The Story of Burnt Njal

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572


*Iceland. North Atlantic island on whose southwestern corner most of events of the saga take place. Between the mountain ridges, near the Eyjafell Glacier, are fertile pastures of river valleys that are dotted with the farmsteads inhabited by powerful chieftains and the people—free and slave—who owe them allegiance. These farmsteads with their main halls constructed of sod, wood, and stone, and their open hearths and few interior chambers are the literal and symbolic centers of family life and activity. There, political alliances are forged, and plans of revenge or retaliation are hatched. These halls are also the last refuges for the main characters when cornered by overwhelming adversaries. For the most part, however, it is in Iceland’s open spaces, its frozen rivers, sparse woods, or rugged paths, that violent deeds against foe are carried out in surprise attacks or ambush.


*Bergthorsknoll (BERG-thors-nohl). Farmstead of the title character, Njal, and his extended family. It is often frequented by neighboring chieftains, especially Gunnar, who seek Njal’s sage advice and legal counsel. Within his hall, Njal and his family grimly accept their fate to be burned alive at the hands of their attackers. Inside the smoking hall, the saga author is able to present the ultimate expression of the fatalistic northern warrior as Skarp-Hedin, Njal’s bravest and fiercest son, utters humorous quips amid flaming beams and timbers.


*Hildarend (HILD-ah-rehnd). Farmstead of Gunnar and his family. The beauty of Hildarend, its fields and newly mown hay, move Gunnar to remain where he is, despite his outlawry and exile from the island. Later, from the protection of his hall, Gunnar manages to hold his attackers at bay before finally succumbing.


*Thingvellir (THING-vehl-lihr). Site of the annual open-air judicial and legislative assembly in which feuding factions state their grievances against others in the hopes of winning favorable and honorable settlements. Within and around the temporary stone and turf enclosures at Thingvellir, the various chieftains and their men (perhaps women and children) trade news, make alliances, strike deals, and, most important, administer justice and uphold the law. The Althing and Thingvellir are consistent reminders that despite the numerous violent actions, ultimately Iceland is a nation built upon the foundation of law.


*Norway. Ancestral homeland of most Icelanders. Governed by an aristocratic class, Norway has strong cultural and economic centers that are destinations for many Icelanders who travel abroad in pursuit of adventure or wealth or because of their outlawry. Gunnar’s economic, political, and martial successes there and on Norway’s surrounding seas elevate his status upon his return to Iceland. The power and authority of Norway’s aristocracy, who are the source for the law of the land, contrast greatly with the Icelanders’ belief in the law itself as the highest political authority.


*Orkney and *Hebrides. Island groups off northern Scotland to which Flosi and his men flee after being declared outlaws for their burning of Njal’s hall. The practice of outlawry for the most egregious breaking of the laws of Iceland generally implies banishment from the homeland thus an expulsion from the sphere of the law’s authority. With Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson earl of Orkney, some of Flosi’s men go on to participate in the Battle of Clontarf in Dublin in 1014. From these islands Flosi begins his pilgrimage to Rome in order to receive absolution from the pope for his role in the burning.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

Schach, Paul. The Icelandic Saga. Translated and with an introduction by Paul Schach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962. The chapter “Several Individual Sagas” contains a discussion of The Story of Burnt Njal.

Tucker, John. Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland, 1989. Three different essays, on pages 272 to 322, discuss The Story of Burnt Njal in detail. An excellent reference for further research.

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