Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Egils Saga and Empathy: Emotions and Moral Issues in a Dysfunctional Saga Family

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Egils Saga and Empathy: Emotions and Moral Issues in a Dysfunctional Saga Family

Article excerpt


THIS MAY WELL be the unhappiest home in Iceland. With two dominating characters, both men, one in his late fifties, the other on the brink of adolescence, both extremely large, their behavior extravagant, other members of the household must be overwhelmed by this psychological dictatorship. The two men are not speaking to each other. Their silence is neither good nor meaningless and harmless. It is, in fact, pregnant with ill feelings and fueled by the cruel and senseless crimes that each has perpetuated against the other. The mother of the house is absent, we do not know why. No one else has the social status or the strenght of character to mediate between the two; these extras hardly even matter. Then, enters this miserable house a happy, vibrant, handsome, buoyant, young man. He has been travelling in the world, has befriended princes and enjoyed a brilliant social life among the aristocrats and most capable men of the age. His old family home in rural Iceland would perhaps seem claustrophobic, even if it were filled with mirth and laughter. It most assuredly is not.

The Sagas of Icelanders, composed in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and perhaps some in the fifteenth century, are psychological dramas. This trait has been long acknowledged, and yet there are surprisingly few recent scholarly analyses of characters, emotions, and personal relationships in the sagas (with notable exceptions: Miller, Hoyersten, and Poole). That situation may well be partially explained by the fact that saga scholars are typically trained in philology, language, and history, but not, for example, in psychology. One might even sometimes get the feeling that a majority of philologists regard such concerns as too "modern" and perhaps slightly frivolous, but the situation may also have a mundane explanation. Although Freud is separated from Grimm and Rask by a mere seventy years, these years were formative for the the development of humanistic scholarship. Psychology, thus, remains the new, trendy, and slightly suspect cousin of philology. Trained in philology myself, I understand the wariness. However, not analyzing the personal relationships in the Sagas of Icelanders is doing them a disservice since they are very much dramas of character. Character depiction is a vital component of the art of the sagas and one of the reasons they are still read and enjoyed. Whenever the sagas are taught at university level, one of the first questions with which the student reader wrestles pertains to the characters in the sagas. Psychology is, thus, an area of serious scholarship that should not be abandoned. And one of my aims in this experimental article is to try to say something serious about character depiction in a well-known saga.

Egils saga is one of the longest of the sagas encompassing the long life of Egill Skalla-Grimsson--chieftain, warrior, and poet--and his biography is preceded by a long narrative about the previous generation of his family, his father Skalla-Grimr and his brother. (1) I will mostly concern myself with one of about ninety chapters--i.e. chapter 40--which takes place during Egill's childhood at Borg, (2) I believe that not only psychological readings, but also close readings of the sagas, which take relatively small narratives segment and pay close attention to detail, are far too few and far-between (although there are some significant exceptions, see Cook). This focalization is in my opinion justified by the fact, which should be plain at the end of this article, that this earlier chapter just described along with chapter 78 in which Egill, late in his life, mourns for his two sons are essential to any study of the family relationships in the saga and the emotional life of Egill Skalla-Grimsson.


Chapter 40 of Egils saga consists of two linked narratives, accounts of Egill's assassinations. The first--when he is seven years old involves his killing of a slightly older boy, Grim Heggsson, after having been treated roughly in a game. …

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