The Saga of Grettir the Strong and Egil's Saga tell us much about the life in Scandinavia at the time and about the culture that produced these works. In this regard, they are similar to other epics and sagas which convey information about the life of the past, from the Homeric epics through Virgil, Beowulf, El Cid, and many others. The plots might emphasize heroic actions and great battles, but at a more basic level, the sagas tell us how the people lived, how they related to the world, and what they thought about the world in which they lived.
The characters in the Icelandic saga Egil's Saga live in a brutish world where they have to fight almost contantly to live and protect themselves and their kin. The rules of conscience such as we know them today do not apply to characters such as Egil, who commits his first murder when he is six years old and who us noted and honored for the ruthlessness with which he conducts his affairs. The values of the Vikings have to do with a sense of honor, with the maintenance of order within a kingdom if not between kingdoms, with the continuation of a hierarchy, and with the all-embracing need to further the interests of society in terms of security and the economy. These values applied in an environment of violence, plunder, and the destruction of enemies, and these values can be seen as reflective of the world which formed them.
Egil's story includes a number of related stories which describe much about Viking life. The Vikings were settlers and conquerors, and the process is apparent in the story of Egil Skallagrim. He first explored the region of Borgarfjord and then laid claim to a huge area, selecting for himself a certain area of farmland where the coffin of his dead father had been washed ashore after he threw it overboard as an omen. He parcelled out the rest of the area to various kinsmen and dependents who had sailed with him from Norway so they could create their own farmsteads. This sort of land was always freehold, with no question of tenancy or feudal dues. In the beginning, the settlers would live by foraging, and eventually they would live by their sheep and cattle. It is apparent that the people were highly dependent on the abilities and largess of the ruler, and much of the code of conduct that evolved was related to this fact.
In this world, the outsider was the enemy, and a degree of brutality and ruthlessness was necessary to maintain order and to achieve success in acquiring land and riches for the benefit of the leader and his people. Warfare required swift and authoritative decisions, and command in time of threat was the function of the leaders, whose wartime authority necessarily spilled over into times of peace as well.
This was an egalitarian society to the degree that it was possible for a man to rise from the lower ranks to the higher through force of arms, and the son of a king had to prove himself just as would any other contender. The actions undertaken by the different leaders in Egil's Saga relate to this belief in force of arms. The competitive spirit is evident throughout this book, as the dedication to contests on the part of Skallagrim shows:
Skallagrim took great pleasure in trials of strength and competitive sports, and always enjoyed talking about them. Ball-games were a common sport in those days and there were plenty of strong men about, though none proved more powerful than Skallagrim. But he was beginning to grow old (Egil's Saga 93).
In the world of the Vikings, stability was only as manageable as the power of the leader in a region could make it. The prime ambition of the individual was to increase the fortune and fame of his family, and a man's first duty was to defend the family honor against the greed and affronts of others. The honor of the family might be challenged at any time over any pretext -- the size of a dowry, the theft of a sheep, the rights to a stranded whale. A challenge demanded satisfaction, and this led to blood feuds that were part of the normal pattern of the Norseman's life. Egil's Saga consists of a large number of such feuds, often with the participation of the ruler. Sometimes the reason for these feuds would be something of importance, as when Egil kills Berg-Onund:
When Harald Fine-Hair was getting on in years, he appointed King Eirik overlord of all his other sons, and when Harald had ruled for seventy years he handed over all his power to his son, King Eirik... After he died there was bitter feuding between his sons, since the men of Oslofjord took Olaf as their king while the men of Trondlang chose Sigurd (Egil's Saga 142).
In other instances, the causes are more trivial:
Eyvind and Thorvald had one horn, Alf and Thorfinn the other. As the evening wore on, they began to cheat over their drinks, then they started squabbling and finally there was a slanging-match. Suddenly Eyvind jumped up, pulled out his short-sword and made such a thrust with it that he gave Thorvald a gaping death-wound (Egil's Saga 114).
In both cases, the feud seems to have as much value as a means of entertainment as it does to settle issues, and the two sides involved are always clearly trying to prove their power and ability in order to rule, whether such rule be a nation or a small area of land.
The moral sense that develops in such a world is based very much on strength and force rather than on any moral precepts or "rules" as such. Indeed, as the era is depicted in the sagas, it would seem that proving one's strength and superiority was a full-time task. This is true in The Saga of Grettir the Strong as well. The hero of this saga is not a king but a warrior renowned for his strength. He is a flawed hero in any case, and he is governed by a fear of the dark which developed after his fight with Glam. His life is not perfect, either, for his father has no regard for him and he finds a friend only in his mother.
Much of the opening to the story involves setting the whole tale in Viking history, and the importance of history and family in this society is apparent as Grettir is introduced in the third chapter with a litany of relationships that set him in a place in society just as the history places his tale in juxtaposition with other events:
There was a man named Ofeig, nicknamed Grettir. He was the son of Einar, the son of Olvir the Babyman. He was a brother of Oleif the Broad, the father of Thormod Shaft. Another son of Olvir was named Steinolf, the father of Una, whom Thorbjorn the Salmon-man married. A third son of Olvir was Steinmod, who was the father of Konal, the father of Alfdis of the Barra Isles. Konal's son was named Steimnod; he was the father of Halldora, whom Eilif, the son of Ketil the One-handed, married (The Saga of Grettir the Strong).
Part of the convention is that the bravest warriors tend to speak in verse when the occasion demands, as when Onund slays Vigbjod:
Bloody thy wounds. Didst thou see me flee?
One-leg' no hurt received from thee.
Braver are many in word than in deed.
Thou, slave, didst fail when it came to the trial (The Saga of Grettir the Strong).
This is also a society where land is held by those strong enough to do so. When Bjorn dies, his kin have to rally and protect his land because the king wants to take it now that the strong leader is dead. There is apparently no legal structure to make such decisions, and instead they are made by who is strong enough to get his way.
An interesting sequence of events is describe when the farmer are in the midst of a drought and find a whale washed up on the beach. The entire community comes together to cut up the whale and take it for food. The people of Iceland live primarily by farming and trade, but the sea does offer them sustenance when they can get it. Even an event like the finding of the whale, however, can become an occasion for war as one group tries to take the whole whale from the other group, suggesting once more how violent this time was and how force was used whenever a dispute arose. Yet, there is also a means for resolving problems judicially, though it is not clear here precisely what it entails when the saga-writer states after this skirmish that peace was made between the offenders and those who captured them, after…