Review: Njal’s Saga (repost from GoodReads, 2018)

Njal's Saga Njal’s Saga by Anonymous
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blood rains
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armor,
Is now being woven;
The Valkyries
Will cross it
With a crimson welt.

Njal’s Saga, written by an unknown author in the 13th century (around the year 1280), is often regarded as the greatest of the Icelandic sagas. It is primarily a prose narrative, but there are some passages of verse. 24 manuscripts, more copies than of any other saga, have survived, sometimes in fragments. The saga is based on historical events that took place roughly 300 years earlier. This is the Penguin classics edition translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson, with maps and family trees, as well as an index of characters that lists the events each character took part in corresponding to the chapters that cover those events.

The lack of internal analysis in a narrative like this means that, apart from some brief character sketches, the reader has to rely on action and dialogue to get a sense of the characters’ motives. The saga is a very bleak tale of cascading family feuds which the warring parties attempt, unsuccessfully, to resolve through Iceland’s medieval legal system. (A good chunk of the second half of the saga is basically a legal drama, possibly the earliest in European literature.) When they fail to reach a settlement, the story culminates in the death of Njal, one of the most respected Icelanders. He and his sons are burned to death in their house.

There are some magical elements (especially in the form of visions) but the focus is on other things, and it isn’t as fantastical as The Saga of the Volsungs or The Prose Edda. On the other hand this saga reflects a self-critical side of the saga literature, because it definitely shows an awareness that the Norse heroic ethic can kinda suck.

He was a gentle man of great integrity; he remembered the past and discerned the future, and solved the problems of any man who came to him for help.

View all my reviews

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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