Reading the literature of the world and of past centuries, I find myself generally reflecting how similar we all are, how little anything has changed. Human-beings seem basically to have the same emotions and the same stories connected with them whenever and wherever they have existed. Even in the ancient world, I don’t find emotions that are notably different: I don’t find anything odd in Oedipus acting as he does; Ajax’s reactions seem to me no different to the way anyone would react now. Others have stressed clear differences: between, say, Greek and Jacobean (Christian) drama, but I don’t see any of it; it seems to me to be their delusion, an idle cherry-picking contrivance. Even Heian Japanese literature, which I find the furthest from my experience, still has a lot in common with us (its fundamental interest in sex and love affairs); it is just the extraordinary interest it has in ritual which marks it out.
But Egil’s Saga seems to me the most remote work from my experience of humanity I have ever read. It’s not so much the extreme violence of all the characters in it; but that we’re led into a world where killing people doesn’t seem to be regarded as morally reprehensible in any way. To take an example: Egil’s father, Skallagrim, when Egil is about ten, accidentally kills his Egil’s friend in a berserk rage during a football match; Egil is naturally upset, so during dinner, he takes out a knife and kills one of Skallagrim’s favourite servants in revenge; they don’t speak for a few months, but after that the whole matter is forgotten. More generally, each summer the characters in the book have to make a basic decision: whether to stay at home farming, or whether to get into their boats, sail somewhere and murder everyone they come across, burn their houses and steal all their valuables.
All this is in no way an aberration; it is the way their society is constructed from the top down. Death and violence are never far away; what land or life you hold is at the behest of someone higher in the hierarchy: Skallagrim’s followers live at the behest of Skallagrim; Skallagrim himself holds his land and his life on the whim of the king. (The basic plot is that Skallagrim and the new king don’t get on, so Skallagrim is exiled and goes off to help found the new settlement in Iceland). If you want to survive in this world, you have to maintain your position of authority – your honour, your place in society – by strength and violence. There are basically no laws – or none which can’t be broken. It’s a world of anarchy.
We would perhaps think of this as a world without civilisation; so it seems strange – since we are accustomed to see civilisation and art go hand in hand – that works of art should come out of it. The Iliad, for instance, depicts a world which is not so far removed from Egil’s Saga – there is certainly the implication in the story of the rape of Helen, of a world in which people went marauding and plundering in boats; and of course the entire work is based on the notion of honour; – but The Iliad also seems to have more of a social framework to it, there is a kind of civilisation behind it which I find absent from Egil’s Saga. But the thing is, while we like to believe that as a society we are derived from a Graeco-Romano / Christian tradition, really our society comes out of the society of Egil’s Saga (infused by the other tradition, it is true, but never overriden by it): the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, the Normans – they all came from the same area of the world as the Vikings.
The idea of honour, for instance, in Egil’s Saga, persists in a degenerate form through the European literary tradition: but where maintaining honour in Egil’s Saga is a matter of life and death; in the nineteenth century, aristocrats end up fighting duels so that they won’t be spoken about behind their backs. (I’ve just been reading Eca de Queiros’ The Maias, which has a lot about honour in it – indeed, if no one cared about their honour in it, there’d be no plot).
The other idea which may strike us as odd in Egil’s Saga is that Egil, aside from being driven by a bloodlust and constantly and brutally killing people, is also a very fine poet. Again, I’m reminded of Heian Japanese literature, where the ability to compose extempore poems is an important social attribute. Egil gets out of various scrapes by sitting down for a few hours and composing a marvellous panegyric. (My favourite character name in the book was a poet called, Auden the Uninspired).
The book may not at all times be artful: these works are essentially chronicles, embellished histories, following the fortunes of a single hero to depict a period of society. I enjoyed all the business of the Norwegians going out and settling Iceland, which runs in the background of the story. (It reminded of the great movement of peoples that exists behind the plot of The Lord of the Rings, which of course is derived from all these Northern tales).
On then to another saga.