Egil’s is at once the most aristocratic in spirit, the most pagan, and the most perfect as a work of art. That is as much to say that it is…the most typically Icelandic.
The opening lines of Eddison’s introduction to his translation of Egil’s Saga set out the essential characteristics of the Icelandic saga. The sagas were written in the 12th and 13th centuries in Old Norse and are prose tellings about real historical figures and events from 10th century Iceland. Eddison’s translation is aimed at the average reader but is framed by a scholarly introduction to the genre and a wealth of interesting endnotes explaining the culture, history and practices of 10th century Iceland.
The saga tells of the creation of the first settlements in Iceland by Norwegian warriors escaping the overlordship of King Harald Hairfair, who sought to impose his rule over all the independent lords in Norway. Kveldulf and his son, Skallagrim, were the first ‘exiles’ to reach Iceland and the feud between their family and that of King Harald is played out by the eponymous Egil Skallagrimson. Slights and misunderstandings fan the flames of the feud, leading to hostilities, retaliation and vengeance.
Before Eddison’s translation was published in 1930, the saga had only been available in a translation, described by Eddison as ‘being so bad as to be unreadable’. He thought that the saga ‘perhaps the finest of all except Njal’ deserved better, and that Egil Skallagrimson, the ‘most typical of the true viking spirit’, should be brought to a wider audience.
The syntax and vocabulary are deliberately archaic in order to maintain the style of the Icelandic. To the modern reader this gives the prose a stilted air: a difficulty which Eddison acknowledged in his essay on the principles of translation, ‘The strong and bare simplicity of the saga…makes it hard on first acquaintance to grasp its essential quality’. Eddison reasoned that even to a modern Icelander the language of the sagas was archaic but that it was necessary to preserve a ‘simplicity of speech’ in a modern translation – the end result being ‘truth to the original’.