The Story of Burnt Njál, or Njál’s Saga is a 13th century Icelandic work of prose that I began adapting into poetic form sometime after working on and performing Shakespeare’s Pericles at the Texas Shakespeare Festival.
Similar to Shakespeare’s epic, I used iambic tetrameter for the prologue/chorus and pentameter for most of the rest. The text I based my adaptation on is George Webbe Dasent’s 1861 English translation of the saga.
I ended up abandoning the project like a sinking Snekkja longship (no money in that kind of piffle) but here’s a look at my progress below.
I rather like the courtship bit between Hrut and Unna; it reminds me of how deeply I was into Shakespeare at the time as it’s very reminiscent (albeit so very much shorter) of his own many wooing scenes, like the one between Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
(Note: If anyone wishes to use any of the scripts posted here for performance, please do! Just drop me a line to let me know they actually getting some use, and I’d appreciate being acknowledged in some way if the production is more substantial than scene-study work.)
In Broadfirth dales our story swells,
Where one by name of Hauskuld dwells.
Of stout and gen’rous heart this man,
And to a feast bids he the land.
His own half-brother Hrut he calls;
A handsome man, and strong, and tall,
Well-skilled in arms and temper mild
A counselor wise, but warrior wild.
This Hrut on brother now attends,
And sits beside him as he bends
His eyes to that same golden prize
which ‘cross the feasting hall now lies:
A daughter, plays amongst the girls,
Her silken hair hung all in curls,
So fair of face and tall of growth,
The pride of father and of host;
Hallgerda named, and mind you now
Remember at this moment how
One brother wise, with vision keen
Does make the future present seen.
Come hither to me, daughter.
What dost thou think of this maiden, brother?
Is she not fair? Thou speakest not.
Again I say, is not my daughter fair?
Fair enough is she, and for that same fairness
Many will pay. But of this I know not;
How thievery’s eyes have come into our line.
One thing I wish for thee, brother Hrut,
And that is that thou wouldst better thy lot
And woo thyself a wife.
T’as been mine wish,
And long on mind, though there have been two sides
Always to the matter; but now I’ll do
As thou wishest. Where shall we turn our eyes?
There is a gathering now of men at court,
And many chiefs will be there at the Thing,
And therefore plenty of choice in women;
But I have set my eyes upon a match
Lies made to thy hand. Her name is Unna,
And she is a daughter of Fiddle Mord,
One of the wisest men to sit at court.
A mighty chief, and taker up of suits,
So great a lawyer that not a judgment’s
Thought lawful lest he had a hand in it.
Thou mayest see her if it pleases thee well.
Thine own best wisdom speaks for thee, brother,
And it doth please me well enough to list.
I’ll ride with thee for sure this coming day.
1.3 The Tester Tested
[Hrut and Hauskuld enter, at the Thing.]
Yonder now is Unna, of whom I spoke;
What thinkest thou of her?
Well. Well i’faith.
But I know not whether we should get on
Together well. Fair one, hast thou a name?
A name have I, as thou hast mud enough
Upon thy boots to thatch my father’s roof.
Truly, thou speak’st a’right. And ’tis that roof
I mean to stand beneath to ask for thine
Own hand in marriage this very same day.
Thou must be wise beyond thy years, good sir.
How canst thou know my father’s booth when thou
Know’st not my name?
How canst thou steal my heart when all I know
Of thee is thy name? Unna is thy name,
The sole daughter of Fiddle Mord.
I know thee well, Hrut of Hrutstede.
‘Tis best to wash thy face before.
A cloth to lend me then?
I’ll see thee by and by.
1.4 A Lawyer Concedes His Largest Case
Hauskald & Hrut
Good-day to thee and to yourself.
‘Tis bitter cold and thankful yet am I
To find myself some ease within these walls.
I have a bargain to present to thee;
My brother Hrut wishes thy son-in-law
To be and by thy daughter’s purchase here;
And for my part will I add my own portion
to the lot.
I know that thou art a great chief, Hauskuld,
But thy brother is yet unknown to me.
For you to ask of me my only child
Is not a bargain I may yield so freely.
He is a better man than I.
May be; And yet I must deny thee still.
A horde of suitors waits beyond to ask
Of me the same. T’will cost thee more than words
To purchase such a rare delight as she.
What price would draw the goods to mart?
Needs lay down a large sum with him for she
Is heir to all that I leave behind me.
He offers all of Kamness and Hrutstede,
As far as Thrandargil does even lie,
A trading-ship and sixty hundreds down;
But if that sum were lacking still when weighed
Upon the scale which is a father’s eye,
Thou must be told of how my brother’s name
Doth shine and glisten more than any gold
In those same lands which I did name to thee.
Bear you in mind that my brother has praised me
Much more than I deserve for my love’s sake;
But if after what thou hast heard from him
Thou wilt still make the match, I am willing
To let thee further name the terms thyself.
I have heard over the terms.
Unna shall have the sixty hundreds down,
And all was said before; But if thou break’st
The last was promised, this shall outweigh all,
For thou wast right to claim thy name as more
In worth than all the lot: A man is but
A thing, and all he may possess shall pass,
But how he stands in the scales of others
Shall long outlive the husk. If ye have heirs,
Ye shall split the goods in half.
To these terms, and let us now take witness.
In Midsummer the marriage feast shall be,
For warmer days must bring thy bride to thee.
1.5 Gold Outweighs Love
[Thiostolf meets Hrut and Hauskuld on their way north back from the Thing. He addresses Hrut.]
A ship has come to the White River, and aboard her is your uncle Auzur, who wishes you to come to him as soon as ever you can.
[Hrut boards the ship.]
Now, dear uncle Auzur, thou must ride west
And stay with me at Hrutstede this winter!
I’ve come in haste to tell thee this:
Thy brother Eyvind is dead
And’s left thee as his only heir at Gula.
A hundred thousand at the least is there
For thee to take as freely as thine own
But many’s at hand will surely seize thy state
Unless thou com’st in arms to claim it fast.
Hrut [to Hauskuld.]
What’s to be done with this, brother?
I have just fixed my bridal day.
Thou must return to Mord and ask of him
To change the bargain which ye two have made.
Sit by his daughter must as thy betrothed
For winters three whilst thou dost lay claim to
Thy heritage; ‘Tis much to cast away!
1.6 A Brief Chorus
So to the south Hrut turns his horse,
A sum of gold has changed the course
Would bind him soon in marriage ties;
But when has this been otherwise?
1.7 A Brief Conversation
How much money is this heritage, that thou goest to claim?
‘Twas said it would come to a hundred thousand, if all was got.
Well, then thou shalt go for it, if thou wilt.
1.8 Men Will Be Men
The bargain broke, Hrut rides home to prepare.
A wife betrothed he leaves, three years to sit
In waiting for a husband to return.
The ship, recall, a promised wedding-gift
Is laden now with wares, and so to sea.
Both Hrut and Uncle Auzur point their prows
Eastward to Gula and what lies ahead.
1.9 A Compelling Welcome
There is a ship put out from land
Which bears the colors of Norway’s King,
Hail, and bring aboard.
I come to you with message not from King
But mother to he; Gunnhilda hight.
She knows you mean to claim your heritage,
But know you this as well: A man named Soti
Has laid his hands upon it already.
If you do stay and list to what she says,
Your suit she’ll bear and speak a word or so
To the King, her son, who may pursue it best.
Methinks here’s little need for longer talk,
I know this Gunnhilda’s distemper well;
If e’er we say we will not go to her,
She’ll drive us hence and take our goods by force.
Return your lady this:
We hap’ly accept her gracious counsel,
And shortly harborage make upon these shores
For length of time as she seems fit to grant.
A message too, by hand her own being writ,
And here’s a dress of honour she sends as well;
For in it thou must go before the king.
“I may not bid you come unto my house
Before you’ve seen my son the king,
Lest men should say, ‘I make too much of them.’
Still I will do all that I can for you.
Be out-spoken before the king, and ask
That one of his body-guard you may be.”
Is it not strange to write a stranger so?
And stranger still the hes’tancy in this:
Methinks this queen has much in store for thee.
1.10 That All May Have What They Wish
Good-day, your majesty.
What is your name?
Hrut, my lord.
Art thou an Icelander?
Indeed, my lord.
What drove thee hither so?
To see your state, my lord, and yet besides:
Because I have a great inheritance
Here in the land for which I’ve need of help
If I’m to lay my rightful claim to it.
I’ve giv’n my word that every man shall have
His lawful justice here in Norway;
But hast thou any other errand here?
My lord, I wish to live within your court
And be as one who even guards your life.
It seems to me this Hrut has freely giv’n
An honour greater than most men would grudge:
If there were more such men within your guard
T’would well be filled.
Is he but wise?
Yea, and more: he’s willing.
Methinks my mother quick would grant the rank
Which here in thine own gracious words thou askest;
But for the sake of our kingly honour
And well-worn custom of this ordered land,
In half-month’s time thou must return to me
And then thou shalt be made one of my guard.
Meantime, my mother will take care of thee.
Follow them to my house, and treat them well.
Here is her high seat, and in’t thou shalt sit
E’en though she comes herself into the hall.
[Gunnhillda enters. Hrut stands.]
Keep thy seat!
My lady. [He sits again.]
And keep it, too,
For all the time thou art mine honor’d guest.
[She sits. They drink.]
Tonight thou shalt stay in the upper chamber
And with me thou shalt be.
You’ll have your way.
Gunnhilda [to the attendants.]
Ye’ll lose nothing if ye say but a word
Of how the two of us are going on;
Nothing except your lives.
When the half-month was over Hrut gave her a hundred ells of household woollen and twelve rough cloaks, and Gunnhillda thanked him for his gifts. Then Hrut thanked her and gave her a kiss and went away. She bade him “farewell.”
And next day he went before the king with thirty men after him and bade the king “Good-day.”
The king said, “Now, Hrut, thou wilt wish me to carry out towards thee what I promised.”
So Hrut was made one of the king’s body-guard, and he asked,”Where shall I sit?”
“My mother shall settle that,” said the king.
Then she got him a seat in the highest room, and he spent the winter with the king in much honour.
When the spring came he asked about Soti, and found out he had gone south to Denmark with the inheritance.
Then Hrut went to Gunnhillda and tells her what Soti had been about. Gunnhillda said, “I will give thee two long-ships, full manned, and along with them the bravest man, Wolf the Unwashed, our overseer of guests; but still go and see the king before thou settest off.”
Hrut did so; and when he came before the king, then he told the king of Soti’s doings, and how he had a mind to hold on after him.
What strength’s my mother handed o’er to thee?
Two long-ships and Wolf the Unwashed to lead.
Well giv’n, and I will give another two;
But even then thou’lt need all strength thou’st got.
Fare thee well and return with best of news.
Now to the ships: the two and two,
To brace the one Hrut sailed thus far;
Five ships in all and warriors three.
Hrut of Hrutstede, Uncle Auzur,
And Wolf the Unwashed now hold
A course due south, and to the Sound.
There is many a ship lies ‘cross the Sound;
What’s best to be done now, Icelander?
Hold true to our course; for nothing ventured,
Nothing’s had. My ship and Auzur’s go first
And thou canst lay thy ship where thou likest.
Seldom have others been a shield to me,
So I shall lay my galley ‘side thine own.
There’s ships do hold course for us through the Sound.
Then maybe there will be gain to be got.
Ye fare unwarily!
Saw ye not that warships were in the Sound?
But what’s the name of your chief sails ahead?
Hrut of Hrutstede.
And tell, whose man art thou?
One of king Harold Grayfell’s body-guard.
‘Tis long since any love was lost ‘tween us,
Father and son, and your curst Norway kings.
Worse luck for thee.
The best luck thou canst find
Is that thou shalt not live to tell the tale.
Truth to say, Hrut, thou dealest here big blows,
But thou hast much to thank Gunnhillda for.
Something tells me thou speak’st with fateful tongue.