Njal's Saga, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Translated by Lee M. Hollander, with an Introduction by Thorsteinn Gylfason. Njal's Saga is the finest of the Icelandic sagas, and one of the world's greatest prose works.

Written c.1280, about events a couple of centuries earlier, it is divided into three parts: the first recounts the touching friendship between noble Gunnar and the statesman Njal, together with the fatal enmity between their wives.

The second part works out the central tragedy of the saga, while the third describes the retribution wrought by Flosi and Kari.

The saga is remarkable not only for the details of everyday life - the farming, the feasting and the charcoal-burning - but also for the social structure of the society in which that life took place - the Althing or Parliament, the lawmaking and the lawgiving.

The grandeur of the narrative and the beauty and distinction of the characters mark Njal's Saga as an essential text for all who love adventure and great literature.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Literary essays
  • ISBN: 9781853267857


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Njál's Saga, also known as the Saga of Burnt Njál, describes events in Iceland and elsewhere around the year 1000. The saga is basically the story of a feud and the two generations of men and women who take part in it. It is unknown how much, if any, of the saga is based on real events.Medieval Iceland had no king. It was governed instead by a very strict and elaborate set of laws enforced by chieftains who acted as judges. All matters of law were decided by civil suit at the annual Assembly. If you killed a man, you owed his family a sum in compensation known as "weregeld." It didn't matter whether you ambushed him and murdered him in cold blood or you killed him in self-defense: you still owed compensation. Unless, of course, his family or friends killed someone in return. Then you were even. This notion of human life as a commodity of exchange, with minimal consideration for motive or morality, is so totally alien to our modern way of thinking that it takes some time to adjust to it.The story begins with a young woman named Hallgerd. When her uncle meets Hallgerd as a young girl, he says "Beautiful this maiden certainly is, and many are likely to suffer for it." This turns out to be a dramatic understatement, for Hallgerd's beauty is the death of three husbands and dozens more besides. Even after her death, men will be dying from the feud she will soon begin.Njál, the central character, is, ironically, one of the few men in the saga who never lifts a sword in combat. He is a prosperous farmer, knowledgeable in the law, and blessed with a second sight that lets him see the future. Njál advises his friend and neighbor, Gunnar, when Gunnar marries Hallgerd and is drawn into a series of conflicts by her. Unlike Njál, Gunnar is a mighty warrior, and his prowess in battle is almost superhuman.Gunnar is also the first of several major characters who will journey away from Iceland back to the ancestral homelands in Norway. There will also be visits by Gunnar and others to Sweden, the Baltic shores, and the British Isles. Late in the story two adversaries actually make pilgrimages to Rome, but these journeys, unfortunately, are not described in any detail. They do this because, around 1000, Iceland converts to Christianity. This is described in the saga, although the Christianization of its inhabitants has remarkably little impact on Iceland's legal system and its custom of prolonged blood feuds.The saga is lively enough to read, notwithstanding the long legal battles over compensation for the slain. Some of the scenes of battles and sea voyages are quite stirring, but the chief attraction of Njál's Saga has to be its depiction of a unique society and its valiant, but brutal, code of conduct.

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