We've all heard of the Norse sagas. What comes to mind when we think of them? Roaming vikings? Burning mead-halls? Epic battles? Odinn, Thor, and Loki roaming the earth? Dragons with treasure-hoards?
Well, that's what I thought too.
As it turns out, a saga is quite different. In the Introduction to The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Christopher Tolkien explains:
In Iceland, a Norwegian colony, there grew up the unique technique of the saga, the prose tale. This was chiefly a tale of everyday life; it was frequently the last word in sophisticated polish, and its natural field was not legend.
Today we get our idea of the saga from the Volsunga Saga, a very unusual saga that does involve viking, blazing halls, epic battles, gods roaming the earth, and a very memorable dragon. It's the most well-known saga of the last century, mainly owing to Richard Wagner's operatic adaptation of the story, the Ring cycle. But the Volsunga Saga, as scholars like Tolkien know, is highly romanticised and not at all typical.
The Saga of Burnt Njall, or Njal's Saga, is a typical Icelandic saga and perhaps the best, longest, and most highly developed example of the artform. It is set in the commonwealth of Iceland spanning the country's conversion to Christianity at the turn of the first millenium.
The story is long and involved—a saga, if you will. It's the story of a feud, or a series of interconnected feuds, around the family of Njal the lawyer; which begins when Njal aids his friend the warrior Gunnar to get justice over the unjustly retained dowry of a divorced woman. Gunnar complicates things when he decides to marry the niece of the man he's just won his legal victory against; his new wife holds a grude against Njal and, more particularly, Njal's wife Bergthora.
Cattle raids escalate suddenly into assassinations, and Gunnar and Njal, who just want to be friends despite the fact that their wives are killing off cadet branches of each other's families, find themselves unwillingly embroiled in a feud that won't stop until both they and their families are dead...
Unlike much of the ancient and medieval literature I've read, Njal's Saga reads surprisingly like a modern novel. It has few or no fantastic elements and is clearly intended to be a serious work of historical fiction set around real characters and events from Iceland's past.
For the student of Icelandic history and culture, it remains a major source; both in its depiction of the laws, customs, and government of Iceland and in its account of the conversion. I found the legal details fascinating. As John Eidsmoe has pointed out, we generally tend to think of Vikings and the Scandinavians as lawless, raging, pillaging types—and the fact that Iceland's government during this period was known as the Anarchy doesn't help much either.
The interesting fact is that the Icelandic Anarchy was anarchy in a very specific sense. There was no king of Iceland and the government was nebulous and decentralised. There was, however, one paramount authority: the law. At the annual assembly known as the Althing (still in existence today in a more parliamentary form), the peple of Iceland would assemble to settle disputes, hear the law recited, pass legislation, trade, chat, and get to know eligible young members of the opposite sex. From Njal's Saga we see that men like Njal who was an expert in the law—which was an oral tradition—were highly respected and trusted to settle all disputes with wise settlements. Since Njal and Gunnar spend a lage portion of the early part of the saga doggedly settling all their disputes at law long, long after most people would simply say, “Forget about it, pass me my battleaxe and let's get it over with,” we get a good look at just how much reverence these men had for the law.
Unfortunately, this law did not punish murder with death but with settlement and monetary payment—which allowed feuds to continue, obliterating whole families and weakening the society.
The conversion of Iceland to Christianity occurs somewhere around the half-way mark in the story, and is one of the most entertaining parts. Some of the characters, who have taken a trip to Norway, return with a man named Thangbrand who has been sent by the king of Norway—Iceland's nominal overlord and main trading partner—to convert Iceland to Christianity. Thangbrand does this by traveling around Iceland engaging in interfaith dialogue.
Thangbrand and his messmate fared right through the west country, and Steinvora, the mother of Ref the Skald, came against him; she preached the heathen faith to Thangbrand and made him a long speech. Thangbrand held his peace while she spoke, but made a long speech after her, and turned all that she had said the wrong way against her.
"Hast thou heard," she said, "how Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and how he did not dare to fight with Thor?"
"I have heard tell," says Thangbrand, "that Thor was naught but dust and ashes, if God had not willed that he should live."
However most of Thangbrand's debates are carried on with edged weapons, as the heathens challenge him to single combat for blaspheming the gods. Thangbrand, it turns out, is really good at this kind of debate. Many of the Icelanders find him so impressive that they immediately become Christians, and at the next Althing the decision is made to acknowledge this clearly much stronger and more impressive God as a nation.
And then everyone happily goes back home and starts feuding again.
These days, I often think of the conversion of Iceland. When the Althing took the decision to become Christian, they continued to permit certain heathen practices in private.
"This is the beginning of our laws," he said, "that all men shall be Christian here in the land, and believe in one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but leave off all idol-worship, not expose children to perish, and not eat horseflesh. It shall be outlawry if such things are proved openly against any man; but if these things are done by stealth, then it shall be blameless."
But all this heathendom was all done away with within a few years' space, so that those things were not allowed to be done either by stealth or openly.
The cultural transformation was slow in coming. But come it did. When the Gospel had taken firm root in Iceland, such practices were outlawed.
I'm as grieved as anyone by the half-baked Christianity that seems endemic today. Orthodoxy far outstrips orthopraxy. Worse, there are actually Christians who believe that killing children in the womb is OK, just like there were probably plenty of new Christians in Iceland who, contaminated by their culture, thought it was OK to leave their newborns out to die in the snow. There was hope for them—and there's hope for us.
Njal's Saga is a fascinating look at a fascinating and unique medieval culture. Although I didn't find the story itself as gripping as the historical details, I highly recommend it—you'll learn a lot, and who knows? You might find it far more exciting than I did.