A former student – Karen Morrell – has generously lent me one of her books, a Danish 1948 edition of Njal’s Saga translated by N.M. Petersen and published in Copenhagen by Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck. Karen is a relative of the artist whose c. 50 sketches punctuate the text and the cover: Eiler Krag. With her permission, I wanted to share some of the images and why I think they are some of the best I’ve seen for depicting the sagas.

I just love the simplicity and evocative line art, and the bodies of people and horses depicted. I also celebrate the lack of detail; this means one doesn’t focus on petty specifics. Some of the artefacts seem to me to be slightly mis-sized, but on the whole the style allows us to forgive such issues. The images perform a powerful and distinctive job of evoking Viking Age society without many of its cliches.


Some are simply portraits of individual men and women from a range of perspectives. Most are simply images of those of people interacting in social settings: embracing, touching, drinking and talking. Yet there are a range of further images that portray particular events and practices in Njal’s Sagas, including horse riding: the principal means of land travel over the large distances between farms. The size of the Icelandic ponies and the range of dynamics between riders and those on foot are fabulous, although there are only two crudely representing landscapes. Largely, landscape is omitted to focus on the figures and the story.


The conflicts of the sagas are well-represented through interpersonal combat. Travel by ship, and fighting between ships are among my favourites.


The buildings are also striking and distinctive, both the exterior and interiors, although I’m sure many of the details might be disputed.


Most useful for the archaeology of assembly places is the representations of the booths and riders approaching an assembly, and a gathering of weaponed males at Thingvellir with its striking rock cliff as backdrop.


The representation of the burnt hall of Njal is fabulous. We don’t see the burning itself. Instead, we are shown the perpetrators searching through the embers. This is, to my knowledge, the only representation of a burned early medieval building by an artist (as opposed to sundry attempts to represent the hall being burnt). In this regard, it is very important and useful, and should inspire us to think further about the spectacle and traces of hall-burning in the historical and archaeological record, even if the pit is implausibly deep.


Finally, we have a single mythological representation: of the loom of the norns with warriors’ heads as loom-weights. I prefer this to the more romanticised views of the norns in earlier images.