Untimely Observations

Sagas, Honor, and Pagans


Here's an account from Njal's Saga , ch. 97, of a debate that took place shortly before the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in the year 999:

Thangbrand and his messmate fared right through the west country, and Steinvora, the mother of Ref the Skald, came against him; she preached the heathen faith to Thangbrand and made him a long speech. Thangbrand held his peace while she spoke, but made a long speech after her, and turned all that she had said the wrong way against her.

"Hast thou heard," she said, "how Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and how he did not dare to fight with Thor?"

"I have heard tell," says Thangbrand, "that Thor was naught but dust and ashes, if God had not willed that he should live."

The saga was written a couple hundred years after the events described but it seems extremely realistic so maybe it's close to the sort of issue people were concerned with back then.

To my mind the debate represents the strength and weakness of the pagan position. Its strength is that it's so closely connected to natural impulses and concepts of identity and honor. Its weakness is that it leaves out important features of the overall situation that can't be ignored once they've come up.

A while back I wrote an essay on the Icelandic sagas that touched on the issue:

A way of life that grew so directly out of natural impulses and the immediate necessities of cooperation and limiting conflict had strengths, but it left important issues unsettled. For all their pride in their ancestors, the saga writers have a sense that something essential was missing in early Iceland. They saw that maintenance of honor could not be the highest good, but if it was not what was?

In Njal's Saga the issue takes the form of the nature of true manhood. The world of the sagas was one in which public life required direct participation in a system of physical force and counter-force that put the manly virtues in demand. To show fear or weakness was to multiply risks for oneself and fail in one's obligation to support and protect others. An accusation of cowardice could quickly drive a man to rash action, and an imputation of homosexuality was unforgivable. While the conception of honorable conduct had a social side, and included keeping one's word, respecting the rights of others and accepting a settlement of a dispute made by good men, the emphasis was on the combative virtues. Moderation had to be based on strength and a willingness to use force.

The question for the characters in Njal's Saga was whether the essence of manhood was stopping at nothing to get what one wants, or courage and endurance in support of moral commitment. The ideal implicit in Icelandic life went beyond the former without reaching the latter, and lost its coherence as a result. Those like Skamkel, who identified manliness with aggression, were recognized as bad men and ended badly. Nonetheless, those who rejected aggression seemed to lack something. Gunnar, although the best warrior in Iceland, was forced to wonder whether he was less manly than others because he was so much more reluctant to kill. Njal knew how to die without flinching, but his wisdom was combined with physical inertia and an odd inability to grow a beard that repeatedly became a topic of insult. He relied on the combativeness of others, notably his self-destructive son Skarp-Hedin, to make up for his own inactivity.

The problem was insoluble for pagan Icelanders because they had no conception of goods transcending ordinary natural purposes that could allow man's ultimate end -- the proper object of moral commitment -- to be distinguished from what particular men happen to want. Manly honor rooted in pure assertiveness was in the end self-contradictory, because in idealizing the assertive self it made what was asserted something ideal and therefore not merely the self. A man who asserted the self seemed to lack loftiness, while a more disinterested man seemed to lack energy; both qualities were necessary for true honor, but it seemed impossible to have them together.