Njal's Saga

Njal's Saga Study Guide

Njal's Saga is the longest and the most revered of the forty family sagas written in Iceland between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The events of the saga come from several different sources, including oral tales, The Book of Settlements (a detailed account of all the lawsuits in medieval Iceland), The Book of the Icelanders (an account of the spread of Christianity in Iceland), and other sagas as well. The saga includes a wide array of verse poetry among its mostly prosaic passages, some of them taken directly from historical sources.

In Icelandic, the word 'saga' means both 'history' and 'story'. And although this text proffers a poetic version of Icelandic history, it also takes full advantage of dramatic form. Just as Shakespeare used historical persons as the basis of many of his characters a few centuries later, this saga's author, who remains anonymous, took real Icelanders and slotted them into his drama. Many of them appear in other sagas, but some of them—such as Gunnar's brother, Kolskegg—are notably absent from other sagas. This could mean that the author deliberately invented this character for the drama, or that other dramatic interpretations of the events did not find Kolskegg relevant to the story. In Njal's Saga, the author also introduces many siblings, parents, and children who play no part in the plot, showing that this author felt compelled to write in the genealogies, as in many other sagas. Naturally, this can make the experience of reading rather challenging for modern readers, because there are so many characters and places to keep track of. But for contemporary readers, these genealogies provided a way into the saga: many Icelanders are able to track their own lineage all the way back to characters in the saga. This saga was written after Iceland was re-annexed by Norway, so the genealogies can also be seen as an affirmation of personal and national identity. It would be another seven centuries before Iceland regained its independence, which may help to explain the lasting reverence that readers continue to feel for the saga.

On first exposure, one may recognize sagas for their displays of brutal violence and physical prowess, but the beardless title character is no warrior. He carries a meager short-handled axe just once in the entire saga. Njal's Saga celebrates intelligence, wisdom, decisiveness, purposefulness, shrewd business acumen, the ability to give and receive advice, decency, and a sense of honor. Translator Robert Cooke says, "In our age of self-doubt, identity crises and existential uncertainty, it is refreshing to read about firm decision-making and purposeful action by men and women with a sure sense of themselves" (xv).