Njal’s Saga

If you enjoyed Lord of the Rings, then let me recommend an Icelandic story called Njal’s Saga.

It’s also called The Story of Burnt Njal, because, as in most sagas, pretty much everybody is dead at the end, including Njal and his family, burned alive in their house. Suspense and story arc not important to the saga writers, since it’s history and everybody already knows what happened.

Written about 1200-1300, this mostly-true story of a fifty-year blood feud covers the period about 1000 AD, when when Christianity arrived in Iceland. In a culture that values manly virtues and seeks immortality through brave deeds, Njal himself is an interesting example of how to incarnate Christian virtues of meekness, humility and forgiveness in “manly” ways; he is an early follower of the foreign Christ, but because of his integrity he is respected by all.

But the arrival of Christianity isn’t the point of the story – it’s just one of the things that happened.

The strength of any story lies in its characters. In Njal’s Saga we meet real historical people – some mighty warriors, and many ordinary people, such as Eystein the Noisy, Ketil Flat-nose, Thorstein Broad-belly, Ragnar Shaggy-britches and his son Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Thorstein Cod-biter, and Sigurd Swine-head. Unlike heroic fantasy, most people here are neither supermen nor villains, but ordinary men and women.

Iceland in this period is about the only libertarian society that actually existed in a real historical place for any meaningful length of time. Iceland did without kings or a State for several centuries.

The remarkable thing that emerges in Njal’s Saga is that Iceland had practically no criminal law. Only civil law. If you damaged my goods or slaves, you’d have to pay me an agreed sum in compensation. Likewise if you killed someone important to me; murder was a civil matter, to be settled among those personally concerned. If you refused judgment, or reneged on the agreement, then you became outlaw, meaning you were now without legal recourse: anyone could rob or kill you without penalty.

The law was simple enough that it could be memorized. Several times a year at regional gatherings, a judge (the word godi is related to god, because judges were holy) would recite the whole law, and then everyone would bring their cases and grievances before judges on whom they agreed. A man whose judgment was respected for wisdom gained great status. A person who could advise you well in legal matters also gained status. For this reason, practicing law for money was almost the only action punishable as a criminal matter. (Homosexuality and witchcraft were the other two.)

The idea of a society with only civil laws and no government at all sounds like a libertarian fantasy, but Iceland worked this way for something like two and a half centuries – about the outside limit for any society to survive without significant change.

There are two parts to the book: First the story of Gunnar, a good man married to a spiteful woman, and the second about Gunnar’s friend Njal. Both sories have the feeling of a snowball very slowly gaining inexorable momentum and then crashing unstoppably to a tragic end. Perhaps it’s intentional that in Gunnar’s story, before the coming of Christianity, many conflicts are resolved peaceably, while in Njal’s story, after Christianity arrives, disorder and violence overtake everyone. The moral is repeated several times that human society needs law. Danish-Anerican author Poul Anderson’s verse sums it up:

Would you know the dog from the wolf? You may look at his paw,
Comparing the claw and the pad; you may measure his stride,
You may handle his coat and his ears; you may study his jaw;
And yet what you seek is not found in his bones or his hide,
For between the Dog and the Wolf there is only the Law.

The combination of epic Norse poem, courtroom drama, blood-feud, and the chronicle of a country’s religious conversion adds up to a surprisingly readable novel. For anyone who’s read other Norse sagas, it is also interesting to meet old friends we know from elsewhere. Njal’s Saga is not precisely history as we know it, but it recounts events about real people who were well-known across the Scandinavian world. The sheer geographic scale of the Norse world is also on display in the background, as the story and characters range outward to Norway, Scotland, and the Mediterranean. This is an account well anchored both in location and in its historical period – the same generation in which the Normans were invading Byzantine Sicily and Saxon England; Popes and Patriarchs were excommunicating one another;

Njal’s Saga exists in several different translations, but Robert Cook’s text preserves the deadpan delivery of the original Old Norse, which is sometimes funny and sometimes stark and brutal. You can imagine the hearers silently raising a drink in respect when a character stoically takes a traitor’s blade in the gut and dies, uttering a single ironic sentence or curse. The writer has little concern for psychology or inner conflict; we get to know the characters entiely through their words and actions.

The translator also supplies an enormous amount of notes, which (to my surprise) really enhance the reading experience. You’ll want to keep a finger in the End Notes section the whole time, because the notes are that good. (For this reason, a dead-tree edition is vastly more useful than a Kindle book.)

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Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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