Brennu-Njáls Saga, or the saga of Burnt Njál, regularly ranks as one of the most popular and loved of the Icelandic family sagas. Thanks to its lively, twisting-and-turning and regularly bloody plot, it’s also one of the best-known, in Iceland and beyond.
It makes for fun subject matter, then, on all sorts of academic programmes at all sorts of levels. Needless to say, I was more than chuffed to get the chance to work with it towards my MSc this year. Who doesn’t like a bit of high drama for credit?
That said, as a relative newbie to the tale, it took a bit of prep to enjoy fully the immersion within Njál’s world. It consists of over 150 chapters, with multiple characters – both headliners and a plethora of bit-parts – and as such, it can be dizzying to follow closely. Especially if you are getting to grips with it in the original language.
Thankfully, there are some excellent resources to help out, whether that’s in Old Norse, Modern Icelandic, or English. Here are some of the best routes I’ve found into this exciting, distant world.
Brennu-Njáls Saga for Free
Dipping your toe in the water is the first step. And you can get to know the sagas for absolutely no outlay. Totally free. If that’s not an invitation to give them a try, I don’t know what is!
The Icelandic Saga Database project makes available the entire collection of family sagas in existence, both in the original (with modernised spelling), as well as numerous translations. Brennu-Njáls Saga, with its wildly popular status, is available in six languages. You can read online, or save to read offline as EPUB or PDF files, amongst others.
Brennu-Njáls Saga : The Cook Translation
As fantastic as free is, some of those translations are rather old. For instance, the English translation of Brennu Njáls on the Icelandic Saga project site is the 19th Century version by George W. DaSent.
However, some scholars prefer to set the more modern translation by Robert Cook – this is the edition set on my own university course:
Besides, if I’m getting to grips with a text intimately, I like both an electronic and hard copy; the Cook translation was a no-brainer despite the absolutely adequate older translation in PDF form.
The Perfect Spoken Companion
I find the ready availability of audiobooks also a great support when diving deep into long texts, too. Audible by Amazon have a superb English version available, narrated expertly by a speaker with native Icelandic. I cannot tell you how beautifully he pronounces the many, many personal names:
However, before you buy that, there’s a trick to get it much more cheaply than the standalone list price (nearly £20 at the time of writing). If you purchase the extremely cheap Kindle version (72p, right now!), you have the chance to add WhisperSync narration for £2.99. Oddly, that Kindle version is not the Cook version, as listed – it’s actually the older DaSent translation. However, the narration is the Cook work. Look beyond that minor confusion, and for just a few quid you can listen to the recommended modern translation.
Cowboy Crib Notes
Now, if you have a passing interest in Old Norse or the sagas, you may well have come across Jackson Crawford already. He’s the stetson-wearing academic who shares his nordic knowledge before stunning Colorado backdrops. His video catalogue is prolific and very current – he posts regularly on all sorts of aspects of Old Norse.
Crawford has helpfully published a whole series of recap videos for Brennu-Njáls Saga. They’re straightforward and clear – music to the ears of students trying to get their heads around the dramatic twists and turns. The first part is here:
Finally, if the original Old Icelandic is proving tough, but you still want a taste of the language, there are some wonderful free modern Icelandic resources available via Iceland’s education department Menntamálastofnun (a goldmine I’ve tapped many a time). They are retellings, rather than phrase-for-phrase translations, but offer an easy way in if you want to support your modern language studies too.
Takk fyrir, Ísland!
Whether you’re giving Njáls a go for fun, for study, or both, these are all great places to start. And if it whets the appetite, there is a whole world of material written about the saga. A quick search on JSTOR throws up myriad articles. That’ll keep me out of trouble for a few weeks…
Góða skemmtun / have fun!