Reviewed by David Maclaine
Egil's Saga offers the deepest insight into the ethos of the Viking Age of any work of fiction I know. Those who believe the anti-hero is a modern concept will be disabused of that notion by this tale, which centers on an ugly, violent man who wins our sympathies, and then repeatedly loses them by his murderous over-reactions. Egil Skallagrimsson is the prototypical rebel, who refuses to bow to the power of his royal adversaries and tends to take what he calls justice into his own hands. If you filmed his story in the 1970s he'd be played by Charles Bronson, in the '90s by Steven Seagal, though it's a stretch to imagine either of those actors playing a scene in which he wins his freedom by composing and reciting finely-crafted poetry. Egil was a gifted artist, as well as a self-centered and violent man: if Norman Mailer had lived in the tenth century he'd have rushed off to hang with him.
Because Egil's Saga follows the conventions of the genre, the story begins with his ancestors - the title character isn't born until fifty pages into the story - and offers some useful background on earlier developments in Norway and Iceland. Egil's adventures also take him more than once to England. As is common in sagas, the plot is episodic and sometimes strays to what we would call secondary characters. The style is clear and uncluttered, and people pause to talk about their more tender feelings a bit less often than in a Hemingway novel. But if you want to understand the world of the deadly men who sailed off to raid and kill, men who were prized both for their strong sword arms and for their ability to spin words into beguiling patterns, it is well worth tackling a few oddities of saga style to get this thirteenth-century view of a Viking "hero" crafted by one of his most gifted descendents. (about 1240 A.D.; the 1977 English-language Penguin edition is 256 pages)More about Egil's Saga at Powell's Books, Amazon.com, or read online at the Icelandic Saga Database. Egil's Saga is also included in Jane Smiley's The Sagas of Icelanders.