Saga Stories with the Reykjavík Grapevine: Njáls saga
We return to south-west Iceland for the fourth episode of the ‘Saga Stories’ series. This time, we’re near the modern-day town of Hvolsvöllur, telling stories from perhaps the most famous Icelandic saga of them all: Brennu-Njáls saga. This saga was probably written in its current form in the late thirteenth century and its first extant manuscript attestation is from around the turn of the fourteenth.
About Njáls saga
Njáls saga is the longest and most complex of the Icelandic family sagas, featuring a dizzying array of characters and storylines. It is famous for the intricate weaving of all these narrative threads, through which many small and seemingly unconnected events are shown to have a lasting impact, often culminating in events of extreme significance to the plot. By functioning according to this ‘snowball effect’, this delicate interweaving of narrative threads also mirrors one of the sagas main themes: the cumulative, cyclical, and self-perpetuating nature of feud violence. This episode of ‘Saga Stories’ tries to demonstrate that notion, showing how the roots Njáls saga’s most cataclysmic acts of vengeance can be traced back to relatively minor squabbles or misdemeanours.
Gunnarr’s last stand
For the first story, we travel about 15 km east of Hvolsvöllur to the modern-day church and farm at Hlíðarendi. This is the approximate site of the medieval farmstead of the same name. Many tourists might have driven past Hlíðarendi without even knowing it, since it is just 3 km down the road from Gluggafoss, a popular waterfall. According to the sagas, Hlíðarendi was the home of Gunnarr Hámundarson, one of the main protagonists of the early part of Njáls saga. Here, I tell the story of Gunnarr’s incredible last stand, during which he single-handedly defends his farmstead against many men, killing two and wounding sixteen before he is finally overcome. I also trace a few of the storylines that ultimately lead to Gunnarr’s death, the roots of which precede this scene by at least nineteen chapters.
The death of Þráinn Sigfússon
For the second story, we travel 15 km south of Hlíðarendi to the frozen shores of the Markarfljót river. Here, I tell of one of Njáls saga’s most cinematic battle scenes: the killing of Þráinn Sigfússon. Also taking place in winter when the river is partially frozen, this scene incorporates the icy landscape in a meaningful way. The fearsome Skarpheðinn Njálsson leaps and slides across the frozen river, killing Þráinn with one fell blow of his battle-axe and sending his teeth flying in all directions. You can just imagine the tinkling sound as his teeth hit the ice, which is mirrored in the soft clinking and cracking of the ice floating down the river to the sea.
The burning of Njáll
For the final story, we travel about 15 km west to a farm called Bergþórshvoll. As in the case of Hlíðarendi, we presume that the modern farm is located on the site of the medieval farmstead of the same name. According to the saga, Bergþórshvoll is the home of Njáll Þorgeirsson and his family, including his wife Bergþóra, after whom the farm is named. Here, I recount one of the tragic climaxes of the saga: the burning of Njáll and his family in their home. As above, I trace some of the events that lead up to this burning – one of which is the killing of Þráinn Sigfússon – and also explore the stoic, arguably saintly fatalism of Njáll and his family in accepting their fate.
‘Saga Stories’ is a collaborative project with the Reykjavík Grapevine. The aim of this project is to share fascinating stories from the medieval Icelandic sagas and show the beautiful locations where they are set. Stay tuned for more ‘Saga Stories’ videos, which will be published twice a month by the Reykjavík Grapevine.