Your Book Review: Njal’s Saga

Astral Codex Ten Podcast

23-06-2023 • 34分

Finalist #5 in the Book Review Contest

[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]


I found Njal’s Saga hard to follow. Halfway through, a friend reassured me it wasn’t my fault. The medieval Icelanders had erred in releasing it as a book. It should have been the world’s wackiest Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney spinoff.

Remember, medieval Iceland was an early attempt at anarcho-capitalist utopia. When Harald Fairhair declared himself King of Norway, the Norwegians who refused to bend the knee fled west to build a makeshift seastead on a frozen volcanic island. No lords, no kings, no masters. Only lawsuits. So, so many lawsuits.

Once a year, the Icelanders would meet at the Althing, a free-for-all open-air law court. There they would engage in that most Viking of pastimes - suing each other, ad nauseam, for every minor slight of the past six months. Offended parties would sell their rights to prosecute a case to the highest bidder, who would go around seeking fair arbitrators (or, in larger cases, defer to a panel chosen by chieftain-nobles called godi.

Courts would propose a penalty for the losing side - usually money. There were no police, but if the losers refused to pay, the courts could declare them “outlaws” - in which case it was legal to kill them. If you wanted to be a Viking in medieval Iceland, you needed a good lawyer. And Njal was the greatest lawyer of all.