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The Burnt Njal are heroic Icelandic sagas that hold a national place
equivalent to the Kalivala of the Finns, the Edda of the Scandinavians,
and the Nibelungenlied of the Germans. The sagas, which were passed
along by word of mouth until they were written down in the eleventh or twelfth
century, take the reader from the pagan era into the legislated Christianization
of the country by the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, in the year 1000.
The Burnt Njal depict the tragic playing out of the forces of greed,
pride, and passion. In these stories, men of varying moral caliber contend with
each other over land, honor, and blood in early medieval Iceland. The heroes
are invariably good men locked in bad circumstances who try, against fate, to
maintain both peace and honor and perform their expected duties, even if it
causes their own destruction. Their obligations to family and kin lead them
to take arms against those trying to regain, by whatever means, the status they
believe to be rightly theirs. These are not uplifting stories by any account.
In the end, the forces of avarice and pride are dissipated only by exhaustion,
not by the triumph of good. The failure of the heroes to maintain order of their
own accord is taken to be a sign of the unrelenting and corrupt nature of human
fate, but it is not a negation of the responsibility of good men to
continue trying to do what is right. The heroes of these stories press forward
for the sake of honor and justice, even when their efforts are futile. The conversion
of the central character, Njal, to Christianity brings him the hope of spiritual
salvation but does not alter his earthly fate.
Dasent, George Webbe, trans. The Story of Burnt Njal. 2 vols. Edinburgh:
Edmonston and Douglas, 1861.
Dasent, George Webbe, trans. The Story of Burnt Njal. New York: E.P.
Dutton & Company, 1923.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.