‘Why Is Your Axe Bloody?’: A Reading of ‘Njal’s Saga’ 
by William Ian Miller.
Oxford, 334 pp., £55, July 2014, 978 0 19 870484 3
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Icelandic sagas​ are a strange anomaly in the literature of medieval Europe. There are ‘legendary sagas’ such as The Saga of the Volsungs; biographies of the Norwegian kings, brought into one sweeping cycle in Snorri Sturluson’s mammoth Heimskringla (The Circle of the World); and a gloomy compilation called The Saga of the Sturlungs, which recounts the violent break-up of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262, just as, or just before, most of the great sagas were being written. But unlike medieval epics or romances, even the most fantastic of them can (almost) be read like modern novels. This is especially true of what has become the dominant sub-genre, at least in the academic world, ‘the sagas of Icelanders’, sometimes known as ‘family sagas’. They’re about ordinary people who have to deal with marriage, divorce, tangled relationships of all kinds – but attempt to settle their disputes by killings and blood-feuds, in accordance with a strong ethic of honour and prestige. Sagas such as Egil’s Saga or The Saga of Killer-Glum concentrate on individuals, but the longest and greatest deal with a family or a community.

Njal’s Saga, though its title might suggest otherwise, is one of the latter. It centres on Njal Thorgeirsson, an anomaly in himself, for he is not a fighting man but a wise one, skilled in the law, doing his best to control the prickly temperaments around him. In the end he fails: the saga’s climax is the Burning, when Njal, his wife and sons are burned to death inside their homestead at Bergthorsknoll. The saga has a cast of about a hundred, conveniently listed at the back of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson’s old Penguin translation. It was written – we don’t know by whom – late in the 13th century, after Iceland had lost its long independence and become a province of the Norwegian kings, and it looks back, perhaps nostalgically, to the time around 1000, when farmers still had their freedom and the country was about to convert, en masse, by consensus, and in agreed stages, to Christianity.

Iceland at the turn of the millennium had about as little official politics as any human community we know of in Europe. It had no king, decisions were made in public meetings called ‘things’, the civil service consisted of one man (the ‘lawspeaker’), and society was divided into four classes: slaves, servants, free homesteaders and goðar – priests or chieftains, men who had the right to enlist supporters. Yet there was constant jockeying for power, influence and reputation, and it’s the closely observed micro-politics of this world that make the great ‘family sagas’ like Njal’s Saga and The Laxdalers’ Saga works of unrivalled subtlety.

William Ian Miller, who teaches law at the University of Michigan, wrote his study of the two sides of the saga, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 25 years ago. Since then he has written several books on awkward aspects of social interaction, including Humiliation (1993), The Anatomy of Disgust (1997) and Faking It (2005). These concentrate on the modern world, but Miller regularly draws on saga examples. In his new book he contends that the author of Njal’s Saga was not only telling a story as complex as Middlemarch, but writing a work ‘almost Thucydidean in its intelligent social and political analysis’. The ‘legal and political culture of the saga is as important to his story’ as any of its unforgettable characters, though that culture was centuries in the past by the time the saga was written. This achievement was not the result of generations of people – some of them descendants of the characters involved – talking over well-remembered events: it is not an oral history. Miller believes that the saga is the work of a writer who knew exactly what he was doing. ‘The more you look, the more you have to stand in awe of the author’s talents.’

This may be so. Nevertheless, there is one novelistic skill that no saga-author possesses, and its absence is what makes the sagas so enigmatic: the art of explaining complex human motivations. You don’t have to read much of any classic novel before you reach sentences like, ‘As Tess grew older, and began to see how matters stood, she felt quite a Malthusian towards her mother,’ or, ‘Celia’s consciousness told her that she had not been at all in the wrong.’ Saga-authors tell you what people say, what they do and how they look, but they remain resolutely external. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that thoughts and motivations in the saga-world are any simpler than our own, or saga-characters any less complex.

The Burning in Njal’s Saga is the immediate consequence of one bad decision. Njal rejects his sons’ wish to fight their enemies outside, pointing out that his friend Gunnar of Hlitharendi successfully defended his homestead from a different group of attackers without taking the risk of leaving its walls. ‘That is the wrong way to look at it,’ Njal’s eldest son, Skarphedin, says, ‘for the men in that posse were too honourable to use fire; these men know they have to kill us all today or be killed by us later.’ Njal accuses him of disrespect, and Skarphedin casually gives in: ‘I do not mind pleasing my father by burning in the house with him, for I am not afraid of dying.’ Why does Njal – old and wise, in control of events up to this point – make such an error of judgment? Has his nerve gone? Why does Skarphedin concede the point so easily? Is he suicidal? Does he feel – he has good reason to – that he deserves to burn?

The motive for the Burning is the killing, by Skarphedin, his brothers, their friend Kari and their evil counsellor, Mord, of their foster-brother, Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest. This is not murder by Icelandic standards, for there is no attempt to conceal it, but it is unjustifiable, universally condemned and frankly dishonourable – five against one with not a word of provocation. Why did they do it? There is, of course, a history of feud behind it. In one of the great bravura passages in the saga Skarphedin and his four companions pursue Hoskuld’s father, Thrain, and his seven companions, along opposite banks of the half-frozen Markar river. After stopping to tie his shoelace, Skarphedin takes a running jump, clears the 18-foot channel, and slides along the ice ‘as fast as a bird’. As he skims past Thrain he hits him with his axe, Battle-Troll, so hard that he splits his skull down to the jawbone and Thrain’s back teeth fall out onto the ice. One of Thrain’s men throws a shield in his path, but Skarphedin hurdles it and slides to the end of the sheet ice, before the others on his side cross the river on an ice floe and the fight becomes general.

This killing was legitimate. Thrain had given serious provocation: he had stood by twice when the Njalssons were called taðskegglingar, ‘little dung-beards’, and though he didn’t say it himself, in sagas rude words are never forgiven. Thrain’s death was fully compensated, and his son Hoskuld adopted by Njal, who manoeuvred Hoskuld into one of the valuable priesthood/chieftaincies. Did the Njalssons think Hoskuld was only biding his time before striking back? Were they jealous of their father’s favouritism?

In any case, the killing of Hoskuld comes up at the All-Thing, the national open-air ‘parliament’, and with great difficulty a deal is brokered, involving an enormous compensation payment beyond even Njal’s resources: the whole community has to chip in for the sake of peace. But that’s not the end of it. The pile of money is lying on the ground waiting for Hoskuld’s wife’s uncle Flosi to pick it up, when Njal adds a silk cloak to the pile, apparently as a ‘sweetener’, a further gesture of conciliation. It isn’t taken like that. When Flosi arrives, he asks who gave the cloak (why?). No one replies (why not?). He asks again, and laughs (laughing is a bad sign in the saga-world). He asks if they’re afraid to tell him, and when he gets a sharp answer from Skarphedin (‘Who do you think gave it?’), he lets fly the standard insult against Njal, that he can’t grow a beard and so may not be a real man.

This ratcheting-up of tension could have been avoided if a conciliatory answer had been given in the first place. It’s not clear what Flosi’s problem with the cloak is anyway. Some say a silk cloak could have been seen as an effeminate garment, but as Miller points out, Egil Skallagrimsson wore one, and no one called that troll-descended bruiser a ‘girly-man’. Miller suggests that the cloak reminds Flosi of when his niece, who had saved the cloak her husband was wearing when he was killed, threw it over Flosi so that the clotted blood rained down on him. Maybe Njal’s cloak reminds him that he is taking money now, not blood. Are they sneering at him? Enigma again.

Scenes like this justify Miller’s claim that ‘serious criticism must delve into mental states that allow us to make sense of [the characters’] actions.’ He has often written about blood-feuds and their relationship to the law, as well as about the emotional states involved, and some of his most penetrating observations are on the subject of ‘balanced exchange’. This is what seems to be happening in the long sequence of dispute between Njal’s wife, Bergthora, and Hallgerd ‘Long-Legs’, wife of Njal’s friend and neighbour Gunnar of Hlitharend. Invited to Bergthorsknoll for a feast, Hallgerd is told by Bergthora to move down the bench to make room for a daughter-in-law. This is taken as an insult, words are exchanged, Gunnar refuses to back up his wife, and Hallgerd later sends her overseer to kill one of Bergthora’s servants. Bergthora retaliates, and the killings mount up: first two men valued at twelve ounces of silver, then two men at a hundred ounces, then two men at two hundred ounces. Njal and Gunnar hold onto the money each pays the other as compensation, and take turns to return it as required, refusing to join in their wives’ proxy-duel. It’s all perfectly balanced, but in the end, as Miller points out, saying ‘I’ll get even with you’ means more than demanding a balance. It means ‘being able to stand over you and glory in your defeat’.

This sequence leads, indirectly, and despite the efforts of the peace-making husbands, to the death of Gunnar, great champion though he is. One spring he runs out of food and hay (Icelanders had to feed their cattle indoors through the winter). His friend Njal might have helped him, but the tension between the two households, it seems, makes Gunnar ask someone else, a man called Otkel. But Otkel refuses – does he enjoy being able to feel superior to the local hero? – and Hallgerd sends a slave to steal food from him and burn his hay. The theft is detected, Gunnar is embarrassed, Otkel acts provocatively by refusing to accept compensation, and the killings end with Gunnar being outlawed and sent into exile for three years. In a scene of great symbolic importance for Icelanders, he looks back at his home as he’s leaving, with its ‘golden cornfields and new-mown hay’, and refuses to go. Since he’s an outlaw his prosecutors now have to kill him or be disgraced themselves.

The balancing just didn’t work, any more than the colossal compensation payment offered and rejected for Hoskuld. Does that mean that the saga-author – looking back at the Golden Age of the Icelandic Commonwealth from his own much less orderly era – had no faith in the law? His long description of the legal shenanigans surrounding the prosecution of the Burners suggests as much. They continue until the legal adviser of Njal’s avengers, one Thorhall, laid up with a poisoned leg and conducting the case by proxy from his bed, is so shocked by the sudden voiding of his case on a technicality that he leaps out of bed, lances his own hideously swollen leg with a spear until the blood and pus pour out, hurries to the court and instantly strikes dead the first Burner he meets.

A lawyer​ himself, Miller has trouble with this combination of pettifogging and violence. ‘The problem for a legal system,’ he says, ‘is to keep the perception of tricksterism and actual tricksterism within acceptable bounds so that the law still maintains a certain level of respect.’ Non-lawyers may say that we were hoping for something rather better than that. In fact it is hard to make much of a morality tale out of Njal’s Saga. Serious villains escape unpunished. Mord, the evil counsellor and one of the killers of Hoskuld, gets off scot-free, as does Kari, who escapes from the Burning to pursue a vendetta. Hallgerd ‘Long-Legs’ simply disappears from the story, having caused the death of three husbands, her son-in-law Thrain, and (indirectly, through her imaginative insults) the Burning itself. Several people, Mord included, change sides and are never thought worse of. What the saga does is create what anthropologists would call a ‘thick description’ of a community, with all its tensions, its tangled relationships and individuals’ attempts to navigate their way through them to status and security – as Njal does, acting as, in Miller’s words, a ‘scriptwriter’ for friends and family, with his sons fatally departing from the script over Hoskuld, then fatally obeying it over combat tactics, where Njal has no competence.

Miller’s analyses could make more of matters of honour (which has no status in modern law). Right at the start Hallgerd’s father, seeing his beautiful child, asks his half-brother Hrut what he thinks of her. Hrut says nothing, and Hoskuld asks again: ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Hrut says yes, but adds: ‘I cannot imagine how a thief’s eyes have come into our kin.’ Miller notes that Hallgerd’s father’s repetition of the question is tactless – he should have listened to the silence – but seems to think that Hrut might have held back his ‘insult’. I would suggest that in a prickly society, between adult males, asking a question twice is a challenge that necessitates an equivalent response.

Maybe most of us also underestimate the value saga-society put on self-control. There are several scenes in the saga where characters say nothing but betray their feelings by their nervous reactions. Taunted by his mother, Bergthora, into taking blood-revenge, Skarphedin says, pretending to make a joke of it: ‘Our old mother is enjoying herself.’ The word he uses, kerling (in Scots it would be ‘auld carline’), is deliberately jocose, disrespectful. But he sweats and red spots appear on his cheeks, while his brother Grim bites his lip. Only Helgi manages to keep his expression unchanged. Skarphedin also grins, and the Icelandic verb used is glotta, which became in English, with significant semantic shift, ‘to gloat’.

What does a grin mean? Skarphedin is amused, but why? Perhaps he thinks: ‘I can see what you’re up to, but it’s not going to work.’ Miller points out that Skarphedin grins nine times in the saga, five of them in the scenes where he and his brothers are obliged to trail round the All-Thing, asking for support to get them off the Hoskuld killing, and then have to listen to arbitrators. He becomes a study of power and fury barely held in check, all acutely visualised and verbalised, but with never a word of authorial explanation. Skarphedin is well dressed in blue and silver, his hair is combed back and held by a silk headband, and he carries his axe Battle-Troll. He keeps to his subordinate place as a suppliant, fifth in line, and lets his relative Asgrim make the pitch to one influential chieftain after another.

The show of deference doesn’t work. All the chieftains pick Skarphedin out – pale, ‘troll-like’, ‘ill-starred’ – and all of them refuse support. At which point he bursts out with unforgiveable accusations of cowardice, perversity and bestiality. The sudden insults are like Thorhall’s lancing of his own leg, the words spurting out like pus. His crushing of Thorkel the Braggart, who draws a sword on him but then backs down, nevertheless pleases Gudmund the Powerful so much that Gudmund gives support and the deal is made, while Skarphedin stands there, saying nothing, grinning. He knows the whole procedure won’t work, and – what else can one think? – he doesn’t want it to. But exactly what combination of inner guilt, contemptuous fury, or anger at being manipulated causes his amusement, we can’t tell. Miller believes that underlying it all is a sense of grievance at his father, Njal, who has kept his boys under his thumb for too long and made it clear that he favours the adopted son, Hoskuld. A kind of Oedipus complex without a Jocasta? Or is he frustrated because he has a warrior’s heart but is continually held back from the course of honour by tricky lawyers and would-be peacemakers like his father?

In this culture, where self-control is venerated, the worst thing you can say of an adult male is that he wept. The accusation is made three times in Njal’s Saga: against Gunnar, when Otkel rides him down and tears his ear with a spur; against Skarphedin as he burns in the fire; and against Skarphedin again when Gunnar Lambason tells the tale of the Burning in the hall of the Orkney Jarl. On the second occasion, Skarphedin answers the taunt by taking a tooth out of his pocket, one of the ones spilled on the ice when he killed Thrain (which he seems to have kept as a souvenir), and throwing it at his tormentor so hard that it puts out his eye. On the third occasion, Kari bursts into the hall, runs at the slanderous Gunnar and slashes his head off. According to Miller, the saga has multiple endings: it goes on for eighty pages after the climax of the Burning, and Miller suggests – giving credit for the idea to one of his students – that the series of later killings is the author’s way of killing off people who might have told alternative versions of the story, so that only the one true tale remains.

Miller’s is an old-fashioned work, a beginning to end ‘reading’ of a single text, with little or no comment on generic expectations, circumstances of composition, or discussion of the history of heroic legend in prose and poetry, which might have explained a lot about Skarphedin (and for which one might read Alois Wolf’s recent study, Die Sage von der Njálsbrenna und die Frage nach dem Epos im europäischen Mittelalter). He also believes every aspect of the work was precisely controlled – such as what he sees as the careful balancing of two men called Hoskuld and two men called Thorgeir to create a ‘fold’ or dividing line in the saga’s structure. The doubled characters must be invented, he argues, so the naming must be deliberate. But memories are long in Iceland; the Burning was a real event; tales of it clearly circulated immediately and maybe for generations; there are three Hoskulds in the saga, not just two, three Thorgeirs, three Mords, three Thorkels, two Starkads, two Gunnars … Maybe that’s just the way it was (and is: Icelanders still don’t use surnames).

For most readers of the saga, such questions don’t matter much. What’s important is to understand the careful tactics, the multiple considerations and conflicting loyalties that lie behind every marriage and divorce, every deal and settlement, every killing. Here Miller is an astute guide, explaining (as the saga-author doesn’t) what the fixers and the wise men of Iceland must have been thinking. When it comes, however, to understanding the hearts of Skarphedin and Flosi, Hallgerd and Bergthora, the hard men and remorseless women who also populate the saga: that is something readers must attempt for themselves.

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