Being Read by Burnt Njal

On occasion, a book arrests me.  While a visit to a Shanghai foreign book store left my pack loaded with ‘the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and ‘Madness and Civilization’, it was the unexpected catch which has called for attention first: the Icelandic history/tale ‘Njal’s saga’.

Simultaneously my wife and I took up Game of Thrones.  Aside from the map detail and theme song, the rest of our GoT experience has been horribly disappointing.  It simply has n’t stood up to the likes of the West Wing, or the Wire, or even the Newsroom.

Why has the first captured my imagination, along with its struggles, while George R.R. Martin’s creations disappoint so thoroughly?  The saga centers around family conflicts on the kingless island of Iceland.  Their elaborate system of laws, for which each man and his family must be the guarantor if a suit is to be successful, and at the same time must defend a sense of honor…which does n’t match with my modern concepts of chivalry [there’s been nothing of rescuing helpless maidens for instance, not that this is what I want]– it’s not a question of manners, but of whether these farmers are able to acquit themselves well without destabilizing the island’s relative peace.

I think I recognise a shame culture — even an isolated collectivism in the tale of Burnt Njal which is slowly becoming less foreign to me.  The characters have little by way of modern dialogue — opting instead to utter insult for insult or seeking a peace which serves the opinion of the other assemblants.  Njal’s skills at law seem to be related most to his willingness to do what is best for all Iceland, rather than appeasing himself, and to his ability to predict how another will prosecute their case.  He sees disaster coming, but will not bemoan it as a Sophocletian character — his part is to be played and he will take each step.

It seems to me that a shame culture requires one to know his standing with other key people — but there is nothing of ‘guilt’ to be spoken for (speaking in absurd generalities here).  Here I would be curious of others’ perspectives.

Ah and one more aspect — the communal.  Despite having some Old Testament reading background, multiplied genealogies for an era for which I am unfamiliar are unhelpful.  I would hear more of the character’s inner deliberations and hesitations, and less of whose line he comes from.  But these names, which are largely awesome [snake-in-eye being a favorite] reflect both what others think of him [Thorkel Bully, for instance] and who he is — who he is is not an individual spot of land, but a question of who stands with him and what fathers of renown he can boast.  These are largely alien concepts for me, but they are not the worse because I do not understand them deeply.  They are a culture far from my own, and for this I can attempt to learn from them [though I do not mean to perpetuate their violence or reinstate a fully patriarchal society].

And in this I am read by the saga, and less the saga is read by me.


GoT, meanwhile, fails to develop a satisfying storyline.  I can’t see why anyone wants to rule the iron throne or why so many characters are left undeveloped.  It is far more soap opera rolled into mystery than saga — there is no great journey of an Odysseus or great injustice of an Oedipus or even the case of a wise and well-respected Njal.  Some of the brutality and sensuality could be excused as part of the tale if there were truly a going — but in this adventure it seems that there is only carnage and jockeying for position, and all prepared to entertain.  But is entertainment merely following along with glee as undeveloped shadowy character after undeveloped shadowy character is cut off from the land of the living?  Could n’t there be a closer look at the machinations which go into a real war — or a consideration of some common persons — or a noble and well-educated non-caucasian character?  How can this be called story?

What is to be read in me is whether I would finish a story simply to say I have finished it — and what is the value then? to know who sits atop the throne — this is why I deplore mystery novels.  They are almost inevitably unworthy of a second reading.  A saga, meanwhile, is worth revisiting as it tells me of a flawed way of dealing with your neighbors — is not my individualism itself a violence to community?  How does guilt relate to, or block out, shame?

One leaves me to question myself, while the other leads me to count the minutes until at last the credits roll.  Which should I prefer?


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