Last Meeting in May


Our reading this week was aimed at giving us all a chance to work on the same material as we had been working through Egil’s Saga at our own pace to begin with. This time we were concentrating on sections 32-51, but we briefly diverted into LotR as a result of hearing from Ian about the Middle-earth that he attended at Sarehole.

Ian had written a script for a reading which he gave at the event, which naturally concentrated on Tolkien’s use of the Sarehole mill as a source for the mill in LotR and TH, but in his research for the script Ian discovered that this use is more subtle than may at first appear. Besides the better-known literal depiction of the changing physical presence of the mill, and its millers, Ian noted that the view of the mill as part of the Hobbiton landscape always connoted ‘home’ for the wandering hobbits as they left or returned.

Laura suggested that the mill also connotes time and its passing.

We moved then to begin out discussion of the Saga, and Ian remarked that the episode when Skallagrim goes out in a boat to find and bring back a great granite bolder to use as an anvil was analogous to the origin of the Stone of Erech, itself transported by ship. Both stones have indeed a sense of mythical origins.

Ian then turned to the poetry in the Saga and suggested that it resembles the poetry of the Kalevala and that of Taliesin, both of which emphasise poetry as the work of a brilliant and remarkable skill that distinguishes the poet from others.

This led Kathleen to express concern over judging the quality of the poetry from translation only.

As Pat was unable to be with us, I then raised Pat’s point about marriage in the saga. Pat wondered whether there was any ceremonial aspect to marriage, or whether it was just a matter of a man and woman going to bed together. I said I thought that although there does not seem to be any sacrament or ritual associated with the mention of marriage there is plenty of evidence for social requirements and proper form such as the agreement of a woman’s male relatives to a set of ‘terms and conditions’ before a marriage was agreed. Laura observed that women seemed to have little or no say in that process.

Mike, however, thought the marriage of Bjorn and Thora offered evidence of something more like sanctity and recognition of the oversight of higher power that establishes a marriage in the eyes of a wider society. Mike came to this conclusion because Bjorn and Thora’s marriage is not challenged after it takes place even though Bjorn has abducted her. The marriage also takes place away from family and close community, in the Shetlands, as Bjorn tried to escape King Harald’s anger.

The marriage had taken place at the fort at Mousa south of Lerwick. Laura had discovered that a Neolithic broch or stone round tower still exists at Mousa and we speculated that this was in fact the fort mentioned. It would have been c. 1,000 years old when Bjorn and Thora arrived. Mike added that Mousa means ‘mossy island’.

In the wake of Thora and Bjorn’s journey, Laura observed that there was clearly no myth surrounding the presence of women on ships. This led to some speculation regarding the process of travelling in Viking ships. Julie showed us pictures in her book of sagas that showed the difference between the longship or war ship which had a shallow hull with just a single deck and the knarr or cargo/trading ship which appear to have had 2.

We went on to discuss again the problem of Norse names which are constantly reused, making it hard to keep track of which generation we are dealing with, unless someone has a distinctive nickname.

Laura turned our attention then to the giving of land in Iceland as people arrive and established family members, friends, or allies offer them tracts of land. Ian remarked that this reflects the loss of land in Norway to King Harald.

I expressed an interest in the difference between ‘Vikings’ at home as craftsmen and farmers, and when they were raiding. Julie commented that they were violent to ‘other’ people. Ian referred to them as ‘freebooters’, and noted the example of Thorolf whose exploits show rules of engagement. Ships’ crews who capitulate may escape death but if they are warships, or the crews resist the pirate action everyone will be slaughtered.

Ian went on to consider the specific example of the beautiful painted warship that had been captured during a summer raid. He wondered if it had been considered a suitable gift for a prince because it was beautiful, and whether it had been painted when captured, or had been painted after capture.

Julie observed how things have changed: gifts once served to bind allies, make alliances, and reward service, but today gifts are likely to be interpreted as bribes.

This brought Laura to remark on the gift-axe given to Skallagrim, who kills his oxen with it and blunts the ceremonial blade in the process. Mike considered the poem Skallagrim makes when sending it back to Eirik, constructing the axe as not good enough to be a gift, because it represented Eirik’s contempt. Julie wondered about the size of the axe if it could take off 2 ox heads at one blow. Ian described it as beautiful but useless.

Laura, Kathleen, and Julie all commented on Egil’s age when his exploits begin, and Mike remarked on the necessity recognised in the community to give in to Egil. Laura noted that he is attacked by his own father and the old female servant who intervenes is then killed by Skallagrim.

Mike noted that Egil kills Grim and this leads to a free-for-all. Julie remarked that it seemed like soccer violence. Mike then observed that Skallagrim gets stronger after dark. Julie commented that with so few people then in Iceland you’d think they would have been more careful about killing people. But she also noted the drinking bout in which everyone indulged.

Laura drew attention to an earlier aspect of the drinking, which was the detecting of poison by the use of runes. The poison being the work of Eirik’s Queen Gunnhild, it introduces the antagonism between her and Egil.

Julie observed the result of all the drinking, which was everyone being sick, fighting and killing. Laura noted that the killing led to the first mention of weregild.

I led us on to the raid on Courland (Latvia) and the tactics used. Laura wondered how the Courlanders could deploy blankets against the Viking raiders. The capture of Egil leads to the discovery of some Danish captives in a pit and Kathleen remarked on the fact that they were asked(!) by Egil if they wanted to come out.

Julie described the father and son captors as like the trolls in The Hobbit because they discuss how to kill their captives. Laura noted that Egil does not just escape, but destroys the household. As Kathleen remarked they set fire to the roof.

Laura took up the Danish link, observing that Aki (a Dane) tells Egil where to raid in Denmark. She wondered if this was a sign that Demark was not at the time a unified country.

We had considered the problem of the lack of trees in Iceland and I recalled seeing that a ship had taken a load of timber to Iceland. Julie noted that the Vinland settlers had died out because they ran out of wood for ships, and ran out of food.

We agreed that our next reading would be from the end of section 52 [this begins ‘King Olaf of Scotland gathered a great army…] to the end of section 74 [beginning ‘Egil told his companions the he wanted to continue on his journey…] I hope this textual detail enables the reading to be located in all our differently edited versions!

Mike added a postscript to our discussions when he noted that his book included the Saga of Gunnlaug Wormtongue (!), and the Introduction flows on from Egil’s Saga, mentioning his and may other names. Julie picked up Kathleen’s much earlier point about translation when she noted that in her edition of the sagas, Gunnlaug is named ‘Serpent tongue’. We preferred the ‘Worm’ as more in keeping with both Norse and Old English.

First meeting in May

11th May

We began our afternoon with a discussion of the way we should pronounce the name ‘Egil’. Mike sought guidance online but even that was not clear enough for our satisfaction, so we settled on ‘Egil’ with /g/ as in ‘egg’.

After this we turned to the text with Anne’s observation that Egil’s Saga is ‘a hell of a soap opera’ that takes some coping with.

Laura had picked up the modern perception of Egil’s physical characteristics which have been defined as evidence of Paget’s Disease. Laura thought the description of Egil did not quite fit the modern understanding of the condition, although he is clearly different in appearance from others.

This brought us to consider his lineage as a descendant of a ‘half-troll’ and as having a father who seems to be a shape-shifter, as are a number of other characters. I asked if the ‘half-troll’ ancestor should be understood as evidence of the mythologizing of Egil the historical person, but Angela remarked that on a walking trip to Norway one of the guides of the walking party was very tall, and speculated that tales of giants may have stemmed from the reality of some very tall individuals.

Laura pointed out that both Njal’s Saga and Egil’s Saga begin with the same words ‘There was a man named … the son of….’ Although the details obviously alter, Laura commented that in both sagas it is important to establish the line of relationships with family and of family with places. Mike remarked that it seemed to be important to establish connections in an oral society.

Laura noted in the context of establishment of relationships that Egil and his brother come to be regarded as sons of a bad, or improper, marriage, and that this led to them being cheated out of their possessions and designated as being in the wrong when they tried to regain them.

Mike observed that in Norse society of the time, as we saw in Njal’s saga, law and legal matters were absolute in a society without a hierarchical head.

Anne noted that the society was all about getting ‘stuff’, including people. Laura qualified this by commenting that the acquisition of ‘stuff’ was in order to be able to give it away in order to keep the extended household together.

Angela observed that it was a multi-skilled society, and Mike noted that the skills included various kinds of science, and manual skills such a boat-building, but there did not seem to be a class of educators. Chris remarked that all skills, such a navigation, smithing, etc., would be passed down, and Laura defined this as learning by absorbing. Kathleen suggested that the society did not show sufficient development to allow for separate education.

This led Mike to observe that all the main characters in the story are in fact the aristocracy of that society. Anne added that quite a few berserks are mentioned and Angela noted that one is mentioned in Njal’s Saga; Laura recalled that everyone in that story was glad to be rid of him.

Mike followed this on with his comment that ‘viking’ was not just a name but a job or profession. Julie remarked that all the killing done on Viking raids would be self-defeating. I thought there was evidence in the story to show that Vikings did not raid continually in the same location.

I then asked if there was evidence in the story for things that might have inspired Tolkien. Julie immediately responded with the ‘war arrow’. Angela added the ‘coal biter’, and Laura picked out ‘Vestfold’ the unmistakable ‘Westfold’. Chris thought King Harald Fair-Hair had similarities to Aragorn because both real and fictional kings realise the political wisdom of treating conquered folk generously.

Anne objected that Harald was greedy for tribute, and Laura remarked that in this he showed dragon-like qualities. Chris also noted that Harald was persuaded against Egil’s brother Thorold in a way that is reminiscent of Wormtongue’s poisoning of Theoden’s mind against Eomer.

Harald offered another analogy as Angela noted his name ‘Grey-Cloak’ was used by Tolkien for Thingol.

Angela noted that the claiming of were-gild echoed Isildur’s claiming of the Ring as recompense for his father and brother.

Laura and Angela drew parallels between the many shape-shifters in the saga, and Beorn in The Hobbit, although it was noted that the saga shape-shifters do not transform into bears. However, the berserks (<bear-sark [shirt]) also ‘transformed’ when in their battle fury.

Julie defined shape-shifting as human behaviour that is ‘like animals’.

On the topic of the berserks Chris noted that Kvedulf needs a rest after his animalistic fury.

Anne then commented that after struggling through all the Norse names she found it a relief to come across the name Sandnes because it was so familiar sounding. Chris observed that places in Iceland were named for what happened at each one and there was no evidence that the settlers named their new settlements after the places they came from in Norway. This was compared to the nostalgic or respectful naming of places in USA by early settlers, and was taken as evidence of feelings of animosity towards Norway by the setters of Iceland.

Laura and Anne turned to poetry at this point and picked up the many translations of the name of a poorly skilled poet, one translation naming him ‘Audun the plagiarist’, another calling him ‘Audun the uninspired’.

Julie observed that in the poems men are often referred to as ‘trees’, and wondered if this ‘kenning’ was what Tolkien had developed into his Ents.

Laura remarked that Skallagrim’s smithing poem beginning ‘The wielder of iron must rise’ turns ordinary life into poetry. Julie observed that wolf-riders are mentioned in another poems, but they are not orcs, they are troll-wives.

I was surprised at Skallgrim’s comment to Egil the boy that he may not go raiding because he gets uncontrollable when he is drunk! Mike commented that it might have been small beer. Laura thought the unruly Egil might have been stealing from the grown ups. Julie noted that Egil had killed his young playmate over a game of football and far from being punished, it was remarked that he would make a great Viking!

Changing the tone, Laura expressed delight in the naming of Thora of the Embroidered Hand. We conjectured about what this meant without success. There was the possibility of tattooing, or the possibility that she was a great needlewoman. We were not convinced that she wore embroidered gloves.

Late in our discussion Anne observed that Hildirid is bought for an ounce of gold and the irregularity of her marriage leads to Egil’s disinheritance. This led us into a consideration of the treatment of female characters and provoked a good deal of feminist comment.

As we ran out of time we agreed that for our next meeting we would read from section 32 to the end of section 51. Some of us have already passed this point, but it should give Anne, Vicki, Pat and Ian a chance to catch up, should they need to. For the rest of us it is a text that seems to have plenty to offer.