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Thread: The Story of Burnt Njal (Njals Saga)

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    The Story of Burnt Njal (Njals Saga)


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    Njál Saga

    Last week I watched a film/documentary about the Njál saga on Swedish television. It was made in Iceland and that´s as much I know about it. At the end of the film there were some people who commented the Saga and its meaning.
    Somebody who knows more about this film/documentary?

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    Njál's saga

    Njál's saga (also known as "Brennu-Njáls saga" or "The Story of Burnt Njál") is the most famous of the Icelandic sagas. The saga is sometimes referred to as Njála in Icelandic.

    This epic of Icelandic literature from the 13th century describes the progress of a series of blood feuds. Its author is believed to have been an inhabitant of southeast Iceland, although little more is known. It has a deservedly high reputation as the greatest of the Icelanders' sagas. The breadth of its subject matter and the references within the text indicate that the author must have been extremely well-read and literate.

    It details events which were supposed to have occurred between 930 and 1020, and thus covers the period of Christian conversion in 1000, as well as detailing events at the Battle of Clontarf outside Dublin in 1014.

    Although it agrees in broad terms with known history and refers to many minor locations which can still be found along south Iceland, scholars continue to search for clues to indicate which portions accurately reflect events and which reflect the art of storytelling. At worst it is an historic novel giving a vivid picture of an unfamiliar system. There is evidence for the central event of the burning of Njal. It shows the destructive nature of blood-feuds, and the methods used by the Icelandic Commonwealth to try to resolve them. It also extends beyond Iceland, including a brief and not-very-historic description of the Battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian Boru.

    Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
    With a work as rich and complex as Njal’s saga it is impossible to convey more than an inkling of its qualities in a summary of the plot. It cannot show the author’s skill in developing character, or his sense of drama, or of humour, or of place.

    The first episode covers the period from the betrothal of Hrut Herjolfsson and Unn to the ugly legacy of their divorce. We are shown his exploits in Norway, where he gains honour at court and in battle, but blights his subsequent marriage by submitting to being the lover of the aging queen mother. Through her curse he is unable to consummate the marriage. After Unn divorces him he retains the dowry by challenging Unn’s father to combat. While this conforms to Icelandic law it offends justice. We are thus introduced to two matters that will recur – a man who is wiser in other’s affairs than in his own, and a cause of pressure forced underground to blow like a geyser later.

    The first chapter has given one of Hrut’s insights when he comments of his beautiful niece, “I do not know how thieves’ eyes came into the family”. The saga next pursues the career of this niece, Hallgerd, through her first two marriages. Both husbands die by the axe of Hallgerd’s doting, brutish foster-father. While Hallgerd provokes the first death the second she does not, although it follows from a disagreement between her and her husband. It is Hrut who, despite the family ties, avenges the death by killing Thjostolf.

    Gunnar Hammundarson and Njal Thorgeirsson are now introduced to us. Gunnar is a man of outstanding prowess, and Njal of outstanding sagacity. They are great friends. When Gunnar finds himself obliged to revive Unn’s claim against Hrut Njal provides the wily means by which this is done. By skilful play-acting Gunnar begins the legal process in Hrut’s own house. He follows Hrut’s doubtful example when it comes to court, and Hrut, who has won by threat of violence, loses to threat of violence. Despite humiliation he foresees future links with Gunnar.

    This comes about when Gunnar returns with fresh honours from a trip to Scandinavia. (The author rolls Scandinavian rulers onto the scene as if they existed purely to honour Icelanders.) He goes to the Althing – the annual assembly – in new splendour, and meets Hallgerd. They fall in love and are soon betrothed, despite Hrut’s warnings about Hallgerd’s character.

    Njal disapproves, which soon proves prescient when Hallgerd and Njal’s wife, Bergthora, clash. Hallgerd charms a number of doubtful characters into killing members of Njal’s household, but the feisty Bergthora exacts blood revenge. After killings their husbands make financial settlements according to the status of the victims. The fifth victim is Thord Freedmansson, foster-father of the Njalssons; Thrain Sigfusson, Gunnar’s uncle and Hallgerd’s son-in-law, accompanies the killers. When the feud closes and settlements are made Thrain’s presence at that killing is the pressure which will erupt in time.

    Hallgerd now uses one of her dubious followers to burgle the home of a man called Otkel. Gunnar immediately seeks to make amends, but through churlishness this is not accepted. A lawsuit is started against him which, with Njal’s help, he wins, gaining great credit. But in the course of remonstrating with Hallgerd about the burglary he slaps her. (The original audience would have forgiven this more readily than a modern reader will!)

    This is followed by Otkel wounding Gunnar accidentally. But insult follows injury and Gunnar, still reluctantly, sets out to avenge himself. With only belated help from his brother Kolskegg he kills Otkel and his companions.

    Under Njal’s influence a new settlement is arranged, and Gunnar’s esteem grows. But Njal warns him that this will be the start of his career of killings.

    Next Gunnar accepts a challenge to a horse-fight from a man called Starkad. In the course of the fight his opponents cheat, and Gunnar find himself in a fresh squabble. Njal tries to mediate but Thorgeir Starkadsson refuses this. During a journey with his two brothers Gunnar is ambushed by Starkad and his allies. The battle finishes with fourteen attackers dead – but also Gunnar’s brother Hjort.

    Worming through all these troubles is Unn’s son Mord Valdgardson who, through jealousy, hates Gunnar. Where matter might have settled he encourages turmoil. He has learned that Njal has prophesied that Gunnar’s death will follow if he kills twice in the same family and subsequently breaks the settlement. He is one of the instigators of the next attack on Gunnar by persons dissatisfied in the settlement. Again Gunnar fights successfully, but he kills a second man in the same family. The settlement that follows entails that Gunnar and Kolskegg leave Iceland for three years.

    Arrangements are made for exile. But as Gunnar leaves home his horse stumbles. He looks homeward and, touched by the loveliness of his homeland, resolves not to go with his brother. As he has broken the settlement he is declared an outlaw. He goes about as though nothing has changed but his enemies gather in time, Mord among them, for revenge. He defends himself in his home until one of his enemies cuts his bowstring. Hallgerd then assures herself of lasting infamy by refusing to give him strands of her hair to restring his bow – as a revenge for the slap he once gave her. His enemies resist Mord’s proposal of burning him in the house as shameful, but eventually they have to haul the roof off to allow them to kill Gunnar. Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin assists Hogni Gunnarsson in a few acts of vengeance before a settlement is achieved.

    Scandinavian rulers are again brought in, to honour two Icelandic expeditions: those of Thrain Sigfusson and of Njal’s two younger sons. Both return with honour enhanced but with company to suit them. Thrain brings back the malevolent Killer-Hrapp; the Njalssons the noble Kari, who marries their sister. But the Njalssons also bring back a grievance about the way in which the King of Sweden has treated them, somewhat unreasonably blaming Thrain. While Njal says they have been foolish in raising the matter he advises them to publicise it so that it will be seen as a matter of honour. Thrain refuses a settlement, and his retainers, including Hallgerd on her last appearance, insult them.

    The most dramatic of the saga’s battles follows. The Njalssons, and Kari, prepare to ambush Thrain and his larger following. The way of crossing the river between them is a bridge of ice. Skarp-Hedin overtakes his brothers, leaps the river, and goes into a slide past Thrain, whom he beheads in passing. Between them the attackers kill four, including Hrapp.

    Thrain’s brother Ketil is married to Njal’s daughter, and between them they bring about a settlement. Wishing to remove any cause of contention Njal adopts Thrain’s son Hoskuld as his foster-son. He grows up in Njal’s household, and is loved and favoured by him. When he is fully grown Njal obtains for him a chieftaincy, and a suitable wife, Hildigunn.

    At this point the saga recounts the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 AD.

    Mord Valgardson now finds Hoskuld becoming such a successful chief that his own chieftaincy is declining. He sets to work in his usual way to set the Njalssons against Hoskuld; the tragedy of the saga is that they are so susceptible to his promptings that they, with Mord and Kari, murder him as he sows in his field. As one character says, “Hoskuld was killed for less than no reason; all men mourn his death; but none more than Njal, his foster-father”.

    Flosi, Hoskuld’s wife’s uncle, takes up the proceedings against the killers, and seeks help from powerful chieftains. He is under pressure from Hildigunn to accept nothing less than blood vengeance. The Njalssons find themselves at the Althing in the demeaning business of pleading for help. Skarp-Hedin has become grimly fatalistic, and insults many whom they ask for help. All is tense.

    After some legal sparring arbitrators are chosen, including Snorri, who proposes a settlement three time the usual compensation for Hoskuld. This is so much that it can only be paid by the arbitrators and many at the Althing contributing. The great collection is gathered, and Njal adds a gift of a fancy cloak. Flosi takes the fact that this is a unisex garment as an insult, and in a climate of insult the settlement breaks down.

    All leave the Althing and prepare themselves, amid portents and prophecies, for the showdown. One hundred men descend on Njal’s home, Bergthorsknoll, to find it defended by about thirty. Any victory for Flosi will be at some cost. But Njal makes the foolish suggestion that his sons defend from within the house, and they, conscious that it is foolish, submit. They accept that fate will have its way.

    So innocent and guilty are soon trapped in a burning building. Flosi allows the innocent to escape but Njal, Bergthora, and their grandson Thord, stay in the building to die with the guilty. Helgi is killed in an attempt to escape. Eventually ten people die –but they do not include Kari who has escaped under cover of the smoke. Flosi knows immediately that there is someone to exact vengeance for the Burning.

    At the Althing two troops gather. Legal action is taken against the Burners, and there is a legal joust between the parties. Thorhall, Njal’s foster-son, has absorbed his legal training, but he is hampered by physical reactions to the stress. But eventually when legal action seems to be failing he lances his boil with his spear and begins the fighting. Flosi’s men are driven back until Snorri leads an intervention to separate the parties. In the confusion several are killed including Ljot Flosi’s brother-in-law.

    Ljot’s father, Hall of Sida, takes advantage of the truce to appeal for peace, and, in a move that marks a change from Viking to Christian thinking, seeks no compensation for his son. Moved by this, all but Kari and Njal’s nephew Thorgeir conclude a settlement, while everyone contributes to compensation for Ljot. The Burners are exiled for three years.

    Before the Sigfussons have reached home Kari attacks them, and the remainder of the saga is mainly his mission to avenge the Burning, He is supported initially by Thorgeir and then by a comical braggart called Bjorn. He pursues them to Orkney and Wales. The most dramatic moment is when he breaks into the earl’s hall in Orkney and kills one who is giving a lying account of the events.

    After a pilgrimage to Rome Flosi returns to Iceland. Kari follows, and is shipwrecked near Flosi’s home. Testing Flosi’s nobility he goes to him for help, and they arrange a final peace. Kari marries Hoskuld’s widow.

    The geyser has at last stopped erupting.
    From Wikipedia
    "I don't trust or love anyone. Because people are so creepy. Creepy creepy creeps. Creeping around. Creeping here and creeping there. Creeping everywhere. Crippity crappity creepies."
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