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

By Anderson, Carolyn | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Anderson, Carolyn, Philological Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.