An ethos in transformation: Conflicting Values in the sagas

  • Vilhjálmur Árnason
Keywords: Morality


In this article I seek to show how in the representation of morality in the Íslendingasögur a tension is discernible between two different concepts of honour, both of which need to be understood in the light of the particular social and historical circumstances of the Icelandic commonwealth. On the one hand, there are those notions of honour that go with the duty of revenge in a kinship society; on the other hand, there is the honour that accrues to individuals who succeed in resolving disputes and securing settlements. I analyse a variety of characters in Njáls saga from these perspectives, arguing that full understanding of such portrayals depends on detailed analysis of individuals’ vices and virtues. Such analysis must take account of the distinctive social circumstances described in the Ís­lendingasögur; comparisons with different societies provide, in my view, only a limited insight into the values of saga heroes. I argue that the sagas reveal the severe limitations of human virtue when confronted by problems rooted in the basic structure of society; this helps to explain why the advice of benevolent and peaceable men can prove so ineffective. Njáls saga depicts a society that disintegrates for the want of institutions able to transform the desire for reconciliation into the rule of law, and to direct conflicts into a legal process. Such institutions create conditions for a political morality intended to guarantee people access to due judicial process, thereby reducing the importance of an individual's vices and virtues.