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Heroism: The Icelandic Ideal: as defined by Njals Saga
Compiled by Virginia Stewart-Avalon, M.Ed.

What is a hero? The modern concept of the superman who is always right, fighting the forces of evil, seems a little trite. When the word "Viking" is mentioned, most people envision a powerful, unwashed hulk with matted blond hair and beard, horned helmet on his head, striding across the wasteland, his two-handed bastard sword drawn, butchering Christians and looting churches. Characters such as Conan do little to improve this image. Njal's Saga (Penguin Books, 1960) is the story of heroes who are, in the last analysis, simply men who have outstanding traits, but who are, nevertheless, men. 

The ideal of the brutal, bloodthirsty barbarian simply does not have its basis in reality. Njal, Gunnar, Kari, and Skarp-Hedin are living representatives of the Icelandic meaning of "hero". A portrait of Icelandic heroism can be painted by carefully sifting through the qualities, both dark and light, that a hero possesses, and with which each of these characters is endowed.

The modern reader is accustomed to an omniscient narrator who can see into the minds, feelings, and motives of each character, providing interpretations of the actions of the players as the story progresses. The author of Njal's Saga presents actions and dialogues. Feelings and motives must be deduced from these. He does, however, provide the expressed sentiments of people about an action, such as "the killing of Hoskuld was talked about and condemned throughout the land"(234-5). Through statements such as this, and the reactions of the characters to the events, criminal action can be differentiated from heroic action.

The first conclusion that one might reach is that a hero is a man who has great prowess, strength, agility, and exceptional fighting skills. Certainly Gunnar, Kari, and Skarp-Hedin exhibit these traits. Gunnar catches spears in mid-flight and accurately throws them back (88). Kari displays this same talent (183). Skarp-Hedin skates across a frozen river, cuts a man down with his battle-ax, and then leaps over a shield, retaining his catlike balance when he lands (203). These are definitely considered to be heroic abilities. The strength that is required to cut off an arm, head, or leg with one blow, helmet and armor, mailshirt and leather included, must also be considered. Executioners in the Tower of London, poor ones that is, often delivered as many as 23 blows to an uncovered neck in order to completely sever the head.  These three men are able to deliver the single dismembering blow repeatedly, with ease (148,181,215). Hoisting a full-grown man, in battle gear, up onto a spear-point, then throwing him off into a river is also no mean task (149). The Conan image is just beginning to appear accurate; yet there are differences.

Njal never picks up a weapon. Strength, agility, and battle-prowess are completely absent in him. He is described as a gentle man, but the Saga is named after him (74). Lurking under the meek exterior, Njal must possess qualities that his contemporaries considered heroic. When fighting is called for, his three strong sons are happy to uphold his honor, he never has to do so himself, yet he is not thought to be a coward. Njal, with his boyish good looks, always exhibits the cleverness and intelligence of a very wise man, and these are considered the ultimate heroic qualities.

These heroes differ from the barbaric image in another sense. None of them kill until driven to it by real or perceived events. Njal knows when his sons are planning a death, and he is not squeamish in the least (116,202). Gunnar wonders if he is less of a man because of his reluctance to kill (135). Skarp-Hedin is a little more eager than the others, yet even he restrains himself until driven to avenge his father by Sigmund's outrageous insults (115-7). A modern man of honor would undoubtedly strike someone who called his father "old beardless" and him a "little dung beard" (114). Each time one of these men kills, the cause is traceable to one of two things: self-defense or revenge- for an unforgivable insult, a deplorable act, or a broken settlement. Skarp-Hedin and Kari kill Hoskuld because they believe that he has mortally insulted them. This does not mean that killing him is right, but it does indicate that they thought that their honor was at stake. It might be safe to conclude that a hero does not kill without provocation.

According to the Saga, honor and heroism are virtually synonymous. Njal always conforms to the codes of honor. He adopts his enemy's son because the child has no family (205). He allows himself to be burned because he is too old to avenge his sons and he "does not want to live in shame" (267). Skarp-Hedin follows his father's wish, allowing his father to go inside the burning house, even though he knows that his father will die. (266) Kari honorably avenges the deaths of his friends and maintains his honor by never speaking ill of his enemies, nor uttering threats against them (278). Gunnar honors his friendship with Njal in spite of the obstacle. He dies an honorable death, one against many, by refusing to surrender. He honors the settlements to which he has agreed, except for the last. His refusal to leave Iceland could be blamed on fate and ill-luck, but poor judgment and compulsiveness certainly played a part; yet, like Skarp-Hedin, his honorable death exonerates him from his misdeeds.

Njal proclaims to his panicking household, "be of good heart and speak no words of fear, for this is but a passing storm..." while his house is burning down around them (266). Kari says, "There is no escaping you, Skarp-Hedin, you are the bravest of all"(265). The vision of Skarp-Hedin's ghoulish grin, flinging sarcastic humor and insults, such as, "are you thinking of doing some cooking?" while being roasted alive, is just plain fearlessness (265). Gunnar's courage is flaunted throughout the Saga. When Gunnar leads men overseas, the narrator states that, "the men had seen their leader's great courage, and each fought as hard as he could"(88). Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg are not afraid when they are ambushed by 30 men, killing many and frightening the rest away. His comment at the outcome is, "there would need to be several of his sort in my path before I took fright"(162-5). How many is several to Gunnar? Then there is Kari. He walks into a hall full of armed Vikings entertaining one of Kari's mortal enemies. Kari recites passionate verse and cuts off the man's head with one blow; then he leaves (343). This was either very brave of very stupid. Earl Siguard reflects the Icelandic view when he comments that, "there is no one like Kari for courage"(344). Later, he undertakes traveling halfway across Iceland in a snowstorm, on foot, in order to take revenge on his worst enemy (354). Courage is defined as a quality of mind that enables one to face danger with self-possession or confidence. Certainly all four of these men display this trait.

Skarp-Hedin instructs that no one "...must wail or do anything disgraceful that people will talk about afterwards, for our behavior will be judged by stricter standards than that of others, and that is how it should be"(263). Njal know that his fate will be something that "everyone will least expect," but does not attempt to avoid it (136). Gunnar knows that his life is forfeit when he chooses to stay in Iceland, yet he not only stays, but he attempts to persuade his brother to stay also (166). Fate is unavoidable. A hero accepts that.

The ability to have and be a friend is vital. The friendship between Gunnar and Njal survives seven deaths brought about by their wives. Skarp-Hedin is friend to both Kari and Hogni Gunnarson (174). Kari avenges his friends; the Njalsons, Njal, Bergthora, and Thord. He sees to the welfare of his new friend, Bjorn. He forces Thorhall to accept a settlement because he does not want his friend's life endangered for his sake. "One's back is bare without a brother," is a sentiment born out by the actions of these men.

Generosity, both in word and deed are vital. Njal is generous with his good advice. He "solved the problems of any man who came to him for help"(74). He supports a very large household, yet from his own stores, gives Gunnar all the food that he needs during a famine. Gunnar replies, "Your gifts are good... but I value even more highly your true friendship and that of your sons"(121). Kari has wealth in his background: he carries a spear inlaid with gold, but is generous in his support of the Njalsons, even though they had just met, and defends his friends against a misjudgment, winning their freedom (181,195).

The giving of gifts is an aspect of generosity considered sacred by the Nordic peoples. Kari gives his friends a gold necklace (328). Skarp-Hedin gives good gifts to Hoskuld: a black stallion and two mares, before being misled by Mord (229). He tells Hogni, "I shall give you all the help I can"(174). Gunnar "enhanced his prestige by giving many of his guests gifts"(97). While a-Viking, he gives the King of Denmark a "longship and much treasure as well"(91). he also returns Olvir's two long ships laden with treasure, to which Olvir exclaims that Gunnar is "a fine man"(91). While wealth is a necessary precursor to this type of generosity, conceit is not a heroic quality. "They were considerate to all the household and their travels had not made them arrogant" reflects the proper attitude (92).

Respect for the law is probably the most important characteristic of the hero. Njal is introduced as being "so skilled in law that no one was considered his equal"(74). His skill is first demonstrated by the way he wins Gunnar's case against Hrut (74-82). Throughout the Saga, Njal settles disputes and wins cases, but perhaps his greatest triumph is the establishment the fifth Icelandic court, which was a great benefit to the law. When the people tell him that they prefer to settle all of the Althing disputes with weapons, he says, "that must never happen, it would be quite wrong to have no law in the land"(209). He is always completely honest about his reasons for the actions that he takes, bolstering the sagging law, stating, "with laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste"(159). This remark, as everything else he says, proves true.

Gunnar shows his respect for the law by stating, "I have always been ready to accept settlements"(139). He attempts to settle everything peacefully, but Njal tells him that eventually, he will have "no choice but to retaliate"(142). Even when driven to violence, neither he , nor Kari and Skarp-Hedin, are ever guilty of secret murder: they always announce the killings immediately. Kari respects all of the settlements that he makes, even to the extent of agreeing to make no settlements. His respect for the law could be behind his reconciliation with Flosi, which also spoke well for his common sense. He knows when to stop killing. Gunnar's loss of respect for the law, by breaking his settlement and refusing to leave Iceland, is directly responsible for his death. Skarp-Hedin's death is also directly related to his disregard of the law, a trait which he learns under the influence of Mord Valgardson. His earlier attitude is demonstrated when the narrator comments, "it should be stated that this settlement was never broken"(216). Later, after the wrongful death of Hoskuld, Skarp-Hedin tells his father that "they will never have any legal grounds for prosecuting us," to which his father replies, "then it will end in disaster for everyone"(256). It is the spirit, not the letter of the law, which determines the life-span of a hero.

A hero avenges wrongdoing if the law can not provide compensation. Gunnar kills, but only when necessary, and always attempts to make a settlement. Njal would rather die than be unable to avenge his sons (267). Skarp-Hedin begins his spree of vengeance with the killing of Sigmund, and it ends only with his own death. Kari seeks revenge until he reconciles with Flosi. This characteristic is necessarily tempered by the law, not to mention compassion. Several times, when an individual asks for quarter, it is granted. That is only honorable.

Oath keeping, similar to respect for the law, is also an important trait. Njal never breaks an oath, neither does Kari. Gunnar breaks his oath and pays for it with his life. Skarp-Hedin breaks his pledges of friendship with Hoskuld; the results are disastrous.

A hero follows good advice; disregarding it leads to dishonorable actions and death. Gunnar dies when he ignores Njal's advice to keep the settlement. Skarp-Hedin and Kari are fine, until they dismiss Njal's wisdom in favor of Mord's evil prompting. This kills Skarp-Hedin; Kari escapes solely because of his good luck. That the burning was much more evil than the killing of Hoskuld evens the scale, and Kari's respect for good advice is restored when he places himself in Asgrim's hands.

The killing of Hoskuld breaks several rules of heroism: betrayal of friendship through believing gossip; disregarding the good advice of Njal; and the dishonorable killing of one unprepared man by many. Ignoring heroic standards might bring misfortune to a normal person, but it brings death to heroes.

A hero must be respected by others. "No one can match Njal for cleverness..." is a compliment paid by an enemy (80). Thorhall loves Njal more than his own father (85). His wife would rather burn by his side than leave him. Everyone in Njal's family holds him in such high esteem that they allow him to choose their mates and continue to live with him all of their lives. Njal wields great influence over all of Iceland to the extent that the "new religion" and the fifth court are both established at his urging. His enemy Flosi offers him leave to come out of the house, "for you do not deserve to burn"(267). In this statement, he displays not a few heroic characteristics of his own that are developed at the end of the Saga.

Gunnar's strength and character are so well known that he is recognized by his size and looks, even when disguised. Olvir tells his brother, "you may be my kinsman Hallvard, but I am much more impressed by Gunnar"(87). The King of Denmark is told that "Gunnar (has) no equal in all of Iceland;" the King, turning to Gunnar, tells him, "It seems to me that your equal would be hard to find anywhere"(91). Gunnar wins unanimous support at the Althing because he is so well liked; "everyone agreed that he had no equal in the south quarter"(155). When he is finally taken down by his enemies, they declare, "we have felled a great champion... his last defense will be remembered for as long as this land is lived in"(171).

Kari, a former member of Earl Sigurd's retinue, was "well liked by everyone, and no one stood up to carry out the Earl's order" when he demands Kari's death (343). Flosi, his mortal enemy, has the best things to say of him. "There are few men like Kari, he is the man I would most like to resemble in character. He comes the nearest to being the equal of Gunnar of Hildarend in everything... (and)... there is no one now in all the land like Kari" (270,328,338). Many men pledge never to forsake him and give him much wealth and assistance.

Once again, Skarp-Hedin begins well and ends badly. Later in life, he is rather more feared than respected, and does not go out of his way to win the respect that a hero requires. His razor tongue is quick to fling deadly insults. At the Althing, he does his best to make as many enemies as possible, instead of helping his brothers win support for their case against Flosi. Gudmund initially says, "he is so manly looking I would rather have him in my following than any ten others"(247). All agree that he is fierce, and he seems to have few of the redeeming qualities of a hero, yet his death places him in that category. "They all agreed that they had found it less uncomfortable to see Skarp-Hedin dead than expected; for no one felt any fear of him"(276). The same might be said of Attila the Hun. Skarp-Hedin comes closest to the image of the brutal Viking: he would rather fight than breathe.

Heroes are good speakers. Njal's persuasive abilities are evident in the speech he delivers when proposing the fifth court (209-11). Gunnar's words are all dignified and expressive. He is not verbose, and gets to the point quickly, as when he is speaking to Otkel and Skamkel (128-30). Kari is well spoken to the extent that he waxes poetic when speaking the passion of his heart about the Burning (278,283,320,343).

Heroes are handsome, well-bred, and noble. Skarp-Hedin provides a contrast, demonstrating the failure of these qualities when a man gives up the ideals of heroism. He becomes fierce, looking "evil enough to have come straight form a sea cliff"(246). The others never sacrifice their ideals, and retain their looks and integrity.

A Hero should possess strength, agility, superior fighting skills and/or wit, intelligence, and cleverness. He should not kill without provocation and should respect the law. He should have honor, courage, generosity, nobility, and eloquence. He must be a friend, accept fate, keep his oaths, avenge wrongdoing, and have the respect of others. A combination of these elements is present in each of the four heroes in the Sage, and these men will now be considered separately.

Njal, for whom the Saga is named, is called the greatest lawyer in Iceland, but his two most outstanding traits are his prescience and his honesty. He is introduced as being a "wise and prescient man," whose advice is "sound and benevolent and always (turns) out well for those who follow it"(74). He foretells Gunnar's future, and had Gunnar followed Njal's advice, he would have lived to see old age (135-6). Njal knows the manner of his own death, and when his sons tell him of Hoskuld's killing, he sees that it will lead to "my death, the death of my wife and all my sons"(233). He accurately foretells to Kari that "they will find it hard to cope with your good luck... you will prove more than a match for all of them"(233). Prescience is an inborn trait, but Njal uses it only to benefit others; he is both "wise and well-meaning"(84).

Honesty is a chosen, rather than genetic, characteristic. Njal, labeled a "man of great integrity," is utterly honest. Gunnar tells him, "Njal, everyone can believe what you say"(97). Hogni Gunnarson tells Scarp-Hedin that "...Njal has never been known to lie"(173). Njal's honesty might be his most heroic quality; but he is also gentle without being servile, wise without being overbearing, and Christian without being dogmatic. The radiance of his dead body bespeaks a man very close to sainthood. A more outstanding man would be very difficult to find in any literary creation or historical document. One might wish that Njal were alive and running for President. An honest, prescient President would be a breath of fresh air.

Gunnar's outstanding qualities are his great strength and ability with weapons. He is also an exceedingly faithful friend. Few individuals could have withstood the strain that his wife put on his friendship with Njal and his sons. Gunnar is "considered even-tempered," but his strength and his anger are things that no one would face for long, and his last defense is unequaled in its display of heroic fortitude.

Kari possesses tremendous good luck, the best of any in the Saga. Only a man of luck could have escaped from the Burning, and Njal comments that no one will be able to defeat that luck. Kari is also prescient, indicated by such statements as "Kari was so accurate in his guessing that he left there just as the others gave up the search"(338). When he escapes, up the smoldering beam, he turns to Skarp-Hedin and says, "this parting means that we shall never see each other again"(268).

Kari never speaks badly of his enemies, and never utters threats against them (278). He never breaks an oath, and is a generous, faithful friend. He proves himself to be wise and considerate, sparing those enemies which he considers honorable, like Flosi and Ketil (337). He stands by his friends and his brothers, even when they are making bad decisions. His fighting ability is equal to Gunnar's, and his strategies clever. When he does cease fighting, he does so in an honorable way. All of his qualities are outstanding, and he comes exceedingly close to being the perfect hero, and is the only one who survives to become an elderly man.

Skarp-Hedin demonstrates the contrast between a hero and a rogue through his long fall from grace. His early positive characteristics are equal to his latter evil ones. Strength, courage, cunning, wisdom, luck, and good looks are traded for disrespect, sarcasm, impulsiveness, lucklessness, and evil continence. In the end, his courage redeems him, as he stands in the fire, his legs burning away, branding crosses into his own flesh, and reciting heroic verse with his dying breath.

A true hero is not a superman, nor a Conan. A hero is a human being who makes mistakes, even fatal ones, but who rises above the commonplace, accepts his fate, and retains his honor. Yet no one element can define honor, courage, or heroism. Great deeds are begun with vastly different motivations; anger, fear, a sense of duty or honor, or a case of pure cussed stubbornness. The Icelandic ideal, as represented by the characters in Njal's Saga, is complex and formidable, yet oddly compelling, transcending time and distance to lend missing values to the lives of those who learn its lessons.



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