There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer --- so skilful, indeed, that no judgment was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it. He had an only daughter called Unn; she was a good-looking, refined, capable girl, and was considered the best match in the Rangriver Plains. (p. 39)
Summary: The Saga of the Burning of Njal starts out quietly enough, with marriage and fortune-making, among the farmers and freeholders of southwestern Iceland. It's a community in which everyone knows everyone, at least by reputation. The tight-knittedness is emphasized by the genealogies that run through the work: a large number of these people are related, whether by blood, or by marriage, or by foster-sonship. Over a generation or two the society grows more and more out of control as bad blood mixes with bad blood. Decent men and women attempt to fix the damage, but it spins out until the community is utterly and violently divided.
What makes it tragic, of course, is that all the people involved are ordinary people. Yes, they are very honor-conscious in a very honor-oriented culture, but many of them go out of their way to keep the peace. Yes, there are people who are less than virtuous, but even if we look at the worst of these, people like Thjostolf and Mord Valgardsson, are not what we would think of as atrociously wicked: Mord is no more than a greedy and ambitious man envious of the successes of other people, and Thjostolf is a thug who, while lacking much sense of justice, has very little influence on the society around him and nonetheless had a certain measure of loyalty to a small handful of the people around him. Much of the actual chaos is due to decent and honorable people trying to keep the peace to the extent they can, who nonetheless soon find themselves pushed just a little too far over lines they cannot ignore, or who, forced to rely on mere technicalities of law, end up weakening the bonds of the community as they put out fire after fire.
Until, of course, the literal fire, in which the family of Njal is burned alive. Njal, his wife Bergthora, and their young grandson Thord die in bed, accepting their fate. Njal's sons die trying to escape. Only Kari Solmundarson, Njal's son-in-law, escapes. The law, which is the central feature of Icelandic life, is soon seen to be completely impotent for restoring balance and justice as both sides, the Burners and their opponents, manage to tangle each other up in mere legalities that only stir up even more anger. One of the most telling signs of deterioration is that early on Mord Valgardsson suggests burning someone alive in their house at one point, and everyone reacts with shock at the suggestion; and yet, of course, this is precisely what ends up happening with Njal, and the ones who do it try to get out of the consequences by complicated court maneuvers.
It would be easy to overlook the degree to which we are like them. It is easy to focus on their sensitivity to matters of honor, or the peculiarities of their justice system, and treat them as an oddity. But Njal's Saga is not a story of men so caught up in their honor that they nearly destroy themselves; it is a story of men, deeply sensitive to their honor, who nonetheless repeatedly swallow insult and humiliation and even the killing of family members, all in the hope of peace -- but repeatedly find that it is never enough. Likewise, we with our pseudo-populist sensibilities, might be inclined to think that it is absurd that they all go around killing each other in retaliation and getting away with paying settlements, rather than leaving it to a legitimate government. But such an attitude would overlook the key point of this very Scandinavian way of handling things: they were the government. They made the laws. They kept the laws. They enforced the laws. And most importantly, when they enforced the laws, they always held themselves accountable to the law in the way they did it. This is so engrained in their thinking that even at the height of bloodshed, it never occurs to a single person simply to ignore the law: everything must be brought back to the law in some way, somehow. Even the outlaws respect the law. (There is a very real sense in which Njal's Saga is a legal drama.) And we are not really in a position to be high and mighty: you have only to look at a list of race riots in the past century to see stories, sometimes brutally similar, of decent men and women bearing with irritation, hindrance, insult, killing, trying to keep the peace, until one day things just snap. And the thing of it is, everyone handled it better than we would handle similar situations. As I mentioned before, there are no real villains in the piece. Not everyone is decent, but most are, and all the major players are reasonable. Flosi Thordarson, who is guilty of the burning of Njal, was not an evil man. Kari, who starts systematically hunting down the Burners, never ceases to be reasonable even while refusing to stop. Everyone right to the end can be made to see the arguments on the other side, and, sometimes, to bend because of them.
In a sense, the story of the events on and around the Ranga River are a lesson in the fact that nothing but humility can hold a deliberative society of free people together. The story is split into two parts, the pagan era and the Christian era; in the pagan era what keeps the peace is people swallowing their pride, and in the Christian era what finally brings peace back is people like Hall of Sida actively giving up the idea of heroic response, actively accepting the possibility of dishonor and shame, simply to save lives. Flosi does not take vengeance for Kari's acts of vengeance. He goes on pilgrimage to get absolution from the Pope. And when he comes back, he extends hospitality to Kari and his men when they need it, and thus the breach is healed. Humility alone restores what honor and law cannot.
One thing I haven't noted is the humor. It is very dry, very quiet, but it runs through the entire work, and is a great contributor to the fact that very few characters in the saga are flat. All the major characters are seen from many different angles, and with the kind of realism that is only possible with a sense of humor. And I would suggest, in fact, that the realism of character in the saga often exceeds the realism of many modern novels and historical works for precisely this reason: the anonymous author has the humorous interest (and, occasionally, quiet exasperation) for the people he is talking about that people usually have for close friends and members of their family -- which novelists only rarely for their characters at all, and historians only occasionally for the subjects of their study.
Next day both sides went to the Law Rock, and both of them, Christians and heathens, named witnesses and renounced their community of laws. The Law Rock was in such uproar as a result that no one could make himself heard. People then dispersed, and everyone thought the situation looked very ugly.
The Christians chose Hall of Sida to be their Law-Speaker; but Hall went to see Thorgeir the Priest of Ljosawater, and gave him three marks of silver to proclaim what the law should be. It was taking a risk, for Thorgeir was a heathen.
For a whole day, Thorgeir lay with a cloak over his head. Noone spoke to him. Next day, people gathered at the Law Rock.
Thorgeir asked to be heard, and said, "It seems to me that an impossible situation arises if we do not all have one and the same law. If the laws are divided the peace will be divided, and we cannot tolerate that. Now, therefore, I want to ask heathens and Christians whether they will accept the law which I am going to proclaim." (p. 225)
Recommendation: An excellent and gripping history, somewhat fictionalized, about a communal tragedy that never loses sight of real, well-rounded characters. Highly recommended.