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Bergthora and Hallgerd: Woman Acceptance in Society Essay

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Updated: Aug 25th, 2021

Iceland is one of the countries in Europe which have given literature a highly developed traditional literature in prose form. The uniqueness of Njáls saga is that it gives a record of life typical for ancient societies of this region. The saga portrays a position of women in society and their relations with men, their social values and traditions, stereotypes and cultural beliefs. Thus, in the saga women are given certain power and rights atypical for many women of their historical epoch who were oppressed and subjugated. Thesis Bergthora is a woman who is more acceptable in society’s view because her behavior and actions are based on social norms and values in contrast to Hallgerd who violates these norms.

Njáls saga portrays bright women images and social norms typical for the Iceland society. Bergthora, a wife of Njal, is portrayed as a powerful woman able to protect her dignity and honor suing persona; strength and power. In the saga, she proves her equity with the husband and quick mind. Bergthora says: “I am Njal’s wife,’ replied Bergthora, ‘and I have as much say in hiring servants as he’” (Njal’s Saga101). Njáls saga provides relatively full portraits of this protagonist, whereas the sketches of the other female figures are comparatively one-dimensional such as Hallgerd. Playing the single role of the warrior, the avenger, or the whetter, Bergthora appears when her theme is needed in the story and disappear immediately after. As one of the bright women characters, Bergthora is more acceptable by the society portrayed as a good wife and house keeper. Bergthora appears in several episodes. The saga tells: “Thórhalla, the daughter of Ásgrím Ellida-Grímsson. [As said before] Thórhild helped in the entertainment and with Bergthóra served the meal” (Njál’s saga 78). In contrast to Bergthóra, Hallgerd is never portrayed a house keeper or involved in domestic jobs. Conveyed by tradition, this concept became embellished.

Hallgerd, a wife of Gunnar, is depicted as unsympathetic and evil woman driven by personal success only. As the woman in supernatural and masculine roles she is associated with war became the special contribution of female imagery. “Her foster father, who came from the Hebrides, was named Thjóstólf. It was said that he was hardly the type of man to improve Hallgerd’s character” (Njál’s saga 36). Hallgerd is less acceptable in society because she rejects opinion of others and neglects social norms. She positions herself higher than other people believing in a noble position of her family. A conflict between two women becomes apparent when Bergthora rejects her invitations and neglects her. Hallgerd is not accepted by social because she violates social norms and takes revenge upon Bergthora. Bergthora is depicted as a female warrior and wise woman in contrast to revengeful Hallgerd.

Bergthora’s activities benefited not herself but the entire community. In contrast, Hallgerd is depicted as a low-minded woman obsessed with false values and norms. Furthermore, their actions were not aimed at the greater good of society but the furthering of their own objectives of revenge. The episode when Hallgerd breaks her promise underlines her evil nature and low morals rejected by the society: “They both said that they could find no fault with it; thereupon Hallgerd betrothed her daughter. Then the seating arrangement was changed again, so that Thórhalla came to sit between the two brides” (Njál’s saga 79). Demanding less brute endurance than extended warfare but requiring more cerebral and emotional stamina, such acts admirably suited female performers. In the saga these features became hallmarks of the avenging woman who used her bodily energy in single acts of aggression for personal revenge but obtained better results when she verbally urged male family members to pursue her quest.

Bergthora is a woman who is more acceptable in society because she protects her family and husband from cruelty and violence of the other woman, Hallgerd. In the realm of social action, the quest of an individual male or female for personal revenge — obtainable directly through violent physical action or indirectly through speech, preceded organized warfare. Bergthóra in depicted as wise woman who knows social norms and traditions. Bergthóra answered: “You can’t prevent people from talking ill about you” (Njál’s saga 195). The saga portrays that when one reflects on the number of images and their distribution in the three realms of the divine, the heroic, and the human, it is obvious that the heroic world of humans provided more numerous and more powerful female images than the mythological divinities.

In the sage, Bergthora is portrayed as a warrior who protects her family while Hallgerd is portrayed as a cruel murder who takes revenge upon Bergthora. Hallgerd said: “Quite certainly Bergthóra wants to rob me of as much as she can, but I’ll see to it that this fellow will not chop any more wood!” (Njal’s Saga 81). In contrast to Bergthora, Hallgerd relies solely on violence to obtain her own goals of revenge as well as those of her male relatives. In spite of low morals, the saga portrays Hallgerd as the powerful woman who must have provided a great deal of entertainment. Hallgerd and Bergthora got the upper hand on men by using their intelligence, wit, learning, and even military skills and physical abilities.

Women in excellent physical condition undoubtedly possessed the strength to compete with men, but since the female warrior was a male fantasy, authors were free to make her vulnerable and to ensure male victory. Throughout the saga, Bergthora is depicted as a powerful woman equal to men: “We are not like women,” said Skarphedin, “that we should fly into a rage about everything” (Njal’s Saga 100). The saga’s sense of irony reveals itself not only in his plotting, but also in strategic placing of imagery in speech. The saga has carefully placed one such image at the high point of fortunes, indeed, at the high point of the main action. The prototype of evil and revenging women looms behind all the imaginary and possibly real women of this kind. In the saga, Both of the women are bearers of values and traditions, but they use them differently. Hallgerd is known for her power and cruelty, admired for her beauty and generosity, and feared for her revenge, cunning, sexual insatiability, and her goading.

Bergthora’s verbal performance is not particularly inciting. Throughout her dealings with kinsmen she is uniformly polite, telling them what has happened and asking them for help. Not initiating the goading herself, she even complains about the solidarity of her relatives, who shunt her from one to the other. Obedient to male instruction throughout the affair, Bergthora does not leave the impression of a woman motivated by ancient tradition, consciously exercising her role as a verbal and ritual inciter and confident of the results. Without corroboration from other sources it is difficult to see in her more than a storyteller’s clever stratagem to delay action and increase dramatic tension, grafting the heroine to the well-known figure of the hard-working housewife. The saga tells: When Njál came home he rebuked Bergthóra for what she had done, but she answered that she would never yield to Hallgerd (Njal’s Saga 87). In contrast to this episode, the saga portrays that when the shepherd demurs, Hallgerd blames him, because he thereby deprives her of the occasion to present it to Gunnarr, her husband and Sigmundr’s kinsman — an act, she argues, that would assure Gunnarr’s revenge on Sigmundr’s behalf. In another passage from the same saga the head has grown into a complete corpse. More impressive was the full clothing worn by the victim at the moment of violent death, further saturated when it was used to wipe up and preserve the spilt blood and kept by the inciter until a propitious moment for revenge, sometimes years later.

Bergthora is the most sympathetic character in the saga because her intentions and desire to protect her family are moving readers: Bergthora is so sympathetic not only because she is the loyal, downtrodden wife, but also because her attitude seems to sum up many traditional values. The feeling here is a mixture of attitude to her husband and her desire to prove her dignity: in each case an unexpected return, a request for kindness by the loving woman, and the man’s affection overlaid by indignation at having been abandoned in the first place, irritably denying his real feeling of responsibility, firmly establishing the domestic scale serves the further purpose of conveying the world of Iceland. It is almost a commonplace that guilt is closely associated with tragedy. Though it may be difficult to justify the sufferings of Bergthora and Hallgerd as punishment, both, certainly, are conscious of being miserable offenders.

And questions of guilt, the consciousness of it and its opposite, ‘innocence’, always had a compelling fascination. With Hallgerd the consciousness of guilt had far-reaching ramifications, in that she holds the great, necessary work of which she dreams, the ennoblement of the human sufferings, to be possible only for the utterly pure in heart. “That same evening Bergthóra said to the members of her household: “This evening let each one of you choose the food he likes best, because this will be the last time I shall serve the food for us all!” (Njál’s saga 260). This, however, only constitutes one facet of the wider problem of guilt, innocence and responsibility to which everything else (on the moral plane) is subordinated in the saga. Hallgerd is not accepted by the society and the tragedy attached to the fable is that of the sick conscience caught. The intensity with which the workings of that conscience and the oppressive sense of guilt under which it labors are expressed may, of course, derive from direct fellow-feeling; but that is not a necessary conclusion either, and, in any event, the energy of the expression cannot by itself suffice to make either the outcome of the saga appear tragic or the fable significant.

In sum, Bergthora is a woman who is more acceptable in society’s view because she protects her dignity and honor so important for every woman. She becomes like a warrior woman in contrast to Hallgerd overwhelmed by desire to take revenge. Under these circumstances it is conceivable that customary gender roles may have been suspended while all persons did their most to enable society to survive. Arguably, this could have resulted in females engaging in war. Women also raised more specific charges that often pierced the core of masculine self-worth. Although successful revenge requires obvious physical strength and prowess, its initiation depends on persistent memory, often attributed to women.

Works Cited

Njal’s Saga. Bayerschmidt, C. F., Hollander, L. M. New York University Press, 1955.

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