On a calm, clear evening the sunset at Borgarnes campsite is spectacular.  There is a clear view to the west, and the sun sets over the shore of the fjord, lighting up the tide-washed mud of the inlet.  Here, so goes the story, the coffin of Kveldulf washed ashore sometime in the late ninth century after the old man died on the voyage from Norway.  Usually when they were approaching Iceland the settlers would throw overboard the ‘high seat pillars’ from their hall back in Norway, and found a new farm wherever they washed up.  Kveldulf was a darker character altogether; he gave instructions that his son should set up a farm where his coffin came ashore.  And that was in this bay, by which I was going to camp after my day on Esja and around Hvalfjörður.

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

A short time after the sun had set, a tremendous full moon rose above the mountains across the fjord to the southeast (Borgarnes lies on a peninsula that juts into Borgarfjörður from the northeast).  This seemed somehow fitting, for as anyone familiar with the Scandinavian languages will have noticed, Kveldulf means ‘Evening Wolf’.  Shape-shifting was generally looked down on by the saga writers, and Kveldulf’s werewolf reputation is little more than hinted at.  But he certainly was a berserk, and the two things often went together.  Friendly and hardworking in the mornings, he had a reputation for becoming increasingly difficult and even violent as night approached.



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His son Skallagrim (Bald Grim!) inherited much of his father’s character, but was generally able to keep it under control.  Occasionally it would break out, as on one occasion at a local gathering, again near the campsite at the northern end of the peninsula.  Skallagrim was competing in a game against his twelve-year old son Egil, and Egil’s older friend, and he seemed to be losing.  However, as evening came on he was filled with a tremendous strength; he grabbed Egil’s friend and dashed him to the ground so hard that he died instantly.  Egil would have suffered the same fate, but his childhood nurse Brak shouted at Skallagrim, shaming him with his bestial lack of control.  Skallagrim turned on her instead, chasing her the length of the peninsula, and then hurling a great rock to drown her as she tried to swim to safety on an island just offshore.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim's least worthy killing; the cairn reads 'Here Skallagrim drowned Brák'.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim’s least worthy killing; the cairn reads ‘Here Skallagrim drowned Brák’.

That evening the twelve-year-old Egil walked into their hall with an axe and drove it into the skull of Skallagrim’s foreman and favourite servant.  Then he sat down and they ate as if nothing had happened; but father and son didn’t speak to each other all winter.  As you may have realised, Egil was not your average child.  He had already committed his first killing aged six following a playground squabble.  Amusingly, his mother didn’t even scold him for this first killing, instead proclaiming proudly that he had the makings of a great Viking.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil's farm.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm.

Egil certainly was a terrific Viking, and won great renown and wealth fighting for Athelstan of England at the battle of Brunanburh.  However, at the site of his home, just outside Borgarnes, it is not as a warrior, but as a poet that he is remembered.  An abstract statue in front of the church there recalls a poem Egil wrote following the drowning of one of his sons, a short time after the death of another.  It is a long poem, but I will quote a few verses:

My stock
stands on the brink,
pounded as plane trees
on the forest’s rim,
no man is glad
who carries the bones
of his dead kinsman
out of the bed.

The sea-goddess
has ruffled me,
stripped me bare
of my loved ones:
the ocean severed
my family’s bonds,
the tight knot
that ties me down.

Now my course is tough:
Death, close sister
of Odin’s enemy
stands on the ness:
with resolution
and without remorse
I shall gladly
await my own.

Egil and Bodvar

Egil and Bodvar

The poem and the story behind its composition reveal great sensitivity and deep anguish.  These seem quite at odds with his tough exterior, but this contrast is just what makes Egil real to me; people’s characters are often contradictory.  It is the warrior who is not capable of sadness or ‘poetry’ that is frightening and unnatural to us today, and the sagas seem to suggest that the Vikings felt the same way.  The greatest warriors in the sagas are poets like Bjorn of Hitardal, or are afraid of the dark like Grettir and Gisli, or in Gunnar of Hliðarendi’s case suffer confusion because they feel guilt at killing, though society tells them this is unmanly.  The few characters who are simply the psychopathic killing machines we tend to imagine when we think of the Vikings are eventually shunned even by their closest friends and relatives.

A moment of sun at the campsite; Borg in the distance

A moment of sunshine at the campsite; Borg in the distance, where the church stands today.

After visiting Borg in the rain the next morning, the site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm below the rocky outcrop in the marshland that is the ‘borg’ (fortress), I headed back into Borgarnes.  I swam in the almost empty swimming pool, where gratuitous use of the water slides, steam bath, and hot pools counteracted the rain that continued to fall throughout.  Clean, warm, and briefly dry, I returned to the main street through a park where I came across the burial mound of Skallagrim, in which Egil also buried his son Bodvar.  A bronze cast in relief beside the cairn showed the devastated Egil carrying Bodvar’s limp body, and again I reflected that it is this moment of vulnerability in Egil’s life that we are most drawn to today.  And if reading it now moves us, it can only be because it moved the medieval Icelanders who told and wrote the stories about Egil.  Read it, and the emotion you feel connects you directly to those people and that time; and inevitably we realise that we are those same people.

Skallagrim's burial mound

Skallagrim’s burial mound