An 800-year-old plot

The other day I got to trying to figure out just who was the “first” person to blame for the burning of Njáll and his family in Njál’s Saga–to trace my way from the burning backwards through the story and its events–and found myself thinking yet again about just how intricately plotted the saga really is.

I started with the burners, of course Flosi and the Sigfússons and the others. They committed the deed, after all.

But no one believes it´s that simple. Flosi especially was forced into the burning, after Njáll’s sons killed Njáll’s foster son, Höskuldur Hvítanes-goði, who was kin to the Sigfússons.

So blame the Njálssons for causing their poor Dad’s death, not to mention their own.

Only the Njálssons were goaded and misled and lied and tricked into killing Höskuldur by Mörður Valgarðsson.

Blaming Mörður is easy. He’s a sneaking, lying sort of character, and he plays a role in Gunnar’s death, too. And notice how Mörður bears this strange resemblence to Mordor? Even Tolkien knew Mörður was a villain!

But Mörður was goaded into getting rid of Höskuldur by his father, Valgarður. Valgarður came home after time abroad to discover that men were switching allegience from his and his son’s goðard to Höskuldur’s.

So blame Valgarður for the burning of Njáll.

Oh, but wait, Njáll is the one who helped Höskuldur become a goði. So maybe we need to blame Njáll for his own horrible demise! (And Njáll, with his foresight, really ought to have known better.)

But no, that’s silly. Let´s go back to blaming Valgarður. Valgarður got much of his lands and wealth (not to mention his son) by marrying Unnur, who had a substantial dowry.

So it’s Unnur’s fault? The saga does begin with her. (I still remember our saga guide, in Iceland, pointing to her lands and telling us, this is where it begins.)

But wait, Unnar wouldn’t have had that dowry if her kinsman, Gunnar, hadn’t helped her to reclaim it.

So it’s Gunnar’s fault Njáll died? Gunnar, Njáll’s best friend and staunch supporter, who is years gone by the time of the burning? Well, that would be awfully tragic.

But Unnar wouldn’t have had a dowry to reclaim if she hadn’t divorced her first husband, Hrútur. So it’s Unnar’s fault again. (Also, Unnar wouldn’t have needed to reclaim that dowry if she hadn’t been extravagant, and gone through all of her own resources first.)

But Unnar only divorced Hrútur because he couldn’t consumate his marriage to her. This whole mess is because of Hrútur’s problems in bed!

Come to think of it Hrútur’s niece, Hallgerður of the bowstring incident, helped goad the Njálssons into killing Thráin, Höskuldur’s father–Njáll took Höskuldur as his foster son by way of mending that quarrel. So we could blame Hallgerður for Njáll’s death, too, and why not–she gets blamed for everything else. (And anyway, Hallgerður plays a role in Gunnar’s death, which plays a role in Njáll´s death in turn.)

But no, it’s more fun to blame Njáll’s death on Hrútur’s lack of marital performance. (The saga claims the problem was that Hrútur’s performance was, umm, too vigorous, rather than lacking. But the saga was written by men. We know what really happened.)

But wait, Hrútur wasn’t to blame for failing to consumate his marriage! A curse was placed on him by the queen of Norway, when he left her bed to go return to Iceland and marry Unnar.

So clearly, Njáll’s death is the fault of the queen of Norway. I like that. I want to stop there. 🙂

Only she might not have cursed Hrút if she hadn’t lied to her, so … is it Hrút’s fault again?

The amazing thing is, Njáll’s death really is the fault of all these characters, wittingly and unwittingly, in small ways and large ones, and of other characters and undercurrents and events that I left out, too, because this is actually something of a simplification.

And that is some serious story plotting–the sort of plotting that could stand its own beside any multi-volume fantasy series. Especially considering that the story doesn’t even end with the burning–there’s all the vengeance and reconciliation that comes afterwards, too, which would probably take up a volume or three all by itself today. 🙂

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