Story of Egil Skallagrimsson - complete English (saga, Archeologia, Historia, archeologia i pokrewne

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The story of Egil Skallagrimsson
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An Icelandic Family History of the
Ninth and Tenth Centuries,
It is now more than thirty years since Dasent by the story of Burnt Njal delighted many readers and awakened in
England an interest in the Icelandic Sagas. The introduction to Burnt Njal trats ably and fully of Icelandic history and
literature, pointing out their especial value to us Englishmen. And this the same author has further done in his introduction
to Vigusson's Dictionary. Other Sagas have since been made accessible in English:
, the story of Gisli the outlaw, by
Dasent; Grettir's Saga, by Magnusson and Morris; and recently some others in the series entitled 'The Saga Library.'
Dasent put before us the best first, for of Iceland's Sagas the Njala undoubtedly bears the palm. But the next best has
hitherto not been open to English readers—the Egilssaga to wit. Second only to the Njala in interest and merit is the Egla,
and second (in my judgement) after no long interval. For though no one character enlists our sympathy in Egil's story so
much as does the wise and good Njal so underservedly cut off, yet the whole story is in stle and force little, if at all,
inferior. Nay it has more variety of scene and adventure, more points of contact with history, than has the Njala; it is to
Englishmen especially interesting, as one part of it is much concerned with England. The narrative takes us to many lands;
all over Norway, to Sweden, to Finmark, and the lands beyond, Kvenland, Bjarmaland, the shores of the White Sea; in
company with the Vikings we go 'the eastward way' to the Baltic, to Courland in Russia; we visit Holland, Friesland,
Jutland; [iv] westwards and southwestwards we cruise about Shetland, the Orkneys, Scotland; England is reached by our
hero Egil; York is the scene of his most perilous venture; he comes even as far as London.
The earlier part of the Saga, the scene of which is in Norway, with the account of Harold Fairhair's obtaining sole
dominion there, is of great interest, and agrees with other accounts of the same. It is well known that Harold's tyranny (as
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they deemed it) drove many Norsemen of good familyto seek Iceland and freedom. Among these were Egil's grandfather
and father. We have a full account of their settlement in the island, whither as yet few had gone, and where land was to be
had for the taking, but hard work was needed. We read of these early pioneers' industries—their farming, smithying,
fishing on sea and river, seal−hunting, whaling, egg−gathering. Minute descriptions there are of the island, particularly of
its western coast, its firths, nesses, rivers, fells.
No reader of this Saga can for a moment doubt the truthfulness of the picture given of life and manners at that time. A
seafaring race were those Norsemen, both for trade in their ships of burden and for freebooting in their long ships; bold
and skilful mariners they are seen to be. We read of a winter sledging journey in one most adventurous episode. There are
battles, some of great moment, by sea and by land. One of the latter, the battle of Vinheath, in England, is told with much
detail, and is (one may venture to say) as vivid an account of a battle as can be found anywhere in any language. There are
single combats or wagers of battle, about the manner and terms of which we learn much that is noteworthy. There are also
lawsuits in Norway, and, towards the end of the story, one in Iceland, whence we learn that the emigrants carried out with
them and established their civilization with all the machinery of courts and legal procedure. There is less litigation in the
Egla than in the Njala, but few readers will regret this, for, if there be anything in the story of Burnt Njal which one would
be inclined to skip, it is some of the long law−pleadings.
The home life of the North is in this Saga graphically set [v] before us. We see the men at their banquets; mighty
drinkings they had, with curious manners and rules. There are feasts at harvest, at Yule−tide; they exchange visits at each
other's houses; hospitality is universal; weddings there are, burials. Of their halls, the arrangement thereof, their order of
sitting, their armour hanging ready above the warriors, we can from scenes in this story form a complete idea. We witness
their amusements, their trials of strength; a certain game at ball is described in detail.
Of their religion perhaps we do not read so much in the Egla as might be expected. They were still heathens, though
Christianity was prevailing in the countries around. That the Norwegians and Icelanders were familiar with their own
theology and mythology is, however, plain; their knowledge of it is constantly assumed in the poetry. Of priests the
Egilssaga tells us, and of temples, and one great religious gathering isdescribed. There is not much of the marvellous or
supernatural in this Saga: no ghost, as in Grettir's Saga. Some superstitions appear: a belief in magic and spells, in the
force of runes graved rightly or wrongly. Several women are spoken of as possessing magic skill, especially queen
Gunnhilda, who on one memorable occasion exercises all but fatally for Egil her power of shape−changing. There is one
remarkable instance of a solemn spoken and written curse, with very curious accompaniments. But upon the whole little
happens that is beyond fair probability, or that does not spring from natural causes. Although, as we have seen, Egil and
his comrades were not Christians, the Christian faith is incidentally mentioned as prevailing in England, and towards the
end of the Saga we read that Thorstein, Egil's youngest son, became eventually a Christian.
The characters in the Egilssaga are well marked and forcibly drawn. In the house of Kveldulf, old Kveldulf himself,
Thorolf the elder, Skallagrim, Egil, stand forth as real men with characters well−sustained throughout. Outside the family
king Harold is well drawn, the able ruler, generous in much, but suspicious, as a tyrant must needs be. His son Eric is
violent, but weaker, and swayed by his wife Gunnhilda, who is to him somewhat as Jezebel [vi] was to Ahab. Arinbjorn is
perhaps the noblest character in the story, the brave, generous, true friend. But the reader will estimate these and others for
himself; of the hero who gives his name to the Saga a few words will not be out of place. Egil certainly must have been a
remarkable man. Strong in body beyond his fllows, he was no less uncommonly gifted in mind, a poet as well as a soldier.
Brave he was even to foolhardiness, yet wary withal and prudent; full of resource in danger, never giving up the game
however desperate; a born leader, liked and trusted by his men. His character has its unpleasant side; he was headstrong,
brutal at times when provoked, determined to have his own way, and overbearing in pursuit of it. Yet there is nothing
mean or little about him; he does not engage in petty quarrels, he helps or hinders kings and great chiefs. He is outspoken
and truthful, and his ire is especially stirred by meanness and falsehood in others. To women he is pleasant and courteous,
as appears on several occasions. For the sake of his friend Arinbjorn and his kin he risks his life more than once.
That the bad points in Egil's character are not screened is surely one proof of the truthfulness of the Saga−writer; a
mere eulogist would have blazoned forth all his hero's noble exploits, but veiled the other side, and hardly would anyone
inventing a fictitious character have put such dark blots in it. But some of Egil's faults were rather those of his time than of
himself. A careful reading of the whole Saga leaves us with a more favourable opinion of Egil than we form at the
beginning of his life. For most readers will (I think) at the first dislike Egil; they will agree with his father Skallagrim and
his elder brother Thorolf, who had not much affection for the boy. But as the story goes on, one cannot but admire his
bravery, his resource, his indomitable resolution, his readiness to face danger, not only for himself, but for others whom
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he really prized.
The Egla contains many wonderfully good descriptive passages of the fjords, sounds, and islands of the North. An
instance is chapter xlv., which relates Egil's first scape from Eric. A most dramatic scene is that where Skallagrim [vii]
goes before king Harold in chapter xxv. So is chapter lxii., where Egil and Arinbjorn are before king Eric Bloodaxe in
York. Very striking is the interview between Egil and his daughter Thorgerdr, after Bodvar's death, in chapter lxxi.
Looking at the vigour and beauty of the style in these and other passages, we agree with the judgment in Thordarson's
preface, that the Egilssaga was put into writing 'in the golden age of Icelandic literature.' And for these excellencies we
must remember to give due credit and admiration to the Saga−writer. For though he was (as is generally believed)
describing real men, real scenes, real characters, yet it is not everyone who, having the matter to hand, can put it together
and express it so well.
About the truthfulness and historical value of the Egla there has been some discussion and difference of opinion. Is it
in the main a true family history, or a romance? How long after the events recorded was it written? And by whom? These
questions have een debated by northern scholars, Icelanders and others. The balance of authority and reason appears to be
very much in favour of the general truthfulness of the story. The writer surely wrote down the facts as he heard or read
them, not departing from the truth as he knew it or believed it. But on this question let us hear what the northern editors
Finnur Jónsson (Copenhagen, 1888) gives his judgement thus:
'1. The Saga in what concerns persons and events in Iceland and Norway may be considered true, with small and
unimportant exceptions.
2. For what happens in other countries it cannot be reckoned quite trustworthy.
3. Its chronology is in several places faulty, which is not to be wondered at.
4. It shows extensive geographical knowledge, insight into Icelandic and Norse law and culture.
5. The composer had partly written sources of information, partly family traditions of the Moormen to go upon, with
much of Egil's verses and poems.
6. He is a master in the art of telling a story and delineating character.
7. He must have lived on the Borgar−firth.'
[viii] The preface to Thordarson's edition says:
'The Saga agrees well with other Icelandic Sagas, and may be reckoned as one of the most truthful; but when it is
considered that it was kept in men's memory for a very long time—the events happening before the year 1000, and the
story not being put into writing till near the end of the twelfth century—naturally every syllable of it will not be true.
Neither in this, however, nor in any of the best Icelandic Sagas do the writers thereof deliberately assert untruth or mean
to exaggerate.'
To the authority and judgment of these scholars an Englishman can add little. Only, as regards historical events
foreign to Iceland and Norway, it may b remarked that no one could reasonable expect Icelanders of the eleventh and
twelgth centuries to be infallible about them. In the Egilssaga what is said about foreign countries appears generally like
truth. What we read about England,
., and what passed there at the beginning of Athelstan's reign, agrees fairly with
what we know of that time from history; some facts are undoubtedly true, none palpable untrue, though there are details
which present some difficulty. But these will be better discussed in a note on that part of the Saga.
The date of the writing of Egilssaga is put between 1160 and 1200; probably near to the latter date. In chapter xc. We
read of the taking up of Egil's supposed bones in the time of Skapti the priest. He is known to have been priest from 1143
onwards. Thordarson's preface suggests as a possible author Einar Skulason. He was a descendent of Egil, being grandson
of the grandson of Thorstein Egilsson; he traveled much, knew well both Norway and Iceland, and was a good skald; he
lived till late in the twelfth century. But that he was the author is but a guess.
Of the Egilssaga there are several editions. For this translation the following have been used: The large edition, with a
Latin translation (Havniæ, mdcccix); Einar Thordarson's (Reykjavík, 1856); Finnur Jónsson's (Copenhagen, 1888). Also
Petersen's Swedish translation (1862). The text of Thordarson's little book has been followed in the main; Jónsson's differs
from it in many places, being [ix] generally shorter. Into the critical merits of these texts I am not competent to enter; the
variations are of no importance to the story or to an English reader.
The prose of the Saga presents few difficulties to a translator. Icelandic prose, as regards order of words, is simple,
and runs naturally enough into English. The sentences are mostly short and plain. In Egilssaga the style for Icelandic is
pronounced by good authorities to be of the best; the translator can only hope that in its English dress it may not have lost
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all its attractiveness.
Of the verse in this Saga, and of the principles followed in translating it, something must be said; for peculiar
difficulties beset the translator of Icelandic verses. Icelandic poetry differs entirely from Icelandic prose. Whereas the
prose is simple, the poetry is highly artificial. Especially so are the detached staves or stanzas sprinkled throughout the
Sagas. Of such the Egla has a great number, mostly Egil's own verses; and, as he is accounted one of the best of Iceland's
ancient skalds, they are an interesting part of the Saga and could not be omitted. But in rendering them into English one
meets with perplexing difficulties.
These staves consist nearly always of eight lines each, made up of two sets of four lines, the sense being usually
complete in each quatrain. As regards metre, the lines are short, about of a length, not exactly so in syllables, but alike in
rhythm and number of accented syllables. No doubt more exact rules about their metre are discoverable and known to
Icelanders, but for the English reader the above description will suffice. The lines to not rhyme, or very seldom do so, and
(I believe) rhyme in these detached stanzas is looked on as a mark of a later date than the tenth century. The place of
rhyme is taken by alliteration of initials. That is to say, in the second line must be repeated the same initial consonant that
has been used twice (or at least once) in the first line, or else a vowel must be so repeated. Anyone familiar with old
English or Saxon verses (such as occur in the Anglo−Saxon Chronicle,
, the battle of Brunanburh) will understand the
kind of alliteration meant.
Now, a translator has to choose between keeping this [x] form as far as he may, or changing it into rhyme with strict
syllabic metre. As the former method of alliteration with some license as to length of line by unaccented syllables allows
of a closer rendering of the original, it has been preferred.
But there are several puzzles to solve in icelandic verse. There is often a curiously complex order of words, an order
that sometimes renders a sentence unconstruable at first sight even to one accustomed to the involutions of Latin and
German. Were it not for the consentient authority of Scandinavian interpreters, I could never have imagind words to be
meant so out of the order in which they are written. To keep their rules of alliterative sound, the skalds broke those of
grammatical sense. The subjoined examples (by no means extreme ones—will give an idea of the Icelandic practice in this
(1) 'Now hath the lord of earth slain falls the land under the descendent of Ella forward in fight of rule head−stem
three princes.'
Which being interpreted is: 'Now hath the lord of earth, forward in fight, head−stem, slain three princes: the land falls
under the rule of the descendant of Ella.'
(2) 'Let listen pleased to the stream of long−haired friend of altars take heed thane of silence thy people the king's of
Interpreted: 'Let the king's thane listen pleased to the stream of my long−haired altar−friend (= to the stream of song
from Odin); let the people take heed of silence.'
The consenting voice of three gives (with hardly a variation in detail) these explanations. Now, these examples in
their original order sound much as if Scott had written in the opening of the 'Lady of the Lake':
'At eve had drunk where danced his fill
The stag the moon on Monan's rill.'
This feature of Icelandic verse plainly cannot be kept, nor is it worth keeping. We must presume that somehow the
hearers (or most of them) did understand what was sung, but no English hearer or reader could understand his own
language so treated. A translator must give up this artificial order. But this peculiarity, besides making the sense hard [xi]
to unravel, may also cause additional trouble to the translator, who has to make new alliterations in place of old ones, that
were perhaps ready to hand, but have disappeared by the rearranging of the words into something intelligible.
But the most curious characteristic of Icelandic poetry and the most difficult to deal with is the 'kenning,' as it is
called. It means 'a mark of recognition'; kennings are descriptive names or periphrases. Such phraseology we find, to some
extent, in all ancient poetry, but it is most artificial in the Northern poets. It seems a principle with them seldom to call a
thing or person by its plain name, but to use a periphrasis. These kennings are of very different kinds. Sometimes they are
really poetical descriptions, figurative, but easily understood and appreciated, and apposite to the passage in which they
occur. For instance, anyone can understand a sword in action being called a 'wound−snake' or 'wound−wolf,' arrows flying
from the bowstring 'wound−bees,' a shield a 'rimmed moon,' a ship 'sea−swan,' sea−horse 'sea−king's steed.'
'Willow−render' (tree−render) for wind recalls the
silvifraga flabra
of Lucretius. But some kennings are extraordinary,
especially when compound, as they often are. 'Dale−fish,' for example, is a curious roundabout for 'serpent'; then built
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upon this we find 'dale−fish mercy,' for the season that cheers or enlivens the serpent,
, 'summer.' We know that 'it is
the bright day that brings forth the adder,' but very cumbrous is this kenning used in a verse of the Egla simply to mark the
time of an exploit. Numerous are the kennings for 'gold,' 'man,' 'woman,' nor are these (as far as one can see) used with
any reference to the fitness of each for the occasion.
Again, some of the kennings seem meant to be rather humorous than what we should call poetical, as when the head
is 'hat−knoll,' 'hat−stall'; the eyes 'brow−pits'; the tongue 'song−pounder.' And certainly some were purposely enigmatical,
meant to tax the ingenuity of the hearer to solve. Names of persons are hidden. Egil is supposed once to do this with the
name of a woman; it is hidden so carefully that his friend Arinbjorn cannot discover it, nor have commentators
satisfactorily found it yet. On another occasion Egil describes Arinbjorn by a kind of pun [xii] as 'the bear' (
) of the
birchwood's terror (of
, 'the hearth,' on which birchwood is burnt).
This fondness for wrapping up wisdom in riddles we see in Eastern nations. Solomon (Prov. i.6) puts it as a desirable
learning 'to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their dark sayings' (marg. 'riddles'); the LXX. has
parabol»n ca…scoteiuÒu lÒgou r»seij tj sofèn ca… a…u…gata. There are phrases like Icelandic kennings in Solomon;
, in Eccles. Ix. 3, 4, 'the keepers of the house, the strong men, the grinders, those that look out of the window,' are of
this kind, as also perhaps some of those expressions that follow. And riddles of the older type are so. Take, for example,
Samson's riddle, 'Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.' What is this but describing
what had happened with the kennings, 'eater' and 'strong' for lion, 'meat' and 'sweetness' for honey?
In some respects the use of certain epithets in ancient Greek poetry is like the use of kennings. We find in Homer
stock epithets, names, titles, repeatedly occurring where they do not specially fit the passage. Men are 'articulating,
enterprising' (mšropej, £lfhstai); the earth is 'black, all−feeding, rye−giving' (mšlainam poulubÒteiram, xeidwroj); the sea
is 'divine, fishful' (dia, …cquÒessa); kings and chiefs 'Jove's nurslings, blameless' (diotrefš ej, £mÚmonej), etc., without
regard to the special circumstances. But in Greek with the epithet the noun is mostly expressed; whereas in Icelandic it has
to be guessed.
Very many kennings are based on mythology. This is not only true of the names of the gods, but also of other persons
and things; they are frequently described by periphrases which can only be explained from the Edda, and are therefore
meaningless to those who are not well versed in the details of that same.
And now it will be seen that these various kennings present a double difficulty, first to understand, then to deal
with in translation. Suppose them understood, still how shall they be rendered? When they are poetical figures appropriate
to the passage they are fairly manageable, sometimes without change, sometimes by simile, sometimes as [xii] epithet,
adding the noun. But where they do not fit the matter at hand, they are, if closely rendered, barely intelligible; to our
notions they are unpoetical; they will often spoil the spirit and meaning of the whole verse to an English reader by calling
off his attention to a puzzle. The substance of the entire passage will be lost by too much particularity. They are
cumbrous, there is no room in the text to make them really clear, and to be continually putting down obscurities and
claiming space elsewhere in notes to explain them seems undesirable. Therefore I elected to give up many of the
far−fetched kennings, putting the answer instead of the riddle where the riddle seemed hardly worth keeping. For one
thing seemed most important in translating these staves, to make each stave fairly plain to be understood by English
readers as it was presumably by Icelandic hearers. That my renderings will satisfy all I do not suppose, either all learned
Northern critics or all English readers. Many of the original staves cannot be made to satisfy modern taste, and, indeed,
they are of very unequal merit. Some of Egil's verses are of great force and spirit; he had a true poetic vein, and depends
less on artificialities than some of the Icelandic verse−writers; but the merit and attractiveness of the Saga does not rest on
these detached verses. Were they omitted most readers would not miss much. But to omit them I could not venture, so I
have dealt with them as best I might.
Besides these scattered stanzas the Egla contains Egil's three great poems. Jónsson, indeed, banishes these to an
appendix. But there seems no doubt that they are genuine compositions of Egil, though perhaps not included in the Saga
in its earliest form. It appeared, therefore, better to keep them in the place to which they have now by use a prescriptive
right. I shall say no more of them here than thatthey are each remarkable in their way; 'Sonatorrek,' for depth of feeling
and poetry, I should rank first; it is unlike the generality of Icelandic poems.
And now pass we to the actual matter and outline of the story, which naturally falls into three divisions.
I. The history of Kveldulf's family, especially of Thorolf, in Norway.
[xiv] II. The settlement of Skallagrim in Iceland, the birth of Thorolf the younger, then of Egil, whose adventures (all
out of Iceland) are told up to his final return when fifty years old.
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