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.