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Second Glance: Njal’s Saga

By (May 1, 2016) One Comment

Njal PenguinBut I wish I knew, said Gunnar, whether I am any the less manly than other men, for being so much more reluctant to kill.

Njal’s Saga, written in the 13th century but set in the 10th, combines historical narrative and piratical adventures with a rather strange defense of Christianity. There’s no single, core conflict. Instead, a collection of wonderful digressions hang off a thread of ill-will, which consumes generations despite their best efforts and often after they have been forewarned. Violent outbreaks begin to feel inevitable to the reader and yet they always surprise. Eventually, one party to the dispute becomes so haughty, so contemptuous of decency, and so desperate for victory that they burn their opponents alive in their home, including the titular Njal, his loving wife, and nine others.

Even the smaller outbursts of violence scattered throughout the story are surprising, because the plot structure is more like history than classical tragedy. A tragedy is supposed to have a nice, clean arc with a gathering sense of inevitability; every event and every choice should fit just so. History, on the other hand, is usually garbage. Sad, foolish, random garbage that eats us all alive. If history seems inevitable it’s because it overpowers us. The pieces don’t fit together, they didn’t have to be this way, but there seems no way to stop the dumb, irresistible absurdity. No one can tell which little provocations will fizzle and which will flare into violence. No one knows what rite and law and solemn oath will rock hatred back into its fitful slumber.

Njal’s Saga starts when two brothers, Hrut and Hoskald, try to find a wife for Hrut. They settle on Unn, daughter of Mord Fiddle. Hrut’s marriage goes poorly and so his father-in-law Mord, a skilled attorney, agrees to sue for divorce on behalf of his daughter at the Icelandic parliament/court, the Althing. But Mord doesn’t settle for getting back the dowry and getting his daughter’s independence. Mord is (in the translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Paulsson) “so skillful, indeed, that no judgement was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it” and, with an advantage like that, he sues for everything: for the dowry he provided as well as Hrut’s own contribution to the marriage.

Hrut may not be in Mord’s class as a lawyer, but he’s not a fool either, and as a much younger man he has the clear advantage in force. Hrut answers that Mord is “pressing this claim concerning [Unn] with greed and aggression rather than decency and fairness, and for that reason I intend to resist it…I declare, and let all those present at the Law Rock be witnesses, that I challenged you, Mord Fiddle, to single combat.” It is an ugly thing: clear, unrepentant blackmail of an aged man, who was technically within the limits of the law in his suit. But, then again, Hrut’s challenge is not exactly illegal either.

Mord declines to fight and forfeits everything to Hrut. His ex-wife Unn, embittered, calls on her kinman Gunnar, who excels in physical strength to the same degree her father Mord does in intellect. Gunnar is:

a tall, powerful man, outstandingly skilful with arms. He could strike or throw with either hand, and his sword-strokes were so fast that he seemed to be brandishing three swords at once. ..He could jump more than his own height in full armor…He could swim like a seal.

Gunnar recruits Njal, a friend and wiser man, to help him regain the money. Njal sees trouble in this, but proposes a scheme: Gunnar tricks Hrut into admitting he can be summoned again at the next Althing and even gets Hrut to state the summons himself several times in a hall full of witnesses. At next year’s court, Gunnar threatens Hrut just as Hrut threatened Mord and the money finally passes back to Unn.

In a more conventional story, this first cycle would build naturally to a higher and higher pitch, but that’s not how Njal’s Saga handles it at all. Hrut and Gunnar reconcile—Gunnar even marries Hrut’s niece Hallgerd. There are several moments when their scheming and counter-scheming could tip over into outright murder, but it doesn’t happen.

Round one of this major conflict shows us the stakes and the ever-present danger. It is important that nothing comes of this encounter, because the saga wants to make clear how ordinary the problem of escalating violence really is. There was no theft from the gods, no unspeakable trespass, no selection by destiny. Sooner or later something will get out of hand and, given enough angry young men and enough goading young women, a horror is bound to result. As this wedding shows us, any little conflict could be the instigating spark.

The pagans can stop a particular instance from getting too bad, yet they can’t change the basic script pushing them toward escalation and they can’t undo the damage caused by these obviously self-serving breaches of good order. The men are driven to take advantage where they can and each attempt fouls the dignity of the law. Bergthora, Njal’s “exceptional and courageous, but a little harsh-natured” wife, describes their bind well:

You men amaze me. You kill when killing is scarcely called for, but when something like this [serious provocation] happens you chew it over and brood about it until nothing comes of it. [Our enemy] will be here as soon as he hears about it; he will ask you to settle the matter peacefully, and will grant his request. So if you really want to do anything, you must do it now.

If they bend the law to dominate an opponent, then they discredit the law as anything more than a weapon of convenience. If they let an advantage pass, then they expose themselves to ridicule and worse depredations in the future and worst of all they don’t appear to be real men in the eyes of their mother.

The characters aren’t bad people. On the contrary, they are often very decent people who give excellent advice. Njal, who advised Gunnar to swindle Hrut, is:

a wise and prescient man. His advice was sound and benevolent, and always turned out well for those who followed it. He was a gentle man of great integrity; he remembered the past and discerned the future, and solved the problems of any man who came to him for help.

Yet here this wise and prescient man is aiding Gunnar in a dodgy-at-best retaliation and here is his wife urging her boys to murder.

Even Hrut and Hoskald try to steer away from trouble. When Gunnar asks for Hoskald’s daughter Hallgred, Hrut counsels against it. He thinks they are bound to bring out the worst in one another and offers the least encouraging blessing one is likely to find: “I can see that you are infatuated with one another. And you are the ones who have to face the consequences.” Gunnar brushes off Hrut’s warning; Hallgred is who he wants and he sees no reason to take anything else.

njals-saga-or-story-burnt-njalMord couldn’t settle for a fair settlement, Hrut couldn’t settle for procedure, Gunnar couldn’t settle for anyone but Hallgred, and Hallgred can’t settle for anything less than adoration. Once married, she is unwilling to accommodate Njal and his family even though Gunnar loves them dearly. Njal’s wife, Bergthora, proves especially galling to Hallgred since she is excellent in her own right—far better than Hallgred, in fact—and is utterly unimpressed with Hallgred’s posturing. Slighted at a dinner party, Hallgred tries to goad her husband into attacking his friend saying, “It does me little good to be married to the bravest man in Iceland if you don’t avenge this, Gunnar.”

Gunnar declines to kill for his wife’s honor, but the rest of the household is less sure. Gunnar may love Njal, but to the rest of the household this seems like shameful cowering. With Gunnar out of town, Hallgred recruits a servant to attack one of Njal’s men. Strangely, the servant knows this will all go poorly, since Njal and his family will only respond in kind, but he carries out the attack anyway. To refrain would be shameful.

The second round of major conflict is thus fought under the watch, but against the will of the story’s titular cast. Njal and Gunnar work to stamp out the brush fire caused by their sons, servants, and wives. After each killing, the men meet to pay the wergeld—the ‘man money’ owed for a murder—and to reassure one another that they are opposed to this nonsense. Eventually, they get control of their houses. They swear to settle any disagreements peacefully, “they never broke this pledge, and always remained firm friends.”

Once again, the threat of pure brutality is kept at bay. The two friends couldn’t prevent a cycle of revenge from starting, but they were able to break the feedback loop. This round shows us how fragile peace is even when aided by law and virtue. The pagans’ problem isn’t as simple as making them ‘nicer’ or passing clever laws. They already have those. The problem is both more fundamental and more diffuse. Fundamental, because the violence is seeping out of their deepest beliefs about who they are. Diffuse, because damage isn’t restricted to the obvious targets. The world is being contaminated.

When food spoils the germs produce toxic by-products. If you cook the spoiled food, you can kill the germs, but you can’t unmake the byproducts. If you eat them, you will get violently ill and then new germs will colonize your body making you even more sick. All of that can happen even though the food is cooked to temperature and none of the original germs ever entered your body.

Njal’s Saga suggests violence works much like food poisoning. You might stamp out a particular problem in time. You might put everything back into place. You can live right and take all the precautions and have good laws and be decent. And you can still get violently ill. Once you are ill, you are that much more prone to getting sick again.

That’s why the saga’s defense of Christianity is so interesting. The saga is willing to admit pagans possess justice, wisdom, excellence, law, and restraint. It’s not that the pagans are ignorant and it’s not that the pagans are capital-V Villains. That means Christianity can’t simply introduce good things that were lacking or vanquish an obvious foe; it doesn’t bring the idea of guilt or the idea of justice or the idea of forgiveness. We’ve already seen all of those things at work, but they showed themselves to be limited and precarious.

Again the story pivots. Gunnar is murdered and a powerful voice for restraint leaves the saga. After reconciliations are made, Njal’s sons manage to establish themselves even if Njal must adopt a boy, Hoskuldr, to make amends for some of his natural sons’ misdeeds. The whole clan, including Hoskuldr, prosper. After all the twists and turns, after all the murder, and all the enmity, Njal’s own sons set in motion the complete collapse of decency. They murder their adopted brother in cold blood, because his success makes them look bad.

Njal is heartbroken and his boys are truly, profoundly guilty. The Althing proposes an astronomical wergeld to which all the wrong-doers and many by-standers as well contribute. A man named Flosi, representing the aggrieved, is torn between peace and retribution. Hoskuldr’s widow pushes hard for retaliation and, keeping with a theme, casts doubt on his masculinity. In the end, Flosi rejects the monetary offer. Njal had thrown his own embroidered cloak into the payment and, since the cloak was unisex, Flosi felt this was an unbearable insult to his manhood.

Flosi gathers a band of a hundred men, marches to Njal’s compound, offers free passage to women and servants, and declares:

I will make no terms with your sons…We shall settle matters now, once and for all, and we are not leaving until every one of them is dead.

800px-Njal_saga_-_SkarphedinnEleven people are burned alive. Njal and Bergthora, now deeply committed Christians, lay down in bed and wait for death rather than fleeing their home.

A family friend, Kari, escapes by hurling himself through a wall of flame and scampering into the night. Slightly charred and immensely angry, Kari sets out to kill as many of Flosi’s band as he can.

There’s no need to recount this fourth and final round of violence: Kari finds men, Kari kills them, Flosi moves on. It’s brought to an end, and through it the feud as a whole, because Flosi converts.

When Flosi first gathered his band, he imposed on a foe’s hospitality, mocking the man by not only expecting hospitality, but by acting as though it were his own home. When the man lashes out, Flosi stops his band from killing him “for we have tried him beyond and endurance and he acted only as he should have, and has proved that he is certainly no coward.” But then Flosi taunts the man saying, “We shall go our ways now unharmed; but we shall meet again at the Althing, and there we shall fight this out in earnest.” Flosi’s restraint is really just the prelude to a greater and more public outrage.

After Kari has murdered most of his band, Flosi repents. He travels to Rome. He pays a great deal of money for absolution. But that doesn’t end the feud. The feud ends when Kari comes to kill Flosi.

Like the man he taunted, Flosi sets out food for Kari, but Flosi isn’t going to lash out. Flosi knows he is guilty and he knows that, even if he doesn’t deserve to be murdered, he deserves to be punished. Being killed is certainly harmful, but Flosi forgives Kari for this harm. He forgives him for taking revenge, because Flosi is not trying to press for more. It is enough to be guilty and to own one’s guilt and to forgive those hurt you for the sake of justice. But Kari doesn’t murder him. Kari accepts the gesture; he too is willing to be done with this. Far from home and murderers many times over, the two men reconcile.

Njal, Gunnar, and Njal’s sons—who one would expect to be the protagonists—are not present for the beginning or for the end. The feud never takes shape along the lines one would expect and the characters never play the role one would expect. There are good people and bad people, challenging situations and promising ones, but Njal’s Saga never falls into the easy and familiar tragic plot. The saga suggests something truly terrifying; there is no story-like structure to life and so there is no dramatic crux. There is no neat and graceful line of causation from hamartia to catharsis, but loosely connected challenges spawned as much by the setting as by a ‘necessary’ march of consequences.

What did the Christian spirit do in this story? It didn’t come in like a deus ex machina to whisk the characters away. It was not a ray of light to inspire miraculous visions. It was not civilization dawning on the savage pagans. It wasn’t dramatic. The Christian spirit effected a change in character, so that men could bear their responsibility without feeling condemned to dominate or forsake their worth and masculinity. One can be a gentleman and be gentle, but this requires a heroic act of courage: the courage to admit your errors. Instead, for Njal, Bergthora, and Flosi, Christianity offers perspective. It offers a way out of the immediate struggle for power, so that one can look down at a remove from one’s situation and pass judgment tenderly, but firmly: Here is enough, this is enough, this I must do. It does not guarantee victory—Njal burns alive—but it does strengthen the spirit enough to do what one already knows to be right.

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Matt Ray is a lecturer at Boston College and an editor at Lingua Barbara. He focuses on ethics and philosophical anthropology.