Warning: this post may contain spoilers for the traditional Icelandic epic, The Story of Burnt Njal, as translated by George Webbe Dasent
One of the wonderful things about this modern age is the fact that so many classic texts are available for free, or for very little, to read instantly on Kindle. That’s actually why I first found myself delving deeply into the lesser known works of authors like Jules Verne and HG Wells, and I continue to find it convenient how easily and cheaply I am able to obtain copies of classics. I can’t help but think that in another day and age, finding a copy of something like The Story of Burnt Njal would have involved multiple trips to specialty bookstores in the hopes of finding this particular text.
Not that I chose to read this purely out of convenience. Like several of the books that I’ve read recently, this has been on my reading list for some time now, and it just so happened that I finally decided to obtain a copy. If I recall correctly, I actually added it because it made a list of masterpieces of ancient literature (or something similar); I almost always find these to be of interest, even if the stories themselves aren’t always compelling. There are so many ideas that can be gained from reading the stories, myths, and legends of ancient and different cultures, and it really is such a unique and insightful way of learning about a place and time. Fortunately, this story also proved decidedly compelling.
Please note that my usual translation disclaimer applies. I did almost no research as to whether there were more reliable or reputable translations of the original Icelandic text out there, so if you decide to read The Story of Burnt Njal, you are welcome to do your research and find a the version that seems most suitable to you. However, I will say that I was impressed with the introduction provided by George Dasent in my copy, which provides some valuable context to the world, environs, and culture in which the story takes place, and also conveys the translator’s respect and admiration for the original (always a good sign, in my opinion).
If you’ve read other ancient epics, like The Odyssey, The Iliad, or similar works, as I have, you might go into this with a certain expectation of opacity. I suppose it is just the nature of how language and context and culture and expectations change over time that such works, while still worth reading, are perhaps not what one would call a pleasure read, and are certainly not quick reads. Yet that was not what I found to be the case with The Story of Burnt Njal. Not only was this an interesting read, it was also a very engaging one.
To be honest, this reads even more like traditional fantasy literature ala The Lord of the Rings than the fairy tales and other stories that are frequently cited as the genre’s origin. Simultaneously, it reads like a mostly true account of real events that could have and perhaps did occur, with very real, very interesting characters. While it was sometimes a challenge to keep track of all of the names (there are a lot, they are difficult to pronounce, and they are frequently repeated), and understand who was seeking atonement or vengeance from whom and for what, it never really stopped being interesting, and it actually gave me a lot of insight into that culture (plus a good example of omniscient writing).
The scenes themselves were often strikingly described, and in many instances startlingly amusing. The matter of fact way in which dramatic events is often described, and the vivid language, and the unexpectedly detailed and exciting fight scenes all helped make this one of the best “ancient” works that I’ve had the pleasure to read. Considering the most ancient pieces have fight scenes that go something like “and lo, the forces of Lord Bal smote and strove mightily by the forces of Lord Droll, until at last victory was had.” In The Story of Burnt Njal, the fight scenes come closer to “then Thrain hefted his axe, the Ogress of War, and leapt over an icy stream to skate across a sheet of ice right into the midst of eight men, where he cleaved such a blow unto his enemy’s skull that teeth were scattered all across the ice, and then out he skated afore any could strike him. Though one threw a shield in his path, Thrain leapt over it and continued on, and his enemy fell down, dead.”
This does not perhaps have the moral weight of something like the Bhagavad Gita, but it is said to have some historical veracity. More importantly, this is genuinely an enjoyable read, especially if you enjoy modern fantasy and are interested in the genre’s heritage. I encourage you to consider giving The Story of Burnt Njal a try soon.