisions and couldn’t hold back the tides that swept outworn institutions away. The suffering was intense and the body count was high. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” said Yeats at a similar time.
As I read of the battle at Thingvellir, a moment of near civil war, I kept thinking of similar periods. Of the fall of Troy, the Mahabharata war, the end of the Roman Empire, and the “great war” in Europe. And I thought of our own time, that Andrew Bacevich likens to the period of the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenian empire bled itself dry. We know our current mode of living cannot be sustained. We know that our leaders don’t have the wisdom the times demand, and like Matthew Arnold, we find ourselves, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead the other powerless to be born.”
Does Njal’s Saga offer any insight for times like these?
Not directly, for simple platitudes would be of no help. It does offer up a number of vivid characters, some of whom manifest courage and generosity in the face of disaster, and others whose self-centered designs bring the disasters about. We can’t help but ask ourselves who we want to emulate. And something very interesting happens at the end of the tale.
By the end of the saga, Kari, who survived the killing of Njal, and Flosi, the chieftan who led the killers, have hunted and fought each other across Iceland, Scotland, and Ireland. Both crossed Europe on foot to seek absolution in Rome.
Flosi returns to Iceland first. Kari’s ship is wrecked on the coast in a winter storm, though his crew survives. They wash up near Flosi’s homestead, and make their way there during a blizzard. When they arrive, the saga tells us Flosi recognized Kari at once and “jumped up to meet him and kissed him, and then placed him in the high seat by his side. He invited Kari to stay there for the winter. Kari accepted. They made a full reconciliation. Flosi gave Kari the hand of his brother’s daughter, Hildigunn.”
The next summer, Flosi set out for Norway in a ship in bad condition, that he said was “good enough for an old man doomed to die.” The ship was never seen again. Kari named one of his sons, Flosi, and this Flosi’s son grew up to be “the most distinguished man of that line.”
Marriages like this, in folklore and myth, are never one dimensional affairs – a sacred marriage also takes place that brings new life to our broken world. The Pandava line survives the Mahabharata war, and Aeneas leads the survivors out of Troy. Monks on the coast of Ireland preserve the wisdom of Rome, and poppies grow in Flanders field.
For the rest of us, who won’t see a new dawn anytime soon, we can remember the words of Tolkien, who was inspired by the sagas of Iceland as he wove his own account of surviving Mordor, a hell he experienced first-hand at the Battle of the Somme.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo tells Gandalf.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the times we are given.”