Egil's Saga

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"Egla" redirects here. For the Albanian beauty pageant contestant, see Egla Harxhi. For the airport with the ICAO code EGLA, see Bodmin Airfield.
Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-century manuscript of Egils Saga

Egil's Saga (About this sound listen ) is an Icelandic saga. The oldest transcript (a fragment) dates back to 1240 AD. The saga is centered on the life of Egill Skallagrímsson, also known as Egil Skallagrimsson,[1] an Icelandic farmer, viking and skald. It is generally referred to as Egla by Icelandic scholars. The saga is the only source of information on the exploits of Egill whose life is not historically recorded. Stylistic and other similarities between Egil's Saga and Heimskringla have led many scholars to believe that they were the work of the same author, Snorri Sturluson.[2][3]


The saga covers a long period of time, starting in Norway around 850, with the life of Egill's grandfather Úlfr, called Kveldúlfr ("Evening Wolf") and his two sons, Þórólfr (e. Thorolf) and Egill's father Skalla-Grímr. Kveldúlfr is described as bigger and stronger than anyone else, gaining much land and property from viking raids. He was a very wise man, hamrammr (a shape-shifter) in battles and a shy recluse in the evenings. Extreme personal traits like these are seen in his son Skalla-Grímr and his grandson Egill as well. After Þórólfr's death, due to his broken allegiance to King Haraldr (although not Þórólfr's fault), Skalla-Grímr and his father Kveldúlfr flee Norway to settle in Iceland. Skalla-Grímr and Kveldúlfr have to flee to Iceland because of problems with King Harald Fairhair. It started when Skalla-Grímr went to Harald's court after his brother Thorolf's death, but wouldn't give his service to the King. After escaping from the King's Court, Skalla-Grímr and Kveldúlfr come upon a boat that the King had seized from Thorolf, and after killing everyone on the boat and taking it, they sent a poem to the King to taunt him. On the journey to Iceland after the visit to the King's court and the stealing of the boat, Kveldúlfr dies of illness.[4] Skalla-Grímr settles in peace as a farmer and blacksmith at Borg, where his sons Egill and Þórólfr (named after his uncle) grow up.

The dispute between King Harald and Þórólfr (Thorolf) began upon his return from his Viking expedition, when Þórólfr (Thorolf) went to serve King Harald. Þórolfr (Thorolf) served King Harald well as his governor of Northern Norway and was responsible for collecting tribute from the Saami. The king grew suspicious of Þórólfr (Thorolf) after the Hildiridarsons (Hraerek and Harek), the half brothers of Thorolf's close friend Bard (by then deceased) slander Þórolfr (Thorolf) by falsely claiming to the king that Þórolfr (Thorolf) was not giving him the full amount of tribute that he collected from the Saami. They also falsely claim that Thorolf and his men had planned on killing King Harald when they invited him to a banquet, but the farmers who were gathered got nervous and fled, hushing the entire plan. It was intended that when the king was drunk and sleeping, they would attack and kill him. Fearful of Thorolf's increasing power, King Harald went to Thorolf's hall at Sandness. After Þórólfr (Thorolf) refused to surrender, King Harald set the hall on fire. When the men ran out, King Harald killed Thorolf, causing him to fall at the king's feet.

The story then follows the tale of Egill and Þórólfr (Thorolf) Skallagrimsson. Þórólfr (Thorolf) Skallagrimsson goes travelling in Norway where he stops to see Skalla-Grimr's friend Thorir the Hersir. It is here that Þórólfr (Thorolf) meets a young Eirik Blood-Axe (before he became king) who is fostering with Thorir. Þórólfr (Thorolf) makes friends with Eirik Blood-Axe by following the advice of Thorir and offering Eirik his boat when they notice Eirik admiring it.[5] When Eirik Blood-Axe becomes king, he sends an axe to Skalla-Grimr, which Skalla-Grimr takes as an insult and sends the axe back with a rude poem by way of Þórólfr (Thorolf).[6] Þórólfr (Thorolf) decides to throw the axe into the ocean and gives King Eirik Blood-Axe a boat saying it was from his father.[7] It is in this way that Þórólfr (Thorolf) manages to somewhat keep the peace between Skalla-Grimr and King Eirik Blood-Axe, and he even manages to keep the king from killing Egill. Later both Egill and Thorolf go to fight for King Athelstan in his war, and during the battle King Athelstan separates Þórólfr (Thorolf) and Egill despite their objections. After the battle, Þórólfr (Thorolf) is dead and Egill is given gifts by King Athelstan to honor Þórólfr (Thorolf).[8]

The story continues with the childhood of Egill, which foreshadows his future rebelliousness. Egill has shown an outstanding amount of aggression and strength since he was a young boy. At the age of three, Egill had the strength of a seven or eight year old, and a mind of his own. He did not obey his father and did what it took to get what he wanted. When his father, Skallagrim, told his three year old son to stay home while he attended a party, because he behaves so poorly, Egill goes against his father and shows up at the party. Although Egill is stubborn, he has a gift for words. He speaks a verse to Yngvar and is rewarded with three shells and a duck's egg. At the age of seven, Egill gets involved with the local games, where he commits his first murder, Grim. Due to his short temper, Egill became upset when Grim displayed how much stronger he was than Egill and lashed out; hardly harming him, Egill was pinned down by Grim. Later, Thord and Egill took revenge on Grim, driving an axe through his head.

The story goes on to tell the tales of Egill's voyages to Scandinavia and England and his personal vendetta against King Eric Bloodaxe. There are also vivid descriptions of his other fights and friendships, his relationship with his family (highlighted by his jealousy, as well as fondness for his older brother Þórólfr), his old age, and the fate of his own son Þorsteinn (who was baptized once Roman Catholicism came to Iceland) and his children, who had many children of their own. The saga ends around the year 1000 and spans many generations.

As Egill grew up, his aggressive nature did not cease. Egill went to Atloy and was attending a feast with Bard, his men, and King Eirik. Eigill, with his gift for words, speaks a verse, mocking Bard and telling him he has played a bad trick on him and his men. After Bard failed at poisoning Egill, he was killed by Egill, who stabbed him with his sword. The act of killing Bard now puts Egill in a bad position with King Eirik. Eigil joins the army of King Athelstan, and when he composes a drapa in praise of the king, he is rewarded with two gold rings, along with an expensive cloak that the king himself had worn.

The saga follows Egill through the various stages of his life, most of which are surrounded by battle. Egill virtually narrates his own life story with his frequent segments of poetry. Before Egill died he allegedly concealed his silver treasure near Mosfellsbær, giving birth to the legend of silfur Egils ("Egill's Silver").


A view of Borg á Mýrum where Egill Skallagrímsson spent much of his life.

The character of Egill is highly ambiguous.[9] His multi-faceted nature reflects the ambivalent qualities of his family, a family of men who are either ugly or astoundingly handsome; a family with a history of 'shapeshifters' who become suddenly mad, violent and cruel, though they may at other times be deliberate and wise; a family which neither submits to the will of kings, nor stands in open rebellion.[10] His character is also reflected in the storytelling conventions of the text, a highly ambivalent tale populated by characters with similar or identical names, living out various permutations of very similar stories. The two handsome Þórólfrs die heroic deaths, while their brothers Skallagrímr and Egill both die in old age after spitefully burying their wealth in the wilderness. The descendants of Kveldúlfr find themselves involved in two complicated inheritance feuds, at one time rejecting the claims of illegitimate children of a second marriage, and at another time claiming land on behalf of another illegitimate child born to similar circumstances.[11]

Though it maybe unexpected, there is wide usage of poetry in Egil's Saga. Poetry is found throughout the saga and is used to portray different emotions in response to different situations. We see multiple poems that reflect both positive and negative emotions. One of the first negative poems in Egil's saga is a threatening poem that displays Skallagrim's power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men in chapter 27.[12] Later, in chapter 38, Skallagrim composes an insulting poem for King Eirik after the king had given Skallagrim what he thought to be a poor gift.[13] In chapters 55 and 81, Egill composes two powerful poems that show how grief-stricken he is when his brother Thorolf and his son Bodvar die.[14][15] These poems are also meant to honor these two men. Throughout the Saga, there are many more examples of poems that express negative emotions.

Surprisingly, there are numerous poems in Egil's Saga that are very positive. Sometimes, these poems show a much softer side to the Icelandic male characters that are not seen elsewhere. One of the first encounters of a more positive poem is in chapter 55 when King Athelstan acknowledges Egill's brother, Thorolf's, death which was essentially caused by a judgment error of the king's.[14] Egill thanks the king with a number of praise poems that are meant to show how considerate and generous the king is. We also see a very different side of Egil in chapter 56 when he declares his secret love for his future wife in a love poem.[14] Later in Egill's life, in chapter 80, he composes another praise poem that is 25 stanzas long to express his gratitude towards his lifelong friend Arinbjorn.[15] This is very sincere poem that truly honors Arinbjorn. These more positive poems show us a kinder side to the typically rough and violent people of Egil's Saga.

As a work of literature, Egil's Saga is generally considered to be amongst the best of the Icelandic sagas, along with Njáls saga and Laxdæla saga.


The saga was translated into English by Eric Rücker Eddison in 1930, published with a map and notes.[16]


  • Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. 1968.
  • Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000).


  1. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 3
  2. ^ Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul (trans.) (1976). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 7. ISBN 0140443215. 
  3. ^ Einarsson, Stefán (1957). A History of Icelandic Literature. New York: Johns Hopkins Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. p. 140. ISBN 0801801869. Retrieved 27 April 2014. 
  4. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapters 24, 25, 26
  5. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 35.
  6. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 38.
  7. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 40.
  8. ^ Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of the Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 54
  9. ^ "He is inflated far beyond the type of Viking hero, yet he also falls short of it, and while he is often on the edge of the tragic he eludes definition. He can be vicious, absurd, infantile, pathetic, but he is never dull, and though we may not like some of the things he does we are never allowed to settle into a fixed attitude towards him." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  10. ^ "But we have also seen how, in the course of the tale, Egill's personality is explored and elucidated not only in terms of his own actions and poetry, but in the actions and characters of his ancestors." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  11. ^ "At the root of the first half of the Saga are two family conflicts which extend far beyond the domestic issues which give rise to them, and lead ultimately to enmities with the royal household of Norway. These cases both begin with a man of wealth and power who marries twice, one of the two marriages being in some way of doubtful legality, and illustrate the effect upon the family of the two conflicting lines of descent." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  12. ^ Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013.
  13. ^ Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013.
  14. ^ a b c Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013
  15. ^ a b Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013
  16. ^ Wawn, Andrew, Philology and Fantasy before Tolkien, archived from the original on 7 March 2005 

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