Egil’s Saga

Egil’s Saga

Egil’s Saga is the first Icelandic saga I read. He is recorded as my 27th great grandfather in my genealogy. This supposed ‘fact’ makes the reading of the saga more interesting because it is a tale of supposed actual distant relations. Because of the time period there are no means of verifying the history or persons in the saga as real, however there is enough compelling evidence to suggest that at least some elements of the saga are gleaned from actual events passed down through time as family legend.

Rather than compose my own reviw of the saga, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia.

Egil Skallagrimsson, an Icelandic farmer, Viking, and skald. The saga spans the years c. 850–1000 and traces the family history from Egil’s grandfather to his offspring.

Its oldest manuscript (a fragment) dates back to 1240 AD and comprises the sole source of information on the exploits of Egil, whose life is not historically recorded. Stylistic and other similarities between Egil’s Saga and Heimskringla have led many scholars to believe that they were the work of the same author, Snorri Sturluson.

The saga begins in Norway around 850, with the life of Egil’s grandfather Ulf (Úlfr) aka Kveldulf or “Evening Wolf”, and his two sons Thorolf (Þórólfr) and Skallagrim (Skalla-Grímr). Strife with the royal house drive the family out of the country, and they settle in Iceland. The brothers Egil and Thorolf Skallagrimsson are born. They have a tenuous tenure in Norway, but Egil is outlawed and they roam Scandinavia and serve the king of England. Egil tries to reclaim property back in Norway (as his wife’s inheritance), but this is blocked, and Egil develops a personal vendetta against the King.

There are also vivid descriptions of his other fights and friendships, his relationship with his family (highlighted by his jealousy, as well as fondness for his older brother Thorolf), his old age, and the fate of his own son Thorstein (Þorsteinn, who was baptized once Roman Catholicism came to Iceland) and his children, who had many children of their own. The saga ends around the year 1000 and spans many generations.

Ulf (Kveldulf) had Hallbjorn Halftroll as his maternal uncle and was known for his surpassing size and strength. He had accrued land and property from Viking raids, and was a man of wisdom. He earned the nickname Kveldulf (Kveldúlfr, “Evening Wolf”) because of his erratic temper at nightfall, and reputation for manifesting the so-called “shape-shifter” abilities. Extreme personal traits like these are manifested by his son Skallagrim and his grandson Egil as well.

King Harald Fairhair (Haraldr Hárfagri) was warring to unite all of Norway. Kveldulf refused to assist the local king of Fjordane, but rebuffed Harald’s overtures as well, incurring his wrath. A compromise was mediated by Olvir Hnufa (Ölvir hnúfa or “Olvir Hump”), Kveldulf’s brother-in-law and Harald’s court poet: Kveldulf was to send his elder son Thorolf, as soon as he returned from Viking expedition. Thorolf served the king well, but suspicion fell on him due to his becoming overly successful, exacerbated by words of slanderers. Thorolf was killed by the king who led a band of warriors, and the rift would force Skallagrim and his father Kveldulf to flee Norway to settle in Iceland.

Skallagrim journeyed to Harald’s court seeking compensation for the death of his brother Thorolf but offended the king and had to make a hasty exit empty-handed. Skallagrim and Kveldulf then recaptured a boat that had been seized from Thorolf, and after killing everyone on board, sent a taunting poem to the King. In the battle, Kveldulf displayed his “frenzy”, which left him severely weakened. When the family emigrated to Iceland, Kveldulf did not survive the trip, and his coffin was set adrift. Near the spot where the coffin washed ashore in Iceland, Skallagrim established his settlement, which he named Borg. He took up a peaceful livelihood as a farmer and blacksmith, and raised his sons, Thorolf (named Þórólfr after his slain brother), and Egil (the titular hero).

The saga then proceeds to describe the lives of Thorolf and Egil Skallagrimsson, born in Iceland, and eventually making their way to Norway in adulthood. Thorolf visited Skallagrim’s old friend in Norway, Thorir the Hersir (Þórir Hróaldsson). Here Thorolf befriended Prince Eirik Bloodaxe, Harald’s favorite son and Thorir’s fosterling. He approached the prince with a gift of a painted warship that Eirik was admiring, on advice of Bjorn (Björn Brynjólfsson), Thorir’s brother-in-law.

Afterwards Eirik Bloodaxe was crowned co-king, and as Thorolf headed home to Iceland, the king gave him a gold-inlaid axe as a gift to Skallagrim. Skallagrim abused the axe (named “King’s Gift” or konungsnautr) and shattered it, reciting an insulting poem about it to Thorolf and handing back what was left of the axe, a sooty handle with a rusted blade. Thorolf flung the axe overboard but reported to King Eirik that his father was grateful for the axe, presenting a bolt of longship sail cloth pretended to be from Skallagrim. In this way Thorolf managed to somewhat keep the peace between Skallagrim and King Eirik Bloodaxe.

Egil’s boyhood foreshadowed his future rebelliousness and poetic prowess. His unbridled behavior and strength beyond his age earned him a stay at home when a feast was held by Yngvar (Egil’s maternal grandfather). Egil defiantly rode a horse to attend and composed his first skaldic verse at age three. At the age of seven while playing in the ball games he committed his first murder (axe-killing an older boy who outclassed him in the sport). By the time Egil was twelve very few grown men could compete with him in games, but when he and his friend challenged his father one day, Skallagrim manifested such strength at nightfall that he slammed the friend dead against the ground. Egil’s life was only saved when Egil’s fostra (a female slave that had acted as Egil’s nurse as a child) tried to calm Skallagrim down and was killed instead. Egil was so upset he killed one of his father’s favorite workers, and the two were not on speaking terms.

The summer after Egil’s father killed his friend, Thorolf came home to visit Iceland. Egil forcibly insisted on accompanying Thorolf back to Norway, although Thorolf was reluctant. On this trip, Thorolf took his prospective wife, Asgerd (Ásgerðr Bjarnardóttir), who had been reared in Iceland, to ask her father Bjorn and uncle Thorir for permission to marry. While staying with Thorir, Egil became attached to Thorir’s son Arinbjorn (Arinbjörn Þórisson), an important figure in the saga and Egil’s lifelong friend.

Egil missed the wedding on account of illness, and joined Thorir’s men on an errand in Atloy, where he was slighted by the king’s steward Bard (Bárðr), and wound up killing him. When Bard received Egil’s party, he would only serve curd (skyr) to drink, pretending ale had run out. But later that night when king and queen arrived for the feast to the dísir, ale was served plentifully. Egil relentlessly jibed Bard about the deceit with sarcastic poetry, and his unquenchable thirst embarrassed the host. Bard and the queen sent Egil a poisoned drink, but the attempt was foiled by Egil, who inscribed runes on the horn and besmeared it with his own blood, causing the horn to shatter. Egil then went up to Bard and stabbed him to death with his sword. Discovering Egil had fled, Eirik ordered an unsuccessful manhunt to have Egil killed, and lost several men. Despite the affront, Eirik was persuaded by Thorir (his foster-father) to settle this by compensation.

Egil joined the army of King Æthelstan, and he composed a drápa in praise of the king. Egil and Thorolf fought with King Æthelstan in a battle against “Olaf the Red of Scotland”. Thorolf was killed, and King Æthelstan compensated Egil for Thorolf’s loss with two chests full of silver.

Egil married his brother Thorolf’s widow, Asgerd. Some time later, Asgerd’s father Bjorn the Wealthy died in Norway, but she received no inheritance, the entire estate having been claimed by Berg-Onund, married to Gunnhild Bjarnardottir (Asgerd’s half-sister). Egil wanted to claim half-share for his wife, but the prospect was bleak because Berg-Onund was a favorite of Eirik and his consort Gunnhild. The case was argued at the Gulaþing assembly, where Berg-Onund asserted that Asgerd as a slave-woman entitled to no share (due to the circumstance that her mother eloped without her kinsmen’s consent). Asbjorn countered with witnesses swearing that Asgerd was acknowledged as heiress, but the processing was blocked by Queen Gunnhild who ordered a henchmen to disrupt the assembly. Egil made threat against anyone who tried to make use of the disputed farm and fled by ship. Eirik pursued with a fleet, and a skirmish ensued.

Harald Fairhair dies, and Eirik becomes King of Norway, eliminating two of his brothers who were rivals to the crown. Eirik declares Egil an outlaw to be killed on sight, and Egil vows vengeance, especially against the manipulative queen. Egil’s movements are under surveillance, and when he appears to leave the country, Berg-Onund dismissed the men he had gathered for protection and traveled not far from his home (Ask) to the king’s farm at Aarstad. By chance, calm winds force Egil back to shore to the same location. Egil commits massacre, killing Onund, as well as Eirik’s 10 year-old prince Rognvald. To top it off, Egil erects a scorn-pole (Nithing pole) with a horse head mounted on top, laying a curse that the nature spirits drive King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild away from Norway. The hoped-for outcome of the curse does become reality.

Eirik ruled just 1 year before being ousted as Norwegian king by his brother Hakon the fosterling of King Æthelstan in England. Eirik left Norway with his family, and eventually appointed king over Northumbria by Æthelstan of England. Two years later, Egil sailed to England intending to see Æthelstan and was captured by Eirik Bloodaxe. Eirik was furious, but Arinbjorn Thorisson convinced Eirik to spare Egil’s life if he could compose a poem in his honor. Egil succeeded (by reciting Höfuðlausn or “Head Ransom”), and Eirik allowed him to leave on condition that he never appeared again before Eirik’s sight. Egil made his way to see King Æthelstan, who was fostering Thorstein (Þorsteinn), a kinsman of Arinbjorn. While visiting, word arrived from Norway that Thorstein’s father died leaving him a large inheritance. Þorsteinn, Arinbjorn and Egil made plans to sail to Norway to claim Thorsteinn’s share. Before they leave, King Æthelstan convinced Egil to move to England and command his armies after their task is completed.

Egil returned to Iceland and spent a few years with his family. During this time, both Kings Æthelstan and Eirik Bloodaxe died, leaving Eirik’s brother Hakon ruler of Norway. Egil returned to Norway to claim lands won in a duel with Atli the Short on behalf of his wife Asgerd. Along the way Egil stayed with Arinbjorn, whom he convinces to go to King Hákon on his behalf. Hákon denied Egil’s claim, so Arinbjörn compensated Egil with forty marks of silver.

Egill and Arinbjörn went raiding in Saxony and Frisia, after which they stayed with Thorstein Thoruson (Þorsteinn Þóruson). King Hakon requested Thorstein to collect tribute in Värmland or be sentenced to outlawry. Egil went in Thorsteinn’s place. Egil traveled with some of King Hákon’s men to Värmland and fought battles, Egil killing many times more foes than his companions.

Egil lived to be an old age. Arinbjörn became a close advisor to Harald Eiríksson, to whom Egil composed a poem. Egil’s son Bodvar (Böðvar) died in a shipwreck. Egil composed a poem in his honor. Egil’s son Thorsteinn has many feuds with Steinar, son of Onund Sjoni (Önundr sjóni Anason), over land and cattle grazing. Egil became frail and blind. His one last wish was to travel to the Althing and toss silver he received from King Æthelstan for the people to fight over. Since no one was able to accompany him, he wandered alone and allegedly concealed his silver treasure near Mosfellsbær, giving birth to the legend of silfur Egils (“Egill’s Silver”).

The character of Egil is complex and full of seeming contradictions. His multifaceted nature reflects the extreme qualities of his family, a family of men who are either ugly or astoundingly handsome; a family which includes ‘shape-shifters’, who become suddenly mad, violent and cruel, though they may at other times be deliberate and wise; a family which neither submits to the will of kings, nor stands in open rebellion. His character is also reflected in the storytelling conventions of the text, a difficult text populated by characters with similar or identical names, living out various permutations of very similar stories. The two handsome Thorolfs (Þórólfrs) die heroic deaths, while their brothers Skallagrim and Egil both die in old age after spitefully burying their wealth in the wilderness. The descendants of Kveldúlfr find themselves involved in two complicated inheritance feuds, at one time rejecting the claims of illegitimate children of a second marriage, and at another time claiming land on behalf of another illegitimate child born to similar circumstances.

At times in Egil’s saga Egil comes across as a brute who often acts quickly and irrationally for no reason. He appears to be a shallow creature and in many instances the only time he appears to put much thought into anything is when he composes and recites poetry. Egil is in reality a man of many virtues which are central to his character. He values honor, loyalty, respect, and friendship above all other things. He takes it as a great personal insult when someone breaks any of these values and as a result he typically destroys that person either through physical force or through poetry. His reactions are usually on a grand scale to the point where they are often outrageous and entertaining. The value code by which Egil lived was the same as that of many Scandinavians at the time of the story’s composition. The story is set in a time when many people were migrating, most notably from Norway to Iceland. Life was harsh, particularly during the long, cold winters, when it was crucial for people to get along and work together.

As a work of literature, Egil’s Saga is generally considered to be amongst the best of the Icelandic sagas, along with Njáls saga, Gísla saga Súrssonar, and Laxdæla saga.

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