is an anonymous work and the most famous of a series of forty family sagas from Iceland, which have their roots in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Source materials come from the oral tradition and other tales, including The Book of Settlements,
which deals with medieval lawsuits, and The Book of the Icelanders,
which chronicles the proliferation of Christianity in Iceland. While mostly prose, the saga does contain passages of poetry as well. In Icelandic the word “saga” means “history” as well as “story.” Njals Saga
relates events that occurred between 960 and 1020, involving the friends Njal and Gunnar.
Three main episodes comprise Njal’s Saga,
including the death of Gunnar, the burning of Njal, and the revenge of Kari. Prior to Njal and Gunnar's entry into the narrative, the brothers Hrut and Hoskuld are introduced. Hrut gets married to Unn but soon leaves Iceland and engages in an affair with Norway’s Queen Gunnhild, who puts a curse on him. Hallgerd, the daughter of Hoskuld, is made to enter an unhappy marriage. Her foster father kills her husband and the next man she marries as well. Gunnar helps the woman Unn to get a dowry from Hrut. Unn then marries Valgard the Grey and among their children is Mord, who will later be an adversary of Gunnar. Njal is first referenced at this point. Meanwhile, Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg win battles at sea against Vikings and are well received in Norway and Denmark. Hallgerd is impressed with Gunnar’s successes and they marry.
Events continue to unfold. The wife of Njal, Bergthora, passes a remark about Hallgerd’s character, prompting him to have one of her servants killed. Bergthora seeks revenge by arranging six killings, with each being worse than the last. Despite all of the carnage, Njal and Gunnar remain friends. When a famine strikes, Gunnar asks his neighbor Otkel for assistance with food and hay, but is turned down. Hallgerd sends a slave to steal supplies and burn down Otkel’s shed. Gunnar strikes Hallgerd when his finds out what she has done and he offers to make amends with Otkel, but the man’s friend Skammkel turns down the offer of recompense. Later Otkel’s horse loses control and Otkel accidentally cuts Gunnar’s ear. Skammkel starts a rumor saying Gunnar cried upon being cut. Gunnar and Kolskegg then kill Skammkel and Otkel. After further skirmishes, Njal puts forth a prophesy saying that Gunnar cannot kill two members of the same family or he will die.
Mord Valgardson plots to have Gunnar kill the son of Otkel, Thorgeir, in order that Njal’s prophesy will be fulfilled. As Mord’s plot unfolds, Gunnar is exiled from Iceland for three years as a punishment. Gunnar initially intends to comply with his exile, but when he looks back at his farm he decides to return home. This decision makes him an outlaw, allowing any man to kill him. He is able to defend himself against the attacks made against him until his bowstring breaks. He requests a strand of hair from Hallgerd to fix it, but she remembers begin struck by him and refuses. Gunnar ultimately dies of exhaustion.
The next section deals with Njal and his sons, the Njalssons. Their attempt to revenge the death of Gunnar leads to the deaths of Njal and his sons. The family is burned alive in their home by a gang seeking vengeance. This burning of Njal and his family is considered an important event in the early history of Iceland and is told in other sources of Icelandic history as well. As the narrative continues, it presents a history of the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. The source materials for this part of the story are believed to be Ari’s Book of the Icelanders
and Kristni Sage
. The Saxon Thangbrand converts Hall of Sida and Njal to Christianity, but it is not easy to convert others in Iceland. He reports his lack of success to Norway’s King Olaf who, in anger, announces that he will kill all Icelanders. Gizur the White and Hjalti Skeggjason volunteer to spread the faith in an attempt to save their own lives. Later, at Althing, on the verge of a battle resulting from religious unrest, Thorgeir of Ljosvatn, who is a pagan god, proclaims that all of Iceland will henceforth follow the Christian faith and no blood is shed.The Guardian
summed up the significance of the Sagas saying, “The Sagas still influence the way we tell and read stories today. Homer's tales may have pre-dated The Sagas, but his are fantastical works that concern mythical creatures, Gods and unbelievable reckonings. Though trolls and ghosts feature, much of The Sagas remains grounded in reality. They tell stories of farmers, families and fighters, lovers, warriors and kings, of betrayal and dilemmas, and which are, for the most part, believable and credible. Women play a strong role too: few characters are as memorable as Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, believed to be the first person of European ancestry to be born in America. And seemingly hard as nails. The style in which The Sagas are written is, like some of today's best fiction, unpretentious and unadorned. Characters move from A to B to C (often by long-boat), and the narrators remain unemotional and impartial; people live and die without sentimentality or judgment.”