Sunday, July 20, 2008

Egil's Saga: Mail-clad storytelling from an age gone by

Now my course is tough:

Death, close sister

of Odin's enemy,

stands on the ness:

with resolution

and without remorse

I will gladly await my own.

--Egil's Saga, The Sagas of Icelanders

While writing a review of the Poul Anderson novel Hrolf Kraki's Saga, I vowed to finally crack the dusty cover of The Sagas of Icelanders. For too long this massive tome (around 800 pages) has gone unread on my bookshelf. I recently made a commitment to work on it a bit at a time, so as not to get burned out on it, and so I began with the forward material and the first and longest work in the volume, Egil's Saga.

Egil is one of the great heroes of Icelandic Saga but he's surprisingly multi-faceted, especially given the age (circa 1220-1240 AD) of the work. He's certainly no hero by modern standards, and commits some acts which would amount to murder nowadays. Ugly, bald, ill-tempered and moody, huge of stature and strength and a feared warrior, he's also more than meets the eye: Egil is a great skald and composes several lengthy poems which weave their way into the tale. I found these at least as interesting (and in some cases, more so) than the action of the story.

In fact, the most memorable sequence of Egil's Saga is a poem he writes to honor the memory of his young son, Bodvar, who drowns at sea in a storm. In one of many moving passages in the poem, Egil in his rage wishes he could destroy the sea-god for the deed:

The sea-goddess has ruffled me,

stripped me bare of my loved ones:

the ocean severed my family's bonds,

the tight knot that ties me down.

If by sword I might avenge that deed,

the brewer of waves would meet his end;

smite the wind's brother that dashes the bay,

do battle against the sea-god's wife.

Egil's Saga spans 150 years of history, beginning with the story of Egil's grandfather and his early clashes with the king of Norway, which led to Egil's grandfather and father moving/fleeing to Iceland. Egil is born there, reaches an early maturity, and, after becoming a seasoned fighter on some viking raids, begins to build up his land, wealth, and reputation. But he never forgets his family's roots in Norway, and his long memory causes him to run afoul of King Harald Fair-Hair and his son Eirik when he makes repeated claims to his ancestral land. Egil's steadfastness/stubbornness draws him into numerous conflicts and bloody battles with the king's men in which he keeps Odin's corpse hall full of enemies hewn down on the battlefield. The tale eventually spans the course of Egil's life and also includes some details about the lives of his children.

If you're looking for straightforward narrative about epic heroes and their deeds, The Sagas of Icelanders will meet your needs, at least from my early experience with Egil's Saga. The language is lean and vivid and iron-hard, with scarcely a wasted word. Unlike the Norse myths, there's no outright magic or monsters to be found in Egil's Saga, but there are deeds of strength and endurance and feats of arms that only larger than life heroes could achieve.

There's also some shocking violence described in such an offhand way that you're left with the impression that violence was rather routine in that age. Men settle disputes by laying down hazelrods on the ground and fighting duels to the death within their deadly perimeter, with the winner declared the victor in the dispute. Other disputes are settled less formally: A good example is a conflict over farmland boundaries between Thorstein, one of Egil's sons, and Steinar, a quarrelsome and unlikeable neighbor. Steinar sends Thrand, a huge, fearsome slave with a double-bitted axe, to challenge Thorstein's claims that Steinar's cattle have been illegally grazing on his land, and to provoke a fight:

'I don't care whose land it is,' Thrand replied. 'I will let the cattle be where they prefer.'

'I'd rather be in in charge of my own land than leave that to Steinar's slaves,' said Thorstein.

'You're more stupid than I thought, Thorstein, if you want to risk your honour by seeking a place to sleep for the night under my axe,' said Thrand. 'I'd guess I have twice your strength, and I don't lack courage either. And I'm better armed than you.'

Thorstein said, 'That's a risk I'm prepared to take if you don't do anything about the cattle grazing. I trust there's as much difference between our fortunes as there is between our claims in this matter.'

Thrand said, 'Now you'll find out whether I'm scared of your threats, Thorstein.'

Then Thrand sat down to tie his shoe, and Thorstein raised his axe high in the air and struck him on the neck, so that his head fell on to his chest. Thorstein piled some rocks over this body to cover it up and went back to home to Borg.

That's one way to settle a quarrel over land!

However, the Icelandic sagas are told in a very different manner from a modern novel, and the techniques take some getting used to. For instance, I was confounded and a bit frustrated by the multitude of names in the sagas, many of which are duplicates of the names of men from preceeding generations. This convention makes sense when judged against the purpose of the Sagas--a means to transmit information and history as well as tell a story--but their overwhelming number breaks up the flow and caused some excessive page-flipping on my part. Also, expect deeds and words from the main players in the story, not thoughts or internal dialogue. There is characterization here, but its not delivered in the same means as a modern novel. I also found the lack of description a bit disappointing--details about ships, armor, clothing, battles, etc., are scare indeed, about what you'd expect from a tale that takes only 182 pages to span 15o years.

Still, Egil's Saga is a promising early start to this thick volume and I'm eagerly looking forward to more.


wolfkahn said...

Icelandic sagas are wonderful. Some do have monsters and magic, like the ghosts in "The Eyrbyggja Saga" and the outright fantasy in the later ones like "Bosi and Herraud's Saga."

"Sagas of the Icelanders" contains the more "realistic" family sagas but they are often quite interesting despite their more mundane themes.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Wolfkahn, thanks for stopping by.

I hope I didn't leave the impression that I was disappointed by the absence of monsters and magic--quite the contrary as one of my favorite genres is historic fiction. I guess I was just expecting to see the gods, trolls, giants, etc., make appearances in the Sagas. But they are plenty entertaining and interesting without those elements(at least from my limited experience reading Egil's Saga.

huffbuff said...
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Brian Murphy said...

Spam placed in garbage, where it belongs.

davidf said...

Dude, your Viking reading list is awesome. I've enjoyed many of these works myself. One of my favorite sagas that isn't in the big Penguin edition is The Saga of Grettir the Strong--if you haven't read it, check it out! It's every bit as good and maybe even more enjoyable, IMO, than Egil's Saga.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi David, thanks for the kind words and for stopping by. I have not read The Saga of Grettir the Strong, but consider it added to my reading list.

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