Category Archive 'Burnt Njal’s Saga'

16 Jun 2023

A Cynical Modern Reads Njals’ Saga

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From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá.

Scott Alexander, it seems to me, misses the poetry and the sense of awe one ought to feel simply from coming into contact with this remote far more heroic age so distantly removed in the mists of Time from ourselves, but his review of the Saga of Burnt Njal is nonetheless witty and analytically intelligent.

There are only about 40,000 people in medieval Iceland. The book focuses on the Southwest Quarter, so let’s say 10,000 there. Each of our characters is a large landowning farmer with many children, servants, tenants, etc; if he is patriarch of a 20 person household, then there must be about 500 such patriarchs. Each of these 500 relevant Icelanders is profiled in loving depth. And if there are 500 characters in Njal’s Saga, and n people can have n(n-1)/2 possible two-person feuds, that’s 124,750 possible feuds. Of these, about 124,749 actually take place over the course of the saga (Njal and his friend Gunnar are best buds, and refuse to feud for any reason).

A typical feud goes like this:

Someone with a name like Hrapp the Ugly, who is ill-famed throughout the land, becomes jealous of his betters. Maybe one particular better irks him, someone with a name like Eirik The Beloved-By-All.

Hrapp insinuates himself with you, flattering you until you believe he is your best friend. Then, once you trust him completely, he says “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is saying behind your back that you’re weak and effeminate; also maybe he’s plotting to kill you.”

You gather your kinsmen and say “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is slandering and plotting against me, we need to stop him.” Your friends and kinsmen object “Eirik is the kindest of all men! Surely this is only the poison of Hrapp the Ugly, whispering lies into your ear.”

You say “I have sworn to do this thing, and I call upon you as my kin to support me. If you do not, let it be known to all that you refused to help a kinsman in his time of need!”

Your kinsmen grudgingly agree to help you. You all form a raiding party and catch Eirik The Beloved-By-All when he is out hunting with his family. He kills three of your kin, but you kill five of his; he himself escapes.

You and your kin ride to all the neighboring houses, saying “We have slain five kinsmen of Eirik The-Beloved-By-All! Stand witness to our slaying!” This part is non-negotiable. If you don’t announce your killings to the victims’ neighbors immediately, the lawyers will destroy you in court later on.

Months pass. You and your kin go to the Althing. Eirik and his kin are there too, and announce that they are suing you.

You go around to all the leading men at the Althing, asking them to “support” you. The exact implications of “support” are vague, but it seems to involve standing around menacingly holding their axes while the trial is happening, in case the other side tries anything funny.

Eirik offers to drop the suit for a weregild of 300 silver pieces per person. But you refuse to pay more than 100 silver pieces. The trial is on!

You realize you will need a good lawyer. You call in a favor from your wife’s cousin’s husband’s uncle, an old man with a name like Hurgolf The Wise. He agrees to serve as your lawyer. He asks whether you complied with about a dozen insane technicalities, starting with “You did remember to tell your victims’ neighbors that you killed them, right?” and moving on to obscure details of the exact wording you used when presenting the suit. If you got any of these wrong, you will at best lose the suit and at worst be condemned to death.

Hurgolf the Wise and the other side’s lawyer fight it out at the Althing! This trial is almost never a whodunit – you, not being a monster, reported the slaying to the victim’s neighbors immediately. More often, you accuse the other side of not observing all the insane technicalities. You and Eirik almost come to blows in the courthouse. Both lawyers suggest there’s a possibility that either or both sides could be condemned to death for failing to observe the technicalities. Sometimes the lawyers get condemned to death for failing to observe technicalities.

Finally Njal (it is always Njal) offers to arbitrate. You agree. You trust Njal. Everyone trusts Njal. He is the wisest of men, and the greatest lawyer in Iceland.

Njal considers the facts of the case. He decides on a weregild of 200 silver pieces per person. You killed five of Eirik’s kin, but he killed three of your kin, so on net you killed two of Eirik’s kin, so you owe him 400 silver pieces. But he will add an extra 100 because of one of the people you killed was an especially good guy – but then take away seventy-five because one time Eirik’s cousin’s son punched your wife’s brother. So you owe a total of 425 silver pieces.

You pay Eirik’s kin 425 silver pieces. You embrace Eirik, and declare that you are now the closest of friends, and will defend him to the death from then on. He says the same, and gives you rich gifts, and invites you to stay at his farm the next time you’re in his part of southwest Iceland. Possibly he is so swept up in the excitement of mutual reconciliation that he waives the 425 silver piece fee entirely. You declare him the best and most munificent of men.

All of Eirik’s kin join in this display except Eirik’s young niece, who seethes with humiliation. She tells her husband, Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe, that he must kill you, or else she will never sleep with him again.

Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe gathers some of his kin and goes to kill you, but ends up killing five of your kin instead.

Repeat Steps 6-13. Njal offers to arbitrate, and Eirik pays you the weregilds this time. You embrace Eirik, saying you knew all along he was an honorable and noble person and this latest weregild only further proves his excellent nature. You consider offering his son your daughter’s hand in marriage, or vice versa.

Repeat until everyone in both your families is dead.

If you want to read about various Icelanders going through this process 124,749 times, Njal’s Saga is the book for you.

RTWT

22 Aug 2022

WWII, Wagner, and Burnt Njal

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Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Vanderleun quoted from Lee Sandin’s Losing the War, a fine essay on WWII, Bayreuth during the war years, war in general, and the Saga of Burnt Njal.

So while their colleagues fell into daydreams of imminent victory, the few remaining rational men of the Axis bureaucracy grew just as convinced that surrender to the Allies on any terms was tantamount to suicide. As far as they were concerned, every additional day the war lasted — no matter how pointless, no matter how phantasmal the hope of victory, no matter how desperate and horrible the conditions on the battlefield — was another day of judgment successfully deferred.

This is the dreadful logic that comes to control a lot of wars. (The American Civil War is another example.) The losers prolong their agony as much as possible, because they’re convinced the alternative is worse. Meanwhile the winners, who might earlier have accepted a compromise peace, become so maddened by the refusal of their enemies to stop fighting that they see no reason to settle for anything less than absolute victory. In this sense the later course of World War II was typical: it kept on escalating, no matter what the strategic situation was, and it grew progressively more violent and uncontrollable long after the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The difference was that no other war had ever had such deep reserves of violence to draw upon.

The Vikings would have understood it anyway. They didn’t have a word for the prolongation of war long past any rational goal — they just knew that’s what always happened. It’s the subject of their longest and greatest saga, the Brennu-njalasaga, or The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. The saga describes a trivial feud in backcountry Iceland that keeps escalating for reasons nobody can understand or resolve until it engulfs the whole of northern Europe. Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. The wise and farseeing hero Njal, who has never met the original feuders and has no idea what their quarrel was about, ultimately meets his appalling death (the Vikings thought there was nothing worse than being burned alive) as part of a chain of ever-larger catastrophes that he can tell is building but is helpless to stop — a fate that seems in the end to be as inevitable as it is inexplicable.

For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart. Njal’s saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: “Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:

    Blood rains
    From the cloudy web
    On the broad loom
    Of slaughter.
    The web of man
    Gray as armor
    Is being woven.

Do read the whole thing. It’s a fine essay.


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