Finishing Njála

Finished Njál’s Saga this morning. Interesting how much more certain details stand out on second reading than on first.

Can one have spoilers for the ending of an almost 800 year old book? Maybe; if not, consider this hidden behind the cut for length instead.

It’s not really a spoiler that Njál and family are burned to death in their home; not for a saga also known as Brennu-Njál’s, or Burnt Njál’s, saga.

The events leading up to this are complicated–it really does take everything that comes before to get there–but on the surface, the killing is response for the slaying of Hoskuld–the man whose bloody cloak Hildigunn places on her kinsman Flosi’s shoulders, urging him to take vengence. Flosi flings the cloak off, but he does lead the burners, killing Njál, his wife, his sons, and his foster son Thord–a young boy who insists on staying with his foster parents.

The book goes on for another 80 pages after this, and on first reading, I found it rather anticlimactic. All the principal characters had died, it seemed to me; the book had reached its climax; but now the secondary characters were taking forever to attempt settlements and seek vengance. In the last 15 pages, we even go off to Ireland and fight an entire war, and asking me to care about that war so late in the book really seemed a bit much.

But this time, I read it very differently, and I felt like every one of those 80 pages was needed.

Backing up: Of Njál’s household, only his son-in-law Kari–Thord’s father–survives:

Then Kari took a piece of flaming wood and ran up the crossbeam and threw the piece down from the roof, and it fell on the men outside; they ran away. By then all of Kari’s clothing and eveb his hair were aflame. He jumped down from the roof and scurried along under cover of smoke … Kari ran until he came to a stream, and he threw himself into it and put out the flames. From there he ran under cover of smoke to a hollow and rested there, and that place has since been called Kari’s hollow.

It’s no surprise that Kari is bent on vengance after this. One by one, Njál’s other friends and kinsmen accept settlements and payments for the slain and agree to make peace, but Kari, eventually alone, continues picking off the burners, one by one–at least a dozen die by his hand in Iceland–while Flosi does his best to protect those who accompanied him. He has to be running scared at this point, and yet he refuses to speak ill of Kari.

Eventually, Flosi and some of his followers flee to Orkney; a part of the settlements he made included leaving the country for three years anyway. But Kari follows them even there, and even decapitates one man–who is boasting about the burning of Njál at the time–after bursting into the hall where Flosi is drinking with the Earl into who’s service he’s entered. Speaking of running scared. But Kari doesn’t attack Flosi in that hall, and Flosi doesn’t pursue Kari. Eventually, that war in Ireland picks off most of Flosi’s remaining companions–leaving Flosi alone to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he receives absolution from the Pope.

Flosi heads home. Kari goes on his own pilgrimage, receives his own absolution, and waits out one more winter abroad. During which, he receives word his wife–Njál’s daughter, who was not part of the burning–has died.

And then Kari heads home. Only his ship is wrecked off the coast of Iceland, and in a raging snowstorm he and his men have to make for the nearest farmhouse–which, as these things work, would be Flosi’s home.

Kari had to be terrified at this point. He’s walking into the home of the man who destroyed his life, and whose life he destroyed in turn, and he’s doing it in the middle of a storm that leaves him no other choice; but with saga stoicism he does what he has to do. In a story where men kill each other simply because someone accused them of crying, as the reader I was terrified, too, even though I knew from my first reading how things work out:

Flosi was in the main room. He recognized Kari at once amd jumped up to meet him and kissed him, and then placed him in the high seat at his side. He invited Kari to stay there for the winter. Kari accepted.

They made a full reconciliation. Flosi gave Kari the hand of his brother’s daughter, Hildigunn, who had been the wife of Hoskuld the Godi of Hvitanes. They lived at Breida to begin with.

That these two men, who have lost everything to each other, could look at each other, and make peace–not a settlement, not an exchange of silver and promises unlikely to be kept, but a full reconciliation, after all that has happened–there’s something profound about that, something that, after 300 pages of bloodshed, brought a bit of a catch to my throat this time, in a way it didn’t during that first reading.

I imagine these two men looking at each other, and feeling a certain kinship and even respect because of those losses.

And Kari marries Hildigunn, the woman who urged Flosi into the conflict. I had to read that three times to make sure I understood right. There’s something profound there, too, even if one does wonder how Hildigunn felt about the whole business. But we know from the saga that she can dig in her heels against marriages she doesn’t approve of, so maybe she’s ready for peace, too.

They lived at Breida to begin with. Maybe I’m reading too deeply into that line, but there seems to be a world of starting over in it; I felt my throat catch there, too.

And here I end the saga of Njál of the burning.

Indeed. Because as readers or listeners we believe, finally, that it really is over.

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