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Njal’s Saga: Gunnar Hámundarson of Hlíðarendi


Njal’s saga is one of the most iconic works of literature from medieval Iceland. The story was written in the thirteenth century by an unknown author with a 9th – 10th century setting in the Icelandic Commonwealth. The story features many characters ranging from Njáll Þorgeirsson, a wise lawyer, his close friend Gunnar, a renowned warrior, and a slightly villainous Mord Valgardsson. The saga explores many themes such as friendship, family, valor, honor, revenge, and tragedy. The saga explores Gunnar and Njal’s friendship, the repercussions of vengeance, and the eventual retribution that kills Gunnar. The characters in the book are compelling and vary in contrast, but it would still have been aptly called Gunnar’s saga, a heroic character in the book with impressive qualities. Gunnar is painted as a godlike warrior who values loyalty, friendship, community, and family; undoubtedly, he is the most compelling character in the saga.

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First Reason

Perhaps the best quality to possess in a medieval setting is to be a renowned warrior. The setting in Njal’s saga is that of a semi-primitive civilization where people settle differences by combat. In such a setting, it helps to have the ability to fight, and none did it better than Gunnar; he is the quintessential medieval hero with stature, skills, and wealth. He is said to have been mesomorphic with the ability to jump his height when in full body armor (The Story of Burnt Njal 60). He is involved in many feuds that he wins and has a strong reputation for killing his enemies. Gunnar had no match in battle; he was strong, skilled, and could smite quickly with his sword (The Story of Burnt Njal 60). For example, in a fight, he smote Vandil and broke both of his legs (The Story of Burnt Njal Saga 90). In addition, there is a phenomenon of snowballing where seemingly innocuous interactions could lead to fights that could leave many dead. These fights created much admiration for him with friends and foes in equal measure. The story is set in perilous times, and fighting was an essential skill that Gunnar possessed in plenty.

Second Reason

Besides being a great fighter, Gunnar is an honorable man who espouses the values of loyalty and honesty. One of the greatest themes in the book is his friendship with Njáll Þorgeirsson, a lawyer and protagonist in the story. His friend saved him from the many instances where he broke the law. Men value their honor above everything else and constantly create enemies; one never knows when they will need a friend to help them fight in a duel. Even when the law is used to settle disputes, a wise lawyer is the most suitable friend to have. He refuses to listen to the advice against marrying Hallgerður, is warned not to kill two men from the same family, and refuses to leave Iceland when he must (The Story of Burnt Njal 255). Friendship is such a core theme that even Gunnar’s tragic death seems to stem from failing to heed his friend’s counsel.

Third Reason

Family and community are valuable things to Gunnar; these are values that make a person admired in society. A severe winter happens a few years after he marries Hallgerður, and they have returned to Hlíðarendi. Being a consummate hero, Gunnar displays immense generosity by sharing supplies with the community to the extent that he runs low himself and has to seek help from Otkell, who refuses (The Story of Burnt Njal 158). Gunnar’s rebuke of his wife for stealing from others shows he is an honorable man who does not pick unnecessary battles. Of course, a hero like Gunnar does not want to be associated with thievery. Gunnar’s finale again displays a man who loves his community; he is about to leave Iceland but, upon gazing at his farm, decides against leaving (The Story of Burnt Njal 255). This is a crucial illustration that Gunnar valued family and community so much that he would not imagine leaving.


Njal’s Saga is a thrilling book written in the thirteenth century and set in the 9th-12th. It features many characters, both heroic and villainous ones, in a semi-civilized state in medieval Iceland. The saga portrays various themes such as friendship, family, vengeance, betrayal, and tragedy. One of the most compelling characters in the book is Gunnar Hámundarson, a renowned warrior with an athletic build and skillful fighter. Fighting skills are necessary for characters such as Gunnar because of the snowball theme common in the setting, where seemingly innocuous events accumulate into an avalanche with deadly consequences. Gunnar is arguably the most admirable character in the book because of his warrior qualities in a society lacking the rule of law. Besides being a warrior, Gunnar was an honorable man who valued loyalty and friendship exemplified by his friendship with Njal. In addition, Gunnar was a man with a noble character who cherished family and community. Of course, he is not perfect, but Gunnar is the most compelling character in Njal’s saga, and even the tragic death makes it even more relatable given the circumstances.

Work Cited

The Story of Burnt Njal: From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1911.

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