Lawyers in the Old Icelandic Family Sagas: Heroes, Villains, and Authors
Saga-Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research, Vol.20 (1978-81)
Introduction: In no other literature but Old Icelandic is such prominence given to the manly art of legal prosecution and defence. Along with the accomplishments of skill in arms and verse-making, many a saga hero is credited with a knowledge of law and legal procedure. Many of these heroes are shown duelling with their enemiesin a series of legal disputes forming a series of chapters. In some sagas legal conflict plays such a large role that the sagas deserve to be called “lawyer sagas”, as other sagas are called “outlaw sagas” or “poetsagas”.
The great number of legal episodes in the family sagas has never won critical esteem. On the contrary, disapproval is common. Modern readers who appreciate the literary values of the sagas do not appreciate “the details of legal procedure which fill so many pages of the sagas, somewhat to their detriment as artistic creations”. Readers ofprevious generations who valued the historical features of the sagas did not value “the law quibbles characteristic of the forged sagas… which lower the tone of much of Njal’s Saga”.’ Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century copyists of Njals saga, whether they regarded the saga as literature or history, abbreviated or omitted much of the law.’ Considering the long-standing aversion to law, perhaps “lawyer saga” would be more pejorative than descriptive. A closer look at some law in the sagas may help explain why there is so much of it.