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The Story of Egil Skallagrimsson: An Icelandic Family History of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

Rev. W. C. Green

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
It is now more than thirty years since Dasent by the story of Burnt Njal delighted many readers and awakened in England an interest in the Icelandic Sagas. The introduction to Burnt Njal trats ably and fully of Icelandic history and literature, pointing out their especial value to us Englishmen. And this the same author has further done in his introduction to Vigusson's Dictionary. Other Sagas have since been made accessible in English: e.g., the story of Gisli the outlaw, by Dasent; Grettir's Saga, by Magnusson and Morris; and recently some others in the series entitled 'The Saga Library.' Dasent put before us the best first, for of Iceland's Sagas the Njala undoubtedly bears the palm. But the next best has hitherto not been open to English readers—the Egilssaga to wit. Second only to the Njala in interest and merit is the Egla, and second (in my judgement) after no long interval. For though no one character enlists our sympathy in Egil's story so much as does the wise and good Njal so underservedly cut off, yet the whole story is in stle and force little, if at all, inferior. Nay it has more variety of scene and adventure, more points of contact with history, than has the Njala; it is to Englishmen especially interesting, as one part of it is much concerned with England. The narrative takes us to many lands; all over Norway, to Sweden, to Finmark, and the lands beyond, Kvenland, Bjarmaland, the shores of the White Sea; in company with the Vikings we go 'the eastward way' to the Baltic, to Courland in Russia; we visit Holland, Friesland, Jutland; [iv] westwards and southwestwards we cruise about Shetland, the Orkneys, Scotland; England is reached by our hero Egil; York is the scene of his most perilous venture; he comes even as far as London. The earlier part of the Saga, the scene of which is in Norway, with the account of Harold Fairhair's obtaining sole dominion there, is of great interest, and agrees with other accounts of the same. It is well known that Harold's tyranny (as they deemed it) drove many Norsemen of good familyto seek Iceland and freedom. Among these were Egil's grandfather and father. We have a full account of their settlement in the island, whither as yet few had gone, and where land was to be had for the taking, but hard work was needed. We read of these early pioneers' industries—their farming, smithying, fishing on sea and river, seal-hunting, whaling, egg-gathering. Minute descriptions there are of the island, particularly of its western coast, its firths, nesses, rivers, fells. No reader of this Saga can for a moment doubt the truthfulness of the picture given of life and manners at that time. A seafaring race were those Norsemen, both for trade in their ships of burden and for freebooting in their long ships; bold and skilful mariners they are seen to be. We read of a winter sledging journey in one most adventurous episode. There are battles, some of great moment, by sea and by land. One of the latter, the battle of Vinheath, in England, is told with much detail, and is (one may venture to say) as vivid an account of a battle as can be found anywhere in any language. There are single combats or wagers of battle, about the manner and terms of which we learn much that is noteworthy. There are also lawsuits in Norway, and, towards the end of the story, one in Iceland, whence we learn that the emigrants carried out with them and established their civilization with all the machinery of courts and legal procedure. There is less litigation in the Egla than in the Njala, but few readers will regret this, for, if there be anything in the story of Burnt Njal which one would be inclined to skip, it is some of the long law-pleadings.