From Iceland — The Burning Issue

The Burning Issue

Published December 3, 2004

The Burning Issue

Originally penned sometime around 1280 and apparently based loosely on factual events, with a good dose of fictional narrative thrown in, Njáls Saga is the most involved of many medieval Icelandic family sagas that have survived until modern times.

Ostensibly it chronicles the history of Njál, a wise lawman thought to have been born towards the end of the ninth century, although the story extends backwards and forwards in time to encompass a number of protagonists and family histories.
Embla Bárudóttir and Ingó Björgvinsson, the young duo that committed themselves to the task of putting faces to the now-mythical characters of Njáls Saga, opted to tell the story backwards, starting with the last subplot in the text: the vengeance of Kári.

Despite concerns about how such a venerable tale would fare in comic book form, and the fact that large tracts of the original text were excised to keep the story motoring along, Blóðregn dominated Iceland’s bestseller list in the run up to Christmas last year and also bagged the annual Best Book for Children and Young Readers award – not bad considering the work owes more to Japanese Manga than, for example,Tintin.

Brennan follows the trials and tribulations of Njáls son, Skarphéðinn, whose difficult relationship with Njáll could sound familiar for many of today’s troubled teenagers. There the similarity with the present day ends, though. According to legend, killing people was a popular alternative to legal recourse in medieval Iceland, giving Brennan the kind of body count you might expect from a Schwarzenegger movie.

It culminates with the episode where Blóðregn kicks off: the burning of a farm at Bergþórshvol (near Hella, south-west of Reykjavík) in which Njáll and his entourage, apart from the aforementioned Kári, meet their end.

This is arguably the most significant chapter in Njáls Saga and one of the few events in the story that appears to be grounded in historical fact; a burning at Bergþórshvol is recorded in The Book of Settlements, an early history of Iceland.
For aficionados of the original saga, there is also the fact that more of its key protagonists are included in Brennan than Blóðregn – including Njáll himself, of course.

Bringing him to life on the page was a daunting task for the authors since virtually every Icelander is familiar with Njáls Saga and probably has his own idea of how the character should look. Bárudóttir and Björgvinsson confess they toyed with the idea of dropping a bombshell on readers, for example by making Njáll a woman.

In the end they decided to stay true to the original tale, which has quite enough action as it is, only leaving out the lengthy tracts of indigestible legal wrangling that pepper the Njáls Saga. If Brennan proves as popular as Blóðregn, the sprawling Njáls Saga has enough sub-plots and characters to easily furnish another prequel, and possibly more.

For the time being, the books are available only in Icelandic, but that could change if Bárudóttir and Björgvinsson’s inspired story-telling succeeds in bringing Njáll to a wider audience. And even that might only be the beginning – Iceland has as many as 40 other sagas waiting to be drawn.

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