Njal’s Saga: some concluding remarks.

1879 title page in Swedish. Public domain

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.

The sacred marriage in alchemy. Public domain.

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.”

Njal’s Saga, part 3

Gunnar looks back at his home, 1898 illustration. Public domain.

In order to follow this discussion, it will help if you’ve read two earlier posts:

  1. Njal’s Saga, an Introduction: http://wp.me/pYql4-2sS
  2. Njal’s Saga, part 2: http://wp.me/pYql4-2tb

Scholars suggest that the author wove together two separate stories, an oral “Gunnar’s Saga,” and a related but distinct, “Njal’s Saga.”  Both men die during attacks on their homes.  Historically 18 years passed between the events; Gunnar died in 992 and Njal around 1010.  In the last third of the saga, Njal’s son-in-law, Kari, mounts a campaign of revenge against the killers which threatens the stability of the nation.  A pitched battle breaks out at the Althing, the National Assembly, which was sacred ground where fighting was forbidden.  When reconciliation finally comes, it signifies the dawn of new vision of life and its purpose.

Once the saga gets going, certain scenes come alive like movies – I know there’s a screenplay here…


Soon after Gunnar and Hallgerd were married, they attended a feast with Njal and his wife, Bergthora.  In no time, the two women were at each other’s throat.  The insults grew so extreme that Gunnar dragged Hallgerd out of the hall. Soon after that, she had one of Bergthora’s slaves killed.  Bergthora paid her back in kind, initiating a feud that escalated and took the life of free retainers and then kinsmen on both sides.

The killings took place while the husbands were at the Althing which  convened for two weeks every summer.  Aside from social activities, this was the time for legal action on matters the lower courts couldn’t settle.  It was also where “compensation” for killings was determined.

If you killed a man, even in self defense, you confessed it in front of witnesses.  A hidden killing was treated as murder and could result in exile for life.  A killing confessed was manslaughter and terms of compensation could be set:  a slave was worth seven ounces of silver, a freeman fifteen, and a kinsman as much as 200.  It may seem cold, but the system was designed to break the cycles of revenge that the old ethic of “honor” and blood retribution entailed.

Gunnar and Njal tried to keep up with the legalities of the killings-for-hire their wives initiated, but it became harder as stakes were raised.  Each killing drew more people, bound by family and friendship, into the feud.  Into this deadly mix came Mord Valgardsson, son of Unn,  who despised Gunnar and Njal.

If Hallgerd spawned chaos and harm, she did so in a half-unconscious manner.  She was reactive, without clear designs or premeditation.  Mord, by contrast, was cunning, able to weave elaborate snares for his enemies.  Our tour leader, Robert Willhelm, pointed out the similarity of Mord’s name to Mordred, King Arthur’s  son and nemesis.

During a famine, Hallgerd sent a servant to steal food from a man who refused to sell any to her husband.  When Gunnar, with his concept of honor, discovered the theft, he slaped his wife, who had already buried two husbands who hit her.  Hallgerd warned Gunnar that she would never forget the blow.

Njal prophesied that if Gunnar killed two members of the same family and broke the legal settlement for the killings, he would die soon after.  Through trickery, Mord ensured that Gunnar killed the son of a man he’d already slain.  In addition to a financial settlement for the killing, the Althing court sentenced Gunnar to three years in exile.

In one of the most poignant scenes, as Gunnar and his brother rode to the harbor, Gunnar’s horse slipped while fording a river.  Springing off the horse, Gunnar looked back at his farm and said, “Lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.”

That autumn, Mord sent word that Gunnar was home alone and 40 of his enemies mounted an attack.  Firing arrows from the second floor, Gunnar killed two assailants and wounded eight.  Then a man named Thorbrand got close enough to cut Gunnar’s bowstring.

Gunnar defending his home, 1898. Public domain.

Gunnar turned to his wife and asked for two strands of her waist length hair for a new bowstring. Hallgerd said, “Does anything depend on it?”

“My life depends on it,” Gunnar said, “for they’ll never be able to get me as long as I can use my bow.”

“Then I’ll recall,” she said, “the slap you gave me, and I don’t care whether you hold out for a long or short time.”

Gunnar wounded eight more attackers before he finally fell, exhausted and wounded in fifteen places.  One of the attackers said, “His defense will be remembered as long as this land is lived in.”

Gunnar’s mother was ready to kill Hallgerd who fled the house.  Gunnar’s friends raised a burial mound, and one night, as two of Njal’s sons passed by, they saw the mound open.  Four lights shone and cast no shadows.  The brothers heard Gunnar’s spirt sounding content as it spoke skaldic verse.


Gunnar embodied the old warrior ideal of life and death with honor that won you a place in Valhalla.  The dark side of this ethos was an unending string of killings that threatened the nation itself.  Things were about to change.  Shortly after Gunnar’s death, a Christian missionary named Thangbrand arrived in Iceland.  He wasn’t the sort of evangelist you want on your doorstep, since he carried a crucifix in one hand and a sword in the other and didn’t much care which he used.

One autumn morning, as Thangbrand celebrated mass, a man named Hall of Sida approached.  “In whose memory are you celebrating this day?” he asked.

“The angel Michael’s,” Thangbrand said.

“What features does this angel have?”  Hall asked.

“Many,” said Thanbrand.  “He weighs everything that you do, both good and evil, and he is so merciful that he gives more weight to what is well done.”

Hall said, “I would like to have him for my friend.”

With his openness to new ideas and the simple way he voices his spiritual longing, Hall becomes the first convert.  In 999 or 1000, the Althing declared Christianity to be the new religion.  Mord continued to work behind the scenes fomenting trouble for Njal and his sons, and around the year 1010, 100 armed men attacked Njal’s home and burned it, with him and most of his family inside.  Only Kari of Orkney, Njal’s son in law, escaped.  He raised a force to attack the burners, and at the next Althing, when the retribution process broke down, a pitched battle erupted at Thingvellir, the spiritual heart of the nation.

Battle at Thingvellir. Public domain.

During a lull in the fighting, members of the assembly intervened to arrange a truce.  Hall of Sida stood between the combatants and said, “All men know what sorrow the death of my son Ljot has brought me.  Many will expect payment for his life will be higher than for the others who have died here.  But for the sake of a settlement I’m willing to let my son like without compensation, and what’s more, offer both pledges and peace to my adversaries.”

Things have changed.  A few decades earlier, such a statement would have cost Hall his honor, but the saga says that when he sat down, “much good was spoken about his words, and everybody praised his goodwill.”

The combatants submitted to judgement.  Cash payments were levied as well as three years exile from Iceland for the combatants.  During the exile, they slew each other in Orkney and along the coast of Ireland, but finally, when the leaders returned to Iceland, they pledged friendship to each other.  The old ways had cost too much in blood and suffering.  The survivors had no stomach for anymore fighting.  The saga ends with a sense that a new wind was blowing through the land.

Next:  reflections on the story.

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