Speared in the belly, Þorgrim dropped his shield, slipped, and fell off the roof. He walked back to Gizur and the rest. “Is Gunnar at home?”, asked Gizur, looking up. Þorgrim replied, “You’ll have to find that out for yourself – but his spear certainly is.” And then he fell dead.
There’s nothing to beat the laconic, hard-bitten delivery of Njál’s Saga, Iceland’s gripping tale of Viking-age clan warfare. The story centres on the life of Njál Þorgeirsson and his family, who are casually ensnared in a minor issue that somehow escalates into a frightful, fifty-year feud. Bound by their own personalities, fate, and sense of honour, nobody is able to stop the bloodshed, which ends only after the original characters – and many of their descendants – have been killed. But there’s far more to Njál’s Saga than its violence, and the tale paints a vivid picture of Iceland at what was, in some ways, an idyllic time: the power of the Alþing at Þingvellir was at its peak, and the country’s free settlers lived by their own efforts on farming and freebooting.
The tale splits into three uneven parts, beginning in the late tenth century at a point where the fate of several participants is already intertwined. Gifted with foresight and respected by all, Njál himself is often a background figure, mediating and advising rather than confronting or fighting, but his sons play a far more active role, especially the proud and ferocious Skarp-héðinn. Njál’s best friend is the heroic Gunnar Hámundarson of Hlíðarendi, whose superb martial skills and physical prowess never get in the way of his generosity or sense of justice. Balancing this nobility is the malevolent Mörð Valgarðsson, a second cousin of Gunnar’s who spends the saga’s first third plotting his downfall.
Early on in the tale Gunnar marries “Thief-eyed” Hallgerð, a thorny character who provokes a violent feud with Njál’s household. Njál and Gunnar remain friends, but Njál’s sons are drawn into the fray by the murder of their foster-father, and the cycle of payback killings begins. Mörð sees his chance, and manipulates various disreputable characters into picking fights with Gunnar, who emerges undefeated yet increasingly worn down from each confrontation. After one fight too many, Gunnar is outlawed – exiled from Iceland – but finds himself unable to leave his homeland, and is hunted down to Hlíðarendi by a posse led by Mörð and the upstanding chieftain Gizur the White. When Gunnar’s bowstring snaps during the siege, Hallgerð spitefully refuses to give him two locks of her hair to restring the weapon: “To each their own way of earning fame,” Gunnar memorably responds, and is cut down.
After an interlude describing Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in 1000, the violence sparked by Hallgerð thirty years earlier resurfaces when Njál’s sons kill her distant relative, the arrogant Þráin Sigfússon. Attempting to placate Þráin’s family, Njál adopts his son Höskuld and buys him a priesthood, and for a while all seems well. But resentment at this favouritism eats away at Njál’s sons, and, encouraged by Mörð – who, now that Gunnar is dead, has shifted his vindictive attentions to Njál – they murder Höskuld. Höskuld’s influential father-in-law Flósi of Svínafell agrees initially to a cash settlement for the murder, but Njál inadvertently offends him: confrontation is inevitable and the 80-year-old Njál, bowing to fate, retreats with his sons to his homestead Bergþórshvoll. Flósi and his men torch the building, killing all but Njal’s son-in-law Kári.
Public opinion against the burning of Njál runs so high that at the following Alþing Kári is able to confront Flósi and his allies – now known as the Burners. Mörð stirs up trouble again and a pitched battle breaks out; in the aftermath, all but Kári accept the Alþing’s conditions for peace, which banish Flósi and the Burners from Iceland until tempers have cooled. For his part, Kári swears vengeance, and the action follows his peregrinations around Europe as he hunts down his enemies. Returning to Iceland, Kári’s ship is wrecked at Ingólfshöfði off the southeast coast; walking inland through a blizzard he finds sanctuary at Svínafell and becomes reconciled with Flósi, bringing Njál’s Saga to an end.