book-reviews

Egil's Saga

(possibly) by Snorri Sturlusson (tr. Bernard Scudder)

Rating: ★★★

One of the great Icelandic sagas. Surprisingly enough, Egil's Saga does not introduce Egil himself for a good 50 pages, a span longer than some stand-alone sagas and including sufficient material on certain of Egil's forebears that it would be justified for reading on its own. You should not mourn Egil's lack in these early segments, though, as he is for the most part a deeply hateful character, representing in full the worst stereotypes of a Viking: he is brutish, selfish, self-aggrandising and constantly willing to try both his inexhaustible luck and the patience of those around him.

Two passages in particular highlight his nature. The first describes Egil's stay at a farmer named Armod's house. Egil arrives late by a poor route due to an unrelated conspiracy by some fellow travellers, and asks to spend the night. Armod offers them food and beds, since Egil is on the king's business. Initially he offers them curds, and he seems to be trying to pretend that he doesn't have any ale, until his daughter lets it slip, whereupon he brings out the good food and ale and plys Egil and co. with that as well. Egil responds by... drinking ridiculous quantities of ale, then purposely vomiting into Armod's face, filling his mouth with vomit and then continuing to drink. When he wakes up the next morning, Egil gets his men ready, then breaks into his host's bedroom, cuts off his beard and gouges out his eye. No justification is provided, and nobody ever asks Egil why he did any of that. My only guess is that it has something to do with an earlier event where a person called Bard tried to poison Egil's ale, or possibly just a bad hangover.

The second passage regards a slightly older Egil's relationship with his son, and I think sums up the father's character well by contrast:

Thorstein Egilsson when he grew up was a most handsome man, white-haired, bright-faced. Tall he was and strong, yet not so much so as his father. Thorstein was wise, gentle, quiet of temper, calm above other men. Egil loved him little.

The positive aspects of the text, then, come from sources other than the central figure's moral qualities. Worthy of mention in such regard is Arinbjorn, Egil's friend, who is consistently willing to stick up for the pig-headed Egil in various disputes, or else to give him ships and money to get home after some disaster or other. Even Egil recognises this, and in his later years he composes a poem about Adinbjorn which is somewhat less terrible than his earlier work, which was largely just self-aggrandising crap or his description of things happening around him. If there is some greater poetry to the originals, it is lost by these translations.

In addition, I want to vent about the annotations to the poetry in my translation. Telling the reader that 'Arinbjorn' means 'hearth-bear' is useful information which allows them to understand the references in Egil's poems. Telling the reader that 'horses of the sea' means 'ships' or that 'carrion-bird' means 'raven' says that you think they are completely incapable of reading figurative language, and is really quite annoying.

Veering back to positive aspects of the book, I noticed that the story really gave a sense of a fully lived-in Viking World, with trade, warfare and family connections stretching from the Baltic to Iceland. Something of this nature came out from my reading of The Long Ships, but the distinction here is that Egil's Saga was some 800 years closer to the period it depicted. The interconnected north was a plausible alternative power to the continental bodies still recuperating from the fall of Rome, and despite the haphazard organisation of the raiders, you can see why their culture became so influential.

Also worth reading is the realism which underlies the story. For all his larger-than-life exploits, Egil becomes a rather pathetic creature in his old age, lying on the floor by the fire, harassed by servants and women, even blind and falling over. Perhaps the defining trait of these sagas is that people are real in them, even monsters like Egil, and the writing is worthy of some respect due to this.