A Book Written in Another Language: The Saga of Burnt Njal

I read Njal’s Saga along with Egil’s Saga to get some background before preparing a Mythic Iceland game. They are quite different in tone; Egil’s Saga is more the tale of a great hero, while Njal’s Saga gives us much more of an insight to life in Iceland. Egil is a borderline psycho and quite hard to relate to. However Njal and the characters in his story are much more like real people.

Njal’s Saga covers a long period of feuding between several families where the titular heads of the families want to make peace, but others, in particular their wives, keep the feud going. Themes include the consequences of pride and vengeance, and how reliance on violence to solve matters will often rebound upon the people involved. The feuding culminates with the deaths  of both Gunnar and Njal. In Njal’s case his house is burnt down with his family inside, a particularly shameful act. The saga ends with the fate of the burners, as they are hounded out of Iceland and killed while in the Orkney Islands.

There are jokes and puns throughout the saga, although the puns are not as effective after being translated, and the jokes are like action movie one-liners. The fighting is pretty action movie-like as well. People catch spears and throw them back at their attackers. Gunnar kills many foes before being slain himself; probably the inspiration for the death of Boromir. Skarp-Hedinn runs and slides on the ice, beheading his foe as he speeds past.

There are also some quite slow parts that are there to add background. Lots of this guy begat this person and so on as new characters were introduced be reciting the last few generations of their family. Side notes on the Icelandic legal system, and a chapter on the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity. These would have been quite quick asides in a spoken tale, but were very densely written and there was a lot of text to get through that really didn’t help the story.

All in all I found it a good read to get a feel for medieval Iceland, and the culture of its people. The story is a good one, but it is interrupted with dry asides and miscellaneous background material.

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