Egil's Saga ( listen (help·info)) 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, 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.
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. 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 his friend Bjorn and offering Eirik his boat when they notice Eirik admiring it. When Eirik Blood-Axe becomes king, he sends an axe to Skalla-Grimr, which Skalla-Grimr takes as an insult due to an axe being a second-rate gift due to its non-ornamental use as opposed to a first-rate gift of a sword (swords weren't commonly used in battle at the time), and sends the axe back with a rude poem by way of Þórólfr (Thorolf). The poem served to enhance the gesture of returning the axe and blatantly escalate the conflict between Skalla-Grimr and Eirik Blood-Axe because while symbolically an axe may be destroyed, a poem cannot, making it a greater insult than solely returning the axe.  Þórólfr (Thorolf) decides to throw the axe into the ocean and gives King Eirik Blood-Axe a boat saying it was from his father. 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 Æthelstan in his war, and during the battle King Æthelstan separates Þórólfr (Thorolf) and Egill despite their objections. After the battle, Þórólfr (Thorolf) is dead and Egill is given gifts by King Æthelstan to honor Þórólfr (Thorolf).
The story continues with the childhood of Egil, which foreshadows his future rebelliousness. Egil has shown an outstanding amount of aggression and strength since he was a young boy. At the age of three, Egil 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, Egil 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, Egil 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 Egil took revenge on Grim, driving an axe through his head.
The story goes on to tell the tales of Egil'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 Egil grew up, his aggressive nature did not cease. Egil went to Atloy and was attending a feast with Bard, his men, and King Eirik. Eigil, 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 Egil, he was killed by Egil, who stabbed him with his sword. The act of killing Bard now puts Egil in a bad position with King Eirik. Eigil joins the army of King Æthelstan, 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.
After Haakon, King Eirik's brother, returns to Norway after his fosterage under King Æthelstan in England, Eirik decides to leave Norway with his family. They arrive in England where Eirik is appointed by Æthelstan to rule Northumbria. During this time, Egil's father Skallagrim dies. Two years later, Egil sails to England intending to see King Æthelstan, but winds up crossing paths with Eirik Blood-axe. Eirik is furious, but Arinbjorn convinces Eirik to not have Egil killed if he can compose a poem in his honor. Egil succeeds and Eirik allows him to leave on the condition that he never again returns to Eirik's sight. Egil makes his way to see King Æthelstan, who is fostering Thorstein, a kinsman of Arinbjorn. While visiting word arrives from Norway that Thorstein's father died leaving him a large inheritance. Thorstein, Arinbjorn and Egil make plans to sail to Norway to stake Thorstein's claim. Before they leave King Æthelstan convinces Egil to move to England and command his armies after their task is completed.
After helping Thorstein claim his inheritance, Egil returns to Iceland and spends a few years with his family. During this time, both Kings Æthelstan and Eirik Blood-axe die, leaving Eirik's brother Haakon ruler of Norway. Egil returns to Norway to claim lands won in a duel with Atli the Short on behalf of his wife Asgerd. Along the way Egil stays with Arinbjorn, whom he convinces to go to King Haakon on his behalf. Haakon denies Egil's claim, so Arinbjorn compensates Egil with forty marks of silver.
Egil and Arinbjorn go raiding in Saxony and Frisia, after which they stay with Thorstein Throuson. King Haakon requests Thorstein to collect tribute in Varmland or be sentenced to outlawry. Egil goes in Thorstein's place. Egil travels with some of King Haakon's men to Varmland and fight many battles, Egil killing many times more foes than his companions.
Egil lives to an old age. Arinbjorn becomes a close advisor to Harald Eiriksson, to whom Egil composes a poem. Egil's son Bodvar dies in a shipwreck. Egil composes a poem in his honor. Egil's son Thorstein has many feuds with Steinar, son of Onund Sjondi, over land and cattle grazing. Egil becomes frail and blind. His one last wish was to travel to the Althing and toss silver he received from King Æthelstan for the people to fight over. Since no one was able to accompany him, he wanders alone and allegedly concealed his silver treasure near Mosfellsbær, giving birth to the legend of silfur Egils ("Egill's Silver").
The character of Egil is complex and full of seeming contradictions. His multifaceted nature reflects the extreme qualities of his family, a family of men who are either ugly or astoundingly handsome; a family which includes 'shape-shifters', 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. His character is also reflected in the storytelling conventions of the text, a difficult text 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 Egil 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.
At times in Egil's Saga Egil comes across as a brute who often acts quickly and irrationally for no reason. He appears to be a shallow creature and in many instances the only time he appears to put much thought into anything is when he composes and recites poetry. Egil is in reality a man of many virtues which are central to his character. He values honor, loyalty, respect, and friendship above all other things. He takes it as a great personal insult when someone breaks any of these values and as a result he typically destroys that person either through physical force or through poetry. His reactions are usually on a grand scale to the point where they are often outrageous and entertaining. The value code by which Egil lived was the same as that of many Scandinavians at the time of the story's composition. The story is set in a time when many people were migrating, most notably from Norway to Iceland. Life was harsh, particularly during the long, cold winters, when it was crucial for people to get along and work together. The character of Egil, despite his many flaws, is ultimately representative of the true Scandinavian spirit.
Poetry is used throughout most of the saga and Egil is a master of the art. Egil's Saga takes place during a time of oral tradition. Poetry was used to establish a person's reputation for good or evil, and a great poem could make its characters immortal. Rulers valued poets for their ability to make or break a man, increasing his fame or besmirching his good name. As a poet, Egil was a powerful and valued man.
One of the first negative poems in Egil's Saga is a threatening poem in chapter 27 that displays Skallagrim's power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men. Later, in chapter 38, Skallagrim composes an insulting poem about King Eirik after the king had given Skallagrim a gift not commensurate with his worth. In chapters 55 and 81, Egil composes two powerful poems that show how grief-stricken he is when his brother Thorolf and his son Bodvar die. These poems are also meant to honor the two. These are only a few examples of the many poems in the saga which portray people in a positive or negative light.
There are also poems which show a much softer side to the Icelandic male characters. One of these is in chapter 55 when King Æthelstan acknowledges the death of Egil's brother, Thorolf's, caused by the King's error in judgement. Egil thanks the king with a number of praise poems showing how considerate and generous the king is. We see a very different side of Egil in chapter 56 when he declares his secret love for his future wife, in a love poem. In chapters 60-62, Egil is confronted with a situation where he must greet King Eirik, with whom he is on bad terms. King Eirik wants Egil dead and at the urging of his friend Arinbjorn, Egil composes a drapa (one of the most complicated forms of poetry) of 20 stanzas praising the king. Thanks to the poem, Egil is allowed to leave Eirik's court alive, since killing him would make Eirik look like a fool. In chapter 80, Egil composes another praise poem of 25 stanzas expressing his gratitude towards his lifelong friend Arinbjorn for saving his life in his meeting with King Eirik. These more positive poems show us a kinder side to the typically rough and violent people of Egil's Saga.
To this day many Icelanders claim descent from Egil through their membership in the Myrar family, one of the few legally recognized family names in Iceland (the majority of Icelanders do not possess family names but use the patronymic).
A detailed family tree connecting major and minor characters through blood and marriage can be found here
- Green, W. C. (1893). The Story of Egil Skallagrimsson. London: Elliot Stock.
- Eddison, E. R. (1930). Egil's Saga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Jones, Gwyn (1960). Egil's Saga. New York: Twayne: The American Scandinavian Foundation.
- Fell, Christine (1975). Egil's Saga. London: Dent. ISBN 0460872656.
- Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul (1976). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140443215.
- Scudder, Bernard (1997). "Egil's Saga". In Hreinsson, Viðar. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders Including 49 Tales. Volume 1. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson. ISBN 9979929308.
- Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. 1968.
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000).
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 3
- Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul (trans.) (1976). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 7. ISBN 0140443215.
- 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.
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapters 24, 25, 26
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 35.
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 38.
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 40.
- Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al.: The Sagas of Icelanders: a selection, "Egil's Saga: Egils saga" trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000) Chapter 54
- "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
- "But we have also seen how, in the course of the tale, Egil'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
- "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
- Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en#21 3 May 2013.
- Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en#31 3 May 2013.
- Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en#51 3 May 2013
- Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en#81 3 May 2013
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