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Ian Myles Slater on: A Reliable, Readable, Option
on 14 February 2005
This is a highly readable translation of a work of literature that has several names. In full, it is "Brennu-Njals Saga," or "The Story of Burned Njal," but just plain "Njals-Saga" is equally correct. And, like several other sagas, it has a nickname in its native Iceland, "Njala." For those who know it, with its unforgettable portraits of men and women presented through their responses to the events that entangle them, it has a place alongside the great novels of modern Europe. Although it starts off with a couple of resounding scandals, including a Queen-Mother's affair with a handsome Icelander, it soon deals with property in a divorce, and who stole the hay. There are resemblances to Westerns, including subsistence in an unforgiving environment, and the critical importance of a reputation.
The plain-language version by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, first published in 1960, has, I think, stood up well. On my first reading I found the Introduction, Genealogical Tables, Glossary of Proper Names, Note on Chronology, and maps very useful. It has been supplanted in the Penguin Classics list by a new translation by Robert Cook, but I hope that this older version will continue to remain available. (Penguin sometimes has two, or even three, translations of a given work in circulation.)
"Njal's Saga" is, like several others, a long account of cascading disputes between farmers, and the resulting fights and lawsuits, broken up with voyages and adventures in Viking-Age Europe. (There are a great many shorter ones on the same basic pattern, generally less complex and diverse.) "Njala" includes a famous account of the official conversion of Iceland to Christianity, and a description of the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, just over a decade later -- both apparently drawn from pre-existing accounts, and both inserted into the sequence of events quite naturally, although possibly with some violence to chronology.
The co-translators relegated most genealogical descriptions of characters to footnotes. Many chapters begin something like "There was a man named A who lived at B. He was the son of C, son of D, son of E, who was the first who came to B, and he was the son of F, son of G, the kinsman of ..." Those of us who persist in reading the major sagas will soon learn to decipher such passages to mean either, "A came from a famous family, and would have many allies in a dispute," or "A was a complete nobody, whose most notable ancestors were violent and unreasonable." Until then, these paragraph-long descriptions are just a jumble of names -- there is a "Monty Python" routine based on that impression, which is very, very funny if you know the sagas; and, I am told, amusing anyway if you don't.
"Njala" has had a long series of translations from its original Old Icelandic into other languages -- there is a whole book on its "reception" into other literatures, "The Rewriting of Njals Saga: Translation, Ideology, and Icelandic Sagas," by Jon Karl Helgason; and it bulks large in Andrew Wawn's "The Vikings and the Victorians," because it received a magnificent first translation into English, by George Webbe Dasent, "The Story of Burnt Njal, or, Life in Iceland at the End of the Tenth Century," started in 1843, and published in 1861. Dasent, probably wisely, spent a good part of the two-volume first edition just explaining medieval Iceland to his readers. This material was dumped in later, one-volume, editions of Dasent's translation, including the Everyman's Library reprint of 1911, which got a new introduction and select bibliography by E.O.G. Turville-Petre in 1957, and in the 1970s competed with the Penguin Classics translation.
Dasent's "Burnt Njal" has many merits, even today. Unfortunately, between Dasent's imitation of Icelandic vocabulary and sentences, and changes in English since the 1850s, many will find his prose indigestible; and the text of the saga he was using is now very obsolete. For those who want a look, there is an HTML edition on-line; the translator's name is there given as DaSent. Modern readers can turn to Jesse Byock's "Viking Age Iceland" for an equivalent of Dasent's introduction and appendices, with their maps and diagrams, but more readable, as well as much more reliable. And I would certainly make the suggestion of Magnusson and Palsson as a better place to start with Njal and his associates.
Another alternative is the American-Scandinavian Foundation's 1955 "Njal's Saga," translated by Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander. For American readers it had the slight advantage of not being quite so British in tone as the Penguin and mid-Victorian Dasent translations, but it seems to have been available in recent years only in a 1998 paperback from a British publisher, in the "Wordsworth Classics of World Literature" series, with a new introduction by Thorsteinn Gylfason. It too has maps, family trees, and notes.
There is a substantial critical literature on "Njal's Saga," some of it in English. Richard F. Allen's old "Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njals Saga" is very literary in approach. Jesse Byock's "Feud in the Icelandic Saga," which argues that behavior in the sagas reflects real social patterns, has thirty pages on this saga (Chapter 9, "Two Sets of Feud Chains"), which I think are brilliant; but probably most helpful to those who already know the story, and can appreciate how he makes connections between scattered-looking events.
For those who find "Njala" a bit too long to start with, there are other sagas in excellent (and some not-so-good) translations. "Laxdaela Saga" shares some important characters, scenes and events with "Njala." Closer to the popular image are "Grettir's Saga" ("Grettla," the story of an outlaw who battles both supernatural and human enemies), and "Egil's Saga" ("Egils Saga Skallagrimssonar," or "Egla,") Egil is a warrior-poet, brilliant, bad-tempered, and remarkably ugly, who takes after his grandfather "Evening-Wolf," who was suspected of being a shape-shifter. Egil spends much of his time on Viking adventures abroad, instead of tending the flocks ... .