Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fortnightly Book, November 25

Is it really November 25 already? November, where did you go?

I am closing out November with one more bit of Northernesse (probably the last for a while): Njal's Saga. Njal's Saga is one of the classic Icelandic prose sagas. Like so very many of the great Northern works, it is a tragedy, but it is less a tragedy of heroes than of an entire community.

Unlike most Scandinavian cultures, the Icelanders had developed a commonwealth structure of government. They brought over a great many Norwegian legal and judicial customs, but avoided the highly centralized government that had grown up in Norway. The government consisted of a large number of priest-chieftains. This position was hereditary, although it could be bought or sold. The freemen of the island were each required to give their allegiance and support to one of the chieftains. However -- and this is a somewhat remarkable feature that has always fascinated people -- freemen could choose which chieftain to support in this way, regardless of where they lived. The chieftains led the Althing, the Icelandic assembly, but freemen (who were known as 'assembly-men') were also required to attend. (Iceland's Althing, which still exists, is often called the single oldest Parliament in the world, since it has functioned in one form or another, with the exception of a few decades in the nineteenth century, since the tenth century. But it has changed quite a bit over the centuries.)

A nation of free people! But between about AD 960 and AD 1020, this free nation nearly tore itself apart. Njal's Saga is a thirteenth century look back, using oral and written sources, on this period. We start with a quiet community of people living quiet lives like they usually do, the most exciting things being (for the most part) court cases and weddings and gossip-laden divorces. Occasionally murders out of passion, or out of vengeance for slights real or imagined, will cut across the scene and shock everybody, but they live in a culture where peace and consensus and fair dealing are the expected norm. As events unfold, however, things slowly begin to heat up. Slights, insults, offenses to honor slowly build up in just the right places; tensions increase. Little jealousies begin spinning out into petty acts of spite. People acting criminally are not quite brought to justice. Through it all, the people of the community work to restore balance and peace. Decent men -- honorable Hoskuld, prudent Njal, valiant Gunnar -- try to restore the situation, but their attempts to correct it make things worse. The very proud and honor-conscious men of the community actively try to swallow their pride and let minor slights to their honor pass; but they can only do so much. Things that seem to bring peace actually do nothing but let wounds fester under the surface. Honest peace offerings get misinterpreted as intentional insults. Harsh action leads to harsher actions, and harsher actions to actions harsher still. Pettiness leads to violence leads to atrocity, culminating (but not ending) in the terrible event that gives the Saga its full name, the Saga of the Burning of Njal, in which Njal and his sons are burned alive in their house. An ordinary community thrown into terrible chaos by very ordinary failings. And the story is told with great vividness, despite (but sometimes perhaps because of) the Scandinavian tendency to avoid any explicit exploration of motivation; the anonymous author has given us one of the great works of Western literature.

The translation I will be using is that of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, i.e., the Penguin Classics edition.


  1. Darwincatholic10:27 PM

    Good Advice: Don't kill twice in the same family.  And if you do, keep the settlement.

  2. branemrys10:33 PM

    Solid Norse wisdom, that. Other good advice: Don't marry a woman just because she is beautiful and has long legs, especially if she has a violent relative.

  3. Darwincatholic11:15 PM

    It's the laconic humor which runs throughout which is so winning.
    The section with Thangbrand is also just awesome.  Now there's inculturation with a vengeance.

  4. branemrys11:37 PM

    'I suppose you killed him?'

    'Yes,' said Hrapp.

    'Why?' asked Gudbrand.

    'You will probably think it small cause,' said Hrapp. 'He wanted to cut off my leg.'

    'What had you done before that?'

    'Something that did not concern him at all,' said Hrapp.

    'You can at least tell me what it was,' said Gudbrand.

    'If you really want to know,' said Hrapp, 'I was lying with your daughter, and he disapproved of it.'

    'To your feet,men,' said Gudbrand. 'Seize hima nd put him to death.'

    'You're not letting me benefit much from beign your son-in-law,' said Hrapp. 'But you haven't hte men to have this done quickly.'

  5. I loved Njal's saga when I read it. I really think it shows the limitations of non-Christian society -- for all their nobility and wisdom, the Icelanders keep the cycle of violence growing until the conversion of some of the surviving principals, at which point the warring disappears as quickly as the blizzard. I think it's one of the most understated and beautiful examples of the grace of God I've read, precisely because it's not explicit.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.