Kings, Wars, and Duck Eggs: Interpretations of Poetry in Egil’s Saga
By James C. Daughton
Proceedings of the Seventh Annual MadRush Conference (2016)
Abstract: This paper examines the function and cultural implications of poetry in Egil’s Saga, an Icelandic saga written around the thirteenth century A.D. The title character, Egil Skallagrimson, is a renowned warrior and obstinate maverick, but perhaps his most singular trait is his gift for crafting poetry—a talent reflected in the nearly sixty sets of his verse that appear throughout the prose text. Obviously, these poems allow the reader to tap into Egil’s psyche, but they also fulfill the more profound purpose of illuminating the values and experiences of medieval Icelanders. Egil eternalizes the heritage he shares with his countrymen, explores (and exploits) the place of the poet in Viking society, and lends voice to the universal themes of friendship, death, and old age. His verse leads us view the Saga Age not as an epoch of legend, but as a time as authentic as our own.
Introduction: Although Egil’s Saga is memorable enough for its bloodshed, feuds, and comically disgusting mead-hall scenes, the one characteristic which most distinctly sets it apart from the other Icelandic sagas is its extensive use of poetry. More than 60 sets of verse pepper the prose of this work—some heroic assertions, others touching epitaphs, and one so expertly crafted that it saves its speaker from death. The reason for these poems appearing within the text is fairly obvious: Egil Skallagrimsson, the tenth-century warrior and hero of the saga, was also a poet, and most of the poems within the saga are his. Their function within the saga, however, is less clear.
Formally, they breathe life into the saga in a way that their prose equivalents could not, allowing the reader to connect more fully with Egil and his legacy simply by saying them aloud; yet all the while, a much deeper meaning dwells within the breathed life itself. Through analyzing that meaning, we find that these poems reflect the larger-than-life aura of Egil, as both man and saga hero, but also that they transcend this single work and shed light upon the values and experiences important to the Icelandic people, as well as motifs ingrained in their cultural subconscious since before Iceland was even discovered.