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Egil's Saga (Penguin Classics) Paperback – April 26, 2005
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About the Author
Bernard Scudder lives in Reykjavík as a full-time translator. His translations encompass sagas, ancient and modern poetry, and leading contemporary novels and plays. In 1998 two novels in his translation were short-listed for the European Union's Aristeon Literary Prize.
Svanhildur Óscarsdóttir has a research post at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík. She has published on Icelandic literature, medieval and modern.
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I'm going to Iceland at the end of June (Lord willing and the volcano don't erupt). I'll be spending two weeks in a writer's colony. In preparation, I read one of the Icelandic sagas. The hero is described as warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson. That is, he is ugly, strong, an occasional psycho-killer, and a composer of renowned verse. I read the Penguin Classics translation by Bernard Scudder.
This is a real window into the Viking world. Written several hundred years after the events it portrays, the saga is still Pagan. What comes through is not just violence, drinking, and fighting over property, although there is certainly a lot of that. But this is also a highly practical world. It is a bit like "Lake Woebegone" in that all women are beautiful and wise (if occasionally descended from trolls), most men seem to be taller than their fellows, and everyone is introduced as being well-liked. Hero Egil is a bit of an exception-he is moody, given to what looks like seasonal depression, strong but not good looking, and a poet who is in love with his brother's wife. He is a it ahead of his time, perhaps more Shakespearian than his compatriots.
Ships are described as dragon-headed, and extremely beautiful. Vikings literally go berserk-become impervious to weapons and bite their shields in a killing frenzy. A few are considered werewolves, a state which is treated naturalistically and whose major symptom is late afternoon crankiness. Farms are large and prosperous, and kings are troublesome. Ancient Iceland had no executive branch and wasn't big on subservience-so kings ranging from Norway to Britain present a problem.
This is a world of fjords and islands, of widows who although sad are pleased to re-marry a well-thought of man, where babies are sprinkled with water and fostered (or put out exposed to die), where raiding is treated as we would a week-end hobby. It is a world were poets are as admired as warriors, of gods and sacrifice, but above all of an intense physical and social relationship to nature and other people. It is a world of great swimmers.
I want to go.
You can read my reviews on the literary blog Miriam's Well
The story of Egil son of Grim the Bald (Skalla-Grim) is one of the prose works from medieval Iceland known as sagas, and of the major sagas it probably most closely approximates the image popularly associated with the word. The story is multi-generational (it opens in the late 850s, and extends beyond Egil's death around 990). It features Viking adventures, and its primary hero is a devotee of Odin, god of kings, warriors, and poets. The hero's grandfather is rumored to be a werewolf, and the hero, himself both warrior and skald (poet), has thrilling encounters with berserkers and assassins, and engages in a feud with a (perfectly historical) king, Eric Bloodaxe, whose wife (later the Queen-Mother) is a sorceress.
Anyone expecting the hero to be a handsome Norseman from a storybook is going to be in for a shock, though. There are several such, including Egil's beloved brother, Thorolf (name for an uncle who is the hero of the opening chapters), but, like his father, Egil himself is actually outstandingly ugly. And his behavior varies from the admirable to the repellent -- even in Viking-Age eyes. (An explanation for some of this has been proposed recently, pointing out stray details in the verse and prose that suggest a now-recognizable medical disorder, possibly genetic.)
The work-a-day life of medieval Iceland, with law-suits arising from it, central to the majority of the "Sagas of the Icelanders," shows up only at intervals -- during Egil's childhood and, mainly, at the end of the book, during his "retirement" from adventuring -- as the action ranges from the Arctic Circle to England, and the central North Atlantic to the eastern Baltic.
"Egil's Saga," composed in the first part of the thirteenth century about events in the ninth and tenth centuries, is thought to be among the earliest-written of the "Sagas of the Icelanders," and is in some ways a good, although atypical, introduction to them. Egil's circle of friends, enemies (especially Queen-Mother Gunnhild), and immediate family members (most notably his equally formidable, if much more attractive, daughter, Thorgerd) show up in other sagas, especially "Njal's Saga" and "Laxdaela Saga." Others concern various descendants, and their associates.
Egil was counted as an ancestor by Snorri Sturluson, the author of the "Prose Edda," an explanation of myths, heroic legends and traditional verse forms, and of the "Heimskringla," a massive history of Norway through biographies of its kings. Snorri is one of the few Icelandic authors of the period whose name and attributed works both survive. The temptation to assign this saga to him is understandable, and has been championed by distinguished scholars. It doesn't seem to have been shared by the medieval scribes who transmitted the text. (There have been more recent attempts to support the idea through statistical analysis of the prose style; I can't judge them either linguistically or mathematically.)
The theory was accepted by the first English translator of "Egil's Saga," W.C. Green, whose version of 1893 was (inevitably) based on an obsolete edition of the text. He rendered it into a rather stuffy, and prudish, modern English, despite the more elegant examples of G.W. Dasent's "Story of Burnt Njal. The Reverend Green also could not resist moralizing over "good" and "bad" elements in Egil's character, in a way that would at best have amused the old pagan. (And misses the mark even more, if one accepts that the short-tempered Egil was in pain from Paget's Disease long before other, debilitating, symptoms became marked in later years.)
As for the poems, which are one of the glories of the work; let us just say that Green's English versions are lacking in any obvious merits, technical or literary.
It has the sole advantage of being out of copyright, and various versions are available on-line, including at least one which claims to have been revised to bring it closer to the Icelandic original, not least by restoring some passages omitted to avoid giving offense to Victorian sensibilities. There are various free and inexpensive E-Book versions, including one from Kindle.
Anyone reading Green's translation, even an "improved" version, should remember that it is NOT a perfect introduction to the sagas in general, or to this one in particular. And the saga has been fortunate in its twentieth-century translators; there have been five later renderings in English.
Green's version was followed, over a generation later, in 1930, by a careful, elaborately annotated, translation by E.R. Eddison, whose fantasy novel "The Worm Ouroboros" and an historical novel of Viking-Age Sweden, "Styrbiorn the Strong," both had been published in the 1920s. Eddison's version greatly admired Dasent, and the team of Morris and Magnusson, whose influence is evident on every page; but he rather outdid the latter when it came to writing Icelandic-influenced prose, filled with odd syntax, and obsolete or dialect cognates of, or loan-words from, Old Norse.
Eddison's version, originally issued by Cambridge University Press, is not for everyone, but has many merits. Alas, that original printing is hard to find, and expensive, and the reprinting by Greenwood in 1968, and is not always available either.
[A new, reasonably priced, reprinting has been announced by HarperCollins for 2014, along with reprintings of most of Eddison's other writings, notably annotated editions of "The Worm Ouroboros" and the three Zimiamvia novels.]
Now, as far as the quality of the translation goes, views are mixed. It helped that Eddison was able to use an advance text of what was then the latest scholarly edition, published in 1933, which was still the standard for the next three translations.
[Note, November 2015: I have now been working with the HarperCollins Kindle edition, which seems to have been well-executed. However, I find that, on re-reading Eddison's prefatory material, I should have said that he had the *advice* of the *editor* (Sigurdur Nordal) of the then-latest critical edition.]
Eddison is rather scornful of Green, both for his bland Victorian English and his prudishness. However, Eddison's attempt to approximate the sounds and syntax of Old Norse with an English style using as many related words as possible, instead of more familiar equivalents derived from French or Latin, takes getting used to; and some people never do.
Now the sagas themselves are notable for an unadorned prose, so the very concept of Eddison's translation was criticized by scholars who reviewed it at the time -- although they added that they found that the result was better than Eddison's theory.
They did not complain that Eddison's versions of Egil's major poems (which are extremely impressive) had to be carefully annotated, because any accurate translation will badly need the explanations. The language of the skalds (the high-class poets of the medieval Scandinavian world) was esoteric and convoluted in its own time, Egil was renowned for impressively "hard" poems, and Eddison's choice of language and style is unquestionably appropriate for the verse, if not the prose.
It took thirty years for the next version to appear, a much more colloquial translation by Gwyn Jones, for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, was published by Syracuse University Press in 1960 (and reprinted, apparently by Twayne, in 1970), under the title "Egil's Saga: Translation, Introduction, and Notes." Jones' version is less "full-bodied" than Eddison's, but still an impressive rendering of the saga's lean prose. (Although I can't completely agree with Christine Fell's view that his was "the first readable English version.") It includes a couple of useful maps, a very good introduction, and chronology of events. In connection with the latter, he has a interesting discussion of the problems caused by Egil's brushes with English history.
Jones breaks up the prose into modern paragraphs, which makes some chapters much easier to follow (although some may find it cuts into the pell-mell pace of the story). The many short poems scattered through the text (once Egil himself appears to utter them) are sequentially numbered, as in text editions, which makes reference to them easier. The one thing missing that would make it a model translation is an index, especially of characters and places. Without such an aide, the reader is likely to miss many implied connections and motivations, as well as muddling together similar-sounding (or identical) names of several different characters.
Jones' treatment of Egil's poems is lucid, and even alliterative, but hardly even attempts to emulate Eddison's feat of producing verse in something like the original meters and diction. Some of Jones' explanatory notes are excellent; but there are many points he does not explicate.
It too, unfortunately, is out of print, but is often available, at comparatively reasonable prices. It too could do with a reprinting!
This leaves the three more recent versions. The translation, as "Egils' Saga" by Christine Fell, with the poems translated by John Lucas (a sensible division of labor), was published in the old Everyman's Library in 1975. It was included in Everyman Paperbacks in 1985, with some revisions, and reprinted in 1993 with additional bibliography, but seems to be out of print.
The Everyman's Library hardcover edition has a page on Amazon for used copies; I suspect copies of the paperback printings may be mixed in with other used paperbacks (from Penguin). It is not in the recent Everyman Paperback Classics series, but it deserves a reprinting. I certainly hope it gets one, since it is very readable, although I at first found the prose a little flat after long familiarity with Eddison. The notes and indexes are the closest approximation to Eddison's in a later translation, and the scholarship is obviously much more up-to-date than 1930.
Fell's end-notes supply a considerable amount of information, concisely expressed, on such things as medieval Scandinavian law and custom, making connections for the modern reader which would have been obvious for a medieval Icelander. She also provides in the notes some rather ponderous, but very enlightening, prose translations of all the poems cited, with some brief comments where necessary. (This also allows one to judge whether Lucas' renderings convey the main points.) It does have a character index, and a place-name index.
My one complaint about Fell's translation is that most chapters are presented in solid blocks of prose, with paragraphs breaks only in a few. However, I didn't really notice this until I re-read Jones' translation just after re-reading Fell, and tried to figure out why he was sometimes easier to follow. (I have no idea whether this was Fell's preference, or the publisher's decision; some text editions have paragraph breaks, some don't.)
The Fell / Lucas translation was followed immediately by a Penguin Classics version by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (1976), which is quite enjoyable. The Glossary of Proper Names is a fairly good index of the characters, and the maps are usable. Footnotes provide translations of some place-names, and a few other details, but the legal issues at stake in various parts of the saga, and the major historical problems whenever Egil brushes up with documented events, cry out for annotation. I suspect that I would like it better if I had not read *after* several of the other translations.
Finally, the five-volume translation series of "The Complete Saga of the Icelanders," published in 1997, includes Bernard Scudder's version of "Egil's Saga." His translation takes the lead place in the Penguin Classics volume, "The Sagas of the Icelanders" (2000), a massive trade paperback based on "The Complete Sagas." It is there one of ten sagas, and seven shorter tales. (The saga there has no separate introduction or annotations)
It was also published as a separate volume in the Penguin Classics (2005; as "Egil's Saga," of course), also available as a Kindle Book, slightly revised,and with an introduction and notes by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir. (As of February 2014, the paperback is out of stock at Amazon.)
Scudder's version is similar in style to the Jones and Fell translations. The chapters have paragraph divisions. It lacks a character index; and some of the decisions on how to handle dating problems in the supplied Chronology may be considered wrong-headed by some. In the Kindle edition the maps are just barely usable.
For those interested in a modern fiction writer's view of Egil and his associates, the late Poul Anderson's "Mother of Kings" is an interesting quasi-historical novel in which Egil is a major character. (I call it quasi-historical because, as Anderson warns, the story adopts attractive medieval legends about it title protagonist, Gunnhild on some key points, instead of following the historical evidence; and a fantasy interpretation, although not required, is not ruled out.).
There are aides to serious readers (and enthusiasts) available on-line. The Publications page of The Viking Society for Northern Research website offers a free download of Hines and Slay, ed., "Introductory Essays on 'Egils Saga' and 'Njals Saga'" (1992), in pdf format, made up of lectures directed at a university-level students. It includes a section of bibliography. There are many useful and/or interesting articles on Egil (and much else!) in the Society's journal, "Saga-Book" (thirty-five volumes, through 2011, are also on the publications page; volumes one through twenty-three are, as of this writing, searchable.)
Also available from the Viking Society as a free download is a new (posthumous) edition by Bjarni Einarsson of "Egils Saga" (2003), with an English glossary to the Icelandic text. This is not for the faint-hearted; but seeing the complexity of Egil's poetry is a fascinating experience. I find working with the pdf a bit clumsy; it was originally published in a print edition, which may still be available. (I have not seen the announced American edition from Cornell University Press, and Amazon seems unaware of its existence, if it was ever released.) Einarsson is a strong supporter of Snorri Sturluson's authorship -- including the poems attributed to Egil.
A couple of out-of-copyright nineteenth-century Old Icelandic texts of the saga are also available from archive.org, a Library of Congress website, and from Google Books. (There are also an eighteenth-century edition with a Latin translation, and a nineteenth-century Danish translation -- I haven't traced any other renderings on the archive.org site.)