Northern Europe’s culture—at least, in its most charming, IKEA-friendly manifestation—is in vogue in the English-speaking world. First there was hygge, the Danish art of “coziness”; then lagom, the Swedish art of “just the right amount”; Denmark’s lykke, which is evidently like happiness but with more sweaters, mulling spices and decorative wooden ponies; and döstädning, Swedish “death cleaning,” which has sort of a Marie Kondo in earmuffs vibe.
This trend promotes a misleadingly etiolated version of the regional character. For anyone sickened by this smug après-ski decadence, there is an antidote far older than Nordic noir: the Íslendinga sögur, or sagas of Icelanders, particularly The Story of Burnt Njal.
The Njála occupies a place in the literature of Iceland akin to that of the Homeric epics in Greece, the Divine Comedy in Italy, or Don Quixote in Spain, but it would be an unusual high school that included it in its World Lit curriculum, and undergraduates will not encounter it in a survey course. Why this should be so is baffling. Despite being an anonymous thirteenth-century work with countless characters and roots in a tiny island’s dizzying cultural and legal arcana, it’s more than just accessible and relevant—it’s entertaining.
Unlike the Völsunga Saga, which was such a profound influence on Tolkien’s beloved books, the Njála features no dragons and, unless one counts a subtle, ambiguous sense of fate, vanishingly little of the supernatural. Unlike the Homeric epics, it describes no divine meddling in men’s affairs. Unlike Dante’s “Inferno,” its most ghastly imagery is of human violence, often committed as casually as knocking the mud from one’s boots. It is an impeccably naturalistic, fine-grained account of unmistakably human motivations.
Make that “passions.” The Njála’s characters are mostly farmers, but they are also lovers and fighters. Several, including the titular Njal, are also formidable lawyers. Marriages are made, often for what we would consider the wrong reasons—property, influence, fleeting sexual desire—and impulsively or violently unmade. Alliances shift like snowdrifts. The exemplary friendship of wise Njal and the warrior Gunnar alone seems equipped to weather any conflict.
The multigenerational blood feud at the heart of the Njála resists summary. It could only be explained by some intricate notation, like a long chess game between grand masters. In this case, the players are Njal, trying in vain to preserve peace, and everyone else. Suffice it to say that the grinding mills of revenge are set in motion by catalysts—insulting words, or such faux pas as a demeaning seat assignment at a feast—that will seem trivial to a modern audience. But greed, envy, malice, overweening pride, the mechanics of tact, the vicissitudes of social hierarchy, and even the politics of gift exchange remain familiar.
As do both the power and fragility of masculine self-image. Anyone interested in today’s discussions of gender parity or “toxic masculinity” will find much to ponder in the Njála and the honor culture from which it sprang. It presents a world in which women are frequently men’s equals not only in power, self-possession and self-assertion, but also in their flaws, insecurities and willingness to sow chaos. In one instance, a woman refuses to give her husband a length of her hair to serve as a bowstring in battle—payback for his having slapped her once in front of guests. The Njála’s is feminism avant la lettre, with bloody consequences.
It is hard, speaking of bloody consequences, not to feel a quickening pulse at the Njála’s scenes of balletic action. Here is Skarp-Hedin, one of Njal’s sons, dispatching an enemy: “A huge sheet of ice had formed a low hump on the other side of the channel. It was as smooth as glass, and Thrain and his men had stopped on the middle of this hump. Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice-banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy smooth, and he skimmed along as fast as a bird.” Landing a triple Axel is hard enough. How about landing a fatal ax blow as well?
That Njal and his family will be burned alive in their home does not, given the saga’s title, come as a surprise. It is not even, however, much of a surprise to Njal, who is so versed in psychology and logic that he can all but see the future. If the wisdom of the Njála were boiled down to a one-word concept, it might be langsýnn, a prescience that the scholar William Ian Miller explains as “that kind of rationality that does not sacrifice the long-term for the temptations of the short-term . . . the stuff of intelligent pragmatism.” That Njal’s intellect can take him only so far in protecting his loved ones and promoting the general good is unimportant. How he dies is out of his hands. How he lives—how he thinks—is an art form.