Egil's Saga, Pt. 1
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
This week, we are going to jump into an entirely new text. It is one of my favorites of all time. And it is a Viking saga. So those of you who love Saga Thing -- shout out to Saga Thing, another fantastic podcast -- you will love this episode. And this is going to be another multi part series, because it's kind of a big saga.
This week saga is going to be Egil’s Saga. But first, some background on sagas.
There’s a bunch of different kinds of Icelandic narrative. There's Family Sagas, there's more of the chivalric tales, and then there’s the poetry.
The Sagas depict stories that are set in "the Viking Age,” which ranges from the settlement of Iceland in about 870 CE to the conversion of Christianity in Iceland, which is about 1000. So it's not actually a huge timescale, which when I reminded myself of that amazes me for how rich and dense and how many sagas there actually are. There's so much.
And the most influential sagas are the family sagas; these are akin to epics, like we've talked about with Homer, the Aeneid, things like that. But they do have a few more interesting differences in my opinion, which make them more compelling to read about, especially, I guess, if you grew up reading or being familiar with the whole sort of the greats of Western civilization. By the time you find the Viking sagas, they're absolutely refreshing.
One major difference is that these sagas are usually about wealthy farmers, not kings, which is an interesting sort of difference. You could argue like Odysseus does start out as a farmer, but he's also kind of a nobleman, and a lot of the Icelandic farmers are in the same boat. But I find it interesting that there's a big influx on people coming to a new land, setting up house and taking care of the house and the land and as much as they go out, and plunder and pillage, and so on, and so forth.
There is an aristocracy in saga-age Iceland but it's kind of like the kind of aristocracy we have in America, where it's not like, divine right of kings kind of thing. It's just that these families have accumulated a lot of wealth, and they are a different class.
As a result, saga heroes also tend to live at the fringes of society, whether that's literally as in their living in Iceland, and Greenland, or going up to the very, very far north. But also socially, they tend to be on the fringes of society, they've usually done something to piss somebody off, and therefore, now they're outlawed, or so on and so forth. They've done something to create themselves as outcasts.
I really like pointing out the anonymity of the family sagas in particular, becomes a feature of the family saga cycle, which is very unlike the more continental writers, especially at this time, or later, including Chaucer, Dante, LA, Marina, France, etc. Those writers who are out there you go, put their names on all of these things. Whereas the family sagas are all anonymous. They're sort of faded into this once upon a time period, just like Beowulf is, although there is there have been scholarly efforts to pin down the authors of some of them.
The family sagas are also interesting because they try to relate things as they happen. As Professor Hughes always likes to say, there is no suspense in the viking sagas; they're very upfront with you. It'll be page one and they’ll say, “Here’s how Harold died. Now, I'll tell you about how he got to the point where he died.” So instead of giving you any kind of suspense, you just are told what horrible thing happens and then you're taken along for the ride.
They also don't believe in “in medias res” - you won't be thrown into the middle of the action. The saga has to start by telling you about the family heritage of the protagonist.
There's also so much subtlety packed into the stories, particularly because they're trying to lay out how to tell a very politically and socially dense situation, which is, in my opinion, one of their best features, because you get this beautiful combination of hacking people to pieces on one page, and then the next page over, you get the legal proceedings and social consequences of hacking that person to death.
There's also a distinct feeling of this happened in the mythic past, but they want to describe this as a history, so it crosses the line between, okay, this is a fairy tale with heroes and monsters, but we're going to go through more legal documents, too. That verisimilitude of these dramatic big things happen with monsters and horrific events.
And it's worth keeping in mind when we talk about the kind of fairy tale aspect of some of these that all of the Sagas are written a few 100 years after the events that they're supposedly recounting, which is why even though a lot of them are set in pagan times, there's not a lot of good information about the pagan lifestyle in them because a lot of it's been forgotten by the time it's been written down. It's just being reconstructed.
There's also some poetry included in the sagas. This is skaldic poetry or courtly poetry, and these poems serve as the author's way to get into the character's mind. Skaldic poetry is also incredibly complex. In fact, our hero, if you will, of this saga, he uses skaldic poetry as a weapon and as a curse, to the point where it's a form of magic. So once again, these powerfully complex forms of verse are so dense, so powerful in this society that they can be construed as invocations,
With the background out of the way, let’s begin the saga.
There was a man named Ulf. He was a Berserker, both and he and Kari, his kin, had one common purse and were dearest friends.
One of them goes freebooting the other one stays at home. When they gave up their freebooting Kari went to his estate at Berta. Three children had Kari, and his daughter married Ulf. This might seem really weird that your dad's friend would marry you, but hat was a very common for them, because you're ensuring the safety of your estate and your family, and you're also establishing family ties with someone who you want to maintain an alliance with.
Well, he was he in both lands and chattel and he took barons rank as his forefathers had done and he became a great man, it was told of Ulf that he was a great householder, it was his want to rise early and then go around among his laborers and where his smiths were to overlook his fields. And at time he would talk with such as needed his counsel and good counsel he could give for in all things for he was very wise. But every day, as evening was drawing on, he became sullen and it was commonly said that he was very shape-strong, he was called Kvedulf, which is to say “nightwolf.”
He and his wife had two sons. Thorolf was doughty, favoring his mother's cheery disposition. He was liberal, impetuous and everything a good trader winning all the hearts of men. Grim was swarthy ill-favored like his father both in face and mind. He became a good man of business skillful was he in wood and iron and excellent smith.
Kvedulf was now well stricken in years and his sons were grown men.
Harold soon became king of Norway, and asked Kvedulf to join him. But when the King’s messengers came to Kvedulf and told them of their errand, and that the king would have fed have come to him with all of his house carls, thus answered Kvedulf, “This I deem beyond my duty to go north and defended their land. Briefly, you may say when you meet your king, that I will sit at home during this rush to war, for I think that the opposing king has a whole load of good fortune where our King has not a handful.”
Now King Harold was very careful when he had gotten new people under his power about barons and rich landowners and all those whom he suspected at all of being likely to raise rebellion. Each such man He treated in one of two ways. Either he made them become his leigemen or to go abroad or as a third choice to suffer harsher conditions, some even losing life or limb. Harold claimed as his own through every district all patrimonies all lands tilled, and likewise, all seas and freshwater lakes. All landowners were to be his tenants, and also all the work to harvest, hunters and fishers by land and seen all these owed him duty, but many fled abroad from this tyranny.
So Kvedulf said: “I will now sit he sit at home and leave the serving of kings.” Upon this his messenger said, “Then let your son go to the king. He is a tall man and a likely warrior. The king will make you a baron.”
Further, he told them at length as it was true that the king was liberal to his men in money and in honors, but Kvedulf said, “My foreboding is that I and my son shall get no luck from this king, I will not go to him.” However, Thorolf thought differently, and considered that he could get a great deal as a carl of King Harold, so he went to him.
Now there was a man at this time who was close to Kvedulf, named Brynjolf, who married Brunhild and had a son named Bard. Soon after, he took with him to wed a woman called Hiildred, a second wife. They had two sons, Hraerek and Hrarek. Soon after this, Thorgoldf died, and no sooner was he buried than Brunhild sent away Hilliard and her sons.
After this, Bard and Thorolf, Kvedulf’s son, became fast friends in King Harold’s house. So they got word from the king of Bard’s father’s death and they took a good ship and crew and made their way during that winter. And when Bard learned to the inheritance was open for him, he asked to go home. This the king granted, and they parted, and before they parted, Bard was made a baron, and he became a great chief, but Hildred’s sons got no more of heritage than before.
Soon after, Bard and Thorolf went to battle for the king, and Bard was badly wounded. Bard’s wound proved mortal and Bard had the king called to him and spoke thus, “If it's so that I die with these wounds then I would ask this of you, that I may name an heir for myself.” And when the king assented, he said this, “I will that Thor off my friend and kinsmen take all my heritage, both liens and chattel to him, I will also give my wife and bringing up with my son because I trust him for this above all other men.” This arrangement made fast as a law.
Now the sons of hildred came to Thorolf and put in the claim which they thought they had on the property, but he answered them thus, “I was present when you to put that same claim on Bard and I heard what he thought and there was no ground for it, for he called you illegitimate.” And so they quit talking.
That winter, Thorolf had a great feast and invited very many people to his estate to stay the winter. And when Hraerek and Hrarek heard this, they whispered to the king that Thorolf thought himself above the king and meant to set up a kingship for himself.
And the king was very angry at these words, but he spoke quietly, as was always his wont when he heard tidings of great import. So the king said little about this matter to other men, but it was easy to see that he was inclined to listen to the words that had been said.
Thorgils, one of Thorolf’s advisors, goes to the king’s advisor and discusses with him what the matter was, and Aulvir, says, “well, the king has been kind of silent and gloomy. And I suspect that Thorolf has been slandered. And I know that this is HIldred’s sons fault, because they've been in conferences with the king, and they are Thorolf’s enemy.”
Thorolf, hearing this, wants to make peace with the king and invites him to his home, but the king refuses, and Hildred’s sons, in anger, attack one of Thorolf’s ships. In retaliation, Thorolf seeks out the king in Vix and attacks his ships there.
King Harold learns what Thorolf did and he's furious. When Hildred’s sons suggest killing Thorolf, however, the king stated, “I think your fortune falls short of this work. Thorolf is more than your match - brave and courageous as any human being.” The brother said that this would be put to the test and if the king would grant them leave, they would go. The king grans them leave.
After Thorolf attempts one final chance at reconciliation, the king surrounds his home and orders it set ablaze while Thorolf and his men are carousing.
The king said, “Set fire to the room. I will not waste my men by doing battle with him outside.” So fire was set, and soon it caught because the wood was dry and the roof thatched with birch bark.
But Thorolf and his men took one beam and they ran and hit the wall with the wood so hard that the clasps flew out and the walls were torn asunder and there was a wide outlet. When Thorold reached the shield wall he pierced with a stroke the standard bearer, crying, “Now I am but three feet short of my aim!” That is to say, the king. But the king himself dealt him his death wound, and he fell forward at the Kings feet. The king called out them and made them cease any further slaughter and they did so.
So that is chapters one through twenty-two.
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