Njal’s Saga: A Fictional Account Of Early IcelandNjal’s Saga: A Fictional Account of Early Iceland
“The origin and evolution of saga writing in Iceland are largely matters for speculation. A common pastime on Icelandic farms, from the 12th century down to modern times, was the reading aloud of stories to entertain the household, known as sagnaskemmtun (“saga entertainment”). It seems to have replaced the traditional art of storytelling” (Hermann Palsson, pg. 1). Njal’s Saga uses Old Icelandic writing convention and historical data to give a fictional account of a generation’s lifestyle and struggles.
Icelandic literature has become very valuable because historians have realized the great amount of truth that can be found in each saga. According to one historian, the sagas have proven to be of “valuable insight into the fabric of a unique medieval community” (Gary Martin, pg.1). During the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, there were about “forty sagas written by various anonymous Icelanders” (Gary Martin, pg.1). Each used a combination of historical facts and drama to create
sagas that tracked generations of people. Historically, the first people to travel to Iceland were from Norway. According to Gary Martin, they were “surprised to find such a plentiful land” (pg.1). Not only did they farm, but they also collected food and supplies from the nearby ocean.
There are quite a few sagas that reveal the true historical society of Iceland. “Egil’s Saga records how, on arrival, the settler Skallagrim and his companions ‘went out fishing and seal-hunting, and collecting the eggs of wild foul, for there was plenty of everything” (Gary Martin, pg.1). In Iceland, the immigrants held to the farming traditions that they had in Norway, so not much changed in the transition. One historian noted, “Iceland, like much of Norway, was essentially country for pastoralists. Short growing seasons made the cultivation of grains marginal” (Gary Martin, pg. 1). Animal products provided the mainstay of the Icelandic diet. An emphasis on dairy cattle and sheep meant that lamb and beef and dairy products such as cheese and whey were relatively plentiful, “especially following good seasons” (Gary Martin, pg. 2)
Despite the abundance of food, as more settlers came, the resources were slowly depleted:
The following episode from Grettir’s Saga is likely to have been typical: ‘as soon as Eirik knew that Onund had arrived he offered to give him anything he wanted, and added that there was not much land still unclaimed. Onund said he would like first to see
what land was available. So they went south across the fjords, and when they reached Ofaera, Eirik said, ‘Now you can have a look at it. From here on the land is unclaimed up to Bjorn’s settlement. (Gary Martin, p.2).
Clearly this famine was a historical, recorded event since there are also reports of a shortage of foodstuffs in Njal’s Saga. “This was a time of great famine in Iceland, and all over the country people were going short of hay and food” (Njal’s Saga, Ch. 47). So it is clear that Njal’s Saga includes some factual information, yet still remains a fictional narrative.
Instead of creating a form of law enforcement, the Icelanders usually took matters into their own hands. This is can be seen in the many killings that occur in Njal’s Saga. The Icelandic people had developed a feud system, which was largely based on family and relationships. Being friends or related to someone meant that you stood up for him and defended him at all costs. The importance was not necessarily the individual, but the family name. Lars Lonnroth saw this and commented, “The Feud Pattern emerges from a previous state of balance in the relationship between two families. A cause for conflict is presented, and the feud breaks out as members of one family commit a punitive act against members of another family” (Lars Lonnroth, pg. 69).
This is also clearly seen and recorded in Njal’s Saga when Njal is burned for the sake of his family.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that midway through the saga, Christianity is introduced. The values and morals upheld by Christianity are very different from those of the Icelandic culture. The Christian value system is based on love, specifically the love God has for people. It is also founded on people’s love for God and for one another. This calls for forgiveness of those who have wronged you and for an attitude of fairness and submission to God. The differences between the two moral systems may have influenced the writer since Njal’s Saga was written years after the Christians came into Iceland. G. Turville-Petre notes” but at times the Christian outlook dominates in the Njal’s Saga; forgiveness triumphs over vengeance” (G. Turville-Petre, pg. 251). It is interesting that religion was a major influence on the Icelandic writing. It seems that when Christianity came into the picture, the Icelanders took the best of both worlds. They still maintained the feud system, which allowed murder, yet still, acted in the name of God, even violently.
Even before Christianity came, the Icelanders had already developed their pagan religion. Hermann Palsson remarked: “The learned men of medieval Iceland took great pride in their pagan past and copied traditional poems on mythological and legendary themes” (Hermann Palsson, pg. 3). Perhaps, they were content with their previous religion, but found comfort in the idea of one God who they could call upon when they were in trouble. Or perhaps they wanted to
sound more spiritual and righteous in what they were doing. Once again, a very factual event and state of mind which was so carefully captured by the author.
It seems that the author had access to Iceland’s historical records. He then utilized his literary skill to create fantastic stories that encompassed the history and values of his medieval community, thus producing Njal’s Saga. “In the late 12th century, Icelandic authors began to fictionalize the early part of their history (c. 900-1050), and a new literary genre was born: the sagas of Icelanders” (Hermann Palsson, pg. 4). Many of the sagas written were similar in that they were used merely for entertainment purposes and were based on true history. So by comparing these with the documents that are strictly historical, it becomes clear how much of the truth was actually embellished to please the audience using very clever literary devices.
The sagas are written stories that are based in factual data, but some of the accounts have been construed or completely made up to satisfy the strong oral tradition that was used. “Though a good deal of the subject matter was evidently derived from oral tradition and thus of historical value for the period described, some of the best sagas are largely fictional; their relevance to the author’s own times mattered perhaps no less than their incidental information about the past” (Hermann Palsson, pg. 4). These sagas were used merely for
entertainment purposes so when the storyteller would run out of things to say, or need to make something more interesting, he would embellish a true story, or make up a false story. It was also not uncommon for the storyteller to add spiritual elements for a bit of mysticism and excitement.
The structure of Njal’s Saga may be very telling about the history of Iceland during this time period. According to E.G. Turville-Petre, “the author of Njal’s Saga must have also consulted genealogical lists, and books about early Icelandic Law” (G. Turville-Petre, pg. 250). This is very interesting because he suggests that there were earlier writings and writing styles. There also might have been different government or feud systems that the author had to learn about.
“The presentation of a new character may be lengthened through extensive genealogies, characterizing adjectives, etc.” (Lars Lonnroth, pg. 50). There is a definite style evident in the saga that is much like a newspaper report. The reader feels as if the story is just a compilation of events without a common theme between them. The use of genealogy type writing can be very confusing, but implies that outside information was consulted so that the narrative is not entirely fictional.
The author of Njal’s Saga also uses characterization to enhance the plot of this literary work:
It is mostly through valour and heroic exploits that the typical hero’s personality is realized. He is, however, often a composite character, for some of his features are borrowed from a later and more refined ethos than that of early Scandinavia. He is in fact the synthesis of Viking ideals on the one hand and of codes of courtly chivalry on the other. (Hermann Palsson, pg. 3).
So, Gunnar is immediately portrayed as a grand hero. He seems almost super-human as “he could strike of throw with either hand, and his sword-strokes were so fast that he seemed to be brandishing three swords at once” (Njal’s Saga, pg. 73). Clearly he is strong and handsome, typical for his role as the gallant hero.
The author also focuses on Gunnar’s outward appearance, which suggests that while he is fantastically strong and courageous, he may lack mental sharpness. E.O.G. Turville-Petre remarks “Gunnar is brave, loyal, and open-handed, but being guileless he also lacks wit. This weakness makes him dependent on his friend Njal, a man of very different stamp” (E.O.G. Turville-Petre, pg. V). Njal “was so skilled in law that no one was considered his equal. He was a wise and prescient man” (pg.74). The introduction of Njal into the saga is also very noble yet focuses on his intellectual ability rather than physical strength. Our first impression of Njal is also super-human, almost god-like, as he is “prescient”.
Our attention is also drawn in a negative way to Njal’s physical appearance. It is recorded that, “Njal was wealthy and handsome, but he had one peculiarity: he could not grow a beard” (pg. 74). During Icelandic times a man’s beard was a symbol of his masculinity, so this characteristic of Njal is very revealing. Perhaps it is a foreshadowing that Njal was not going to live a full life because he cannot grow a full beard. Or perhaps it is a sign of physical or emotional weakness.
Although author of Njal’s Saga is still unknown. Yet the literary devices he used are very entertaining. One of the most common throughout the saga is the litote, which serves to express the drama of a situation. This literary device is specifically crucial in the saga because it explains the fictionalization of history. A litote is defined as an “understatement” and an example of this from Njal’s Saga is given concerning Hebridean: “he had killed many men and paid compensation for none of them” (Njal’s Saga, pg. 56). This device was probably unknown to the author due to the fact that a written tradition was not yet established. It is used quite often throughout the saga and serves to embellish a character’s positive or negative attributes.
The literary devices and combination of history and fiction seen in Njal’s Saga are quite revolutionary for the time period in which it was written. Though no one will ever truly know whom the author of Njal’s Saga is, the amazing characteristics of this saga, the splendid portrayal of characters, the use of spiritual elements, and the historical
data contribute to the author’s unparalleled style. Njal’s Saga is undoubtedly unique, and speaks of the traditions and virtues upheld by the very first Icelanders.
Lonnroth, Lars. Njal’s Saga: A Critical Introduction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.
Martin, Gary. Food and Feud in Saga Iceland. 1998. University of Adelaide. 10 Apr.,
Njal’s Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. London: Penguin, 1960.
Palsson, Hermann. Saga. 1999-2001. Britannica.com Inc. 25 Apr., 2001.
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Introduction. The Story of Burnt Njal. Trans. Sir George Webbe
Dasent. London: Aldine P, 1911. 5-11.
Turville-Petre, G. Origins of Icelandic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967. 249-253.