Sonatorrek ("the irreparable loss of sons") is a skaldic poem in 25 stanzas by Egill Skallagrímsson (ca. 910–990). The work laments the death of two of the poet's sons, Gunnar, who died of a fever, and Böðvarr, who drowned during a storm. It is preserved in Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ch. 78, which is included in the 14th-century compilation, Möðruvallabók. According to the saga, after Egill placed Böðvarr in the family burial mound, he locked himself in his bed-chamber, determined to starve himself to death. Egill’s daughter diverted him from this plan in part by convincing him to compose a memorial poem for Böðvarr, to be carved on a rune-staff.
Structure and content of the poem
- st. 1-4: Egill struggles to find words to express his grief; he laments the end of his family line. The fourth stanza introduces the imagery of wood and trees representing the family that is maintained throughout the poem.
- st. 5: The poet recalls the death of his parents.
- st. 5-12: Egill relates his grief over Böðvarr’s death; using the image of the sea breaking a cruel gap in the “fence of his kinsmen” (frændgarðr). The poet would like to take vengeance on the sea-deities Ægir and Rán, but as an old man without followers he is helpless against them.
- st. 13-19: The death of Egill’s older brother, Thórólfr, is now recalled. Since Thórólfr fell, Egill has grown lonely and lacks support in combat.
- st. 20-21: The poet briefly recalls Gunnar, his first son, who died of a fever.
- st. 22-24: Egill now turns on Óðinn, with whom he had been on good terms until the god broke their friendship. Yet on reflection, the poet recognizes that Óðinn has given him two gifts in compensation for the two sons he has taken: the craft of poetry and the ability to turn deceivers into open enemies.
- st. 25: Finally, Egill reconciles himself to his loss, awaiting death with tranquility.
Elements of pre-Christian belief
Sonatorrek provides an unusually personal expression of Norse paganism. The poem includes some 20 allusions to Norse gods and myths, not all of which can be understood. The poet’s personification of inevitable death as the goddess Hel waiting on a headland (st. 25) is particularly striking. It has been suggested that Egill modeled Sonatorrek and his expressions of grief on the myth of Óðinn grieving for his own dead son, Baldr.
Sonatorrek’s status as literature
Sonatorrek is “generally regarded as the first purely subjective lyric in the North,” and has been called “a poem of unparalleled psychological depth, poetic self-awareness and verbal complexity.” Several commentators have compared Sonatorrek to a theme from Goethe.[clarification needed] In Scandinavian letters, it is often regarded as the very birth of subjective poetic utterance within the native culture (Old Norse literature being seen as a common Nordic heritage).
- Following E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Scaldic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976; ISBN 0-19-812517-8), pp. 24-25.
- Lee M. Hollander (1936), p.7.
- Harris (2006), pp. 158-59; Harris (1994), p.174; North (1990), pp. 158-59.
- Peter Hallberg, Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse (Lincoln: Univ. Nebraska Press, 1962; ISBN 0-8032-0855-3), p.136.
- Larrington (1992), pp. 62-63.
- Peter Hallberg, Ibid., p. 140; see also sources cited in K. S. Heslop (2000), p.152.
Scholarship on Sonatorrek
- Aðalsteinsson, Jón Hnefill (1999). “Religious Ideas in Sonatorrek,” Saga-Book 25:159-78.
- DeLooze, “Poet, Poem and Poetic Process in Egils saga Skalla-Grimmsonar,” 104 ANF 123-42 (1989).
- Harris, Joseph (1994). “Sacrifice and Guilt in Sonatorrek,” in Studien zum Altgermanischen. Festschrift für Heinrich Beck (Heiko Uecker, ed.). Bonn: W. de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-012978-7, pp. 173-96.
- Harris, Joseph (2006). “The Rune-stone Ög 31 and an ‘Elegiac’ Trope in Sonatorrek,” Maal og Minne 2006, 3–14.
- Harris, Joseph (2007). “Homo Necans Borealis: Fatherhood and Sacrifice in Sonatorrek,” in Myth in Early Northwest Europe, vol. 3 (Stephen O. Glosecki, ed.). Tempe, Ariz.: ACMRS/ BREPOLS, ISBN 978-0-86698-365-5, pp. 152-73.
- Heslop, K. S. (2000). “‘Gab mir ein Gott zu sagen, was ich leide’: Sonatorrek and the Myth of Skaldic Lyric.” Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, pp. 152-64.
- Hollander, Lee M. (1936). “The Poet Egill Skallagrimsson and His Poem, Sonatorrek,” Scandinavian Studies 14:1-12.
- Larrington, Carolyne (1992). “Egill’s Longer Poems: Arinbjarnarkviða and Sonatorrek,” in Introductory Essays on Egils saga and Njáls saga, pp. 49-63.
- North, Richard (1990). “The Pagan Inheritance of Egill’s Sonatorrek,” in Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages (7th International Saga Conference)) Spoleto, Italy: Presso la sede del Centro studi, LCCN 90178700, pp. 147-67.