Applications 21.   “. . . við it fyrsta hǫgg.”: Some Thoughts on the Episode of Ámundi the Blind in Brennu-Njáls saga.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan   []

This paper is concerned with approaches to the analysis of an immediately post-Conversion episode of Njáls saga, a brief, strange and violent account of vengeance taken by Ámundi the Blind upon Lýtingr of Sámstaðir for the killing of his father.  It is a passage invariably noticed, usually with some merriment, by students in my classes, and upon which there is no clear consensus of scholarly or literary critical interpretation.  I think that a paroemiologically informed awareness of the conceptual background of the narrative as a whole can be helpful at this point to our understanding of the composer’s likely purpose in shaping and placing it as he does. 

Ámundi the Blind.   In Chapter 106, Ámundi the Blind suddenly emerges on stage at the Þingskálaþing, seeking compensation from Lýtingr of Sámstaðir for killing his father, Hǫskuldr, a bastard son of Njáll.  Having himself led to the slayer’s booth, he asks how Lýtingr “what compensation will you pay me.  I was born . . . out of wedlock and I have received no compensation.” (106.182.)  [HANDOUT]  Lýtingr responds that he has paid compensation in full to those legally entitled to receive it—“I committed an evil deed, but I paid heavily for it.”  Because, as he mentions, Ámundi, like his father,  was illegitimate, he had no particular right to compensation by existing law.  Nevertheless, in a subsequent speech, he seems to appeal to another law, one recognizing a new and more personally sensitive basis for compensatory rights: “I don’t find that . . . just before God, seeing that you struck so close to my heart.  I can say this – if I were sound in both my eyes, I would either have compensation for my father or take blood revenge, and may God settle between us!” (106.182.)  When Ámundi then suddenly gains his sight he praises God, “Praise be to Go, my Lord! Now it can be seen what He wants.” immediately sinking his axe into Lýtingr’s head.  He thus takes the vengeance he seems to have conditionally vowed in his peculiarly Christian version of a heitstrenging, and after this his blindness returns. (106.183.)  

           Finnur Jónsson reacted to the story with aversion, declaring that Ámundi’s triumphant cry praising God, smacked of blasphemy, seemingly a perversion of a miracle legend.  (248.)   Finnur Jónsson’s revulsion suggests one immediate interpretation, that this is a false miracle, its fruits destructive of human life and therefore devoid of goodness, produced not by God but by Satan, however sympathetic figures in the story may themselves seem to view it in their early and unsophisticated acquaintance with Christianity.  One cannot but be reminded of the adage whose origins are attributed, though I think mistakenly, to Martin Luther that “Where God builds a church, the Devil builds a chapel next door.”  And the arousal of inimical spirits by the new Christian presence is witnessed in other anecdotes of the Icelanders’ conversion.   

            Njáll, proverbially wise and perspicacious, is the only figure of the narrative who utters any comment suggesting the value the composer attaches to this event. When Ámundi reports the killing of Lýtingr to Njáll, he responds sympathetically, seeming to refer to that same sensitivity to relationship as Ámundi’s novel reference to the blow having struck “so close to the heart”:  “You are not to be blamed for that . . . for such things are preordained, and when they occur they are a warning not to decline the claims of close kin.” (106.182-3.)  Lars Lönnroth appealed to concepts of Natural Law and the Augustinian idea of Rightful War to justify Ámundi’s actions, Njáll’s approval, and God’s apparent complicity in these events.  (145)  Ian Maxwell proclaimed, “Our sympathies are with Ámundi,” appealing to the “symmetry of poetic justice” linking Lýtingr’s killing of Ámundi’s father with the blind Ámundi’s revenge. (38)  T. M. Andersson wondered whether it was “a miracle, or the mockery of a miracle?” (198)

            Andrew Hamer notices “an obvious ethical problem in God’s apparently performing a miracle—the granting of sight to a man blind from birth—in order that he may commit a revenge killing.”  He insists that “if the author treats the old ideology of vengeance sympathetically, as it operated within the pre-Christian world, he reveals in his portrayal of events during the first period after the Conversion his feeling that that ideology has no place in a Christian society.” (125)  Hamer’s extensive studies in medieval theology seem to me to render weight to his opinion among those others that have been ventured upon this problem, but I wonder whether we may not seek answers even more productively within the narrative contexts and their presumed thematic significance.

The Conversion Interpolation and its aftermath. The 6 chapters preceding Ámundi’s adventure, 100 through 105, at the center of Njáls saga, which recount the Christian Conversion of Iceland, seem interpolative in their location, interrupting as they do that incipient chain of retributive actions discussed above. At the center of the conversion episode, the prescient Gestr Oddleifsson, one of Iceland’s earliest Christian converts, consoles King Óláfr’s robustly militant missionary Þangbrandr as he contemplates the limits of his success in attempting to bring the new faith to a recalcitrantly heathen populace.  Gestr reassures him: “You’ve done most of the work . . . even though others may be destined to make the faith law.  As they say, a tree doesn’t fall at the first blow.” (103.179.)  And of course, like Gestr’s prophecies everywhere in Icelandic literature, this proves to be the case.  Soon after their conversation, Christianity is adopted at the Alþing after the memorably formed decision of the pagan Þorgeirr goði of Ljósavatn that all Icelanders should agree to adhere to one law under the new faith.

            The subsequent chapters of Njáls saga are surely, among other things, also a study of the impact of Christianity, its spiritual assumptions and its ethical boundaries, upon the Icelandic population, a study thus of the varying degrees of acceptance of, and sensitivity to, those tenets emanating from the essential concept of redemption through forgiveness. 

           (1) Among the highlights of such witness we recall Hildigunnr’s rage as she casts her husband’s blood clotted cloak over her uncle with the challenge, “In the name of God and all good men I charge you by all the powers of your Christ and by your courage and manliness, to avenge all the wounds which he received in dying – or else be an object of contempt to all men.” (116.195.)  The audience, already aware that in character she is “an unusually tough and harsh-tempered woman,” is not likely to be surprised by the lack of sympathy for, let alone understanding of, the Christian message that she reveals here. (95.163.)

            (2) Hǫskuldr Þráinsson, the husband over whose death she rages, was the opposite, restrained and gentle in heathen times, and then, at his death and by then presumably a Christian, utterly pacific and receptive of God’s will.  When in heathen times Njáll tested his character before fostering him he found the boy harbored no ill will over Skarpheðinn’s having killed his father: “Your answer is better than my question,” said Njal, “and you will be a good man.”  (94.162)  When Skarpheðinn later kills him, his last words are those of a Christian, “May God help me and forgive you.” (111.188) 

            (3) Síðu-Hallr, among Iceland’s first converts, demonstrates the ultimate influence of Christianity upon the pagan revenge ethic of feud when he explicitly foregoes the maintenance of face in order to bring about settlement over the burning of Njáll.  Declaring that he will show himself “a man of no importance,” and he uses here the Icelandic term “lítilmenni,”  ‘a small person, of low condition,’ he proposes, “All men know what sorrow the death of my son Ljot has brought me . . . but for the sake of a settlement I’m willing to let my son lie without compensation and, what’s more, offer both pledges and peace to my adversaries.” (145.274 & 275) Like Hǫskuldr Þráinsson, his understanding of the ethical implications of the new faith seems mature.

            (4) It is interesting that Njáll, wise, indeed prescient, and proverbially honest, is presented by the composer as insufficient in his understanding of the new faith to whose coming he has expressed himself as most receptive.  His sympathy for Ámundi’s sudden vengeance is couched, however, in his approval of revenge ethic, and this attitude is explicit in his refusal to accept mercy at the burning of Bergþorshvóll: “I will not leave, for I’m an old man and hardly fit to avenge my sons, and I do not want to live in shame.” (129.221)  As the flames built up around the house he had encouraged his family, “Have faith that God is merciful, and that he will not let us burn both in this world and in the next.”  His spiritual receptivity to the Christian concept of human foregiveness as a concommitant of salvation has never reached the stage attained by Síðu-Hallr and Hǫskuldr Þráinsson, however, and he seems oddly deficient in this conservatism.

            In a moment at the Alþing when litigation approaches over the burning, the composer emphasizes with bitter irony the tragic difficulties of Christianity’s assimilation in this society whose order has been traditionally guarded through the maintenance of face and the extraction of compensation or vengeance for injuries.  Hallbjǫrn inn sterki, preparing to badger Eyjólfr Bǫlverksson into undertaking the defense of the burners, a task which traditionally rendered a lawyer liable to lethal retribution, does so using Gestr’s proverb: “A tree doesnt fall at the first blow, friend . . . just sit here with us for a while.” (138.247) 

            Hǫskuldr Þráinsson, when Lýtingr pleaded with him for support in settlement over his whimsically foolish killing of Ámundi’s father, remarked “This was to be expected of you . . . You acted very rashly.  Here is proof of the saying that the hand’s joy in the blow is brief.” (99.171)  This proverb is uttered once in each of the three parts of Njáls saga, in each case by a speaker of valued opinion, and as comment upon actions of a killer which prove to have far-reaching repercussions, defining the nature of conflicts in their respective sections.  In fact, a centralizing theme of the saga is that such hastily taken and ill-considered acts of vengeance are destructive of the ever fragile stability with which the social order is imbued in a feud based system.  Under the New Law of Christianity, forgiveness and reconciliation replace the robust adversarial method of the Old Law of Heathendom.

            Hamer says “God performs . . . two acts in the story:  he gives Ámundi his sight, and he takes it away again.” (129)  Careful reading shows that Ámundi asked for sight as a means to a choice.  He made a bad choice, violence over compensation, and God then showed his displeasure.  In the paroemially reinforced context of the Njála narrative the joy of violence is brief and violence ceases to be a viable option, but the road to spiritual and ethical acceptance of this new reality is complex, painful and lengthy, as the preludic story of Ámundi’s blind search for justice anticipates.

Return to