“Njal’s Saga”: A Fictional Account of Early Iceland
“The origin and evolution of saga writing in Iceland are largely matters for speculation. A common pastime on Icelandic farms, from the 12th century down to modern times, was the reading aloud of stories to entertain the household, known as sagnaskemmtun (“saga entertainment”). It seems to have replaced the traditional art of storytelling” (Hermann Palsson, pg. 1). Njal’s Saga uses Old Icelandic writing convention and historical data to give a fictional account of a generation’s lifestyle and struggles.
Icelandic literature has become very valuable because historians have realized the great amount of truth that can be found in each saga. According to one historian, the sagas have proven to be of “valuable insight into the fabric of a unique medieval community” (Gary Martin, pg.1). During the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, there were about “forty sagas written by various anonymous Icelanders” (Gary Martin, pg.1). Each used a combination of historical facts and drama to create
sagas that tracked generations of people. Historically, the first people to travel to Iceland were from Norway. According to Gary Martin, they were “surprised to find such a plentiful land” (pg.1). Not only did they farm, but they also collected food and supplies from the nearby ocean.
There are quite a few sagas that reveal the true historical society of Iceland. “Egil’s Saga records how, on arrival, the settler Skallagrim and his companions ‘went out fishing and seal-hunting, and collecting the eggs of wild foul, for there was plenty of everything” (Gary Martin, pg.1). In Iceland, the immigrants held to the farming traditions that they had in Norway, so not much changed in the transition. One historian noted, “Iceland, like much of Norway, was essentially country for pastoralists. Short growing seasons made the cultivation of grains marginal” (Gary Martin, pg. 1). Animal products provided the mainstay of the Icelandic diet. An emphasis on dairy cattle and sheep meant that lamb and beef and dairy products such as cheese and whey were relatively plentiful, “especially following good seasons” (Gary Martin, pg. 2)
Despite the abundance of food, as more settlers came, the resources were slowly depleted:
The following episode from Grettir’s Saga is likely to have been typical: ‘as soon as Eirik knew that Onund had arrived he offered to give him anything he wanted, and added that there was not much land still unclaimed. Onund said he would like first to see
what land was available. So they went south across the fjords, and when they reached Ofaera, Eirik said, ‘Now you can have a look at it. From here on the land is unclaimed up to Bjorn’s settlement. (Gary Martin, p.2).
Clearly this famine was a historical, recorded event since there are also reports of a shortage of foodstuffs in Njal’s Saga. “This was a time of great famine in Iceland, and all over the country people were going short of hay and food” (Njal’s Saga, Ch. 47). So it is clear that Njal’s Saga includes some factual information, yet still remains a fictional narrative.
Instead of creating a form of law enforcement, the Icelanders usually took matters into their own hands. This is can be seen in the many killings that occur in Njal’s Saga. The Icelandic people had developed a feud system, which was largely based on family and relationships. Being friends or related to someone meant that you stood up for him and defended him at all costs. The importance was not necessarily the individual, but the family name. Lars Lonnroth saw this and commented, “The Feud Pattern emerges from a previous state of balance in the relationship between two families. A cause for conflict is presented, and the feud breaks out as members of one family commit a punitive act against members of another family” (Lars Lonnroth, pg. 69).
This is also clearly seen and recorded in Njal’s Saga when Njal is burned for the sake of his family.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that midway through the saga, Christianity is introduced. The values and morals upheld by Christianity are very different from those of the Icelandic culture. The Christian value system is based on love, specifically the love God has