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Investigating the Manuscripts: The Saga of Burnt Njáll

  • Images from the Njál's Saga tapestry Sewing of this fantastic work began in 2011 and is still in progress. It is exhibited at The Saga Centre in the town of Hvolsvöllur in South Iceland. The Centre offers guided tours through an exhibition about Njál´s Saga and the Viking age. Tapestry by Gunnhildur Edda Kristjánsdóttir and Christina M. Bengtsson.

Did you know that the most famous Sagas of Icelanders: ‘The Saga of Burnt Njáll’ (Brennu-Njáls Saga), is preserved in 60 manuscripts? JEREL LAI spoke to Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir who is leading a fascinating research into the origin of the saga, that is the best-known text written in Icelandic

Manuscripts are an important monument to any society’s literary history, and they are especially important in Iceland. The Icelandic sagas were written starting in the 13th century, even though the events described took place 200 to 300 years prior. Today, the medieval Icelandic manuscripts containing the sagas are preserved and housed in The Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík. The manuscripts of Brennu-Njáls Saga, the most well-known and most read of all the sagas, are currently being researched in a project entitled, “The Variance of Njáls Saga.” 


Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir “Already around 1300 there were different versions of the text available.” Photo/Jerel Lai

Óskarsdóttir is a researcher at the Árni Magnússon Institute and the principal investigator in the project, “The Variance of Njáls Saga.”Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir is a researcher at the Árni Magnússon Institute and the principal investigator in the project, “The Variance of Njáls Saga.”

How would you describe the project?
The aim of the project is to explain and celebrate the variants of Njáls Saga. An ordinary person, who walks into a bookshop and picks Njáls Saga off the shelf, assumes that it is just the text of Njáls Saga, but the Njáls Saga is in fact preserved in 60 manuscripts; 30 of these are medieval parchment manuscripts. In the project we accept that there are many manuscripts and we want to explore their differences: in their appearance, in the text, and in the perception of the saga, and, from a linguistic point of view: what these manuscripts tell us about language change and linguistic preferences.

How did the idea for the project come about?
An inspiration was the fact that we do not have an adequate edition of Njáls Saga. There is a very good 19th-century edition by Konráð Gíslason, which gives some idea of the different texts of the manuscript. Now with modern techniques, we have an opportunity to show readers the differences that can not be seen in a printed edition. In a printed edition, the page always restrains you; so one aim of the project is to start an archive, which could be the basis of a new electronic edition accessible to scholars and to readers throughout the world.

When did the project start?
We applied for a grant with Rannís, The Icelandic Center for Reasearch, and we were very lucky to get the grant, as this was the first time we tried. The grant was for three years, from 2011 to 2013, so we are really wrapping up the project.

What is involved in the project?
A lot of it is transcription work, and we have been lucky that we’ve been able to engage students in the work. The transcriptions are encoded into XML.

There is a PhD student in Madison, Wisconsin, whose work is linked with our project. She’s been measuring the size of the manuscripts, the text block, the density of the text per page, looking at marginal notations, and other aspects, in order to postulate for whom the manuscripts were meant, and so forth.

And then, we’ve been looking at the differences in the texts and debating the significance of these differences.

Are there any findings that you were expecting or curious about?
We wanted to revisit the question of the textual relationships of the manuscripts, which has been addressed by scholars before us in the 19th and the 20th centuries. These people had to work without computers, and computers are a big help, as they are quicker at aligning differences. Previous scholars have maintained that there are three main textual branches of Njáls Saga. But even so, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson [one of the foremost saga scholars of the 20th century] was unsure about some of the manuscripts, so we hope to be able to refine his findings and the findings of the 19th-century scholars before him.

One branch of manuscripts that has not been looked into much is the Gullskína branch of manuscripts. Gullskína was a medieval parchment codex of Njáls Saga that is now lost, but was extant in the 17th century. Copies were made of it, and the text was very popular in 17th and 18th-century Iceland. The majority of existing paper manuscripts of Njáls Saga are descendants of that lost codex. Since 19th and 20th-century scholars were not interested in “young” manuscripts, they left it out. We hope this will bring attention to a fourth branch, in addition to the three traditional branches of Njáls Saga manuscripts. 


Njáls-Saga tapestry Started and still guided by Gunnhildur Edda Kristjánsdóttir and Christina M. Bengtsson, the tapestry will be around 90 m (295 ft.) long when finished. They use the Bayeux stitch, a special type of stitch that was used in the Viking age. 

Are there more manuscripts that have been found than they had back then?
Yes, all the parchment manuscripts were already at their disposal, but there are also paper manuscripts that they didn’t work with. They didn’t concern themselves much with paper manuscripts, so the paper descendants of the Gullskína branch were cast aside. But with them, we have a new set of data. We found, for instance, an 18th-century manuscript that is owned by the Catholic church, Landakotskirkja, in Reykjavik. There are also a couple of manuscripts that were in private ownership that have since come to light. A young manuscript may theoretically preserve a very old text of a lost medieval exemplar, as with Gullskína, which is lost but on which later manuscripts were based.

You mentioned at least 60 manuscripts of Njáls saga. Are there many that haven´t been looked at but a few that scholars mainly focused on when they were researching?
Scholars worked with two main editions. Konráð’s edition gives you as full a text as possible with variants, but you don’t see all the text in manuscripts. When you come to the 20th century, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson’s Íslenzk fornrit (old Icelandic texts) is the standard edition for most scholars throughout the world. Einar Ólafur based his edition mainly on Möðruvallabók, which is a 14th-century manuscript. Since there are lacunae in Möðruvallabók, he incorporated readings from other manuscripts.

There are two manuscripts of Njáls Saga that are better known than others, that’s Reykjabók, which is among the oldest, from around 1300, and Möðruvallabók, which is slightly younger. We also have Gráskína, which is also from around 1300, roughly the same time as Reykjabók, but it’s a lesser-known text. There is slightly different wording in them, the style is slightly different, and you can even get a slightly different feel for the characters from the way they express themselves. The plot is always the same, but there are subtle differences, which are very interesting and people deserve to have access to it.

I would like to be able to publish it for the general public in Iceland. Then you could walk into a bookstore in Reykjavík and ask, “Oh, I’d like to buy Njáls Saga” and you would hear, “Yes, would you like the Möðruvallabók text, the Gráskína text, or the Reykjabók text?” We should do it, because it’s our monument, maybe the best-known text written in Icelandic.  But we should not obscure the fact that already around 1300 there were different versions of the text available. And why shouldn’t they be available in the 21st century?

Why do you think Njáls Saga has become so popular?
I think it’s partly the breadth of it. The basic story concerns feuds and revenge, but it also incorporates the advent of Christianity. Also, it’s not confined to Iceland, and I think it appeals to non-Icelanders partly because it connects to the geography and history of other countries. Also the characters are wonderfully vivid, and there are many very memorable one-liners, and a lot of elegantly and succinctly phrased sentences. There’s quite a lot there to admire and keep people interested.

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