They asked me for a blog in english …

Tapestry unwound – a readers guide to Njál’s saga
July 19, 2007, 12:54 pm
Filed under: Storytelling

My relationship to the saga
I remember the first time I tried to read Njal’s saga. The book sat gloriously on the bookshelf in the livingroom of my home, an illustrated edition from the late fifties with all the archaic endings and in the original language. It wasn’t the language of the beast that thwarted my attempts this first time, but the genealogies right at the beginning. I think I got through the first three or four chapters, then closed the book. The next time the mobile library passed through my neighborhood, I asked for something to read, “but not Brennu-Njálssaga!” I was nine years old at the time.
I got to know the main characters in the saga when I was ten, as part of the curriculum in history. Gunnar the hero, Njáll the sage, Hallgerður the “kvenskörungur” – a woman of character. Fast forward to my early twenties. My professors christian interpretation of the saga-writers, then my summer job as guide at Þingvellir, the site of Icelands first parliament. There I read Njal’s saga for the first time from beginning to end, so as to be able to be a better guide. For the first time I realized how multilayerd the story is and how often some of the more importent marginal characters feature in Icelands history – and other sagas. Marginal in one saga – center stage in other. Or as one reader put it, the best commentaries are often some other sagas. The saga writers wove a rich tapestry of characters and events in order to say something of importance to the patient reader – or hearer, for usually the saga would be read aloud from the book when everyone was gathered at home in the evenings for handicraft or a nice game of chess.

As a storyteller the saga makes new demands on the reader. What seems flat at the first glance, take the episode of Ásgrímur the blind Höskuldsson (bastard son of bastard son of Njáll) and Lýtingur (Þráin Sigfússon’s (and nephew of Gunnar, son in law to Hallgerður, Gunnars wife) brother in law). Both are introduced in chapter 98, when the stage is set for the killing of Höskuldur Njálsson, the first of Njál’s sons to fall. Characters are described in a superficial manner, the ill temperedness of Lýtingur and his brothers, their willingness to take up arms and do malice. When the stage is set, actions of grave importance occur, are laid to rest while the story of Iceland’s acceptance of christianity is told, and as a epilogue for both the killing of Höskuldur and the new way of thinking and doing things, Ámundi is healed of his blindess just long enough to avenge for his fathers death in chapter 106. In a supple way the christian reader is challenged to think a new thought. Is there really a difference between the old way of “heiðni” and the new way of christianity (see also the next chapter!) – will christianity be able to check the spirit of Lamek (Genesis 4, 23-24)? Will christianity be strong enough to create a cosmos of law out of the chaos, the hand of man makes?1 How good are our eyes really, when we think we see the will of God? In other words, did Ámundi miss an opportunity to leave Lýtingur as a seeing man? As a storyteller, you may think of the minimalist presentation on the fringes of the plot as merely a field of bones, but by reading deeper, with open eyes, a nuanced and thoughtful tapestry unwinds, set in the core of being a human.

Reading the saga for the first to last time
So how does a reader approach a saga? What tools are there to help one dig? First let me point out which text to read.

If you read Icelandic, there is an excellent edition from the 1970’s. It’s accessible online as a html file (webpage), download is free. You can import it into a word processor, print it out and put it in a folder so that you can write your thoughts in the margins of the text without cannibalizing the precious book you may or may not have standing in your bookshelve. You also benefit from the possibility to search within the text for names, words, phrases as in every other computer generated file. The same applies for the english and other translations that are “out there” on the public domain. There is an exellent translation from the end of last century by Robert Cook, available from Penguin, published under Penguin Classics in 2001.

Now that we have the question of the text out of the way, lets turn to the genealogies. They are of supreme importance to the plot. Njáls saga is a story of family gone berserk, of politics being made by intermarriage and by revenge being extracted inspite of earlier friendships being in place. The writer of the saga connects the characters to important families in the 13th century Iceland, the age of the Sturlunga, the last days of the republic. In that way it becomes the protohistory of the time of writing and the intristic questions becomes a relevent one for the first readers. Can we use the best of our abilities, law, faith, character to stem the tides of revenge, hunger for power and pressure from abroad to maintain the society as it is? To get a handle on the geneologies, you may want to draw up mindmaps2 of the characters as soon as their anchestry is mentionend, their descendents are named and how they marry. Allow for quite a number of loose pages.

The geography is important too, Njáls saga is a story of families coming to power, Gissur the white, for instance, living in Mosfell, just across the river from Skálholt, the seat of the bishop, is the father of Ísleifur, Icelands first. Gissur is also, coincidentally, one of the main characters in the lawsuits and the leader of the armed attack against Gunnar Hámundason of Hlíðarendi, the first hero of the story. He marries his daughter Þorkatla to Mörður Valgarðsson, one of the major antagonists in Njála and forfather to the Odda family (Sæmundur the learned, Kolbeinn ungi of the 12th and 13th century). A good edition of the saga will have a number of maps to help find the seats of power and flesh out the enormous importance the events have for the peace of the country. But nothing beats having a good map of Iceland, whether an old fashioned folded one, a specialized one or — Google Maps. Most, if not all of the farms mentioned are still to be found on the better maps of Iceland. Some knowlege of the powerstructures of Icelands 13th century results from this, since Njála is something of the commentary of how these powers came to be.

Timeline is important. The saga happens over the course of 50 years or more. The Penguin edition has a timeline, and so have some of the sites that pop up when you look through for material on Njál’s saga. Or you might want to make your own. Have paper and pencil ready!

Finally, having other important sagas sitting in the bookshelve or on the computer disk will be of help, especially if the printed editions include a “who is who” in the sagas, so that the persons can be traced. Gissur, for instance figures in the saga of the Icelanders, his conterpart in Njáls saga, Snorri goði figures in Ölkofra saga, and so on and so forth. A storyteller will gain from the added information about these people, when describing their character, ancestry and importance.

The methodology described above will never grow old, it applies to the first and to the last reading of the saga. As a storyteller and as a teacher you will be able to use this method to make the plot and the people come alive and relevant.

The problem of being a non-Icelander
The non-Icelandic storyteller will have problems of pronouncing the names of characters, if, after coming to this point of my presentation, he or she still feels has any buisiness repeating these stories.

Reading Icelandic, you need to know that the letters sound differently from what you are acostumed to, there are a few extra letters, that sound like something you might use, and, if you have spoken to Icelanders, fresh from Iceland, you might have noticed that they tend to put the accent on the first syllable of the words they speak. That’s normal, considering that in Icelandic the accent is on the first syllable of words. Gunnar (not prononced gunner!) is GUnn(a)r, normal g, a u almost but not quite unlike the u in “furniture”, two n make for a fast n sound, a small a, like in “give me a beer, now!” and finally an almost silently breathed rolled r – like in, Edinburgh pronounced by a Scotsman living in the place.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, Gunnar is one of the easy names, a bit like Gissur or Snorri, where the double letters make for a fast first syllable and an almost silent last … no, not that silent. Names like Ámundi also have the accent on the first (didn’t I say that all words do? You can take that to the bank, no exeptions come to mind), never, Never say ÁmundI. Á like in “ouch”, u like a ü in German and an i which is almost like the i in “finished”, the second one, that is. Say it fast for a few times and you’ll soon be there.
If you feel like strangeling me now, do bear in mind that I am having fun at your expense. It is the perfectly normal Icelandic thing to do. We are the desendents of both the Norse and Irish, which is why it’s so much fun to be an Icelander abroad and drink a draught — or five at the local Celtic watering hole.

You may want to consider skip over this last subchapter and just pronounce names and places as they are written in your edition of the saga, according to the rules of pronounciation of your prefered language. GD&R.

On being a character
Sometimes, most of the times the writer doesn’t seem to agree with a character he writes about. His prejudice has had immence influence in how a person, say, Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir, Gunnar’s wife, is conceived. Only lately, with the advent of feminist chriticism has her reputation improved so that young Icelandic girls want to model themselves after her character. Now, Hallgerður is a woman who will not be slapped without consequences (hence three times a widow), she has a sharp toungue in her mouth and will resort to violent means if provoked. But she is also a person who tried to look after her men, well, the second and third — in a fashion that is.

After some intense reading, I did find that Gunnar is a bit two-dimensional for my tastes and that Kári is an understated superman in all aspects of being a superman. Flosi and Hrútur also have hidden depths, that come to light if you look for it. If you are at any time of your reading Njála reminded of tragedy of Greek origin, you are not far off.

Reputation, understatement and poetry a the characteristics a character will aspire to. Of all, the reputation is the currency of immortality, reputation will outlive the Gods, as the Völuspá claims. An isult, whether spoken or a slap in public constitutes a loss of face and reputation. Again and again will a character seek to avenge for a word of insult — blood will be drawn. This will become extremely clear in the last chapters of Njála, when we look for the reasons of Kári Sölmundarson’s revenge of Njál’s, the sons of Njál’s and his own sons death. It’s also, I believe, the reason for Hallgerður’s actions on her own and on Gunnars behalf (chapters 47 – 48). An insult can be just as powerful a reason for vengance as an injury or wrongful death. You avenge or loose face yourself, if you are next in line to avenge.

Some of the poingant utterings of characters are understated. Just as Shakespeare uses rhymed duplettes to make a point, the sagawriter enjoys a good turn of phrase:

“Good are your gifts, but more I treasure your friendship and those of your sons.”
(Gunnar to Njáll, who is all to him, giver of advice, friendship, legal aid and, finally vengeace)

“Troubles have increased, old girl.”
(Björn from Mörk to his wife after killing a few but not all of the burners with Kári)

A supreme example of combining poetry and action will be found in chapter 155, poetry in Njála is one means of comic release but also a way of persuasion and of making a point. More often than not it’s use of “kenning” makes it hard to decipher, so a good printed edition is imperative to have, well, that or a degree in Icelandic literature.

Literature, history, theology and the art of being a human being
As in all good literature, the big questions are addressed. What remains are questions of where individual motives are taken from. I’ve already mentioned Lamek and the dichotomy of chaos-cosmos. You may also want to search for incidents of salvation, forgiveness, the image of Christ, reconcillation and let the saga ask you which direction you want to take once the image and the scripture is clear in your mind.

All in all, as with the great literature of the world, Njáls saga will inspire you to think new thoughts, voice your opinions and believes in new and exiting ways, explore the problem of being a human from the perspective of an society bound by laws but more by a personal bond to other people and finally, most of all to honor and reputation, for what is a man alone? A man is a man’s joy, said the old heathen code of ethics (Hávamál).

For many Icelanders in the past, biblical scripture and the saga’s were the most important things a person could read. Both concern the art of being a human being. In that spirit, one Icelander has crossed both the Arctic and Antarctic on foot. He carried one book in his backpack for the long evenings alone with himself. The saga of the burnt Njáll.


3 Comments so far
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Thank you Carlos for illuminating Njal’s Saga, for I will return to it in my own reading of it. As you will see from my bare beginnings of a blog inspired by the story-full journey to Iceland, I’d had to choose a seminar group, and because of my long attachment to Kristin Lavransdatter (I’ll post on my storyweft site the article I wrote about the Undset book shortly before the Skalholt week), I could only experience Njal’s Saga vicariously through the tellings by your group, all of them memorable and certainly the most moving one on the hillside at Gunnar’s farm.

You mention in your blog: “If you read Icelandic, there is an excellent edition from the 1970’s. It’s accessible online as a pdf file, download is free.” Could you post the link to this site? Although I don’t speak Icelandic yet, the motivation is strong, and the Reference Library downtown has an excellent section of language kits, including Icelandic. Earlier this summer I looked at the online site for the University of Iceland, but only remember the words for cell-phone and swimsuit — two words that I doubt appear in the sagas!

Comment by Norma

Hello Norma, thanks for the comment. You will find the original Icelandic along with an English and French version under – I’ve corrected the text above accordingly. Good luck with your Icelandicstudies and Kristin Lavransdottir! Hope to see you around, if not in the flesh, then in hyperspace.

Comment by Carlos

Carlos, I have just subscribed to this English-language blog. Thanks for doing it. Bob W

Comment by bobwilhelm

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