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A review of Njal’s Saga, an epic Icelandic tale of revenge

This year I am resolute in my goal to read at least one book per month that has nothing to do with web technology or programming. Over the last few years, I have spent too much time on the technical arts and not enough on the liberal arts. I remember the days of gaining a wealth of insight and creativity from all the random books I used to have time to read. In those days I used to be able to make time stand still and could disappear into a book on just about any topic that would interest me. I could roam free in the world of literature and history. Well, I’m bringing it back this year. My brain needs food for thought and ammo for cocktail party conversations.

I enjoy a good casual discourse on a book so I’ve been thinking that I’ll use this blog to write a little about these books that I’m reading for fun. Through the act of writing about them, I will not only be retaining what I’ve read, but who knows, maybe it’ll be interesting to read about any inspiration that might come out of it.

Inspired by my trip to Iceland last month, my first non technical book of the year was: Njal’s Saga by an unknown author written in the late 13th century.

Njal's Saga, Penguin Classic

My version is the Penguin Classic translated and edited by Robert Cook, a native of Pennsylvania now a professor of English Literature at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. The introduction was clean and insightful, true to Penguin’s legacy of having introductions that aren’t terribly boring. Having read many Icelandic Sagas previously, I pretty much knew already what I was getting into, but what’s particularly interesting about this one is the attention to detail Professor Cook has included in his work to place events that unfold in the saga in historical or factual context. It’s simply crazy to think that most of these people really existed, some version of these fantastic events actually happened, and someone took the time to write so elegantly about them in late 1200’s (and in prose!).

The story itself is completely epic in its proportions. It’s a classic tale of honor amongst friends and unsympathetic vengeance. This tale is not a child’s bedtime story. It follows a very complex plot with numerous subplots. The book’s author has a frank, straight to the point writing style that executes a certain simplicity that completely sucks you in. The attention to detail with names and events is really quite admirable. If you start Njal’s saga, be ready for a roller coaster ride of family feuds, magic, medieval court battles, large and small scale warfare, spiteful women, conniving villans, and pagans grappling with Christendom. The basic formula here is someone awesome becomes a victim of circumstance and is killed -> friends and/or family takes revenge -> more revenge -> more revenge -> more revenge -> everyone dies -> someone else gets rich and peace is finally resolved via marriage between families.

To illustrate how intense this book is, here is how it starts off at the very beginning before you know who any of these people are:

It happend once that Hoskuld held a feast for his friends, and his brother Hrut was there and sat next to him. Hoskuld had a daughter named Hallgerd; she was playing on the floor with some other girls. She was tall and beautiful, with hair as fine as silk and so abundant that it came down to her waist.

Hoskuld called to her, ‘Come here to me.’

She went to him at once, and he took her by the chin and kissed her. Then she went back.

Hoskuld said to Hrut, ‘How do you like this girl? Don’t you find her beautiful?’.

Hrut was silent. Hoskuld asked again.

Hrut then answered, ‘The girl is quite beautiful, and many will pay for that, but what I don’t know is how the eyes of a thief have come into your family.’

Hoskuld was angry at this, and for a time the brothers had little to do with each other.

This incident between brothers, really sets the tone for the whole novel. Many of the worst deeds are foretold either in philosophical conversation, visions, or in dreams. What’s remarkable is that the characters all have a strange type of optimism that even though they are told they are going to die, or something bad is going to happen, each time, they would still always head fearlessly to their fate.

The tale is really two combined into one. The first half of the book follows Gunnar Hamundarson, an ambidextrous warrior who is pretty much awesome in every way except for his taste in woman. He marries Hallgerd who grows up to be a beautiful woman with dark side who instigates murder and large scale family feuds. Njal is Gunnar’s best friend and he is not a violent man; nor is he any type of warrior. Njal’s honor comes from his wisdom and the ability to foretell gloomy events just in time to save the day. Gunnar’s evil wife puts the friendship to the ultimate test by starting a deadly feud with Njal’s wife. Eventually the feud between wives grows out of hand and starts spreading across the whole south of Iceland. Gunnar retains his honor throughout it all, but eventually makes a single mistake that results in him being outlawed by Icelandic law. Vengeful Icelanders go after Gunnar as soon he’s legally able to be murdered and it all culminates to an edge-of-your-seat confrontation. Gunnar’s last stand is magnificant, the guy puts up such a furious defense that the bad guys have to rip the guy’s roof of his house to finally get to him. By this stage of the book you finally realize that the book has gotten to you; to the point where you actually start thinking like these crazy medieval Icelanders. Instead of being sad at the murder of Gunnar, I found myself thinking, “Good for him, he put up and honorable fight. Nice way to go.” I’m telling you while you are reading this you’ll start thinking like a viking too.

These events with Gunnar lead to the 2nd half of the tale which is about Njal and his sons the Njalssons. Njal and all of his sons are very likable characters. Revenge for the death of Gunnar pretty much leads the reader down a dark and bloody path to the end of Njal and his sons. The main tragedy of the story is how Njal and his family are burned alive in their home by a vengeful gang of rogues. It is truly a very sad climax to the book and all throughout the land the act is considered a disgrace, even by some of the most disgraceful characters in the book.

The burning of Njal is named in several other sources apart from this saga, and it appears to be a very big event in early recorded Icelandic history. The scene will certainly be burned onto my recorded memory as one of the most vivid scenes I’ve ever come across in a book. Apart from the violence, there is a lot of other interesting aspects of the book. You’ll find detailed descriptions of early court procedure, an account of how Iceland became a christian nation, and numerous wonderful descriptions of what daily life was like in the Viking age.

All in all, I would highly recommend it for winter reading. You can’t go wrong with a copy of Njal’s Saga, a warm fire and a horn full of mead.

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