Review of Njal’s Saga by Unknown

This took me way too long to read. The Goodreads police put a warrant out for me for the number of in-progress books on my Currently Reading shelf.

I flew through the beginning and hit an oil slick somewhere in the middle and slid into the rough. This book is very different from the Edda I read right before it. It is full of wild characters living action-packed lives, experiencing the full range of human emotion in a Shakespearean panoply of power struggles, rich with cultural details. You have gripping encounters like Gunnar’s epic last stand and hallgerd’s stubbornness, which is the stuff of legends. I never appreciated the Monty Python sketch (Njorl’s Saga). I still don’t.

Get ready for betrayal, business dealings, blackmail, threats both public and private, blatant thefts, assassinations, and impromptu poetry. As a picture of how the vikings lived, it conveys much of the antique goings ons, how they navigated the anger, processed their resentment, and justified their actions, held grudges, how characters hatched plans and acted on impulse, fighting for the love of women and the love of property, which ends up being the same thing sometimes, how much of our humble lifespans are consumed by quibbling over money, land, and high maintenance family members. Where is peace to be found? Is it a glorification of revenge or a condemnation of it?The theme of loss of control, and the system of interrelated killings foreshadowed the mafia. Here, paltry insults will get you wacked. All they gotta do after they de-map you is pay off your lord and report the murder like we might report expired tags on our Hummer.

Its sophisticated and convoluted narrative, despite the appearance of fetches, is grounded in life’s gritty realism. Love, war, what people wore, traded in, how they spoke, fought, made amends, sailing, marriage, divorce, courtship, duels, procedures of law, contemplation of the far-reaching consequences of a tragic series of events limited to Njal’s bloodline and the interloping clans he dealt with. The nymphomaniac queen was a nice touch, her subtle witchcraft, the undying curse—these tricks build tension throughout each plot development, and the accumulation of resentment and vendettas over generations, growing like a world tree, branching into every family, gripping every member, soon grew wearying for me. The repetitiveness of behavior, the fact that no one seemed interested in setting aside pride or living a humble, unremarkable life in peace among their neighbors. But of course, there is no drama in pastoral serenity. Coveting one’s neighbor’s crap makes up the majority of literature’s immoral core. I was struck by the coldness of Hrut’s marriage, and the constant, ruthless ambitions of everyone in the book. The old themes here are explored by all of the great writers who came later, like Shakespeare and Knut Hamsun, in most cases with greater facility and variety. This book is primordial, might have been written in 3000 BC as well as 1260 AD. The details of pre-christian codes of conduct, secular law, of cunning merchant landowners, and sly, conniving wives may interest adventurous readers, but most of us will probably skim the finer details, forget the endless stream of proper names. Take away one motto: “the hand is soon sorry it has struck.”

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