Saga of Njal Thorgeirsson

Neil Moncrieff, Guizer Jarl. Photo by Dave Donaldson.

The Guizer Jarl has chosen to represent his namesake Njal Thorgeirsson, the hero of Njáls saga, which is the longest and perhaps most famous of the Icelandic sagas. Njal lived during tenth-century at Bergthorshvoll in the south of Iceland. He was a great lawyer, probably the best in all the country at that time, and people came from far and wide to gain his counsel.

Njal’s best friend was Gunnar Hamundarson who lived nearby at Hlidarendi. When Gunnar fell blindly in love with Hallgerd Njal took his friend aside and warned that it was a recipe for disaster. Her two previous husbands had both literally been axed! Gunnar went ahead with the wedding anyway, and as usual Njal was proven to be right. It wasn’t long before Hallgerd clashed with Njal’s wife, Bergthora, and the pair became bitter enemies. Their feud didn’t stop at the mere exchange of insults. It spilled over into bloodshed, each killing the other’s servants. Njal and Gunnar paid compensation in silver after each murder to keep their friendship intact.

Gunnar routinely paid Njal a visit whenever he got himself in trouble. When he killed his neighbour, Otkel Skarfsson, Njal told him, “This will be the beginning of your many slayings.” Njal had the uncanny ability of seeing into the future. He further warned Gunnar not to kill two members of the same family, or he too would lose his life. Mord Valgardson got wind of Njal’s prophesy and started scheming. Mord hated Gunnar. He cunningly provoked Otkel’s son, Thorgeir, to attack Gunnar, knowing full well he would die trying. It however didn’t quite go to plan and Mord found himself in court. Defending himself he claimed that others had also ignored the law. Njal retorted, “With the law shall our land be built,” (Með lögum skal land byggja) providing us what is now the motto of the Shetland Islands Council. Mord continued to plot and scheme, and when Thorgeir was eventually killed Njal’s fateful words came to pass.

Hallgerd continued to cause problems for Njal. Two of his sons, Grim and Helgi, had returned from a trip to Norway where they had only just escaped with their lives. For this they firmly blamed their companion, Thrain Sigfusson. Njal encouraged them to make up with Thrain. They agreed, but on arrival at Thrain’s house they were met by Hallgerd who rained insults on them, evaporating any hope of reconciliation. The feud came to a head on an ice floe at the Markar River. Skarphedin, Njal’s eldest son, leapt onto the ice axe in hand. It was so slippery that he glided along as if on glass. Sliding speedily towards Thrain, Skarphedin swung the axe and split his head down to the jaw causing Thrain’s teeth to fall out onto the ice. Once again Njal brokered a settlement and agreed to foster Thrain’s son, Hoskuld. The boy grew up at Bergthorshvoll with Njal, who in time secured him a chieftaincy.

Hoskuld proved to be a successful chieftain, so much so that Mord became insanely jealous and began plotting his downfall. Mord was sly and knew just how touchy Njal’s sons could be when their honour was at stake. In the end all it took was a few slanderous rumours and tragically they murdered their own foster-brother. Njal was distraught. He now found himself drawn into a feud that even he with all his wisdom couldn’t get out of. He knew that it would be extremely difficult to settle this dispute with silver. The case was called and when Njal’s handsome offers of compensation were rejected it was clear to all that only blood would suffice.

Soon afterwards a hundred vengeful men laid siege to Bergthorshvoll, the flickering flame of their torches lighting up the dark night sky. Njal was given the opportunity to leave with the women and children but stoically chose to remain with his sons. The house was duly set alight and as the timbers blazed about him Njal lay down under a cow-skin and embraced his fate. Kari Solmundarson, Njal’s son-in-law, managed to get out under a cloak of smoke, and later, one by one, wreaked vengeance on the burners.

Brydon Leslie