By Yoav Tirosh
When I was asked to write about why Brennu-Njáls saga (also known by its endearing pet name Njála) was the best Icelandic saga, I realized that the key to this was its name. Brennu-Njáls saga can—and most often is—be translated to The Story of Burnt Njal. But another way of translating it is The Story of Njáll the Burner. And I believe it is exactly this duality of the saga’s main character Njáll that makes the saga so appealing.
For those who have been hiding under a proverbial rock for a millennium, Njáls saga is a story of Gunnar of Hlíðarendi, a swashbuckling Viking-fighting Icelandic Hero with a capital H, who joins forces with the cynical (and beardless) politician and lawyer Njáll Þorgeirsson as they plot to take over their district in the South of Iceland. When Gunnar collects too many enemies and is therefore dispatched, a power vacuum is created pitting Gunnar’s family against their former allies, the sons of Njáll. When the sons of Njáll go a step too far and kill the saintly Höskuldr Þráinsson Hvítanessgoði, Njáll turns on his sons and orchestrates events so that they will all die in a fiery blaze. The rest of the saga then relates the adventures of Kári, Njáll’s son-in-law, and how he avenges the deaths of Njáll and his family.
Many colorful characters populate the world of Njáls saga. The saga starts with the story of Hrútr and his very awkward dealings with women, leading the way for the saga’s two most striking characters, Hallgerðr, who marries Gunnar and has the propensity for leading to her husbands’ deaths, and Njáll’s wife Bergþóra, loyal to her husband until her own death. The two ladies bicker over seating arrangements and cause a small feud that tests the friendship of the two men, at the cost of the lives of several servants. Another character who has fascinated the saga’s readers is Mörðr Valgarðsson, the local chieftain who does not take kindly to Gunnar and Njáll taking control of his turf and works (some argue successfully and some unsuccessfully) to rid himself of these upstarts.
The saga itself would have been written in the late thirteenth century, by an unknown author. The author’s anonymity had not stopped scholars and authors from speculating on his (or her?) identity, suggesting prominent members of Icelandic society as probable candidates; the fact that there are so many convincing suggestions, though, should in itself be seen as proof that Njáls saga transcends time and space. Its relevance to thirteenth century is clear, with Icelandic society’s difficulties with their own law system, but the fourteenth, fifteenth, and later centuries also saw something in it that resembled their own experience enough to preserve the saga by meticulously copying it down.
Njáls saga is the best saga because it has something in it for everyone; just ask the 18 extant medieval manuscripts and manuscript fragments; an impressive amount that indicates the popularity of the piece. In comparison, Ljósvetninga saga, the saga that I am researching in my PhD project, only has two extant medieval fragments! As Emily Lethbridge’s research shows, Njáls saga used to be placed separately in manuscripts. While this could be because of its length, it could also indicate the special place the text had in the hearts of Icelanders. A place it still occupies, with the play Njála being produced in the Reykjavík municipal theatre in 2016, performing to sold-out audiences.
The reason why you should read Njáls saga is because it is a true literary masterpiece. I have read it at least five times and I keep finding new stuff in it. The Old Norse saga itself offers a very rewarding read with much unexpected word play and prose that sounds lyrical at times. Robert Cook’s translation is equally engaging and really emphasizes the fun parts of the text without dumbing it down. It is fun for scholars, the amateur medievalist, and the general audience, because like Shakespeare, the text plays on several layers and registers.
One thing the saga excels at is its humor. The saga seems to move seamlessly between dirty jokes, witty retorts and narratological tricks that would make anybody giggle. It is hard to give examples without ruining the fun, but one character named Runólfr keeps inviting guests to dine at his farm who are subsequently killed on their way back; you’d expect they would learn not to trust an invitation from the seemingly well-meaning man at one point or another. It has Gunnar declaring his “unmanly” hatred for violence right before embarking on a bloodbath. It has Skarphéðinn Njálsson throw teeth that he gathered years before at an enemy and plucking his eye out; many scholars have wondered about the very odd decision to collect an enemy’s teeth, just so it can be used later as the butt of a joke.
And then, of course, there is Njáll Þorgeirsson, the man of the hour. Until recent years scholars have all seemed to fall under the spell of this patriarch’s overtures of friendship, peace and Christian faith; the phrase “peace-loving” becoming almost synonymous with him. People tend to believe Njáll’s abhorrence of violence, rather than pay attention to the fact that most acts of violence in the saga were done under his watchful eye. In recent years, however, several scholars have started to read between the lines and detect the true cunning nature of this man. His kind words are meant to distract you as the short axe swings and hits you in the back. But, of course, this is just one reading of the saga; the beauty of Brennu-Njáls saga is that he is both Burnt Njáll and Njáll the Burner. One can read the saga and blame everything that happens on Hallgerðr and Bergþóra, or the disgruntled chieftain Mörðr. This option of multiple interpretations is natural to the Icelandic sagas in general and their laconic nature, but nowhere is the duality of these texts felt more than in Njáls saga.
So, the next time somebody stops you in the street to ask “what Icelandic saga should I read?” tell them, without a moment’s hesitation, Njáls saga. A saga that makes you weep, laugh, and scratch your head in wonder at how people from a thousand years ago behaved so similar to us.
yoav tirosh is a PhD candidate at the University of Iceland, where he works on Icelandic sagas. To learn more on why Njáll Þorgeirsson is not a nice guy, check out his article “Víga-Njáll: A New Approach Toward Njáls saga“.
Njal’s Saga, translated by Robert Cook, New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.
Ármann Jakobsson, “Masculinity and Politics in Njáls saga,” Viator 38 (2007), 191–215.
Miller, William Ian. Why Is Your Axe Bloody?: A Reading of Njals Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Sauckel, Anita. “Brennu-Njáls saga: An Old Icelandic Trickster (Discourse)?” Bad Boys and Wicked Women. Antagonists and Troublemakers in Old Norse Literature, edited by Daniela Hahn and Andreas Schmidt, 94-115. Münchner Nordistische Studien 27. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag, 2016.
Lethbridge, Emily, and Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir. New Studies in the Manuscript Tradition of Njáls Saga: The Historia Mutila of Njála. Northern Medieval World. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2018.
Top Image: From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá. Illustration from an 1898 edition.