Njal's Saga (also known as The Story of Burnt Njal) recounts a multi-generational feud that occurred in Iceland, ca. 950-1015 A.D. It reads in many places like a script for a movie or a video game, with choreographed sword- and axe-play, gory hackings-off of limbs, and dramatic confrontations among stiff-necked warriors --- interspersed with interminable lawyerly quibbling and chicanery that wouldn't be out of place in a TV courtroom today.

Magnus Magnusson (co-translator with Hermann Palsson of a 1960 edition of the saga) writes:

It is impossible to summarize briefly the 'plot' of Njal's Saga. At its core is the tragedy of the influential farmer and sage, Njal Thorgeirsson of Bergthorsknoll, who with his family is burned alive in his home by a confederacy of enemies. ... It starts on a quiet note with a group of people, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, who, because they are the way they are, clash with each other; not violently, but sufficiently hard to cause ill-feeling. This casual ill-feeling is transmitted to kinsmen and descendants, to friends and to allies. More and more people become involved, with fatal results --- first Njal's great friend, the heroic Gunnar of Hlidarend, and then Njal himself and his four sons. The early actors of the drama fade out, but the troubles they have started now seem to have a life of their own, until the action is galloping headlong, with brief tantalizing pauses where control seems to have been momentarily asserted, from minor mishap to major tragedy, until finally its inevitable impulse is exhausted in the last elegiac chapter.

And there's sex, and magic, to go with the violence. One tragic seed of the conflict sprouts when a betrothed warrior travels far to claim an inheritance, is seduced, and then bewitched when he chooses to return home --- so that he and his intended can never consummate their marriage. And then there are ghosts and "fetches", visions and prophecies, mysterious mists and portents. To give a taste of the saga, some storyboard scenes follow (taken from the 1861 translation by Sir George Webbe Dasent).

A dramatic battle takes place on a frozen river (~995 A.D.), when one of Njal's sons pauses to tie his shoe, then races to catch up and slips on the ice:

Skarphedinn takes a spring into the air, and leaps over the stream between the icebanks, and does not check his course, but rushes still onwards with a slide. The sheet of ice was very slippery, and so he went as fast as a bird flies. Thrain was just about to put his helm on his head; and now Skarphedinn bore down on them, and hews at Thrain with his axe, "the ogress of war," and smote him on the head, and clove him down to the teeth, so that his jaw-teeth fell out on the ice. This feat was done with such a quick sleight that no one could get a blow at him; he glided away from them at once at full speed. Tjorvi, indeed, threw his shield before him on the ice, but he leapt over it, and still kept his feet, and slid quite to the end of the sheet of ice.

When a gang has trapped Njal and his family in their house, and is about to burn them (~1011 A.D), an artifact from that earlier battle returns in brutal vengeance:

Then Skarphedinn said, "Here now is a keepsake for thee;" and with that he took out of his purse the jaw-tooth which he had hewn out of Thrain, and threw it at Gunnar, and struck him in the eye, so that it started out and lay on his cheek.

And, decades later, another gruesome killing:

Wolf the Quarrelsome cut open his belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so wound all his entrails out of him, and he did not die before they were all drawn out of him.

Then there are the poems and the figures of speech, kennings and metaphors like "sea stag" and "water skate" (ship), "boiling kettle" (hot spring), "helmet hewer" (sword), "rill of wolf" (stream of blood), and more. And the characters, still vibrant after 1000 years. And their speeches! As Magnusson describes them, "... these whiplash retorts, these silences, these slow deliberate formalities that are a prelude to violence."

(see also KenningConstructionKit (17 Nov 1999), ForestPrimevalPedestrian (9 May 2003), ...)

TopicLiterature - 2003-06-03

"slow, deliberate formalities that are a prelude to violence."

Wow! That 'be'speaks of politics and lawyerly doings and battlefields everywhere.

(correlates: SuburbanDeer, Critical Eyes, ReadyWillingAble, ...)