Structural Elements Provide Stylistic Unification throughout Njal’s Saga

After finishing Njal’s Saga for the first time my thoughts were, “wow, could this author have possibly squeezed another plot into this story?” The pages seemed to bow under the weight of many, seemingly discreet epochs and an abundance of characters. By the time Gunnar met his end, I could not remember Hrut and his substantial role that had been unraveled early in the saga. Perhaps a more fitting name for Njal’s Saga would have been The Njal Miniseries: a thorough account of every man who’s ever crossed fates with Njal or Hrut’s /Kary’s /Gunnar’s /Thrain’s/ Mord’s/ . . . /but mostly Njal’s Saga.

The rampant discontinuity that characterizes the events of Njal’s Saga is reconciled in two fashions. First, all of the characters and their stories are unified under Njal, who embodies the ideals of law and reason for this Icelandic Viking society. Without Njal, the saga could easily have been divided into seven or more separate narratives. The other manner in which the episodes are linked lies in the stylistic framework running throughout the saga. The narrative accounts roll through a distinct mixture of introductions, actions, and yearly Althing proceedings. Each of the aforementioned structural components features a similar tone, language, level of detail, and syntax. Even the seemingly incongruous chapters 100 to 105, in which the author relates the introduction of Christianity to Iceland, contain familiar references to the Njal and Althing proceedings.

The following analysis seeks to dissect a few of the structural components of Njal’s Saga, such as violence and the character introductions, into stylistic elements. These elements shall then be examined in terms of their literary purpose, which contain insights into Viking culture, and their efficacy in aligning the numerous subplots contained within the body of the saga.

Many of the principle players in the life of Njal enter with a genealogical and social description and exit with “ . . . and he is now out of this saga” (176). The characteristic “exit” exhibits syntactical repetition and articulates the closure of a subplot. Perhaps the monk recording Njal’s Saga was merely following the literary convention of the period by explicitly stating “the end” at the leaving of each primary character. Even so, this repetition promotes an atmosphere of stylistic parallelism, uniting the stories of many characters under Njal. Introducing each character with a genealogical and social resume also contributes to the parallelism, but additionally offers insight into Icelandic society because of the relatively high detail. In fact, the saga offers a genealogical familiarization for almost every character, no matter how insignificant! These compulsory chronologies initiate in the first sentences of a chapter, often for several chapters in sequence. Chapter 56 begins with “a man Skapti Throrddson . . . his father, Thorodd the Priest . . . powerful chieftains and skilled at law.” Chapter 57 devotes itself solely to a brief introduction of “a man called Starkad, the son of Bork Bluetooth-Beard” and his sons “Thorgeir, Bork, and Thorkel . . . all arrogant, brutal men . . .” Again, in Chapter 58 the first three paragraphs are saturated with like introductions of Egil Kolsson, his sons and daughter, and the two Easterners “Thorir and Thorgrim, on their first visit to Iceland. They were well-like and wealthy, skilled in arms . . .” How does the author expect the reader to process these detailed introductions of 92 of Njal’s most important acquaintances? The 13th century Icelander may have assigned importance to these characters based on their genealogy. The modern (American) reader may fail to grasp the implications of each kinship tie, but can conclude from the sheer number of these descriptions that such ties were quite important to the original readers and listeners of Njal’s Saga. After all, kinship ties propagate most of the action of the novel, that is, blood revenge, demanding monetary compensation, etc.

Violence exists as an integral part of Njal’s Saga and involves nearly every character either directly or indirectly. Men kill each other. Women incite their men to kill each other (Hallgerd). In the end, even peaceful, “civilized”, and wise Njal falls prey to the fire lit by a violent hoard. The author recounts the killings with a relatively neutral tone, relating the action in short, similarly constructed sentences with few adjectives. For example, “Brynjolf rode at Thord and aimed an axe-blow at him. Thord swung his own axe and sliced through the shaft just above Brynjolf’s grip. He struck at once a second time; the axe sank deep into Brynjolf’s chest, and Brynjolf fell dead from his horse (107).” Though gruesome in its own right, the above passage relates the killing of Brynjolf in a matter-or-fact and unimpassioned tone, devoid of blood-splattering imagery, grief and horror. Violence in this Icelandic saga serves a functional purpose, rather than causing visceral innervation. The saga places little textual emphasis on tears and bereavement. Apparent lack of emotion seems to exist as a standard convention in the Viking literature examined thus far. Even the entertaining Viking romances were free of internal monologue and emotional discourse. Perhaps public displays of emotion were viewed as a social taboo. However, this assumption is difficult to substantiate without an explicit record, and seems contrary to a condition of highly public living due to close quarters. In Njal’s Saga, if one’s brother has been murdered, he is far more likely to be addressed with, “would you like revenge paid in blood or silver” rather than with heart-felt condolences.

The occurrence of the yearly Althing offers perhaps the most valuable historical account of Icelandic law available. Stylistically, the annual proceedings introduce a sense of periodicity into a complex storyline. The Althing marks the beginning of a new year, an event to settle damages incurred over the course of past seasons. Like the genealogical introductions, the riding to the Althing unites the many characters and many subplots together under similar syntax, diction, and detail. Scarcely a chapter passes without reference to the Althing. Often chapters open or close with comings and goings to and from the Althing, marking passage of the season and anticipation of events to come. “Summer came, and people rode off to the Althing. (Chapter 38)” After Gunnar kills Otkel, the speaker foreshadows, “the news that proceedings had been started spread throughout the country, and everyone felt sure that the Althing would be a stormy one. (Chapter 55)” The Althing reflects the ebb or flow of events within the past year. Some Althings, such as the one in chapter 33 in which Gunnar proposes to Hallgerd as the main event, suggests a relatively subdued period of time. Others, such as in chapter 55, mark the end of a year laden with activity, with heavy scores to be settled. Whatever issues lie at hand, the Althing always provides a platform upon which the characters form, cement, and call upon friendship alliances in the context of litigation. The structural reoccurrence of the Althing contributes greatly to rhythm underlying Njal’s saga and its many events.

For a reader overwhelmed by vast span of events related during Njal’s Saga, structural repetition of elements such as chronology and the annual Althing serve a duel purpose. That is, their frequent occurrence reinforces their significance within Icelandic Viking society. Simultaneously, the author creates continuity and rhythm within otherwise complex and extensive storylines. Though the modern reader may not pick up on any of the genealogical connotations related in the character introductions, one can infer the importance of kin relationships. The stories themselves, driven by avenging one’s kin provide further substantiation for this inference. Regarding violence, the prosaic descriptions serve to unite events under a similar style, as well as communicating a preference for action over emotional appeal. These structural elements and their characteristic stylistic components lend unification to the vastly episodic saga.

Written for UH 300 in March 2004
by Amanda Foust
Major: Computational Neuroscience
Graduation Date: May 2006
Hometown: Pasco, WA
My favorite approach to any literary work involves unlocking character motives and themes through a stylistic analysis. Often authors reveal as much through organization, detail, and syntax as they do through explicit narrative and description.