Introduction to Egil's Saga
Morris’s translation of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar ends in the middle of chapter 40, shortly after Egil finally becomes a major focus. It is surprising that Morris chose not to complete the translation. Egla (as it is sometimes called) is one of the best recognized among the great family sagas (Íslendinga sogur) and is generally, if not conclusively, attributed to Snorri Sturluson, a descendant of Egil himself and the author of Heimskringla and the Prose Edda. Like Grettis saga, Egils saga (written down in the thirteenth-century but covering events from the tenth) begins with a long account of the hero’s ancestors. In doing so, the saga lays down from the first a pattern of contrasts within Egil’s family.
It is not a simple tale, even reduced to the first forty chapters, though a synopsis of those chapters should help the reader along: The story begins in Norway, with Wolf, Egil’s grandfather, a man whose family line shows hints of the supernatural. Because of the “cross-grained” mood that comes over the otherwise civilized Wolf once night begins, he is rumored to be a skin-changer and is therefore known as Nightwolf. In his youth, Nightwolf goes on raids with a man called Berdla Kari, whose daughter Nightwolf marries and whose sons, Eyvind Lambi and Olvir Hnufa, play important roles.
The family split in character continues in Nightwolf’s two sons. The eldest, Thorolf, is congenial and cooperative, the “goodliest” of the two and a man willing to serve King Harald of Norway (as Eyvind and Olvir are willing to do as well). But Nightwolf’s younger son, Grim, (later called Scaldgrim for his early baldness) is like his father in looks and temperament and refuses to cooperate with the king.
The saga now turns to the story of Bard, a man who begins service with King Harald at the same time as Thorolf. Late in his life, Bard’s grandfather, Biorgolf, contracted an unconventional second marriage with a woman by the name of Hildirid. Two sons are born from this relationship, Harek and Hrærek. When Biorgolf dies, Bryniolf (Biorgolf’s son from an earlier marriage) denies inheritance to Hildirid and her sons, claiming the marriage is not legitimate. After Bryniolf dies, Bard continues to deny Harek and Hrærek’s claim. Bard dies young, making Thorolf his heir. Harek and Hrærek now turn to Thorolf, but he too denies their claim.
Over time Thorolf increases his fortune, in part from having inherited Bard’s right to collect tribute from the Finns. But prosperity leads to jealousy. King Harald visits Thorolf and is initially offended by what he feels is Thorolf’s display of wealth. When Thorolf gives the king a ship, all seems better. But now Harek and Hrærek step in, poisoning Thorolf to the king. The king is again appeased but only temporarily. Slander continues until King Harald requests that Thorolf remain at court (the better to keep an eye on him). When Thorolf refuses, the king removes his right to collect tribute from the Finns. Harek and Hrærek take over the tribute collection but are less successful. They unjustly blame their failure on interference from Thorolf.
Two brothers, Sigtrygg and Hallvard, relatives and agents of the king, are sent to seize Thorolf’s ship. In retaliation, Thorolf seizes two of the king’s ships and burns the agents’ farm. The agents are now granted permission to attack Thorolf, but King Harald reaches Thorolf’s house first, and Thorolf is killed. In revenge, Thorolf’s friend, Ketil Trout, kills Harek and Hrærek and then departs for Iceland.
Olvir Hnufa persuades the king to consider compensation for Thorolf’s death. Before agreeing, the king requires that either Nightwolf or Grim (Scaldgrim) come to his court. Grim complies but endangers himself by refusing to take service with the king. He and his father leave for Iceland (after killing the brothers Sigtrygg and Hallvard). On the way to Iceland, Nightwolf dies, and Scaldgrim settles at Burg, where his father’s coffin, placed in the sea, comes drifting ashore. The pattern of contrasting sons now repeats itself. In Iceland, two sons are born to Scaldgrim, Thorolf (named for his uncle) and Egil. Thorolf is handsome, fair, and amiable of disposition. Egil is dark, ill-favored, and grim of mood.
Before the story of Egil begins in earnest, we hear first of a second not quite legitimate marriage. A young woman, Thora, is kidnapped by a man named Biorn. Though they marry in Shetland, the marriage is not accepted by the family. Scaldgrim, who is foster brother to Thorir (Thora’s brother) becomes involved in the complexities. A resolution is achieved, and now Thorolf, Scaldgrim’s grown son, leaves for Norway with Biorn. There Thorolf becomes friends with King Harald’s son, Erik Blood-axe, a relationship that Scaldgrim is highly distrustful of.
At this point, the saga at last turns to the younger son, Egil, who has become a difficult, headstrong child of “seven winters.” An older boy riles him during ball play, and he kills the boy in revenge. Later, when Egil is twelve winters old, his father grows angry during another ballgame and comes close to killing Egil. This is where the translation ends.
The remainder of the saga covers Egil’s life—his exploits, travels, and family and his skill with poetry (as well as the family’s on-going but troubled relationship with King Harald and his son). The saga ends with Egil as an aged, feeble man, blind, hard of hearing, and ordered about by women who mock him when he stumbles and falls. Even then, his determination and poetic wit remain undiminished.
In 1893, W. C. Green published the first English translation of Egils saga. Several more translations and considerable scholarship followed in the twentieth century. Three excellent, informative introductions accompany three of the twentieth-century translations: Gwyn Jones’s 1960 translation, Christine Fell’s 1975 one, and Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards’ of 1976.
William Morris’s unfinished translation (a calligraphic manuscript) dates from 1873-4. It was first published by May Morris in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist in 1936. A slightly different version of the first thirteen chapters exists in manuscript form.