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Njal's Saga Paperback – May 28 2002
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About the Author
Robert Cook is Professor of English at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
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Top Customer Reviews
The story is a tale revolving around revenge violence in old world Iceland. While Iceland has a system of laws and a judiciary system, there is no law enforement. This leave Icelandic society to reply on oaths and vigilante justice.
The reading is long, and sometimes dull. The violence scenes are usually short, non-descriptive, and seemingly unrealistic by todays standards. The tale can be hard to read as characters enter and leave the saga seemingly at random. However, the saga is well written and suspenseful. To me, the saga seemed to be comprised or 3 or 4 short stories rather than 1 long story. Because of this, the ending is kind of anti-climatic. However, if you are interested in old literature from around the world, this is a book well worth reading.
Whether your interesting in Vikings comes from watching the old movie with Tony Curtis and Kurt Douglass ("Who sails with me to avenge the death of Ragnar?") or is more serious (You have read ALL the other Sagas available), you'll enjoy Njall's Saga.
It's will hold your interest for a long time!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Norse saga tradition reflects stories handed down orally for generations which were finally committed to written form in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Among these works, Njal's Saga may well be the best. Like all sagas it is a prose epic (as opposed to the poetic form of the Odyssey and its kind), but with a unique rhythm and perspective which only the Norse folk had to offer. It's a somewhat bleak tale of several generations of Icelandic families whose men and women lived and feuded on the remote island of Iceland, itself only settled by expatriate Norwegian farmers and land holders from about 860 AD onward.
Here, in Njal's Saga, is a tale of hard men in a harsh land who push and pull at one another until the only recourse, in their grim pioneering culture, remains the blood-feud. And once unleashed, the blood-flow is literally unstoppable as noble heroes cut one another down until one of the most respected of all the Icelanders, the eponymous protagonist of this tale, is himself burned alive, along with most of his kinsmen, in one of the retaliatory raids which arise from the ongoing feuds. This despite the realization by the burners that what they are about to do will have grim and far reaching consequences. Yet they cannot pull back, for honor's sake, and must suffer the consequences they know they are unleashing by their actions when, at last, a vast well-spring of revenge and justice arises to overwhelm them in the aftermath of their grim deed.
In the end it is the wronged viking Kari who single-mindedly pursues and hunts each of the individual burners down, to the far corners of the earth, affording them no peace as he seeks re-payment for the loss of his wife and young son until even he is spent. This, like most sagas, is a tale of many strands and several generations and so it partakes of the literary conventions of its type -- conventions which make it a little harder on the modern reader than some would like. There are extensive character genealogies (of little interest to most of us today) and very limited descriptive text (something else some of us may miss).
There is also a decided lack of subjective points of view or of interior monologue. Indeed we never get inside any of the characters' heads and, as in Hemingway at his sharpest, must 'see' the characters for what they are based on what they do and say alone. The entire conceit of the sagas is that they are oral tales, reflecting only what people saw and remembered of the events recounted, and so they are written thus. But at their best, they are a keen, if slightly aged and clouded, lense through which we may observe the doings of real people who are driven, much as we are today, by the same needs for fame and fortune which infect the human soul in every generation. Insofar as these tales, and Njal's Saga in particular, are windows into these matters they are universal in their unraveling of human motivations. And they are great adventure besides.
Njal's Saga, especially, has it all including feuds and viking adventure and, in the end, a redeeming sense of human frailty as the need for reconciliation and forgiveness replaces the unyielding cry for justice under the eyes of heaven.
If you like the saga form, there are several good tales in this vein, that aim to reproduce the saga in a way that also works as a modern novel. I particularly like ERIC BRIGHTEYES by H. Rider Haggard; STYRBIORN THE STRONG by E. R. Eddison; THE GOLDEN WARRIOR by Hope Muntz (probably the best of the lot); and THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley (a very fine offering as well). I've also done one of my own: THE KING OF VINLAND'S SAGA; but I will refrain from commenting on it since it is for the reader, not the writer, to judge.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
I bought this translation, Cook's. There seemed to be two main choices, this or Magnus Magnusson's, and I noticed a few reviewers quite bluntly trashing Cook's translation, promoting Magnus's instead. I decided to start with Cook's anyway, figuring that, even if it was inferior to Magnusson's, I wouldn't know what I was missing, since I hadn't yet read Magusson's. Admittedly, I still haven't read Magnusson's translation, but I enjoyed Cook's translation very much and did not by any means think of it as lacking.
In fact, in Cook's notes on the translation presented in the book, he explains his motivation and justification for translating the saga the way he did, in a way that seems to anticipate the disfavor of his translation by loyal Magnusson fans:
"[This translation] differs from previous translations of Njal's Saga...in attempting to duplicate the sentence structure and spare vocabulary of the Icelandic text."
After giving a few examples of the stylistic eccentricities in which the saga was originally written and demonstrating how he attempted to reproduce them in his translation--even contrasting an excerpt of Magnusson's translation with his own--he goes on to say:
"It is hoped that the reader of this translation will accept--and even learn to enjoy--these and other efforts at fidelity, though they may seem strange at first. The intent has been to create a translation with the stylistic "feel" of the Icelandic original."
Clearly, Cook did not set out to create a dry, inferior translation; rather he set out to create a more stylistically faithful translation, even if it meant sacrificing some of the flare and drama to which we as modern readers are accustomed.
Regarding the story itself...what can one say? There is something immensely powerful about reading a piece of literature that was written over seven centuries ago and discovering that its author and the people about whom he wrote had many of the same thoughts, feelings, and problems that we do today. When a character responds emotionally to a situation, or feels frustrated because of a moral dilemma, we can still, despite the vast chasm of time separating us, so easily relate to him or her. Even the author's humor and wit are delightfully close to home. Stories such as Njal's Saga remind us that people from long ago and far away are just that: people. Just like us. In a popular culture that has a tendency to glorify the ephemeral, trendy Here and Now, it's a fact that's easy to forget.
Njal's Saga covers one of the most violent and tumultuous periods in European history in general and Norse history in particular. During Njal's long life the first Christian missionaries came to the island and, in 1000, the island voted to convert. Such a brief summation does no justice to the intense machinations involved and the often violent reactions of Icelanders and Christians alike.
But of even greater importance to Njal's story are the many feuds in which he became embroiled and which finally claimed his life. The overall arc of the stories is far too complex to be related here, but every victory that Njal achieves comes at a heavy cost of both money and blood. Throughout, the feuding, fighting, and legal episodes at the Althing are carefully recorded and uniformly exciting.
A word on the translation: Cook's translation of the saga has drawn a considerable amount of flak from fans of the more "contemporary" Magnusson translation, but such attacks are largely unfounded. Cook's aim in translating the saga was to accurately recreate the original Icelandic's terse, forthright, and completely unembellished style. Having read a number of other saga translations, I'd say this is a noble and, in this case, successful aim. This translation is exciting without catering to modern convention, something that speaks well for the power of the story regardless of translator.
My only word of warning about this book: don't put it down. If you're like me, you won't have a problem with this, but for casual readers the details of plot and the many, many characters will probably slip away should one take a casual approach to the Saga. That said, this book should draw you in and never once let go once you've begun.
Also included is a sometime fascinating, sometimes overlong, description of Icelandic legal processes, which clearly greatly influenced or were similar to English (by way of the Normans) and so to us...