Proving Facts in Njáls saga

By Minjie Su

The opening day of the Saga Conference saw Professor Carol J. Clover from the University of California Berkeley give the first of the three plenary lectures. In her paper ‘Proving Facts in Njáls saga’, Clover uncovers the seemingly inadequate evidence-finding process in Njáls saga and discusses how the legal process can be transmitted to the saga’s narrative structure.

The burning of Njal’s house from The Njáll tapestry project – photo Wikimedia Commons

For readers who are familiar with the Anglo-American legal system, the trials in Njáls saga must strike a chord. Just as in present day, those saga trials employ a very similar decision-making procedure and evoke a highly formularised legal language. Yet one important element seems missing: we scarcely see the characters try to establish any evidence, material proof, or facts.


Does it mean that the saga characters do not care about evidence finding as much as we do? Or are they, as somewhat fictionalised characters, simply so gullible that words are enough to establish facts? Of course not, Clover argues. Although these things appear to be missing in the direct description of the trials, they are found elsewhere in the pre-trial text in systematic and carefully premeditated forms. In other words, though they are not necessarily laid out before the judge, they are laid out before the audience. Above all, one must remember that works such as Njáls saga are products of the creative mind, though they are based on historical figures and events. However loyal the author is to the original materials, he/she has the freedom over how to arrange and represent them and, during that recreative process, the author must consider the presence of the audience/readers – a third party that is not present ‘then’ but present ‘now’. That is, in short, us.

The role that we as readers are supposed to play is recognised by the author of Njáls saga, who has carefully woven the needed evidence into the texts. Clover distinguishes between ‘evident matters’ and ‘murky matters’, the former being events witnessed by others (i.e. not requiring further evidence) and the latter denoting unwitnessed, obscure actions. It is crucial to ‘bring to light’ these murky matters before the trials, as suggested by the frequent use of the word lýsi (light) lýsi-related terms. The task, however, is reserved not for the detectives but for us.


Clover selected and analysed a few passages from Njáls saga to demonstrate. The most illuminating of these examples is no doubt the burning, which is the climax of the saga and which includes several characters’ brutal death (therefore requiring several proof-establishing processes). Some of the deaths are witnessed, some are not; therefore, in addition to providing ample examples, the passage also offers interesting contrasts and demonstrates how the narrative structure is affected from multiple angles.

The first death falls on the unfortunate Helgi Njálsson. When the burning just starts and when Flósi, the head of the burners, allows women and children to leave, Helgi’s two sisters-in-law dresses him in female attires in the hope that he may be ‘smuggled’ out. But as Helgi walks out, Flósi remarks: ‘that is a tall woman and broad across the shoulders.’ Seeing that his disguise is about to be detected, Helgi throws off the cloak and draws his sword, which has been kept hidden under his arm. He is cut down and beheaded by Flósi.

As the killing takes place in plain sight, witnessed by Flósi, his companions, and all those women and children present, the saga author gives a very straightforward and brief description of the whole scene. No further description or inquiry into Helgi’s death is needed.

The deaths of Njál and his son Skarphéðinn, however, require different representation, for they take place inside the burning house, unwitnessed. In order that we have solid, proper proof of Njál’s death, the author gives us testimonies from several individuals: first, the steward, who spreads the oxhide over Njál, describes in minute detail how Njál prepares himself for death. Of course, Njál is not dead yet at this point, so we need another clear sign to identify the time of his passing: after a while, when the great beams of the roof began to fall, Skarphéðinn suddenly observes: ‘now my father must be dead, for I have neither heard groan nor cough from him.’


When Skarphéðinn himself is about to die, the situation becomes even trickier, for he is literally the last man standing. Therefore, it requires a bit more thinking to testify his death. Since there is no hope in finding any witness inside the house, the author turns outside and starts to describe the commotion over there. Kári, Skarphéðinn’s brother-in-law, survives the fire and manages to escape unnoticed by the burners. Then, a seemingly random character called Geirmundr shows up out of nowhere and enquires Flósi about the killings. It is this Geirmundr who reveals Kári’s escape and confirms (from Kári) Skarphéðinn’s death. Later, the narrator systematically ‘examines’ the locations of the bodies, as if he were a court investigator. In this manner, the ‘murky matter’ of the burning of Njáll and his household is brought to light by both verbal testimony – through Geirmundr – and physical testimony, namely the examination of the bodies. It is also noteworthy that no patrimony is provided for Geirmundr, which renders him unidentifiable. Such case is very rare in Icelandic sagas. The whole purpose of this character’s existence, therefore, is to bring to us the needed evidence to the murky matter; once his job is done, he fades out of the story and is nowhere to be found.

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