The Red Romance Book, by Andrew Lang

Njal’s Burning

Now, Valgard the Cunning was dying. And he sent for his son Mord and bade him stir up strife between Njal’s sons and their brother Hauskuld the priest, for he ever hated Njal, and longed to be avenged on him. So Mord fared to Hauskuld, and told him tales of what his brothers had said of him, but Hauskuld bade him begone, for he would listen to none of his stories. Then Mord left Hauskuld the priest, and had ready a long tale, how that Hauskuld had meant to burn them while they sat at a feast in Whiteness, had not Hogni, Gunnar’s son, come by. And as this plan had failed, he set about gathering his men together to slay his brothers as they rode home, but neither Grani, son of Gunnar, nor Gunnar, son of Lambi, had the heart to do it.

At first, neither Njal’s sons, nor Kari, who had married their sister, would give ear to Mord’s false words, but in spite of themselves ill-feelings began to spring up in their breasts towards Hauskuld.

Thus things went on for many months, and whenever Mord met one of Njal’s sons, or Kari, who had married their sister, he had new stories to tell them, till at length their hearts grew hot, and they determined that they would slay Hauskuld, lest perchance he might first slay them.

Hauskuld was sowing his corn when his brothers, and with them Mord, Valgard’s son, came up to kill him. Skarphedinn, Njal’s son, was their leader, and had bidden the rest each to give Hauskuld a wound. But the first blow dealt by Skarphedinn brought him on his knees, and he died praying that they might be forgiven for the ill they had brought on him, guiltless.

When he was dead they went home and told Njal what they had done.

‘It had been well if two of you had died and Hauskuld had lived,’ said Njal after he had heard the tidings, ‘for I know better than you what will be the end of this.’

‘And what will be the end?’ asked Skarphedinn.

‘My death, and yours, and your mother’s,’ answered Njal.

‘Shall I die also?’ he asked; but Njal shook his head.

‘Good fortune will ever be with you!’ he answered, and turned away and wept.


Now all men knew that at the next Thing a suit would be brought for the slaying of Hauskuld, and Njal and his sons made ready to fare to it, and to hear the award which should be given. But first sundry of Njal’s friends came to see him and offered to stand by him, and to set up their tents beside his, and among them were Gizur the white and Asgrim. And at the Thing an award was made, but was made void by a quarrel between Flosi, the friend of Hauskuld the slain, and Skarphedinn, and Njal and his sons returned home, and Njal’s heart was heavy.

‘Are you riding back to your wife?’ asked he of Kari, his son-in-law; and Kari made answer, ‘Whatever happens to you, happens to me!’ and they all stayed at Bergthorasknoll.


In the house dwelt an old, old woman, so old that she had nursed Bergthora, Njal’s wife, and she was wise and could see into the future. Njal’s sons laughed at her warnings, and took no heed to them, but for all that they knew well that it was often the truth she told them. One day Skarphedinn was standing outside the door, and the old woman came out with a stick in her hand, and she passed silently by him, and walked up the path to where a pile of dried shrubs lay above the house.

‘May a curse be upon you!’ she cried, shaking her stick over it; and Skarphedinn, who had followed after her, asked wherefore she was wroth with the pile.

‘Because with the fire lighted from this pile there will be a great burning,’ said she. ‘And Njal and his sons will be burnt, and Bergthora, my foster-child. So carry it away and scatter it in the water, or else set fire to it before your enemies can get here!’

‘What is the use of doing anything?’ answered Skarphedinn, ‘for if it is written that we should be burned, our foes will find some other fuel, though I were to scatter this stack to the four winds;’ and he went away laughing.

All through the summer the old nurse was ever begging Njal to do away with the stack of vetch, but the harvest was plentiful in the pastures and the men never came home save to sleep.

‘We can bring in that vetch stack any time,’ they said.


The harvest was stored in the barns, and a good harvest it was. There had been none such since the day that Gunnar had fared from Lithend with Kolskegg, and had returned to his ruin. One day, when Grim and Helgi, Njal’s sons, had ridden away to Holar to see their children, who were at nurse there, they heard strange tidings from some poor woman, that the country side was stirring and that bands of men were gathering together, and were seen riding along the same road.

At this news Grim and Helgi looked at each other.

‘Let us go home to Bergthorasknoll,’ said they.

Now they had told their mother they would sleep that night at Holar, with their children, so she gave no thought to them; but in the evening, when the hour had come to prepare supper, Bergthora bade every man choose whatever dish he liked best, ‘for,’ said she, ‘this is the last food you will eat in this house!’

‘Of a truth you must be ill to speak such words,’ cried they.

‘They are true words,’ she said again; ‘and that you may know them to be true, I will give you a sign. Before the meat that is on the board to-night is eaten, Grim and Helgi will be in the house!’ and she held her peace and went out.

When the food was prepared, Bergthora called to them, and all sat down but Njal, who lingered in the doorway.

‘What hinders you eating with the rest?’ asked Bergthora; and Njal, as he answered, put his hand before his eyes.

‘A vision has come to me,’ he said slowly —‘the wall is thrown down, and the board is wet with blood.’

At this the men’s faces grew pale, and a strange look came into their eyes, but Skarphedinn bade them be of good cheer, and to remember that, whatever might befall, all men would look to them to bear themselves bravely.

Then Grim and Helgi entered with their tidings, and every one had in his mind what Bergthora had said, and knew that ill was in store.

‘Let no man sleep to-night,’ said Njal, ‘but take heed to his arms.’

The band of Njal’s foes, headed by Flosi, had ridden to a valley behind the house, and had fastened their horses there. After that they walked slowly up the path, to the front of the house, where Njal and his sons, and Kari, his-son-in-law, and his thralls, thirty in all, stood up to meet them.

Then both sides halted and spoke together. Flosi’s counsel was to fall on them where they stood, though he knew that few would there be left to tell the tale to their children.

Njal, for his part, desired that his men might return inside the hall, for the house was strong; ‘and if Gunnar alone could keep them at bay they will never prevail against us,’ he said.

‘Ah, but these chiefs are not of the kind that slew Gunnar,’ answered Skarphedinn, ‘for they turned a deaf ear to Mord’s evil counsel to set fire to Lithend, so that Gunnar and his wife and mother should be burnt up in it. But this band care nothing for what is fair and honourable, so long as we leave our bones behind us.’

Then Helgi spoke:

‘Let us do as our father wills. He knows best,’ and Skarphedinn said:

‘If he wishes us to enter the hall, and all to be burnt together, I am ready to do it. I care little what death I shall die, and if the time of my doom is come, it matters nothing that we try to escape.’ And so saying he turned to Kari, and bade him stand by his side.


‘They are all mad,’ cried Flosi, as he saw Njal and his sons and Kari, his son-in-law, take their place on the inside of the door. ‘Surely none of them can escape us now;’ and the fight began with a spear which was thrown at Skarphedinn.

But victory was not so near as Flosi thought. Man after man fell back wounded or dead, yet Skarphedinn and his brethren remained without a wound.

‘We shall never put them to flight with our spears,’ said Flosi, ‘and there are only two ways open. Either we give up our vengeance, and await the death that will surely befall us at their hands; or else we must set fire to the house, and burn them in it. And I know not what else we can do; yet that is a mean and cowardly deed, which will lie heavily on our souls.’

So they gathered wood and made a great stack before the door, and Skarphedinn laughed, and asked if they were turning cooks.

It was Grani, the son of Gunnar, whose soul was black like his mother Hallgerda’s, who answered him.

‘You will not wish better cooking when you are put on the spit;’ but he had better have left Skarphedinn alone, for the men around heard his reply, and looked curiously on Grani.

‘Your deeds become your mother’s son,’ said Skarphedinn. ‘It was I who avenged your father, therefore it is natural to one of your kind that you should wish to slay me,’ and he stepped back to pick up some fresh arrows.

In spite of Grani’s boastful words, the pile of wood was slow in catching, for the women threw whey and water upon it from the little windows in the roof, so that the flames were quenched as fast as they sprang up. The men grew angry and impatient, and at last Kol, Thorstein’s son, said to Flosi:

‘It avails nought to kindle the fire here; but there is a pile of dry vetch at the back, just above the house, and we can light it, and put the burning wood on the beams under the roof.’

So he crept round unseen, and did as he had said, and the other men heaped up wood before the doors of the house, so that none could escape, and those within the hall knew nothing that was doing, till a great light filled the place, and they saw that the roof was burning.

Then horrible dread overwhelmed the souls of the women, and they broke forth into weeping and wailing, till Njal spoke words of comfort to them, and bade them keep up their hearts, for God would not suffer them to burn both in this world and in the next. And when he had stilled their fears he went near the door, and asked:

‘Is Flosi nigh at hand?’

‘Yes,’ answered Flosi.

‘Will you suffer my sons to atone?’ asked Njal once more, ‘or let them leave the house?’ but Flosi said:

‘The women and children and thralls may go out, but, as for your sons, the time for atonement is past, and I will not leave this spot as long as one of them remains alive.’

When Njal heard that, he went back into the house and called the women and children and thralls round him, and bade Thorhalla, the wife of Helgi, go out first, for she was a brave woman. And Thorhalla went, after bidding farewell to Helgi her husband.

But Astrid whispered softly to Helgi:

‘I will tie a woman’s kerchief about your head, and wrap you in a cloak, and the women folk will stand about you, and none shall know that you are not a woman also.’

Helgi did not like this plan, for he thought it shame to steal away in his sister’s garments; but they prayed him not to be stiff-necked, and at length he suffered the cloak to be put round him.

Now the children of Njal were all tall, but Helgi was tallest of all, except his brother Skarphedinn. And Flosi marked him, and said to his men:

‘I like not the height of the woman who went yonder, nor the breadth of her shoulders. Seize her and hold her fast.’

As soon as Helgi heard that he threw his cloak aside and thrust at a man with his sword, and cut off his leg. But Flosi was close behind, and stretched Helgi dead in front of him.

After that he went back to the house, and offered Njal that he should come outside, but Njal answered that he was too old to avenge his sons, and that he would not outlive them, for that would be a shame and disgrace to him.

‘Come out, then, Bergthora,’ said Flosi, ‘for I will not suffer you to burn inside.’

But Bergthora made answer:

‘Long years from my youth have I lived with Njal, and I vowed on the day of betrothal that his death should be mine;’ and without more words they went into the house.

‘I am weary,’ said Njal to his wife, ‘let us lay down on our bed and rest;’ and Bergthora bowed her head, and spoke to the boy Thord, the son of Kari:

‘Come to the door with me and go forth with your kinsmen. I will not have you stay here to burn.’ But the boy shook off the hand she had laid on his shoulder.

‘You promised me when I was little, grandmother, that I should never go from you till I wished it of myself. And I would rather die with you than live after you.’

Bergthora was silent, but she led the boy to the bed, and he climbed in, and laid himself down. Then Njal said to his head man:

‘Bring hither the oxhide and put it on the bed, and watch how we lay ourselves down, so that you may know where to find our bones. For not one inch will we stir, whatever befall.’

And he laid himself down, and bade the boy lie between himself and Bergthora.

So they waited.


At the doors and in the windows of the roof Skarphedinn and Grim were casting away burning brands, and hurling spears as if they had had twenty hands instead of two. At last Flosi called to his men to let be, till the fire had its way, for many had been killed and wounded already.

And now a beam which held up the oak fell in, and then another and another. ‘Surely my father must be dead,’ said Skarphedinn, ‘that he makes no sound,’ and, followed by Grim and Kari, he went to the end of the hall where a cross beam had fallen.

‘The smoke is thick here,’ said Kari, ‘thick enough to hide a man; let us leap out one by one, and we shall be away before they have seen us. Skarphedinn, you jump first!’

A man surrounded by smoke about to jump down to where another armed man is standing

‘No!’ answered Skarphedinn, ‘you go first and I will follow; or, if I follow not, you will avenge me.’

‘I have a chance of my life,’ said Kari, ‘and I will take it. We must each do as seems best to him, but I fear me that we see each other no more;’ and catching up a huge blazing beam, he threw it over the edge of the roof, among the men who were gathered below.

They scattered at once like leaves in a storm, and at that instant Kari, with his tunic and hair already burning, leaped from the roof and crept away in the smoke. The man who stood nearest on the ground thought he saw something dark moving, and he asked his neighbour:

‘Think you that was one of them jumping from the beam?’ but the man answered: ‘Nay, but it may have been Skarphedinn hurling a firebrand;’ and then they went to their own work, and paid no more heed to the figure on the roof.

So Kari was left free to escape, and he put out the fire that was burning him, and rested in a safe place till he could seek shelter with his friends.

Thrice Skarphedinn tried to leap after Kari, and thrice the beam broke under his weight, and he was forced to climb back again. Then part of the wall fell in, and Skarphedinn fell down with it on to the floor of the hall.

In a moment the face of Gunnar, son of Lambi, was seen on top of the wall, and he cried out, ‘Are those tears on your cheeks, Skarphedinn?’ and Skarphedinn made answer:

‘Now am I finding out in truth how smoke can force tears from one’s eyes. But methinks I see laughter in yours, Gunnar.’

‘Of a surety,’ said Gunnar, ‘never have I laughed so much since the day you slew Thrain in Markfleet.’

‘Here is a remembrance of that day for you,’ said Skarphedinn, and he took from his pouch Thrain’s tooth, and flung it at Gunnar. And it knocked out Gunnar’s eye, and he fell from the roof.

Then Skarphedinn went to Grim, and hand in hand they two tried to stamp out the burning beams, but before they had crossed the hall Grim dropped dead, and the roof fell in, and shut Skarphedinn in a corner, so that he could not move.

At daylight a man rode up who had met Kari, and had learned from him that when he had jumped from the roof both Skarphedinn and Grim were still alive, but that was many hours before, and both must long since be dead.

Then Flosi and some of his men drew nearer and climbed up the gable, for the fire had burned low, and only threw out a flame here and there. And as they looked into the hall beneath them, which was a mass of charred and fallen wood, there seemed to rise up from the red ashes a song of triumph, and they held their breath and looked into each other’s faces.

‘Is it Skarphedinn’s song?’ asked Glum, ‘and is it a token that he is dead? or a sign that he is alive? Let us look for him.’

‘That shall not be,’ said Flosi quickly. ‘Fool that you are, do you not know that even now Kari is gathering together a band to avenge his kinsmen? Therefore let every man take his horse and ride up to the Three-corner Fell, and there we can hide and take counsel how we can escape from our enemies.’

So it was done, and not a whit too soon, for a very great company scattered over the country, seeking Flosi and his Band of Burners — for by this ill name men knew them.

As for Kari himself, he begged Hjallti, Njal’s cousin, to go with him to Bergthorasknoll and find Njal’s bones and bury them. And, as they went, men joined them, till they numbered nigh on a hundred when they reached Bergthorasknoll.

Kari entered the hall first and led them up to the spot where the bed had stood, and where a great heap of ashes now covered it. The ashes took long to clear away, and underneath was the oxhide, charred and shrivelled. But when the oxhide was pulled away they saw the three bodies fresh and whole, as they had laid them down. Only one finger of the boy was burned, where he had thrust it outside the hide.

When they saw this a great joy fell on the hearts of all, and Hjallti said:

‘Never have I seen a dead man with a face as bright as this!’ And the other men said likewise.


After that they sought for Skarphedinn, and then found him, fastened by the beam into the corner, and he had driven his axe into the wall of the gable, so that it had to be broken out. And they sought the bones of Grim, and found them lying in the middle of the hall, where he had dropped down dead. And they sought the bones of other men, and found them, and nine bodies in all were carried into the church and buried there.

And that is Burnt Njal’s story.

[The Saga of Burnt Njal.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57