The Njála Trip

In this letter I’ll show you pictures from another field trip.  This one had a somewhat more specific educational aim than the last.  On this trip, we visited several of the more important locations from Brennu-Njáls Saga.  (Remember, in Icelandic, the j is not pronounce the way it is in English.  It’s pronounced like a y, but only if the y is a consonant.  For hypothetical younger readers not yet familiar with the term “consonant”, I’m talking about the y at the start of words like “yellow”, “yak”, and “yodel”, not the y in words like “fly”, “xylophone”, or “tyrant”.)

The title, Njáls Saga, means, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, that the saga is about a man named Njál.  You’ll notice, though, that I’ve put no apostrophe between the l and the s the way I should if this were an English title.  The apostrophe that we use to form the possessive form of people’s names in English actually signifies that there is a letter missing.  For a lot of Old English words, you see, the possessive was formed with an es, and over time, this became a contraction.  Other words did not form the possessive with an es, but we thought that all words ought to be treated equally, so we changed (lots of) them.  Norse and English are closely related and a lot of their words share common ancestors (fewer now than in the middle ages, but still plenty), and presumably those possessive Norse nouns that end with an s once had a vowel too, but they must have disappeared before writing came to Scandinavia.

Njáls Saga is one of the Íslendingasögur, which roughly translates to “Sagas of the Icelanders”.  This is not the be confused with just saying “Icelandic Sagas”.  The term, “Icelandic Sagas” just means sagas that were written in Iceland, and that means near to all of them.  Íslendingasögur, on the other hand, means the sagas that are specifically about the early settler families in Iceland.  This is one of several “genres” (for lack of a better word) of saga, and according to most folk, is the best of those “genres”.

Now about the name, Njál: it’s not originally a Norse name at all.  Again, I think you’ve already guessed: it’s a Norse-ified version of the name, Neil, which is Irish.  The fact is, while many of Iceland’s settlers and almost everything about its language and culture came from Scandinavia (especially Norway), there were also lots of immigrants from Ireland.  No mention is made of any connection to the Njál in this story and Ireland, though.

If you haven’t read Brennu-Njáls Saga (called Njáls Saga or just Njála, for short), I recommend it.  If you have, some of these locations will be meaningful to you.  But for the sake of those who have not read it, I will not say too much about the story lest I ruin any surprises for them.

Our first stop was at a museum dedicated to Njáls Saga.  I won’t give you a lengthy rundown of the exhibits, as most of them basically summarized the saga.  But I’ll hit the high points.

First up is a picture of what a medieval Norse map would have looked like.  As you can see, the world was much simpler back then.

Here we have both a wooden model of a ship and a map of the North Atlantic world.  You’ll notice, of course, that North America is on there, and is labeled Vinland.  The story goes that it is named for the grapevines that Leif the lucky and company saw when they visited.  The “vin” part at the beginning is a relative of the English words “vine” and “wine”.

Here is a model of a medieval Icelandic house.  As you can see, the frame was often built of wood, either imported lumber or driftwood found on the beach, but the walls were made of turf, which, I’m told, made for pretty good insulation.  There are still some houses here that have turf walls.  I think most are used as barns and storage sheds these days, but I could be wrong.

Here’s a look at what the inside of such a house would have looked like.  This is the restaurant part of the museum.  It’s not quite accurate, mind you.  The outermost tables are where the beds would really be.  But you get the idea.

From a hilltop overlooking the area where the saga took place.

This is a shed on a farm we visited.  While this shed was not around yet at the time, this farm is thought to be on the same land that used to belong to Njál and his wife, Bergþora.

But the shed that’s actually shown in this photo looks a lot like a Hobbit’s hole from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series.

And then we went home.

Thanks for reading.

B.

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