My first journey down the Rangriver of the Icelandic Saga hasn’t been easy. Chapter One of The Story of Burnt Njál greeted me with…
Thorgerda was the daughter of Thorstein the Red who was Olaf the White’s son, Ingialld’s son, Helgi’s son. Ingalld’s mother was Thora, daughter of Sigurd Snake-i’-the-eye, who was Ragnar Hairybreek’s son. And the Deeply-wealthy was Thorstein the Red’s mother; she was the daughter of Kettle Flatnose , who was Bjorn Boun’s son, Grims’s son, Lord of Sogn in Norway.
I literally gasped aloud. And then began a family tree which, two chapters in, had run off the page, onto my duvet.
At this point, I reached a dilemma: panic and reason began an internal battle, the former telling me to slam closed the hideously-confusing book, riddled with aeons of genealogy, and never return; the latter gently ordering me to get a grip. Which I did.
Twenty ‘Sigurds’ later (this bloke is the ‘John’ of the tenth century), my initial reservations have quieted. I have come to the realisation that, unless you are studying Icelandic lineage, the footnotes can be overlooked; the plot remains unharmed. And the plot is fantastic.
Again, I was initially worried that the sparseness of the prose would be uncomfortable but, to the contrary, the pages turn as fluidly as those of an elaborately-crafted thriller.
Perhaps it is the idea that this actually happened that spurs me on, into the night, pursuing Hrut’s travels, Hallgerda’s marriages and Gunnar’s feuds. Not only is Njál’s Saga a piece of prose, it is a piece of history, ‘handed down by word of mouth, told from Althing to Althing, at Spring Thing and Autumn Leet, at all great gatherings of people, and over many a fireside, on sea strand or riverbank.’ (George Webbe Dasent)