Egil’s Saga

Egil’s Saga
   by Snorri Sturluson?
(ca. 1230)
   One of the longest and most acclaimed of the Icelandic family SAGAS, Egil’s Saga tells the story of an enigmatic protagonist, Egil, son of Skallagrim. One of Iceland’s most famous SKALDIC poets, Egil was a Viking adventurer who at different times in the saga is a drunkard, a killer and warrior, a wanderer, a farmer, and a miser. Narrated, like most of the sagas, in a plain and objective style, the saga creates in its title character one of the most memorable individuals in Old Norse literature.
   Many scholars attribute Egil’s Saga to medieval Iceland’s most famous writer, SNORRI STURLUSON (1179–1241), author of HEIMSKRINGLA and the PROSE EDDA. If this is true, then Egil’s Saga is the only Icelandic saga whose author is known. Snorri was said to have been descended from Egil himself, and, between 1201 and 1206, lived at Borg, where Egil had his farm. Like most Icelandic family sagas, Egil’s Saga evinces a serious interest in the history of Iceland during its early years, and features a prolonged feud between the protagonist and another character, though the feud in Egil’s saga has a unique twist: It is waged against members of the Norwegian royal house.
   Historically the narrative spans 150 years. It is set against the background of King Harald Fairhair’s unification of Norway, a unity achieved through war and tyranny, and the killing or expulsion of any noble rivals to Harald’s power—generally to Iceland. The scope of the saga extends throughout the Viking world—from Norway, the rest of Scandinavia, and Iceland to Finnmark, the Baltic, and northern England. It also spans the history of Egil’s family from the time of his grandfather Kvedulf to that of his grandson Grim, and establishes a pattern: Members of the family belong to one of two contrasting types, generally characterized as “dark” or “light.” Egil, an ugly and incorrigible child, takes after his father as one of the “dark” individuals; his handsome and exemplary brother and rival, Thorolf, is on the “light” side.
   Egil’s story is complex and sometimes outrageous, alternating between the treachery of Egil’s enemies and his own ruthless responses, often motivated by his resistance to any kind of authority. Egil kills his first rival at the age of six over a ballgame. His feud with Eirik Bloodaxe, son of Harald Fairhair, begins when he kills Eirik’s son and one of Eirik’s friends whom he had tried to bring to court. At one point he joins the retinue of the English king ATHELSTAN and takes part in the famous BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH. He later finds himself stranded in York,where Eirik has become king, but is able to escape with his life by composing a poem for Eirik to “ransom” his head. Ultimately he inherits his father’s land in Iceland and becomes a respectable farmer, at one point presenting an impressive legal case in court defending his son Thorstein’s land claims. But even in his old age, the blind Egil retains some of his dark mood, and one night disappears with two slaves and two money chests.When he is discovered the next morning near the farm, neither slaves nor chests are to be found. He has buried the money and killed the slaves so that no one will ever find his treasure. Indeed, even after death, he remains a puzzling character: His skull is discovered buried beneath the altar of a church built by his niece’s husband. The thick, solid skull cannot be broken, even with an axe.
   The saga is also sprinkled with bits of Egil’s verse, and contains, as well, three of his major poems. As skaldic poems made up of elaborate metaphors, or KENNINGS, these are very difficult to interpret and even more difficult to translate, but they do illustrate Egil’s skill as a poet. Most admired is his lament for his drowned son. Determined to end his own life, the grieving Egil is convinced by his daughter to write a poem for his son. In it he expresses his helplessness over his loss, and blames his god Odin, who has deprived him of his child, but grudgingly still worships the god for giving him the art of poetry that allows him to express his grief. Egil’s “Head-Ransom” poem to Eirik Bloodaxe is unusual in that it uses both alliteration and rhyme, and praises the king in a clearly ironic tone that Eirik must have misinterpreted. His other major poem is a eulogy for his bloodbrother, patron, and protector Arinbjorn, repaying his friend’s kindness as Arinbjorn leaves Iceland to reclaim his lands in Norway. Egil’s Saga survives in two vellum manuscripts from the middle of the 14th century, as well as several fragments dating from as early as 1250. It has been translated into English at least six times, and remains one of the most popular works of medieval prose fiction, mainly because of its fascinating title character.
   ■ Andersson, Theodore M. The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
   ■ Palsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards, trans. Egil’s Saga. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1976.
   ■ The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection.With a preface by Jane Smiley and an introduction by Robert Kellogg. New York: Viking, 2000.
   ■ Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Scaldic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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