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