White Heroes and Dark Heroes

Egil Skallagrimsson (d. A.D. 990)

Egil Skallagrimsson (d. A.D. 990)

As my need to escape the horrors of tax season grows apace, I am increasingly burying myself in the world of medieval Icelandic sagas. A few days ago, one of my favorite writers for The Iceland Review, Jóhannes Benediktsson, wrote the following in the “Daily Life” column:

I was taught in junior college, that there were two types of heroes in the Icelandic Sagas: White heroes and dark heroes. Mickey Mouse is an example of a white hero. Donald Duck is very dark.

In Njáls Saga, we have a good example of a white hero: Gunnar of Hlíðarendi.

Gunnar is described as being close to perfect. He’s exceptionally athletic and breathtakingly good looking. He’s an honorable man and very popular. Seemingly to me, he has only one flaw: He’s a bit shallow—a common trait found in people that go through life without experiencing any real adversity.

Skarphéðinn Njálsson is a dark hero from Njáls Saga. Like Gunnar, he’s very strong. But his appearance is not as light. His mood is heavy and he often grins when he hears about warfare that may be brewing.

Another good example of a dark hero is Egill Skallagrímsson, from The Saga of Egill. He’s described as being very ugly, but stronger than most men. He’s greedy and can be unfair. Some of his most heroic moments happened when he was the sole witness.  I think that is no coincidence.

These guys are not flawless. They are very complicated and have some serious issues. I have no idea what they’ll do next, and that makes me very excited.

Last night I just finished reading what Jóhannes calls The Saga of Egill, and which British and American publishers call Egil’s Saga. Over a space of about 250 pages, we see him carrying on a brutal war of vengeance against everyone he feels done him wrong, including two Norwegian kings, Harald Fine-Hair and Eirik Blood-Axe.

At the same time he was a redoubtable warrior, Egil Skallagrimsson was also a poet of some distinction, and he went back and forth between composing poems and planting axes in the heads and bodies of his enemies.

Jesse L. Byock, perhaps one of the world’s greatest scholars of Icelandic history during the saga era, wrote an article for The Scientific American in January 1995 about his personal search for Egil’s bones. It appears that Egil may have suffered from an ailment known as Paget’s disease, which may be partly responsible for his fearsome appearance. If you’re interested in the sagas, you should read Byock’s article. And, while you’re at it, you may want to hunt up a copy of his book Viking Age Iceland.