George Webbe Dasent's "Burnt Njal" was the first English translation (and far from the last) of a work of literature that has several familiar names. In the original language, Old Icelandic, it is, in full, "Brennu-Njals Saga," or "The Story of Burned Njal" -- but just plain "Njals-Saga" is equally correct. And, like several other sagas, it has a nickname in its native Iceland, "Njala" (like "Grettla," for "Grettir's Saga").
It is generally conceded to be the outstanding monument of a burst of literary productivity at the very edge of medieval European civilization. For those who know it, with its unforgettable portraits of men and women presented through their responses to the events that entangle them, it has a place alongside the great novels of modern Europe. It can demand patience of the reader; although it starts off with a couple of resounding scandals, including a Queen-Mother's affair with a handsome Icelander, it then plunges into the technicalities of divorce, disputes over property, who stole the hay, and Njal's wise advice, which is never followed. There are certain resemblances to Westerns; including the problem of subsistence in an unforgiving environment, and the critical importance of a reputation.
"Njal's Saga" is, like several other "Sagas of Icelanders" (rather than sagas of Scandinavian kings, bishops, legendary heroes, or foreigners like Charlemagne and King Arthur), a long prose account of cascading disputes between farmers, and the resulting fights and lawsuits. It is broken up with voyages and adventures in Viking-Age Europe, with occasional verses commenting on, testifying to, or as part of, the action. This is not a direct product of the Viking Age, but mediated through the oral traditions (and some other written literature) of Iceland. Among other things, it is a Christian look back at (for the most part) a pagan past.
There are also many shorter sagas on the same basic pattern, generally less complex and diverse; some, generally referred to as "thattr" ("branches"), are really short stories (and good ones). The more expansive structure of "Njala" allows for a famous account of the official conversion of Iceland to Christianity, and a description of the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, just over a decade later -- both apparently drawn from pre-existing accounts, and both inserted into the sequence of events quite naturally (although possibly with some violence to chronology).
"Njala" has had a long series of translations from its original Old Icelandic into other languages -- there is a whole book on its "reception" into other literatures, "The Rewriting of Njals Saga: Translation, Ideology, and Icelandic Sagas," by Jon Karl Helgason. And it bulks large in Andrew Wawn's "The Vikings and the Victorians,' because it received a magnificent first translation into English, by George Webbe Dasent, "The Story of Burnt Njal, or, Life in Iceland at the End of the Tenth Century," published in 1861. Dasent had begun work in 1843, but the whole subject was still so unfamiliar that Dasent, probably wisely, spent a good part of the two-volume first edition just explaining medieval Iceland to his readers.
This explanatory material was discarded in later, one-volume editions of Dasent's translation, including the Everyman's Library reprint of 1911, which got a new introduction and select bibliography by E.O.G. Turville-Petre in 1957. That version was available in paperback in the 1970s, in competition with a Penguin Classics translation.
Various digital versions of "Burnt Njal," including the present Kindle Book, are now available; they are mostly confined to the translation, although complete pdfs of the original two volume edition are available from Google Books and from Archive.org (the Library of Congress website). This is for the curious, or those with a need to know what a Victorian could have known about medieval Iceland. (I've read too many historical novels with shrieking anachronisms in characters' knowledge!)
Dasent's "Burnt Njal" has many merits, even today. Unfortunately, between Dasent's decision to imitate the Icelandic vocabulary and sentences, and changes in English since the 1850s, some would-be readers have found his prose indigestible, although others quickly adapt (unfamiliar words and grammatical constructions tend to be repeated, etc.). And the 1772 edition of the saga he was using is now *very* obsolete.
So is his historical and cultural material. Fortunately, modern readers now can turn to Jesse Byock's "Viking Age Iceland" for an equivalent of Dasent's introduction and appendices, with their maps and diagrams; it is much more readable, as well as much more reliable.
For those who find Dasent's style difficult, or would like a more modern-sounding text that reflects modern understanding of the both the Viking Age and modern Iceland, there have been three complete translations since Dasent's.
The most recent translation, by Robert Cook, is readily available in paperback and Kindle editions. It was originally published in 1997, as part of a set of "The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders," and was issued separately by Penguin Books in 2002.
Cook, like Dasent, aimed at reproducing as much as possible the spare prose style of the Icelandic original, and doing so without the archaic vocabulary and dialect words that Dasent sometimes adopted (usually related to the Icelandic form; a precedent followed by William Morris and E.R. Eddison). Whether Cook succeeded, or just raised a barrier to appreciation of the saga, is a matter of some dispute.
Some reviewers have compared it unfavorably to the translation which it (unfortunately) replaced in the Penguin list, by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. They made the decision to give a plain-language version, which I think has stood up well for over forty years (first published 1960). I have reviewed it at some length (along with a comparison to Dasent), and I must say that I think it is a better entry into the saga literature than either Dasent or Cook. These days one has to find it in a library, or as a used book.
Another alternative might be the first successor to Dasent's translation, the American-Scandinavian Foundation's 1955 "Njal's Saga," translated by Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander. For American readers it had the slight advantage of not being quite so British in tone as the Penguin translation (let alone the mid-Victorian Dasent!); but it seems to have been available in recent years only in a 1998 paperback from a British publisher, in the "Wordsworth Classics of World Literature" series, with a new introduction by Thorsteinn Gylfason. Again, it is most likely to be found used or in a library.
There is a substantial critical literature on "Njal's Saga," some of it in English. Richard F. Allen's "Fire and Iron: Critical Approaches to Njals Saga" is very literary in approach. Jesse Byock's "Feud in the Icelandic Saga," which argues that behavior in the sagas reflects real social patterns, has thirty pages on this saga (Chapter 9, "Two Sets of Feud Chains"), which I think are brilliant; but probably most helpful to those who already know the story, and can appreciate how he makes connections between scattered-looking events. From the older English literature on the sagas, W.P. Ker's "Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature," stand out, and is available free in Kindle format. There are other aides to some types of readers available on-line. The Publications page of The Viking Society (a UK organization formerly known as the Viking Club) website offers free downloads of Hines and Slay, ed., "Introductory Essays on Egils Saga and Njals Saga" (1992), made up of lectures directed at a university-level students. It includes a section of bibliography. For the stout-hearted, there are also editions of the Icelandic text on-line, at least one of them in modernized spelling -- which will make little difference to those with no Icelandic to begin with.
For those who find "Njala" a bit too long to start with, there are variety of other sagas in excellent translations -- and also some not-so-good translations. Going strictly by the sagas themselves, other good places to start would be "Laxdaela Saga," which shares some important characters, scenes and events with "Njala," "Grettir's Saga," the story of a famous outlaw, with some wonderful accounts of battles with supernatural as well as human enemies; and "Egil's Saga" (Egils Saga Skallagrimssonar; "Egla" for short), which is closer to the popular idea of an Icelandic saga. The hero is a warrior-poet, brilliant, bad-tempered, and remarkably ugly; he takes after his grandfather, who was nicknamed "Evening-Wolf," and suspected of being a shape-shifter, and Egil spends much of his time on Viking adventures abroad, instead of tending the flocks... .
Incidentally, "Njala," "Laxdaela," and "Egla" all contribute, along with the master-narrative of Snorri Sturluson's "Heimskringla" (a long saga-history of the Kings of Norway) to the late Poul Anderson's fine historical novel, "Mother of Kings," which is another approach to the world of the sagas.