From Iceland — Ask A Medieval Historian: Who Wrote Njáls Saga?

Ask A Medieval Historian: Who Wrote Njáls Saga?

Published April 12, 2019

Ask A Medieval Historian: Who Wrote Njáls Saga?
Aliya Uteuova
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Njáls Saga is one the longest of the forty Icelandic sagas written between the 13th and 14th centuries.

Many Icelanders can track their heritage to the characters in the sagas. In Icelandic, the word ‘saga’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’ and the Njáls saga is a heck of a dramatic one. There are deaths and burnings, famine and revenge; but one of the most intriguing mysteries is Njáll’s sexual orientation.

So we asked Medieval Historian Arngrímur Vídalín: “Who wrote Njáls Saga and was Njáll gay?”

Almost no medieval Icelandic text is attributed to a particular author. Sagas are based on a centuries-old oral tradition of storytelling that is compiled and worked into a narrative and, finally centuries later, written down. The version of Njáls Saga most people are familiar with was edited by Einar Ól. Sveinsson in 1954. His aim was to recreate the lost original Njáls Saga by collecting it from various redactions of different manuscripts.

Many scholars have brought forth arguments for its authorship, with potential authors being Sæmundur the Wise, Snorri Sturluson and his nephew Sturla Þórðarson. Yet no one argued that it could have been a woman who wrote it.

The homosexual undertones of Njáll are insinuated by his lack of facial hair and close ties to Gunnar. Homosexuality was not a known sexual orientation in the Middle Ages, so Njáll is never described as being gay. But, people have had homosexual sex in every country and Iceland is no exception.

Thankfully, there is no true answer to this question—that would take the magic out of the story. We are able to approach sagas with our own mindsets and experiences, without prejudices and biases. It is because we are able to mirror ourselves in these texts that they continually offer us new and exciting possibilities of interpretation.

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