No Fixed Point: Gender and Blood Feuds in Njal's Saga

Article excerpt

Critics have long acknowledged the destruction wrought by women in the family sagas, and have interrogated the motivations and structure of their deeds, and those of the men around them. (1) For Richard F. Allen, sagas continue and transform the "heroic" spirit of Germanic poetry, which displays an archetypal "struggle between dark, bloody, engulfing forces from a chaotic realm, forces represented as belonging to a "female chthonic side of nature, against powers with a masculine signature, often incorporated into a single hero, a figure of light." (2) Developing this structuralist and Jungian approach, Allen goes on to speculate on the persistence of the motif of women whetting to revenge, suggesting that:

one explanation is that the figure of the vengeful woman is an outward projection of man's own uneasy awareness of the divided state within him, that it is a mechanism whereby the blame and guilt for his failure to control his passions (and his desire for such failure) can be shifted to an outside cause?

Drawing on the structuralist analysis inaugurated in saga studies by Andersson, Lonnroth sees the feud begun by Hallgerthr and Bergthora as leading to "the hostility between Thrainn Sigfusson and the Njalssons," but seems to accept that there is

a shift in the ethical climate of the saga. The second part has a unity of its own. It centers around one single feud between the sons of Njal and Hoskuldr Hvitanessgothi. The first stage is represented by the Conversion of Iceland.... Njal works to promote (conversion), but the old villains work against it. (4)

That is, Lonnroth sees the "Gunnar's Saga" section of the text as "a prelude" to the rest, and discusses Gunnar's downfall in religious terms, and does not focus on the actions of women as a class. (5) On the other hand, Andersson rejects the importance of the initial quarrel between Bergthora and Hallgerthr, pointing out that, "the rivalry has no function in the plot, but is simply a bit of unattached prefatory matter." (6) More recently, Anne Heinrichs has discussed the way that the Brynhildr-Sigurdr story "reflects a clash between ... a prepatriarchal culture with strong female influence and the ultimately triumphant patriarchal culture." (7)

In this paper, I wish to take as my starting point Allen's acknowledgment that the vengeful woman figure is an projection of, and awareness of, "man's own divided state"; (8) but rather than assimilating gender behavior to a strict hierarchy of binarism, I will suggest that, when seen as a matter of the exercise of power, gender in Njal's Saga is inherently unstable as a consequence of the unfinished nature of the entry into the Symbolic by both men and women. (9) As many critics have noted, the use of psychoanalytic theory as a means of exploring medieval texts is problematic. However, the discourses of gender and desire offered by Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva are productive of insights, especially in the light of the current critical controversy in medieval studies over the issue of social constructionism of gender and power.

Until recently, critics have assumed a dialectic in the sagas between general feminine ties to archaic blood feud and individual masculine preferences for legal settlement. This produces the notably stereotyped portrayals of women in the Norse sagas, particularly in Njal's Saga, where wives, sisters, and mothers incite men to vengeance despite male attempts to impose the judgments of the Althing as resolutions of blood feuds. (10) The determination to return to supralegal reliance on blood alliances is associated with Hallgerthr, Hildigunnr and Bergthora, in opposition to extended narrative of their male relatives' (Gunnar, Flosi and Njall respectively) efforts to avert the escalation of slaughter. The shift from personal and familial based oaths of loyalty and action to proto-codification of laws announced in public is gendered in this saga, and that reveals cultural anxiety over the actual male desire for, and habit of, resorting to violence as the proper response to an offence. …