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Njáls Saga RECAP: The One Where They Burn That Motherfucker Down

Njáls Saga RECAP: The One Where They Burn That Motherfucker Down

Published February 19, 2016

We need to talk about Njáls Saga. Fully titled the Saga of Burned Njál, it is considered the absolute zenith of literary brilliance in Iceland’s original prose genre. It is basically THE SAGA. The one and only. Some particularly stuffy Icelandic writers would have you believe that it (written in the late 13th and recorded in the early 14th century) and ‘Independent People’ by Halldór Laxness from 1934-5 are the only real achievements in Icelandic literature and everything before, between, and after has just been pulp. (Fuck those guys, though.)

So what New York City is to cities, what the Mona Lisa is to paintings, what In-N-Out Burger is to fast food, what Jesus Christ is to prophets, Njáls Saga is to the Sagas. Now that you’ve sat through that list, you realize what it’s like to hear people who love Njáls Saga talk about it. It’s kind of annoying, right?

It’s a trap!

Njáls Saga is talked about so often in both scholarship and Icelandic popular culture that it’s one of very few sagas to have a cutesy nickname, dropping the word “Saga” —it’s just “Njála.” Even one of the cutest streets in Reykjavík is Njálsgata. But don’t let all this hype and cuteness fool you. It’s boring and everyone sucks and then dies. You can literally stop here if you want. I wouldn’t blame you.

Morals of the story:
1. Everyone is the worst and will die eventually, including you.
2. Cheese will not only provide nutrients to postpone your inevitable death, but it is also good.
3. Njáls Saga is not. It will only bring you closer to death. So don’t bother.

Just like New York, Mona Lisa, In-N-Out, and Jesus, Njála is just an exhaustingly over-pimped, tediously mediocre pile of whatfuckingever. None of these things are necessarily bad, and each have their merits, but overall they are no more intrinsically amazing than Osaka, Odd Nerdrum’s NSFW self portrait with boner, Pret a Manger, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Eyrbyggja Saga. Or anything, really.

Now that we’ve appropriately deflated Njál’s ego, we can get to the action. Or some of it. The problem is that Njála is longer than God’s dick and has more characters than the average Reykjavík resident’s sex life, so I can’t even dismiss all the subplots with single, sassy clauses in longer sentences. I’ll do my best, but most of it I’ll just skip completely. This is for the best. I do it for you.

So we start this one with some cougar-hunter who’s after the queen of Norway, but she curses him with impotence because he already has a wife, it turns into some weird dowry dispute, he mentions his niece Hallgerður has “a thief’s eyes” and she turns out to be a super shitty person. Big surprise.

Feudz b4 dudez

Gunnar is like, “I totes wanna marry that thiefy-eyed biddie Hallgerður,” and even Njáll is like, “Not cool, man, she’s already had two husbands killed.”

Now enter the main characters, Njáll and Gunnar. Njáll is supposed to be some sagely lawyer revered for his advice (most of which turns out to be terrible and only exacerbates the feuds), and Gunnar is a big, strong, manly dude. They’re best bros, even though people think Njáll is basically a homo because he has no beard. Gunnar is like, “I totes wanna marry that thiefy-eyed biddie Hallgerður,” and even Njáll is like, “Not cool, man, she’s already had two husbands killed.” But Gunnar thinks the third time’s the charm or some dumb shit like that and marries her anyway.

She doesn’t get along so well with Njáll’s wife Bergþóra and there’s this weird sequence where they each convince random dudes to kill each other’s slaves, for which their husbands then pay each other back. Although this makes no fucking sense, it happens three times.

Hallgerður must really love cheese (well, who doesn’t?) because she sends another rando to steal cheese from some other rando. The first rando gets caught. When she and Gunnar are arguing about it, the douche hits her. (Pro-tip: even if you have the shittiest, most thiefy-eyed skinka of a wife in all of Iceland, you don’t get to hit her.) In her only act of appropriately placed spite, she swears she’ll get even.

He’s then ambushed in his home, and when he asks Hallgerður for some of her hair to use as a bowstring she basically asks, “Are you gonna die if I refuse?” And he’s like, “Yeah, duh.” So she says, “Remember that time you hit me? Oops, you’re dead!”

Like ten boring feuds and some bad advice from Njáll later, Gunnar ends up getting exiled but refuses to leave because Iceland is just too pretty. Fair enough. He’s then ambushed in his home, and when he asks Hallgerður for some of her hair to use as a bowstring she basically asks, “Are you gonna die if I refuse?” And he’s like, “Yeah, duh.” So she says, “Remember that time you hit me? Oops, you’re dead!” She basically flips her hair and keeps eating her cheese while she watches him get mowed down by a bunch of dudes and she’s probably totally into it. Then she basically disappears from the story and good riddance ‘cause she fucking nasty.

Just play it by beard

Njáll’s sons come back from Norway with some guy named Kári and he marries into their family. They also bring back some unsavoury characters that help to stir some spice into this giant pot of lame-sauce. Three or four feuds later, there’s a scuffle involving some of these new jerks and Skarphéðinn, one of Njáll’s sons, literally slides past the troublemaker on ice and beheads him along the way. It’s basically the only cool killing in the book until the burning. Even so, I like to imagine him doing the moonwalk instead. Another feud or two later, Njáll adopts the dead guy’s son Höskuldur.

He becomes the favourite son and grows up to be a great chieftain and score a hot wife. Some other chieftain, Mörður, gets so jelly that you could spread him on toast and he convinces Njáll’s sons and son-in-law to murder Höskuldur. One of his relatives, Flosi, wants settlement. They take up a giant collection to pay off the murder and Njáll throws in a fancy cloak, but Flosi is insulted that some beardless homo has offered him a unisex article of clothing (what’s next, gender-neutral bathrooms?! The horror!) so he decides to kill Njáll’s family instead.

More like the Saga of Böred Njál

He descends upon Njáll’s house with an army of one hundred other assholes and they burn the motherfucker down. He allows the women and beardless Njáll to leave first, but he and Bergþóra, who is the real hero of this story if you ask me, refuse to leave their sons. So they all burn. Except Kári, who escapes along the roof-beams so he can avenge them. This sounds all noble and shit, but allow me to remind you he leaves his own son to die in the fire so he can avenge him… rather than just saving him. There is certainly not a “World’s Best Dad” mug in Kári’s office.

Anyway, Kári chases the attackers literally all the way to Scotland and kills them. He even breaks into the feast hall of the Earl of Orkney to kill a man who is shit-talking Njáll. I guess that’s kind of cool, but it doesn’t make any of these people any less stupid assholes than they all were. Even Bergþóra had all those slaves killed. Eventually some peace is achieved when Kári marries into Flosi’s family. Don’t even worry about what happened to his first wife. Now, fucking finally, is the end.

If you think my recap was too reductive but you’re too lazy to read all bajillion pages of the saga to prove me wrong: A. reductive is the point, duh; and B. you’re in luck. Borgarleikhúsið is currently staging an adaptation of Njála and the poster has a dude in a shiny gold tunic, so maybe they’ve spiced it up for you. Or at least abridged it to trick you into thinking it’s good.



See also:

RECAP: Völsungasaga, The Saga Of The Völsungs

The Seal Ghost Of Xmas Present: Eyrbyggja Saga RECAP

Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoða RECAP: The One With The Goddamn Horse


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