250. Njal’s Saga (c.1280)

Blood feuds and revenge killings span 50 years of family history in medieval Iceland.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic published 1960, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson.

Thoughts :  A lengthy family saga of escalating murders culminating in Njal and his family being burnt alive in their home, the courtroom tactics to seek compensation, and the following plots and battles to bring revenge on the murderers.

The characters and settings are all real, although the order of events seems open to debate amongst historians. There are a lot of characters, many with similar names, and reading does take either a degree of concentration to keep track of who is related or aligned with who; or a sort of flyover reading, skimming people and events that works surprisingly well. It also helps if you can stand the rather gory violence which is described quite matter of factly.

The medieval Icelandic court system is very formulaic, requiring correct procedure of accusations and witness calling to ensure any hearing can proceed, and yet despite the payment of compensation for murders and the threat of outlawry if pledges of peace are broken, the tit-for-tat revenge murders are inevitable until the very end when Christianity and pilgrimages to Rome for forgiveness seem to break the cycle.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

My favourite two scenes came within a few pages of each other in the attack on Gunnar, Njar’s warlike friend.

Gunnar caught sight of a red tunic at the window. He lunged out with his halberd [a long shaft with a spike and axe blade attached] and struck Thorgrim in the belly. Thorgrim dropped his shield, lost his footing and toppled down from the roof. He strode over to where Gizur and the others were sitting.

Gizur looked up at him and asked “Is Gunnar at home?”

“That’s for you to find out,” replied Thorgrim. “But I know that his halberd certainly is.”

And with that he fell dead.                                                     page 169

and after the inevitable …

Gizur went over to Rannveig [Gunnar’s mother] and said, “Will you give us room on your land to bury our two dead?”

“Willingly” she replied, “but I would have been even more willing to give enough room for all of you”

pages 171-172

The comic character of the boastful Bjorn who partners with Kari and stands behind him (literally) in every battle is also good value, and gets his reward when Kari praises Bjorn’s manly efforts to his less than impressed wife.

Personal rating:  6/10, including a point for me for actually getting to the end of my classic read this week.

In the years 1240-1279:

  • The Mongols continue to dominate, invading Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria (1241), defeating the Seljuk Turks (1243), Anatolia (1244), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Mesopotamia (1245-1253), destroying the Assassins (1256), and sacking Baghdad (1258)
  • Muslims recapture Jerusalem, 1244
  • Kublai Khan founds the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, in China 1260, and becomes Supreme Ruler of the Mongol Empire 1264
  • Portuguese explore the West Coast of Africa, 1270
  • Venetian merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo make their second journey to Cathay (China), this time taking with them Niccolo’s son Marco, 1271
  • Edward I of England defeats Welsh prince Llewellyn ap Gruffyd, 1277

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978



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