Every time I drive by the gas stations and supermarkets along Route 1 as it passes through Borgarnes, I’m reminded of the stark disjunction between the town’s substantial medieval inheritance and the prosaic reality of modern day life there. Although Borgarnes was only founded in the late nineteenth century, the region that comprises the modern day municipality claims a rich history stretching back to the first days of human habitation in Iceland. According to Egils Saga, Skallagrímr Kveldúlfsson, the father of the eponymous warrior-poet hero, fled the draconian clutches of the Norwegian monarchy in the late ninth century and established the settlement of Borg—on the edge of the modern day city limits—which remained an important seat of authority throughout the Middle Ages.
It is here that Egill Skallagrímsson spends his precocious youth, before embarking on a series of adventures abroad; it is here that he bickers with his father and raises his family; and it is here, after the tragic deaths of his sons, that he composes Sonatorrek, his most famous and poignant elegy.
Modern Borgarnes vs Saga Borgarnes
Perhaps no other Icelandic town can claim such an abundant medieval inheritance: important sites from other sagas mostly lie well beyond the boundaries of modern day towns. Egils Saga, by contrast, details events that occur in recognisable features of the landscape in Borgarnes. However, no medieval remnants bear witness to this lofty past: a drab expanse of mini-malls, gas stations, and apartment blocks comprises the modern hub of Borgarnes, speaking more to the quotidian concerns of contemporary life than to the heroic deeds of its medieval inhabitants.
Yet the memory of Egils Saga is hardly absent from Borgarnes. On the contrary, it is impossible to visit Borgarnes and not encounter Egill: the very streets take their names from the saga’s characters, and several cairns indicate the locations of significant events. In Skallagrímsgarður, a public park in the town’s old centre, a reconstructed burial mound purports to mark the site where Egill interred his father and, years later, his sons. Beside the mound, a relief portrays Egill on horseback, delivering the drowned body of his favourite son, Böðvarr, to this very location.
In front of the modern day settlement at Borg, an abstract sculpture by Ásmundur Sveinsson memorialises Egill’s reaction to the loss of his sons: intent on starving himself to death, he nevertheless accepts the suggestion of his daughter Þorgerðr to seek solace in poetry. In the resulting elegy, Sonatorrek, Egill inveighs against the sea gods Ægir and Rán for their complicity in Böðvarr’s death. In the sculpture, which takes its name from the poem, Þorgerðr thrusts a harp into his hands; a round cavity between father and daughter frames the ocean—the agent of Böðvarr’s death and the object of Egill’s rage.
Read together, these monuments and markers are less concerned with Egill’s heroic stature than they are with his interior, emotional life. Much of Egils Saga recounts Egill’s swashbuckling exploits abroad: he single-handedly secures a military victory for the English King Athelstan, outwits the malevolent sorcery of the Norwegian Queen Gunnhildr, and composes a paean for King Eiríkr Bloodaxe that convinces the monarch to spare his life. His affairs in Iceland, by contrast, are remarkably mundane: he assumes stewardship of the farm at Borg, grapples with family tragedies, and becomes a lewd dotard in his old age. It is this latter Egill that we encounter in Borgarnes: a legendary hero who is nevertheless astonishingly human, even familiar. The seeming disjunction between an epic past and prosaic present instead reveals the continuity of human experience, the tedium and tragedy of everyday life. Suddenly, it’s easy to imagine Egill sipping bottomless coffee in a gas station, scrawling mournful lines for his dead sons.