Among the very few lectures my busy schedule allowed me to attend during my years at university, and almost the only ones that have left recoverable traces in my memory, are those which Christopher Tolkien (son of J. R. R.) devoted to his brilliant retellings of the Norse sagas. He held large audiences spellbound with his stories of the Völsungs and the Nibelungs, of Sigmund, slain in battle by the god Odin, of Sigurd Fafnir’s-bane, of Gudrun and Brynhild, of Andvari’s gold-hoard, and of the smith Regin, reforger of the sword Gram.
I was as spellbound as anybody and already an enthusiast since schooldays for The Lord of the Rings. So these myths from the frosty north struck a powerful chord in me, and when in 1960 a volume bearing the title Njal’s Saga appeared in the Penguin Classics series, I fell on it eagerly. I was in for a surprise. No gods, no dragons, no gold-hoards, no reforged swords. Instead – what? An everyday story of country folk. But what folk! And what a country!
In bald terms, the Icelandic sagas, of which Njal’s Saga is by common consent the finest exemplar, recount the actions and fortunes of the island’s early settlers. Collectively they form a hugely impressive body of work. Among them, Njal’s Saga owes its pre-eminence to its literary artistry and to the fact that, while the majority of the sagas are straightforwardly chronological accounts, Njal’s Saga has the literary structure, psychological insight and moral seriousness of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The author is unknown to us but the work can be dated to the last quarter of the fourteenth century, which would make him a contemporary of Chaucer. The action, however, is set around the year 1000, mainly in Iceland, but with excursions to Ireland, Wales, Orkney, Norway, Denmark, Scotland and the eastern Baltic (a reminder that the sea was these people’s backyard and that, though they were basically farmers, the land
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