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.