Niall Saga


Brian Colless
Iceland: Njál the loyal lawyer

Njáls Saga (‘the saga of Nial’, Danish Sagan af Niáli) or Brennu-Njáls saga (‘the saga of Burnt-Nial’, or ‘the saga of the burning of Nial’), known as Njála. The longest [159 chapters, 350 pages] and the best-loved of the forty family sagas written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries. Here we will call him Niall.

Its central character is certainly Niall Thorgeirsson, but it is not simply his life-story. Gunnar of Hlidharendi also plays an important part in the action, which is set around the year 1000, when Icelanders were undergoing conversion to Christianity. Even when they become Christians, not all of them give up their desire for revenge or their need for self-defence when attacked, with ax, spear, and sword.

There is a large measure of blood-spilling, as when Skarphedin Njalsson splits his opponent’s head with his ax as he gracefully glides past him on ice. There is constant thirst for blood-revenge, as when Hildigunn urges her uncle Flosi to avenge her husband’s death, placing the blood-stained cloak on his shoulders. There are warlike heroes galore, but also Gunnar, the peerless warrior who dislikes killing. There is mention of Valkyries [157], and Valhalla [79], but whenl Iceland joins Christendom, Saint Michael is installed with Christ.

Odin and Freya and Thor appear briefly in quoted verse in the last throes of paganism.     Some influential women in the stories: Unn and Hallgerd stand out in this masculinist society.

Familiar names from the Volsung saga:
3 Sigmund;
a Signy (no Siglinde);
5 Sigurd (a baby girl Thorgerd claims descent from Sigurd Fafnir’s slayer [14]);
3 Gunnar;
3 Gudrun;
3 Grim, but no Grimhild, though Gunnhild and Hildigunn;
a Hogni (= Hagen?);
a Grani (but a man not a horse; -i is on men’s names, Bessi, Flosi);
no Beowulf, but 4 Ulf (Wolf), including Ulf the Unwashed;
and one Brian (King Brján of Ireland).
Summary of historical events and characters in the story (a historical novel)
Settlement of Iceland (870-930)
What attracted people to this seemingly inhospitable place? We could imagine they came for the warmer climate: the hot pools for warm baths, and the geysers for hot showers. The word ‘geyser’, meaning ‘an intermittently gushing hot spring that throws up a tall column of water’ (Oxford ED), comes from Icelandic Geysir, the name of a particular spring (‘gusher’, from geysa, ‘gush’ ). Then there is the heart-and-body-warming prospect of having streams of molten lava piped through your home.
Establishment of the Althing (935)
The periodic Assembly, with the Law-Hill (laws promulgated and oaths taken).
Feuds could be regulated or settled there.
Three possibilities for settling a legal suit:
(1) by the courts;
(2) by arbitration (with or without a third party);
(3) by blood vengeance

(1) It is ironic (perhaps the irony is intentional) that in this saga no conflict is resolved in court. A number of cases are brought to the Althing for trial.
(2) There are some arbitrated settlements, with Niall as the instigater.
(3) The emphasis on blood vengeance increases as the story progresses.

As if to highlight the importance of law in Icelandic society, the first person named in the book is a lawyer, named Mord (nicknamed Gigja, ‘Fiddle’; not the vilainous Mord son of Valgard who features in the later troubles). He was adept in the prosecution of lawsuits, and no verdicts were thought to be valid unless he was involved. He was the father of Unn, the first woman named in the saga. (*Asterisks indicate female.)

*UNN  [1-25]  Good and beautiful daughter of Mord Gigja (‘Fiddle’); he was learned in the law. She married Hrut, and later Valgard (who died a vehement anti-Christian). A nice quote from Hrut: ‘A man must do what is set out for him’ (A man’s gotta do what ....)

*GUNNHILD  [3-6, 29]  Queen of Norway, who was for a time secretly sexually active with Hrut  (this fact had to be kept out of the tabloid newspapers, always fishing for fishy titbits about the royals). She put a spell on him which spoiled his relationship with his wife Unn (he could not please her, satisfy her).

*HALLGERD  [1-90]  Beautiful ['Long Legs', tall, a woman a man could look up to], ruthless, with a thief’s eyes (stole butter and cheese in a time of scarcity); she has three husbands (serial monogamy); she taunts Niall as ‘Beardless’ (insinuating that he is effeminate).

 GUNNAR  [19-79] (c.945-992) A good man, a great fighter, but averse to killing.  Conspirators seek to burn him in his hall; his wife Hallgerd wiil not give him hair for a bowstring, because she remembers a slap he gave her; he is slain.

 NJAL  [20-131] (c.935-1010)  Not a professional lawyer (a lawyer is some’n what tells loys);  a lot of lies are told in this tale, but it is said: “Niall never lies” [78]. Rural Niall was a bush lawyer, in the nicest possible sense; he was  loyal in his social dealings, knowing what was right and wrong, and an upholder of the law:
    ‘ with law our land shall be built up; with lawlessnes it shall perish’.  
    (medh lögum skal land vart byggja, en medh ólögum eydha)

A peacemaker, an arbitrator,  but continual intrigues lead to him being burnt to death with his family in his hall, a heinous crime by their rules, even if no person was inside the building.

[Chapter 100] 
Thangbrand the Saxon preaches Christianity in Iceland (997 CE)
There was a new king in Norway (Nóregi), namely Óláf(r) Tryggvason, after Earl Hákon’s throat had been cut by the slave Kark. King Olaf had introduced Christianity into Norway, and also the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and the Faroe Islands.

There were Icelandic Christians already: Kolsegg had been baptized in Denmark, and then emigrated to Russia [81].

Niall heard many people say that it was wickedness to give up the old faith, but Niall thought it was an improvement on the old religion; he often went off to pray alone.

A Saxon named Thangbrand was sent by King Olaf as a missionary to Iceland. He was accompanied by an Icelander named Gudleif, a seasoned warrior, as a bodyguard. (As we follow their hazardous peregrination through the island of Iceland, let us recall that in the 18th Century John Wesley faced tremendous opposition from mobs as he went about preaching his new Methodist form of the faith in Britain; he was tarred and feathered, and threatened with death.)

The first convert was Hall of Sida, who was baptized with his whole household. He had been attracted by hearing Thangbrand singing Mass for the Archangel Michael.

Thangbrand was challenged to a duel by a dissident named Thorkel. Although Thangbrand carried a crucifix instead of a shield, he managed to slay Thorkel.

Some, including Flosi, allowed the sign of the cross to be marked on them, to show their sympathy to the cause; many families accepted baptism; others rejected the new religion.

A sorcerer named Hedin was paid to bring about Thangbrand’s death. A heathen sacrifice was made on a heath [where else should a heathen rite be performed but on a heath?]; and when Thangbrand came riding over the heath, the earth burst asunder beneath him. He was able to climb up the edge of the chasm, but his horse was lost for ever. Thangbrand praised God (but the sorcerer’s pagan incantation seems to have worked). Be that as it may, the redoutable Gudleif pursued the sorcerer and hurled his spear at him and through him. Death to unbelievers.

Vetrlidhi the Skald was vehement and violent in his opposition to Thangbrand’s preaching, and so they killed him (in anticipatory self-defence, we may presume). A stanza or song was composed for the occasion, with clever puns and kennings: for example, the hammer hit the anvil, that is the battle-ax struck the helmeted skull of the skald.

Next, they went to Bergthorshval, and Niall and his whole house accepted the faith. However, Mord and his father Valgard were hostile in their rejection.

Then the missionaries learned of an ambush being set up by a scurvy knave named Thorwald.  Having been apprised of the plot, they got in first: Thangbrand hurled his spear through Thorvald, and Gufdeif hewed off an arm at the shoulder. Then they went on to the  the Thing (Assembly) where kinsmen of Thorvald tried to kill Thangbrand, but Niall and others protected him.

Here, Odin and Freya and Thor appear briefly in quoted verse in the last throes of paganism.

A woman named Steinunn confronts the missionary : ‘Have you heard that Thór challenged Christ to a duel, and Christ did not dare fight with him?’

To this Thangbrand replies: ‘I have heard that Thor would be naught but dust and ashes if God did not permit him to live’. (Does this mean that Thor is deemed to exist, and is still existent?) The woman was not moved, and simply told him that the recent wrecking of his ship would have been caused by Thor.

Now Thangbrand is a guest of Gest at a feast, and he has a scary encounter with the fearsome Utrygg (Outrage?), a raging berserker. (This Icelandic word seems to have ‘bear’ built into it, and the idea of a rampaging beast.) He arrives and goes berserk, swinging his sword about; but Thangbrand smites his hand with the crucifix, and miraculously the sword falls from the berserker’s hand. Thangbrand’s sword pierces the assailant’s breast, and Gudleif’s blade cuts off his arm, and other brave men finish him off.

Gest and many others immediately line up for baptism. Gest is a seer, and he foresees that others will establish Christianity in the land; and he consoles Thangbrand over the fact that his mission has not been a complete success: “no tree falls at the first strike”.

Indeed, that summer Hyalti Skeggyason was outlawed in the Thing for blasphemy against the gods.

After meeting Niall again, and Hall of Sida, Thangbrand and Gudleif had their ship repaired and were ready for departure.

They returned to Norway, where King Olaf was so angry at the recalcitrance of the Icelanders that he threw all the local countrymen of theirs into death-dungeons. However, Hyalti and Gizur secured their release by offering to go and spread the faith in Iceland. Having reached their destination, they rode with thirty men to the Thing, and sent word to the other Christian men to come and support them. Remember, Hyalti is an outlaw, and can be killed on sight.

At the Assembly all participants were armed for a fight, and even their discussions were like the noise of battle. However, Thorgeir lay all day on the ground with a cloak over his head, not speaking. He was chosen to adjudicate, by Hall of Sida, the Christian spokesman, and he was paid three marks of silver as his lawful fee. Although he was on the heathen side, Thorgeir was known for his fair-mindedness.

Next day (24th of June in the year 1000) they all assembled at the Law-Hill. (This is just like Moses delivering the Law of Yahweh at the mountain of God.) Thorgeir requested all present to take an oath that they would abide by the laws he promulgated. (Again, as Moses did with Israel [Exodus 20-24].)

These were his judgements: all shall believe in one God (Father, Son, Holy Ghost); no longer worship idols; not expose children; not eat horse meat; punishment was outlawry (unless practised secretly!); observe the Lord’s Day, fast-days, holy days, Yule, Easter.

I once heard in a Christian sermon that the Norsemen used to keep the altar of their old gods behind a curtain, just in case. Here the author adds that in the course of a few years all the heathen practices were abolished and no longer tolerated, whether practised openly or secretly.

Why the prohibition on eating horse meat? The Old Testament Law allowed only quadruped animals which had a cloven foot and chewed the cud: the flesh of sheep, goats, and bovines was permissible, but not pigs, camels, and horses. But in the Nordic setting, the reason was that the horse was sacred to Ódin, and its meat was eaten at sacrifice-ceremonies in honour of him. (This connects with the old Aryan horse-sacrifice in India.)

Every one in the land was now a Christian, at least nominally.

Old Valgard the Grey came back to Iceland to visit his son Mord. He was not pleased with the changes that had been made in his absence. He hated the new religion, and he was appalled that many of his followers were now under the authority of Hoskuld Thrainsson, known as Hoskuld Hvítanessgodhi (Priest of Whiteness). Valgard gave his son two pieces of advice: renounce the faith, and spread slander that will lead to Niall’s sons killing Hoskuld. Mord agrees to the conspiracy, but will not change his religion again (especially when his father Valgard broke all the crosses and holy things in the house, then fell sick and died, and was buried in a cairn).

Slimy  ingratiation is performed at feasts; insincere gifts are presented; base baseless lies are told; damaging slander is spread about; a murder-plot is hatched; unjustified revenge can be sickly sweet.

The end result is that as Hoskuld was sowing his grain, he was attacked by the Nialssons, Kári, and Mord. Skarphedhin struck the first blow, onto the head. Hoskuld sank to his knees, and in a true Christian spirit he said: ‘May God help me and forgive you’. They all hacked him to death. (Note that one of Niall’s sons also bore the name Hoskuld.)

When old Niall was informed of the deed he was distraught, and said he would rather have lost two sons than Hoskuld. Niall foretells what will now happen: the death of himself, his wife, and all his sons; but Kari will be lucky.

Meanwhile, Hildigunn had risen from her bed and gone searching for her husband Hoskuld. She found him slain, and was told who was responsible. Hildigunn wiped all the shed blood onto his cloak and put it away in her chest. The lawsuit began, and there was great agitation throughout the land.

Flosi, Hildigunn’s uncle, visited her on the way to the Assembly. Hildigunn brought out the blood-stained cloak and placed it on Flosi’s shoulders, saying:
    “This cloak, Flosi, is the one you gave to Huskuld, and I will now give it back to you. He was slain in it. I call God and all good men to witness that I adjure you, by all the power of your Christ, and by your manhood and valour, that you avenge all those wounds he had on his dead body, or else be called a coward by every man”.

She was asking him to seek blood vengeance. Flosi was deeply disturbed by this. He cast off the cloak and said that she was giving the typical hellish woman’s advice, wanting him to take the course of action that would lead to the undoing of them all.

Mord had initiated legal proceedings against the Nialssons, expecting the case to be invalidated when it was revealed that he himself had inflicted one of the wounds.

Mord and Flosi become allies. Hall of Sida, the peace-loving Christian begged Flosi to accept a  peaceful settlement, but received a non-commital response.

In the midst of all the legalistic wrangling, a loud-mouthed bully named Thorkel popped up. He merits our attention because in his travels in Scandinavia, he (like Beowulf) engaged a monster in single combat and killed it, and also (like Beowulf, Siegmund, Sigurd, and Siegfried) slew a flying dragon [119].  He was challenged by Skarphedhin, for insulting him, but for once in his life Thorkel sat down quietly.

Just when a settlement seemed to have been reached, after long negotiations, insults started flying.

Flosi exploded with the epithet ‘Beardless’ for Niall (a barb [not barbe] hurled on another occasion by Hallgerd), understood as a sign of effeminacy. He added that people who look at Niall can not tell whether it is a man or a woman.

Skarphedhin, a master of invective, delivered a hurtful retort, paying him back in unkind kind, and repeating the rumour that Flosi was the mistress of the troll in the Svínafell, who used him as a woman every ninth night.

Impugning a man’s manliness is unforgivable.

Flosi organizes a hundred men who will join him in an attack on Niall’s home.

A man named Hildiglúm heard a crash so loud that it shook the sky and the earth. He looked westwards and saw a circle of fire moving towards him; in it was a black man riding on a grey steed and holding a firebrand; he was shouting in verse as he sped by, mentioning Flosi’s baneful plans. The rider hurled the firebrand towards the the mountains in the east, and a huge blaze enveloped the mountains. It was the foreboding of a great and fiery calamity.

The conspirators gathered at that hill of ill-fame named Swine-fell. (One would have thought Flosi would have avoided the place in view of the associations he allegedly had with it and its troll.) On Sunday morning Flosi had prayers said before breakfast. He set off at steady pace, and, when they reached Kirkby,  he bade them all go to ‘kirk’ and pray for themselves. (Everything was to be done decently and in order.)

At Bergthorshaval, when Niall and his family were eating their evening meal, he had a strange vision, in which the table and the food were gone and everything was covered in blood.

When the vengeful vilainous band reached the homestead, night had not fallen. Niall and Kari (his son-in-law) and Niall’s  men were standing outside the house, watching. They numbered about thirty. They eventually decided to go inside, even though they were in a strategically better position outside. Flosi and his men surrounded the buildings. They suffered much wounding from spears, and realized they could not subdue their opponents with weapons. They face two choices: either to withdraw or to set fire to the house and burn them inside. Flosi acknowledged that  they were Christians, and would have to answer to God, but never mind.

And so it is incendiary execution for Niall and sons. A fire was kindled, but the women poured whey into the flames and extinguished it. But the attackers started a new fire in the loft; as had been foreseen by an old woman, they threw  burning chickweed into the house. Niall encouraged the weeping and wailing women, saying: “Put your faith in God. He is merciful and will not let us burn here and also in the life to come”.

Niall called out to Flosi, raising the possibility of a settlement with his sons. No, was the stern reply, the matter would be settled there and then, by their deaths. However, the women, and children, and menservants could come out. Broad-shouldered Helgi emerged, dressed as a woman, but  when he started swinging his sword he was beheaded by Flosi. 

Eventually Flosi extended the invitation of amnesty to Niall and his wife Bergthóra. Both refused the offer: Niall said he was now too old to avenge the death of his sons; and Bergthora stayed faithfully with him. They lay on their bed with their grandson, Thord Karisson; he was only a child, but he chose to die with them. Kari himself was able to slip away in the turmoil.

At a later date Kari returned and found the three bodies miraculously unburned, and Niall’s appearance was radiant in death.

In the ensuing suing and protracted court cases,  the biggest battle in the whole saga takes place, at the Althing, where fighting was forbidden!

Hall of Sida characteristically works for peace agreements. Flosi and some other of the burners are exiled. Kari continues to hunt down the killers at home and abroad, pursuing them to the British Isles.

Battle of Clontarf, ‘Brian’s battle’ (1014)
This battle was fought outside Dublin on Good Friday 1014, between the Christian King Brian (Brján) of Ireland and the heathen Earl Sitrygg of Dublin; its relevance is that fifteen of the burners (murderers of Niall, non-Christians) were killed there. Good King Brian fell. He lost his head, but it grew back on his dead body.

Flosi made a pilgrimage to Rome, and received absolution from the Pope himself (for that he gave a large sum of money).

Kari also made the pilgrimage. Then he went back to Iceland, to Svinafell, and visited Flosi. When Kari came into the room, Flosi jumped up and ki....ssed him, and they made up. Kari stayed with Flosi that winter and they came to a complete reconciliation.

Kari’s wife Helga Njalsdottir (Niall’s daughter) had died, and he married Flosi’s niece, Hildigunn (she of the blood-clot cloak in her glory chest), whose first husband was Hoskuld. As we saw in Chapter 111, Kari and the sons of Niall, and Mord had slain Hoskuld. Let us hope that all is forgiven!

As for Flosi, he sailed to Norway to fetch some timber for a new hall. On the return voyage he was lost at sea.

The last sentence puts the spotlight on  Burner-Flosi’s son, Kolbein, a lawyer, “one of the most renowned men in the family”.

“So ends the saga of the burning of Niall”, the scribe or author says (and its obsession with lawyers and liars).

And as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we say farewell to the fiords and firths of Iceland. This was a story in the tradition of the Hollywood Westerns: when they are not warding off external enemies (Injins, or Vikings) they are at one another’s throats, flouting the code of the West,  burning homesteads and barns, having high-noon duels, and generally a-feuding and a-fighting and a-fussing.