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Njal's Saga or The Saga of Burned-Njal is an Icelandic novel from the 13th century A.D. by an anonymous author. It is about a man, Njal, his wife Bergthora, a friend and adventurer named Skarphedinn, and their lives on Iceland.

(If Njal would have emigrated to the United States, he would have changed his name to Neal on Ellis Island. However, this novel was written centuries before Christopher Columbus and George Washington.)

This novel is remarkably long for its time, and very special in the style and ethics of the characters. They are men of deeds. They sometimes have to kill people, and they do it seemingly without regrets. But they cannot be dishonest, which would be as dishonorable as cowardice, so they always speak the truth, or keep their silence. Literacy and familiarity with poetry were widespread. It is not uncommon that a murderer writes a short poem or song about his deed, strange as this might seem. The poetry is rich on alliteration, which was the preferred art form over modern day rhymes.

Iceland was settled around 850 A.D. by upper class Norwegian farmers who were fed up with their king's high taxes. From the start, the new country was a republic, with a law, a parliament (called the Althing), and courts of justice. Both the parliament and the courts worked like today's IETF meetings, with no money involved from either side. Everybody was supposed to pay their own costs. There also was no government, and no police to enforce the laws. Instead, the parliament would decide on a law, and the court would determine who was right and wrong in a particular case.

Typically punishments were in the form of fines. Murders were most often yielded by paying fines to the victim's family. More serious crimes (or refusal to pay allocated fines) could result in the perpetrator being declared an outlaw, meaning that the protection of the law was removed from them. Anyone could take the outlaw's possessions or even murder the outlaw without having to pay compensation to the family.

When this happened, it was up to the victim or his family to go after the perpetrator. Outlaws would usually leave Iceland for the period of their conviction, because the chance of surviving otherwise was slim.

Slavery was present in Iceland, and murdering somebody's slave was considered less of a crime and thus had a lesser fine.

Although this late Viking, early medieval Icelandic society has some traits in common with a modern democracy, it was more like the ancient Greek "democracy for the wealthy". For an American audience, obsessed with doing something about every problem, the lack of law enforcement must seem very confusing. (But just consider the effect this has on taxes.) For any English speaker, this story is like a Tolkien adventure, but with an attitude. Not only ugly monsters are killed, but actually people who live next door. And the people kept in slavery are not of a different skin color.


The most dramatic episode is chapter 127, where the enemies put Njal's home on fire. Two quotes from the saga have been more cited than others. Both are associated with a man named Gunnar, whose homestead is Lithend. One is in chapter 74, where he is about to embark on a journey because he has been declared an outlaw, but cannot leave for love of his beautiful homestead:

   The day after he gets ready early for his journey to the ship, and told all his people that he would ride away for good and all, and men took that much to heart, but still they said that they looked to his coming back afterwards.
   Gunnar threw his arms round each of the household when he was "boun," and every one of them went out of doors with him; he leans on the butt of his spear and leaps into the saddle, and he and Kolskegg ride away.
   They ride down along Markfleet, and just then Gunnar's horse tripped and threw him off. He turned with his face up towards the Lithe and the homestead at Lithend, and said, "Fair is the Lithe; so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair; the corn fields are white to harvest and the home mead is mown; and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all."
   "Do not this joy to thy foes," says Kolskegg, "by breaking thy atonement, for no man could think thou wouldst do thus, and thou mayst be sure that all will happen as Njal has said."
   "I will not go away any whither," said Gunnar, "and so I would thou shouldest do too."
   "That shall not be," says Kolskegg; "I will never do a base thing in this, nor in any thing else which is left to my good faith; and this is that one thing that could tear us asunder; but tell this to my kinsman and to my mother that I never mean to see Iceland again, for I shall soon learn that thou art dead, brother, and then there will be nothing left to bring me back."
   So they parted there and then. Gunnar rides home to Lithend, but Kolskegg rides to the ship, and goes abroad.

The other is from chapter 76, where his enemies come to slay him:

   Gunnar slept in a loft above the hall, and so did Hallgerda and his mother.
   Now when they were come near to the house they knew not whether Gunnar were at home, and bade that some one would go straight up to the house and see if he could find out. But the rest sat them down on the ground.
   Thorgrim the Easterling went and began to climb up on the hall; Gunnar sees that a red kirtle passed before the windowslit, and thrusts out the bill, and smote him on the middle. Thorgrim's feet slipped from under him, and he dropped his shield, and down he toppled from the roof.
   Then he goes to Gizur and his band as they sat on the ground.
   Gizur looked at him and said, "Well, is Gunnar at home?"
   "Find that out for yourselves," said Thorgrim; "but this I am sure of, that his bill is at home," and with that he fell down dead.


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