Njál’s Saga (review)

With law our land shall rise, but it will perish with lawlessness.

Poor Njál. He’s caught in the middle of a bunch of hotheads, and his own sons are among the worst of the lot. (“I’m not in on their planning, but I was seldom left out when their plans were good.”) Njál’s Saga is a tale of a multi-decade blood feud in Iceland, and it was one of the most fun, bizarrely addictive books I read this year.

Fun, because it’s full of dudes swinging axes at each other, and various neighborhood troublemakers that keep spurring them on. There was one battle that had me leaping out of my chair, where Njál’s sons get in a fight on a frozen river. Dudes are jumping and slashing and sliding across the ice like something out of a movie. It’s fantastic.

It’s not all action-hero bravado, though. (“Only speak out if you are pushed hard and intend to act.”) What made the page-turning feel so strange is that, for all the action there is, it’s balanced out by a lot of legal wrangling and arbitration. It helps that this story is so deeply rooted in real events, and real people (lots of folks can trace their heritage back to specific characters), and real places (many of which I traveled through a few years ago). It’s not quite strict history, but you can think of it as highly dramatized truth. And part of the messy truth of real life involves a lot of repetitive conversations and agreements and bargains and compromises.

You have this society, one of the earliest democracies we know about. They’re making a go at having laws, contracts, and legal procedures, and sticking to them. They’re eking by at the environmental and social fringe. It’s all so fragile. Heartbreaking.

You’re not letting another man’s woe be your warning, as the saying goes.

I have to mention another part of what made this book work for me: I read the introductory material. That extra bit of context helps it all come alive. I don’t think I’d still be chipping away at The Histories for 17 months and counting if I hadn’t read the opening essays. I used to always, always skip that stuff for… no good reason, really. Now I always, always read it. You never know what you’ll sell yourself on.