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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