Never heard of Njal’s Saga? Don’t worry, you’re not alone—it’s actually a medieval best-seller most people haven’t heard of. But luckily, all you have to do is read this post to get yourself acclimated, and then you’re all set to enjoy one of medieval Iceland’s finest sagas (as so many saga-enthusiasts proudly proclaim)! That introductory post is also available as a podcast episode (coming tomorrow) and as a powerpoint (which I used when I presented it as a lecture for the Viking History class I was the TA for at the University of South Florida):
But before I get too ahead of myself, I should mention a pretty cool website called Njálugátinn. It’s the gateway to a hoard of information about Njal’s Saga that aims to facilitate access to the saga itself, as well as content about it. On this website alone, you will find where to read, listen, watch, and engage with Njal’s Saga. It even includes resources for teachers (including an impressive list of accessible articles) and for students (including helpful study guides)! So, with all of that said, I highly recommend checking out that website—but don’t worry, I’ve included a few unique things below for you to enjoy still.
Where to Read Njal’s Saga
The best way to read this saga in English is by getting yourself a copy of Robert Cook’s translation, which has been published by Penguin Classics. It’s cheap, reads well, and includes plenty of additional resources to reference while reading, including genealogies, endnotes, and maps.
But if you don’t mind slightly archaic English (or can’t spare the coin at the moment), an older translation of this saga (from 1861) is available online for free via the Saga Database (which is a great source for online saga-reading in general, since it features 18 sagas in out-dated English translations). But if that option isn’t satisfying enough, there is also a PDF version from the Online Library of Liberty, which features an English translation from 1907.
You can even get the whole saga in Old Norse, if you wanted to. Though, I’m not sure if they ship abroad, since I bought my copy when I was in Iceland. But if you’re dying to see it in Old Norse and can’t get the fancy Íslenzk fornrit edition, you can settle for Icelandic ones. You can find an Icelandic version on the Saga Database, but you may also consider the version on Snerpa.is or this PDF.
Don’t want to read? Here’s where you can listen:
I know we all have a lot to read these days, so sometimes it’s nice just to listen to stuff instead. Well, a really cool podcast known as Saga Thing has you covered. Hosted by two bearded professors of medieval literature, their podcast has 12 episodes covering all of Njal’s Saga, including a judgement episode which expands upon the small ‘trial’ at the end of my introduction to the saga. If you want to know a bit more about their impressive podcast, check out my blog post about them!
But if podcasts aren’t exactly your thing, then perhaps YouTube will be able to save the day. Dr. Jackson Crawford has an amazing YouTube channel that covers a wide range of Norse-related topics, especially linguistic and mythology. But fortunately for this post, he also has a series of 6 videos summarizing Njal’s Saga. Here’s the first video of that series, if you’d like to give it a try:
But if you’re feeling more…adventurous, you can actually listen to the entirety of Njal’s Saga in Icelandic for free, too. The website is in Icelandic, but RÚV, one of Iceland’s radio stations, has two different versions of Brennu-Njáls saga available for listening online: one read by the prominent scholar Einar Ól. Sveinsson in 1972 and another read by Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir in 1994.
A Njal’s Saga Movie?!
Já! There’s actually an Icelandic film that covers a small sliver of Njal’s Saga. It’s only 30 minutes long (not including the 30 minute documentary that plays after the good bits are done), but unfortunately it’s not on YouTube anymore (although it was back in the day). There is, however, a short trailer on Youtube that you can watch (without subtitles). Watching the trailer can at least give you a sense for what this ‘movie’ is like, but also give you a chance to hear modern Icelandic and see the landscape of the saga itself:
If that got you excited and you want to see more, luckily you can buy the movie. It’s a bit expensive, but you can get it here. There are also a handful of videos here that feature performances of/inspired by Njal’s Saga.
Forget the Bayeux Tapestry…
If you ever get a chance to go to Iceland, and if you happen to go to the sites where Njal’s Saga takes place, two lovely women, Gunnhildur Edda Kristjánsdóttir and Christina M. Bengtsson, have been creating a tapestry that retells the entirety of Njal’s Sagain a visual form. It’s still a work in progress, but that means that anyone who visits is allowed to add a few stitches (as many as they’d like to, actually). It’s a really cool project, honestly! Heck, here’s a video about the tapestry, if you’d like to learn more:
Although there’s a pretty picture of a map to the right, it’s actually online, accessible, and interactive, too. It’s from a project called the Saga Map Project, which has been made possible thanks to the efforts of Dr. Emily Lethbridge. You can explore the actual map here, if you’d like to. But if you find that map interesting and find yourself craving more, there’s actually a map for every family saga, which can be really helpful if you are reading or researching any of the Sagas of Icelanders. I also have my own map here in Fjörn’s Hall, but it’s no where near as extensive. Nevertheless, if you’d like to explore another map, consider looking at the Hall’s own interactive map, which features a few important locations from Njal’s Saga, among other things.
After you’ve looked at those maps, you might be curious to learn a bit more about the sites that pop up a lot, such as Hlidarendi or Bergthorshvoll. If so, head over to the website run by the Njal’s Saga Centre and read all about them!
Not everyone will want to see the manuscripts for Njal’s Saga, but I personally find it pretty awesome to see the real deal every once in awhile. Luckily, in our era of technology, we can actually view medieval manuscripts without having to travel long distances, hunt them down, and potentially get special permissions. Though, I will say that seeing them in personal is an experience worth having, if you can manage it! Nevertheless, you can learn a lot about the manuscripts for Njal’s Saga by checking out the blog called The Variance of Njáls Saga. After you’ve done that, you can even check out high-resolution scans of these manuscripts for yourself, thanks to a handy website called handrit.is. My personal favorite is Kálfalækjarbók (or AM 133 fol.), but Möðruvallabók (or AM 132 fol.) is also pretty famous.
A Select Bibliography
The professors who host Saga Thing have done us all a favor by providing a select bibliography for Njal’s Saga, so if you find yourself wanting to work more intimately with this saga (like I do), you may want to check them out sometime. There’s also the incredible useful list of articles on Njálugátinn. Nevertheless, here are a few books that I find particularly useful:
- William Ian Miller‘s ‘Why Is Your Axe Bloody?’ A Reading of Njáls Saga
- Jón Karl Helgason‘s The Rewriting of Njáls Saga
- Richard F. Allen‘s Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njáls Saga
- Lars Lönnroth‘s Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction
But a few other books might help you make more sense of the saga, so you might want to check these out:
- William Ian Miller‘s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, law, and Society in Saga Iceland
- Jesse Byock‘s Viking Age Iceland
- Jesse Byock‘s Feud in the Icelandic Saga
- Theodore M. Andersson‘s The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)
- Jenny Jochens‘ Women in Old Norse Society
Want more sagas like this one?
Now that you’ve plowed through this post, you may be craving more. Njal’s Saga is just one of 40 more works of a similar genre, after all. So if you want to find more sagas to read, make sure to check out my blog post that provides a full list of family sagas along with related tales. Each entry on that post has a small map, as well as links to every English book and online resource that I am currently aware of.
But until next time, keep wandering.