So one political convention ends, another begins, and I do what I always do during presidential election season: I reach for Njal’s Saga, the story of a 50-year feud that came to a head at medieval Iceland’s great annual judicial and legislative assembly, the Althing. Aside from being a terrific book in its own right, Njal’s Saga is a wise and welcome antidote to two weeks of partisan yakking.
Very little news is actually made at these conventions—so claim the pundits, who argue that the ins and outs of parliamentary wrangling once gave rise to great drama, whereas now we’re stuck with tightly scripted messages and largely mediocre speeches. But consider (he whispered, pushing a mighty army of straw men into place) the alternative. Here, from Njal’s Saga, is what happened at the Althing in A.D. 1011 when human nature grabbed civilized legal procedure by the windpipe and things went all higgeldy-piggeldy:
Thorhall Asgrimsoon said, “There is Skatpi Thoroddsson now, father.”
“So I see, kinsman,” replied Asgrim, and at once hurled a spear at Skapti. it struck him just below the thickest part of the calf and went right through both legs. Skapti was thrown to the ground and could not get up again. The bystanders could do nothing but drag him headlong into the booth of some sword-grinder.
Then Asgrim and his men attacked so violently that Flosi and his men fled south along the river to the Modruvellir booth. There was a man called Solvi standing beside a booth, cooking meat in a large cauldron; he had just taken the meat out, but the water was still boiling furiously. Solvi caught sight of the fleeting Eastfjords men who were almost on him by then.
Solvi said, “Are all these Eastfjords men cowards, fleeing along here? Even Thorkel Geitisson is running. What a lie to say of him, as so many have done, that he is bravery itself, for now he is fleeing faster than anyone else.”
Hallbjorn the Strong was nearby at that moment, and said, “You shall never be able to say that all of us are cowards.” With that he seized hold of Solvi, lifted him high in the air, and pitched him head-first into the cauldron.
Far be it from me to suggest that our political conventions might benefit from kin-based spear battles, but ratings would shoot through the roof. Já, vér kunnum! C-SPAN, are you listening?