Egils saga Skallagrímssonar
Time of action: 850-1000
Time of writing: 1220-40
Egil's Saga is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the genre, a magnificently wrought portrait of poet, warrior and farmer Egil Skallagrimsson, loosely contained within the framework of the family saga, but with an unusual twist the feud that Egil and his forebears wage is with the kings of Norway.
Spanning some 150 years, much of the action takes place outside Iceland and repeatedly returns to Norway, where the saga starts and where its main themes are laid out against the background of King Harald Fair-hair's merciless unification of the realm. Egil's grandfather Kveldulf and father Skallagrim refuse allegiance to the king, while Kveldulf's other son Thorolf enters his service but dies at the king's own hands, the victim of malicious slanders. Beyond the closely mapped sites in Norway, the setting extends into vaguer territory elsewhere in Scandinavia, deep into the Baltic and East Europe, far north to Finnmark, and to England much of the known Viking world at that time. Often the adventures and heroics are larger than life, but are outrageous and delightfully gross rather than implausible or fantastic. Egil's enemies are motivated by treachery, self-interest and malice, and he confronts them as his forebears did, with the family traits of obstinacy, ruthlessness, animal strength and an instinctive inability to accept authority. To his friend andadvocate Arinbjorn in Norway, however, and to others whose favour he wins, Egil shows loyalty and unswerving devotion, and he heroically adheres to a brutal but not entirely unappealing sense of justice.
The action in Iceland falls into several phases. Skallagrim settles at Borg and is an ideal of pioneer and craftsman, but the social order which he builds is threatened by the unruly and rebellious Egil. When Egil many years later inherits his farm, he becomes a respected figure of authority himself, and does not engage in feuds in Iceland; his main involvement in a dispute occurs when he rules in his son Thorstein's favour, acting as a figure of authority rather than of force. However, the trick he plans to humiliate the greedy thingmen in his eighties shows that his relish for provocation has never been entirely lost. At intervals he had been drawn away from Borg to pursue his feud with the Norwegian royal family, which escalates into a sheer battle of personalities with King Eirik Blood-axe and Queen Gunnhild. After their deaths he seems to realize that Norway is gradually changing into a world in which he can never be accepted, and Iceland becomes for him, as for so many other saga heroes, a kind of retirement home for ageing Vikings.
Although the objective style of the sagas does not allow direct revelation of the characters' thoughts, the portrayal of Egil is exceptionally rich in psychology. His gestures are dramatic, almost ritualistic, as he sulks or broods, suffers personal sorrow in silence, flies into a rage or succumbs to childlike joy on receiving a noble gift. And while the saga is clearly a man's world in which Egil fears no adversary, he is timid and submissive towards women, as shown by his almost blushing love for his brother's widow Asgerd, who later becomes his wife, and by the way he allows his daughter Thorgerd to trick him out of his sympathy-seeking act of pining away after the death of his sons.
Scholars have pointed out the psychological tension between the ugly Egil and his 'exemplary' brother Thorolf, the jealousy which sometimes manifests itself in irresponsible pranks and then turns into self-reproach after Thorolf's death in battle. Egil seems to have inherited this jealousy from his father, who was always overshadowed by his own brother, also named Thorolf, in the first part of the saga. Macabre tension between father and son is another psychological theme: Skallagrim even comes close to killing the young Egil once in a savage, shape-shifter's fury.
Another window into Egil's psyche is his poetry, which ranks with the most personal as well as the most accomplished in the sagas. We see Egil glorifying his own ugliness as if it were an archetypal landscape, depicting the living forces of nature and mythology in brisk, dramatic strokes, and exalting the values he cherishes most. The scene where Egil saves his life in York by reciting his 'Head Ransom' to King Eirik abounds in irony, since the poem has an empty, tongue-in-cheek ring to it compared to his other verse and seems, so to speak, to go over the king's head anyway. By contrast, the eulogy for Arinbjorn is heartfelt, engaged, stacked with monumental metaphor and tinged with nostalgia for the lost Viking lifestyle. In 'The Loss of My Sons' Egil lays his soul bare, delves into thwarted ambition for his family and unrealized affection in the bonds that have been lost, and breaks with the god Odin who has given him gifts in both poetry and war, but deprived him of personal fortune.
Egil's Saga is preserved in a number of vellum manuscripts and fragments dating from the second half of the thirteenth century onwards, although the most important is Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol., dated 1330-70). Composed in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, the saga is generally attributed on stylistic and other grounds to Iceland's greatest medieval historian, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), who was a descendant of Egil. If the attribution is correct, Egil's Saga is the only one whose author is known. It is translated here by Bernard Scudder from the version printed in Íslendinga sögur, vol. l (Reykjavík 1987), and incorporates a number of emendations based on Bjarni Einarsson's new reading of Möðruvallabók and paper manuscripts deriving from it.
There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafnista, the father of Ketil Haeng. Ulf was so big and strong that no man was a match for him; and he was still only a youth when he became a Viking and went raiding. His companion was Kari from Berle, a man of high birth who had the strength and courage to perform great deeds. Kari was a berserk. He and Ulf shared all they owned and were close friends.
When they gave up plundering, Kari returned to his farm on Berle, a very wealthy man. Kari had three children, two sons called Eyvind Lamb and Olvir Hump, and a daughter named Salbjorg. She was a beautiful woman of firm character. Ulf married her, then he too returned to his farm. He was rich in both lands and possessions. He became a landholder like his ancestors and was a powerful figure.
Ulf is said to have been a very clever farmer. He made a habit of getting up early to inspect what his farmhands or craftsmen were doing and to keep an eye on his cattle and cornfields. Sometimes he would talk to people who were in need of his advice, for he was shrewd and always ready to make useful suggestions. But everyday towards evening he would grow so bad-tempered that few people dared even address him. He always went to sleep early in the evening and woke up early in the morning. People claimed he was a shape-shifter and they called him Kveldulf (Night Wolf).
Kveldulf and his wife had two sons. The elder one was named Thorolf and the younger one Grim, and they both grew up to be big, strong men like their father. Thorolf was an attractive and highly accomplished man. He took after his mother's side of the family, a cheerful, generous man, energetic and very eager to prove his worth. He was popular with everyone. Grim was swarthy and ugly, resembling his father in both appearance and character. He turned out to be an active man; he was gifted at working in wood and iron, and grew to be a great craftsman. In winter he would often set off on a fishing boat to lay nets for herring, taking many farmhands with him.
When Thorolf was twenty, he made ready to go raiding, and Kveldulf gave him a longship. Kari's sons Eyvind and Olvir joined him, with a large band of men and another longship. In the summer they went raiding and took plenty of booty which they shared out among themselves. They went raiding for several summers, spending the winters at home with their fathers. Thorolf brought many precious things back to give to his parents, for in those days it was easy to win both wealth and renown. Kveldulf was very old by then, and his sons had reached full manhood.
Audbjorn was king of Fjordane at this time. One of his earls was Hroald, who had a son named Thorir.
Atli the Slender, another earl, lived at Gaular and had three sons, Hallstein, Holmstein and Herstein, and a daughter called Solveig the Fair.
One autumn when there was a great gathering at Gaular for the autumn feast, Olvir Hump saw Solveig and began courting her. Later he asked for her hand, but the earl, not considering him worthy enough, would not marry her to him. Afterwards, Olvir composed many love poems and grew so obsessed with her that he gave up raiding, leaving Thorolf and Eyvind to go by themselves.
King Harald inherited the titles of his father Halfdan the Black and swore an oath not to cut or comb his hair until he had become sole king of Norway. He was called Harald Tangle-hair. He did battle with the neighbouring kings and defeated them, as is told in long accounts. Afterwards he took over Oppland, and proceeded northwards to Trondheim where he fought many battles before gaining full control of all Trondheim district.
After that he intended to go north to Naumdal and take on the brothers Herlaug and Hrollaug, who were kings there, but when they heard that he was on his way, Herlaug and eleven of his men went into the mound they had spent the past three years building, and had it closed upon them. Hrollaug tumbled from power and took the title of earl instead, then submitted to Harald and handed over his kingdom. King Harald thereby took over Naumdal province and Halogaland and appointed men to govern there in his name.
Leaving Trondheim with his fleet of ships, he went south to More where he won a battle against King Hunthjof, who was killed there. Then Harald took over North More and Romsdal.
Meanwhile, Hunthjof's son Solvi Chopper, who had escaped, went to King Arnvid in South More and asked for his help.
'Although this misfortune has befallen us now,' he said, 'it will not be very long before the same happens to you, because I think Harald will be here soon, once he has brought slavery and suffering to everyone he chooses in North More and Romsdal. You will face the same choice we had: either to defend your property and freedom by staking all the men you can hope to muster and I will provide my forces too against such aggression and injustice or to follow the course taken by the people of Naumdal who voluntarily entered servitude and became Harald's slaves. My father felt it an honour to die nobly as king of his own realm rather than become subservient to another king in his old age. I think you will feel the same, and so will any other stalwarts who want to prove their worth.'
Persuaded by such words, the king resolved to muster forces and defend his land. He and Solvi swore an alliance and sent word to King Audbjorn, who ruled Fjordane province, to join forces with them. When the messengers delivered this message to King Audbjorn he discussed it with his friends, all of whom advised him to gather forces and join the people of More as he had been asked. King Audbjorn sent around an arrow of war as a signal to call men to arms throughout his kingdom and dispatched messengers to powerful men asking them to meet him.
But when the messengers told Kveldulf that the king wanted him to bring all the men on his farm to join him, he replied, 'The king would consider it my duty to go with him if he had to defend his land and battles had to be fought in Fjordane province. But I don't think it's any duty of mine to go up north to More and fight there to defend other people's land. Tell your king straight out when you meet him, that while he rushes off to battle Kveldulf will be staying at home, and will not muster any forces or set off to fight Harald Tangle-hair. I have a feeling Harald has plenty of good fortune in store for him, but our king doesn't have enough to fill the palm of his hand.'
The messengers went back to the king and told him how their errand had turned out, and Kveldulf stayed at home on his farm.
King Audbjorn took the band of men he had gathered and went north to More, where he met King Arnvid and Solvi Chopper, and together they amassed great forces. By then, King Harald had arrived from the north with his forces, and the two sides clashed on the fjord near Solskjel Island. A fierce battle ensued, with heavy losses on both sides. On Harald's side, the two earls Asgaut and Asbjorn were killed, along with two of Earl Hakon of Lade's sons, Grjotgard and Herlaug, and many other great men, while King Arnvid and King Audbjorn were killed on the side from More. Solvi Chopper escaped by fleeing and became a great Viking, and often raided in Harald's kingdom, which was how he earned his nickname. Afterwards, King Harald conquered South More.
King Audbjorn's brother Vemund kept control of Fjordane province and became its king. This happened late in autumn, and King Harald's men advised him not to head south past Stad at that time, so Harald appointed Earl Rognvald to rule North and South More and Romsdal, and returned to Trondheim, keeping a large band of men with him.
The same autumn, Earl Atli's sons attacked Olvir Hump's farm, intending to kill him. They had far too many men for Olvir to fend off, so he fled. He went to More, met King Harald and became one of his men, then went north to Trondheim with the king that autumn and became close friends with him. He stayed with the king for a long time and became his poet.
That winter, Earl Rognvald travelled inland across lake Eidesjo and south to Fjordane, and received word about King Vemund's movements. Rognvald turned up one night at a place called Naustdal where Vemund was at a feast. He stormed the house and burned the king and ninety men inside. Kari from Berle joined Earl Rognvald with a fully manned longship and they went to More together. Rognvald took the ship that King Vemund had owned, and all the possessions he could manage. Then Kari travelled north to Trondheim to meet King Harald, and entered his service.
The following spring King Harald sailed southwards along the coast with his fleet, conquering the Fjordane and Fjaler provinces and appointing his own men to rule them. He put Earl Hroald in charge of Fjordane province.
Once King Harald had taken over the kingdoms he had recently won, he kept a close watch on the landholders and powerful farmers and everyone else he suspected would be likely to rebel, and gave them the options of entering his service or leaving the country, or a third choice of suffering hardship or paying with their lives; some had their arms and legs maimed. In each province King Harald took over all the estates and all the land, habited or uninhabited, and even the sea and lakes. All the farmers were made his tenants, and everyone who worked the forests and dried salt, or hunted on land or at sea, was made to pay tribute to him.
Many people fled the country to escape this tyranny and settled various uninhabited parts of many places, to the east in Jamtland and Halsingland, and to the west in the Hebrides, the shire of Dublin, Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, the Orkney Isles and Shetland Isles, and the Faroe Islands. And at this time, Iceland was discovered.
King Harald stayed with his army in Fjordane, and sent out messengers through the countryside to meet the people that he felt he had reason to contact but who had not joined him.
The king's messengers went to Kveldulf's and received a warm welcome.
They told him their business, saying that the king wanted Kveldulf to go to see him: 'He has heard that you are a man of high birth and standing,' they said. 'You have the chance to receive great honour from the king, because he is eager to be joined by people who are renowned for their strength of body and heart.'
Kveldulf replied that he was too old for going on fighting ships: 'So I will stay at home now and give up serving kings.'
'Then let your son go to see the king,' the messenger said. 'He's a big and brave man. The king will make you a landholder if you serve him.'
'I don't want to be a landholder while my father is still alive,' Grim said, 'because he is my superior for as long as he lives.'
The messengers departed, and when they reached the king they told him everything Kveldulf had said to them. The king grew surly, remarking that these must be arrogant people, and he could not tell what their motivation was.
Olvir Hump was present then and asked the king not to be angry.
'I will go and see Kveldulf,' he said, 'and he will want to meet you when he knows how important it is to you.'
So Olvir went to see Kveldulf and, after describing the king's rage, told him he had no choice but to go to the king or send his son in his place, and that they would be shown great honour if they obeyed. He spoke at length, and rightly so, about how well the king repaid his men with both wealth and status.
Kveldulf said he had an intuition that 'this king will not bring my family much good fortune. I won't go to meet him, but if Thorolf comes home this summer it will be easy to persuade him to go and become one of the king's men. So tell the king that I will be friendly towards him and encourage everyone who sets store by my words to do the same. As far as acting on his behalf goes, I will maintain the same arrangement I had under the previous king, if that is what he wants, and then see how the two of us get along together'.
Olvir returned to the king and told him that Kveldulf would send him one of his sons, but that the more suitable one was not at home at that time. The king let the matter rest there. In the summer he crossed Sognefjord, and when autumn came he prepared to go north to Trondheim.
Kveldulf's son Thorolf and Eyvind Lamb returned from their Viking expedition that autumn, and Thorolf went to stay with his father.
When they were talking together, Thorolf asked about the business of Harald's messengers. Kveldulf told him that the king had sent word ordering him or one of his sons to join him.
'What did you tell them?' asked Thorolf.
'I said what I was thinking, that I would never join King Harald, nor would you or your brother, if I had any say in the matter. I think we will end up losing our lives because of that king.'
'That is quite different from what I foresee,' said Thorolf, 'because I feel I will earn great honour from him. I'm determined to go and see the king and join him, for I know for a fact that there are nothing but men of valour among his followers. Joining their ranks sounds a very attractive proposition, if they will take me. They live a much better life than anyone else in this country. And I'm told that the king is very generous to his men and no less liberal in granting advancement and power to people he thinks worthy of it. I've also heard about all the people who turn their backs on him and spurn his friendship, and they never become great men some of them are forced to flee the country, and others are made his tenants. It strikes me as odd for such a wise and ambitious man as you, Father, not to be grateful to accept the honour that the king offered you. But if you claim to have an intuition that this king will cause us misfortune and want to become our enemy, why didn't you join the one you had sworn allegiance to, and do battle against him? Being neither his friend nor his enemy seems to me the most dishonourable course of all.'
'My foreboding that no one would triumph in battle against Harald Tangle-hair in More came true,' replied Kveldulf. 'And likewise it is true that Harald will do great harm to my kinsmen. But you decide what you want to do for yourself, Thorolf. I have no worries about your not being accepted as their equal if you join King Harald's men, or being a match for the best of them in the face of any danger. Just avoid aiming too high or contending with stronger men than yourself, but never give way to them either.'
When Thorolf was making ready to leave, Kveldulf accompanied him down to his ship, embraced him and wished him farewell, saying they should meet in good health again. Then Thorolf went north to meet the king.
There was a man named Bjorgolf who lived on Torgar Island in Halogaland, a powerful and wealthy landholder who was descended from a mountain giant, as his strength and size bore witness. His son, Brynjolf, resembled him closely. In his old age, when his wife had died, Bjorgolf handed over all control of his affairs to his son and found him a wife. Brynjolf married Helga, daughter of Ketil Haeng from Hrafnista. Their son Bard turned out to be tall and handsome at an early age and became a man of great accomplishments.
One autumn Bjorgolf and his son invited a lot of people to a feast, and they were the most noble of all those present. According to custom they cast lots every evening to decide which pairs would sit together and share the drinking horns. One of the guests was a man named Hogni who had a farm at Leka. He was wealthy, outstandingly handsome and wise, but came from an ordinary family and had achieved his position through his own efforts alone. He had an attractive daughter named Hildirid, who was allotted a seat next to Bjorgolf. They talked together at length that evening and he thought the girl was beautiful. A short while later the feast ended.
The same autumn old Bjorgolf set off from home on a boat that he owned, with a crew of thirty men. When they reached Leka, twenty of them went up to the farm, leaving the other ten behind to guard the boat. Hogni came out to meet him at the farmhouse and greeted him warmly, inviting him and his men to stay there. Bjorgolf accepted the offer and they went into the main room. After they had changed their sailing clothes for tunics, Hogni had vats of ale brought in and his daughter served the guests.
Bjorgolf called Hogni over and said, 'The reason I have come here is to take your daughter home with me and I will celebrate our wedding here now.'
Hogni saw he had no other choice than to let Bjorgolf have his way. Bjorgolf paid an ounce of gold for Hildirid and he shared a bed with her afterwards. She went home with him to Torgar, but his son Brynjolf disapproved of the whole business.
Bjorgolf and Hildirid had two sons, Harek and Hraerek.
Then Bjorgolf died, and when he had been buried, Brynjolf made Hildirid and her two sons leave Torgar, and she returned to her Father's farm at Leka where she brought them up. They grew up to be handsome men, small but clever, like their mother's side of the family. Everyone called them Hildirid's sons. Brynjolf held them in low regard and did not let them have any of their inheritance. Hildirid was Hogni's heir, and she and her sons inherited the farm at Leka where they lived in plenty. Brynjolf's son Bard and Hildirid's sons were about the same age.
For a long time, Brynjolf and his father Bjorgolf had travelled to Finnmark collecting tribute.
In the north, in Halogaland, there is a large, fine island in Vefsna fjord called Alost, with a farm on it called Sandnes. A wise landholder named Sigurd lived there, the richest man in that part of the north. His daughter Sigrid was considered the finest match in Halogaland; as his only child, she was his heir.
Brynjolf's son Bard set off from home on a boat with a crew of thirty men, and sailed north to Alost where he visited Sigurd at Sandnes. Bard announced that his business was to ask for Sigrid's hand in marriage. His proposal was answered favourably and Bard was promised her for his bride. The wedding was set for the following summer; when Bard was to go back north to fetch his bride.
That summer King Harald sent word to the powerful men in Halogaland and summoned all those who had not yet been to meet him. Brynjolf decided to go and took his son Bard with him, and in the autumn they went south to Trondheim and met the king. He welcomed them and made Brynjolf a landholder, granting him revenues in addition to those he already had, as well as the right to collect tribute and trade in Finnmark and collect taxes in the mountain regions. Afterwards Brynjolf returned to his land, leaving Bard behind with the king's men.
Of all his followers, the king held his poets in highest regard, and let them sit on the bench opposite his high seat. Farthest inside sat Audun the Uninspired, who was the oldest and had been poet to King Harald's father, Halfdan the Black. Next to him sat Thorbjorn Raven, and then Olvir Hump. Bard was given the seat next to him and was nicknamed Bard the White or Bard the Strong. He was popular with everyone and become a close companion of Olvir's.
The same autumn, Kveldulf's son Thorolf and Eyvind Lamb, son of Kari from Berle, came to the king and were well received by him. They arrived with a good crew on a twenty-seater swift warship that they had used on Viking raids, and were given a place to stay in the guests' quarters with their men.
After staying for what they thought was a suitable length of time, they decided to go to see the king. Kari and Olvir Hump accompanied them and they greeted the king.