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Njals Saga

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1280

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Summary and Study Guide


Njal’s Saga is a late medieval Icelandic family saga authored around 1280 but set around the year 1000. It combines legend and history—many of its protagonists were historical figures, and other historical sources corroborate some of the major events the saga mentions. However, the author also embellishes characters and events as he describes them in the saga.

The saga recounts intermarriage, friendships, and tragic blood feuds between multiple Icelandic families who trace their ancestry back to the island’s colonization by Norwegians during the 900s. The tale is named for one of the saga’s central characters, an Icelandic farmer called Njal who possesses second sight and is known for his legal acumen. Much of the story highlights Njal’s close friendship with his neighbor, Gunnar, despite feuds between their wives, who dislike one another. Gunnar often seeks Njal’s advice and receives prophetic insight from him. However, Gunnar ultimately fails to heed Njal’s prophetic warnings, which results in his death. Gunnar’s death ends up causing strife and misunderstandings between several Icelandic families. As a result, Njal’s house is set on fire by his enemies, and Njal dies in the fire.

This guide uses the Penguin Classics 1997 edition of Njal’s Saga, translated by Robert Cook.


Njal Thorgeirsson is a farmer who lives in the southern part of Iceland. He is widely known for his wisdom, legal prowess, and prophetic abilities. He forms a close friendship with his neighbor, Gunnar Hámundarson of Hlidarendi, who is famous for his bravery and strength. Their friendship is tested by a long feud between their wives that results in the slayings of multiple members of their households. As a testament to the strength of Njal and Gunnar’s bond, these events do not sour their friendship and they reach reasonable legal settlements that establish stretches of peace. However, Gunnar ignores Njal’s prophetic advice and breaks his settlement with some rivals, who slay him in retaliation. Gunnar’s own wife, Hallgerd, contributes to his demise when she refuses to give him a lock of her hair that would have helped him to restring his bow and defend himself.

Gunnar’s death destabilizes Icelandic society and unleashes a series of feuds in which families who were once allies turn against one another. Mord Valgardsson, a cunning man who orchestrated the events that led to Gunnar’s demise, now plots to turn Njal’s children—the Njalssons—against their foster brother, Hoskuld Thrainsson the Godi, who is one of the most virtuous characters in the saga. Hoskuld’s slaying turns the Sigfussons and the chieftain Flosi against the Njalssons; though they were once the Njalssons’ allies, Hoskuld was their kin.

The blood feud between these families culminates in the burning of Njal, his wife, his sons, and grandson in their home. Njal foresaw this event, but he chooses to remain within the burning house and meet his death with dignity and honor. Flosi planned the burning to exact vengeance on the Njalssons. However, the violence and tragedy of the event is shameful for all involved and results in multiple lawsuits and countersuits at the Althing, Iceland’s legislative and judicial body. Tensions here lead to all-out warfare known as the Battle of the Althing—a strikingly unusual historical event since fighting was banned at this assembly.

Though settlements eventually result, Kari Solmunderson, Njal’s son-in-law who escaped the burning, refuses to settle and seeks vengeance. He stalks his enemies across Iceland and beyond, when some of the perpetrators go into exile. However, after much bloodshed, Kari returns to Iceland to finally make peace with Flosi. Kari marries Flosi’s niece—who is also Hoskuld’s widow—and this cements their reconciliation.