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  • Verbal Expedients and Transformative Utterances in Episodes of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar
  • William Sayers

Two recent studies have addressed intriguing episodes in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar that may be paired in a further consideration of how, in the early Northern world, performative utterances could both appear to reflect an objective reality but actually propose an alternative subjective view, and concurrently translate communal mental constructs into verbal art. In doing so, such performative utterances refashion the very literary topoi that are their media of representation in saga narrative. This essay explores the common features of these two otherwise unrelated incidents in the saga with the objective of illustrating the great importance attached to public speech in the early Norse world and its purposeful deployment in saga narrative, while also exploring their likely sources.

In an essay entitled “Hamhleypa-Skaldik als Verwandlungskunst: Zur ‘Hǫfuðlausn’—Episode in der ‘Egils saga Skallagrímssonar,’” Phillip Theisohn scrutinizes the night scene with the twittering swallow that impedes Egill’s concentration on the eulogy for Eiríkr blóðöx Haraldsson that he hopes will save his head the next day.1 In the absence of any explicit explanation in the saga, scholarship has generally understood the disturbance to have been caused by Eiríkr’s queen, Gunnhildr (or her emissary), seen by Arinbjǫrn slinking away from the building after [End Page 159] shifting out of avian shape, but Theisohn identifies the nocturnal visitor as the god of poetry, Óðinn, who, at this critical point in a saga so concerned with poetic creation, has come to inspire his devotee at a life-threatening moment.

In “Caoilte in Iceland: Gaelic Folklore in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar,” Michael Chesnutt examines an episode late in Egils saga, in which a neighbor, Steinarr, contests grazing rights with Þorsteinn, while their respective fathers, Ǫnundr sjóni and Egill, for the time being remain in the background. Slaves and servants have been killed, and retribution is expected. Þorsteinn has a fleet-footed freedman shepherd, Íri (“Irishman”), for whom Chesnutt finds analogues in a number of Norse sagas and the kings’ histories. He judges the motif to be clear proof of Gaelic-Norse cultural connections (Chesnutt 2012). Yet, these connections are evident in another, unremarked way, in the paradigm created by the ingenuous scout Íri, his more knowledgeable master Þorsteinn, and the audience of the latter’s men.

Although it will not be the last word said about either of these episodes, this essay will explore possible alternative sources for the textual passages as we have them. One can be readily enough entertained: the scene with the scout and his master is a neat inversion of the watchman motif often met in medieval Irish literature and reflected in other Icelandic sagas in remarkably faithful form. It is as if the freed Irish slave had brought some of his cultural baggage to Iceland. The other proposal is considerably more radical: the scene with the swallow at the opening in the gable of the loft is a univalent and literalizing rendering of a lost poem on the specific circumstances surrounding the momentous composition of the “Hǫfuðlausn” (Head-Ransom) poem. The essay begins with this latter, bolder speculation.

As a consequence of Gunnhildr’s magic, which has drawn him back to Britain, Egill comes ashore near York after a stormy crossing, judges it useless to try to evade discovery, and seeks out his ally Arinbjǫrn in his quarters in the city.2 They determine to go before the king and plead for Egill’s life. The king agrees to suspend judgment until the next day when Egill is to present the king with a poem, which in reality forces him to craft a flattering eulogy during the nocturnal hours.3 [End Page 160] This he undertakes to do in a loft in the building where Arinbjǫrn is housed, despite some reluctance: “Freista skal ek þessa ráðs, er þú vill, en ekki hefi ek við því búizt at yrkja lof um Eirík konung” (Sigurður Nordal 1933, 182) [I will try this advice, as you wish, but never was I prepared for composing eulogies about King Eiríkr].4 After...


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