Njal’s saga 2

‘The seeds of evil have been sown, and evil will be the harvest.’ – Flosi Thordarson

Njal’s saga is 159 chapters long. Complementing my earlier post which lists the events of the first 80 chapters, this synopsis lists the events of the second half, starting at chapter 81, immediately after the last stand and death of the hero Gunnar Hámundarson.

81 – A short haunting chapter dedicated to the romantic and mysterious afterlife of Gunnar’s brother, Kolskegg. (Both the brothers had been outlawed from Iceland for defending themselves against the ambush of the two Thorgeirs at Rang River in chapter 72. At the last moment Gunnar looks up and sees the loveliness of his native hills and refuses to leave. He returns to his homestead where he is surrounded and killed by his enemies.) Meanwhile, Kolskegg had obeyed his outlawry, taken ship to Norway and then south to Denmark where he became liegeman to King Sweyn Forkbeard (986-1014). He has a mysterious vision of becoming God’s knight, is baptised and heads east then south and ends up serving in the Varangian Guard at Constantinople. 82 – Thrain Sigfusson, uncle to Gunnar, sails to Norway and goes to see its ruler Earl Hakon. He serves the Earl by doing battle with a notorious pirate, Kol, and killing him. The Earl awards him the ship Vulture. 83 – Meanwhile Njal’s sons Helgi and Grim voyage in a merchant ship to Norway but are blown off course and encounter Vikings who say your money or your lives. The Njalssons refuse to back down. 84 – Naval battle with the Vikings in the middle of which a small fleet comes rowing their way led by one Kari Solmundarson who fights on their side, and they win. 85 – Kari serves the ruler of Orkney, Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson, and they go stay with him. In a vision Hogni sees that the Earl’s steward in Scotland has been attacked. 86 – Scouts prove this to be true and the Earl raises an army to attack the Scots and the Njalsons help him win the Battle of Duncansby Head. Much thanks then they go a-viking with Kari round the coast of Scotland.

They were with the earl that winter and the summer after, till Kari went sea-roving; then they went with him, and harried far and wide that summer, and everywhere won the victory. They fought against Godred, King of Man, and conquered him; and after that they fared back, and had gotten much goods.

In the spring they depart for Norway promising to meet Kari who is going in summer.

87 – A criminal called Hrapp hitches a lift on a boat over to Norway where he goes to see Gudbrand one of Earl Hakon’s closest friends. He is taken in and starts making advances to Gudbrand’s wife Gudrun. Gudbrand’s supervisor Asvardd finds them in the woods making love and Hrapp breaks Asvard’s back with an axe. He goes tells Gudbrand but runs off before his guard can catch him. He escapes and shacks up with another outlaw in the deepest forest. 88 – Earl Hakon comes to feast with Gudbrand. In the night Hrapp ransacks the local temple, stealing the gold and dragging the idols out onto the grass. He is attacked by six men but fights them off, killing three and mortally wounding Gudbrand’s son Thrand. Hrapp escapes to Lade where Thrain and the Njalssons are preparing to return to iceland. He begs the Njalssons to hide him and they refuse. Then he begs Thrain to hide him and, inexplicably, he does. Three times the earl  rows out to Thrain’s boat, Thrain denies it and hides Hrapp in different locations. Finally Thrain sails off successfully, sets Hrapp up in Iceland. Hrapp goes to Grjotriver where it is rumoured he sleeps with Hallgerd, that woman of ill-omen. 89 – Livid, Earl Hakon decides the Njalssons are to blame and sails out to their boat with a force. They fight back killing the Earl’s men until overcome, tied up and thrown in prison. Here they cut their bonds with an axe and escape to an island where they encounter Kari. He offers ot mediate with the Earl and things improve enough for the Earl’s son, Eirik, to give them a feast and reparation for their ill treatment. Then they go a-viking with Kari, raising around Wales, the Hebrides, Kintyre. 90 – Finally they return to Iceland and Kari is invited to stay at Bergthorsknoll where he falls in love and proposes to Njal’s daughter, Helga. 91 – The Njalssons want reparation for their ordeal which was caused by Thrain. Thrain gathers round him his liegemen as well as Killer-Hrapp and Gunnar’s ‘bad’ son Grani Gunnarson. They congregate at Grjotriver where bad Hallgerd lives with Grani. Hrapp, Grani and Hallgerd abuse the Njalssons. Tempers fray. The Njalssons persuade Kari to ride with them to Grjotriver where there’s a standoff from a Western and much abuse.

92 – The Battle of Markar River Runolf of Dale invites Thrain and his posse to stay. After some time they set off back from Dale. At Markar river the eight of them are attacked by the Njalssons, Kari and Helgi kill Thrain Sigfusson and Hrapp, and two others, letting the rest live. Bad mistake. 93 – Ketil of Mork is Thrain’s brother but married to Njal’s daughter ie brother-in-law to his brother’s killers. He works with Njal to reach a settlement with much compensation. He offers to Thrain’s widow to foster Thrain’s son, Hoskuld. 94 – Njal visits Ketil of Mork and is so taken with the boy that he asks to become foster-father to Hoskuld. He becomes part of the household and an inseparable friend of the Njalssons.

Hoskuld Thrainson becomes a chieftain, is renamed Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest, and marries Hildigunn
95 – Introducing Flosi of Svinafell, a big powerful chieftain with a half-brother, four other brothers and a beautiful daughter Hildigunn. 96 – Introducing Hall of Sida, his brother and five sons. 97 – Njal suggests to Hoskuld that he marry Hildigunn. They ride to Svinafell to negotiate with Flosi but Hildigunn was promised a chieftain. Through a set of complicated manoeuvres Njal gets the Althing to institute a fifth Court and to appoint Hoskuld Thrainsson chieftain of Hvitaness, whereupon he becomes Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest. He marries Hildigunn.

Lyting kills Hoskuld Njalsson and is counterattacked
98 – Lyting of Samstead is married to Thrain Sigfusson’s sister Steinvor. Njal has an illegitimate son by his mistress Hrodny, who is also named Hoskuld. Lyting holds a feast at which he invites Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest or the Lambusons or Grani Gunnarson to kill Hoskuld Njalson as revenge for Thrain. They all refuse and ride off cursing Lyting. But Lyting sets off with his thug brothers, ambushes and kills Hoskuld N. Shepherds bring him to his mother Hrodny who refuses to accept he’s dead and props him up in a barn. Bergthora urges on the Njalssons to take revenge quickly before blood cools. 99 – The Njalssons ride up to the stream where Lyting is resting. They attack and kill his brothers but Lyting escapes wounded. He rides to Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest’s house and begs him to  make a settlement. H H-P rides to Njal’s house and does just that, with compensation given for Hoskuld Thrainson and a promise of no further violence.

The Christianisation of Iceland 100-105
Quite abruptly five chapters are inserted, apparently copied from another written source, describing the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. – Bishop Thangbrand arrives. He kills a man with a crucifix. He survives a wizard making the ground open up under him. Njal and all his household convert. Mord Valgardsson doesn’t. Steinum tries to convert Thangbrand to paganism: a theological debate. Hjalti Skeggjason composes an anti=pagan lampoon for which he is outlawed. Thangbrand helps kill the feared berserkr Otrygg. Back in Norway Thangbrand tells King Olaf Tryggvason how stubbornly resistant to Christianity the Icelanders are and, enraged, the king threatens to imprison and kill ever Icelander in Norway (!). Gizur the White pleads for their lives and sails back to Iceland and rides to the Althing, along with a growing army of Christians. they are met with the assembled pagans and it looks like there’ll be a big fight. 105 – The famous meeting of the Althing where the decision is given to Thorgeir the Priest who spends a day with his cloak over his head before emerging to say the entire island must become Christian.

106 – Three years later Hoskuld Njalsson’s son, Amundi the Blind, confronts Lyting at the Althing, wishing he could see and – thanks be to God! – he can see for long enough to kill Lyting and then – he is rendered blind again.

The plot to kill Njal
107 – Valgard the Grey starts the plot to kill Njal and his sons. He returns from abroad to find his chieftaincy fallen into decay under his son Mord and that of Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest flourishing. This makes him so cross he vows to take his revenge on Hoskuld and the whole Njal clan. 108 – Mord sucks up to the Njalssons, holding feasts, giving them gifts. 109 – Mord systematically blackens Hoskuld’s name to the Njalssons, and tells Hoskuld the Njalssons were plotting to kill him. 110 – His slanders to the Njalssons take affect and they vow to go kill Hoskuld. 111 – The Njalssons ride to Ossaby and kill Hoskuld as he sows seed. Return to Bergthorsknoll and tell Njal who is devastated and predicts they will die as a result. 112 – Hoskuld’s wife Hildigunn finds his body and wipes it clean with his cloak. Mord inveigles with Ketil of Mork and takes the lead in getting witnesses and going to the Althing. 113 – Introducing Gudmund the Powerful. 114 – Introducing Snorri the Priest, both friends of Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson. 115 – The impact on Flosi Thordarson of Svinafell who gave his niece Hildigunn to marry Hoskuld. to whom it falls to avenge the murder. 116 – Flosi rides to Ossaby to meet Hildigunn who goads him and wraps him in Hoskuld’s bllody claok. Flosi recruits more eminent supporters. 117 – Flosi meets the Sigfussons, brothers of the murdered Thrain, uncles of Thrain’s murdered son, Hoskuld. 118 – Njal travels to the Althing, gathering recruits.

At the Althing
119 – Hall of Sida joins forces with Flosi though warns him against Mord. Asgrim takes the Njalssons to recruit help: at a series of booths Skalp-Hedin loiters at the back and exchanges sardonic remarks with the booth’s owner; more than one points out that he is a man of bad luck. 120 – They encounter Thorkel the Braggart who refuses them help if Gudmund has refused help. At which point he and Skarp-Hedin exchange insults and S-H runs up with his axe as if to kill him. Many people are happy at Thorkel getting his comeuppance. 121 – The court case begins with the various groups standing round highly armed. Thorhall Asgrimsson, who has been foster-son in Njal’s home and learned law from him, destroys the prosecution case by showing that Mord didn’t reveal himself as an assailant in the killing of Hoskuld. 122 – Njal makes a moving plea that he would rather his own sons had died rather than Hoskuld whom he loved, and begs Flosi for a settlement to be made. Others add their voices and finally they agree to give the case to a dozen men, six from each side, to settle, and all shake hands. 123 – The arbitrators are men of standing and honour such as Hall of Sida and Snorri the Priest. Snorri suggests setting the highest compensation ever, 600 ounces of silver but, strangely, with the expectation that most of the arbitrators will themselves contribute, which they do. The fatal cloak Njal tops off the pile with a silk cloak and a pair of boots. Flosi is brought to the booth to inspect the pile and asks who gave the cloak. Skarp-Hedin asks why he wants to know. Flosi says it was probably given by Old Beardless as nobody knows whether he’s a man or woman. Then it’s suitable, replies Skarp-Hedin, as he’s heard Flosi takes it from the Svinafell Troll every ninth night. At which point the furious Flosi kicks the pile and declares he will accept nothing but blood vengeance and stalks out.

The burning of Njal
124 – Flosi assembles up to 100 supporters near the Althing and makes them swear an oath to support his cause. He tells them all to go home for the summer haymaking then in eight weeks they will attack. Kari assures Njal he will stick with the Njalssons. Back at Bergthorasknoll the old woman Sæunn beats the chickweed then explains it is because it will be used in the fire. 125 – A boy at Reykis named Hildiglum sees the ‘witch-ride’ ie a man riding a grey horse in a ring of fire who throws a firebrand into the mountains which explode into flames. 126 – Two months before winter Flosi gathers his forces and rides west accumulating allies. 127 – At Bergthorsknoll Bergthora says she thinks she is serving the last ever meal in that house, and Njal has a vision of the gable walls torn down and blood al over the tables and food. 128 – Flosi and his posse hide in a knoll until well on into the night then ride up the house. Njal and his sons and kin and servants are standing outside, some 30 men. As Flosi approaches Njal takes the fateful decision to shepherd his people into the house, against Skarp-Hedin’s advice. Flosi immediately surrounds the house and posts men at the door but the Njalssons are able to poke out halberds and spears and wound people. Flosi takes the decision to burn the house. 129 – Flosi lets the women and children exit, but refuses Njal’s last offer of a deal and settlement. He invites Bergthora to leave but she prefers to stay with her husband, they go lie on the bed with little Thord, Kari’s son, get a servant to cover them with an ox hide and there they die. The sons fight on but the Sigfussons manage to set fire to the attic using the fateful chickweed and the house collapses on the inmates. Skarp-Hedin helps Kari escape. 130 – Skarp-Hedin swaps taunts with the Burners up to the last moment when he is trapped under a falling beam. They all die. Flosi and his men wait till the flames have died down. Then Geirmund rides up to tell them that Kari escaped, and they realise there will be vengeance. Among the ashes they hear the dead Skarp-Hedin singing. They ride to kill Ingjald Hoskuldson who had sworn to be part of their band but then talked out of it by his sister Hrodny. they wound him but he kills ones of them and makes his escape to join Kari. 131 – Kari goes to see Mord Valgardsson of all people and other allies and Ingjald joins him and they plan to let the Sigfussons return to their farms and pick them off. Realising this the Sigfussons ride east with Flosi. 132 – Kari and Injald sift through the wreckage finding the various bodies, 11 in all, and take them to the church for burial. Kari goes to consult with Asgrim who invites all the survivors to go live at Tongue and enumerates their supporters including Mord and Gizur the White. Kari can’t sleep and makes poems. 133 – Flosi also can’t sleep and dreams of Iron-Grim who calls his followers to their deaths. Both sides plan for their confrontation at the spring Althing.

The Aftermath
134 – Flosi goes on a grand tour of kin and powerful men gathering allies, returning hom to his father-in-law’s Hall of Sida. 135 – Kari goes ot see Gizur the White who advises him to force Mord to take on the case against Flosi: they ride to Mord’s and force him much against his will, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t do it well. Mord starts the complex procedure of naming witnesses and actions, then Kari rides home. 136 – Flosi’s gang go visit Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson at Tongue, eating his food, making themselves at home, provoking him until he attacks but Flosi spares him. Then they travel on to Hall of Sida.

At the Althing
137 – Asgrim and his alllies arrive at the same time as Flosi and fighting nearly breaks out. 138 – Flosi tours the booths asking for support and persuades Eyjolf Bolversksson to take on the case, giving him a solid gold arm bracelet which Snorri the Priest later discovers, predicting it will cost Eyjolf. As it does. 139 – Asgrim and Gizur go seeking support. Akapti Thoroddsson refuses. Snorri the Priest says yes. 140 – They secure the support of Gudmund the Powerful. 141 – At the Law Rock Mord Valgardsson, then Thorgeir, Kari et al raise cases against all the Burners. Eyjolf suggests a strategem: Flosi hand over his chieftaincy to a neighbouring chieftain, and become the liegeman of a chieftain in a different area: this will invalidate Mord’s prosecution.

The Great Law Case
142 – A battle of wits between Mord who brings point after poiint against the Burners only to be refuted by Eyjolf, and forced to resort to Thorhill Asgrimsson who was fostered by Njal who taught him so much law as to become the best lawyer in Iceland. He gives counter-strategies which become so recondite that Flosi and Eyjolf have to counter-check with Skapti the Law Speaker. 143 – Eyjolf reveals that Mord’s whole case is invalid because Flosi has transferred his allegiance to a chieftain who resides in a different area, and thus the entire case should have been presented in a different court! 144 – Thorhill advises they charge Flosi at the Law Rock with bribing Eyjolf, then go to the Fifth Court to lay further charges; but while they’re at the Law Rock Flosi beats them to the Fifth Court and lays charges against them! 144 – Mord makes a long recapitulation of the case but makes a vital blunder: he excludes six judges (from 48) from giving a verdict and then invites Flosi and Eyjolf themselves to exclude six; they refuse the option. Mord then asks the judges for a verdict BUT he has forgotten that, if Flosi and Eyjolf fail to reject six judges he, Mord, must do so. Eyjolf immediately calls for Mord’s entire case to be thrown out and Mord to be made an outlaw. 145 – As soon as Thorhall hears about this turn of events he lances the boil in his thigh which had been incapacitating him and emerges from his booth and starts killing Flosi’s supporters. This is the trigger which starts The Battle of the Althing which turns into a full-scale slaughter. Half the Sigfussons are killed, Eyjolf the lawyer, and Hall of Sida’s son, Ljot. Eventually Hall and Snorri the priest broker a ceasefire which is followed by a full legal settlement with lots of compensation, Flosi is exiled for three years, the other Burners for the rest of their lives.

Kari’s revenge
146 – Kari Sigmundarson and Thorgeir Skorar-Geir, nephew of Njal, refuse the settlement and ride off in pursuit of the Sigfussons. The Battle of Kerlingardale River Two men attack fifteen, kill five and put the rest to flight who flee to Svinafell and tell Flosi. Flosi stays home throughout the winter and into the spring. Hall of Sida advises him to make a settlement with Thorgeir to isolate Kari. 147 – Hall of Sida rides to Holt and persuades Thorgeir to reach a settlement; he’s reluctant to abandon Kari until Kari himself threatens to become his enemy. 148 – Hall brokers the deal: Thorgeir and Flosi shake on it. Kari refuses to stay with Thorgeir as it might jeopardise him and rises off to stay with Bjorn the White. 149 – Flosi and the Sigfussons buy a ship from Eyjolf Nose in exchange for buying him land. They all believe the rumour spread by Bjorn that Kari has ridden north. They ride to administer their farms. 150 – Kari and Bjorn ambush the Sigfussons at Skapt River and kill five of them. 151 – Six of the Burners attack Kari and Bjork and they kill three before they break off. 152 – Kari arranges for Bjorn’s safety, then rides to tell Asgrim and then Gizur the Whie what he has done. 153 – Flose and the Sigfussons set sail for Norway but are shipwrecked on Orkney. They surrender to Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson where Flosi admits that he killed Helgi Njalsson who had been one of the Earl’s favourite retainers (85). The Earl has the seized and is about to kill them but for the intervention of Thorstein, son of Hall of Sida, Flosi’s brother-in-law as Flosi is married to Thorstein’s sister Steinvor. He spares Flosi and lets him become one of his retainers.

Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf
154-157 are judged to be an interpolation added from another manuscript. They describe the complex dynastic disputes and rivalries which lead to the Battle of Clontarf outside Dublin on Good Friday 1014. Kari and Holbein sail to Fair Isle where they are greeted by Kari’s friend David the White. Earl Sigurd of Orkney invites Earl Gilli of the Hebrides to go visit. King Sigtrygg from Ireland is also there. Sigtrygg’s mother is the wicked Kormlod. Kormlod is divorced from King Brian and hates him and incites Sigtrygg to kill him and to gain Earl Sigurd’s support first. Hence he is in Orkney at the same time as Earl Gilli is visiting. All three are in the big hall for a Christmas Day feast with Flosi and Thorstein when the Earl wants to hear the story of the burning of Njal. Gunnar Lambason was chosen to tell the story. 155 – Kari and Kolbein and David the White sail to Mainland and arrive at the hall during the feast and just as Gunnar Lambason starts telling the story. He lies. Enraged, Kari bursts into the hall runs up and beheads Gunnar Lambason whose head lands on the table in front of the earl and kings. The earl calls for Kari to be seized and killed but noone moves. Kari had also been a member of the earl’s retinue and was popular. Even Flosi, his enemy, speaks up for him and says he was provoked and has done what was honourable. Kari leaves the hall without anyone moving, goes back to the ship and sails to Caithness. After this interruption Sigtrygg goes back to persuading Earl Sigurd, much against his men’s advice, to join the army against King Brian; Sigurd says he will join if he can a) marry Kormlod b) become king of all Ireland once they’ve defeated Brian. Kormlod says they need more forces for the rebellion so she sends Sigtrygg to parlay with two Vikings with thirty ships anchored off the Isle of Man. Ospak refuses to join but Brodir says he will rejoin the rebellion if he can get Kormlod’s hand in marriage and the kingship of Ireland ie the same terms offered Earl Sigurd. 156 – Brodir’s men and boats experience three nights of weird phenomena: night one, boiling blood falls out of the sky, scalding them; night two, the weapons, the swords and spears leap up and fight of their own accord; night three, ravens fly down and attack them. Ospak tells him these omens mean he is doomed. Furious, Brodir returns to his ship planning to attack Ospak in the morning. Realising this Ospak sails to Ireland, goes to meet King Brian, tells him all the plans of hte coming attack, takes baptism and pledges to serve him. Brian calls all his forces to convene outside Dublin on Palm Sunday. 157 – Earl Sigurd marshals his forces and sails to Ireland. Flosi offers to come but the earl tells him he must finish his pilgrimage to Rome.  The Battle of Clontarf On one side Brodir the Viking, King Sigtrygg (son of Brian and the vengeful Kormlod who set this all in motion) and Earl Sigurd; on the other King Brian, his sons, Ulf Hreda and Ospak the Viking. Fierce fighting: everyone who holds Earl Sigurd’s banner is killed including the earl himself. Wounded, Ospak advances through the ranks and puts Sigtrygg to flight at which point the attacking army breaks and flees. Hrafn the Red is chased into a river where devils from Hell seize him. The Viking Brodir springs form the woods and chops of King Brian’s head. Brodir is captured and his intestines tied to a tree and he is carried round it so that his intestines wind round it until he dies. In Caithness a man called Dorrud has a vision of 12 riders going into a woman’s house where women sit weaving using human heads as weights and intestines for thread. A whole suite of miracles and visions accompany the battle. Earl Gilli in the Hebrides has a vision of a man who recites a poem about the battle. Only a week later does a messenger arrive. Flosi learns that all of  his men, the Burners, were killed. He vows to continue his pilgrimage and sails to Wales.

158 – Kari, David and Kolbein meet men from the Hebrides who tell them about the battle in Ireland and that Flosi has gone to Wales. They sail there and moor. Kari goes inland and comes across Kol Thorstainsson the braggartiest of the Burners and chops off  his head with one blow. Flosi buries Kol then walks all the way to Rome where he is given absolution by the Pope. He travels back north and stays the winter on Norway and is given a ship by king Eirik to sail home to Iceland where he returns to his home at Svinafell, having fulfilled the terms of the settlement, exile and compensation. 159 – Kari sails to Normandy then walks to Rome to receive absolution. He walks back and sails round the coast to Caithness. Next summer Kari sails back to Iceland though is boat is shipwrecked. His men ask, what now, and Kari leads them through a blizzard to Svinafell. They walk in covered in snow and Flosi jumps up and embraces kari, and gives him the place of honour next to himself. They are fully reconciled and Flosi gives Kari his niece Hildigunn (widow of Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest) in marriage. In old age Flosi sets out with companions to fetch timber and is never seen again.

Motives and causes

  • The Njalssons kill Thrain Sigfusson because he refused to make it clear to Earl Hakon that he, not the Njalsons, was harbouring Killer-Hrapp, and then refused to give them any compensation for the trouble he caused ie Earl Hakon attacking them and throwing them into prison. The more they insist on compensation the more Thrain associates with a cohort who badmouth the Njalssons. After the stand-off at Hallgerd and Grani Gunnarson’s farm, Grjotriver, violence becomes inevitable and the Njalssons ambush Thrain’s posse at the frozen Markar River.
  • The Njalssons kill Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest entirely as a result of the ill-feeling Mord Valgardsson creates between them. But this second killing crystallises the enmity of all the Sigfussons, their kin and allies against Njal’s family who are felt to have got off lightly for killing first Thrain then his son.
  • Njal is burnt because a large alliance of men crystallises around Flosi of Svinafell who had given his niece Hildigunn to Hoskuld Hvitaness-Priest and therefore is duty-bound to avenge his murder. The Sigfussons are brothers to the murdered Thrain Sigfusson and all uncles to the murdered Hoskuld, but they are happy to take their lead in vengeance from the more powerful figure of Flosi. Njal nearly saves himself with the epic deal done at the Althing, which only comes undone because of the silk cloak Njal places atop the 600 ounces of silver, and then the insults Skarp-Hedin is quick to throw at Flosi. Ie it could so easily have been averted, and so many good men wanted a peaceful settlement.

The Supernatural

  • Njal’s predictions always come true, rather as Hrut’s did in part one.
  • Helgi Njalsson has second sight: he sees the Earl of Orkney’s steward has been killed.
  • Omens before the burning: Hildiglum sees the Witches Ride; Sæunn knows the chickweed will be used to start the fire.
  • The Burners hear Skarp-Hedin, indubitably dead, reciting poetry from the ashes.
  • Njal and Bergthora are untouched by the flames – their Christian faith keeps them pure.
  • Flosi sees Iron-Grim in a dream.
  • There is a florid set of Christian miracles and visions surrounding the Battle of Clontarf. This is one reason for regarding it as copied from a different text.

Saga sayings

  • Far from home is far from joy (6)
  • The hand is soon sorry that it struck (42, 90, 134)
  • Cold are the counsels of women (116)
  • No tree falls at the first stroke (138)
  • One’s back is bare without a brother (152)

Eminent people

Kári Sölmundarson of Suderoerne comes at the help for Njal's sons Grim and Helgi (Andreas Bloch/Wikimedia Commons)

Kári Sölmundarson of Suderoerne comes to the help for Njal’s sons Grim and Helgi (Andreas Bloch/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Njal’s Saga 1

‘With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.’ – Njal Thorgeirsson (70)

Njal’s saga is 159 chapters long. This synopsis lists the events of the first 80 chapters, up to and including Gunnar’s Last Stand, which forms a natural break half-way through the narrative.

The episode of Unn and Hrut
Chapters 1 introduces Mord Fiddle and his beautiful daughter Unn; and Hoskuld Dala-Kollson and his half-brother Hrut. In a brief vignette Hoskuld introduces his beautiful young daughter Hallgerd but Hrut takes against her. 2 – Hoskuld and Hrut attend the Althing where Hrut proposes to Mord that he marry Unn. A deal is done. But riding home his paternal uncle Ozur arrives from Norway to say a kinsman has died and Hrut needs to sail there to claim his inheritance. The marriage deal with Mord is renegotiated with a 3-year delay. 3 – Hrut and his uncle Ozur sail to Norway and go see King Harald Grey-Cloak (which dates these events to the 960s since HG-C reigned from 961-70). The king’s mother, Gunnhild, wife of the dead King Eirik Bloodaxe, seduces Hrut and makes him her man for as long as he stays at court. Hrut has Viking adventures sailing south in pursuit of Soti who has sold and stolen his inheritance, but he is caught and the money recovered. When Hrut finally returns to Iceland, Queen Gunnhild asks if he has a woman there and he lies and says no, and she casts a spell on him to make him impotent with her. 6-7 The marriage proceeds but is never consummated. Unn tells her father Mord Fiddle and he advises her to be patient but another winter of frustration passes and she meets her father again at the Althing and he advises her to pretend to be ill then to leave Hrut with her servants and goods. And this she does & returns to his house. Mord goes to the Law Rock and gives notice of Unn’s divorce from Hrut. 8 – Mord claims back his dowry of 90 hundreds, the full marriage settlement. Angry at this demand Hrut challenges Mord to a duel. Mord backs down to universal derision.

Hallgerd’s first husband, Thorvald
9 – Hallgerd Hoskuld’s-daughter has grown to be tall and beautiful and nicknamed ‘Long Legs’. A man called Thorvald discusses getting married with his father Osvif and visits Hoskuld who is keen to get shot of her. Hallgerd is cross at not being consulted. 10 – Hallgerd invites her foster-father Thjostolf and a famously bad-tempered man, Svan, skilled in magic. 11 – Hallgerd is a bad housewife and gets through all the supplies. When Thorvald berates her she says he and his father can go hungry. He slaps her and goes off to the Bjarn Islands to get supplies. Her foster-father Thjostolf comes by, sees she is hurt, and immediately rows out to the islands where he confronts Thorvald and kills him with his big axe, staves in the boats of his servants and rows back to land. 12 – Hallgerd advises Thjostolf to ride north to stay with Svan. When Osvif (her dead Thorvald’s father) rides north in pursuit, the wizard Svan creates a fog and then blackness which the posse can’t penetrate. they give up and ride over to poor Hoskuld’s who, on Hrut’s advice, gives Osvif generous compensation for his son. And Hallgerd stays with Hoskuld and asks if her foster-father, the murderer Thjostolf can come stay.

Hallgerd’s second husband, Grim
13-17 The brothers Thorarin Lawspeaker, Ragi and Glum enter the saga. Glum wants to marry Hallgerd. Hoskuld and Hrut are careful to consult her this time. She agrees and the contract is made. Things go well until foster-father Thjostolf is kicked out of Hoskuld’s house and goes live with Glum. They argue. Glum and Hallgerd argue and he slaps her. She begs Thjostulf not to take revenge; he only grins. They go round up sheep on a mountain and an argument sparks and Thjostulf kills Glum. Hallgerd advises him to ride to her uncle Hrut’s. He explains to Hrut what he did and Hrut immediately attacks and kills him. Thorarin and Ragi ride to Hoskuld’s and, although they are not liable and killed Thjostulf as soon as, Hoskuld behaves generously and gives the brothers compensation. They are now out of this saga. They only appeared for four chapters to amplify Hallgerd’s guilt and the Hs’ nobility.

Unn’s law case against Hrut for return of the dowry
18 Mord Fiddle dies. His daughter Unn inherits the estate and fritters it away. 19 – Introducing the hero of the saga, Gunnar Hámundarson from Hlidarend. Tall, powerful, skillful, athletic, generous, well-bred.

Gunnar Hámundarson is generally considered to be the archetypical ‘light hero’ of the Icelandic sagas (as opposed to ‘dark heroes’ such as Egill Skallagrímsson): a man of heroism, energy, virtue, and — above all — unswerving loyalty to the land of his birth and love for its overpowering physical beauty

20 – Introducing the other hero, Njal from Bergthorsknoll. Wealthy and handsome and the most learned man in the law, he has one peculiarity: he cannot grow a beard. 21 – Penniless Unn goes to see her kinsman Gunnar, to ask if she will take up the case for reclaiming her dowry to Hrut. Gunnar vows to help her, gives her money, then goes to see his friend the superwise Njal. Njal has a plan. 22 – Njal maps out a complicated charade whereby Gunnar will pretend to be Hawker-Hedin who pretends to sell shoddy wares and argues and fights with everyone. He is to wend his away across south Iceland until he arrives at Hrutstead. There he is to let Hrut engage him in conversation and discuss the character of men from various regions until they come close to home, when Mord Fiddle’s name will come up. And Gunnar must let Hrut naturally raise the story of Mord’s failed attempt to recover the dowry. And Gunnar is to let Hrut go on to explain how Mord could have revived the claim at any point since, in fact anybody could who recited the correct form of words. And he is to get Hrut to tell him the correct form of words and repeat it once with lots of mistakes and let Hrut correct him, and read it a second time correctly – and he will have indeed have summonsed Hrut to the Althing. In the middle of the night he and his men are to make their getaway. 23 – Gunnar carries it off to the letter, then absconds. Hoskuld wakes from a prophetic dream and rushes over to his half brother’s house. But Gunnar has escaped. 24 – Gunnar presses his case at the Althing, Hoskuld and Hrut come back with counterarguments, at which point Gunnar simply challenges Hrut to single combat which, wisely, he refuses, and has to pay back the whole dowry, which Gunnar hands over to Unn.

Unn’s second husband, Valgard, birht of Mord Valgardsson
25 – Unn marries Valgard the Grey, a malicious and unpopular man. Their son is Mord Valgardsson who grows up sly and malicious and will be the Iago of the saga. Introduction to Njal’s sons: Skarp-Hedin, Grim, Helgi and his illegitimate son Hoskuld. 26 – Njal arranges for Helgi to marry Thorhalla Asgrim’s-daughter. 27 – Njal offers to become foster-father to Asgrim’s son Thorhall. (At the end of the saga, Thorhall will become legal adviser to Kari, Mord and the avengers in the Great Law Case, and will be the first to draw blood when the case breaks down.)

Gunnar and Kolskegg’s foreign adventures
28-32 Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg travel abroad in the ship of Halvard the White. They have two fights with Vikings. Gunnar stays with and impresses King Harald Gormsson/’Bluetooth’ of Denmark (958-986). Then sails north to Trondheim and impresses Earl Hakon (970-995). in the sea battle in 30 Gunnar wins the halberd he keeps for the rest of his life.

Gunnar meets and marries Hallgerd
33 – Gunnar rides to the Althing to announce  his return to Iceland and there meets and becomes infatuated with Hallgerd. Against the advice of her father Hoskuld and his best friend Njal, Gunnar marries her. 34 – Introduction of the seven Sigfusson brothers. Thrain Sigfusson divorces his wife and wants to marry Thorgerd, daughter of Hallgerd, granddaughter of Hoskuld, (He will play a key role; after the death of Gunnar, it will be Skerp-Hedin’s murder of Thrain which leads to the Burning.) Ketil Sigfusson of Mork marries Njal’s daughter and is the most restrained of the Burners, so that Kari refuses to kill him.)

The wives’ killings, or how Hallgerd and Bergthora incite their servants to kill each others’ servants
35 – The seeds of enmity between Hallgerd and Njal’s wife Bergthora when Thorhalla returns to Njal’s house and Bergthora asks Hallgerd to move along the dais to make room for her and Hallgerd rudely refuses. Hallgerd then insults Njal the beardless and Bergthora throws in her face the fact Hallgerd had her first husband killed. Hallgerd calls on Gunnar to revenge her but he refuses, saying he is too deep in debt to Njal.36 – Kol murders Svart Njal and Gunnar ride to the Althing. In his absence Hallgerd commissions a servant Kol to ride up to the woods and kill Bergthora’s servant Svart. 36 – Hallgerd sends word to Gunnar at the Althing, who takes it calmly and visits Njal. The friends agree a moderate payment of 12 ounces of silver for Svart. Back home at Hlidarend Gunnar reprimands Hallgerd. At Bergthorsknoll Bergthora takes on an itinerant named Atli who works with them through the winter. 37 – Atli murders Kol Bergthora commissions Atli to kill Kol and he does. It’s reported to Gunnr and Njal at the Althing. Njal gives back to Gunnar the pouch of silver he received as compensation for Svart. Gunnar and Njal reprove their wives. 38 – Brynjolf murders Atli Hallgerd orders Brynjolf to kill Atli up in the woods making charcoal. Gunnar pays Njal 100 ounces of silver. Hallgerd mocks him. 39 – Thord murders Brynjolf Thord tall handsome foster-father to Njal’s sons. Bergthora orders Thord to kill Brynjolf.  40 – Njal and Gunnar at the Althing are told. Njal pays Gunnar back the 100 oz of silver. 41 Introducing Gunnar’s kinsmen Sigmund Lambason and Skjold. Hallgerd organises Sigmund, Skjold and Thrain Sigfusson (he who married Hallgerd’s daughter in 34) to kill Thord. 42 – Sigmund and Skjold murder Thord. 43 – News brought to Njal and Gunnar at the Althing. Both shocked. Gunnar pays Njal 200 oz silver. 44 – Gunnar berates Sigmund, telling him to be careful. One day they are sitting round, Hallgerd insults Njal as beardless and the Njalssons as little dungheaps, and tells Sigmund to make a lampoon poem about them which he does. Gunnar overhears, is furious and bans the words. But some wandering beggarwomen hear them and go to Bergthorasknoll and tell Bergthora who tells Njal’s sons. Late that night Njal is woken by his sons packing their weapons and sneaking out. 45 – Skarp-Hedin, Helgi and Grim murder Sigmund and Skjold. Farmers tell Hallgerd. Gunnar refrains from demanding compensation until, at the next Althing, Njal offers Gunnar 200 oz silver. Both act with nobility and rstraint and vow to stay friends no matter what their wives do. End of the wives’ murders.

The episode of Otkel Skarfsson, introducing Gizur the White and Geir the Priest
46 Introducing Gizur the White , a powerful chieftain, and his friend Geir the Priest. Mord Valgardsson, his mother Unn who we met in the opening pages of the saga now dead, is consumed with envy and hatred of Gunnar, the man who won Unn her dowry. 47 – Introducing Otkel Skarfsson of Kirkby, a kinsman of Gizur the White, his son Thorgeir, and his friend the scoundrel Skamkel. There is a famine. Gunnar lends food to kin and friends. He goes ot ask Otkel to lend him some form his store. Inspired by spiteful Skamkel Otkel refuses but, bizarrely, offers to sell him his good-for-nothing slave Melkolf. 48 – Hallgerd orders Melkolf back to Kirkby to steal food from Otkel then burn down his barn, which he does. On the way back his sandal strap breaks and he fixes it with a knife, leavin both knife and bits of strap by the way, which will become evidence. Gunnar arrives at Hlidarend with guests from the Althing. Hallgerd lays out provisions he knows they don’t have. They argue. Gunnar slaps Hallgerd. Bad idea. Remember Thorvald! 49 – Skamkell finds the incriminating knife. Wicked Mord devises a strategem for the women beggars to ascertain that Hallgerd has Otkel’s stolen food. They spread the word Hallgerd is a thief. Gunnar rides to Otkel and makes a fair offer of compensation – twice the value of the burned food. Egged on by Skamkel Otkel refuses, then sends Skamkel to get advice from his kinsman Gizur the White. 50 – Gizur and Geir advise Otkel accept the offer. Skamkel returns and lies, saying they advised summonsing Gunnar to the Althing. So Otkel rides over to Hlidarend with a posse and summonses Gunnar. 51 – At the Althing when Gizur and Geir hear Skamkel lied to Otkel they are livid. They go to Gunnar’s tent to make reparation. Gunnar is furious at being summonsed and judges the damages for the fire to exactly match his reparation for being summonsed ie totalling nothing. Gunnar wanrs Otkel to keep out of  his way. 52 – Runolf stays with Otkel. He invites Otkel back. Otkel sets off with kin and two feisty horses. 53 – Near Gunnar’s farm the horses run out of control and the one Otkel is riding crashes into Gunar out farming, Otkel’s spur gashing Gunnar’s ear. The rest of the entourage  ride by jeering. They stay at Runolf’s a while, then plan to ride home to Kirkby. 54 – The Battle of Rang River Gunar, later joined by his brother Kolskegg, kill Skamkel, Audolf the Easterner, Otkel, Hallkel and four others. 55 – Njal advises Gunnar never to kill twice in the same family, and never to break a settlement among good men: it is a prophecy. Gizur the White activates the case against Gunnar. 56 – Aided by Njal Gunnar activates a suite of cases against the men who he murdered, and against their defenders at the Althing: mediation finds a settlement. Gunnar is held in high esteem. End of the Otkel episode.

The Starkadarsons
57 – Introducing Starkad of Thrihyrning and his three sons and Egil Kolson and his three sons and two Easterners staying with them. 58 – The Starkadsons have a red stallion. Who shall they match it against. Someone suggest Gunnar. they ride over and challenge him. 59 – The Horse Fight quickly degenerates into a man fight, as Kol and Thorgeir try to push Gunnar’s horse onto him but he pushes their back onto them, then Thorgeir strikes Gunnar’s horse, blinding him, and Gunnar knocks Thorgeir flat. They have to be separated. Njal tries to broker a settlement, Thorgeir angrily refuses. 60 – Gunnar helps Asgrim. Njal warns him to be on guard. 61 – Gunnar, Kolskegg and Hjort go stay with Asgrim, then return. Spies tip off the Starkadsons who along with Egil and the Easterners gather 30 men in all. 62 – Gunnar’s dream. They see the men of Thrihyrning. The Battle of Knafahills Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Thorkil, Kol, Egil, Thorir, Bork, Hauk and eight others. But Gunnar’s brother Hjort is killed. 64 – Njal devises a complicated suite of cases and countercases to neutralise the case that will be brought against Gunnar. 65 – Thorgeir recruits Gizur the White and Mord Valgardson for his case at the Althing; Gunnar recruits his supporters. 66 – The legal proceedings in which Gunnar neutralises his critics much to their anger. 67 – Thorgeir Starkardarson of Thrihyning goes to visit Mord Valgardson and they conspire. 68 – Thorgeir Starkadarson cynically cultivates thorgeir Otkelson – Mord has explained that if Gunnar kills twice in the same family he is doomed: Thorgeir S plans to get Thorgeir O killed to fulfil the prophecy. 69 – The next autumn Gunnar sends is men out to the fields and is the only man left at Hlidarend. The two Thorgeils assemble a posse and set off to attack him, but are assailed by a strange sleepiness and tke a nap in the woods. Njal has visions of them and, when his shepherd revals their precise location, rides up to scare them off. They flee. 70 – Njal negotiates a deal at the Althing so the two Thorgeirs have to pay 200 oz and all the other members of the posse 100 oz of silver to Gunnar. Gunnar stays with his half-brother in law Olaf the peacock who gives him gifts including the dog, Sam. (Olaf is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld and so half-brother of Gunnar’s difficult wife, Hallgerd.) 71 – Gunnar rides to the Land-Isles. En route back with Kolskegg he is ambushed by the Thorgeirs with twelve men apiece. 72 The Battle of Rang River II  Gunnar and Kolskegg kill Onund the Handsome, Ogmund Tangle-Hair, Thorgeir Otkelson, and some others before they flee. 73 – Njal points out that Gunnar has now fulfilled part one of his prophecy, namely killing twice in the same family (Otkel and now his son Thorgeir Otkelson); he must be careful not to fail part two, namely break a lawful settlement. At the Althing at the Law Rock Gizur the White eloquently makes the case against Gunnar. 74 – Njal challenges the jurymen; nonetheless the case is given against Gunnar who has to pay compensation and, along with Kolskegg, is outlawed for three years. Njal tells him he must go. He agrees. He tells his mother he will go. 75 – Having arranged the shipping Gunnar and Kolskegg ride down towards the sea but Gunnar’s horse stumbles, and he looks back up at the hillside in the sun:

‘How lovely the slopes are,’ he said, ‘more lovely than they have ever seemed to me before, golden cornfields and new-mown hay. I am going back home, and I will not go away.’

Gizur the White successfully calls for Gunnar to be delcared an outlaw. Anyone can kill him with impunity. Gizur assembles a posse of all Gunnar’s enemies, some thirty men in all, who make a compact to kill him. Njal offers to send his sons Skarp-Hedin and Hoskuld to go stay with him but Gunar nobly says he doesn’t want them to die for him. 76 – Mord Valgardsson tells the enemies Gunnar is alone at Hlidarend. Gizur the White and Geir and Starkad assemble and ride in a posse of 30 to Hlidarend. they threaten Gunnar’s neighbour into luring away his dog, Sam, then kill him, Sam’s death howl alerts Gunnar to the attack.

77 – Gunnar Hamunson’s Last Stand Surrounded and alone, Gunnar keeps his enemies at bay for a long time, killing two and inflicting wounds but finally they kill him. He had asked Hallgerd for strands from her hair to repair his bow but she refuses. Gizur the White asks Rannveig (G’s mother) for permission to bury their dead.

78 – In the aftermath Rannveig treats Hallgerd so harshly she leaves home along with the Gunnar’s bad son Grani. Gunnar is buried in a mound. A passing farmer and servant hear Gunnar chanting verse. On another occasion Gunnar’s good son Hogni and Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin see the mound open, illuminated with four lights and Gunnar chants a verse. 79 – Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out with Gunnar’s halberd, ride to Oddi where they kill Tjorvi and Hroald. Ride to Thrihyrning and kill Starkad and Thorgeir Starkadson. Ride to Hof where Mord begs for mercy and, foolishly, they let him live. 80 – At the district Assembly Njal negotiates a settlement with the enemies. Geir the Priest is now out of this saga, as is Hogni Gunnarsson.


Supernatural signs and omens occur throughout the text and are treated quite casually by the characters, although everything is treated casually, with little or no ‘affect’.

  • 12 – Svan the magician creates fog then blackness to deter the posse pursuing Thjostolf.
  • 41 – Thord sees a goat drenched in blood. It is his fetch. He is doomed.
  • 62 – Gunnar dreams of the death of his brother Hjort in the forthcoming Battle of Knafahills
  • 72 – blood appears on Gunnar’s halberd, a ‘death rain’ which forebodes fighting
  • 78 – Gunnar’s corpse is heard singing and reciting poetry


The more sagas I read, the more I appreciate how the stories and characters overlap and intertwine and begin to understand how the size and complexity of the 40 or so surviving sagas, taken together, create an enormous intertwining jungle of people and adventures. Working in different registers and chronicling different events, many of them nonetheless overlap dates and locations and sometimes characters, to create a vast tapestry. If you throw in the differences between the factual family sagas and the more legendary and mythical ones; if you throw in the general difficulty of getting clarity about even ell-known historical figures and events; and if you throw in the mystique and romance of learning an ancient and evocative medieval language – then you have the ingredients for an endlessly ramifying, wonderfully rich and rewarding field of study. I can see why people become addicted.

Overlapping figures include Queen Gunnhild: as wife of King Eirik Bloodaxe she incurs the enmity of Egil Skallagrimsson who memorably sets up a scorn pole against them both. In Njals’ saga Eirik is dead (d.954) and Gunnhild is mother of King Harald Grey-Cloak. She plays  the baleful role of putting a hex on Hrut which makes him impotent with Unn which leads to her divorcing him which leads to Gunnar taking up Unn’s case at the Althing.

Olaf Peacock is the illegitimate son of Hoskuld Dala-Kollson, and therefore half-brother of Hallgerd Hoskuldsdottir who is married to Gunnar Hámundarson, and therefore kin to Gunnar who he visits and offers help to. As well as Njal’s saga, Olaf appears in Laxdæla saga and is mentioned in Egil’s saga, Gunnlaug’s saga, Kormák’s saga, Grettir’s saga and the Landnámabók,

Related links

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson

The horse fight where Gunnar clashes with Thorgeir Starkadarson (59)

Other sagas

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