Gunnar got ready to ride to the Thing, and before he left he spoke to Hallgerd: Behave yourself while Im away and dont show your bad temper where my friends are concerned. The trolls take your friend, she said. Gunnar rode to the Thing and saw that it was no good talking to her. The events of Njals Saga took place between and in Icelandic society and were written about in the thirteenth century.
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Gunnar got ready to ride to the Thing, and before he left he spoke to Hallgerd: Behave yourself while Im away and dont show your bad temper where my friends are concerned. The trolls take your friend, she said. Gunnar rode to the Thing and saw that it was no good talking to her. The events of Njals Saga took place between and in Icelandic society and were written about in the thirteenth century. What was so unexpected for me was to discover, in such an ancient culture, the power that women had in, what I assumed was, a patriarchal society.
Before I started reading Icelandic sagas, I had the image in my mind of the stereotypical, he-man, Viking Icelander, who ruled his home with an iron fist. That was not the case at all.
Hallgerd was famous to scholars of the sagas because she was such a diabolical character. There was an inordinate amount of goading by women of their husbands in the sagas to push men into conflicts to defend family honor.
The women, for the most part, did not really come off that well. They were depicted as shallow, petty, and quite willing to start an all out blood war over some perceived insult, even if the slight was unintended. If a man did raise his hand to his wife, he risked having her burly male relatives appearing on his threshold to give him an attitude adjustment.
Most disagreements between men, some of them caused by women, were settled at a gathering called Althing. Men would get together and discuss who did what to whom and how much compensation was expected to be paid to make up for the loss of a life or of property. Again, surprisingly more civilized than anything I would have expected. Because of the alliances between people, either through blood or marriage or friendship, blood feuds were taken seriously. If things were not settled amicably between families, all of Iceland could find themselves in a civil war.
In these sagas, there were several moments when things became very precarious. As Hallgerd and Bergthora sparred with one another and convinced either their relatives or men who worked for their husbands to kill someone from the other family, the possibility of a savage blood feud erupting became precariously plausible. Njal and Gunnar kept passing the same bag of silver back and forth as compensation for the deaths of their kinsmen to keep the peace. Njal was considered one of the wisest men in Iceland, but though many came to him for consul, including Gunnar, his own sons frequently avoided asking him for advice, which eventually led to disaster.
He was so mild mannered, but once his ire was raised he could become a fierce and formidable warrior. I really grew to appreciate his character as his story was told. Throughout the sagas were foreshadowings or prophecies of what the future would hold. Hallgerd had a couple of marriages before Gunnar and was known for being difficult to get along with, but she was beautiful, and men continued to be dazzled by her appearance and thought they could handle her conniving and manipulations.
Despite the very civilized manner with which compensation was handled in this society, there were still plenty of points in the saga where bloody conflict broke out, and there was much lopping of hands, arms, legs, and heads off. Skulls were split. Torsos were skewered. Scars were made. Gunnar then fell off the roof. The Norwegian lost his grip on his shield, his feet slipped and he fell off the roof and then walked to where Gizur and the others were sitting on the ground.
Within a few pages, I found a rhythm with the way the stories were told and within a few chapters I was caught up in the lives of Gunnar and Njal. The introduction was a great prep for reading the sagas and provided me with insights that helped me enjoy my reading even more.
There were many creatively described, bloodthirsty moments as well as some detailed legal proceedings that confirmed for me the importance of laws to balance the scales between the strongest and the weakest.
This Icelandic culture around AD was a society trying to evolve away from their bloody, barbaric past and move toward a civilisation where every life was precious, and the arts could be appreciated as much as the glitter of a sharp sword blade.
The Story of Burnt Njal
For the species, see Halgerda. He slays two attackers and wounds sixteen. Gunnarr is slain after collapsing from exhaustion. When he denies having a woman in Iceland, she curses him so that he is unable to consummate his marriage. While this conforms to Icelandic law, it offends justice. Despite his humiliation, he sees future links with Gunnar. This comes about when Gunnar returns with honours from a trip to Scandinavia.
Brennu Njáls saga