Although most of us have heard of the Greek epics and, in particular, the Iliad and Odyssey (the two most renowned epics in the western world today), we have a great deal less familiarity with the literary tradition of the old Norse folk who inhabited the lands about the Baltic and North Atlantic in early medieval times. We've heard about the vikings, of course, coastal pirates and fighters who sprang from these folk, and about their wide-ranging adventures across dangerous and often unexplored seas. Yet we are not nearly so familiar with the Norse literary tradition which is, in some ways, as compelling and profound as the literature of the ancient Greeks which we so revere today.
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