Borges is right to make so much of the Norse poets’ way with metaphor. I am more firmly convinced of this after reading Egil’s Saga. Egil has a case for being the quintessential viking. His father Skallagrim left Norway for Iceland among the earliest settlers, rather than submit to the ascendant King Harald Fairhair. Like his father, Egil raided and fought as a mercenary before settling down somewhat as a farmer. On one of his journeys he fought for Aethelstan of England against the Scots. Years later, he found himself in York, facing execution at the hands his enemy Eirik Blood Axe. Though Egil was a berserker who killed his first victim when he was seven and sometimes bit his enemies to death, this time he saved himself with poetry, using a night’s reprieve to write an ode to King Eirik. Afterwards he joked that
Ugly as my head may be, the cliff my helmet rests upon, I am not loathe to accept it from the king. Where is the man who ever received a finer gift […]?
Poetry comes naturally among the viking’s exploits. “The ship raced along, and Egil spoke this verse:
With its chisel of snow, the headwind, scourge of the mast, mightily hones its file by the prow on the path my sea-bull treads.
In his old age, Egil’s spirits were revived by composing laments for the death of his friend Arinbjorn, and for two of his sons, in an episode that might bear comparison with the story of Job.
I have piled a mound of praise that long will stand without crumbling in poetry’s field.
I’ve been reading Bernard Scudder’s translation, in a Viking hardcover copy of The Sagas of Icelanders that is one of my favorite books. It’s only a selection from a five volume translation of the Icelandic sagas, supposedly complete, that was published in Iceland in 1997. One day maybe…
Do you need another reason to read the sagas? The Middle Ages will never seem more immediate or relevant. Tenth century Europe was a cosmopolitan place, its rulers more like businessmen than national institutions. Eirik Blood Axe was ruling in York because he had extorted it as a kind of compensation from Aethelstan, who helped his brother take over Norway. He was like a defense contractor that is never out of work, or like Scott Brown maybe.