Troll-Descended Bruisers

Tom Shippey

  • ‘Why Is Your Axe Bloody?’: A Reading of ‘Njal’s Saga’ by William Ian Miller
    Oxford, 334 pp, £55.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 870484 3

Icelandic sagas are a strange anomaly in the literature of medieval Europe. There are ‘legendary sagas’ such as The Saga of the Volsungs; biographies of the Norwegian kings, brought into one sweeping cycle in Snorri Sturluson’s mammoth Heimskringla (The Circle of the World); and a gloomy compilation called The Saga of the Sturlungs, which recounts the violent break-up of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262, just as, or just before, most of the great sagas were being written. But unlike medieval epics or romances, even the most fantastic of them can (almost) be read like modern novels. This is especially true of what has become the dominant sub-genre, at least in the academic world, ‘the sagas of Icelanders’, sometimes known as ‘family sagas’. They’re about ordinary people who have to deal with marriage, divorce, tangled relationships of all kinds – but attempt to settle their disputes by killings and blood-feuds, in accordance with a strong ethic of honour and prestige. Sagas such as Egil’s Saga or The Saga of Killer-Glum concentrate on individuals, but the longest and greatest deal with a family or a community.

Njal’s Saga, though its title might suggest otherwise, is one of the latter. It centres on Njal Thorgeirsson, an anomaly in himself, for he is not a fighting man but a wise one, skilled in the law, doing his best to control the prickly temperaments around him. In the end he fails: the saga’s climax is the Burning, when Njal, his wife and sons are burned to death inside their homestead at Bergthorsknoll. The saga has a cast of about a hundred, conveniently listed at the back of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson’s old Penguin translation. It was written – we don’t know by whom – late in the 13th century, after Iceland had lost its long independence and become a province of the Norwegian kings, and it looks back, perhaps nostalgically, to the time around 1000, when farmers still had their freedom and the country was about to convert, en masse, by consensus, and in agreed stages, to Christianity.

Iceland at the turn of the millennium had about as little official politics as any human community we know of in Europe. It had no king, decisions were made in public meetings called ‘things’, the civil service consisted of one man (the ‘lawspeaker’), and society was divided into four classes: slaves, servants, free homesteaders and goðar – priests or chieftains, men who had the right to enlist supporters. Yet there was constant jockeying for power, influence and reputation, and it’s the closely observed micro-politics of this world that make the great ‘family sagas’ like Njal’s Saga and The Laxdalers’ Saga works of unrivalled subtlety.

William Ian Miller, who teaches law at the University of Michigan, wrote his study of the two sides of the saga, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 25 years ago. Since then he has written several books on awkward aspects of social interaction, including Humiliation (1993), The Anatomy of Disgust (1997) and Faking It (2005). These concentrate on the modern world, but Miller regularly draws on saga examples. In his new book he contends that the author of Njal’s Saga was not only telling a story as complex as Middlemarch, but writing a work ‘almost Thucydidean in its intelligent social and political analysis’. The ‘legal and political culture of the saga is as important to his story’ as any of its unforgettable characters, though that culture was centuries in the past by the time the saga was written. This achievement was not the result of generations of people – some of them descendants of the characters involved – talking over well-remembered events: it is not an oral history. Miller believes that the saga is the work of a writer who knew exactly what he was doing. ‘The more you look, the more you have to stand in awe of the author’s talents.’

This may be so. Nevertheless, there is one novelistic skill that no saga-author possesses, and its absence is what makes the sagas so enigmatic: the art of explaining complex human motivations. You don’t have to read much of any classic novel before you reach sentences like, ‘As Tess grew older, and began to see how matters stood, she felt quite a Malthusian towards her mother,’ or, ‘Celia’s consciousness told her that she had not been at all in the wrong.’ Saga-authors tell you what people say, what they do and how they look, but they remain resolutely external. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that thoughts and motivations in the saga-world are any simpler than our own, or saga-characters any less complex.

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