Your Book Review: Njal’s Saga
Finalist #5 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]
I found Njal’s Saga hard to follow. Halfway through, a friend reassured me it wasn’t my fault. The medieval Icelanders had erred in releasing it as a book. It should have been the world’s wackiest Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney spinoff1.
Remember, medieval Iceland was an early attempt at anarcho-capitalist utopia. When Harald Fairhair declared himself King of Norway, the Norwegians who refused to bend the knee fled west to build a makeshift seastead on a frozen volcanic island. No lords, no kings, no masters. Only lawsuits. So, so many lawsuits.
Once a year, the Icelanders would meet at the Althing, a free-for-all open-air law court. There they would engage in that most Viking of pastimes - suing each other, ad nauseam, for every minor slight of the past twelve months. Offended parties would sell their rights to prosecute a case to the highest bidder, who would go around seeking fair arbitrators (or, in larger cases, defer to a panel chosen by chieftain-nobles called godi2). Courts would propose a penalty for the losing side - usually money. There were no police, but if the losers refused to pay, the courts could declare them “outlaws” - in which case it was legal to kill them. If you wanted to be a Viking in medieval Iceland, you needed a good lawyer. And Njal was the greatest lawyer of all.
Not that he’s anywhere to be found in the first quarter of Njal’s Saga. The story starts with Njal’s friend’s wife’s aunt’s father. From there we learn the genealogies, histories, and annoying feuds of everyone in southwestern Iceland. Everyone sounds like a minor Lord of the Rings character. Here’s Valgard the Grey (Njal’s friend’s wife’s ex-husband):
There was a man named Valgard, who lived at Hof by the Ranga River. He was the son of the godi Jorund, the son of Hrafn the Fool, the son of Valgard, the son of Aevar, the son of Vemund the Eloquent, the son of Thorolf Vaganef, the son of Thrand the Old, the son of Harald Battle-Tooth, the son of Hroerek Scatterer-of-Rings. The mother of Harald Battle-Tooth was Aud, the daughter of Ivar Widespan, the son of Halfdan the Bold. The brother of Valgard the Grey was Ulf Aurgodi from whom the men of Oddi are descended. Ulf Aurgodi was the father of Svart, the father of Lodmund, the father of Sigfus, the father of Saemund the Wise. From Valgard is descended Kolbein the Young.
There are only about 40,000 people in medieval Iceland. The book focuses on the Southwest Quarter, so let’s say 10,000 there. Each of our characters is a large landowning farmer with many children, servants, tenants, etc; if he is patriarch of a 20 person household, then there must be about 500 such patriarchs. Each of these 500 relevant Icelanders is profiled in loving depth. And if there are 500 characters in Njal’s Saga, and n people can have n(n-1)/2 possible two-person feuds, that’s 124,750 possible feuds. Of these, about 124,749 actually take place over the course of the saga (Njal and his friend Gunnar are best buds, and refuse to feud for any reason).
A typical feud goes like this:
Someone with a name like Hrapp the Ugly, who is ill-famed throughout the land, becomes jealous of his betters. Maybe one particular better irks him, someone with a name like Eirik The Beloved-By-All.
Hrapp insinuates himself with you, flattering you until you believe he is your best friend. Then, once you trust him completely, he says “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is saying behind your back that you’re weak and effeminate; also maybe he’s plotting to kill you.”
You gather your kinsmen and say “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is slandering and plotting against me, we need to stop him.” Your friends and kinsmen object “Eirik is the kindest of all men! Surely this is only the poison of Hrapp the Ugly, whispering lies into your ear.”
You say “I have sworn to do this thing, and I call upon you as my kin to support me. If you do not, let it be known to all that you refused to help a kinsman in his time of need!”
Your kinsmen grudgingly agree to help you. You all form a raiding party and catch Eirik The Beloved-By-All when he is out hunting with his family. He kills three of your kin, but you kill five of his; he himself escapes.
You and your kin ride to all the neighboring houses, saying “We have slain five kinsmen of Eirik The-Beloved-By-All! Stand witness to our slaying!” This part is non-negotiable. If you don’t announce your killings to the victims’ neighbors immediately, the lawyers will destroy you in court later on.
Months pass. You and your kin go to the Althing. Eirik and his kin are there too, and announce that they are suing you.
You go around to all the leading men at the Althing, asking them to “support” you. The exact implications of “support” are vague, but it seems to involve standing around menacingly holding their axes while the trial is happening, in case the other side tries anything funny.
Eirik offers to drop the suit for a weregild of 300 silver pieces per person. But you refuse to pay more than 100 silver pieces. The trial is on!
You realize you will need a good lawyer. You call in a favor from your wife’s cousin’s husband’s uncle, an old man with a name like Hurgolf The Wise. He agrees to serve as your lawyer. He asks whether you complied with about a dozen insane technicalities, starting with “You did remember to tell your victims’ neighbors that you killed them, right?” and moving on to obscure details of the exact wording you used when presenting the suit. If you got any of these wrong, you will at best lose the suit and at worst be condemned to death.
Hurgolf the Wise and the other side’s lawyer fight it out at the Althing! This trial is almost never a whodunit - you, not being a monster, reported the slaying to the victim’s neighbors immediately. More often, you accuse the other side of not observing all the insane technicalities. You and Eirik almost come to blows in the courthouse. Both lawyers suggest there’s a possibility that either or both sides could be condemned to death for failing to observe the technicalities. Sometimes the lawyers get condemned to death for failing to observe technicalities.
Finally Njal (it is always Njal) offers to arbitrate. You agree. You trust Njal. Everyone trusts Njal. He is the wisest of men, and the greatest lawyer in Iceland.
Njal considers the facts of the case. He decides on a weregild of 200 silver pieces per person. You killed five of Eirik’s kin, but he killed three of your kin, so on net you killed two of Eirik’s kin, so you owe him 400 silver pieces. But he will add an extra 100 because of one of the people you killed was an especially good guy - but then take away seventy-five because one time Eirik’s cousin’s son punched your wife’s brother. So you owe a total of 425 silver pieces.
You pay Eirik’s kin 425 silver pieces. You embrace Eirik, and declare that you are now the closest of friends, and will defend him to the death from then on. He says the same, and gives you rich gifts, and invites you to stay at his farm the next time you’re in his part of southwest Iceland. Possibly he is so swept up in the excitement of mutual reconciliation that he waives the 425 silver piece fee entirely. You declare him the best and most munificent of men.
All of Eirik’s kin join in this display except Eirik’s young niece, who seethes with humiliation. She tells her husband, Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe, that he must kill you, or else she will never sleep with him again.
Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe gathers some of his kin and goes to kill you, but ends up killing five of your kin instead.
Repeat Steps 6-13. Njal offers to arbitrate, and Eirik pays you the weregilds this time. You embrace Eirik, saying you knew all along he was an honorable and noble person and this latest weregild only further proves his excellent nature. You consider offering his son your daughter’s hand in marriage, or vice versa.
Repeat until everyone in both your families is dead.
If you want to read about various Icelanders going through this process 124,749 times, Njal’s Saga is the book for you.
Njal - wisest and most compassionate of men, greatest lawyer in Iceland - ends up another victim. Although he is personally blameless, his sons get tricked into stupid feuds, the deaths on both sides build up, and eventually a man named Flosi gathers some of the greatest warriors in the Quarter and attacks Njal’s farm. Nobody can defeat the house of Njal - greatest of men! wisest of Vikings! - in a fair fight, so they burn down his wooden hall, with him inside. Only his son-in-law Kari escapes, swearing to avenge his death. Kari is going to literally go medieval on Flosi and his minions. He’s going to . . . pursue a full lawsuit that doesn’t end in arbitration.
The resulting trial is the climax of Njal’s Saga. Kari hires Mord Valgardssen as the prosecutor; Flosi hires Eyjolf Bolverksson as the defense. I worry no review can do this scene justice, so I'm going to fix the original author's mistake and present it as a Phoenix Wright episode3:
So everything ends well, sort of. Kari’s quest for a non-arbitrated settlement fails. When he hears the arbitrated settlement, he agrees that everyone else should respect it, but he personally is too angry. He follows the defendants into exile, killing them one at a time in crazy ways. The Battle of Clontarf gets a cameo, as do a group of creepy Valkyries who weave the fate of the world on their loom made of human intestines. In the end, Kari murders all of Njal’s killers except Flosi himself, who goes on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope. Kari lies in wait for him, but when Flosi returns to the North, Kari can’t bring himself to strike the killing blow. The two of them swear eternal friendship, and Flosi gives Kari his daughter in marriage. The end.
Can you really get into the Western canon just by describing sufficiently wacky legal procedures? Or do you also need to examine some kind of timeless theme of the human condition?
If there’s a timeless theme in Njal’s Saga, it’s justice. Protesters like to say “no justice, no peace”. It’s great as a slogan, but not so good as a life philosophy. There will never be perfect justice. Even Njal, ablest of arbiters, cannot always make both sides of a conflict completely happy with his settlements. So either one side has to accept a proposal they consider slightly unjust, in order to keep the peace - or everyone has to continue killing each other forever, feud without end.
There can’t be an infinite exchange rate between peace and justice. But what is the exchange rate? Do you, like Hobbes, accept any amount of oppression to keep society running? Or, like the most radical of protesters, do you think that any day that the front page NYT headline isn’t EVERYTHING FINE, DON’T WORRY is a good day to burn cities?
Njal, kindest and wisest of men, represents the pro-peace extreme. The other Icelanders mock him incessantly for not being able to grow a beard. He takes this in stride, of course, but even his body is designed to scream “lone civilized person in a world of unshaven barbarians”. When Christianity comes to Iceland halfway through the saga, Njal accepts it instantly, no explanation given4 - I originally found this jarring, but in retrospect of course he has to accept it, “mouthpiece for the civilized Christian worldview” is his whole character role. The saga authors take Njal’s side - at least this is what I gather from the constant, grating focus on all his virtues and how wonderful he is. And we, as members of a state much more civilized and Christian than 11th-century Iceland, naturally tend towards his side as well.
But take a moment to consider the alternate perspective. Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe murders your father, mocks you as you kneel crying over his body, then rapes your wife on his way out. And here comes Njal - kindest and wisest of men - arguing that instead of thrusting a spear through his brain, you should trust to the courts - courts which half the time get bogged down in insane technicalities, or decree that the plaintiff should be put to death for incomprehensible infractions. Courts where even if you win, Ragnar just has to pay you some weregild, then walks free. The justice of God is “an eye for an eye”. The justice of Man is “a weregild for an eye, or maybe getting confused and failing to award any punishment at all.” Why ever go with the justice of Man?
We go with Man’s justice naturally, almost reflexively, because we’re cattle domesticated by the State. Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors would have gone with God’s justice, just as reflexively, because Hammurabi was still far in the future, and God’s justice was the only game on offer. Njal’s Saga takes place right on the fulcrum of these two world-views, the point where either the natural justice of vengeance or the artificial justice of courts seem like plausible options. All government is a hallucination on the part of the governed, but in medieval Iceland it was a flimsy hallucination, one that a second’s thought could see through immediately5, one of those duck-rabbits where you can switch from seeing the thing to not seeing it at will.
The second timeless theme of Njal’s Saga is freedom. To a libertarian, the history of the world is the history of oppression, petty tyrant after petty tyrant, king to bandit to emperor in quick and unbroken succession. Freedom, when it happens, is rare, partial, and quickly snuffed out. Still, there have been a few times when men could boast they were free without it sounding completely hollow. Ancient Athens is the classic, but medieval Iceland surely deserves a place beside it in this pantheon6.
The sagas make it sound pretty terrible. Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe was constantly killing your family members, and your ability to stop him was at best limited. More sober scholars have recorded that the murder rate in medieval Iceland was actually quite low, maybe lower than our own. But this does not seem to be how the Icelanders remember their own history, or at the very least it is not true of the sort of Icelanders who appear in sagas. In the sagas, Iceland was a bloodbath, and the decentralized anarcho-capitalist court of the Althing worked only inconsistently. When it did, it was because of the tireless efforts of people like Njal, using their wisdom and eloquence to convince their fellows to voluntarily submit to its verdicts.
Peaceful, beardless Njal is the mouthpiece of civilization, but he isn’t domesticated State cattle like ourselves. Jefferson promised the Americans “a Republic, if you can keep it”. Njal was trying to keep it. He was saying, look, we have a good thing here, sort of. Maybe not an actual good thing, it’s freezing cold and we keep murdering each other, but the thing we signed up for when we fled Norway seeking a free country for free men. But freedom requires virtue, and the particular virtue it requires of you right now is the virtue of mercy and forbearance. Ancient Athens could do what it did because it was geographically and spiritually right on the productive edge between the German barbarians on one side and the decadent Oriental despotisms on the other. We’re trying to do the same thing here, surf the tiny space between civilization and barbarism where freedom can flourish. But to make it work, you’ve got to accept this settlement where Ragnar pays you 200 pieces of silver but otherwise goes on his merry way. You can say no, but that burns a little bit of the commons; the more people do that, the more likely we are to either collapse back into barbarism or call on some king to come save us.
Njal, like his doppelganger Jesus Christ, died horribly. And two centuries later, the Icelanders called on the King of Norway to save them from themselves. Still, that matches Solon’s record, and beats Jefferson’s.
We are many centuries of domestication removed from Ragnar of the Bloody Axe. Literal murder isn’t on most of our radars. Still, anyone on Twitter can sympathize with the ancient Viking feeling of getting insulted and debating how strong a response is warranted. On one side of the modern Overton Window, you have Elon Musk, who will ban people who offend him from Twitter, or sue them, or spread rumors about them being pedophiles. On the other side, you have - I don’t know, turning the other cheek doesn’t tend to generate a lot of news articles. But when I am in these situations, I try to think of Njal, kindest and most forbearing of men.
So what is Njal’s Saga’s place in the Western canon? I claim it is as a dark mirror of The Eumenides.
The Eumenides is a play from 5th-century-BC Athens (another of those brief efflorescences of human freedom - this is important!). Orestes learns his mother has murdered his father. Any man who does not avenge his father’s death is accursed. But any man who murders his mother is also accursed.
Orestes does not die. He kills his mother and becomes accursed; thus he is haunted by the Furies, spirits of vengeance. He goes to Athens and asks Athena for help. Athena invents a new institution: the trial. She invites Athenian citizens to serve as the jury, the Furies to be the prosecutors, and Apollo to be defense attorney.
Like the trial in Njal’s Saga, everyone immediately agrees the suspect committed the crime and digresses into insane moon arguments. Orestes believes mothers aren’t really parents, because they just sort of incubate the embryo, who is made entirely from the father’s genes7. Athena (???) thinks men are better than women, so your father’s right to be avenged takes precedence over your mother’s right not to die. But the arguments aren’t the point. The point is that Law and Reason - even dumb Reason that fails Biology 101 - gets precedence over Ghost Curse Logic. Everyone cheers. The Furies rebrand as patron goddesses of Athens. Some combination of Athena and the Chorus announce that they have founded Civilization and everyone should be Civilized from now on. The end.
Like Njal’s Saga, The Eumenides is about the transition from the ancient logic of feuds and vengeance to the modern logic of courtroom trials. Like Njal’s Saga, it’s a free society looking at itself and noticing that its freedom depends on a certain conception of logic-driven Law.
But compared to Njal’s Saga, The Eumenides is kind of cartoonish. The gods themselves come down and make the trial work out! Orestes is a sympathetic defendant, the Furies are insane death ghosts, the whole thing is a black and white morality tale cheering on the Law side of the dichotomy.
Njal’s Saga tells the same story - a trial in a society on the cusp between feud and law - but doesn’t pull its punches the same way. The feuds are caused by humans, with valid human concerns. The law is administered by humans, with normal human failings. And while Athena railroads Orestes’ trial to her chosen outcome, Njal’s trial simply fails. Eyjolf is able to come up with an insane technicality that Mord and Thorhall fail to observe, and produce a manifestly unjust verdict; the defendant gets off scot-free, the plaintiff’s attorneys are condemned to death. In the end it is Thorhall, the finest legal mind in Iceland, who starts the massacre, as if the saga author is emphasizing that there is no possible legal way out of this mess. Only the man who knows all the rules can be sure that the time has come to break them.
The message of The Eumenides is “choose Civilization, the gods themselves have decreed it”. The message of Njal’s Saga is “choose Civilization, but remember it’s a choice, and be ready to revoke it at any moment”8.
When someone has offended me, I think of Njal, kindest and most tolerant of men - but I think of this too.
Isn’t this an unfair criticism, since they didn’t have Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney in 1280 AD? No; the legendary author, Sæmundr Fróði, was a wizard known to make deals with the Devil for various miracles. It would have been trivial for him, with his diabolic arts, to create a Phoenix Wright game if he had wanted to do so.
"Chieftain-nobles? Doesn’t sound very anarcho-capitalist.” It’s fine, everyone had the right to choose which chieftain-noble to swear allegiance to (regardless of geography), and the chieftain-nobility itself was a bundle of rights sold to the highest bidder.
I’ve changed several things to make this easier to follow. First, it wouldn’t be Phoenix Wright without a Judge, but the real saga downplays this role; the lawyers are orating to a jury and assembled onlookers, without a clear judge figure. Second, the video’s “punishable by death” corresponds to the saga’s “punishable by outlawry”; since everyone was encouraged to kill outlaws, I think this sticks to the spirit of the original while making it more comprehensible. Finally, in the saga, Thorhall is lame due to a boil on his foot, and lies bedridden in a hut nearby - each time Mord needs to consult him, he sends messengers to Thorhall’s hut, and Thorhall sends the messengers back with the answer. At the end, when Eyjolf pulls his “wrong number of jurors” trick, Thorhall is so enraged that he pops the boil in his foot, regains the ability to walk, runs to the court, and only then begins his murder spree.
More specifically, the only explanation given is:
Njal heard many people say that it was a great wickedness to give up the old faith, but he answered: “It seems to me that the new faith is much better, and happy he who accepts it. If those who preach it come here I shall do all I can to further it.
The saga makes up for this deficiency later with a wonderful debate between Christian missionary Thangbrand and paganism advocate Steinunn:
“Have you heard that Thor challenged Christ to [single combat] and that Christ did not dare to fight against him?” [Steinunn] asked?
“I have heard that Thor would be naught but dust and ashes if God did not permit him to live,” answered Thangbrand.
Some historians describe Iceland’s government as a decentralized court system. In these days, “decentralized” brings up visions of cryptocurrency, and I think this is a good analogy. Bitcoin only has value because of a mass hallucination that it does. Maybe the same is true of the dollar, but it’s much more obviously true of Bitcoin. Still, the mass hallucination works. If you’re willing to deal with the hassles and ambiguities of owning crypto, you can accept payment in Bitcoin, secure in the knowledge that other people will accept payment from you in turn. I think this is the stage Iceland’s government was at during the saga; old enough that everyone trusted it to work, but new enough that it still felt a little made-up.
An alternative perspective, found in James G Scott’s work, is that some form of freedom is the norm, in the form of the stateless societies in which the majority of humans lived up until about 1500. In this perspective, Athens and Iceland are unique primarily in combining freedom with enough literacy to write about it (or, in Iceland, to compose oral sagas about it that could be remembered until the age of good written records, centuries later).
And cites as evidence for this the birth of Athena herself, who was born parthenogenetically from Zeus’ forehead. This is dubious even within the context of Greek mythology - the modern synthesis says that Zeus had previously swallowed his pregnant consort Metis - but presumably Aeschylus was working from different sources. In any case, Athena herself endorses this description, so it’s Word of God(dess) for this play.
But David Friedman highlights a point I missed the first time through - when Thorhall and his friends are massacring people at the Althing, one of them mentions that they should take care not to kill more people than they can afford to pay weregild for. Even as they’re committing mass murder in the courthouse, it never occurs to them to rebel against Law itself. Their violence is a controlled burn, not a forest fire.
This is a challenge to the interpretation above; I am not sure these people exactly consider civilization a choice. Maybe it’s better to think of nested levels of civilization and barbarism, with more civilized people allowing less and less release of tension. Viking society, unconfident in its ability to prevent murder, both offers a civilized way to prevent killing, and a semi-civilized structure for the killing if the prevention doesn’t work. Our own society has diluted versions of the same structure - certain types of protesters can commit certain types of civil disobedience and suffer certain penalties, but everyone nods and winks and agrees that the formalities have been respected.