Book Review: Njal’s Saga translated and edited by Robert Cook

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Interesting, engaging and informative, Njal’s Saga was excellent reading.  Engrossing and dramatic, I will be reading this again in the future. 4.5 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

“You will be paid for like any other free man…You will be paid for in blood.”  Written in the late thirteenth century, Njal’s Saga is the most popular and powerful of all the great Icelandic Family Sagas –  a compelling chronicle of a fifty-year blood feud.  Blending dark dreams, strange prophecies, sexual slander, violent conflict and fragile traces, it is at once heroic and deeply human.  Throughout, memorable characters struggle with their passions, including Gunnar of Hlidarendi, a great warrior with an aversion to killing, the complex and villainous Mord Valgardsson, and the wise and prescient Njal.  But as they search for honour, they remain dominated by perennial man-made problems: failed marriages, divided loyalties, the law’s inability to curb human instincts, and ultimately the terrible consequences when decent men and women are swept up in a tide of violence beyond their control.

The text for this modern translation has been taken from the acclaimed Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, published by Leifur Eiriksson.  This edition includes an introduction, chronology, index of characters, plot summary, family trees, explanatory notes, maps and suggestions for further reading.

Favourite Quote

‘What I don’t know,’ said Gunnar, ‘is whether I am less manly than other men because killing troubles me more than it does them.’

(Njal’s Saga, translated and edited by Robert Cook, pg 93)


This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the great Icelandic family sagas and I found it to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging read.  It took a little while to get into the style of how it was written but that is to be expected when the original text is so old.  Neither did I read it quickly; I read it over the course of about a month, dipping into it only when I felt I had the time to read and absorb what I read.  This, of course, was through choice.

Njal’s Saga offers a glimpse of life in Iceland a millennia ago (although the story was written down in the thirteenth century, it originates several hundred years prior to this).  Like Homer’s The Iliad, not only is this story an epic, it is full of historical facts and events, which are attested to in other records made a round the same time.  Religion, law, home, society, marriages, friendships, travel, violence…so many topics are covered within the narrative.

The story centres around two men, Njal and Gunnar, and their families.  Both are formidable in their way; Njal is considered to be one of the wisest men in Iceland and Gunnar is a warrior, almost without equal, but who was loathe to get into fights because he could see it would only lead to more trouble.  The two were great friends, though their friendship is put under a mighty strain, thanks to the efforts of kith and kin.

Because at the time this was written ancestry and lineage were so important, there are quite extensive lists in places of who is related to who.  These passages reminded me of the genealogies found in the old testament.  However, they are important to the story so that you can see where people’s allegiances lie, and why they might pick one side over another in an argument.

Some of the names mentioned in the text were fantastic and evocative and are worth recalling here.  There was Ragnor Shaggy-breeches,  Bjorn Gold-Bearer,  Hrafn the Foolish, Eirik Blood-axe, Ulf the Unwashed, Sigurd Swine-head…and many, many more.

I loved the end matter included in this book.  There was so much of it and it all added to the richness of the story.  Some parts, such as the family trees, were a necessity in order to keep up with the story, whilst the glossary and notes explained terms, phrases and sayings one might not understand.  One such term whose explanation I found interesting was that of “unborn”, which was found at the end of the name of Uni the Unborn, meaning he was born via Caesarean.

I found the portrayal of women in the story amusing, for many of them were feisty and fierce and extraordinarily troublesome.  If there was trouble – and there was always trouble – it was the women who were stirring it on many occasions.  The men would work with the law to patch up some quarrel or grievance while the women would ignore the settlements, hell-bent on settling the scores themselves.  The following quote perfectly captures the character of one of these women, Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar:

“Gunnar got ready to ride to the Thing, and before he left he spoke to Hallgerd: ‘Behave yourself while I’m away and don’t show your bad temper where my friends are concerned.’

‘The trolls take your friends,’ she said.”

One slight negative was the repetitiveness of the witness testimony, which at times seemed lengthy and hard-going and slowed my reading considerably.  On the one hand I understand why it was there but on the other it did test my patience to hear the same thing again and again, albeit briefly.

I learnt so much from reading this book, and won’t hesitate to pick it up again.  I’m now looking forward to reading more from the great Icelandic family sagas.


4.5 / 5


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #8 in the list: A book you would class as an educational read.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Njal’s Saga translated and edited by Robert Cook

  1. Pingback: Bookish Reflections – May 2019 | Sammi Loves Books

  2. Sounds very interesting! Although also very boring in places, as those types of verbatim old stories are likely to be. Thank goodness they give you a family tree as a reference guide! I don’t know much about this area, so this appeals to me, although I might be more drawn to an abbreviated version that has all that repetitive witnessing and long lists of who begat who glossed over.

    Liked by 1 person

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