Njal’s Saga
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
The English and Scottish Popular Ballad
Machiavelli, The Prince




Njal’s Saga

Njal’s Saga is one of the most complex and dramatic novels ever written. It teems with characters: each sharply, however briefly, drawn; all presented in the most dramatic contexts. The narrative is carried by dialogue and by action of maximum concreteness. It is the story of the life of a man of great wisdom and spiritual strength in the early days of the colonization of Iceland. Much of it is concerned with the development of barbaric blood feuds and the struggle of Njal as a leader of the community to reduce them to the workings of civilized justice. With others he is usually successful; but his closest friend, Gunnar, has a wife, Hallgerd, whose malevolent pride endlessly clashes with the imperious temper of Njal’s wife, Bergthora, and sets in train a series of vendettas in which first Gunnar and then Njal himself and his wife and all his sons are destroyed. Yet in spite of murders, battles, ambushes, ghosts, and Viking raids, the thing that most amazes the modern reader about Njal’s Saga is the unparalleled maturity of its characters. These yeomen on their bleak island at the end of the earth are adult in a fashion unknown to Homer’s Agamemnon or Proust’s Swann.

We think of Icelandic Saga literature as the expression of a Heroic Age with its disorder, its lack of all clearly defined and accepted values except those necessary to animal survival, its conflict between shame and guilt, and its political instability, all resulting in the comparative simplicity of the typical epic plot. Nothing could be less true. The heroic characters of the finer sagas are not members of a barbaric war band gathered from the homeless men of collapsing and emerging civilizations. Like the Greek city‑state before Alexander, Icelandic society in its early days is a convincing proof of the Malthusian argument. Here is an isolated society, the result of a demanding selective process — even to go to Iceland from Scandinavia a man had to be something of a hero — kept pruned biologically by an equally demanding ecology, small enough so that the members acted upon one another intensely and personally. Islanding produces rapid evolutionary change and demands full use of all the potentialities of a species, whether it be the alpine flora of a mountain range separated by thousands of miles from similar environments or the exclusive good families of Henry James’s Boston or New York or the Japanese court of The Tale of Genji. Such closed communities are not just inbred: they are social, moral, intellectual, and ultimately spiritual, as well as biological, forcing beds, self‑isolating and concentrating. It is because of such islanding that a work like Njal’s Saga is as complex as The Wings of the Dove or Remembrance of Things Past.

The objection to overpopulation is aesthetic, not economic. Kropotkin was right. It would be possible to feed Manhattan with hydroponic vegetables and protein‑rich algae, raised in the windows of the glass‑steel‑and‑concrete barracks. But humane values diffuse and drain away amongst too many people, and too many is a rather small number — not much more than the population of the Florence of the Medicis, the Athens of Sophocles, the Iceland of the sagas.

Mass man is man without responsibility. Njal’s Saga is an epic of ever‑mounting crises of conscience, the steady intensification of the moral interaction of a very limited number of human beings whose relationships are governed by a continuously and spontaneously evolving law. It is possible to play many thousands of games with thirty‑two chessmen. It is impossible to play any if the pieces are increased to millions. The order of the electrons in the universe is a statistical order. Only in single, limited objects is it a real one, and only in very small objects is it actually determinable.

Throughout the saga Njal is the focus of the contending social forces. He is the knot that holds the complex tensions of his society together. What brings him down is, first, simply the passage of time. If one makes a life habit of unlimited liability, the accumulated responsibilities of a lifetime may become too complex and, at the same time, too poignantly focused to be borne. One man might sustain so complicated an architecture of stresses and balances as long as there was no unaccountable interference from outside.

Njal is a professional “Law Speaker,” one of the creators of a structure of decency and order amongst independent but cooperating yeomen. Such a structure can be made self‑sustaining, but it cannot be made self‑perpetuating. It is perpetuated by child‑bearing and children are borne by women. Once again the monstrous regimen of women works behind the scenes with its own intestinal vindictiveness that brings all noble superstructures to ruin. Njal, after a lifetime of unparalleled nobility and relentless education of the conscience, ends, like the Nibelungs, in fire. His home and his family are destroyed with him, and all for an impetuous spite. A vector of tension unaccounted for in his careful system of checks and balances of moral liability smashes a lifetime’s husbandry, like an arrow shot from outside into a web of glass.

Although the narrative of Njal’s Saga is complicated with psychological subtleties and constantly shifting minor motivations unsurpassed in fiction, the major confrontation is stated with clarity and simplicity. It is the womb against law and order, what contemporary slang calls the struggle of Id and Superego. Perhaps this is why the masses prefer mass society. Amongst millions, this destructive electrical charge does not leap between positive and negative like lightning but is grounded out in the asexual anonymous mass. It is so powerful in Njal’s Saga because of the superlative beauty of the structure of conflicting conscience and liability — and because from this structure there shines forth an inescapable embodied realization: the knowledge that life is more powerful than order. Existence is orderly; the individual and his related fellows persist only as long as they are so; but it is vital disorder that endures throughout time and from which organization emerges into temporary significance and into which it washes away.

Most people of my generation read Njal’s Saga in the Everyman’s Library edition, in which it is called Burnt Njal. There is now a new scholarly translation in vigorously idiomatic English: Njal’s Saga, translated by Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander, published by New York University Press, 1955.



Chaucer, Canterbury Tales

Chaucer was the first European writer after the Classical period to enter upon the new world of the novel, centuries before anybody else penetrated as deeply into that complicated territory. Medieval romance was exactly that: romance — static, like the art of heraldry. Dante’s Divine Comedy takes place in moral regions where decisions are over. The inhabitants of Purgatory can grow toward Paradise — but only along predetermined lines, independent of one another and of their own wills. The Divine Comedy as Dante’s interior panorama, a completely metaphorical Remembrance of Things Past, has dramatic development, but not in the novelistic or theatrical sense. Serial and linear collections like Boccaccio’s Decameron have no necessary connection between the stories and their narrators. The settings are conveniences; the language is rhetorical.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are dynamic structures of evolving interpersonal relations. On each type of character, like sculpture on an armature, a unique individual is erected with a minimum of rhetoric and a maximum of effective characterization. At the end of the “Prologue” a crowd of people have come to life. The tensions and affections that exist between them have been defined. From then on the Canterbury Pilgrims jostle, argue, push and pull, and twist in the fields of force set up by their manifold personalities, each one a center of power. However interesting in themselves, the Tales are each a metaphor of the personality of the teller; each Tale affects the listeners. In the “links” between Tales the narrators are represented and redefined in special relationships, much as the characters in a play are intensified in each new scene.

Chaucer’s pilgrims can be sorted into categories — the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, sloth, anger, lust, avarice, gluttony, envy; the Seven Cardinal Virtues: faith, hope, charity, prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude; the four humours: blood, bile, black bile, phlegm; the influence of the known planets and the Houses of the Zodiac — but this is far from reducing his psychology or philosophy of the personality to schematization. These thirty-five factors, their commutations and permutations, can be figured out arithmetically and are a tidy sum. Besides, each traveler is defined in the first instance by occupation and most of them by native province; each person is strongly characterized by individually developed sexuality; each is a special, complex aspect of maleness or femaleness. This is a larger apparatus for a theory of character than that employed by modern novelists raised on the simple Old Testament schemata of psychoanalysis.

Turn and turn about, the characters of the pilgrimage and the characters of their Tales develop not only a drama of great complexity but also a number of theses which Chaucer exposes with artistic discretion and subtle modulation. For instance, a philosophy of marriage is developed by the dialectic conflict of the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, the Merchant, and the Franklin, with asides and assists from the Host, the fictional Chaucer, and various others. Paralleling this dialectic is another on love itself, of which the Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale as ironic mirror-images of each other are the most obvious. By the time the pilgrimage is over, Chaucer has defined sexual love in terms of a philosophy of the sacrament of marriage centuries in advance of those of most Catholic theologians — a middle-class marriage of free and equal personalities — and contrasted it with feudal chivalry.

There are dozens of subtle touches that show uncanny social and historical insight. In the “Prologue,” in fifteen lines given to the Merchant, Chaucer defines mercantile capitalism with the skill and the understanding of a Marx, and with considerably fewer words. The Merchant is dressed at the height of middle-class rather than aristocratic fashion. A master of the new science of double-entry bookkeeping, he is a passionate defender of the freedom of the seas and an expert at taking advantage of valuta — the differences in national currencies. He has his own well-developed theology to outwit the feudal Church’s prohibition of usury. Most important, his fortune is founded on the skillful, covert manipulation of debt. Most academic critics, themselves still living by feudal standards, miss the irony of this last item. The Merchant is not hoodwinking his creditors; the entire economy that he represents is founded on debt, called credit in the new theology. As Chaucer says, “Forsooth he was a worthy man withall / But sooth to seyn, I know not how men him call” — which doesn’t mean the fictional Chaucer didn’t know his name.

Hardly a characterization in the Tales or in the “Prologue” and “links” does not lend itself to similar careful exegesis. However, we can approach Chaucer’s meanings only through several levels of irony — the irony of the pilgrimage with its incongruous constituents; the irony of the narrators, especially as they use their Tales to attack or flatter one another; the irony of the fictional Chaucer, the overall narrator, represented as an innocent, good-natured bufflehead; and the irony of the real Chaucer. Each of these levels distorts, reshapes, and finally increases the definition of the characters in their interrelations. The last level, the poet and master of the show can sometimes be slyly bitter indeed. Few people even now realize that his Lady Prioress is portrayed as a profoundly evil woman and her Tale is a piece of bigotry that leaves even the audience of fourteenth-century pilgrims for once speechless. Like a dream told to a psychoanalyst, each Tale reveals the deepest complexities of character. The Tales judge the narrators.

Chaucer was a man of the world in a sense in which no other major English poet has ever been — a man of affairs, like Bagehot, Defoe, Fielding, or Clarendon. This gives his style an operative force found commonly only in China, where great statesmen were great poets. He uses language as a man uses it to get results. His knowledge of human beings is derived from a vast variety of practical situations in a busy life in county courts and in the courts of Italian princes and the French King. His sly knowledge of human duplicity, so like Bertolt Brecht’s, he had learned as a Comptroller of Petty Customs and a hearer of provincial lawsuits, an environment not unlike the inner life of the German Communist Party. No English poet is a greater master of words that count. Even his parodies of Early Renaissance rhetoric mock their originals with Chaucer’s irrepressible clarity. Each situation, each character, and the overall milieu are defined like the “poetic situation” in Classic Chinese poetry. Hour, season, weather, topography, dramatic context, mood are indicated with just words enough — with controlled modesty.

One of the most remarkable things about Chaucer is that he has almost no vices. Great poets like Shakespeare and Baudelaire are destructive models for poetic practice; Milton and Virgil have so many vices that modern taste can scarcely stomach them at all. In Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales Chaucer is close to being a perfect model. If you want to learn to write, this is the way to do it. If you want to be a writer, this is the way to live — out in the world amongst men who think of language as an effective instrument of action.

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A generation ago Chaucer was still being taught to high school seniors in the original language. No translation into modern English can transmit all Chaucer’s many virtues. Both wit and music are missed. There are good modern versions in cheap Penguin, Mentor, and Modern Library editions to read along with the original. After a little practice, Chaucer’s language turns out to be not all that strange.



The English and Scottish Popular Ballad

At the height of the Age of Enlightenment, of rationalism, and the worship of classical order, men grew weary of the neat, domesticated universe they had constructed for themselves and began to seek in older times, and remote places, and in the lower classes, uncorrupted by the narrow discipline of their superiors, the values which were so conspicuously lacking in eighteenth-century culture. The most sensitive organisms discovered that the society was suffering from spiritual malnutrition. Once new elements of the diet were discovered, the hunger of the public made them immensely popular. We call this movement the beginnings of Romanticism. In English it centers on the discovery of folklore, the return to nature, the idealization of the common people, the poetry of Burns and Blake, of the young Wordsworth and Coleridge. Crucial in this development was the popularization of folksong amongst a cultivated audience. The values of a preliterate or illiterate society became suddenly popular amongst the highly literate. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and Scott’s Border Minstrelsy were not only best sellers in their own day, but both are still in print, at least in Great Britain.

The “problem of the ballad” has usually been considered one of origins. On the contrary, the important question is its ever-increasing popularity. Why today should a singer be able to fill an auditorium with thousands of people, come to hear her sing the songs of herdsmen and peasants and cattle rustlers five hundred years gone, and this not only in Great Britain and America, but in Berlin or Tokyo?

The ballad has been defined as a folksong which tells a story, concentrating on the dramatic situation of the climax, rather than long narrative unfolding action and reaction. The tale is presented directly in act and speech with little or no comment by the narrator. Although the most violent passions may be shown by the characters, the maker of the ballad remained austerely unmoved. So does the performer. Emotional comment, where it occurs, comes through a special kind of rhetoric peculiar to the ballad, often especially in some of the refrains, dependent upon the use of rather remote metaphors to intensify the psychological situation. Most ballads are in “ballad measure,” four lines of alternating eight and six syllables — really fourteen syllables or seven stressed syllables with a strong pause after the eighth — rhyming usually at the end of each fourteen syllables. However this pattern varies constantly even within the same song. What varies it is the fluency of the music clustered around a simple melodic pattern, which a good ballad singer seldom, stanza for stanza, exactly repeats.

The English and Scottish ballads, so far as they can be dated from internal evidence, seem to have reached their highest development in the troubled times of the War of the Roses and the consolidation of the Tudor monarchy, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They have been called collectively the folk epic of a minor Heroic Age or Time of Troubles. It is true that the long drawn-out struggle over the emerging wool economy of northern England and the Scottish Border had many of the elements of a Heroic Age, but contrary to Arnold Toynbee’s hypothesis, ballads of the same type were collected in stable, agricultural, untroubled parts of England. Ballads of the Scottish and English type are found from Mongolia to Spain, and they are still being made from the Appalachians to Yugoslavia. The greatest collection is that of S. Grundtvig and A. Olrik, made in Denmark in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the Danish ballads give the — false — impression of being direct translations from the classic English collection of F.J. Child made at the end of the century. This is sometimes the case even when both the Danish and the British ballads concern known historical figures in their respective countries and are, within the limits of dramatic license, both approximately true. In other words many ballads are archetypal dramatic situations that wander through space and time seeking body in history.

What are these situations? They are rigorously personal. Battles of the Scottish Border, cattle and sheep raids, sieges of castles, family feuds, are shorn of the complications and ramifications of history. They are reduced to the starkest relations between human beings, presented at their moments of greatest intensity. This is equally true of the few religious ballads with a Christian story and of the ballads of the supernatural, many of which contain elements of pre-Christian belief or ritual. People come back from the dead unable to rest because they are bound by the sorrow of their survivors. Men are rapt away into fairyland or saved from thralldom there in the world that is entered through the fairy mounds, where the people of the Sidhe, the old Celtic gods, live under, or rather, beyond, in a kind of fourth dimension, the grass-grown grave mounds and ruins of an older race. Long stories, for instance of Orpheus who survives as King Orfeo, are reduced to a crystalline dramatic moment. There is a remarkable similarity between the earlier ballads, especially those of the supernatural, and the Japanese Nô plays. In both dramatic realization comes not as the culmination of a process, but as the precipitate of a situation. Most of the great British ballads could be turned into Nô plays and vice versa. Some have identical plots.

Perhaps this comparison reveals the secret of the ballads’ ever increasing popularity until today, when enormously popular folk singers have become determinants not just of contemporary poetry and song, but of an ever-growing new sensibility — a new culture. The classic ballads deal with human lives which have been taken out of the tangle of grasping and using of an acquisitive and exploitative social system by the sheer intensity of the ultimate meaning of human relationships. The ballads deal with people who have been opted out by circumstance. They are living, or dying, or have died, in realms where motives are as pure as they can be. They have the unearthly glamour of beings acting beyond the world, like the demigods of Sophocles. The Russian students sing “Stenka Razin” and American students sing “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” for the same reason. Their values are utterly incompatible with society as now organized, here or there. The world of the ballads may not be the ideal society of Marx or Plato, but it is a supernatural realm where nothing is important but the things that really matter. Of course this is Romanticism pushed to its ultimate, but it is also the morality of classical drama, a terrible intensity of life pushed to its limits, beyond all responsibilities of the getting and spending that lay waste our time.

So the great ballads of the common people at the end of the Middle Ages are more popular today than they have ever been because we are witnessing the evolution of a counterculture, antagonistic to the dominant one, whose principal characteristic might well be defined as the taking seriously of the ethics and morality of the dramas of folksong.

The literature of balladry is enormous. Child’s great collection is in paperback, five volumes. The melodies most commonly sung are in Cecil Sharp’s One Hundred English Folksongs and English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians. Much of Grundtvig is available in translation. There are many state and regional collections. B.H. Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, gathers all variants of text and music. He gives, in volume two, 198 versions of “Barbara Allen”! There are collections, in English, of ballads from Mongolian, Yugoslavian, and dozens of other peoples. H.C. Sargent and G.L. Kittredge, English and Scottish Ballads, Edited from the Collections of Francis James Child (Boston, 1904) is still the standard one-volume edition. The Penguin book and The Oxford Book of Ballads are overedited.



Machiavelli, The Prince

To reread Machiavelli’s The Prince in middle age in the afternoon of a century of political horror is to experience a wistful incongruity: What were the four hundred years of scandal all about? As objective analyst of successful despotism, Machiavelli seems today too confident of the good sense of those clever and forceful enough to rise to positions of tyranny. He assumes the fundamental good will of his prince toward his subjects, or at least his intelligent rapacity and his accessibility to advice. Our twentieth-century dictators all claim to have learned from Machiavelli. Mussolini even wrote a preface to The Prince. Since the fall of Bismarck, they have violated every item of his advice.

Machiavelli’s defenders have said he studied politics with the value-neuter eye of a scientist. Yet in spite of his doubts of the natural goodness of man, he like Socrates hoped that rulers of the State, one or many, might be more open to reason than not and if presented with a demonstrable good would probably choose it. We do not think of Machiavelli as tainted with the Socratic fallacy, but so it is. He is the most astute philosopher of history after Thucydides, but both believed history might be taught to behave itself — a belief for which their narratives give little warrant.

Most people read only The Prince, and they read that as advocating, from general principles, a set of rules. The Prince and The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy should be read together. Machiavelli’s realism brings to its end a long tradition of manuals of advice to princes and descriptions of ideal states. However much he tried for objectivity, Aristotle’s Politics is half-prescriptive, and its Medieval successors are nothing else. Machiavelli realized that the student of politics must concern himself with what is, not with what should be; that if there was any meaning in historical process, it could be found only by inductive analysis of what men have actually done; and that the greatest of fallacies is to start by seeking first principles, transcendental sanctions, and final causes. He knew that the hortatory philosophers of history and politics have only provided makers of history — finders, keepers, and losers of power — with a rhetoric of noble fraud. He was the first to understand that history is not going anywhere, it is just what happens, and the only values operating in it are those of general welfare, the simple goods of actual men. Neither history nor politics is logical. They are the first empiricisms, and the only first principles of politics are the individuals who live it. The Prince studies a practicable despotism — Cesare Borgia’s; The Discourses, a successful republic — Rome, from the fall of the kings to the rise of the demagogues. Although the analysis is couched in imperative form, the source of this imperative is mundane and secular: the well-being of each citizen — not Freedom, or The Good, or Kingship, or Democracy.

If we think of Machiavelli as writing speculatively in leisured retirement, we miss his urgency. Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, the Papacy were being emasculated, reduced to pawns, and impoverished by the imperialism of France and Spain. In Dante’s De Monarchia the union of Italy is an ideal. Machiavelli knew that it would have to be achieved within a generation or the Italian cities would never recover. Union or decay — this is the concern that motivates The Discourses, The Prince, The Art of War, The History of Florence, The Life of Castruccio. The plays, Mandragola and Clezia, satirize a sick, parasitic society.

Where even favorable critics have found Machiavelli’s attitude toward human nature “crude, unsympathetic, and cynical,” I see the exasperation of desperation. When he says that, tempted, even enlightened politicians probably will behave like fools or rascals, he was hardly provided with contrary evidence by the words of Livy or the experience of a lifetime. So he assumes that historical action will take place at the lowest moral level necessary to ensure continuity. When the State or the individual actor falls below that level, it goes out of existence. When it rises above it, history gains an unexpected bonus. With a minimal faith in human motives, a tough-minded optimist may shape a politics of possible goods. The alternative is withdrawal into a tightly organized subculture where men live not by accident but for values, a garrison of ideals — Plato’s Republic. Machiavelli is generally ironic, but his most overt irony is reserved for the subculture he saw all about him that made such claims — the Church and its territorial expression, the Papal state.

He believed that although men do not infallibly choose a demonstrable good, society might be organized to ensure that they do so more often than not and that where they do not, their choices of evil may cancel one another out. How? Machiavelli is seldom put forward as an advocate of freedom, least of all freedom of speech. Yet at the beginning of The Discourses he says, “Under the emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, everyone could hold and defend any opinion he pleased, and enjoyed the greatest freedom of action compatible with social order,” and this resulted in maximum happiness and security and redounded to the glory of the rulers.

The opening paragraphs of The Discourses reveal Machiavelli’s difference from previous writers on politics. He is a dynamist. “To have removed the cause of social conflict from Rome would have been to deprive her of her power of growth.” He stresses that the Roman constitution both generated tension and discharged it, and “no faction, no private citizen ever attempted to call in the aid of a foreign power. Having the remedy at home, there was no need to look abroad for it.”

For Machiavelli the end of politics is man, not the State; nor did he believe that “war is the health of the State,” although in Renaissance Italy that was its permanent condition. For him the end of war is peace, even behind the lines while war is going on. Nor did he believe that ends justify means. He considers in detail what means must be employed to create what ends — a quite different concept. He knows that social good is only the good of multitudes of individual men and flourishes in a dynamic, never a static context. The ideal norm, the paradigm structured by logical law, has no relevance. Laws should be framed to enable the creative interaction of contradictories. Perhaps better than Marx he understood that the forces behind contradictions of policy are class struggles, but he believed that the good constitution should use rather than repress class conflict, that it can be the fuel that runs the motor of society or the wildfire that destroys it.

Like More’s, the virtues of Machiavelli’s prose survive all but the worst translations. He was a man of affairs writing for nonliterary purposes and out of years of experience in using language in matters of life and death. Italian as he wrote it was a medium of direct communication, an instrument to achieve concrete ends — a practice in which he had few followers until recent years. As a diversion he wrote the best Italian comedy — as black humor quite the equal of Jonson’s VolponeMandragola, a work of a most unliterary toughness and maturity of mind.

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There are many good, cheap editions of The Prince; the one in the Modern Library includes The Discourses. Mandragola is in Eric Bentley’s The Classic Theater, Volume I.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays