Njal’s Saga, part 2

Map of Iceland, 1761. Public domain.

A man named Hrut had a stepbrother named Hoskuld.  One day Hoskuld held a feast and Hrut was there.  Hoskuld called to his daughter, Hallgerd, who was playing on the floor with other girls.  Hallgerd “was tall and beautiful, with hair as fine as silk and so abundant that it came down to her waist.”

Hoskuld asked Hrut what he thought of his daughter.  Hrut didn’t answer at first so Hoskuld asked again.  Hrut finally said,  “The girl is quite beautiful, and many will pay for that, but what I don’t know is how the eyes of a thief have come into our family.”

For a long time after that, the brothers did not speak to each other.  Hoskuld sent his daughter to a man named Thjostolf to foster her.  “It was said that he did nothing to improve Hallgerd’s character.”


As we meet Hallgerd at the opening of the saga, and several important themes begin to unfold.

  • Character is fixed and largely immutable.  Our culture is built on the notion of repentance and change – “I once was lost but now I’m found,” but this is absent from the nordic pagan worldview.  Hallgerd will start a bloody feud with another woman’s family in the first part of the story.  Even when her intentions are good, chaos follows in her wake.  She will have three husbands; each will think he can handle her, and each will die a violent death.
  • Another important theme is the equality of women.  In no other medieval tradition have I seen women with foster fathers.


Hallgerd’s uncle Hrut became engaged to a woman named Unn, but before the wedding, like many young Icelandic men, he travelled to Norway to seek fame and fortune.  He won an honored place in the king’s court and captured a fair amount of booty after defeating a group of vikings in a sea battle.  Most importantly for the story, the king’s mother, Gunnhild invited him to her bed.  This was an offer he couldn’t refuse (though he didn’t seem to want to), for not only did Gunnhild have the ear of the king, but she was skilled in magic.

When it was time for Hrut to leave, Gunnhild asked if he had a girl back home.  Hrut said he did not.  Gunnhild put her arms around him, kissed him, and said, “I cast this spell:  you will not have sexual pleasure with the woman you plan to marry in Iceland, though you’ll be able to have your will with other women.  Neither of us comes out of this well, because you did not tell me the truth.”

Hrut married Unn, but because of the curse, he could not please her sexually.  After conferring with her father, Unn divorced Hrut, but he kept her dowry,  creating a seed of conflict that reverberates through the story.


More important themes appear:

  • Consistently in this saga, characters act in ways contrary to common sense and their own best interest.  Hrut knows Gunnhild is a prophetic sorceress.  Why would he deny having a girl back home, when there’s no indication that she even cares before he lies?  Perhaps the author appreciates how confused we can get at critical moments.  Perhaps everyone who has ever had a “What was I thinking” moment can identify with Hrut.
  • Related to this is the place of magic in the saga – it exists, but on the periphery, and when it appears, it’s a two-edged sword at best and harmful most of the time.
  • Once again we see the equality of women.  Both men and women can divorce their spouse by simply declaring themselves divorced in front of witnesses.
  • Romance and sexuality are not central to the saga, except as inciting incidents, but when they occur, they are dealt with in a frank and earthy manner.  When Unn’s father sees his daughter moping after her marriage, he persuades her to speak.  Unn says, “When he comes close to me, his penis is so large that he can’t have any satisfaction from me, and yet we’ve both tried every possible way to enjoy each other, but nothing works.”  The audience would not have been shocked, though it’s easy to imagine snickers and winks as the mead was drunk in the hall.


About the time Hrut returned from Norway, Hoskuld arranged a marriage for his daughter, Hallgerd.  In those days, women were charged with running the household and ensuring there was food for the family and retainers through the long winters.  Hallgerd was “bountiful and high-spirited,” and when her husband, Thorvald, berated her for running short of food, Hallgerd insulted him.  He struck her and stalked out of the house.  When Hallgerd’s foster-father, Thjostolf, saw her bleeding, he set off after Thorvald, and killed him.

Hallgerd was married a second time, to a man named Glum.  Though she loved him, a day came when “they had a strong exchange of words” and Glum struck her.  Once more, though she begged him not to, her foster-father killed her husband.

At this point, we meet the first of two principle characters in the story.  Gunnar of Hlidarendi fit the ideal of the nordic warrior.  He was “big and strong and an excellent fighter.  He could swing a sword and throw a spear with either hand…and he was so swift with a sword that there seemed to be three in the air at once.  He shot with a bow better than anyone else, and…he could jump higher than his own height, in full fighting gear…He swam like a seal and there was no sport in which there was any point in competing with him.”

After describing his martial skills, the narrator adds that he was a hunk and “very well off for property.”  As we get to know Gunnar, we find that his character matches his resume.  He’s a generous, open hearted man, honorable to a fault, and a warrior who doesn’t like to fight.  He’s related to Unn, however, and when he recovers her dowry by force, he begins to make enemies, including Unn’s second husband, another of the “bad seed” characters that populate the saga and guarantee that Gunnar will have to fight.

Gunnar at the Ranga River, where he and his two brothers defeat 30 men. 1898 illustration. Public domain.

Gunnar’s close friend, Njal supplies the wisdom Gunnar sometimes lacks. Njal (pronounced knee-AHL) was “well off for property and handsome to look at…so well versed in the law that he had no equal, and he was wise and prophetic, sound of advice and well-intentioned, and whatever course he counselled turned out well. He was modest and noble-spirited, able to see far into the future and remember far into the past, and he solved the problems of whoever turned to him.”

The strange thing about Njal was his inability to grow a beard.  Though he fathered three sons and three daughters, his enemies used this anomaly to suggest there was something lacking in his manhood.  It seems to me that legendary seers, from Tiresias to Merlin to Black Elk are always lacking in some of the cultural norms of manhood.  In particular, Njal never fights though he counsels those who do.  He and Gunnar make up for what the other lacks.  Both prospered, in large part, because Gunnar followed Njal’s advice – up until the day he met Hallgerd.

Gunnar and Hallgerd at the Althing, (the National Assembly). 1898 illustration. Public domain.

The day they met, Gunnar and Hallgerd “talked for a long time.”  Then Gunnar sought out her father to ask for her hand in marriage.  Njal told Gunnar,”Every kind of evil will come from her when she moves east.”  This time Gunnar didn’t listen to his prophetic friend.

To Be Continued

Njal’s Saga: an introduction

Njal’s Saga. 13th c. manuscript page. Public domain.

Those who follow this blog have seen messages and photographs from Iceland over the last two weeks.  Mary and I spent a week there with Robert Bella Wilhelm and two other storytellers.  Several decades ago, Robert and his wife, Kelly, created “Storyfest Journeys” to lead small groups of people on “storytelling travel seminars.” http://www.storyfestjourneys.com

We discovered Storyfest Journeys in 1991 and spent a memorable week in west England and Wales on a themed trip, “The Quest for Arthur’s Britain.”  Since then we’ve joined the Wilhelms in Arizona and New Mexico for seminars on the folklore of the southwest and on desert spirituality while their trips to Iceland remained a “someday, maybe” fantasy.  Someday arrived this year.

This was Robert Wilhelm’s  seventh trip to Iceland.  Past seminars have focused on Icelandic and nordic storytelling in general, but Robert had always wanted to lead a seminar on Njal’s Saga.  He knew that such a specialized theme would result in a very small group, which was even smaller, because Kelly, who was teaching, couldn’t come.

Imagine a small group of lovers of myth and folklore, staying in a comfortable guesthouse with great food and lots of coffee, meeting to discuss a unique, 700 year old piece of literature, and then touring places where the events took place.  If that kind of travel appeals, check out the Wilhelm’s website.  In the first half of 2013, they are planning story-related trips to Hawaii, Arizona, the Orkneys, and Iceland again in May.

I tried to show some of the visual richness of Iceland in previous posts.  Now it’s time to focus on the saga.


The Icelandic word for saga means both “story” and “history.”  Forty Icelandic sagas are known, and Njal’s is the longest and most popular.  The events took place roughly between 970 and 1020 and were written down in the 13th century.  Njal’s Saga brings The Illiad to mind, but unlike the epic poetry of the ancient world, Icelandic sagas were literary creations from the start.  Single authors gathered the threads of shorter stories and oral histories and wove them into something new.  The sagas were read to an audience from manuscripts that were prize possessions of certain well to do families.  Nineteen early copies of Njal survive.

Several features resulting from the sagas’ origin and intention can surprise a 21st century reader.  Nail biting action adventure scenes are mixed with long genealogies and descriptions of who sat where at a certain banquet.  There are far too many characters and subplots for a contemporary novel.

The 13th century, when the sagas were created, was a period of strife for Iceland, with pitched battles that only ceased when the country submitted to Norwegian rule.  The sagas were written, in part, to affirm the Icelanders’ personal and national identities.  Many living then could trace their origin back to one of the first 400 settlers, so detailed accounts of the doings of their ancestors were always of great interest, in a way that won’t be clear to us at first.

Winter is the traditional time for stories, and in the depth of winter, southern Iceland gets only four hours of daylight.  In the northern part of the country, it’s three.  In the times described in the sagas, families and friends would gather to spend the winter together.  It’s not hard to imagine a dark hall, with people huddled around the charcoal fires, following the reader’s voice into another world, and as the narratives pace became familiar, I found myself settling into the story and understanding why Tolkien borrowed from the sagas in his creation of Middle Earth.

Here is what Robert Cook, translator of the Penguin edition, says in his introduction:

“In Njal’s Saga we read of battles on land and sea, failed marriages, divided allegiances, struggles for power, sexual gibes, malicious backbiting, revenge, counter-revenge, complex legal processes and peace settlements that fail to bring peace, not to mention dreams, portents, prophecies, a witch-ride and valkyries.  Behind all this richness lies a well-crafted story of decent men and women struggling unsuccessfully to control a tragic force propelled by persons of lesser stature but greater ill-will.”

Next: The characters, the structure, and the events of Njal’s Saga

More photographs from Iceland

Here are a few more photographs from the week we spent in Iceland. In a few days I’ll write about our discussions of Icelandic sagas in general, and Njal’s Saga in particular, which framed and guided our travels through the countryside.


Farmhouse, Hlidarendi

Kerio, a collapsed volcanic crater

Volcanos Eyjafjallajökull (right) and Katla (left). Mary’s photo.

Bridge to nowhere, Skalholt

Guesthouse, Skalholt

Shore of Lake Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland

Another bridge to nowhere – the metaphorical possibilities are endless.

Skalholt Cathedral from the river path

Churchyard at Oddi


Yours truly by the statue of Saemundur the Learned.

Next: The sagas

Photographs from Iceland

We are back from a week in southern Iceland, which we spent studying one of the great sagas with a small group of storytellers.  We also visited places where this thousand year old drama unfolded. I’ll speak of Njal’s Saga in future posts, but here are a few pictures of the striking Icelandic autumn.

Pool at Thingvellir

A thousand years of volcanic eruption and cutting trees for heat stripped most of the native birch and willow forests.  A joke we heard several times is, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, stand up.”  Reforestation efforts are underway, but meanwhile shrubs and even some of the lichen that covers the boulders provide dramatic fall colors.

Thingvellir Park. Photo by Mary

Pines are not native to Iceland, but this stand, planted by the government at Thingvellir Park, made a welcome spot for a picnic.

Thingvellir from the cliffs above.

The Law Circle, where the National Assembly met every summer, stands behind the church (a later addition).  Beginning in 930, the Icelanders’ efforts to govern by rule of law was key to the life of the nation and to Njal’s Saga as well.

Njal’s Saga, like The Illiad, is based on historical incidents and people.  This historical marker, along the Ranga River, marks the spot where a key character, the consummate warrior hero, Gunnar Hamundarson, was attacked by 30 men while riding home with his two brothers. The Hamundarson’s killed 14 attackers, but Gunnar’s youngest brother, Hjort died in the battle. In a nearby burial mound, archeologists found a ring engraved with a stag; the name Hjort means “stag.”

Hlidarendi with Eyjafjallajökull in the background

Gunnar lived and died at a farmstead in Hlidarendi, a name that means “Hill’s end.” This is where the highlands slope down to the coastal plain. The green area with a pine border in the middle ground is Nina’s Grove, a park and sculpture garden in honor of Nina Saemundsson (1892-1965), a world-renowned Icelandic sculptor who was born in Hlidrendi, but also spent 30 years in the US. Her statue, The Spirit of Achievement was placed over the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.

In the distance is Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic for “Island, mountain, glacier), which erupted in 2010. An explosion of lava blasting through a 700 meter thick glacier created tons of ash that blew toward the continent and stopped European air travel.

View from Nina’s grove over the coastal plains, to islands (on the right horizon) in the Atlantic

This view over the coastal plains shows a view of Nina Saemundsson’s sculpture of a mother holding two children.

The church at Hlidarendi and a view of the little green van we toured in. Much of the information here came from our driver, who spoke excellent English. He tried to teach us how to pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull,” with little success.

To be continued.

Saemundur the Learned

Saemundur Sigfusson (1056–1133) was an Icelandic scholar, priest, and according to legend, sorcerer, who founded an important center of learning at the southern costal town of Oddi. He was known to have studied abroad, and many said he’d been at “The Black School,” though no one quite knew where it was. People said the headmaster was the Devil.

Seamunder and his fellow students received a fine education in witchcraft and sorcery, but graduation was iffy. The Devil would grab the last student out the door, and that soul was lost for eternity. Seamunder told his classmates not to worry. He told them to file out first, and then he donned a large overcoat. When the Devil reached out, he caught the coat.  Seamunder slipped free and ran out the door, though as it closed, it injured his heel.

The Devil had it in for Seamunder after that, always trying to trick him. Once Seamunder told the Devil he’d give him his soul in return for a voyage to Iceland in which he never got wet. The Devil took the form of a large seal and told Seamunder to climb on his back. The Devil was careful – not a drip of water touched his passenger. Seamunder spent his time on the Devil-seal reading his psalter, and as they neared the shore, he began to beat the seal with his prayer book. Startled, the seal dove under water, Seamunder got dunked, and made his way to the shore near Oddi, a free man.

Seamunder beats the seal with his psalter – statue in the churchyard at Oddi

Legend has Seamunder playing numerous other tricks on the Devil, who is always portrayed as honest and not quite the sharpest tool in the shed.

This information comes from a pamphlet designed by the Oddi Society. Founded in 1990, the Society’s goal is to make Oddi a center of learning again, this time with an emphasis on the environment as well as Icelandic heritage and culture.

Skalholt, Iceland

The view out my window is Skalholt Cathedal and this reconstructed chapel which is part of an archeological dig at one of Iceland’s key historical sites.  On the horizon behind the chapel likes Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.  In the middle ages, Europeans called it the Gateway to Hell.  Hekla last erupted in February, 2000, but with luck, it will continue to sleep through the rest of the week.

Mary and I are here for a different type of archeology – a dig into an ancient tradition of story.  We are here with three other storytellers to explore Njal’s Saga, the account of a feud with tragic consequences, not unlike the American tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  In both cases, events are based in history; we’re visiting some of the key locations mentioned in the saga.  Njal was shaped by an anonymous author into the masterpiece of a unique tradition that influenced Tolkien, among others.

Meeting of the continents: the North American tectonic plate (left) meets the Euro-Asian plate at Thingvellir, Iceland.

This week of the equinox, the temperature drops to freezing at night, but the guesthouse where we are staying is warmed by geothermal energy, by water bubbling up from hot springs that is shipped through pipes to cities and settlements throughout the island. Iceland is 99% energy independent.

I’ll have more to reflect on in future posts, but meanwhile it is seven hours later than west coast time – tomorrow is almost here, so it’s time to log out.  Please enjoy your week and stay tuned for future posts.