Critical analysis of Njáls saga over the last century or two has been marked, on the one hand, by recognition of the care and brilliant crafting with which the narrative was constructed and, on the other, by considerable debate as to (1) how the structure of that narrative is to be defined and (2) what the composer ultimately meant to say in this universally admitted masterpiece of the Icelandic sagas. Few have challenged the early landmark observation of A.U. Bååth that ‘the author has had such a command over his material that he wrote down his first line having the last line within his vision.’ The dilemma raised by the peculiar literary critical inaccessibility of this product of such indisputable care has, however, been variously characterized, perhaps most strikingly by Ursula Dronke: ‘For the critic, Njáls saga seems as slippery as an eel the size of Miðgarðsormr. Its skin glistens with a myriad themes, all familiar, yet all precisely different from any seen elsewhere.’ Many have contributed to a body of opinion on the two main questions--about its structure and its meaning--but likely the serpent itself will remain forever fascinatingly elusive.
To this two-fold debate I wish to bring evidence from the more than 50 proverbs
and proverbial references I have found in Njála, most of them
noticed earlier by Finnur Jónsson and Hugo Gering. Their extremely useful
essays provided a potentially valuable reference base for literary critical
study. Yet critics in succeeding generations have left the paremiology of saga
literature largely untouched. Lars Lönnroth in his Njáls saga.
A Critical Introduction noticed that ‘so far . . . very little has
been said about the function of proverbs and legal quotations in their narrative
Proverbial statement carries by its nature an inherent weight, formed by experience and by observation, and, in the sagas at least, placed generally in the mouths of those established, substantial characters identified by Richard Allen as ‘reliable spokesmen whose pronouncements on events and persons indicate what ought to be thought of them.’ Lönnroth remarks how ‘wise community spokesmen’ ‘tend to state their views in brief but succinct speeches, where they can make use of legal quotations, proverbs, and other kinds of generalized statements often highlighted by their rhetorical form.’ The composer may thus use proverbial materials for the expression of his own views, or of views most important to him and his tale, and it makes good critical sense to pay some attention to their occurrence.
Among the proverbs and proverbial references I have observed in Njáls saga, one occurs three times and several at least twice, demonstrably serving to emphasize ideas or connections between events. Einar Ól. Sveinsson writes how ‘Many a reader is startled [by] the numerous and varied ways in which scenes in Njáls saga are connected with each other . . . these reveal a far greater degree of planning and deliberation than one would expect.’ And later he refers to ‘repetition of words or details; sometimes . . . in the form of a direct reference to what has already happened.’ What Carol Clover has a bit humorously termed the Njála composer’s ‘fondness for duplication’ is thus generally recognized as a consciously employed narrative device, establishing and emphasizing parallels in plot, and in character. It is then with the repeated proverbs that I deal here, since their very repetition probably indicates their greater importance to the composer’s plans.
Much of the tragedy of Njáls saga can be traced to a conflict in Chapter 35 between Hallgerðr and Bergþora, the respective wives of the story’s two major heroes, Gunnar and Njáll. Hallgerðr takes umbrage at Bergþora’s seating arrangements for a party at Njál’s house: ‘I’ll not move aside and I won’t sit in the corner like a cast-off hag.’ she exclaims. From this altercation results a series of homicidal episodes between the houses of Gunnar and Njál, instigated by Hallgerðr in oddly exaggerated retaliation for the perceived affront to what she considers her honour, but with Bergþora responding vigorously in kind.
I. Flies in the Mouth. The victims of this brief feud occupy positions and ranks of graduated stature, from servants and workmen to family members. The second last but greatest loss is that of Thord Freedmansson, of Njál’s household, beloved foster-father of Njál’s sons. His killing by Sigmundr Lambason results not only in the latter’s death but eventually in the tragedy of the whole saga. When Sigmundr returns to report the success of this errand, Rannveig, mother of Gunnar and a significant figure in the narrative, comments with authorial perspicacity: ‘There’s a saying, Sigmundr, that the hand’s joy in the blow is brief, and so it will be here. And yet Gunnar will resolve the matter for you.’ Uttering thus for the first time that thrice-repeated proverb which is the centralizing subject of this paper, she also seems to employ an implied piscatorial metaphor in her concluding warning: ‘But if Hallgerd puts another fly in your mouth it will be your death.’ Gunnar, returned from the Althing, angrily cautions Sigmundr in Chapter 44: ‘You’re a man of more bad luck than I thought, and you make evil use of your gifts. But I’ve made a settlement for you, and you must not let Hallgerd put another fly in your mouth.’ Whatever sympathies an audience might have had for such a man as Sigmundr would have been lessened somewhat by the composer’s twice offered image of him rising stupidly to Hallgerð’s bait, like a fish passively helpless in unmixed reptilian temptation.
The metaphorical weight of these two passages, assuming their traditional interpretation is correct, may be underscored a few pages later as Njál’s sons prepare to go out and kill Sigmundr, who far from heeding good advice, has, at Hallgerð’s urging, devised verses derogatory of their manhood. Njáll asks them rhetorically where they are going with their weapons and is not satisfied when they respond that they are going out to look for sheep. ‘We’re going salmon-fishing.’ then says the oldest, Skarpheðinn. Njáll, cautious as he is wise, understands and warns them, fruitlessly as it turns out, to leave no survivors: ‘If that’s so, then it would be a good thing if the prey didn’t slip away.’ In Njála there are frighteningly powerful figures of evil and sources of temptation, and the composer is deeply conscious of the varying impact which those figures, with their deceptive allurements and their cunning blandishments, have on the characters of his story. Sigmundr is among the most gullible and the least fortunate of these unwitting victims.
II. Bad plans, bad outcomes; evil from evil seed. On the second page of Njála the composer has presented Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir, ‘tall and beautiful, with hair as fine as silk.’ Her uncle Hrut, badgered for his opinion of her by her father Höskuld, finally responds: ‘The girl is very beautiful, and many will pay for that. But what I don’t know is how thief’s eyes have come into our family.’ This blunt and early signal that her character is somehow flawed and potentially dangerous is initially realized in her first marriage, to Þorvaldr Ósvífrsson, ‘strong and well-mannered, but somewhat short-tempered,’ a transaction in which her dissenting and typically demanding voice has not been heard. Having goaded this unwanted husband to commit an injury against her in the form of a slap on the face, she then arranges for his assassination in an episode which in itself is brief and without long term effects in the overall narrative. Ósvífr comments bitterly when he hears of his son’s death through her violent retaliatory machinations: ‘Bad things come from bad plans, and now I see how it has gone.’
Thus, we become alert when Gunnar rebuff’s Hallgerð’s complaint over Sigmund’s death: ‘This was to be expected for Sigmund, . . . for bad things come from bad plans.’ Gunnar thus further defines her role in the world of evil plans, reinforcing the value of Ósvífr’s judgement upon her. Gunnar’s laconic comments on the killing of his own relative, are clearly meant by the composer to identify beyond all doubt the source of those bad plans from which have come these deaths, as well as to anticipate the growth thence of nearly all the tragedy of Njáls saga.
At least twice more the thread of this proverb is continued in the narrative--but this time the hand of accusation is directed towards Mörðr Valgarðsson, a curiously motivated villain whose jealousy of Gunnar led him to plot successfully the great hero’s death in the first part of Njála. Mörðr, in the second part of the saga, recently converted to Christianity, is goaded by his father, a pagan just returned from abroad after the Conversion of Iceland, into violently reducing the power of Njál’s family, which has come to encroach upon that of his own. In particular with his paternal authority, Valgarðr demands that Mörðr arrange for Njál’s sons to kill their adopted brother Höskuldr Þráinsson, whom Njáll has had elevated to the rank of goði as part of an advantageous marriage deal. Mörðr befriends the now oddly gullible Njál’s sons, who should be more resistant to his cunning advances. And as he does so he speaks slightingly of Höskuld Hvítanes-goði, whom an old feud inspires Njál’s sons to hate anyway, at least covertly. Skarpheðinn had split open the head of Höskuld’s father, Þráinn Sigfússon, for several more serious offenses than the one legally motivating his killing--Þráinn had, for instance, been passively present at Sigmund’s killing of Þorðr Freedmansson, Skarpheðinn’s beloved foster-father. Now, they easily succumb to Mörð’s advances and ambush their adopted brother.
When Flosi Þórðarson hears of Höskuld’s death, he laments, knowing he must take vengeance: ‘It’s true that I would give everything I own if this matter which has come into my hands had never come to pass. But when evil seed has been sown, evil will grow.’ Aware in advance of Mörð’s designs, even having tried unsuccessfully to persuade Höskuldr to relocate his household to a less hostile neighborhood, he now sees the necessity in pagan ethical terms of the coming tragedy, unfolding in the retaliatory burning of Njáll and his family, a project in which Flosi must take the leading role. Egged on to vengeance with remarkable frenzy by his niece Hildigunn, Höskuld’s widow, Flosi thus eventually finds himself prohibited by honour from financial settlement for the killing, forced by the remembered power of her rhetoric to seek blood vengeance.
In the stalemated negotiations leading to this decisional climax, Njáll appeals to Flosi, speaking of his love for his adopted son: ‘I want you to know that I loved Hoskuld more than my own sons, and when I heard that he had been slain I felt that the sweetest light of my eyes had been put out, and I would rather have lost all my sons to have him live.’ he declares. Asking Flósi and his side for a hearing, he has observed, ‘It appears that this case has come to nothing, which is as it should be since it sprang from evil roots.’ And the most immediate, most obvious evil roots to which he refers, as his listeners well know, is the skulduggery of Mörðr Valgarðsson, whose overzealous pursuit of Höskuld’s destruction, to which his father had goaded him, was followed by further manipulations leading to this stalemate.
The proponents and critics of feud theory have shown how old injuries lie dormant and are recalled in more heated moments of the feud process, in real life as well as in this literature. Skarpheðinn makes these crucial lingering resentments explicit in conversation with Kari as they go off to kill Þráinn Sigfusson at the Battle of Markarfljót. Having heard his exchange with Njáll in which Skarpheðinn says he’s going to look for sheep and Njáll recalls that the last time he said this he was hunting men, Kari asks, ‘When was the other time you said this?’ ‘When I killed Sigmund the White, Gunnar’s kinsman,’ said Skarpheðin. ‘Why?’ said Kari. ‘He had killed Thord Freed-man’s son, my foster-father,’ said Skarpheðin. And thus, in this exchange, the real personal motivations behind the feud are made clear. Those motivations, in turn, spring from the evil seed and destructive plans of Hallgerðr and Mörðr, the connections illuminated by repeated proverbs on how evil begets more evil.
III. The Brief Joy of Blows. The Njála composer, then, has shown how evil disrupts the intentions of good people in society. Gunnar and Njáll in the late pre-Christian era keep peace at all costs, frustrating the intentions of Hallgerðr by sacrificing the potentially more stringent maintenance of their respective reputations for the sake of their friendship. As Njáll once predicted, their friendship is maintained, but in the midst of much trouble. This restraint among heathens is replaced following the Conversion by varying sensitivity to violence and killing among adherents of the new faith, some of whom are shown by the composer as most reluctant to pursue blood vengeance. Njáll himself, represented as an early recipient of partial revelation, shows wavering attitudes towards the Christian message. But, until the death of Höskuldr Hvítanes-goði, he seems never to waver in seeking survival for himself and his family in the face of what his clairvoyant awareness tells him must inevitably happen. Still, the darkness, personified and furthered by Hallgerðr and Mörðr, prevails, little standing effectively in the way of its destructive, chaotic force until nearly all members of the opposing parties, none particularly evil in themselves, are dead.
We have observed how Rannveig, learning Sigmundr has killed Þórðr Freedmansson, aware of the consequences, warns that ‘the hand’s joy in the blow is brief.’ And later, when Lytingr reports that he has killed Njál’s bastard son, Höskuldr, the response of Höskuldr Hvítanes-goði precisely echoes Rannveig’s words: ‘You acted very rashly. Here is proof of the saying that ‘the hand’s joy in the blow is brief,’ and now it seems to me that you must be in some doubt as to whether you’ll be able to save your life.’ Höskuldr then arranges for Lytingr a settlement with Njáll in the absence of the latter’s sons, increasing their potential antipathy to the Hvítanes-goði, whose killing will bring them their own deaths.
Finally, in what the composer may have seen as the third part of Njála, Kári Sölmundarson, son-in-law to Njáll, who escaped the Burning, seeks vengeance by killing nearly all of the Burners. Flosi Þórðarson, leader of the Burners, has previously tried to arrange a settlement for this atrocity, going about Iceland seeking support. His father-in-law, Hallr of Síða, one of the earliest converts to Christianity, now comments: ‘It’s turned out just as the saying goes, that the hand’s pleasure in the blow is brief. Now the same men in your following who were eager to do wrong are afraid to hold their heads high. But I’m bound to lend you my support. . .’
Nobody knows how the composer of Njáls saga perceived its macro-structure [Bolton], or even whether he might be assumed to have done so in any conscious way. Theories on the subject abound. Paul Schach, following a tradition that goes back at least to W.P. Ker, suggests a tripartite division, and this may be supported by Denton Fox’s observing its three heroes to be Gunnar, Njáll and Kári. The repetition of this proverb at a crucial point in each of these three sections, given what we have seen of the subtle use of repetition in the previously cited instances, certainly lends support to such a division of the narrative. And the escalating seriousness of the warnings and of the conflicts in which they are placed deserves notice.
IV. A tree doesn’t fall at the first blow. When Þangbrandr, the engagingly bumptious missionary, is leaving Iceland depressed over his failure to amass a flock of converts, Gestr Oddleifsson, known in several sagas for his sensitivity of vision, comforts 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.’ What Gestr says of the slow process of conversion applies to society, but also to individuals who display various and sometimes progressively more spiritual levels of Christian awareness. [Clark (1971) Skarpheðinn misjudges Hoskuld] In the first Icelandic Christian miracle a blind man regains sight just long enough to kill his father’s murderer. Flosi orders Njál’s house to be burned in a pagan act of vengeance, but he has attended Mass as a preparatory measure: ‘There are two choices,’ he says, ‘and neither of them is good: one is to turn back, but that would lead to our death; the other is to bring fire and burn them inside, and that’s a great responsibility before God, for we’re Christian men. Still, that is the course we must take.’
Shortly afterwards, seeking legal counsel for this heinous crime, he and his men attempt to bribe Eyjólfr Bölverksson to undertake the traditionally dangerous process of their legal defense. There is bitter irony in the persuading as Hallbjorn the Strong unwittingly repeats in this drastically different context the comforting words of Gestr Oddleifsson when he assured Þangbrandr of the eventual triumph of Christianity: ‘A tree doesn’t fall at the first blow, friend. Just sit here with us for a while.’ They succeed in these endeavours, and, as expected, Eyjólfr is eventually killed for his services. Here in this desperate interview there is no room for awareness of the new Christian reality. The dangers of such unavoidable reversions to the pagan mode of existence are well distinguished in Njál’s behaviour at the burning. As the flames begin to do their work and people start to suffer, he exclaims: ‘Bear this bravely and don’t express fear, for it’s only a brief storm, and it will be a long time before we have another like it. Have faith that God is merciful, and that he will not let us burn in this world and in the next.’ And yet this brave expression of Christian faith in a spiritual reality must be matched with his later refusal to accept mercy for himself and for Bergþora: ‘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.’ And thus, it is for pagan reasons that this rather Christian man goes to his death.
The dangers of small crimes and limited conflicts have escalated into vastly comprehensive and threatening enmities, and a bitter conflagration as the result of blows struck with insufficient forethought, though incited by evil and cunning people with thoroughly bad plans. And this evil destruction, following the Conversion, is clearly represented by the composer as detrimental to the spiritual welfare of those involved, dangerous to them in ways far more frightening than those attached to the fragility of our mortal condition. And much of this escalation is traced, enhanced and clarified by the carefully repeated use of such proverbs as those I have discussed here.