The Story of Burnt Njal

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

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 completely new.

Although this Icelandic saga contains an elaborate plot and subplot structure, an abundance of characters often mentioned briefly then forgotten, and a recalling of events and names foreign and relatively unknown to modern readers, the saga provides insight into the oral tradition and the codes of a past society.

The Thing, the Icelandic assembly or parliament, was the supreme lawgiver. The Thing was established in 930 c.e. and served the Old Icelandic Commonwealth while it lasted, which was until 1262. The problem with the system and the crucial concern for the characters of the saga is that, even after being judged as correct in an audience at the Thing, those who seek justice have to carry out justice for themselves.

One of the fundamental issues relating to the execution of justice is the interplay between the heathen code of killing and revenge and the Christian idea of forgiveness. Christianity was introduced into Iceland in 1000. It is recalled in the saga by Thangbrand’s journey to Iceland, which initiated that land’s adoption of Christianity as the national religion. The intertwining of codes and religions again comes into play with the juxtaposition of pagan magic and Christian miracles. Ironically, often the miracles are performed not to provide healing but to carry out pagan vengeance. Kari and Flosi journey to Rome to obtain forgiveness for the bloodshed caused by their animosity, yet the reason this hostility begins involves the heathen code of honor. Thus, the saga involves not only the continuous decisions of the Thing and their often tragic aftermath but also the inception of a new religion and code of order. The narrator of this saga maintains an objective eye. Very little moralizing or psychological probing of actions is evident. The characters, six hundred in all with twenty-five main actors, are developed through their actions, a behavioristic approach, rather than by their thoughts or reflections.

The Story of Burnt Njal follows three main stories: first, the downfall of Gunnar; second, the burning of Njal and his sons; third, the exacting revenge required by Kari. The middle section, for which the saga is named, is the climax and turning point of the story. All events lead toward it, and it involves all the preceding arguments and attempted honorable reconciliations. It also reflects the breakdown of the lawmaking by the Thing into jealousy and seeming dishonor; the battle is fought essentially because of the misunderstood intentions of Njal’s gift. The saga then leads away from the burning and death of Njal toward atonement at the Thing as all parties meet to arrange a settlement. Finally the saga ends on a Christian note: Forgiveness is sought from the Church, and reconciliation is effected between the enemies.

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