Overview

SIR GEORGE DASENT'S PREFACE

(ABRIDGED.)


What is a Saga? A Saga is a story, or telling in prose,...
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THE STORY OF BURNT NJAL

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Overview

SIR GEORGE DASENT'S PREFACE

(ABRIDGED.)


What is a Saga? A Saga is a story, or telling in prose,
sometimes mixed with verse. There are many kinds of Sagas, of all
degrees of truth. There are the mythical Sagas, in which the wondrous
deeds of heroes of old time, half gods and half men, as Sigurd and
Ragnar, are told as they were handed down from father to son in the
traditions of the Northern race. Then there are Sagas recounting the
history of the kings of Norway and other countries, of the great line of
Orkney Jarls, and of the chiefs who ruled in Faroe. These are all more
or less trustworthy, and, in general, far worthier of belief than much
that passes for the early history of other races. Again, there are Sagas
relating to Iceland, narrating the lives, and feuds, and ends of mighty
chiefs, the heads of the great families which dwelt in this or that
district of the island. These were told by men who lived on the very
spot, and told with a minuteness and exactness, as to time and place,
that will bear the strictest examination. Such a Saga is that of Njal,
which we now lay before our readers in an English garb. Of all the Sagas
relating to Iceland, this tragic story bears away the palm for
truthfulness and beauty. To use the words of one well qualified to
judge, it is, as compared with all similar compositions, as gold to
brass.[1] Like all the Sagas which relate to the same period of
Icelandic story, Njala[2] was not written down till about 100 years
after the events which are described in it had happened. In the
meantime, it was handed down by word of mouth, told from Althing to
Althing, at Spring Thing, and Autumn Leet, at all great gatherings of
the people, and over many a fireside, on sea strand or river bank, or up
among the dales and hills, by men who had learnt the sad story of Njal's
fate, and who could tell of Gunnar's peerlessness and Hallgerda's
infamy, of Bergthora's helpfulness, of Skarphedinn's hastiness, of
Flosi's foul deed, and Kurt's stern revenge. We may be sure that as soon
as each event recorded in the Saga occurred, it was told and talked
about as matter of history, and when at last the whole story was
unfolded and took shape, and centred round Njal, that it was handed down
from father to son, as truthfully and faithfully as could ever be the
case with any public or notorious matter in local history. But it is not
on Njala alone that we have to rely for our evidence of its genuineness.
There are many other Sagas relating to the same period, and handed down
in like manner, in which the actors in our Saga are incidentally
mentioned by name, and in which the deeds recorded of them are
corroborated. They are mentioned also in songs and Annals, the latter
being the earliest written records which belong to the history of the
island, while the former were more easily remembered, from the
construction of the verse. Much passes for history in other lands on far
slighter grounds, and many a story in Thucydides or Tacitus, or even in
Clarendon or Hume, is believed on evidence not one-tenth part so
trustworthy as that which supports the narratives of these Icelandic
story-tellers of the eleventh century. That with occurrences of
undoubted truth, and minute particularity as to time and place, as to
dates and distance, are intermingled wild superstitions on several
occasions, will startle no reader of the smallest judgment. All ages,
our own not excepted, have their superstitions, and to suppose that a
story told in the eleventh century,--when phantoms, and ghosts, and
wraiths, were implicitly believed in, and when dreams, and warnings, and
tokens, were part of every man's creed--should be wanting in these marks
of genuineness, is simply to require that one great proof of its
truthfulness should be wanting, and that, in order to suit the spirit of
our age, it should lack something which was part and parcel of popular
belief in the age to which it belonged. To a thoughtful mind, therefore,
such stories as that of Swan's witchcraft, Gunnar's song in his cairn,
the Wolf's ride before the Burning, Flosi's dream, the signs and tokens
before Brian's battle, and even Njal's weird foresight, on which the
whole story hangs, will be regarded as proofs rather for than against
its genuineness.[3]
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940013332522
  • Publisher: SAP
  • Publication date: 9/10/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 318 KB

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