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Customer Review

2.0 out of 5 stars Marauding tales get lost in the wilderness, 5 Dec. 2013
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This review is from: The story of Burnt Njal From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga (Kindle Edition)
The story of Burnt Njal would lend itself to a great TV series. The constant mix of families, blood fueds, double crossings, bribes and relentless hewing of limbs would give fans of Game of Thrones a treat (though the programme would need the caveat that it contains more beards than sex).

The book is essentially a collection of short stories connected by characters that span the narrative. The Njal to whom the title refers appears in many of the chapters, as a wise lawmaker, wise counsel and friend to one of the main marauders, Gunnar of Lithend.

The story of Njal and Gunnar is repeated, albeit with new players, throughout the book. Gunnar is a a warrior who becomes powerful through his adept fighting skills, which no man can match. These skills and subsequent power gives rise to much jealousy among fellow warriors, ranged across Iceland and at times Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and various northern islands.

I should think that the tales formed a central part of any Icelanders childhood and gave them a semblance of their national identity, but such tales, while entertaining, should not be viewed as any more historically accurate than the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. I've recently read another Icelandic classic, Independent People, and the story of Burnt Njal gives an insight into the stubborn, frontiersman attitude that makes up the backbone of characters in both books.

So, reader, or potential reader, what can you expect from this book? If you're interested in swashbuckling adventures, endless parting of limbs from body, tales of honour and men who would look on decapitation as a mere flesh wound, you'll enjoy Burnt Njal. It is very good fun to begin with, but then it repeats to fade. Men disagree, fight, make amends and pay tributes, then somebody breaks the truce and the cycle begins again.

The depiction of brutal deeds and landscape is impressive, and the characters defined by few words and many actions fits with tone and time of the book. However, the relentless procession of shallow characters left me ambivalent to each of their fates. The sheer size of the cast, complete with a description of their relationship with characters glimpsed only briefly earlier in the book only adds to this detachment.

As a result, the book begins to drag the longer it goes on. There is a farcical passage in which rival bands take to the courts to air grievances. The exhausting process recounts the deeds, which the reader is already party to having read the previous chapter, then lays out each grievance. The accused then set out their case before both sides call witnesses, at each juncture repeating their complaint or defence. This is all fine if you enjoy reading the minutes of a small claims court case presided over by officials with short-term memory loss, but pretty dull otherwise.

Burnt Njal is an enjoyable enough tale to begin with, but perhaps the full collection of ancient yarns is showing its age.
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