This afternoon was our last foray into Njal’s Saga, and it had proved inspiring to some of us and an unwelcome challenge to others. Nevertheless, it sparked a good deal of debate and discussion.
I started the discussion by observing that I had, for a while, found the constant description of the blood feuds tedious in the repetition of the violence: not another arm of leg hacked off! Mike responded by remarking that he did not think it was gratuitous violence and that in many instances there is a parallel recognition that it is integrity that makes this society work. Mike then went on to comment on the use of the present tense in the middle of past tense narrations. The use of this ‘present historic’ tense to emphasise narrated action was mentioned, and Mike added that it seemed like a technique associated with oral story-telling, and that it indicates a kind of changed scene.
Chris observed that it is difficult to know how to interpret some uses of language when working with a translation.
Laura then remarked that she had read the English word ‘booth’ and assumed it was an English equivalent for a word in Icelandic until she discovered the Icelandic word itself: búđ, which has more or less the sound of the English word. Angela reminded us that Tolkien uses the word ‘booth’ just before Aragorn leads his men through the Paths of The Dead. Chris wondered if the Scottish ‘bothy’ comes from the same root.
While on the topic of Icelandic vocabulary and Anglicising, Mike wondered if the word ‘Althing’ was an anglicised word, but some of us assured him that it is direct from Icelandic and untranslated.
Laura thought the saga had throughout a fairy tale feel to it, largely due to the use of formulaic repetitions. The one she cited particularly was the consecutive challenges regarding Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin in whose presence his companions are asked ‘Who is that man fifth in the line…’. Each remark is embellished with some unflattering observation and a comment on him looking ill-starred or unlucky, to which he responds with insulting words. This repetition seems more like a story-telling convention than a recollection from real life.
Mike and Laura then went on to observe that in the post-conversion period in the second half of the story there is no sign of Christian anxiety over death and dying, it is taken as a part of human existence.
Mike added that there seems to be little attention paid in the story to personal and interpersonal feelings, but Chris remarked that grief is often mentioned and described.
Continuing the theme of the representation of attitudes towards death Chris noted the account of Gunnar singing in his tomb which takes place before the Conversion. This might be compared with the account of men hearing Skarp-Hedin singing in the burnt-out ruins of Njal’s homestead, when they wonder if he is singing dead or alive? He is in fact dead.
Laura picked up the superstitions surrounding death in the text when she commented that she had not come across the word ‘fetch’ as a noun before. I was aware that it denoted a vision a person sees of themselves which means they are about to die. Ian looked up the derivation of the idea and found it belonged to Irish and Norse tradition but in the Norse it was specifically female. This led us to wonder in which direction the influence lay, because there was so much traffic between Iceland and Ireland.
Chris then wondered if the blood feud tradition still exists in Iceland. It was conjectured that this ancient tradition might underpin Irish violence and Chris commented that blood feuds are still part of society in the some Mediterranean countries. Laura mentioned that some Icelandic detective novels cite blood feuds as motives for the murders they depict.
I had been fascinated by much of the language in the saga, while making allowances for the problems associated with translation. Of special interest were the many lively insults, but I also suggested that the frequent use of attributes as a means of distinguishing one person from another of the same name suggested a closely integrated society. I went on to suggest that this use of attributes seems strangely absent from most of Tolkien’s work as a way of indicating a close-knit society such as the Shire. Chris and Angela responded by observing that many hobbit surnames could be seen as attributes that became adopted unchanged by successive generations, thus accounting for the Proudfoots, and the Brandybucks who were formerly Oldbucks until the family moved west of the Brandywine. It was conjectured that Will Whitfoot might have had white feet, or maybe an ancestor did? Angela pointed out that Thorin Oakenshield retained the use of the attribute, and I realised this was very apt as all the dwarf names came from Icelandic literature.
We leave the special fascination of northern European literature now to move on to begin reading Humphrey Carpenter’s book on the Inklings. We will read the first 3 chapters of Part 1 for February.