What is Njáls saga?

Njáls saga (sometimes referred to as Brennu-Njáls saga, ‘The Saga of Burnt Njáll’, or just Njála) is the longest, most famous, and most artistically acclaimed of the medieval Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur). It is thought to have been composed in the written form in which we know it around 1280, some years after the Icelandic Commonwealth had ceded to the Norwegian Crown (in 1262-64). The saga was copied and recopied from the medieval period until the 19th century, on parchment and later on paper, both for the purposes of domestic entertainment in Iceland and for antiquarian reasons. The narrative, and many of the characters in the saga, have inspired numerous poets, writers and artists; Njáls saga has also had great political significance as well as socio-cultural significance in Iceland, and Scandinavia more widely, over the centuries.

Plot Summary: Excerpted from Vésteinn Ólason’s survey article on Njáls saga in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. Phillip Pulsiano

Njáls saga “is a tale of the two friends, Gunnarr and Njáll, and their families in the south of Iceland, but a great number of other people are involved, directly or indirectly, and the action is set in various parts of Iceland, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.

“After a gloomy introductory section (chs. 1-18) describing three failed marriages (one ending in divorce, two with the killing of the husband by the wife’s foster-father), the protagonists are introduced: Gunnarr is tall, handsome, and brave, a great fighter and athlete; Njáll has great knowledge of the law, is wise, prescient, and peace loving; both are rich and generous. Their friendship is put to the test when Gunnarr has married the twice-widowed Hallgerðr, and she gets into conflict with Njáll’s wife, Bergþóra. This conflict escalates from insults to mutual killings of slaves and free men, until Njáll’s sons, led by the grim-faced and quick-tempered Skarpheðinn and egged on by their mother, kill one of Gunnarr’s close relatives. After each clash, Gunnarr and Njáll settle the case between themselves. Hallgerðr resents this peacemaking, but can do nothing while Gunnarr lives.

“Chs. 46-80 describe how Gunnarr’s prosperity causes envy among neighboring chieftains, and how he is, against his will, drawn into feuds where he kills a great many adversaries in self-defense. Each time, Njáll succeeds in negotiating compensations until Gunnarr is finally outlawed for three years. He defies the sentence and stays at home, against Njáll’s advice, and is killed after a glorious defense. Skarpheðinn and Gunnarr’s eldest son, Högni, kill several of his enemies in revenge.

“The second part of the saga centers on Njáll’s family. In an intermediary sequence, set abroad, the sons of Njáll and Gunnarr’s relatives, led by Þráinn, Hallgerðr’s son-in-law and ally, reopen their feud, and back in Iceland it escalates until Skarpheðinn kills Þráinn. Njáll succeeds in settling the case, and to ensure peace he fosters Þráinn’s son, Höskuldr, raising him in his own spirit and making him a chieftain superior to others in the two families.

“In these years, Iceland has been Christianized, but envy and hatred have not been uprooted, and Mörðr, a sly and smooth-tongued chieftain, who previously turned people against Gunnarr, now succeeds in making Njáll’s sons mistrust their foster-brother Höskuldr, and they slay him cruelly. This is a heavy blow to Njáll. He attempts to reconcile his sons with Höskuldr’s relatives but fails. Realizing at last that his struggle against evil is in vain, he goes with open eyes to his death, when he and his wife, his sons, and a grandson are burned and killed in their home. This event, seen as tragic even by the leader of the attackers, is a magnificent climax of the whole saga. The repercussions are great and seem to have national significance when a great battle breaks out at the Alþingi. However, good men succeed in making the relatives accept compensation, all but the son-in-law Kári, who had managed to escape from the burning farmhouse. Alone, he traces the burners and kills them one after the other inside and outside Iceland. In the end, he is reconciled with the leader of the burners, Flosi.”