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.
Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil’s Saga
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.
I’ve been reading another Norse saga this past month: Orkneyinga Saga. I have a particular interest in it because one of my ancestors came from the Orkneys.
Like Eyrbyggja Saga, the Orkney saga is extremely terse and involved, and it can get hard to follow. It’s remarkable that despite this, it hardly ever risks becoming a mere dry chronicle. Like the other saga writers, the thirteenth century Icelander who wrote it was a great storyteller with a sensibility that seems strikingly modern. I can’t speculate on that effect any further without having read the great sagas like Egil or Njal.
I’d known that the islands had been under Norse control for a long time before becoming part of Scotland; reading this has given me a better idea of how this might have worked. Long before the Norman conquest of England in 1066, which has a peripheral appearance in this saga, a Norwegian king set out to punish the vikings of Norway. When he was finished, he left the Earldom of Orkney to one of his followers.
The Norse seem to have had a fairly vague rules of succession. Two sons might share the earldom, or a more distant relative would have his claim supported by the King of Norway. Generally Norway was recognized as supreme, but the King of the Scots was involved from the beginning, as the Norse kept pushing into Caithness and beyond.
The best surprise in Orkneyinga Saga might be Earl Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land. Coming late in the book when the feuding and scheming run the risk of getting monotonous, it appears to be a stroke of genius on the part of the author. Rognvald and his companions compete to outfit the best ships, stop in Galicia to challenge a mysterious warlord, and Rognvald even finds a romantic interest in the Princess of Narbonne. For the remainder of the journey he composes poetry for her. When they come upon a dromond, a great trading ship which at first they mistake for an island, the holy pilgrim Rognvald dedicates their bloody attack to his lady.
So far the sagas haven’t let me down. Orkneyinga Saga has it’s own character, but shares with the others the great combination of strangeness and realism. I’m looking forward to posting on more of them.
Maybe you are in the mood for a tale of multi-generational conflict with a cast of dozens, but you can’t spare the time for a four thousand or so page commitment? Or if it’s not the violence, maybe you’re fascinated by an atmosphere of religious upheaval and subtle magic? If you’re like me, you loved the t.v. series, maybe obsessed over it, and can’t tell if plunging into the novels will gratify or spoil the appetite?
As I sat up late last night struggling with Eyrbyggja Saga, it struck me that this anonymous thirteenth century Icelandic monk covered much the same ground as George R. R. Martin, but in under two hundred pages. Where Martin creates ambiguity through involved plotting and shifting points of view, the saga achieves much the same effect through terseness. How do the two compare? Take the families. Eyrbyggja deals with some of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the first settlers of Iceland, roughly around the year 1000. The Penguin edition I was reading helpfully lists forty five characters in six lineages, but this is merely schematic and leaves out many important people.
The profusion of characters in a work this size is very hard to deal with, but on the other hand, it allows for action on an epic scale. The maneuvering for power is unceasing and there is always the threat of violence. Often violence is avoided by the surprisingly litigious farmers, but when it does break out there is no favor shown to likable or important figures. And there’s no getting around the fact that some of the fighting is very cool. Arnkel of Bolstad stands alone on the turf wall of his haystack, wielding the runner of his sledge against fifteen armed men. An episode that has to be a monkish comedy routine about vikings concludes with Thorodd Thorbrandsson arguing with a priest over whether to reopen the wound on his neck so as to get “the head set straighter”.
I don’t want to say too much about the magic parts of the saga, because it would be hard to convey the realistic tone and because I don’t like spoiling these things. The best thing I can say is that similar episodes in the Vinland sagas reminded me of nothing so much as Hamlet.
(I just realized that I might have made it sound like Arnkel could have survived the fight on the haystack. Of course he didn’t! But it was still cool.)