Njála or Njálssaga, the Epic Njal’s Saga

  • Of the Old Sagas, Njal's Saga is by far the Icelander's favorite - both amongst the public and the academics.
    Of the Old Sagas, Njal's Saga is by far the Icelander's favorite - both amongst the public and the academics.

Of the Old Sagas, Njal's Saga is by far the Icelander's favorite - both amongst the public and the academics. The story is set along the south coast of Iceland with the main events occurring in the municipalities of Rangaárvallasýslur, although stretching all the way to the municipality of Dalasýsla in West Iceland in significant parts. Njal's Saga's time frame is 960 and 1020 AD. It is a story of solid friendship between two very different characters, the lawyer and sage, Njal, and the formidable warrior Gunnar, at its center.

With equally different wives, Njall is blessed with the plain, spirited and loyal-to-death, Bergthora whereas Gunnar is cursed with the beautiful, flamboyant and fierce Hallgerdur – who instigates a feud that lasts for several decades, culminating in the burning of Njal's farm with Njal, Bergthora and two of their grandchildren inside.

Insults and vengeance

Njal's Saga is also a story of blood feud, with its accompanying motives of honor and shame. The feud has quite a number of variations, some relatively simple and others quite complex. The first feud is (not surprisingly) between Hallgerdur and Bergthora, arising from an exchange of insults, spiraling into destructive and prolonged bloodshed. Hallgerður charms a few dubious characters into killing members of Njal's household, and the spirited Bergþóra arranges vengeance. After each killing, their husbands make financial settlements according to the status of the victims. But, the warfare between the two women is not over. Not by a long shot.

Gunnar, the blameless hero who can jump his height in full armor, is drawn into his wife's intrigues (in spite of their crumbling marriage), with his judgment ever more clouded, eventually leading to his tragic death.

Oh, there are omens and warnings, supernatural foresight and prophetic dreams a plenty in the Njal's Saga. Njal tries fiercely to alter the course of events, arranging settlements and whatnot, but nobody heeds his warnings as family honor is repeatedly at stake. There is a powerful undercurrent of fate, which not even the wise and learned Njal can prevent. His own sons, side with their mother and Njal's very manhood is put into question again and again. Mind you; he doesn't even grow a beard.

Based on oral tradition

With Njall and Gunnar dead, the feud goes on between their descendants, relatives, and friends. There is no end to the insults, hatred, and killings. It can confidently be maintained that Egil's Saga is a study of the destructive power of the feudal society.

Unlike the other Old Sagas, Njal's Saga has a detailed description of the old Althing, the oldest parliament in Europe. It also has prolonged descriptions of legal battles providing unique insight into the legislative, executive and judiciary power in Iceland at the time.

Njal's Saga is the longest and most highly developed of the Sagas of the Icelanders, and was probably written between 1270 and 1290. The author is believed to have derived the bulk of his material from oral tradition, which he manipulated for his own artistic purposes. Njal and Gunnar were most probably real historical figures as their fateful deaths are referred to in other sources.  Njal's Saga is considered the peak of the saga tradition.