Column: Sonatorrek

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In a matter of weeks, I will be getting on a plane to England. It is a part of my good fortune that I occasionally get to go searching for my ghosts; in this case, I will be looking for the ashes of one of my dead forbears, Deryck Alldriht, who founded what would become my coven and then promptly disappeared from the lives of everyone who knew him in America. I don’t know what I will find once I start digging.[1] I hope to learn something more of who Deryck was – what led him into the Craft, to America, to his grave – but I could just as easily find myself staring at an anonymous graveyard in a few weeks as ignorant as before. This is a problem with quests, and questions: we never really know where they end.

As I prepare for this new spectral investigation, I think back to Iceland, two years ago now, the last time I went hunting for the dead who have shaped my faith: in that case, Egill Skallagrimsson, a far older shade than Deryck Alldriht.

This is a dream, or a memory, or a dream of a memory.

Sonatorrek, Ásmundur Sveinsson, Borg á Mýrum, Iceland. This monument, named for Egill Skallagrímsson's poem, stands on Egill's farm. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Sonatorrek, Ásmundur Sveinsson, Borg á Mýrum, Iceland. This monument, named for Egill Skallagrímsson’s poem, stands on Egill’s farm. [Photo Credit: E. Scott.]

My tongue is sluggish for me to move,

my poem’s scales ponderous to raise.

The god’s prize is beyond my grasp,

tough to drag out from my mind’s haunts.[2]

I can hear Egill digging. His spade sounds like Seamus Heaney’s grandfather’s spade, the one that cut turf on Toner’s Bog: that clean, rasping sound. I hear him clear his throat. He is an old man, and his body is starting to fail him. Soon he will have to leave his home, going away to his daughter’s house at Mosfell. But today, at least, he is digging, planting what little will grow in Iceland. His sons are off watching the sheep. His wife is spinning the wool that is the lifeblood of Iceland. The sun catches the gleaming edge of his spade, and it makes him think of the gleam of a silver coin, one of the thousands he keeps hidden in two big chests. He would be one of the richest men in Iceland if he ever brought it out from his hiding place, which he never will.

Egill is dead, and has been for a thousand years. But I hear him, all the same.

The place where we stand, Egill and I, is called Borg. Egill’s father, Skalla-Grím, settled it when men first came to Iceland; he built the farm where his dead father’s casket washed ashore. There isn’t much here: a church and a house for its priest, a graveyard, and a monument. Both the church and the house have red tin roofs; neither building is especially old, and I do not take the time to look at them very closely. Nor do I have much to say about the graveyard; it is pretty, green, and in places overgrown. My Icelandic is not good enough to read most of the tombstones.

The only tombstone I find notable is a block of stone about the width of an American lightpole, which has a name inscribed in runic characters. The guide tells us that the stone is for Kjartan Ólafsson, one of Egill’s grandsons. I know his story – I had read it only a few months before. Kjartan had been in love with a woman named Guðrún, but he went off adventuring and would not take her with him. Kjartan’s best friend, Bolli, married Guðrún instead, and this led to a bitter feud. Bolli killed Kjartan, but Bolli held him as he died, realizing the tragedy of what he had done. Eventually Bolli himself was killed by Kjartan’s brothers, who were then killed by Bolli and Guðrún’s son. The sagas often go like that. They are tragedies of errors that begin with one small mistake – a poor marriage, or an argument over whose sheep get to graze on a given patch of earth – and end only when so many are dead that vengeance no longer seems practical.

Since heavy sobbing is the cause –

how hard to pour forth from the mind’s root

the prize that Frigg’s progeny found,

borne of old  from the world of giants,

unflawed, which Bragi inspired with life

on the craft of the watcher-dwarf.

Blood surges from the giant’s wounded neck,

crashes on the death-dwarf’s boathouse door.

Egill is singing to himself as he works. He is an old hand at poetry; he comes up with new verses the way other people come up with simple sentences. He is an old devotee of Óðinn, and skilled in all the things that Óðinn represents: verse, magic, love-making, warfare. This is a man who once conducted a bloody feud of his own against the king of Norway himself, Eirik Bloodaxe. He has traveled everywhere a man from the Northlands could travel, fighting and raiding, repaying insults with blood and aid with a peculiar loyalty. He would have been the perfect Viking hero, if only he hadn’t grown old.

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.

Egill’s curse is that he lives. His brother had died as a young man; his brother, who had better composure, better manners, who was handsome, tall, and strong, unlike Egill, who is dark, ugly, has a skull as thick as a troll’s. His brother died; Egill lives to see old age, to become blind and infirm, to become beholden to the serving-women who take care of him. He lives to bury his sons.

I cannot hold my head upright,

the ground of my face, my thoughts’ steed

ever since the raging surf of heat

snatched from the world that son of mine

whom I knew to shun disgrace,

avoid words of ill repute.

I remember still when the Gauts’ friend

raised high to the gods’ world

the ash that grew from my stock,

the tree bearing my wife’s kin.

The song he is singing is called Sonatorrek – “On the Loss of My Sons.” His son Bodvar had gone out to sea and drowned in a storm. Egill had gone out to collect the body and laid it in the family tomb; then he shut himself in his room and waited to die. His daughter convinced him to live long enough to write a poem in memory of his fallen child. This is the song he is singing now.

I was in league with the lord of spears,

pledged myself loyal to believe in him,

before he broke off his friendship with me,

the guardian of chariots, the architect of victory.

I do not worship Villir’s brother,

guardian of the gods, through my own longing,

though in good ways too the friend of wisdom

has granted me redress for affliction.

A chill runs through me as I listen to his ancient poem, for I too have thrown my lot in with the Lord of Spears, and I wonder if one day I will have the same lament. Egill asks Óðinn the question we all ask in our moments of pain: My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me? And like all of us, he gets no answer.

We are standing in the wet grass of the meadow. Black stone pavement leads to the highway behind us, but before us is the sea. I don’t know how to describe this feeling, this opposite of otherworldliness. Egill is not nearly so sentimental. This land provides too little food to stand around philosophizing on a summer’s day. Save it for cold winter nights, huddled around the hearth. Egill knows he does not have many winters left.

Now my course is tough:

Death, close sister of Óðinn‘s enemy, stands on the ness:

with resolution and without remorse

I will gladly await my own.

Egill reaches the end of his chant. I want to stay here with him forever, staring out into the mist and the sea. But the tour bus is leaving, and we have many stops yet. He nods to me as I walk past, and then stoops low again, sinking his spade into the earth.

[1] That’s only a metaphor. Probably.
[2] All of the stanzas of Sonatorrek quoted here are from Bernard Scudder’s translation of Egils saga in The Sagas of Icelanders, Viking-Penguin, 1997.