Are you feeling that you might have seen too much of your relatives during the holiday season? Then let me recommend a bracing Icelandic saga. Reading `Egil’s Saga’ is almost certain to make you think your own family isn’t that bad after all. Take this example of Viking family life – Skallagrim loses his temper while playing a ball-game. He kills his opponent, breaking every bone in his body, and then turns on his twelve year-old son, Egil. Egil’s foster-mother  intervenes to save the boy’s life, so Skallagrim drowns her. Egil then kills his father’s favourite farm-hand in retaliation and `for the rest of the winter father and son spoke not a single word to each other, for good or ill.’  After a difficult childhood, Egil grows up to be a fascinating anti-hero. The historical Egil lived in 10th century Scandinavia but his story was written in the early 13th century, probably by the great Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, whose `Prose Edda’ has inspired so many Fantasy authors. Since I’m guessing that not all of my readers understand Old Norse, I’ll be suggesting some translations to try at the end of this review.

Egil doesn’t appear until quite late in his own saga. The early chapters describe how Egil’s family came to settle in Iceland and explain the origins of various disputes and feuds that will dominate Egil’s life. The story begins with a bad-tempered man named Kveldulf (Night-Wolf). After a youth spent as Viking raider, Kveldulf settles down in Norway and has two very different sons. Thorolf is blond, handsome and cheerful but his brother Skallagrim is dark, ugly and surly. At this period King Harald Fair-Hair is forcibly uniting all of Norway. Thorolf becomes one of Harald’s followers but Kveldulf and Skallagrim refuse to serve or trust the king. Two brothers who believe that they have been cheated out of an inheritance by Kveldulf, turn the king against Thorolf. Murder and a blood feud ensue and Kveldulf and Skallagrim emigrate to Iceland to escape the unjust rule of King Harald.

Skallagrim prospers among the independent farmers of Iceland and has two sons – another tall handsome Thorolf and big, black-haired and ugly Egil. From an early age Egil shows great promise both as a warrior and a poet. The two brothers go on Viking raids together and encounter King Harald’s heir, Eirik Bloodaxe and his sorceress wife, Gunnhild, who try several times to kill Egil. In England, the brothers serve in the army of the noble King Athelstan. When Thorolf falls in battle, Athelstan gives Egil two chests of treasure in compensation. After Egil marries his brother’s widow, he tries to claim her disputed inheritance in Norway but Eirik will not support him. The feud between Egil and the royal family of Norway grows bloodier. So when Egil is shipwrecked and forced to seek shelter at Eirik’s court, can he keep his head?

The Icelandic Sagas – there are around forty of them – have been called Europe’s earliest historical novels. They are largely based on traditional tales about historical figures, though`Egil’s Saga’ includes poems which were probably composed by the real Egil. The history may not always be reliable but the quality of the story-telling is. If you are wondering why I’m classing `Egil’s Saga’ as Fantasy rather than Historical Fiction, it’s because Egil is a magic-user and his story is set on the borderline between legend and history. Egil’s grandfather Kveldulf is rumoured to be a shape-changer descended from Trolls. Essentially, he’s a were-wolf and his son, Skallagrim, is safe enough by day but becomes strong and ferocious once the sun sets. Egil himself is represented as a man with a split-personality rather than as a shape-changing monster, though he is said to have an unnaturally large and thick skull. Raised by a foster mother who was a `great sorceress’, Egil uses magical runes to curse or to heal. In one bizarre scene he sets up a horse’s head on a pole as part of a spell to turn the guardian spirits of Norway against Eirik and Gunnhild.

I’m also recommending `Egil’s Saga’ because I think it will appeal to lovers of Heroic Fantasy – a group I’ve been neglecting lately. If you like stories which are fast-moving and full of violence and treachery, you should enjoy this saga, especially as it comes divided into bite-sized chunks which I find addictive. You will have to get through some lists of ancestors but even these are enlivened by the wonderful Scandinavian habit of identifying people with intriguing nicknames, such as Harald Grey-Cloak, Olaf the Peacock, Thora Lace-cuff, or Hallbjorn Half-Troll. In recent times there have been attempts to rebrand the Vikings as peace-loving traders and farmers rather than brutal raiders. This saga shows very clearly that the same people were all these things during the course of their lives. Egil and his relatives are part-time pirates. Sometimes they go abroad to trade or to fight as mercenaries and sometimes to raid. During a visit to what is now Latvia, Egil sums up the Viking way by urging his companions to `act the warrior’s part, kill everyone we can get at, and grab all the loot we can carry.’

Trying to work out the honour code these men live by is one of the challenges of reading `Egil’s Saga’. Slaughtering or burning whole households seems to be all right if you do it to strangers, but marrying a fellow Viking’s daughter without permission is regarded as seriously naughty. A quarrel over grazing rights can lead to neighbours killing each other’s slaves and children, while everyone seems to agree that failing to offer guests decent ale is an offence worthy of death. Yet the saga also includes many outstanding examples of selfless courage, kindness and generosity. The story may have a particular appeal to American readers, since it  has an over-arching theme of independent-minded pioneers defying increasingly tyrannical kings and settling a harsh new country where everyone is to be equal (except for the slaves). `Egil’s Saga’ was actually written at a time when the rulers of Norway were exerting their authority over Iceland, so the saga looks back to a golden age of freedom and independence. The author was honest enough to depict this golden age as far from peaceful. The two Thorolfs are ideal Viking heroes –  brave, noble and generous – but they die young and tragically. It is the `dark’ members of Kveldulf’s family, such as Skallagrim and Egil, who survive and prosper through cunning and ruthlessness.

The best thing about `Egil’s Saga’ is the complex character of Egil himself. He’s more serial-killer than warrior. He commits his first murder when he is six years old and his last when he is eighty. He is often morose and always prone to drink too much. He never forgives an enemy or an insult and he’s greedy for land and wealth. Remember those chests of treasure Egil was given in England? He’s as determined as any pirate never to share his treasure with anyone, which gives a final dark twist to his tale. Yet Egil is also shown to be a learned man and a great poet. He is a bashful lover, a devoted father and a man who will do anything to help his friends. When Egil visits a new place, you are never sure whether he is going to massacre his hosts or end up swearing eternal friendship with them. His unpredictability makes his saga an exciting read.

There have been two English translations of `Egil’s Saga’ published in the Penguin Classics series. The earlier one by H.Palsson and P.Edwards (1976) is still easy to find in paperback. The more recent version by B.Scudder (2005) is also available as an ebook. Alternatively, you could download a much older translation (1893) for free from the Icelandic Saga Database or listen to this being read out by an `Icelandic bookworm’ (The Saga Project). These are both the sort of websites which restore my faith in the Internet. I’ll be back in a few weeks time, after a trip to Malta. In the meantime, I wish everyone a Happy New Year and look out for an ebook based on this blog in 2015.