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  • Víga-Njáll:A New Approach Toward Njáls saga1
  • Yoav Tirosh

Ek vil yðr kunnigt gera, at ek unna meira Hǫskuldi en sonum mínum, ok er ek spurða, at hann var veginn, þótti mér sløkkt it sœtasta ljós augna minna, ok heldr vilda ek misst hafa allra sona minna ok lifði hann.

—Brennu-Njáls saga, CXXII. Kapítuli

I want you to know that I loved Hoskuld more than my own sons, and when I heard that he had been slain I felt that the sweetest light of my eyes had been put out, and I would rather have lost all my sons to have him live.

(Cook 2001, 207)2

In a 2005 article, Ármann Jakobsson discusses the “Nasty Old Men” of the sagas, and tries to understand why some of them contend with their sons. Ármann turns to the Kronos myth in which the father devours his sons out of fear that they will usurp his power, and [End Page 208] explains how viewing father-son relations in light of this myth can enlighten us about the family dynamics and the father’s behavior in certain sagas. Interestingly, Ármann spares Njáll the classification as a “Nasty Old Man” type. He argues that Njáll is an example of a virtuous old man who prefers to die rather than to avenge his sons, peacefully accepting his role in society (Ármann Jakobsson 2005, 305). Upon closer examination, the saga reveals quite a different picture of Njáll in his old age—one that fits the paradigm first presented by Ármann.

It is generally accepted that by killing Hǫskuldr, the sons of Njáll bring their deaths upon themselves. This can be seen as a first attempt at individuation or assertion of self by the sons. However, they do not follow through with this “rebellion” until completing the process of individuation—that is, becoming an individual of their own and separating from their father—and thus expose themselves to Njáll’s wrath and punishment. It will be argued that although Skarphéðinn offers resistance to his father in certain scenes in the saga, he fails to fully accomplish this rebellion because he is too weak in face of Njáll’s omnipotence. It will also be shown how Njáll and his family fit the paradigm of a family run by a tyrannical father. An explanation will be supplied to reconcile Njáll’s actions with his positive portrayal in the saga.

A comment should be made on the concept of “author” used throughout this article. While Barthes and his fellow post-Structuralists killed the author in the late 1960s, the Icelandic author of Njáls saga has been dead since the thirteenth or fourteenth century, presuming a variant of this piece of literature did not already exist in a stable oral form since the early eleventh century.3 None of the extant medieval manuscripts we possess is the “original” Njáls saga, if one such text even existed, and we are only left to speculate as to how that piece of literature would have looked. As Steblin-Kamenskij has pointed out, “a character assumed to be truth in the proper sense of the word, rather than artistic generalization or a literary type, can no more be the expression of an idea than a living man in real life can be” (1973, 85). In other words, if these characters are perceived as true and historical, they cannot be an outlet for artistic expression, and they cannot symbolize an author’s artistic ideas. But although the author might be giving an objective account of historical events (cf. Steblin-Kamenskij 1973, 21–48), he will still express his opinion of the characters, even if this is done subconsciously. Regardless of historicity or fictionality, as Torfi H. [End Page 209] Tulinius has shown, proposing an author allows us to better recognize a saga’s structure and underlying message (2002, 234ff). Even if we consider the oral background of the Íslendingasögur, which implies a “Distributed Author,” we should consider that these are “narratives arrested in their development,” and...


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