Nov. 20th, 2010

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I finished Njal's Saga earlier this week, but haven't really had the time to write about it. Time to rectify that.

In case you weren't following my twitter, let me just say that Njal's Saga is one of the greatest works concerning the evils of vengeance I've ever read. Feuds erupt from injuries to the body or to honor, and then build upon themselves until people are killing each other who have no connection to the original issue.

Perhaps the only works that come close to the narrative force of Njal's Saga on this subject are the Orestes of Euripides or Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. Both (as told by their name) deal with Orestes who, in revenge for the murder of his father Agamemnon, kills his mother Clytaemnestra who herself had done the deed at the urging of her lover Aegisthus. Just as in Njal's Saga, violence builds upon violence as more and more blood is shed to bring justice. But where in the myth of Orestes, it is through the lawful judgement of Athena in Athens that Orestes (and by his example all of society) is set free from the eternal cycle, Njal's Saga has a different take.

Njal's Saga makes the very powerful case that law, in its purely human creation, is not enough to break the cycle of violence. The Icelanders love law. They litigate and they bring cases against each other, not just for themselves but for their clients and kinsmen. All according to forms laid down at the Althing. But what the law cannot do here that it did in ancient Greece is break the urge to feud. All too often a party will reject a settlement, their pride having been pricked. At a decisive point in the book, a huge weregild (3 times the standard amount - 600 ounces of silver!) is rejected when the gift of a cloak is misconstrued as an insult to the opponent's masculinity. This collection, which had been brought together by most of the attendees, is useless to actually stopping the underlying causes of the bloodletting. As an even stronger episode, later on the Althing itself becomes a battleground between two factions, and they involve others in the fighting who have nothing at all to do with the original dispute. As the law is - which is just a purely human creation - it can only imperfectly apply a stop to the tendency of most men towards the escalation of violence. Near the end of the work, the author includes a terrifying vision of the fate of men in this cycle, where their destinies are made by witch women (I instantly thought of Clotho, Lotho, and Lachesis) on a loom where entrails are woven, with heads as weights, and swords as beaters. In this vision, there is no escape.

But Njal's Saga does not leave us in the grips of despair. Chapters 100-105 detail the conversion of Iceland from heathenism to Christianity. And this episode sets the stage for how men can get out of what seems inevitable. Several times after the conversion, men will say to themselves before an act that "this is a grave crime we are committing, for we are both Christians". They go about it anyway, but the author really shows how it takes time for the values of Christianity - repentance and peace especially - to filter down into the actions of the Icelanders. Njal himself, essentially a prophetic figure, dies without raising a hand to his enemies, and although left in a burning house, his body is found miraculously unharmed by the flames. And it is ultimately that spirit that saves the last important characters.

Flosi and Kari battle each other across the North Atlantic, Flosi trying to reach Rome and repent his horrific crimes. Kari essentially hunts him, killing off members of Flosi's band when he comes across them in revenge for the death of his young son Thord. It is only after both make their way to Rome, receive absolution, and then return to Iceland that we see how the Christian mentality of the author can save men from themselves. Kari, who has just landed at the start of winter, goes to Flosi's home to test him. When he arrives, Flosi embraces him as a friend, and offers him hospitality for the winter. And with that, the feuds that had antecedents 60 years earlier are gone. The hatred and evil has disappeared as quickly as a summer thunderstorm before the strength of penitence. It's a beautiful showing of just how violence can pop in and out of our lives.

I have read few works as powerful and compelling as Njal's Saga. The style is sparse and direct, and Its characters are terribly human; their flaws, mistakes, and vices riddle the landscape. It truly deserves to be read more widely.

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Robert

December 2010

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