Friday, May 4, 2012
Ancient Viking Pulp: Egil's Saga
Egil's Saga is not a pulp novel. But it is chock-full of the sort of adventures that would have inspired plenty of pulp writing. I can imagine H. Bedford-Jones reading Egil's Saga with an eye turned toward writing a serial about Viking raiders for Argosy or Blue Book. Though the author of this saga is unknown, it is commonly attributed to Snorri Sturluson -- author of Heimskringla and the Prose Edda -- and thought to have been written around the year 1230. It is basically an epic novel of medieval Iceland and Norway. It opens in Norway at the time King Harald Fine-Hair is uniting the country by killing his rivals or running them out of the country. Egil's grandfather, Kveldulf -- who is likely a werewolf and whose name means "Evening Wolf" -- is a wild and woolly raider who refuses to bend his knee to Harald. This act of rather passive rebellion has repercussions for the next several generations. When Egil enters the story, it's clear that he's a chip off the old Viking shield. He commits his first murders at age six, and the pillaging and plundering and axe-swinging are underway with a vengeance. Egil has inherited Kveldulf's dark side -- he is a deadly warrior, he may be a sorcerer, he's short-tempered, is loyal to his friends, and vicious to his enemies. Oh, and he's a poet. Roughly covering the years 858 to 990, the saga follows Egil's adventures until his old age and death. Living in his son's house, Egil's last act is to hide two chests of treasure before killing the two slaves who helped him. Then, Egil dies. Later, his bones are found after the church holding them is demolished: "Skapti Thorarinsson the Priest, a man of great intelligence, was there at the time. He picked up Egil's skull and placed it on the fence of the churchyard. The skull was an exceptionally large one and its weight was even more remarkable. It was ridged all over like a scallop shell, and Skapti wanted to find out just how thick it was, so he picked up a heavy axe, swung it in one hand and struck as hard as he was able with the reverse side of the axe, trying to break the skull. But the skull neither broke nor dented on impact, it simply turned white, and from that anybody could guess that the skull wouldn't be easily cracked by small fry while it still had skin and flesh on it." Well, meeting a priest who treats the dead with that sort of respect gives you an idea of the sort of toughness running through the folks who fill these pages. The understated style and the fast pace of the narrative swings the reader along swiftly from one blood feud to another, from the conquest of pre-Christian Norway by King Harald to the discovery and settling of Iceland. It's a look at the pulp fiction from another world, not so different from a thrilling historical adventure a reader might find in Adventure or Blue Book. NOTES: Egil's Saga is available in a Penguin edition from Amazon. Click here for more information.
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