Burnt Njáll and the Valkyries: Tales from the Icelandic Sagas

October 25, 2021
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THE sagas are great epic poems that tell the history of Viking communities in ways that vary from the factual to the fanciful. The word saga means ‘saying’, in the sense of oral history. They’re written down now, of course, and indeed they have been since the Middle Ages. They are often called the Icelandic Sagas, as Iceland was where they were written down. And just as well, as they were forgotten everywhere else, though the experts are sure that most of them were told all over the Norse realm.

There is often a moral to the sagas. In Njáls Saga (there’s only one ‘l’ in the Norse possessive), the main issues concern a touchy kind of masculinity. Njáll is teased by the other Vikings because he can’t grow a proper beard, while another Viking called Flosi is insulted when given a well-intended gift of a silk cloak, as he considers this to be effeminate. Njáll and Flosi try to prove that they are tough, but in doing so they unleash all kinds of mayhem, with the result that half-way through the story Njáll is burnt alive along with most of his family in a house-fire lit by his enemy Flosi. This is then avenged by Burnt Njáll’s surviving relatives. Eventually, after about fifty years, the vendetta peters out with everyone agreeing that all that offence taken about not being able to grow a proper beard and a gift of allegedly girly clothing was a bit silly, really.

Meanwhile, there are stories within stories. The Valkyries, which we associate with the German composer Richard Wagner’s Opera Die Walküre (The Valkyries) and its musical highlight The Ride of the Valkyries, are an authentic part of Norse mythology. Their name means ‘choosers of the slain’ and the idea that they bear brave warriors off to Valhalla is only one aspect of their being. For also, they are like the fates in Greek mythology, actually deciding who is to be destroyed. In one section of Njáls Saga, which is actually a very complicated story, twelve Valkyries are described as weaving the fate of those about to be slain at the forthcoming battle of Clontarf, in Ireland. The Valkyries use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and spears as weaving-implements.

Perhaps, as with the Greeks, there is an element here of ‘those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad’, so that the squabbling men unwitting fulfil a destiny woven by the Valkyries up above.

The English artist Arthur Rackham’s engraving, above, makes the Valkyries appear rather less as innocuous retrievers of the slain, bound for glory, and rather more as if they are the horsewomen of the apocalypse.

Lastly, Njáll’s another cognate: it’s Norse for Neil. Imagine a Viking named Neil. It seems an oddly harmless sounding name, for a Viking.

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website


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