Episode 20a – Njal’s Saga (Part 1)

The Slap

In this first part of our epic summer saga, we introduce Njal’s Saga and the initial section where marriage, gender roles, and female independence are the central themes.  We begin with the story of Hrut Herjolfsson, who leaves his bride-to-be in Iceland to fetch an inheritance in Norway.  Along the way, the handsome young Hrut finds himself more involved in the royal family than is proper.  Scandal!  After getting ensnared in the web of the Norwegian queen mother, Gunnhild, Hrut will bring home a curse that will set the whole action of Njal’s Saga into motion.  We also meet Hrut’s lovely and dynamic niece, Hallgerd Hoskuldsdottir, a fiercely independent woman who will play a significant role in the development of this saga. When we first meet her, we learn that she has the eyes of a thief, which never bodes well.  This episode covers Hallgerd’s first two marriages, both of which involve domestic violence followed by a visit from Hallgerd’s vengeful foster-father Thjostolf.  Hallgerd may be beautiful, cunning, and seductive, but she’s hardly the passive female of most medieval literature.  We look forward to spending some time with her this summer and hearing how you all feel about her character.


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The picture above comes from the amazing Njal’s Saga Tapestry, an ambitious project underway at the Icelandic Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur.  Read more about it at the tapestry website.

Njal's Saga

Join the fun with your very own copy of Njal’s Saga!

You can find our select bibliography for Njal’s Saga here.

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3 thoughts on “Episode 20a – Njal’s Saga (Part 1)

  1. Hey! I last read this saga in college, some 10 years ago, and started rereading it alongside your podcast. Sorry for this huge block of text, but I had a VERY different interpretation of the whole Hrut/Mord dispute.

    I feel like Mord is definitely in the wrong here and totally disagree with your assessment of the dispute. Part of this might be due to translation. I’m reading Magnusson/Palsson’s version and there’s, for instance, a big difference about striking the kid (unless I’m missing something).

    1) Unn tells her Dad she wants a divorce because Hrut cannot satisfy her/consummate the marriage. This is obviously a very delicate situation. It calls into question all kinds of things about Hrut’s masculinity and brings to light a possible curse. The consequences of getting this public would be immense to Hrut, his family, and any potential marriages for him in the future. And Mord should treat it very delicately! But he doesn’t. At all. Instead, he concocts a plan that includes Unn feigning ill in order to separate herself from Hrut and catch him unaware with a surprise divorce. It’s deceitful and public. Now everyone knows this intimate detail about Hrut and his inability to perform. Mord couldn’t even talk to Hrut about this first? Confirm with him what the problem was and try to figure out an amicable solution? And if it could not be solved, they could AT LEAST come to some kind of settlement. Keep it private and respectful; only use the law and divorce as a last resort. Instead, he uses every trick in the book to steal a divorce and publically shame Hrut. I’m an attorney, and I can smell a weasel! Mord has a reputation, he knows the legal system well, he probably loves winning cases, and he thinks he can out-lawyer a dumb warrior in the court. So he jumps for the opportunity to win yet another case! That’s what this was really about, I think. Anyone who actually cares about people, rather than their reputation, would try to solve the problem amicably before resorting to the kinds of tricks Mord pulled. And I think it should immediately place Mord in the wrong here. One may respond that, “well, it’s clear there was a curse on Hrut, and he obviously did something bad to deserve it; so it’s ok for Mord to do what he did.” But I think that’s presumptuous. Can people not get wrongfully cursed? Do good people not have enemies who may want to curse them? Njal was a good person and had enemies, right? And should Mord have blindly believed his daughter without even first hearing the other side of it? Could he not consider possible alternative remedies aside from getting litigious? Ways to remove the curse, for instance? Ways to at least end the marriage to appease all sides? Does he WANT a blood-fued here?

    2) After pulling off the mean-spirited, surprise divorce, Mord goes even further: he’s asking for everything. The dowry and Hrut’s contributions. Basically, he’s saying the blame is on Hrut and demands it all. Not even trying to work things out. He’s pulling all his legal tricks and being overly zealous. He probably thinks he can get away with it, being the talented attorney he is. At the end of the day, everyone–including Unn–is acknowledging that Hrut treated her well! And yet that doesn’t seem to matter to Mord at all. Hrut responds, “You are pressing this claim concerning your daughter with greed and aggression rather than decency and fairness, and for that reason I intend to resist it.” GOOD FOR YOU, HRUT!

    3) And now Hrut challenges Mord to a duel. You guys think that paints Hrut in a poor light, right? I don’t understand that AT ALL. First of all, it is a perfectly legal response! Hrut has every right to challenge the claim by single combat. Let’s not blame Hrut for that. He is acting in accordance with the law. Blame the law, if you’d like, but not Hrut. Anway, what exactly do you expect Hrut to do?! Should he try to out-lawyer the best lawyer in Iceland? That is just stupid. And Mord, being such an amazing lawyer, should know and expect that Hrut has the option of single combat! If anything, it’s Mord’s failing as an attorney to not realize that “hey, Hrut can just challenge me to a duel if I push this too hard. Maybe I should come up with a fair settlement he’d agree to or else I risk losing it all.” So he totally deserved what happened and cannot complain about Hrut’s response. In fact, given that the law includes single combat as a possible answer to the claim, one could argue that Hrut simply out-lawyered Mord! Right? ALSO, correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t Mord get a friend or relative to fight the duel for him? I feel as if that happened frequently in sagas. Like, some wealthy guy would hire a berserk to fight a duel for him. And that’s totally allowed. If that’s not an option, I think it raises an interesting philosophical question: what makes a good lawyer? Everyone celebrates Mord and Njal for being great lawyers, but they aren’t great warriors. If you can respond to claims by challenging people to duels, I think being able to fight well is a very important part of practicing law. If that was part of American law, I’m 100% sure they would’ve taught me how to wield a sword and shield in law school. But we’re getting side-tracked…

    4) Lastly, as for the striking/beating the kid… My translation reads as follows: “Hoskuld was furious, and hit the boy who was calling himself Mord with a stick. It struck him in the face and drew blood.” This is very different from your retelling of the incident, where it appears to be Hrut–not Hoskuld–who hits the kid. This clearly depicts Hrut in a more favorable and restrained light. Perhaps he felt guilty about the whole thing, arguably deserving the curse because of his unfaithfulness; and now he just wants to put the whole thing to rest. He’s not responding to the kid in anger but with generosity instead. Although I can’t really blame Hrut for being unfaithful. Did he have a choice in the matter with Gunnhild? His only other option would be to protest sleeping with her and risk pissing her off. That’d be a grave mistake. I’d rather piss off my future wife, and pretty much anyone else, than perhaps the most powerful person of Norway. Goodbye inheritance and, perhaps, his life!

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    • Dan, we love the way you read the saga and look beneath the surface. We completely agree with your assessment of Mord, even if we chose to focus more on Hrut’s character. You’ve got to admit, he is rather bold. That doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with his predicament. And you’re absolutely right that he’s within his legal rights to challenge old Mord to a duel. He’s caught in a bad situation, so his decision makes sense. At the same time, we’re aware that the sagas typically cast these kinds of challenges in a negative light. It’s almost never okay for a younger man to challenge an old man who will certainly lose to a duel, even if it is legal. That’s a big part of why duels were eventually outlawed in Iceland.

      Lastly, if we said Hrut hit the kid then it was a mistake. Our translation also reads Hoskuld. Looks like we got caught up in the moment and swapped the brothers there. Sorry about that.

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      • Thanks for the reply! Yeah, I guess it was rather bold to challenge the old guy to a duel. But Mord was very aggressive in filing suit to begin with and then asking for everything. As an experienced attorney, he should know he was just asking for a duel. I think emotions got the better of him since he was representing his and his daughter’s interests. That’s why in our day even attorneys hire other attorneys to handle delicate, emotional family matters.
        Still, I thought Mord would get someone else to duel for him. Didn’t they do that in other sagas? It’d probably be acceptable especially since he’s an old man. But anyway, I guess Hrut lost the gamble at the end of the day, when Gunnar came into the picture. But that kinda started the chain of events that led to his demise. Would he have married Halgerd had Mord been more amicable with Hrut? Maybe Hrut/Hoskuld would’ve been more adamant that Gunnar not marry her, to protect him. Maybe Gunnar didn’t totally believe their warnings, thinking they were trying to get back at him for his part in the dispute. Who knows I guess!

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