The Story of Burnt Njal

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1550

Harold Grayfell rules in Norway. Hrut Heriolfsson comes out of Iceland to claim an inheritance, and he sits on the high seat of Gunnhilda, the king’s mother. He is handsome and strong. He finds favor with the king as well, so that he claims his inheritance and gets a great store of rich goods while sea roving. Then he sails back to Iceland, but not before Gunnhilda puts a spell on him that he might never have pleasure living with the woman he sets his heart on.

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Soon after, Hrut marries Unna, Fiddle Mord’s daughter. Things do not go smoothly between Hrut and Unna, and she soon leaves him. When Mord asks at the Thing for her goods to be returned, Hrut offers to fight him instead. Mord refuses and gets great shame by his suit.

Hrut’s brother Hauskuld has a fair daughter, Hallgerda, but she is hard-hearted. She marries Thorwald Oswifsson, and he is killed by Thiostolf, her foster father. Then she marries Glum, son of Olof the Hall, and he is murdered. She then sends Thiostolf to Hrut to tell of Glum’s death, and Hrut strikes him dead. Fiddle Mord dies, and Unna runs through her goods. Then she asks her kinsman Gunnar Hamondsson to get back her goods from Hrut. Gunnar is the best skilled in arms of all men. His brother’s name is Kolskegg.

Njal is Gunnar’s friend. They swear nothing should come between them. Njal is so great a lawyer that his match is not to be found. Bergthora is his wife.

Gunnar asks Njal how to get Unna’s goods, and Njal advises him to trick Hrut into summoning himself to the Thing where the suit would be tried. There Gunnar challenges Hrut to single combat, but Hauskuld makes Hrut pay the money. There is much ill feeling.

Gunnar and Kolskegg go sea roving and come back with many goods. They ride to the Thing, and there Gunnar sees Hallgerda and asks for her. Njal foretells ill from this but goes to the wedding.

At the wedding Thrain Sigfusson puts away his shrewish wife and asks for Thorgerda, Hallgerda’s daughter. So there are two weddings.

Each year Gunnar and Njal have feasts for friendship’s sake. Njal has it the year Bergthora insults Hallgerda and Hallgerda asks Gunnar to avenge her. Gunnar refuses and takes her home. Then Hallgerda has Bergthora’s thrall killed. Gunnar pays atonement to Njal. Bergthora retaliates, and Njal pays for that death. The women urge their men on until Njal’s sons are involved, but Gunnar and Njal keep their friendship.

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When Otkell Skarfsson tricks Gunnar into buying a deceitful thrall, Hallgerda sends him to burn Otkell’s storehouse. Gunnar offers atonement but refuses Otkell friendship. Then Otkell hurts Gunnar, and Gunnar kills Otkell. This is the beginning of Gunnar’s slayings. Njal warns him not to kill more than one man in the same stock or he will invite his death.

Then Starkad, son of Bork the Waxy-toothed Blade, challenges Gunnar to a horse fight. Thorgeir Otkellsson is hurt and wants revenge against Gunnar. Starkad, his son Thorgeir, and Thorgeir Otkellsson try to ambush Gunnar, and Thorgeir Otkellsson is killed. This is the second man slain in the same stock. Thorgeir Starkadsson swears vengeance. At the Thing the atonement is that Gunnar and Kolskegg are to go away within three years or be slain by the kinsmen of those they killed.

They make plans to go abroad, but as they ride away, Gunnar’s horse throws him with his face turned toward home. When he decides not to go, Kolskegg goes alone. Gunnar is outlawed. Njal warns him that Geir the Priest is getting up a band to slay him, and Gunnar asks Njal to see after his son Hogni.

When Geir the Priest and his men come to Gunnar’s house, they kill his hound Sam. Sam howls loudly before he dies, so that Gunnar is prepared. Gunnar puts up a long fight and kills two men and wounds sixteen before his enemies pull the roof off his house to get at him.

They build a cairn over Gunnar. Skarphedinn Njalsson and Hogni Gunnarsson see the cairn open, and Gunnar with a merry face sings a song before the cairn closes again. Then Skarphedinn and Hogni kill Starkad and Thorgeir Starkadsson and avenge Gunnar.

Njal’s sons then go abroad, and wrongs pile up between them and Thrain Sigfusson in the Orkneys. Kari Solmundsson is with them. When they come back, Skarphedinn kills Thrain. Kettle of the Mark is Thrain’s brother but Njal’s son-in-law, and so Kettle and Njal make atonement. Njal takes Hauskuld Thrainsson as his foster son. Kari asks for and gets Njal’s daughter Helge to wife. Then Flosi Thordsson becomes involved in the feud. He is tall and bold.

There is a change of rulers in Norway. Olaf Tryggvisson makes a change of faith and sends Thangbrand to Iceland to preach Christianity. He does that by challenging any man who speaks against the new faith. At the Thing, Thorgeir of Lightwater challenges the men for the new law, and they all make pledges. Then Njal goes to Flosi to ask his daughter Hildigunna for his foster son Hauskuld. She says she will not be wedded unless they get Hauskuld a priesthood.

Njal tries to get a priesthood for Hauskuld, but no one will sell his. At the Thing that summer, when no one can get his suit settled, Njal says it would be wiser to have a Fifth Court to take over those suits that cannot be finished in the Quarter Courts. Skapti Thorodsson then brings the Fifth Court into law. Njal begs a new priesthood for Hauskuld, and Hildigunna and Hauskuld are married.

Soon after Lyting, Thrain’s sister’s husband, takes offense at Hauskuld, Njal’s baseborn son, and kills him. Rodny, Hauskuld’s mother, places it upon Skarphedinn to avenge that death. Skarphedinn and his brothers go after Lyting and his brothers. When Njal’s foster son Hauskuld makes atonement for the slaying, Aumund, Hauskuld Njalsson’s baseborn and blind son, comes to Lyting at the Thing and demands his share. Lyting refuses. When Aumund comes to the door, he turns short around, and his eyes are opened. Then he runs straight to Lyting and kills him with an ax. Aumund turns to go out again, and his eyes are sealed. Njal makes the atonement.

Mord Valgardsson plans to talebear before Njal’s sons so that they will kill Hauskuld the Priest. A coolness springs up between Njal’s sons and Hauskuld. Finally, Mord with them, Njal’s sons slay Hauskuld. Njal says the next deaths will be his and those of his wife and sons.

Hauskuld’s death brings his father-in-law Flosi Thordsson much grief and wrath. He gathers together a great band. Skarphedinn seeks help, and they all go to the Thing. There the atonement falls through. Flosi gathers his men for an attack with fire and sword on Njal’s sons.

Njal gathers all of his sons in the house, and Flosi’s band tries to master them with weapons. When the attackers wound a great many, Flosi takes fire and makes great blazes before the doors. He calls the women out, and Helgi Njalsson tries to escape with them but is killed. Bergthora stays indoors with Njal and Kari’s son Thord. The three lie down on the bed with an ox hide over them. Then the fires burn hot and timbers begin to fall. Kari runs along the crossbeams and beats his way out with a burning bench. He is hidden by the smoke as he runs away. Skarphedinn tries to follow but is pinned to the wall, and Grimm falls dead in the fire. After Flosi’s men are sure Skarphedinn is dead, they hear him sing a song. When men come to find them, Njal, Thord and Bergthora are not burned, but the ox hide is shriveled.

Flosi dreams that many men will die. Kari sets about getting his men together. They all go to the Thing. All who wish to avenge the burning shout their war cries. Many men are killed before an atonement is reached. Since Kari will not have that atonement cover the burning, there is another award for that. The payment covers all but Thord Karisson. Flosi and his men are to go abroad.

Thorgeir Craggeir, a kinsman, goes along with Kari. They come upon some of Flosi’s men and kill them. Then Flosi makes an atonement with Thorgeir, so that Kari will be left alone. Kari says he will take it ill if Thorgeir does not make his peace. He agrees that the burning is avenged but not his son’s death. Then Kari goes to the Orkneys and kills more men who set sail out of Iceland until he slays fifteen. His wife dies while he is sea roving.

Then Kari and Flosi make separate pilgrimages south for absolution. When they come home, Kari goes straight to Flosi’s house. Flosi springs up and kisses Kari. Then they are fully atoned, and Flosi gives to Kari his brother’s daughter Hildigunna. They live there a long time.

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