Egill, the brutal poetic puzzle

viking cross
Egill isn’t as loved as Erlendur. The audience, while a good size at today’s Beck lecture about Egill´s Saga was about half what it was for Torfi Tulinius´s first lecture on the detective novel in Iceland. Obviously, there are a lot more people reading Icelandic mystery novels than Icelandic sagas. However, this second lecture was just as good as the first. Like all good lectures, it sent me away thinking about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Many decades ago, I took a course on the sagas with Haraldur Bessason. I got to know many strange characters, characters pagan to the core, killing each other in fits of rage, because of jealousy, of honour, out of greed, but today Torfi brought a new way of looking at the sagas. Yes, I knew that the sagas were written two hundred years or so after the events they describe. By that time, Iceland was Catholic Christian. That means it was Catholic Christians who were writing the sagas or influencing the writing of the sagas. Do a little research and you will see how Catholicism dominated Iceland. But Torfi made me look at the meaning of that.

Torfi argued that Egill’s saga and others were written by educated men who knew the Bible, knew the stories of both the Old and New Testament. Many sagas follow the traditions of and are obviously influenced by European story telling. I knew that. But I hadn’t thought of looking at some of the major sagas of earlier times as having as models stories from the Bible.

Too often we think of the Vikings as being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world while at the same time saying that they went raiding, that they served in the court in Russia, that they founded Kiev. We do the Vikings a disservice. They didn’t just go on a raid, kill everyone they met, steal all their stuff and sail home. They dealt with people from many different countries not just as raiders but as traders.

There’s no direct proof but many scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egill’s saga. If that is true, then in reading the saga, we have to look not just at the society in which Egill lived but also the society in which Snorri lived.
Torfi started by mentioning his book, The Enigma of Egill, The Saga, The Viking Poet and Snorri Sturluson published by Cornell University Library in the Islendica series. It is open access and can be read on line.

Egill’s saga was written in the first half of the 13th C. It is about Egill Skalla-Grimsson who lived in the 10th C. The saga tells us about traveling, mythology, poetry, politics, ethics, Viking life and when it gathered together becomes the living memory of a past time.

Torfi talked about the Viking diaspora and once he named it, it was obvious that during Viking times there was diaspora. One has only to look at a map (he provided one) with arrows showing Viking travels: Greenland, Newfoundland, Norway, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark. Relatives and friends went to these places and some stayed.

The Vikings, of course, were able to travel as they did because of their light, shallow boats that allowed them to come ashore and up rivers. Listening to Torfi, I was immediately reminded of watching the Viking movie at the Royal British Columbia museum and seeing the Viking exhibit.

These boats allowed the Vikings to be opportunistic. Their boats allowed them to attack Lindisfarne Abbey in AD 793, a raid which is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking era. They raided Noirmoutie in AD 799, along the Atlantic coast and Galacia and Portugal, through the Mediterranean. Mythology has it that Kiev was founded by two Scandinavian brothers and their sister. The Viking effect may not have been as strong in the East as the West as was explained by a member of the audience but I said to Torfi that when I got off the train in Kiev, the person greeting me said, “Welcome, cousin.”

The Vikings went on to create petty kingdoms or domains in Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, Caithness, Helsinki, and Normandy. Finally, when they lost the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking age was considered over.
Iceland, with its separation from Europe, kept and cultivated the memory of this diaspora. At the same time, the age provided a social structure made up in part of free farmers led by chieftains or petty kings, a tradition of assemblies and a rule of some kind of law.

During all the Viking era and afterwards, Icelanders were in constant interaction with Christian Europe. They didn’t just kill the Christians and loot churches. Christianity brought cultural influences. Viking leaders, Kings, adopted their values and behaviour. So much so that by the early 12 C the Nordic countries had become part of Christian Europe.

If anyone is interested in this Viking diaspora, Torfi suggested reading The Viking Diaspora by Judith Jesch.

By the middle of the 12th C. the church was providing new organization and learning. The chieftains had political power and were judges so they had great control. They started to learn to write. It became important to write down poetry, narration and law, not just religion.

While languages changed in Europe, Icelandic remained much the same. That meant that as time passed Icelanders had the ability to read their past literature. They became the keepers of the collective memory. Icelanders traveled to European courts as skalds. They brought knowledge of the past but not just as history but also as poetry, drama and laws. It became part of the role of Icelanders to be the keepers of Scandinavian culture. That led to the development of writing techniques and to commissions to write biographies of kings.

The sagas that resulted were composed in Iceland. They were prose narratives. The main characters were Icelanders. Some, if not all the action takes place in Iceland. They cover from the settlement period to the Conversion or a short period after that.

Torfi took us through the arguments for Egill’s saga to have been written by Snorri Sturluson and then told us about Snorri. Snorri lived from 1179-1241. He was a chieftain, ruled over a large domain, a poet, a historian, a courtier (he went to Norway to live at court at times), a manipulator and became powerful because he knew how to use the resources available.

During the lecture, I wished that Joan Cadham hadn’t died last week. I would like to have emailed her and asked her what she thought of looking at Egill’s saga from the point of view of a Catholic writing it. She was an intellectual Catholic, knew her religion and history, knew a Catholic point of view.

Torfi said here we have a Christian telling the story of a pagan. Why was the writing of the story so important? Why tell a story about Egill? He’s brutal, does horrible things but is also a poet. Toward the end of his life, Snorri has gone to Norway, returned to find his domain fallen into disrepair. He’s in conflict with his older brother. He attempts to bring people together. What does his rise and fall have to do with how he sees the past and the present? Is a Christian story is being told in Egill´s saga? Perhaps, Torfi said during the question period, it was the story of King David. There are numerous parallels.

Egill, King David, the saga as a Christian tale. Perhaps as one of the audience said it is merely an attempt at revisionist history. Or, maybe that niggling problem I’ve had ever since I studied sagas with Haraldur Bessason, that problem of knowing that when the sagas were written, Iceland was Catholic and Christian and the writers were Christian and educated, that problem of wondering why they wrote them.

During the question period, Torfi recited eight lines of poetry from memory. The lines were from a long poem. The king of Norway has had a chieftain killed because he’s becoming afraid of him. The chieftain’s relatives capture and kill the king’s messengers and two royal children. The poetry tersely describes what has been done to the victims. I could imagine if that verse had not been recited in a well-lit classroom but in a baðstofa with nothing but a few weak candles as I sat on a bed and knitted mittens with the wind screeching and the rain falling and shadows everywhere. For a moment I knew the power of the old stories.

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