Njál’s Saga and Bleak House

Untitled painting (Icelandic landscape), by Matthew Herring, 2006. © Matthew Herring 2006
Untitled painting (Icelandic landscape), by Matthew Herring, 2006. © Matthew Herring 2006

When I went on holiday recently I took two books with me to read, which I didn’t expect to see many connections between – but I did. They were Njál’s Saga (an old favourite of mine) and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. They have a few things in common: complex, sprawling plots; a bewildering number of characters; and a concern with the fitness of legal processes to deliver justice. The thing which struck me though was simply that both centre around a gross and self-perpetuating evil which blights multiple generations, and which is only either stopped or counteracted by acts of grace. 

WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS (if you care about things like that)!

Njál’s Saga concerns a series of linked blood feuds in 10th/11th century Iceland which rumble on for sixty years or so, taking the lives of an increasing number of people with each iteration. Each killing demands its recompense. The ‘good’ characters (notably the peacemaker Njáll) try to make sure that recompense is exacted legally in the form of financial settlement. However, rasher temperaments and the pressure of honour have a way of forcing matters back towards violent means. The law, for all its sophistication and the effort put into its machinations, is ultimately powerless to stop the violence.  

The central incident of the saga is the attack by a hundred or so men, led by the chieftain Flosi, on Njáll and his family. The targets of the attack are Njáll’s violent sons. However, the cowardly action of the attackers – burning Njáll’s house down rather than fighting the sons directly – takes the lives not only of the sons but of the elderly Njáll and his entire family. Only Njáll’s son-in-law Kári escapes the burning. This act shortly afterwards leads to a large pitched battle at the Althing (national assembly), after an attempted legal action breaks down in a mess of technicalities. The battle is stopped with difficulty. In an attempt to prevent further violence, one of the peacemakers, Hallr of Siða, declares that he will not seek recompense for his son, who died in the battle. This act by an otherwise minor character is the seed which ultimately comes to fruition in the ending of the feud.  

The saga’s final section concerns the one-man campaign of vengeance by Kári, the burning survivor, on the burners. Kári refuses to be party to the peace treaty which ends the Althing battle and instead begins pursuing the burners across Iceland and as far afield as Wales and Orkney. As Kári slaughters the burners, Flosi, impressed by the example of Hallr of Siða, does nothing to avenge them. Eventually, Kári exhausts his grief and fury and makes peace with Flosi. And so ends the feuding.

In Bleak House, set in England at an undefined time in the nineteenth century, it is the court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce that is the great evil. A set of contradictory wills leads to years of pointless legal wrangling by self-interested lawyers. Dickens’s novel is a satire on the notoriously slow and unjust Court of Chancery (abolished in the 1870s). The case exerts a terrible pull on those concerned with it, grinding them down amid raised and broken hopes. It corrupts whatever and whoever it touches. Generations of descendants of the original Jarndyce are destroyed by the case – one blows his brains out in despair; another dies a nervous wreck leaving a baby son. Only one descendant is able to break the family curse (as he calls it), by acts of self-giving. 

John Jarndyce, suitor in the case and owner of Bleak House, acts as a father to his two orphaned young cousins and a third young person, the novel’s central character, Esther Summerson. He reverses the doubly ironic name of his house by making Bleak House a place of refuge and love. He is acting, in a mercenary sense, against his own interests, because his two cousins’ interests are opposed to his in the court case. But John Jarndyce consistently puts the interests of others before his own. He ends the book a little like John the Baptist, saying (in effect) ‘I must decrease’. Although John Jarndyce is unable to stop Jarndyce and Jarndyce and fails to save all those he attempts to save from it, he succeeds in creating a counter narrative of grace as a foil to the ravages of the case. His ‘Bleak House’ ethos perpetuates itself down to a second generation. There is even a second literal Bleak House to contain this ethos. Good, as in Njál’s Saga, leads to good, just as surely as evil to evil.