The Medieval Review 16.09.30

Helgason, Jón Karl, Russell Poole, and Torfi H. Tulinius, eds. Egil, the Viking Poet: New Approaches to Egil's Saga. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015. pp. 256. $45.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781442649699 (hardback) 9781442649699 (ebook).

Reviewed by:

Anthony Adams
Duquesne University

This volume of essays, the ninth in the University of Toronto's Old Norse and Icelandic Series, is the first devoted to Egils saga Skallagrimsson in some years, and will be of significant interest to Old Norse scholars. As the title suggests, and as Russell Poole asserts in his introduction, many of the essays, while disparate in critical approach, are linked to a degree by a shared thematic interest in Egil's status as poet and Viking, as well as by the shared heritage of verse and violence in old Norse myth and literature. Thus, a reader can detect certain persistent themes throughout the essays, and particular episodes that are referred to time and again. These include: both the saga and the man are outliers, bizarre and hard to classify; the toddler version of Egil ranks among the most memorable child figures in Norse literature; the saga concerns itself, even more than most, with generational conflicts and with mankind's animalistic nature; and despite a belief among earlier scholars that the saga was composed haphazardly, a slave to oral tradition rather than artfully shaped, the authors of these essays demonstrate consistently that the saga bears the marks of a structured and self-aware composition.

Torfi Tulinius, in "The Construction of Egils Saga", asks whether the saga author had skaldic forms in mind when he shaped the narrative, and suggests that one can perceive a conscious form in what has appeared to some readers as a saga lacking in unity. Arguing against a much-older trend of readers of the saga to consider the narrative rather lacking in art, and perhaps overly-dependent upon the vagaries of oral tradition, Tulinius notes the abundant and excellent evidence that the saga is constructed consciously around the unit of three (or four). In particular, he notes the clear and probably conscious decision to interpose the appearance of minor characters named "Ketil" alongside crucial incidents involving generational conflicts between father and son, feasts (weddings), and the deaths of slaves. While the curious recurrence of these minor Ketils was noted earlier by Bjarni Einarsson, Tulinius expands on and corrects (in a minor way) Bjarni's analysis. This reader agrees in large part with his general conclusions about the intentional structure of the narrative, but must concede that the attempt to connect this intentional structure with the drápa form (including a Ketil-refrain) seems a bit stretched, albeit intriguing.

Guðrún Nordal's essay, "Ars metrica and the Composition of Egil's Saga" offers the reader an even more extended analysis of Egil's poetry. She begins by noting that interest in the technical aspects of poetics was high at the time of the composition of the saga, citing such treatises as Skáldskaparmál and the Third Grammatical Treatise, both works associated with the Sturlungs, as some have argued Egil's Saga itself to be. Whomever authored the saga, he would be likely to have been aware of Egil's own status as an "early poet" as Snorri referred to him in a discussion of his rather "loose" metrical form, particularly in his approach to rhyme. Just as his saga occupies a "borderland" between the kings' sagas and the family sagas, so is Egil himself a rather mixed figure as a poet, composing before, in Snorri's mind, dróttkvaett became stricter and less tolerant of idiosyncrasy. Nordal asks whether we can find evidence of conscious awareness of the status of Egil's verse in the citation and positioning of his more unusual verse in the saga, and she sets out a powerful case for answering yes. In particular, she points out how the saga author seems to consciously incorporate verse that displays háttleysa and dunhent, two prosodic features that Egil was fond of, in order to link episodes in the saga both thematically and poetically. Her argument is compelling, and her close readings of nine of Egil's verses are fascinating.

In "The Concept of the Self in Egil's Saga: A Ricoeurean Approach", Laurence de Looze offers up a reading of selfhood in the saga through concepts borrowed from Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Vernant. De Looze is careful to demarcate the probable limits of his critical language, acknowledging that Old Icelandic narratives do not easily lend themselves to issues such as "self-fashioning", but nevertheless he suggests that Ricoeur's contrast between the deep self (ipséité), or one's core identity (or character), and the daily self (idemité), that aspect of identity that is exposed to the vagaries of experience, and which is reiterated (and defended) regularly. To put it another way, a character such as Egil appears as both a cluster of recognizable if variable traits, and yet can also be admitted to have a core identity that is unchanging, one that for Icelanders would be deeply connected with genealogy. De Looze also borrows ideas from Vernant's writing on the self in Ancient Greece to examine several episodes in Egil's Saga, such as the famous "head-ransom" incident with Eirik at York.

Margaret Clunies Ross traces the poet's use of verbal references to his own appearance in his verse ("Self-Description in Egil's Poetry"), an achievement which, while largely conventional, nevertheless is given some particular individual gestures, especially towards the end of his life. In one sense, Egil's own concern for his appearance--his ugly head in particular--is paralleled by his apparent lack of interest in anyone else's beauty, a concern entirely apposite to traditional skaldic concerns with the comeliness of their beloved. Clunies Ross examines the references to the dark, ugly, and animalistic (wolf-like) self that one finds in Arinbjarnarkviða, which are both conventional and comic, and which help establish certain tropes Egil will seem to develop later on. Egil's late lausavísur on old age are unusual in the skaldic corpus for their elaborate attention to the physical debilities of age. The essay closes with an elaboration of what she sees as three crucial poetic relationships in the saga--between poetry and animal natures, drunkenness, and craftsmanship. While highly interesting, it is not clear that this section of the essay connects strongly with the preceding, except that Egil makes frequent reference to bodies and body parts, such as the tongue.

Ármann Jakobsson offers a close reading of a single chapter in the saga ("Thorolf's Choice: Family and Goodness in Egil's Saga, Ch. 4"), and draws an illuminating portrait of the emotional tensions, the "personal relationships", of characters in the narrative. This chapter is especially important for establishing both Egil's violent character and the ferocity of the father from whom he inherited it. Indeed, Jakobsson's essay is especially welcome for the attention it pays to Skallagrim, much-neglected in scholarship on the saga. Jakobsson elucidates the various relationships between father and son, son and mother, and two markedly different brothers. Key in his analysis is his sense that the events of this chapter reveal an important "goodness" in the sacrificial gestures Thorolf makes towards his younger and more irascible brother. While much impressed overall with the argument made, this reader was a bit surprised at the decision to introduce Adolf Eichmann and the "banality of evil" into the discussion at the end, offered as a contrast to Thorolf's empathy and kindness, and as a further contrast to Egil's starkly non-banal egoism. The crux of his argument lies in Egil's empathy, or lack thereof; here, it is difficult not to think that a focus on a single (youthful) chapter from Egil's life narrows one's options.

Alison Finlay's "Elegy and Old Age in Egil's Saga" looks instead at Egil in his dotage. Finlay dwells especially on Egil's greatest achievement, Sonatorrek, written when he was as yet just past mid-life, yet already powerfully aware of the ravages of time, of loss, and of encroaching death. Finlay actually refers, affectionately, to aspects of Sonatorrek as "in the nature of a mid-life crisis", but she is most interested in noting how this masterpiece of grief and seeming helplessness underscores the deepening tone of elegy that readers have detected in the poems (and, indeed, the actions) of Egil's golden years. Especially interesting to this reader is Finlay's archaeology into Egil's awareness of his legacy, seen in poems such as "Arinbjarnarkviða", as well as in the saga-author's blunt remarks about Egil's opinions on his children.

Oren Falk's allusive essay ("Konutorrek: A Husband's Lament") is perhaps the most ambitious in the collection. Beginning with an approach one might call "lacuna criticism", Falk asks why there is no evidence in "Egil's Saga" for a poem lamenting the death of Egil's wife Asgerd. In truth, Falk attempts something a bit more tangible, if no less intriguing, as his essay offers a meditation on the cultural status of Icelandic widowers within the artful frame of literature, and indeed positions itself within the bounds of narratology and gender studies in equal measure. Meticulously examining two separate treatments of widowed men in the saga, he concludes that while the culture understood widower as a discrete concept (albeit, one without a dedicated word for such a man), a number of cultural anxieties, including issues related to economic affairs and the potential for social disruption brought on by men deprived of the diplomatic influence of their wives. He suggests that this poem that never was owes its absence not so much to some personality quirk of the poet but rather to the mourning expectations of Icelandic men. As Falk writes, "Egil composed no requiem for Asgerd, then, because his culture supplied him with no tools for doing so."

Timothy Tangherlini borrows textual tools from "social network analysis" and a graphic approach indebted to Franco Moretti to demonstrate visually how personal relationships of enmity, allegiance, and gift-giving complicate social lives in the saga ("Facebook for Vikings: Social Network Analysis and Egil's Saga"). Such an approach allows Tangherlini to demonstrate through various diagrams how relationships offer tenuous "protection" or moderation from lethal force, and reveals how individuals in the saga "broker" friendships or, conversely, encourage enmity between players. While readers familiar with the saga will not be surprised at the importance of certain relationships and the fragility of friendship in the narrative, Tangherlini's approach offers a novel way of visualizing the network of connections, and reveals potentially overlooked nuggets--such as the way that fosterage can radically alter allegiance networks in Iceland and Norway.

Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir offers, in "Egil Strikes Again: Textual Variation and the Seventeenth-Century Reworkings of Egil's Saga", a review of the textual tradition of the saga, focusing primarily upon a seventeenth-century reworking of Egil's Saga which she calls "New Egil's Saga" (in contrast with the earlier, pejorative, name, Vitlausa Egla, or "Silly Saga of Egil"). She accurately notes that few scholars have given much notice to this text--indeed, it is entirely new to me--and fewer still outside of Iceland. While the narratives generally run parallel, with major episodes largely unchanged, the style of the "New Saga" is markedly different. Where the medieval saga is laconic and pithy, the language of the later saga is prolix, hyperbolic, and evinces a greater interest in battles, and less attention to geographic accuracy. The end of the saga seems to offer the most significant alteration, one that would seem to be emblematic of this narrative's preferences: instead of a now-ancient Egil's final encounter being his comic repartee with the cook, "New Saga" describes how the aged and blind Viking throws a dead horse across a river. She positions the composition of the "New Saga" within an atmosphere of antiquarian enthusiasms in the seventeenth century, and offers several extensive excerpts of this unedited narrative for readers to get a flavor of this remarkable, if minor, saga.

In "Bloody Runes: The Transgressive Poetics of Egil's Saga", Jón Karl Helgason examines the poetic language of the saga with reference to the theoretical work of Freud, Kristeva, and Bataille. Beginning with an overview of Snorri's myth of the origin of poetry, which shared with mead and vomit, blood and feces, Helgason asks whether we can make some coherent sense of the saga's mixed interest in poetry and cruelty, ugliness and art. He begins with some notes on how Freud's essay on the uncanny seems relevant to images of mutilation and doubling (of people and motifs) in Egil's Saga. Then, he turns to Kristeva's concept of the abject, and its concern with horror and purification. Helgason reads certain scenes of disgust and death in the saga in the light of these concepts. Finally, in the light of Bataille's L'Érotisme, Helgason looks for implicit examples of erotic content in what seems to be a largely asexual saga. In particular, he offers a reading of Egil's behavior, both graphically emetic and runically graphic, at the farm at Atley with Bard, Eirik, and Gunnhild.

The volume concludes with a splendid (albeit selected) bibliography of scholarship on the saga, here presented by Álfdís Þorleifsdóttir,, Katelin Parsons, and Jane Appleton, and drawn from the online bibliography available at This site offers over 500 bibliographic entries on the saga as well as other research materials, including the Icelandic edition by Bergljót Kristjánsdóttir and Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, and the archaic English translation made by William Charles Green in 1893. While not truly comprehensive--general introductions to the saga are not included (thus readers will still want to make use of John Hines's 1992 bibliographical guide)--the project will prove a multilingual boon to scholars, promising summaries in Icelandic and English, and is committed to recovering older scholarship, i.e. papers less likely to be found by online searches. This research effort is to be much-applauded, and will serve as a "first stop" for researchers on the saga, and as an example for similar projects.

Finally, I must commend the stellar job of editing and layout performed by the University of Toronto Press. Any collection of essays on an Icelandic topic will bristle with technical difficulties provided by the language, the alphabet, and the poetry. I could find only a single error, and that was as minor as could be. This book represents not only a valuable collection of fresh insights on one of the most compelling narratives of medieval literature, but a pinnacle of editorial accuracy.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anthony Adams

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login