1997-08-02: Njal’s Saga letter to Mom

2 August 1997

Dear Mom,

This “present” needs some explanation:  When we stopped at the airport in Iceland, I saw this book, Njal’s Saga. I read it a couple of years ago, and thought you might like to see it – but for a particular reason (did I say ulterior motive?).

The Icelandic sagas are tales, presumably based on historical fact, of events in Iceland from the 800’s to the 1300’s. Before then nobody lived on the island. Vikings looking for a place to make a life settled there, although they kept contact with European Norsemen and occasionally some moved back to Norway.

I find the sagas interesting because they illustrate a peculiar form of social structure: the band. A band is a collection of families with ties of obligation and friendship. The society is a collection of clan-like organizations sharing language, laws and other cultural values; but the ultimate authority is the head of a band. The leading citizens (called “best men” in the Icelandic sagas) feel more allegiance to the band and their other personal connections than to the society as a whole. In Iceland, there was a sort of Parliament that met annually (the Althing), and a set of customs somewhat like Common Law; there was even a tradition of specialists in this law arbitrating disputes as lawyers. But ultimately, a leader could take recourse to blood vengeance.

Njal’s Saga tells of a series of such blood feuds, and can get rather tedious if that’s all you see there.

My interest, and I hope yours, is in imagining how such a society, so different from ours, might be portrayed in America. Near the end of the book, I found myself trying to imagine a time and place that could be the setting for a similar story. It seems to me that setting this story in Wyoming and Colorado in a fictitious (unspecified) time in the mid-1800s could work. It seems like a narrative voice like Great-grandpa’s could work, too.

So here’s the plan, which I don’t have time to carry out: Read Njal’s Saga, chapter by chapter. After reading each chapter, write a similar chapter translating into this new setting. At the end of the book, go back and trim the superfluous parts (and change names as necessary). The result should be a pretty neat story, that nobody would believe could be true.

So, if you’re up to it, get started; it should only take a few months. (If it seems like too much work, I understand; after all, I’m not doing it myself.) I suggest reading the introduction for some cultural background, but Great-grandpa’s memoirs might be more relevant to the “translation”. I was constantly hearing his “voice” while thinking about it. Good Luck !!!

Love, Mike

P.S.  If you find this all rather incomprehensible, you might simply enjoy the story. It is by far the best of the Icelandic sagas I have read (about fifteen); feel free to skip over the gory parts (there aren’t too many). In either case, you’re bound to have questions; I’ll be happy to answer them. By the way, I can’t think of anyone more qualified than you to try this project, because of your interest and experience in working with Great-grandpa’s memoirs.

P.P.S.  Here are some of the notes I made after I read the saga in early 1995:

This Icelandic saga recounts the significant events of a period of about 50 years around 1000 AD. It is very interesting for the illustration of an unusual society. The immediately striking aspect is that the society of Iceland’s “best men” was a band-type, in the sense of Farb (see Man’s Rise to Civilization).

Icelandic society was divided into 39 segments, each led by a “chieftain-priest”. The overriding identity and loyalty of the “best men” was to their families. Each man owed loyalty to his father, brothers, uncles, foster-father, father-in-law, brothers-in-law, and sworn-brothers. Each woman owed loyalty to her father’s and husband’s families.

The highest value in the community of “best men” was personal honor. Honor obligated a man to seek redress for injury or insult to himself or to a family member. Redress could take the form of compensation or blood vengeance. The killing of a man over a point of honor was explicitly allowed in the code of law (which was fairly elaborate). The code required that an honor-killing be publicly announced to witnesses, in preparation for a lawsuit to set compensation.

The existence of the body of law is an interesting fact, as is the nature of lawsuits and lawyers. One feature of the law was the ability to sentence someone to banishment or outlawry, permanently or for a set period, such as three years. This was enforceable by virtue of making anyone who harbored or helped an outlaw also outlaw, and no redress for killing an outlaw.

The main players in the tale are the chieftain-priests (39 at the beginning, although Njal maneuvered to create more; these positions could be bought and traded), and the warriors (who were also farmers and traders, and could choose the chieftain to follow from the region near where they resided). These two communities made up the “best men” of the society. In the second rank were landowners who can use weapons, but do not seek to make a name for themselves or associate as equals with the “best men”, and other owners of personal property (such as animals) who could serve on juries. Below these were women, slaves, freedmen, free children of slaves, serf-like peasants and servants, and of course women.

The multiplicity of communities makes this a complex society. The “best men”, and their women, are a band-like society by themselves, and evidently had little obligation to the other communities, other than the justice and religious functions presumably performed by the chieftain-priests, including the actions carried out at the Althing and other assemblies. Iceland was formed from settlers whose ancestors were Norse, some of which had previously lived in “conquered” lands such as Ireland and northern Britain. They brought with them some of the institutions and people with whom they had lived in those places.

The society was disrupted by the introduction of Christianity in 1000. The “priest” part of the title of the leaders seems to have become vestigial. Shortly after the events of the saga, Iceland lost its independence in excessive feuding, seeking and receiving the protection of the King of Norway. Eventually, this must have ended the blood-vengeance, and allowed the development of a state ruled more firmly by law.

Aside from the cultural interest, Njal’s Saga is a great story. The increase in tension from the beginning to the Burning is superbly controlled (if a bit hard to follow in places), and the resolution is similarly well handled.

The society of Iceland contains elements similar to the (image of) the western frontier of America in the mid-1800s, with cattle barons serving as the “best men”, and family loyalty more important than loyalty to any higher society. Similarly, little effective means to prevent blood vengeance. It might be interesting to pursue this analogy further, and try to translate Njal’s Saga into that setting.

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