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    Andersson, 2006
    Bauman, 1996
    Fife, 2004
    Halewood et al., 2001
    John, 1977
    Marcus, 1954
    McGovern, 1990
    Siddorn, 2000
+ Techniques

Review of Andersson, Theodore M. "Demythologizing the Tradition: Njáls Saga." In The Growth of Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280), 183-203. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Traditionally, Njáls saga is seen as the greatest of the classical sagas, as the culmination of decades of mere practice writing represented by the earlier sagas. Andersson, however, presents the saga as a reaction to earlier saga-writing rather than its logical conclusion; it undermines and "consciously subverts" the conventions of previous authors. First, he briefly addresses the opening of the saga - whereas the early settlement of Iceland is a staple in the Icelandic sagas, it is done away with entirely in Njála. The rest of the chapter is broken into sections following the development of the saga: he first examines the story of Hallgerd, examining the character of Hrút and then Hallgerd's three unfortunate marriages and her comic feud with Bergthóra; Gunnar's character is then analyzed; and finally the story of Njál and his sons is addressed. In each section, Andersson demonstrates how the author of Njála has subverted the saga standards in each story. He concludes that not only was the saga written to parody tradition, but opted to incorporate no tradition of its own: rather than following genealogical lines, the saga is organized by the progression of a theme. This theme, he suggests, is failure - of characters, institutions, values, and even the saga itself.

Andersson indicates that the author of Njála may be using these subversions to comment on the conditions in Iceland in his own time. As Iceland acquired more independence, the saga writer parodied it and its "national myth". The author appears to have been disillusioned with the social systems of his time and extremely critical of human character, and used the events of around 1000 AD as a medium with which to express this dissatisfaction. As for a modern context for the article, Andersson, as written above, disagrees with the prevailing thought that Njáls saga was written as a gathering of traditions and an extension of the existing saga framework.

As this essay is mainly a critical analysis of Njáls saga, its main source is obviously the saga itself. However, as he aims to prove that Njála subverts the tradition used by the authors of the earlier sagas, he necessarily draws on them as well. In particular, he frequently refers to Laxdoela saga. The happy and successful wedding and betrothal scenes in that story are contrasted with the doomed weddings in Njáls Saga, especially Hallgerd's three marriages. Many other sagas are briefly referred to in the chapter, including: The Saga of King Magnús and King Harald, Egils saga, Ljósvetninga saga, The Legendary Saga of Saint Olaf, and The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason.

Rather than approaching Njála through an anthropological or historical perspective, Andersson uses literary criticism to examine the saga in context with the other Icelandic sagas. As such, he does not have to defend the validity of sagas as a window to Icelandic culture as much as other authors may have to. As well as the sagas themselves, Andersson refers to a significant number of other interpretations of Njála, even including some dating as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. He uses these to back up some minor assertions, but as for his thesis he appears to be on his own. These sources are brought in as he examines Njála chronologically from the beginning to the end of the saga and deals with each of the major points in the narrative in turn.

Andersson's examination of Njáls saga has led him to believe that the author of the saga was drawing on the previous works of other saga writers in a very different way than scholars have generally agreed upon: rather than meaning to write the pinnacle of saga accomplishment, the author sought to undermine it and expose its flaws. He concludes that these flaws include problems with saga writing itself, but that the author dwells on flaws of character more than any other subject. Hallgerd's "thief eyes" introduce her as an antagonist from the beginning and foreshadow the extensive cast of troublesome characters. Even the protagonists Gunnar and Njál, representing valour and wisdom, are plagued with flaws that destroy them in the end. The women are unusually powerful in this saga, while the author scoffs at the heroic traditions of men.

As has been frequently mentioned above, this interpretation of what is seen as the crowning achievement of the saga culture is markedly different from the adoring interpretations that had come before. Therefore, the implications of this research are significant, as this will likely reopen discussion as to the place Njála occupies in saga-writing history. Because Andersson holds such a dissenting opinion, this chapter will be valuable for my essay as a strong counter-opinion to the prevailing scholarly thought on Njáls saga. As I have not yet read these fawning accounts that Andersson describes, I cannot comment on how well his argument holds up against theirs, although Andersson's appears to be a strong one.

      Updated: 1 Feb, 2008
Text © Caitlin Henderson, 2007   Copyright details
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