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Literature / Egil's Saga

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Egil in a 17th century manuscript.

"They are all very arrogant men, knowing no moderation, and not caring whom they have to deal with."
King Harald Finehair

The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson (Original title: Egils saga Skallagrimssonar), or Egil's Saga for short, is an Icelandic Saga from c. 1240. Like many sagas, the author is anonymous.

When King Harald Tangle-Hair rolls over Norway to subject all its petty kings to his rule, his handsome forecastleman Thorolf, son of Kveldulf, serves with distinction, and is made a great chief. But Thorolf is slandered, and already the king feels he has given Thorolf too much power. One thing leads to another, and Thorolf ends his life as a rebel, killed at the hands of the king. Kveldulf and his other son, ugly Skallagrim, avenge Thorolf, then flee to the newly discovered land of Iceland, where kings have no power.

In Iceland, two sons are born to Skallagrim: Thorolf, who is handsome and popular, and Egil, who is ugly and troublesome. The brothers do not turn out more peaceful than their forebears and in time sail for Norway in search of adventure. And they find plenty of it.

Egil's Saga is partly a family saga, partly a biography of a semi-legendary pagan Icelandic poet. As it follows Egil's life as a farmer and chieftain at home and a pirate and mercenary on his voyages around 10th century Europe, it tells about the many memorable circumstances that led to the creation of Egil's poems.

Can be read online here. A free audiobook is available here.

Provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Human: There are many hints that Kveld-Ulf's family line is part giant. All of them are exceptionally big and strong, and Skallagrim and Egil are moreover monstrously ugly, having abnormally thick and bulging skulls. All of them show occasional berserking behavior—as is typical for trolls—and Kveld-Ulf is rumored to be a shapeshifter. When Skallagrim goes to King Harald, the doorguard who announces the arrivals is not sure "if they can be called men" because "they are more like giants in size and looks", and when Egil seeks out Arinbjorn at York, the messenger describes him to Arinbjorn as "big as a troll". Kveld-Ulf's genealogy also suggestively mentions that he had a maternal uncle called Hallbjorn Halftroll.
  • Blood Magic: When Egil suspects that the horn of ale offered to him by Atloy-Bard is poisoned, he cuts the palm of his hand, carves runes into the drinking-horn, and smears the runes with his own blood. The horn breaks and the ale spills. Seemingly the blood was needed to activate the power of the runes to magically expose the poison.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: After Egil and his companions have been captured on a viking raid in Courland, the leader of the Courlanders (a "powerful and wealthy man") wants to put the captives to death "one by one" at once. His grown-up son persuades him to wait until the next day, as it's already getting dark, and "they would not be able to enjoy torturing them". Sure enough, Egil and the others escape from their prison during the night and rob and burn down the rich man's farmstead.
  • Buried Alive: When King Herlaug of Namdal hears that Harald Finehair is preparing to conquer Namdal, he, together with eleven of his men, enters a newly-built gravemound, and "[t]he mound was closed after them." The End.
  • Child Prodigy: At age three, Egil is "as big and strong as other boys of six and seven" and already "clever with words". When Skallagrim does not want to take him to a feast at Egil's maternal grandfather Yngvar's, Egil rides to the feast all alone. At the same feast he recites his first poems.
  • Curse: After his final falling out with King Eirik and right before departing from Norway, Egil on the island of Herdla plants a horse's head on a pole, turns it towards Norway and curses the land-spirits of Norway
    "so that they may all wander astray, none reaching or finding his home until they drive King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from the land."
  • Death Glare: In his poem "Arinbjarnarkviða" ("Praise of Arinbjorn"), Egil recalls his last meeting with his deadly enemy Eirik Bloodaxe, when, as a castaway, he delivered himself to Eirik's mercy in Eirik's royal hall:
    You weren't safe looking him straight
    In the eye. No kindness there!
    It glittered like a snake's, grew
    Ever more snake-like the more you stared.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: On a raid in Courland, Egil and his companions are captured by the Courlanders, but manage to break out of their prison in the night. After robbing an armory and a treasury, they make their way back to the ships with the Courlanders still unaware of their escape. When they are already halfway to safety, Egil suddenly gets second thoughts on their course of action, because the fact that the Courlanders are not aware they have been robbed means that they have committed dishonorable theft, and are thus disgracing themselves. Egil asks his companions to go back to the farm they robbed and fight with the Courlanders; although they all refuse, Egil puts down his loot, goes back to the farm alone, sets fire to the main hall, kills some of the occupants who want to rush out by the door, and locks the others up in the burning building by blocking the door with logs. Having thus restored his honor, he returns to his companions.
  • Died Standing Up: The morning after he has sunk his money into a swamp, Skallagrim is found dead sitting upright on the edge of his bed. The people of the farm are creeped out, and their behavior shows they are afraid that Skallagrim may turn a revenant.
    [Skallagrim] was dead and so stiff that no-one could get him raised or straightened, though everything was tried.
  • Distant Finale: A good hundred years after the death of Egil, his bones were uncovered and placed in a newly built church (so the saga states). People tried their swords on the skull, and it didn't budge. "Thus, the people knew the skull was Egil's".
    • The treasure of gold which Egil hid has not been found to this very day, and is a local legend among Icelanders. That said, a Reykjavik newspaper used it as an April day prank some years back. Considering this, the finale is still distant.
  • Draw Aggro: Twelve-year-old Egil and his friend Thord are playing a ball game against Skallagrim when Skallagrim suddenly goes into a berserk fury, grabs Thord and kills him by dashing him into the ground. When Skallagrim seizes Egil, with the apparent intent of killing him in a like way, his serving-woman Thorgerd Brak "who had fostered Egil when he was a child" shouts at him that he is attacking his own son "like a mad beast". Skallagrim lets go of Egil and charges at Thorgerd, who runs away and dives over a cliff in order to escape swimming, but Skallagrim hurls a boulder after her which kills her. Skallagrim's fury then wears off, and he reverts to his normal self.
  • Drinking Contest: The drinking at Armod's farm soon turns into a drinking contest, fueled by Armod's and Egil's passive-aggressive hostility towards each other.
    The drinking soon became on man one horn, the horn to be drained at each toast. [...] At every cup that Armod drained he said, "I drink to you, Egil," and the men of the house drank to Egil's companions, using the same formula.
  • Forced Creativity: When Egil falls into the hands of his enemy Eirik Bloodaxe, Arinbjorn, a follower of Eirik but also a friend of Egil, persuades Eirik to postpone executing Egil until the next morning, then advises Egil to use the night to compose a praise poem of twenty stanzas for Eirik. The next day, Egil recites his poem, aptly called "Head-Ransom", in front of Eirik, and it is partially because of the poem that Eirik lets Egil go alive. "Head-Ransom" is usually interpreted as a poem that sounds impressive to a layman (like Eirik), but which a poet would recognize as stylistically mediocre, implying that Egil was sabotaging his own poem in order to signal to the initiated that his praise of Eirik was insincere.
  • Gideon Ploy: When King Olaf of Scotland and his allies invade northern England with a large army, King Athelstan of England formally challenges him to battle at a place called Vinheiðr. However, Athelstan has few troops with him, and therefore only a small English contingent (including Thorolf and Egil) sets up camp at Vinheiðr while Athelstan is gathering troops for the battle in southern England. When the advance party makes camp at Vinheiðr, they leave every third tent empty, and put only a few men in the others; besides, they set up the camp on high ground so that the Scots cannot overlook the camp and realize how small it really is and how few people are really there. When King Olaf's messengers arrive to negotiate, all the English throng at the front of the camp (so that the messengers cannot see into the camp) and complain that there is not enough space for them in the camp. The Scots do not realize they have the advantage of numbers, and by simultaneously playing the Scots with peace talks that go nowhere, the English manage to delay the battle until Athelstan arrives with the main army.
  • Grief Song: After dropping his initial plan to starve himself to death, Egil expresses his grief about the death of his son Bodvar in the poem "Sonatorrek" (Loss of Sons).
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When Egil is twelve, his father Skallagrim goes berserk at a ball game and seizes Egil with the apparent intent of killing him. Egil's childhood caretaker Thorgerd Brak tries to stop Skallagrim by shouting at him that he is attacking his own son, which causes Skallagrim to let go of Egil and charge at Thorgerd. Thorgerd thus saves Egil's life, but Skallagrim kills her by hitting her with a boulder he hurls after her.
  • Hulking Out: Watching the burial of his favorite son Bodvar, Egil "swell[s] up so much" that his tunic and his leggings tear apart. When he comes home, "no one dare[s] to speak to him", suggesting that they are afraid of him 'going berserk'. Egil instead locks himself in his sleeping room and does not come out for three days.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: In the Battle of Vinheid, Thorolf skewers the English defector Earl Hring through his chest with a spear, then raises him up and plants the spear shaft on the ground so both armies can see the earl dying. Not long after, the terrified Scots break into a general flight.
  • Improvised Armor: When Egil and his companions expect an ambush on the forest road between Varmland and Norway, Egil ties a large flat stone to his chest by winding a rope around his upper body. Thus prepared, Egil fights his way through two ambushes and comes out without serious wounds.
  • Leave No Witnesses:
    • When Jarl Arnvid of Varmland sends out his henchmen to ambush Egil and his companions bringing the taxes from Varmland to King Hakon, he explicitly orders them to let no one escape and to kill them all. The plot fails, as it turns out the jarl's goons are no match for Egil.
    • Living out his life in the house of Grim, the aged Egil rides out at evening, accompanied by two slaves and carrying his two chests of silver with him. He does not return for a whole night, and in the morning returns without the silver and without the slaves, revealing that he has hidden the treasure and that he has killed the slaves to keep the secret.
  • Legendary Weapon: When Egil departs from York, Arinbjorn presents him Dragvandil, a sword once owned by the hero Ketil Salmon, who "had used it in his single combats". Egil uses Dragvandil when he kills the berserk Ljot, and also wields it in his duel with Atli. Ketil Salmon and his duels are the subject of another saga, The Saga of Ketil Salmon.
  • Man Bites Man: Fighting a judicial duel with Atli, Egil finds that his sword is useless because Atli is magically protected against iron weapons. Egil wrestles Atli down with his bare hands and kills him by biting through his windpipe.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The same year after Egil has spoken his curse over Eirik and Gunnhild, Eirik's rule is challenged by his brother Hakon, and by next spring Eirik and Gunnhild are forced to flee Norway.
  • Named Weapon:
    • In the Battle of Vinheid, Egil wears a sword called Adder which he looted in Courland and which he uses to kill Jarl Adils. Later Egil receives another sword, Dragvandil, as a gift from Arinbjorn, which he seems to prefer after that.
    • Thorolf Skallagrimsson has a sword called Long.
  • Never Gets Drunk: Armod does his best to get Egil and his companions drunk. When his companions are becoming incapacitated, Egil drinks their shares in addition to his own. When Egil himself cannot drink any more, he stands up, takes Armod by the shoulders and vomits into his face... then goes back to his seat and asks for more drink. Egil keeps drinking until all others have given up, draining a large horn at one go every time.
  • Palm Bloodletting: When Egil uses magic to check a horn of ale offered to him by Atloy-Bard for poison, he carves runes into the horn and "stabs the palm of his hand" in order to smear the runes with his own blood.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Invoked: In his grief-poem about the drowning of his son Bodvar, Egil expresses his regret that he has no power to avenge himself on Aegir and Ran, the gods of the sea.
    If a sword could heal my hurt,
    Aegir would brew no more beer.
    I'd fling myself at that fierce
    Wave-raiser and his mate, Ran.
  • Runic Magic: Several times, Egil displays his knowledge of the magical use of runes.
    • Attending a feast at Atloy-Bard's, hostility builds up between Egil and Bard until Bard puts poison in Egil's drink. Egil is suspicious and stabs the palm of his hand with his knife, carves runes into the drinking horn, smears them with his blood, and speaks a skaldic verse. The horn shatters, implying the runes magically detected the poison.
    • After King Erik has banished Egil from Norway, Egil curses Erik and Gunhild by erecting a wooden "scorn-pole" with the severed head of a horse on top while chanting a curse on Erik and Gunhild, and additionally carving the same curse on the pole with runes.
    • On their journey to Varmland, Egil and his companions are taken in by a farmer whose daughter is sick and has not been getting better for a long time; the farmer, Thorfinn, explains that the son of one of his neighbors tried to cure her by carving runes into a piece of whalebone and putting the bone into her bed, but she has only been getting worse since then. Egil examines the runes and declares that they have been carved incorrectly by a hack, and that is what is making the daughter sick. Egil scrapes off the runes and burns the bone, then carves another rune bone and puts it under the daughter's pillow. She immediately begins to feel better. On the return journey, Egil again meets Thorfinn and learns that his daughter has made a full recovery, and also that the neighbor's son had tried to carve a love-spell, but screwed it up because of his lack of expertise.
  • Spared, but Not Forgiven: Sailing from Iceland to England, Egil and his crew are shipwrecked off Northumbria and thus fall into the power of Egil's old enemy Eirik Bloodaxe, who unbeknownst to Egil now rules as King of York. As Egil has committed numerous severe offences against King Eirik, including but not limited to the killing of Eirik's son, Eirik wants to have Egil executed at once. However his advisor Arinbjorn, who is also a friend of Egil, persuades Eirik to grant Egil a single night so Egil can compose a praise-poem in honor of Eirik. After Egil has recited the poem the next day, Eirik lets Egil go alive as his reward for the poem, but makes clear that there is no reconciliation and that if Egil should ever fall into Eirik's hands again, he will certainly die.
  • Superpowered Evil Side: When Skallagrim is in a fit of 'shape-strength', he is even stronger than usual but also an incontrollable madman who kills indiscriminately. When Egil is twelve and playing at a ball-game against his father and it looks like Skallagrim is going to lose, Skallagrim suddenly becomes 'shape-strong' and kills Egil's best friend Thord, his nanny Thorgerd, and very nearly Egil himself.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: At Atloy-Bard's feast for King Erik and Queen Gunhild, Egil provokes Bard by making biting remarks about Bard's stinginess and implying he is not serving him enough ale. Bard complains to Gunhild, who then conspires with Bard to put poison into Egil's drink. Presumably it's not meant to kill Egil, but rather to make him sick and thus take him down a peg. Egil however detects the poison and reacts by killing Bard later the same night.
  • Uriah Gambit: For two years in succession, the tax-collectors of King Hakon have been ambushed and killed on the forest-road returning from the outlying province of Varmland. The third year, Hakon forces Egil's friend Thorstein to choose between collecting the taxes from Varmland or being outlawed. Egil offers to go in Thorstein's place, and since the king's messengers know Hakon is ill-disposed towards Egil too, they accept, calculating that any possible outcome will please Hakon. The journey is undertaken in winter, the king's men desert Egil and his companions, and the Varmlanders ambush them with superior numbers twice; yet Egil succeeds in the mission.
  • Warrior Poet: It runs in the family. Egil is not only a fierce warrior, but a talented and renowned poet whose poetry saves his neck and wins him favors quite often. His father Skallagrim had the same gift for war and poetry, as did his grandfather Ulf.
  • Werewolf Theme Naming: Egil's grandfather Ulf, nicknamed Kveld-Ulf, is rumored to be a "shape-changer"—someone whose spirit roams around in animal shape while the shape-changer appears to sleep. 'Kveld-Ulf' means 'evening-wolf' and alludes to him turning a wolf (úlfr) at evening (kveld; i.e. when he goes to sleep).