Sunday, October 19, 2008

Egil's Saga

Here’s an example of the dusty analysis, 54 pages, I choked my way through in preface to reading Egil’s Saga.*

These stories are familiar….

…their understanding of the consequences of foolishness and folly, especially in its relationship to character, is uniquely plain, unvarnished and direct.

Thus Icelandic sagas and tales seem far removed from modern literary subjectivity, and yet, the gossip and the comments of other characters supply a practical and readily understandable psychological context. Characters speak up. They say what they want and what their intentions are. Other characters disagree with them and judge them. The saga writer sometimes remarks upon public opinion concerning these events. The result is that the sagas are psychologically complex and yet economical in their analysis.

…turn the page to begin the saga. YeeOW!

Egil Skallagrimsson strides to the shore of the tumultuous Northern Atlantic, cuts the ropes mooring his brother’s ship and extorts his release into humanity’s fray, through which he hacks his way like a god.

"Economical in analysis"? Nay! Extravagant, it’s that. “Plain”? No. There’s nothing “familiar” about this story. In the familiar world, no one intentionally pukes out his guts into the eyes, ears and mouth of his host. Neither does one begin his reign of terror with murder at age seven or ransom his own head with a poem to a king or insist on standing in place of a weaker man in a duel. Far from being familiar, Egil’s Saga is extraordinary, both in history and in the nature of a man.

Nearly napping by the time I finished the introduction (yaa-awn) and began the saga, I was definitely not napping once the story began. With Egil Skallagrimsson, I laughed:

(On earning his life in exchange for a poem)
Ugly as my head may be,
The cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
To accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
Received a finer gift
From a noble-minded
Son of a great ruler?

(On his own old age)

My head bobs like a bridled horse
It plunges baldly into woe.
My middle leg both droops and drips
While both my ears are dry.

I thrilled:

(on taking revenge) Bern-Onund ran up to the shrubs. He was wearing a helmet, carried a shield in one hand and a spear in the other, and was girded with a sword. But it was Egil, not a bear, that was hiding in the shrubs, and when he saw Berg-Onund he drew his sword. There was a strap on the hilt which pulled over his hand to let the sword hang there. Taking his spear, he rushed towards Berg-Onund. When Berg-Onund saw this he quickened his pace and put the shield in front of him, and before they clashed they threw their spears at each other. Egil darted his shield out to block the spear, at such an angle that the spear glanced off and stuck into the ground. His own spear struck the middle of Onund’s shield and sank in so deep that it stuck there, making it heavy for Onund to hold. Then Egil quickly grabbed the hilt of his sword. Onund began to draw his sword, but had only pulled it half-way out of its sheath by the time Egil ran him through with his sword. Onund recoiled at the blow, but Egil drew his sword back swiftly and struck at Onund, almost chopping his head off. Then Egil took his spear out of the shield.

Hadd and Frodi ran over to Berg-Onund when they saw he had been felled. Egil turned to face them. He lunged at Frodi with his spear, piercing his shield and plunging it so deep into his chest that the point came out through his back. He fell over backwards dead on the spot. Then Egil took his sword and set on Hadd, and they exchanged a few blows before Hadd was killed.

I cringed:

(at seven years old, upon losing a game to an older boy) Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days. They walked over to where the boys were playing their game. Grim had caught the ball and was running with the other boys chasing him. Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain.

I lauded:

(surprising his son in supporting him at the Althing) From the assembly, a band of men was seen riding alongside the river Gljufura, their shields glinting. They rode into the assembly led by a large man wearing a black cloak and gilded helmet and carrying a shield decorated with gold by his side. In his hand he held a barbed spear with its socket embossed with gold, and he was girded with a sword. Egil Skallagrimsson had arrived with eighty men, all armed for battle.

I marveled:

(on working a curse) He took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland. Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole.

Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, “here I set up this scorn-pole and turn its scorn upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild”—then turned the horse’s head to face land—“and I turn its scorn upon the nature spirits that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land.”

Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.

By the end, I cried:

(on the death of his son)
Myself I know
That in my son
Grew the makings
Of a worthy man,
Had that shield-tree
Reached manhood,
Then earned the claim
Of war’s arms.

Always he prized
His father’s words
Highest of all, though
The world said otherwise.
He shored me up,
Defended me,
Lent my strength
The most support.

Even in old age, Egil doesn’t give a quarter, thwarting those who thwart him, exerting extraordinary strength, flaunting superior intelligence and spewing cussedness (strangely both generous and honorable) right to his death.

I wonder if the commentator read the same story I did. Far from being “economical in analysis,” the saga is wealthy in detail and almost exaggerated in the analysis of Egil. Coming away from it, I know Egil, from motive to deed. I better understand his world and time, his gods and his folk. I can hardly wait to read the remainder of the tales.


*The Sagas of the Icelanders©2000 with Preface by Jane Smiley and Introduction by Robert Kellogg. In this collection from Penguin Classics, Bernard Scudder is the translator of Egil's Saga.

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