A man who has been fortunate in life falls for beautiful woman and marries her, assuming to live happily ever after. But looks can be deceiving. She plots against him, causing a row which spoils his relationship with his best friend. It’s all downhill from there…
This could be the storyline of a new Hollywood movie but is actually centuries’ old. A dramatic tale of upstanding heroes and deceitful women, Njála entertains readers of the present as well as the past, and has all the stuff blockbusters are made of, minus the sex scenes and Hollywood ending.
In my last column, I mentioned the Icelandic Sagas as our greatest cultural treasure. Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, they feature the colorful lives of the settlers and their descendants in the 10th and 11th centuries and really are, to this day, an exciting read.
Scholars have debated whether they’re fact or fiction but I think most people would agree today that even though the Sagas may be based on real-life characters and events to a certain extent, they’re far from an exact historical documentation of the Commonwealth.
Even so, the Sagas do provide an interesting, if partly skewed, picture of the lives of the early Icelanders, their culture and community. And what’s more, they’re set in actual locations in Iceland; many of the farms mentioned in the Sagas are still inhabited today.
Given the global interest in the Icelandic Sagas (or Sagas of the Icelanders, as they’re also known), cultural tourism is growing in Iceland.
Contributing to that growth is the Icelandic Saga Trail Association, which has set up a website listing destinations of interest for Saga enthusiasts.
These include English novelist David Mitchell, who recited his experience of the Saga Trail in The Independent last summer.
“Encountering names from the Saga Age endows the stories with delicious added reality; it’s like driving past a matter-of-fact road sign saying ‘Narnia 15km.’ You experience an uncanny sensation that the landscape itself is the parchment on which the Sagas were inscribed,” Mitchell wrote.
In his article, Mitchell mentions Njála (aka Brennu-Njáls saga, Njal’s Saga or Njáls saga), by many considered the supreme Icelandic Saga.
Among Njála’s fans is IR contributor Nanna Árnadóttir, who passionately outlined the—according to her—soap-opera-like plot back in 2008.
Njála is set in South Iceland, right around Hvolsvöllur where the Icelandic Saga Center is now based, housing an informative exhibition on the Saga.
The museum also offers guided tours to surrounding sites mentioned in Njála, including Hlíðarendi, the farm where Gunnar Hámundarson lived, and Bergþórshvoll, the home of the ill-fated Njáll, which was burnt down.
History comes alive at the Saga Center with staging of scenes from Njála, such as actress Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir’s interpretation of one of the more colorful characters of the Saga, Gunnar’s wife Hallgerður langbrók.
Hallgerður had a feisty temper. Gunnar slapped her once for having her slave steal food from a neighbor. She never forgave Gunnar for humiliating her and thus refused to give him a lock of her long, golden hair to replace his bowstring which would have saved his life.
Other museums worth visiting as part of the Saga Trail include Viking World, Eiríksstaðir, the Settlement Center, Culture House and Saga Museum.
However, before embarking on a Saga Trail tour, make sure to familiarize yourself with the main Sagas and get caught up in their passions and pains.
The Sagas can conveniently be read online in different languages in the Icelandic Saga Database.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – email@example.com