The Story of Burnt Njal Essay - Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

Icelanders defined sagas as the telling over and over of great ancestral feuds and battles; the sagas were often told during long winter nights. The distinction between fact and fiction was not made. Actually, the saga form had a more lofty purpose: to maintain pride in family history and to tell the stories of the ancestral heroic age and of the introduction of Christianity to Iceland. The king’s sagas and the family sagas were the most popular. The Story of Burnt Njal (also known as Burnt Njál) is of the latter form. Some scholars argued up until the 1920’s that the work was originally two distinct sagas, Gunnar’s saga and Njal’s saga. Presently it is considered to be the work of one author because of the cohesion of stylistic form and thematic structure. The saga is differentiated from the epic in that the former is prose. Otherwise there are great similarities between the Njal saga and Homer’s epics. Battle scenes, festivals, and games are prevalent in both and delight the reader with their pageantry.

The Story of Burnt Njal is of the late classical period in Icelandic literary history. The romanticism and chivalry are not evident in the more skeletal earlier sagas. Njal’s role of hero is that of a more ordinary man than known in the Greek epics. His initial naïveté over the deteriorating social situation and the misunderstood peace offering to Flosi conspire to cause Njal’s death. He is a victim of fate and of the old code of honor, exemplified throughout the saga in his wife Bergthora. Foreshadowings in this saga are effected by employing dreams and portents, a much different literary device from the modern technique of suspense. In The Story of Burnt Njal, the reader is usually aware of the events to transpire. The purpose of the saga and epic forms was to retell and remind the listeners of history and myth, not, as with the moderns, to compose something...

(The entire section is 787 words.)