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4.8 out of 5 stars
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4.8 out of 5 stars
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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 ... .
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on 13 December 2000
Njal's Saga is probably the best introduction to the great body of literature that is the Icelandic Sagas. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson's translation adds greatly to the reader's enjoyment.
I would tend to disagree with Amazon's review that suggests it portrays a "grim world in which justice means vengeance and all men are either lucky or doomed". The saga of Njal and his family drives the narrative forward, but the really important issues are political and religious. At the start of the saga Iceland is still a country "without laws", and the old gods are still worshipped. In those days, men were (as it were) men, and bloody vengance is a recurring theme. During Njal's life the country moves towards an organised government, with a written legal code. Running parallel to these political developments, is the introduction of Christianity to Iceland.
That may make the story sound a bit dry, I assure you it isn't -- the ancient, unknown writer (with some help from Magnus and Hermann) weaves a fascinating story.
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on 13 December 2010
This edition of Njal's Saga to me was accessible and easy to read and resulted in me now having a dog-eared edition of this text rather than abandoning the module I was studying on Icelandic Literature and the book ending up in yet another second hand book store. In regards to the edition itself, I had to order this book from Amazon as it was not the prescribed text of the University, the few of us that ordered this edition instead of buying the overpriced one in the bookshop at the university, were the ones that did not drop out of the course. It was the first time I had encountered the saga and I was wonderfully surprised. This is the most famed of the Icelandic Sagas and the plot seems reassuringly familiar, I would recommend that this is one of the first that a newcomer to the sagas would read. There are references to history, and this saga also includes the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 999 and in that it is that you are basically reading something that has been recorded from the rich oral tradition that has long been lost of storytelling, and how it has been passed down from generation to generation, and has basis in historical fact.

I do recommend that you keep a pencil in hand for circling certain elements of the book. I also have to agree with a previous reviewer that it is not as gloomy as the amazon review states - there are the themes of justice and honour but there are also moments of humour, and the historical significance of the texts themselves. In those that appreciate intertextuality, there is the true sense in reading the sagas that you are reading the inspiration behind Tolkein and Lewis but in a more straightforward way. The most helpful thing of all is the introduction notes by Magnus Magnusson, prior to this all i had known was that he was the then presenter of Mastermind and associated him to a black leather seat with a spotlight, however the introduction sets the true context of the saga and enables a first time reader to come well equipped to reading Njal's Saga.
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on 15 January 2000
It is quite a complicated book, with characters coming and going quite frequently. But there is a reference section you can refer to if you get a bit lost off. If you haven't been to Iceland and don't know anything about the country, it is worth reading the introduction even though it may seem a bit long, but it explains how the country runs. Do read it as it is VERY interesting.
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on 2 April 2011
Just a super quick review to comment on the translation, and to add my view that this one is very good indeed. More recent translations may be more technically correct, more astute but more stilted and flat, but this one is fluid, believeable to read and utterly absorbing.
Otherwise it remains only to say that this is world class literature full of complex yet vivid characters that spring up and flicker like silhouettes around a fire. Murder, feud, court-room-esque drama, sex, jealousy, adventure, magic, theft, romance, arson and more, rendered in deceptively simple-seeming, understated prose.
Don't be put off by the genealogies, or the seeming obscurity of the subject, have an adventure!
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on 5 March 2012
Read `The Saga of Burnt Njal' and you are plunged into a world so different to our own through the medium of probably the finest of the Icelandic saga. But beware, that world bears the same relationship to the real 10th century Iceland as western films have to 19th century America. From `There was a man called Mord Fiddle...' to `....And there I leave the saga of the Burning of Njal' you will find a book crammed with vivid incidents, amazing characters and remorseless fate. It has certainly affected my own reading and writing since I first read it over fifty years ago.
Consider some of the characters. Njal himself is so weak, so wise and yet driven to destruction by his own fatalistic philosophy despite the efforts of Bergthora, his harridan of a wife. One of his sons, Skarp-Hedin, is somebody you should never cross because, to misapply a famous quote of our time, `he has something of the night about him'. Their friend, Gunnar of Hlidarend, is the `impossible hero' (physically superb but with a mind like jelly when it comes to dealing with his wife, Hallgerd). Mord Valgardsson plots to destroy the heroes of the saga through a web of lying promises with the apparent ease of a puppet-master because his victims are obsessed by Fate.
Consider some of the incidents. How Gunnar by trickery forced Hrut, by witchcraft doomed to impotence, to return Unn's dowry. How the row between Bergthora and Hallgerd, so trivial in origin, leads to a series of violent deaths. How Skarp-Hedin's dramatically killed Thrain on the ice of Markar River. How the Njalssons were manoeuvred into murdering their foster-brother.
Throughout the book it taps into the supernatural through dreams and magic. Luck (or fate) plays a major part in the fortunes of men - Kari and Olaf the Peacock are lucky but others are doomed. You'll see a society ready enough to pay compensation but equally ready to start a blood feud over the slightest insult. It describes a society which has in the Althing the oldest parliament in the world but also one where violent death seems almost an everyday event.
Occasionally the book slithers into genuine history - `slithers' is the right word because it exploits historical events such as the conversion of Iceland, the activities of Gunnhild of Norway or the battle of Clontarf by intruding its characters as a means of plot development.
So how much of the story is true? Who knows or cares? Just enjoy the experience of reading one of the great works of mankind.
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on 22 October 2012
Before buying this, I did a bit of research into which were the best translations to get. Having read many criticisms of the current Penguin Classic version, I went for the Magnusson one.

The translation is very easy reading, and did not get in the way of the story. One feature I especially appreciated was putting all the genealogies into footnotes - so you can read them if you want to, but can also easily skip them.

In every translation, they must make choices. In this one, they decided to anglicise endings of place names. This made for easy reading, but complicates things when you try to follow the action on a map, or when comparing the same events when recorded in another saga (with a different translation).

There are also some useful notes at the back - for every character they give a mini-synopsis of the main events of their life and when it happens. Given the large amount of characters (and the sometimes confusing or similar names) this was very useful to me.

In summary: Not having personally read the new Cook translation I can't give a direct comparison, but I can tell you that the Magnusson one is worth having
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on 1 September 2016
Quite rightly famous. This story of Njal's life and death, his wisdom and his kindness. We read of the machinations of the plotters, the ambushes, heads flying with one blow of the axe. There is much entertaining gossip and very moving accounts of loyalty. The fire had me almost in tears. I liked the biblical-type genealogy, though as I knew they would, the names confused me but still gave me pleasure in reading them.
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on 8 August 2015
Hate to be the one to write a review not based on the book's content, but the blurb spoiled the ending for me, which I found very frustrating. Having never read it before I would have liked the ending to remain a surprise, rather than have the blurb go "Njal Thorgeirsson who, [insert spoiler]". If you can restrain yourself from reading the blrub, go ahead and buy it. But beware.
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on 7 May 2016
I read this years ago for school so an enjoying reading it again, in English this time. The only drawback is that there's a massive spoiler on the back cover, I've put a sticker over it so my husband doesn't read it when it's his turn to read it.
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