Njal’s Saga: A Medieval Best-Seller Most People Haven’t Heard of

AM 133 fol. 14v (c.1300). Image courtesy of handrit.is

If you want to experience a medieval Icelandic ‘family’ saga at peak performance, then this is the saga to read. Of all the sagas recounting the daily life and social settings of the ‘Viking’ world, Njal’s Saga stands out as an epic chronicle fused with both archetypal heroes and tragic social realities. But while the heroes of Njal’s Saga may not fight against giant world-serpents or sun-devouring wolves, the enemies they do face are perhaps all the more haunting: passion, guilt, manipulation, greed, slander, honor. The enemies that threaten the heroes of Njal’s Saga are their own human instincts and the social world that they have constructed to maintain them—a social world that, for its heroes, has become a cage trapping them and plunging them into a endless tide of human violence beyond their control.

Surprisingly, I’m not actually being too overdramatic with such an introduction. Sure, I’m trying to spice things up a bit here by using some extra-elegant prose, but the saga truly does leave its readers with a strong impression. Ever since it was written down around the year 1280, and likely long before that in the oral tradition, Njal’s Saga has remained one of Iceland’s most beloved sagas. It really is a long saga, too, boasting about 127,000 words in its English translation. Compare that to the 95,000 words that make up The Hobbit, which somehow managed to get 3 whole movies…

But despite the lack of movies for Njal’s Saga, the love really is strong for this saga. In fact, native Icelanders today, as well as our humble crew of saga-enthusiasts all over Midgard, often refer to this saga by an affectionate nickname: Njála. But to give everyone a sense for what scholars have said about this saga, I’ll just list a few ways that they have introduced it themselves:

“It is the most famous of sagas…”

Lars Lönnroth [1]

It is “the longest, the most popular, and most complex of the Icelandic family sagas” and it is “a composition that belongs at the very forefront of Western narrative art.”

Richard F. Allen [2]

But while saga-lovers like myself constantly praise this saga for its outstanding narrative, have any of you ever heard of this saga before? It certainly has enough material for a few epic movies, but, as William Ian Miller has put it, we expect great literature from Greece, England, and even Russia; no one actually expects great works of literature to come from volcanic island in the middle of nowhere that may have more sheep than people living on it. If this saga had been written in Greek instead of Old Norse—or even by an Englishmen, Frenchman, Italian, you name it—then this saga would be more well-known today.[3]

But regardless of how obscure this saga is now, it was actually a medieval best-seller.[4] Out of the 60 manuscripts we have containing this saga, 21 of them date to the medieval period.[5] Now, that may not sound like much at first, so here’s a point of comparison. You all know Beowulf, right? Most of us have been exposed to it, whether from personal interest or because of an English class that assigned it at some point during our education. How many medieval manuscripts do you think Beowulf has? Just one. It survived, miraculously, in a single manuscript, which even bears the scars of a fire that it so narrowly escaped.[6] At the end of the day, based on our manuscript evidence, Njal’s Saga was enthusiastically embraced by its medieval audience, and the interest has never quite waned. Well, for some, at least.

Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll have a better sense for what actually made this saga so powerful and meaningful for the society that produced it, as well as for the societies that have followed it.

Old Norse & Manuscripts

So let’s start with the basics: what did it look like? It is generally accepted that that these sagas were likely read aloud to audiences,[7] so I want to start off our exploration of Njal’s Saga by featuring its first few lines in Old Norse (but if you listen to the podcast version of this post, you can hear me read the passage below using a reconstructed medieval pronunciation). So just imagine that we’ve gathered on a cold winter night, hurled around a cramped hearth with our sheep, and are now eagerly awaiting some much needed entertainment.

AM 468 4to 1 bis (r) (c.1300-1315). Image courtesy of handrit.is

Mǫrðr hét maðr, er kallaðr var gígja; hann var sonr Sighvats ins rauða; hann bjó a Velli á Rangárvǫllum. Hann var ríkr hǫfðingi ok málafylgjumaðr mikill ok svá mikill lǫgmaðr, at engir þóttu lǫgligir dómar dœmðir, nema hann væri við.[8]

There was a man named Mord whose nickname was Gigja. He was the son of Sighvat the Red, and he lived at Voll in the Rangarvellir district. He was a powerful chieftain and strong in pressing lawsuits. He was so learned in the law that no verdicts were considered valid unless he had been involved.[9]

— Brennu-Njáls saga, ch. 1

It is worth mentioning that this saga opens with a famous Icelandic lawyer who was well-remembered in the memories of the saga’s medieval audience.[10] Yet, this Mord Gigja was not a legendary warrior, and he was certainly not Odin; he was a chieftain and lawyer who was remembered for his socially-practical, and dare I say mundane talents. From the very beginning, this saga is about a realistic and relatable social world that even the farmers listening understood all too well. But not all of us are Icelanders, so it can be easy to forget that the events of this saga really do take place in a familiar landscape.

Land & Text

There are many reasons why I fancy calling Njal’s Saga medieval Iceland’s Epic, and the shear coverage of this saga is one of them. Its events span the entire island, but also in several countries abroad, including Ireland, Scotland, England, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. But, like most of the family sagas, the true focus of this saga is in Iceland—and Njal’s Saga really delivers here. The map below (to the left) shows all of the specific areas mentioned throughout the saga, and every major area of settlement is covered. Yet, the heart of the saga lies in the south, which I have highlighted on the other map below (to the right). It is in this region where our saga begins, where its feuds rage the strongest, and where many of our characters meet their violent ends—but it is also the region where a tragic  event took place: the burning of an entire family in their home.

Both of the maps shown above are excellent resources for anyone interested in saga literature and medieval Iceland. The map on the left is part of Dr. Emily Lethbridge‘s Saga Map Project, while the one of the right is from our very own Fjörn’s Hall! Click the links to interact with them for yourself.

Some Historical Basis

This isn’t actually depicting Njal’s burning, but it’s pretty close. Artwork by Wilhelm Wetlesen, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Burnings are surprisingly common in saga literature, but the one that took place in southern Iceland seems to have left a particularly strong imprint in the collective memory of medieval Icelanders. Several of medieval Iceland’s annals record that, in the year 1010, Njal Thorgeirsson was burned to death in his home, along with most of his household.[11] Even the Book of Settlements, which recounts the lives and stories of Iceland’s first settlers, spends some ink to mention this event:

“Thorgeir’s son was Njal, who was burnt to death in his house.”

The Book of Settlements, ch. 342 [12]

But while the entires in these sources, which all pre-date Njal’s Saga, are brief, the general impression is still clear: it was remembered. Something about this particular event, perhaps the context surrounding it, literally burned it into their memories. And there are more textual references to Njal Thorgeirsson pre-dating his saga too, although they aren’t always very helpful. One good example is the poem that Snorri Sturluson attributes to Njal in his Prose Edda, which reads:

“Together sixteen of us baled out, lady, in four stations, and the surf rose. The dark was driven on to the main-ship’s strakes.”

Skáldskaparmál, The Prose Edda [13]

This half-stanza of poetry is about the ocean, or at least it seems to be. But it’s very difficult for us to interpret it for information about Njal’s life, since the only context we have is a later saga that doesn’t actually use this poem as a source, which is the only known poetry associated with Njal. But regardless of these brief, and sometimes obscure sources, this event is still among the most well-documented events in saga literature, and there’s really no reason for us to deny its historical reality. But now we have reached the cross-roads that troubled scholars for decades: is this 13th century saga a reliable window into the 10th century past?

History & Saga

Not exactly. While some events hold up against our historical scrutiny, these sagas were products of their own times; their historical truths are merely the bones, or even the framework, that provided an opportunity for creativity and elaboration. These sagas were meant to resonate with their contemporary audience, not just to recount old deeds of their ancestors. I think this distinction is summed up well by the quote about Njal’s Saga below, which reads:

“The author of Njal’s Saga was not trying to write history… There was a man named Njal who was burned to death in his home around the year 1010, and a man named Gunnar who was killed by men who attacked his home around 992—but they are not the Njal and Gunnar of the thirteenth-century Njal’s Saga.” 

Robert Cook [14]

Whoever wrote Njal’s Saga wasn’t a historian, and they certainly didn’t intend their work to be as boring as the medieval annals that we tend to deem more reliable. So why was this saga written, then?

Themes & Criticism

As I mentioned before, this saga begins with a great lawyer who lived in southern Iceland. Most family sagas start off by complaining about the Norwegian King Harald Fair-Hair, who, according to the Icelandic tradition, solidified power and forced many families to seek a new life elsewhere, in Iceland.[15] Njal’s Saga is actually somewhat unique within the saga tradition in that it begins with an Icelandic chieftain, rather than Norwegian ancestors and troublesome foreign kings.

But this emphasis on a man remembered for his legal prowess is just the beginning of the long love-story between our anonymous saga-author and medieval Icelandic law. There are many dull passages filled with legal jargon—and, to be honest, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping over those bits for fear that you’d face-plant the book. But they’re actually a really important part in understanding what this saga is all about, because Njal’s Saga is more obsessed with law than any other saga.[16] Legal prowess is highly valued throughout the saga, and many of its major characters, including Njal himself, are known primarily for their skill in legal matters. Ironically, though, and perhaps intentionally so, not a single legal case actually ends well.[17] Most of them quickly dissolve back into feuding, blood-vengeance, or extra-legal settlement (which doesn’t last long either).

This has left many scholars and readers conflicted. Why does a saga obsessed with law constantly undermine it? Why spend so much time emphasizing the law, and praising legally-talented Icelanders, when you’re just going to have it constantly fail to work for them? The saga’s complicated treatment of law has led scholars to argue that Njal’s Saga was written, at least in part, to criticize its own society’s behavior and legal structures by using a past example that could resonate with the present. The burning of Njal, then, provided an opportunity to comment on contemporary situations, which were, perhaps, too similar to the scarring events of their past. To put it in the strong words of Theodore M. Andersson, a major scholar in saga studies:

“…the author of Njáls saga abandons the generational structure completely, opting instead for a thematic principle. That principle is failure: failed characters, failed institutions, the failed values of valor and wisdom, and, not least, the failed literary conventions of the saga, which are shown to be hollow or perverse.”

Theodore M. Andersson [18]

I find those words to be a bit harsh, but they do have some merit, especially when we consider the saga’s own social context.

Social Context

The 13th century was a rough time for medieval Iceland, but I’m only going to briefly outline the most significant changes happening during this period for this particular post. Njal’s Saga was first written down around 1280, just 18 years after the collapse of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262.[19] Perhaps even within the lifetime of our anonymous saga-author then, Iceland went from a politically independent state to a dependency of the Norwegian crown that other sagas frequently complain about. 

This isn’t actually a scene from Njal’s Saga, but it gives us the mood of a legal assembly debating over legal matters, doesn’t it? Artwork by Christian Krohg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why did this happen, though? The short answer is that power got into fewer and fewer hands, and the violence between them got worse and worse—and their law was certainly not stopping it.[20] In fact, many of these hyper-powerful chieftains were the law, and their legal manipulation and abuses probably contributed a great deal to Njal’s Saga’s beef about the law’s inability to curb their problematic behavior. But, what’s even more striking is that Njal’s Saga was contemporary with a series of legal reforms being introduced by the Norwegian crown. In 1271, a legal code called Járnsíða, or Ironbound, replaced the old laws of the Icelandic Commonwealth, which were called the Grágás, or the Grey-goose laws. (Don’t ask me about the names here. Medieval Icelanders could either be really straight forward about the names they gave things, or extremely random and obscure.) But in 1281, a second wave of revision came in the form of a legal code called Jónsbók, or John’s Book.[21] 

But even without troubling ourselves over the details of these legal reforms, one thing is clear: the decade preceding Njal’s Saga was a period of legal insecurity and revision. It is not a coincidence, then, that we get our most legally-obsessed family saga right at the end of this period. Besides, it is worth keeping in mind that our anonymous author was probably working on Njal’s Saga during this decade of legal reform. So, when we return to that question about why this saga was written, we begin to see a society in transition using the past to criticize and reevaluate the present—we see a saga that exposes the failures of its past society in the hopes of promoting reform and change in its own. But now that we have a better sense for the saga’s own history and context, let’s talk about it a bit.

A Bromance for Society?

We’ll start by introducing the major players. This saga features medieval Icelandic literature’s most memorable bromance, the archetypal duo of brains and brawns, Njal Thorgeirsson and Gunnar Hamundarson. But although Njal is the title character, Gunnar is introduced in the saga first, so let’s start with him.

Gunnar is described with nearly every positive warrior attribute you can think of: he’s big, strong, swift, good with a sword, magical with a spear, even better with a bow, a fantastic jumper, and can swim like a seal. He’s also the studliest man around featuring a fantastic golden mane that he combs obsessively, probably. But, most importantly he’s all these things and he’s not a total jerk. He’s a generous man, a good friend, doesn’t like killing people, and just wants to do his best. The only problem is that other people keep forcing him into feuding.[22]

But that’s where his best friend Njal comes in. Gunnar may be the strongest boi in town, but Njal is certainly the smartest. There’s no one in Iceland who could claim to be his equal when it comes to legal knowledge, he can solve anyone’s problems, and he can even see into the future. The only problem for Njal is that he was beardless—for whatever reason, whether he actually lacked a beard historically or the author thought it particularly symbolic to remove it, Njal lacked his second most important manhood symbol.[23]

The images above would probably be their profile pics today: Njal Thorgeirsson is on the left, featuring the artwork is by Margrét E. Laxness (image courtesy of islendingasogur.is), while Gunnar Hamundarson in on the right, featuring the artwork is by Andreas Bloch (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

As the saga describes them, these two men are archetypes of their own natures: Gunnar is the ideal hero, while Njal is the ideal wiseman. As a duo, they truly are a match made for society—if one of them lacks something, the other one has them covered. You’d almost think they’d be unstoppable together, if it weren’t for their troublesome enemies.

The Troublesome Duo

And that’s where these two come in, the beautiful Hallgerd Long-Legs and the corrupt chieftain Mord Valgardsson. I like to call them the troublesome duo since they do their best to ruin the bromance between Njal and Gunnar, among many other things.

Like Gunnar, who is the ideal man, Hallgerd is the ideal woman—at least in terms of her looks. The saga describes her as tall and beautiful with hair as fine as silk, which was so long and abundant that it came down to her waist. But unlike Gunnar, who’s personality matches his good looks, Hallgerd is…well, a problem. Even as a young girl, her eyes are described as being the eyes of a thief, and she murders most of her husbands throughout the saga. She is strong-willed and gets what she wants, especially if she feels wronged, but the saga makes it clear that she is bad news, especially if you marry her.[24]

And then there’s Mord, the local chieftain. If anyone can give Hallgerd a run for her money in the villain game, it’s this guy. Even Mord’s father, Valgard, is described as devious and unpopular man, and his son is no better. Mord himself is described as cunning by nature, malicious in counsel, and bad to his kinsmen (especially if it was Gunnar). He constantly manipulates the law for his personal gain and lives to make Njal and Gunnar miserable.[25] This guy is so bad that scribes copying Njal’s Saga in the 15th century wrote comments about him, calling him an “infamous moron.” Those scribes also called Gunnar’s killers “bastards,” so they were definitely salty about the villains of this saga.[26]

These two would probably pick more flattering profile pics for themselves, but I think these are better. On the left is a depiction of Hallgerd Long-Legs, courtesy of Hurstwic, but I’m not sure who the artists is, so let me know if you do. As for the picture on the left, that is actually a depiction of Skalla-Grim, by Margrét E. Laxness (Courtesy of islendingasogur.is), but I think that picture makes for the best Mord I could find.

But that’s enough for introductions—let’s see them in action.

Gunnar’s Final Feud (Chapters 71 through 77)

This section kicks off right after Gunnar had won a dramatic legal case against two Icelanders who are unfortunately both named Thorgeir (this happens a lot in medieval Icelandic literature—‘Thor‘-names are quite common). Ideally speaking, this should have ended their feud together, since Gunnar had taken them to court and won. But instead, the Thorgeirs are bitter about the money they had to pay to Gunnar and decide to seek out Mord, their local corrupt chieftain, to make things right for them again.

The result was a cunning plan: Mord told one of the Thorgeirs to seduce Gunnar’s kinswoman, Ormhild, so that Gunnar’s hatred for Thorgeir would grow even greater. Then Mord told them that he would spread a rumor that Gunnar wouldn’t tolerate their behavior. And finally, Mord told them that they must attack Gunnar shortly after that, but not while he was at home, since Gunnar had a loyal Irish hound named Sam protecting him. The Thorgeirs then agreed to carry out Mord’s plan, and by the following summer they were preparing to ambush Gunnar.

Gunnar owning Thorgeir with the legendary Hlíðarendi Slam, by Andreas Bloch. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One day that summer, Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg were riding home fully armed. But suddenly, blood appeared on Gunnar’s prized weapon. Gunnar told his brother that this was called ‘wound rain’ and that is was a sign of great battles to come. Shortly after that, the Thorgeirs attacked Gunnar, and the battle went as one might expect. Gunnar killed many of them with his bow, but he saved his special move, the Hlíðarendi Slam, for one of the Thorgeirs. As the saga puts it:

 “Gunnar turned towards him quickly in great anger and thrust his halberd through him and lifted him up and threw him out into the river…” [27]

And that is why you don’t fight against Gunnar by yourself.

But with that bit of bloodshed, their encounter came to an end. News spread about that Thorgeir’s death, and many lamented it, but Hallgerd praised Gunnar for his manliness. Everyone else, though, expected that Thorgeir’s death would only bring more trouble—and they were right. Because of Mord’s rumor, everyone thought Gunnar was the aggressor, so when legal proceedings started up against Gunnar for this slaying, he was immediately threatened with outlawry. 

Luckily, Njal stepped in to help Gunnar, but could only negotiate the charges down to minor outlawry, which meant that Gunnar still had to leave the island for three years. This judgement was obviously unfair, since Njal had proven that Gunnar was ambushed and only defending himself, but Gunnar agreed to abide by this judgement, since Njal thought it would be best for him. Njal was hoping that Gunnar would spend those three years of outlawry raiding abroad and gaining both fame and wealth, but, although Gunnar said he was going to honor Njal’s legal settlement, something changed his mind. While he was heading to the ship that would take him abroad, he looked back at his farm and was struck by its beauty, famously saying:

“Lovely is the hillside—never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.” [28]

Because Gunnar refused to leave though, the law declared that he was a full outlaw, meaning that his enemies were free to attack him without any repercussions—but because of his incredible reputation, it takes a long time before anyone makes a move against him.

Once autumn came, though, an opportunity presented itself. Mord told Gunnar’s enemies that he was home alone, and that they should make their move while the rest of his household was collecting hay elsewhere. But Mord reminded them that they couldn’t take Gunnar by surprised unless they could get rid of his loyal hound Sam first, so they tried to have Gunnar’s neighbor lead Same away from Gunnar’s farm. Sam was a smart hound, though, and rightfully bit Gunnar’s neighbor in the groin, but a man named Onund Trollaskog killed Sam with his axe (such a vile person).

The red-shirt Norwegian meets his fate, by Andreas Bloch. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But now that Sam was out of the saga, Gunnar’s enemies made their way to Gunnar’s hall. Everyone was too afraid to approach the hall, though, so they volunteered a red-shirted Norwegian for the job. If you’re a Star Trek fan, then you’ll know what’s about to happen—he’s literally wearing a red shirt, after all. So this Norwegian, whose name is Thorgrim, went right into the hall to look for Gunnar. What happened next is no surprise. Gunnar saw the Norwegian’s red shirt in the window and thrust his halberd at him, hitting Thorgrim in the waist. Thorgim then fell off the roof (since he had to climb a bit to get to the window) and presumably stumbled over to the rest of Gunnar’s enemies.

As if clueless of what just happened, someone said, “Well, is Gunnar at home?” to which our red-shirted Norwegian replied, “Find that out for yourselves, but I’ve found out one thing—that his halberd’s at home.” And then he fell down dead.[29]

After that, as if that gave everyone a surge of confidence to attack, the real fighting broke out. They charged towards the hall, but Gunnar kept sniping them out with his bow. Seeing their efforts going to waste, Mord suggested that they burn Gunnar alive in the hall, but the others found that idea dishonorable and instead decided to pull the roof off with ropes to expose him. You’d be surprised at how easy it actually was to remove a building’s roof in medieval Iceland—and it happens fairly often in the sagas—but despite the fact that they pulled of his roof, Gunnar kept shooting them with his bow until a man named Thorbrand managed to cut his bowstring.

Now it was halberd time, and Gunnar wounded eight men and killed two others with it before receiving two wounds himself, but he needed his bow back if he was going to survive this battle. He asked Hallgerd, his loving wife, to give him her hair so that he can make a new bowstring, but Hallgerd refused him. She recalled a time earlier in the saga when he slapped her for stealing cheese from a rude neighbor, so she said that she didn’t care if he held out for a long or a short time.

Gunnar didn’t bother asking again and instead charged back into battle. He wounded eight more men, bringing them close to death, before he fell. Even the attackers paid their respects after that, acknowledging that Gunnar was indeed a great warrior, but a few of them boasted about their part in Gunnar’s death. But overall, Gunnar’s death brought great sorrow to many, and everyone spoke badly of what happened to him. In the end, the law was clearly incapable of preventing the feud that lead the Gunnar’s death, but even Gunnar’s own disregard for the law contributed to this grim fate.

Some Judgements

Now, this blog post was adapted from a guest lecture I gave to a Viking History class at the University of South Florida, and after this lecture we put the saga “on trial.” This idea came from collaborating with Dr. Andy Pfrenger from Saga Thing via email, and the results from the class are worth including here, too. To learn a bit more bout how this Saga Thing stuff works, you can read this post or explore their website a bit, but these were the categories that I used for the class:

  • Best Bloodshed: Who death the best blow?
  • Notable Witticisms: Who spoke the best line?
  • Nicknames: Who had the best nickname?
  • Outlawry: Who should we vote off the island?
  • Thingmen: Who should join our Icelandic-style Avengers team?

I had the students read a few sections from the saga, including the one summarized above, and asked them to prepare their candidates before class. We had a great time debating and discussing the categories, and it was a great way to get the students engaged with the saga (thanks Saga Thing). Not all of the characters named below were mentioned in this post (such as Njal’s son, Skarphedin), but here are the final results from our trial:

  • Best bloodshed: Skarphedin
  • Notable Witticism: Thorgrim the Norwegian
  • Nickname: Skarphedin’s axe, Battle-Hag (they insisted)
  • Outlawry: Hallgerd
  • Thingman: Skarphedin

But that’s all I’ve got to say about Njal’s Saga (for this post, at least). It was the very first ‘family’ saga that I ever read (back in my undergraduate days), so I really hope that this post has been able to convey not only the saga’s own historical context, but also the fascinating and exciting story that it has to offer. I highly recommend giving this saga a chance, if you haven’t read it already. You won’t regret it.

Keep wandering,


Want to Read Njal’s Saga? Click below:

Endnotes & Resources

  1. Lars Lönnroth, Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 1. ^
  2. Richard F. Allen, Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njáls Saga (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1971), xi. ^
  3. William Ian Miller, ‘Why is Your Axe Bloody?’ A Reading of Njáls Saga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. ^
  4. I don’t really need a source for this claim, but in case you want one, here you go: Jón Karl Helgason, The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Politics and Icelandic Sagas (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters LTD, 1999), 15. ^
  5. A reliable (and accessible) resource for getting acclimated with the manuscript tradition of Njal’s Saga is a blog called The Variance of Njáls Saga, which was created by these researchers. ^
  6. The only manuscript that we have containing Beowulf is the British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv [digitized, with Beowulf occupying ff. 132r–201v]. ^
  7. For more about this, consider reading Hermann Pálsson, Sagnaskemmtun Íslendinga (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1962). It is the primary source for this subject, but as far as I know it has not yet been translated into English. ^
  8. Einar Ól. Sveinsson ed., Brennu-Njáls saga (Reykjavík: Hið ízlenska fornritafélag, 1954), 5. ^
  9. Robert Cook trans., Njal’s Saga (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), 3. ^
  10. An insightful (and accessible) article about this relationship between social memory and the Icelandic sagas is Jesse Byock, “Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of Egils saga,” Scandinavian Studies 73, No. 3 (2004): 299-316. ^
  11. Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, viii. “Among the many genres that have been preserved is a group of annals, begun around the year 1200, most of which contain, usually around the year 1010, the simple entry ‘Nials brenna’ (the burning of Njal).” ^
  12. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards trans., The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók (repr., 1972; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 129. ^
  13. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 141. [Free online PDF] ^
  14. Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, ix. ^
  15. Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 82-84. ^
  16. Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, xxiii. ^
  17. Ibid., xxv. But you may also want to read (if you’re able to) Henry Ordower, “Exploring the Literary Function of Law and Litigation in Njal’s Saga Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 3, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991): 41-61. ^
  18. Theodore M. Andersson, The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 203. ^
  19. Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 83. ^
  20. See either G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 72-82 or Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 341-355. Take your pick. ^
  21. G. Karlsson,The History of Iceland, 89-91. ^
  22. See chapter 19 of Njal’s Saga. ^
  23. See chapter 20 of Njal’s Saga. ^
  24. See Chapter 1 of Njal’s Saga, but chapters 9 through 17 will give you a great sense for how much Hallgerd kills her husbands. ^
  25. See chapter 25 of Njal’s Saga. ^
  26. J. K. Helgasson, The Rewriting of Njáls Saga, 23. ^
  27. Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 120. [Chapter 72] ^
  28. Ibid., 123. [Chapter 75] ^
  29. Ibid., 126. [Chapter 77] ^


  1. Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction
  2. Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njáls Saga
  3. ‘Why is Your Axe Bloody?’ A Reading of Njáls Saga
  4. The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Politics and Icelandic Sagas
  5. Sagnaskemmtun Íslendinga
  6. Brennu-Njáls saga
  7. Njal’s Saga
  8. The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók
  9. Edda
  10. Viking Age Iceland
  11. The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)
  12. The History of Iceland

Most of the book links above are affiliated with Book Depository, which always offers free shipping (regardless of where in Midgard you dwell). Every purchase made using those links will help the Hall grow and prosper at no additional cost to you, so please do considering using them.


  1. Jesse Byock, “Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of Egils saga,” Scandinavian Studies 73, No. 3 (2004): 299-316.
  2. Henry Ordower, “Exploring the Literary Function of Law and Litigation in Njal’s Saga Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 3, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991): 41-61.


  1. Don’t want to buy a copy of Njal’s Saga right now? Don’t worry, it’s also available online for free through the Icelandic Saga Database! Thank me later.
  2. Want to know about the other family sagas? Check out this extensive list of the Sagas and Tales of Icelanders (and where to buy them).
  3. If you like maps and want to explore several, make sure to check out the Saga Map Project! Also, there’s an interactive map here on Fjörn’s Hall to consider, too!

🦉 Want more resources about Njal’s Saga? Check out this blog post for books, podcasts, YouTube videos, movies, and much much more!


As always, I extend my most sincere thanks to my dear Fellowship of esteemed patrons over on Patreon. Without their support, this Hall would not be as lively and warm as it is today. Here are the names of those who supported me during the recording of this episode (taken from Patreon):

Anastasia Haysler, Froggy, Jonas Lau Markussen, Kathleen Phillips, Kevin McAllister, Patch, Sarah Dunn, and Sian Esther Powell.

3 thoughts on “Njal’s Saga: A Medieval Best-Seller Most People Haven’t Heard of

  1. Pingback: Resources for Njal’s Saga – Fjörn's Hall

  2. Pingback: Njal’s Saga: A Medieval Best-Seller Most People Haven’t Heard of [♪] – Fjörn's Hall

  3. SteveO

    I still contend that the best line came from Killer-Hrapp, after Helgi cut his arm off “You’ve done what needed doing – that arm brought wounds and death to many a man”


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