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Njal’s Saga: Theme of Honor and Courage Essay

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Updated: Aug 30th, 2021

Njal’s Saga is one of the most complex and dramatic novels ever written. It teems with characters: each sharply, however briefly, drawn; all presented in the most dramatic contexts. The narrative is carried by dialogue and by the action of maximum concreteness. It is the story of the life of a man of great wisdom and spiritual strength in the early days of the colonization of Iceland. Much of it is concerned with the development of barbaric blood feuds and the struggle of Njal as a leader of the community to reduce them to the workings of civilized justice. With others, he is usually successful; but his closest friend, Gunnar, has a wife, Hallgerd, whose malevolent pride endlessly clashes with the imperious temper of Njal’s wife, Bergthora, and sets in train a series of vendettas in which first Gunnar and then Njal himself and his wife and all his sins are destroyed. Yet, in spite of murders, battles, ambushes, ghosts, and Viking raids, the thing that most amazes the modern reader about Njal’s Saga is the unparalleled maturity of its characters. These yeomen on their bleak island at the end of the earth are adults in a fashion unknown to Homer’s Agamemnon or Proust’s Swann.

Njal never uses a weapon. Agility, strength, and battle prowess are entirely lacking in him. He is narrated as a kind man, but the Saga is named after him. Prowling under the humble exterior, Njal must enjoy traits that his contemporaries thought heroic. When combat is called for, his three sturdy sons are pleased to support his honor; he never has to do so himself. However, he is not considered to be a coward. Njal, with his boyish fresh features, always demonstrates the intelligence and cleverness of a very prudent man, and these are thought the eventual heroic traits.

Saga affirms that honor and heroism are practically identical. Njal always matches the conventions of honor and encouragement. His enemy’s son is adopted because the child has no family. He permits himself to be burned because he is too old to avenge his sons and, he “does not want to live in shame”. Skarp-Hedin follows his father’s wish, allowing his father to go inside the burning house, although he knows the fact that his father will die. Kari respectably avenges the deaths of his friends and upholds his honor by never speaking and willing ill of his enemies, nor offering threats against them. Gunnar honors his comradeship with Njal despite the hindrance. He dies an honorable and ideal death that can be determined as one against many by refusing to yield. He honors the compromise to which he has settled, excluding the last. His negative response to leave Iceland could be liable on destiny and ill-luck, but poor decision and compulsiveness definitely played a part; nevertheless, like Skarp-Hedin, his honorable death acquits him of his transgressions.

Njal announces to his frightening household, “Be of good heart and speak no words of fear, for this is but a passing storm…” whereas his house is blazing down around them. Kari says, “There is no escaping you, Skarp-Hedin; you are the bravest of all”. The vision of Skarp-Hedin’s ghastly grin, flinging sarcastic insults and humor, such as, “are you thinking of doing some cooking?” while being roasted alive, is just plain fearlessness. Gunnar’s courage is exhibited throughout the Saga. When Gunnar leads men abroad, the narrator describes that “the men had seen their leader’s great courage, and each fought as hard as he could”. Gunnar, as well as his brother Kolskegg, does not feel fear when they are trapped by 30 men, killing many and terrifying the rest away. His remarks at the ending are, “there would need to be several of his sort in my path before I took fright.”How many is several to Gunnar?

Next, there is Kari. He walks into a hall occupied with armed Vikings, amusing one of Kari’s deadly enemies. Kari recites zealous verse and slices off the man’s head with one gust; then, he leaves. This was either very stupid or very brave. Earl Sigurd replicates the Icelandic vision when he remarks that “there is no one like Kari for courage”. Afterward, he commences traveling on foot halfway crosswise to Iceland in a snowstorm in order to take revenge on his worst enemy. In this perspective, courage is elaborated as a bent of mind that prepares one to face peril with confidence or self-possession. Definitely, all four of these men exhibit this characteristic.

A hero avenges unlawful activity if the existing law can not offer recompense. Gunnar kills, but only when essential, and always struggles to make a resolution. Njal, on the other hand, would rather die than be unable to avenge his sons. Skarp-Hedin starts his extravaganza of reprisal with the killing of Sigmund, and it culminates only with his own death. Kari looks for revenge until he resolves with Flosi. This quality is necessarily tempered by the principles and law, not to mention sympathy. Numerous times, when an individual requests a quarter, it is arranged. That seems only honorable.

Oath keeping is also an imperative trait parallel to reverence for the law. Njal never terminates or suspends an oath, neither does Kari. Contrary to this, Gunnar breaks his oath and has to pay for it with his life. Skarp-Hedin breaks his pledges of companionship with Hoskuld; the results are devastating. A hero adheres to good advice, irrespective of it leads to ignominious actions and finally death. Gunnar dies when he pays no attention to Njal’s counsel to keep the agreement. Skarp-Hedin and Kari are fine until they dismiss Njal’s wisdom in favor of Mord’s evil prompting. This kills Skarp-Hedin; Kari flees away exclusively because of his luck. The burning was more malevolence than the assassination of Hoskuld, evens the scale, and Kari’s value for good advice is re-established when he holds himself in Asgrim’s hands.

The assassination of Hoskuld breaks numerous conventions of heroism: disloyalty of friendship through believing rumor, paying no attention to the good counsel of Njal, and the disgraceful killing of a one-not ready man by many. Ignorance of heroic principles might bring bad luck to an ordinary person, but, on the other hand, it is fatal to heroes. A Hero must maintain agility, strength, superior fighting skills and/or intelligence, wit, and cleverness. He must not kill without aggravation and should regard the law. He should have the ingrained traits of courage, honor, nobility, generosity, and eloquence. He should be a gregarious friend, keep his oaths, accept fate, avenge unlawful activity, and must keep in mind the respect of others. A blend of these essentials is present in all the four heroes in the Saga.

It has been observed that Kari never likes to speak ill of his enemies. He is also not in the habit of uttering threats against them. He also never violates an oath and is a bighearted, truthful friend. He establishes himself to be sensible and selfless, sparing the enemies that he thinks honorable, like Flosi and Ketil. He supports his friends and his brothers, even when they are making appalling decisions. His combating capability is parallel to Gunnar’s, and his tactics clever. Even he also does cease fighting in an honorable manner. All of his traits are exceptional, and he comes extraordinarily close to being the ideal hero and is the only one who stays alive to become an aged man.

Skarp-Hedin displays the distinction between a hero and a rascal through his extended plunge from grace. His early constructive traits are equal to his concluding evil ones. Courage, Strength, wisdom, cunningness, luck, and good looks are dealt for sarcasm, disrepute, lucklessness, impulsiveness, and vice continence. His courage towards the end redeems him as he stands blazing in the fire, his legs burning away, making crosses into his own flesh, and he was declaiming heroic verse even with his failing breath. It can be concluded that a true hero is not always a superman, nor a Conan. Rather, a hero is a human being who also commits mistakes, even grave ones, but who rises above distinctively even in the commonplace, acknowledges his fate, and maintains his honor. Nevertheless, no element can identify honor, heroism, or courage. Grand manners are begun with immensely diverse motivations; fear, anger, a sense of honor or duty, or a case of wholesome cussed perseverance. The Icelandic ideal, as portrayed by the characters in Njal’s Saga, is multifaceted and alarming, yet mysteriously convincing, exceeding beyond distance and time to lend omitted values to the lives of those who discover its teachings.

The objection to overpopulation is aesthetic, not economic. Kropotkin was right. It would be possible to feed Manhattan with hydroponic vegetables and protein-rich algae, raised in the windows of the glass-steel-and-concrete barracks. But humane values diffuse and drain away amongst too many people, and too many is a rather small number—not much more than the population of the Florence of the Medicis, the Athens of Sophocles, the Iceland of the sagas.

Mass man is a man without responsibility. Njal’s Saga is an epic of ever-mounting crises of conscience, the steady intensification of the moral interaction of a very limited number of human beings whose relationships are governed by a continuously and spontaneously evolving law. It is possible to play many thousands of games with thirty-two chessmen. It is impossible to play any of the pieces that are increased to millions. The order of the electrons in the universe is a statistical order. Only in single, limited objects is it a real one, and only in very small objects is it actually determinable. Throughout the saga, Njal is the focus of the contending social forces. He is the knot that holds the complex tensions of his society together. What brings him down is, first, simply the passage of time. If one makes a life habit of unlimited liability, the accumulated responsibilities of a lifetime may become too complex and, at the same time, too poignantly focused on being borne. One man might sustain such complicated architecture of stresses and balances as long as there was no unaccountable interference from outside.

Njal is a professional “Law Speaker,” one of the creators of a structure of decency and order amongst independent but co-operating yeomen. Such a structure can be made self-sustaining, but it cannot be made self-perpetuating. It is perpetuated by child-bearing, and children are borne by women. Once again, the monstrous regiment of women works behind the scenes with its own intestinal vindictiveness that brings all noble superstructures to ruin. Njal, after a lifetime of unparalleled nobility and relentless education of the conscience, ends, like the Nibelungs, in the fire. His home and his family are destroyed with him, and all for impetuous spite. A vector of tension unaccounted for in his careful system of checks and balances of moral liability smashes a lifetime’s husbandry like an arrow shot from outside into a web of glass.

Works Cited

Njal’s Saga (Penguin Classics) (Paperback) by Anonymous (Author), Robert Cook (Editor, Translator) Penguin Classics (2002)

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