The role of fate in Icelandic sagas

The role of fate in Icelandic sagas is a hotly debated topic among historians of this period, some argue that it is a prominant feature while others contend that does not feature at all. There is no shortage of sagas translated into English to pursue this question which offer a fascinating insight into the culture and politics of medieval Iceland. Njal’s saga for example is the account of a feud in Iceland, the narrative describes pagan theme of fate throughout the saga but also how this interacts with other sections of society. The person for who the saga is named after, Njal, is an interesting subject as he is unique in terms of who these sagas are usually written about. He was not a powerful warrior who killed many people in combat but instead was widely respected as a wise man who people went to help them settle disputes. This is in contrast to another main character in the saga, Gunnar, who is your more archetypal hero in a saga who is a strong warrior.

The role of religion in the Icelandic sagas is very prominent which is still being debated over by historians of this period, especially in regards to fate. Prophetic dreams and the supernatural feature heavily in many but especially in the example of Njal’s saga. Fate is the idea that an individual cannot control their future and it is predetermined by supernatural forces. In Norse and Germanic mythology the Norns are female giantesses who rule the destinies of men and women, they are often represented as weaving which in many cultures is associated with fate and were thought to visit newborn children to bestow their destiny in pre-Christian Norse societies. Norns are often seen as negative beings associated with violent death and battle, in Egil’s saga Kveldulf makes a poem to mourn the death of his son Thorolf, he expresses his sense that what happened was out of his control and was fate.

It has been argued by some such as the late Halldor Laxness that the Njal’s saga is primarily about fatalism that is very prominent in Norse paganism. Laxness argues that Njal’s saga shows that Iceland in the 13th century had a “very strong heathen spirit” despite the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 AD.  Other historians have however disagreed with this assessment, Magnus Magnusson argues that “the action is swept along by a powerful under-current of fate” but despite Njal’s best efforts to change what happens it is nevertheless “not fatalist in the heathen sense”. Icelandic philosopher Thorsteinn Gylfason goes further than Magnusson and rejects the idea that fatalism is featured in Njal’s saga at all and that there is no supernatural force controlling the characters. These different views on the prominence of the role of the Norse pagan idea of fate in Njal’s saga show that there is no consensus on this topic.

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