Published August 7, 2018
You would be forgiven for assuming, upon visiting Borgarnes, that the elegant modern monument atop a hill in the town’s old centre commemorates some crucial figure or moment from local history. Carved in stone, the sculpture takes the shape of a ram’s horn, with stylised strips of cloth drawn up against its curve and extending on either side like wings—as if the entire sculpture were about to take flight across the broad mouth of Borgarfjörður and nest among the imposing mountains across the bay.
Sculpted in 1997 by Bjarni Þór Bjarnason, the monument depicts a medieval tool known as a “brák,” used to soften animal hides and often cited as the source of a nickname borne by Þorgerðr Brák, the foster-nurse of Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the most memorable heroes of the Icelandic sagas. Þorgerðr, ‘Egils Saga’ tells us, is an Irish slave, versed in magic, who looks after the precocious hero in his youth. However, no sooner does the saga introduce her, than it recounts the tragic circumstances of her death here in Brákarsund, the narrow strait that bears her name. In this saga of epic proportions, spanning oceans and generations, Þorgerðr’s role seems conspicuously trivial to merit this memorial; and yet, perhaps it is this semblance of insignificance that the sculpture invites us to question.
The relevant episode goes something like this: young Egill and his close friend Þórðr Granason challenge Skallagrímr, Egill’s sexagenarian father, to a match of a proto-hockey ball-game at Sandvík, a small bay within Borgarnes’ city limits. The two kiddos prove worthy competitors against the old man, besting him over the course of the afternoon; but as night sets in, Skallagrímr, endowed with the superhuman strength of a berserkr warrior, improves his game. The berserkr-fit completely overcomes him and, without warning, he smashes Þórðr against the ice, killing him on the spot.
Skallagrímr then seizes Egill, about to deliver his own son the same fate, when Þórgerðr—watching from the side-lines—confronts him, attempting to snap him out of the frenzy. Her intervention, however, simply redirects his rage: he pursues her, running almost the entire length of the modern-day town towards the tip of the peninsula.
Cornered, Þorgerðr plunges into the ocean, attempting to swim to the small island that now houses Borgarnes’ harbour. Skallagrímr, still tripping on fury, hurls a massive boulder that lands between her shoulders, and, as the saga says, neither the boulder nor Þorgerðr ever came back up.
Although vivid and riveting, this anecdote, in the broader context of the saga, serves more as an illustration of the souring relationship between Egill and Skallagrímr than as a poignant vignette of a background character.
Or does it? The Icelandic sagas are chock-full of minor characters, often introduced with a surfeit of genealogical context only to be written out of the narrative a page later. There are even generic formulae by which saga-authors signal a character’s eventual irrelevance: ‘And now so-and-so is out of the saga’—a medieval Icelandic prefiguring of RuPaul’s ‘Sashay away,’ if you will.
But if we’ve learned anything from Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, we know that screen-time need not correlate with iconicity or importance (straight people, please just google it). Þorgerðr, after all, saves Egill’s life. As Jesus died for humanity’s salvation, or Miss Vanjie succumbed to a premature elimination so that we could all delight in Mother Ru’s uncharacteristic smothered laughter, Þorgerðr sacrifices herself to allow teenage Egill to proceed to the next episode in his saga.
Þorgerðr for Season 11
Facile pop-culture comparisons aside, the monument to Þorgerðr forces us to question assumptions about the perceived importance or insignificance of literary characters. Þorgerðr’s indubitably heroic actions impact the course of ‘Egils saga,’ but does that make her a hero of the story or a simple plot device? Dealing with semi-historical material such as the sagas, however, the question is perhaps not just an exercise in literary postulation.
If there is even a kernel of historical precedent for Þorgerðr and her death, it seems uncontroversial—imperative, even—to memorialise her valour and sacrifice: the question of literary significance itself becomes inconsequential. The question of whether Þorgerðr will resurface from the depths of Brákarsund to make an appearance alongside Miss Vanjie in Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, must be left to the Reddit theorists.