Njáls Saga is one of Iceland’s most beloved and famous sagas, following the families of a sage called Njáll and a warrior called Gunnar over several bloody decades. It is a fascinating tale, with powerful themes regarding the consequences of retribution, the susceptibility of good people to the influences of the malicious, and rapidity to which violence can escalate.
Njáls Saga also holds a wealth of invaluable information about Icelandic culture in the Commonwealth Era, such as the clan systems, how Christianity was taking over paganism, the importance of family, and the conflicting ways women were viewed: as both empowered, deeply valued members of society, and manipulative influences seeking only to benefit themselves.
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Even so, for a non-native speaker, the saga can be a bit challenging to follow, with many Icelandic names and references mentioned. Continue ahead, therefore, for an easy to digest summary of one of the greatest tales of medieval literature.
The story begins with Hrútur, a man honoured in the courts of Norway but with questionable honour himself. When his adulterous behaviour causes his marriage to fall apart, he refuses to return the dowry to his ex-wife’s father without a duel, which the man knew he could never win. When news of this came to our two heroes, however, they refuse to let the injustice slide.
Using their skills of a great mind and great strength respectively, Njáll and Gunnar retrieve the dowry from Hrútur. This exchange, however, makes Gunnar and Hrútur into correspondences and leads to Gunnar meeting his niece, Hallgerður.
Hallgerður was an incredible beauty with streaming locks of hair, so tall she was nicknamed ‘Langbrók’, or ‘Long Pants’. Her past, however, was shrouded in darkness; she had been twice widowed at the hands of her cruel but protective stepfather, and rumours of her own wickedness were whispered of within her own family.
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Even her untoward uncle felt an air of evil surrounding her, saying, ‘I do not know how thieves’ eyes came into the family’, foreshadowing Hallgerður’s practice to send men to ‘borrow’ from other households under the cover of darkness. Her grace and charm, however, have a greater influence on Gunnar than the warnings of both Njáll and Hrútur, and the two become wed, setting into motion the wheel of terrible events that will destroy both families.
Hallgerður spars with Njáll’s wife, Bergþóra, instantly. Hallgerður gets retribution for her slants by organising the murder of several in Njáll’s household. Bergþóra, though a woman respected for her strength of character, is still not one to shy from violence, and is not long to return the favour.
Tit for tat killings continue between the wives, and Gunnar and Njáll are forced to make settlements with the injured parties. Both women have incredible sway over their husbands, who have no choice but to pick up the pieces with each murder. In the words of Gunnar, ‘[Hallgerður] may decide her own actions, but I decide the consequences of those actions’.
Even so, her nature frustrates him, and in a lapse of his good nature, he even resorts to striking her in public, unknowing that this would later be his undoing.
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So long as Hallgerður remains in his ear, however, his enemies only increase in number. Njáll fears for him, predicting that if he kills two people from the same family then he himself will die, but his prophecy reaches the ears of those who seek just that. A spite-filled chieftain, Mörður Vargarðsson, sometimes called Lyga-Mörður or Mörður the Liar in Sagas to underline his deceitful nature, organises an ambush in which Gunnar is forced to kill the relative of a man he had already slain.
Njáll implores him to leave the country to stop his prediction coming true, and it seems that he may just escape his fate when he is banished from Iceland as part of a settlement. Gunnar, however, only sails far enough from his homeland to appreciate its beauty, before turning his ship back and deciding to live as an outlaw rather than in exile.
Unfortunately, Icelandic law of the time meant that outlaws could be killed without consequence, something that Mörður could happily take advantage of. Rallying up those whom Gunnar and Hallgerður had offended, he organises a siege on the home of our misfortunate hero.
Gunnar, as strong a warrior as ever, fends off his attackers with bow and arrow. When his string snaps, he knows he can replace it with two of his wife’s long hairs, but she meets his request with scorn.
‘I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me,’ she gloats, ‘I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not,’ before she watches him be killed by the enemies she helped create.
Hallgerður’s son-in-law—married to a daughter she had from her second marriage—and the uncle of Gunnar, Þráinn, comes into the story here. Another cruel-natured man, he embroils himself in conflict with Njáll’s sons and the husband of his daughter, Kári, by treating them with disrespect in the Norwegian courts then refusing to pay compensation.
Njáll’s sons, however, do not share their father’s nature of non-violence, particularly the battle-axe wielding, sharp-tongued Skarphéðinn, the eldest. When Þráinn continues to insult their family on their return to Iceland, they plan an ambush that turns into one of the Saga’s most intense battles.
Fighting on a frozen river, Njáll’s family charge at Þráinn and his party. Skarphéðinn must stop to lace his shoe, but refuses to let the others face the enemy without him; to catch up, he runs and slides across the surface of the ice, picking up such great pace that he is able to split Þráinn’s head down to the jaw before he even has time to put his helmet on.
At this point, many involved in the conflict are long-tired of the bloodshed, most notably Njáll and Þráinn’s brother, who is wed to one of Njáll’s daughters. To try to bring it to an end once and for all, Njáll takes Þráinn’s son, Höskuldur, to raise as his own
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Njáll grows to deeply love Höskuldur, as do any who meet him, and eventually raises him to become a great chieftain. His trueborn sons, however, have developed their own loyalties to Mörður, whom time has not made less vengeful. The chieftain grows jealous of Höskuldur’s success, sends the sons of Njáll to murder him.
In spite of their callous killing of someone he loved, Njáll is forced to defend his children when the family of Höskuldr’s wife seek settlement for their dishonourable actions. At this point, however, the wounds are too deep, and the voices against Njáll too many, for anything to be arranged. His enemies, therefore, take things into their own hands.
In the dead of night, a hundred men descend on Njáll’s home. They slice through the thirty defending it, and when they reach the house, commit an act that even those sieging Gunnar years back felt was too immoral to go through with; they set it aflame.
The women are permitted to flee, and Njáll is offered his life, but he turns it down. Both he and Bergþóra choose to burn with their sons and grandsons rather than live without a family or home.
Kári, however, escapes the fire and seeks vengeance for years, pursuing those who committed such an atrocity to lands as far as Wales. Though tired of bloodshed, he feels an obligation to get real justice for his family, musing that ‘those who we murder in our mouths often live longest’.
When he returns, however, he is shipwrecked near the farmstead of the uncle of Höskuldr’s wife, one of the orchestrators of the fire. At this point, he faces a choice; to follow the words of Skarphéðinn, and ‘pay him a red skin for a grey one’, or to follow the words of the narrator, and ‘let another’s wounds be your warning’. He settles for the latter, and goes to see if they have the honour to help.
And help him they do. Kári goes on to marry the widow of Höskuldur, at last ending the feud that had plagued their families for decades, ending one of Iceland’s most epic Sagas.