There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi, and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafnista, the fater of Ketil Haeng. Ulf was so big and strong that no man was a match for him; and he was still only a youth when he became a Viking and went raiding. His companion was Kari from Berle, a man of high birth who had the strength and courage to perform great deeds. Kari was a berserk. He and Ulf shared all they owned and were close friends. (p.3)
Summary: Ulf Bjalfason, often known as Kveldulf (Night-Wolf), has no problem with kings but no allegiance to them, either. He refuses to swear loyalty to King Harald Fairhair, which leads to a sticky situation; the situation is temporarily defused by Kveldulf's handsome and generous son, Thorolf, joining the king's retinue. This will lead to Thorolf's death by nefarious men who are in the king's favor; Kveldulf demands compensation from the king, and when he does not receive it, he and his other son, the ugly but talented Grim, usually known as Skallagrim (Bald Grim), will kill the killers, in the process destroying one of the king's ships and two of the king's cousins. After Skallagrim, who is something of a poet, sends a taunting poem to the king, they flee the king's wrath to Iceland. Kveldulf will die on the way. Skallagrim will have two sons, Thorolf and Egil. Thorolf is handsome and charming, while Egil is ugly and somewhat brutish, but from the earliest age Egil shows signs of immense potential both as a warrior and as a poet, since by the age of twelve he can often outperform grown men at games relevant to either. The two brothers will make their way to Norway to make their fortunes. Thorolf will befriend Prince Eirik Bloodaxe; due to the connection, Egil will make acquaintance with Arinbjorn, the son of the prince's foster-father, who will become his closest and dearest friend.
The fundamental problem with Egil is that he is unable to find the line at which to stop. He is in many ways a Viking ideal. He is huge, and essentially unbeatable in battle; he has a wolfishness, inherited from his father, that makes him seem more than human. He speaks exceptional poetry as easily as he breathes. In a society that idealizes both warrior and poet, these are not small things. But Kveldulf had had a kind of wisdom in his deliberate efforts to stay out of the ways of kings, because he knew one thing that Egil will never learn: no matter how talented you are, it is a hard thing to match your luck agains the luck of kings. Egil sees no reason why he should adapt himself to others, and therefore guarantees continual conflict with kings, a breed of powerful men who demand but one thing, that others adapt their ways to the kingly preferences. By his mocking poetry, by his inevitable slaying of anyone who tries to start a fight with him, Egil will make powerful enemies, which will lead to his killing of powerful people, which will lead to his flight from the wrath of the king, who is now Eirik Bloodaxe. Egil can handle anything the king throws at him, but the fact of the matter is that you really shouldn't convince a king named 'Eirik Bloodaxe' that you are deserving of death. This is something to keep in mind if you are ever in a similar situation.
Egil will have to flee to England, where he and Thorolf will take service with King Aethelstan; as Aethelstan is engaged in a series of wars with his northern neighbors, and as nobody is as well-suited to battle as Egil, he will have the most successful period of his life there. Thorolf, however, will die in battle. This will embroil Egil in an inheritance dispute on behalf of Thorolf's widow, Asgerd, and the combination of 'dispute' and 'Egil' will mean here, as elsewhere, that somebody is going to die. To be fair, Egil, good, solid Scandinavian, makes every effort to resolve the problem legally, but Egil has powerful enemies who tip the scale against him, leading to a heightening of the feud between Egil and the royal house. Egil is declared by King Eirik a full outlaw -- literally, i.e., he is no longer protected by the laws; in a massacre, Egil kills the man who tried to seize his brother's property, and all the men on the king's farm where the man has taken refuge, and, as it happens, King Eirik's ten-year-old son Rognvald; he crowns his vengeance with a poem so scathing it curses the reign of King Eirik, and, because he is as pre-eminent in poetry as he is in battle, the curse of his poem has real effect.
As a result of the curse, King Eirik loses control of Norway and is succeeded by his brother Hakon; Eirik has to flee to England, where he is made king of Northumbria by Aethelstan. Visiting England, Egil is captured by Eirik, but Arinbjorn, Egil's old friend, steps in and, putting his whole property and perhaps his life on the line for Egil, manages to convince Eirik to spare Egil's life in return for a poem of praise. Again, it's a society that puts a high value on poetry, and that sees the fortunes of king as tied to his ability to inspire poetic praise that resounds through the ages; given Egil's undeniable poetic skill, even Eirik cannot entirely dismiss such an offer. He agrees, Egil praises him, and although the poem is hyperbolic enough that we can tell that Egil is in fact being partly sarcastic, it is skillfully enough done that the king can't really complain about it. So he lets Egil go on the condition that he never be in Eirik's presence ever again.
To finish the matter over Asgerd's inheritance from Thorolf, Egil ends up back in Norway, where he fights several duels with people who try to claim the land. He stays with Arinbjorn, who burns what little credit he has with King Hakon in a failed attempt to resolve the dispute in Egil's favor by legal means; Hakon has less reason than Eirik to hate Egil, but no reason at all to love him or to consider him anything but a danger. Arinbjorn gives Egil a large amount of money to compensate him for the part of the property he cannot get back. They then go on Viking raids together in Saxony and Frisia, and end up helping a number of people in the process, including, indirectly Hakon himself. Arinbjorn will become advisor to Earl Harald the Young in the semi-independent province of Orkney, and Egil will go back to Iceland, where he will live to old age, eventually becoming blind and dying of illness.
Egil's Saga is, in a sense, a tale of the last great hurrah of pagan Scandinavia. Except for good looks, Egil has everything one could admire about that age. He is unbeatable in battle, and in more than one way: he is stronger than others, he is more skilled than others, and he has in him something of his father's wolfishness, which comes out here and there. Any one of these would make him almost unstoppable. But he is also all of the poetry of pagan Scandinavia in one man, a man whose words are living flame as his spirit is unquenchable fire. He has the honor. (One of the humorous spots of the story is when Egil and a number of men are robbing someone, and as they are getting away, Egil basically stops and says something along the lines of, 'Wait, this is wrong. He won't know that we're the ones who robbed him. I have to go back and make sure he knows that we are the ones who robbed him.') He has, despite his often finding himself outside the law, the Scandinavian respect for law itself. He has the independence of spirit, which does not quail even in the face of a king. He has the admiration of honesty, loyalty, and generosity. He also has all the faults of pagan Scandinavia. His own generosity has that paradoxical element of obsession with property. He is ruthless and has the wolfish willingness to do anything to win, including at one point the wolfish willingness literally to bite someone's throat off to win a duel. But on Egil-sized scale you can see why people might have sometimes admired those things, too. But Egils are no more. We see after Egil's death that the younger generations are all Christianizing, and the life of an Egil is thenceforth only a matter for folktale. There's no question that the union of the Scandinavian realms under the Christian kings -- since unitary kingship and Christianity largely come on the scene together in Scandinavia -- is a better kind of society; but even someone in such a society can look back with fondness at something admirable that was lost in the improvement.
The saga could almost be called the Saga of Egil and Arinbjorn; while Arinbjorn isn't on stage much, the friendship between Egil and Arinbjorn, two very different people who are nonetheless willing to go to the limit of their abilities for each other, makes for some of the best parts of the book.
Favorite Passage: This is part of a poem that Egil made for his friend Arinbjorn; it plays on his name (Arinbjorn = hearth-bear, the hearth with its fire being the land the birch fears) and his circumstances at several points.
The stuff of my praise
is easily smoothed
by my voice's plane
for my friend,
for double, triple
upon my tongue.
First I will name --
as most men know
and is ever borne
to people's ears --
he always seemed,
the bear whose land
the birch fears.
watch in marvel
how he sates
men with riches;
Frey and Njord
with wealth's force.
flows to the hands
of the chosen son
of Hroald's line;
his friends ride
from far around
where the world lies beneath
the sky's cup of winds. (p. 181)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Egil's Saga, Bernard Scudder, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 2004).