Last meeting June 2013

It was like old times this afternoon as we welcomed back Tim after a long absence. Laura brought cake and we had a ‘hobbit feast’ to celebrate his return.
Our reading for this meeting was the final chapters/sections of Egil’s Saga. It was felt generally that this saga has been more readable than Njal’s Saga. Anne said she felt that the poetry in Egil’s Saga gave an impression of a society with more developed cultural life than in Njal’s Saga, especially as a friendship is created around a shared delight in poetic composition.

Ian remarked that reading the sagas reveals a different world view, a world on its edge in comparison to our usual modern view, but one which helps to shed light on Tolkien’s preference for ‘northernness’. Ian also drew our attention to the effect of the northern orientation which refigures Iceland, the Hebrides, Shetlands, Faroes, Orkneys, and maybe Ireland, as parts of an archipelago rather than isolated off-shore islands.

Laura commented that this reorienting of geographical perception reminded her of the Mappa Mundi in Hereford cathedral, which presents the world according to the prevailing medieval Christian perspective with Jerusalem at its centre and everywhere else radiating out from there.

As we discussed the process of sailing across the vast stretches of sea between the islands and the Norwegian mainland, it was noted that we get no meteorological information, only the occasional mention of wind direction if this makes a sea voyage difficult. Tim observed that the Vikings knew where the sun rose and set and the rest was unremarkable to them.

Back on land, Anne was interested in Egil’s stone breastplate. I thought this was one of the ‘mythmaking’ moments. The practical measure of take plenty of rope for mending sleigh reins was noted. Laura also commented on Egil’s oversized coat, given as a gift in recognition of hospitality. We are given an idea of Egil’s size from his host’s remark that the coat will make him a long cape.

Anne thought Egil comes across as a show-off, and Angela observed that he changes with age. Everyone commented on the way Egil changes, but Angela remarked that the change seem sudden in the relationship between Egil and his son Thorstein when Egil’s land was encroached upon. This may be a structural feature or condensing for the sake of keeping the story tight.

Ian noted that Egil swells until his red tunic bursts when he is grieving for the death of his young son. Ian likened this to the Hulk who swells up when upset.
We came to one of several moments at which our selection of editions of the saga showed different translator’s choices. In this instance many of our books showed Egil’s daughter eating ‘dulse’ (seaweed), while one or two translated the Icelandic word as ‘samphire’.

In this sequence in the book Egil’s daughter suggests that if he will compose a poem commemorating here brother she would carve it on a rune stick. The implications for literacy interested me. The story of the girl make ill by the whalebone carve with runes was recalled, which Mike described this as ‘the Princess and the Pea’. Runic literacy seems to have been better established at lower levels of Norwegian and Icelandic society than it would be for centuries in England!

We came across another instance of variable translation in the case of Einar Helgason, the poet known as ‘Bowl-rattle’ to most of us but not all. I wondered if the name related to the poem he made that offended his earl, and likened it to Chaucer’s ‘Complaint to his Purse’, if Einar was trying metaphorically to ‘rattle his begging bowl’ at his earl by a shaming poem. It made the earl angry anyway.
Mike observed that there is no sense of doom or fate about the sagas we have read, but a thorough-going sense of self-reliance and self-determination, in contrast to what might have been expected from a society in the process of Christian conversion.

Julie picked up the Christian aspect when she noted the strange action of the priest after Egil’s death who takes his skull and its it with an axe, which does not damage it. The saga writer concludes that this would have meant he could have withstood attacks to the head during his life. The priest’s actions reminded Julie and Laura of the 18th century clerics who were also amateur scientific investigators.

I then remarked that Egil tending the wounds of his men reminded me of Aragorn. Ian extended this to those who had ambushed Egil and his men, most of whom were dead, but a few of whom were wounded. Ian proposed that the point would be made that the wounded were those who could not have faced Egil, because no one escaped alive who confronted him!

Laura noted that in spite of all his violence (sometimes apparently gratuitous) he buries his young son in the same barrow as the father he did not get on with, indicating a sense of family cohesion in death.

Returning to the topic of Egil’s poetry, through Laura’s observation of the frequency of kennings in it, Tim thought his poetry has a special, incantatory, quality as though drawing on or approaching a higher power. I wondered if the density and obliqueness of the use of kennings had something to do with the fact that poetry was regarded as the ‘gift’ of Odin and so it required a different kind of diction in acknowledgement of its divine or occult source.

We came to poem 58 as Anne remarked on it, and realised it was another case of diverse translation options, this time referring, somewhat euphemistically to the unfortunate effect of extreme old age on the aged warrior whose leg(s) were weak and who had gone blind. Laura wondered if this weakness and blindness might have been a effect of what has been posited as Paget’s disease on account of the deformity of Egil’s skull. It was noted, however, that he was in his 80s when these conditions developed.

Laura also drew our attention to the way Egil ends up as a ‘kolbitar’, huddling beside the fire. Laura then commented that the fate of the runaway Irish slaves was harsh, so it was strange that the places in which they were hunted down and killed were named after them. Kathleen suggested this was to act as a warning to others.

We then considered the matter of Egil’s thwarted plan to distribute his reward from Athelstan to the throng at the next Althing. Disappointed at being prevented, he then buried his treasure and killed the slaved who aided him. Laura remarked that the place – a place of hot springs and pits – where the bodies were supposed to be hidden was said to be marked by the appearance of will o’ the wisps – reminiscent of the Dead Marshes, where, as Ian said, bodies were also hidden. Mike, however, was not persuaded by Egil’s story that he buried his treasure and killed the slaves, pondering the possibility that actually robbed by the slaves. Tim thought that maybe Egil was too proud to admit he had been mugged so he claimed he had buried the treasure and killed and disposed of the slaves.

Chris was puzzled by the incident of Egil, Einar, and the shield. Chris thought it strange that Egil threatened to kill Einer because he had left his gold-encrusted shield for Egil to see, because Egil objected to being expected to write a poem about it. Laura thought Egil’s apparent anger was a joke, and this led her to remark that there is a lot of humour in the saga.

Laura also observed that many of the sections begin with the introductory convention ‘There was a man…’ as we have seen in Njal’s saga too.

Ian noted that a number of names in Egil’s Saga seem to be sources for some of Tolkien’s names. Ian cited ‘Ottar’, who occurs in the back story to the death of Isildur as the character who takes the shards of Narsil to preserve them. Tolkien also uses ‘Easterlings’, and the name ‘Swanness’ from Egil’s Saga echoes in the ‘Swan Havens’ – Alqualonde. Ian also drew parallels between the movement from Norway to Iceland and the movement of the Elves from the Undying Lands. Ian and Laura both mentioned the strange female name Melkorka in the saga, and Melkor in The Silmarillion.

Mike went on to note that we have all often commented on how Tolkien uses a great deal of colour in his work, and much fine detail, which the saga does not, and this, Mike suggested made it seem more real. Julie commented that this reminded her of the paradox of Robinson Crusoe. In which all the detail was perceived as the element that gave it reality, although it was not real but sourced from many accounts that were.

We overran our usual time while discussing the status of Tolkien’s work in comparison to the Leavisite idea of ‘great literature’, so I have to indicate our next reading. We have finished Egil’s Saga and are moving on to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. I suggest that as we have a ‘spare’ Saturday, we might manage the first 53 pages – up to the end of Chapter 3.

June 2013 – First meeting

What an unexpected delight to have everyone together this afternoon. The whole group came along and we had a lively discussion of the next part of Egil’s Saga – section 52-74.

I began by asking if, while we have noted some things in the saga that resonate with Tolkien’s stories, we have also seen how different Norse society seems to be with all its arbitrary killing, raiding, mixed with farming and sea-faring – all very historically interesting but does any of it relate to LotR, TH, etc. And I ended by asking tentatively: are the Dunedain a ‘polite’ version of Vikings. T my surprise I was not lynched.

Angela thought there were similarities between the two cultures. Anne observed that while Norse society was obsessed with legal matters of all kinds such interest in law was not prominent in Tolkien’s work. Angela and Chris remarked that law in Middle-earth is mostly unwritten. Ian commented that there is some reversal of the politics in the saga. Angela noted the apparently arbitrary nature of the violence of Helm Hammerhand which paralleled the violence of Egil.

Laura then remarked on Egil’s miserliness as his father has to ask him about the treasure given to him by King Athelstan.

Anne noted that Egil is constantly depressed in winter. It seemed as if he suffered from SAD. Anne also remarked on the fact that Egil’s father was buried with his horse – a sign of wealth and status to sacrifice such a valuable beast. Pat remarked that Egil had problems with Skallagrim’s stiff body. Ian noted that this must have been rigor mortis and we thought it odd that the stiffness seemed to surprise Egil.

Laura explained that when Egil and his men break down the wall of Skallagrim’s room in order to remove his body, this is reminiscent of the funerary practice of the Navaho people, though this is to ensure that the evil spirit of the deceased cannot return.

Both Laura and Pat were interested in the scorn pole that Egil sets up, topped with a horse head. Ian wondered if the horse head reflected the same semiotic as the burial of a horse – that to set a horse head on a scorn pole showed the value placed upon the act of insulting signalled by the scorn pole.

Pat drew our attention to the clear ‘rules of engagement’ that governed the battle at Wen. Laura thought King Athelstan used great strategy in deceiving the enemy as to his numbers. Anne was interested in what were described in some editions as ‘holy ropes’. We discovered our various editions gave various translations for this strange phrase, which seems to designate the boundary of a sanctuary or sacred space. Anne said this reminded her of the story of Hengist and Horsa and their hide strip.

Pat lightened our mood when she commented that Egil and co must have had good teeth because they are always biting their shields.

Julie wondered how the Norse mercenaries led by Egil communicated with the Anglo-Saxons, and we concluded that there was so much Viking settlement in northern Britain it was probably not difficult for them to understand each other.

Laura observed that as mercenaries, Egil and Thorolf were given a lot of responsibility at Brunanburh (aka Wen). Ian thought they were in fact Special Forces, but he also noted Egil’s frustration at not knowing enough language to bargain with Athelstan.

Anne remarked on the trope of 2 gold bracelets – the stereotypical Anglo-Saxon gift from a lord to reward valiant service.

Mike picked this up when he mentioned that it is not known if Skallagrim was buried with gold.

Laura added to the burial theme when she remarked that in Iceland Njal’s Saga explains the legal ritual that if one person kills another the victim must be buried and the relatives informed, if this is done the killing is taken to be manslaughter. If the body is not buried, or in Egil’s Saga if someone is killed at night, in both cases the death is murder.

Pat remarked then on Egil’s gruesome rage when he bites out the throat of an enemy. Laura noted that he also breaks the neck of a bull.

Ian observed that throughout this saga the right metal needs to be used for weapons, and he cited the time when Egil’s sword fails. Ian likened this to the moment in the Iliad when Achilles’ superior iron armour turns the bronze swords of his opponents.

Laura, Angela, and I all picked up the sanctions on bearing swords in the king’s court, but noted that this did not apply in Athelstan’s court. Angela cited the case of Eomer who was imprisoned for drawing his sword in Theoden’s court.

Chris then observed that there is not much supernatural material in Egil’s Saga – there are e.g. no dragons. Laura replied that there are hints of the unnatural in the mention of trolls and shapeshifters.

We all then turned our attention to the sick girl and Egil’s intervention. Ian wondered what was in the unsuccessful runes – was it perhaps ‘change the sheets’ – advice not followed until Egil gives the order. Laura wondered where Egil learned to write runes. We did give some thought to the possibility that the original rune stick was in the bed and that was hurting the girl physically, or that she was afflicted by a unnoticed parasitic tick, or even bed bugs, because the sheets needed changing.

Ian then took a long view and remarked that Egil’s view of life in Iceland is different to his view in Norway. In Iceland he keeps himself to himself and doesn’t get into trouble.

With time running out, we agreed to read to the end and then prepared to move on to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War.