In episode 17 in Season Four of the epic History Channel adventure series Vikings, a new and seemingly sinister character appeared in the storyline for the first time. His name was revealed as Egil, and because he claims to be the illegitimate son of an earl, he’s become known to fans of Vikings as “Egil the Bastard.”
[WARNING: Fans who have not yet viewed Episodes 16 and 17 of Vikings should be aware that the remainder of this article contains spoilers for those episodes.]
But who is the mysterious Egil? Though viewers had never seen him before, he appears to have been a warrior in the viking army that raided the Muslim city of Algeciras on the coast of Spain back in Episode 16. However, his character was never introduced in that episode, and did not appear until he approaches and apparently forms an alliance with King Harald, the unlikely and not entirely trustworthy ally of the now-departed Ragnar Lothbrok and his son and heir, Bjorn Ironside.
Like most characters on Vikings, Egil appears to be inspired by an actual person from Norse history and legend — specifically, a figure by the name of Egil Skallagrímsson, one of the most important characters in Viking lore. Virtually everything known about this legendary warrior — who was also one of the greatest poets of the Viking era — comes from the anonymously authored, 13th-century Icelandic epic, Egil’s Saga.
According to the saga, Egil lived some time in the 10th century. He was born in the early part of the century, perhaps in 904 A.D., but specific dates are difficult to determine. However, those dates would make him about a century younger than the “real” Ragnar Lothbrok, who according to various Norse sagas and poems lived in the ninth century. Ragnar’s invasion of Francia depicted in Vikings Season Three is believed to have taken place in 845 A.D..
Remarkably, given his violent lifestyle and passion for war, Egil Skallagrímsson is said to have lived until 990 A.D. — extreme longevity for his era. His longevity appears even more extraordinary in light of Egil’s numerous health issues, which included chills, vertigo, headaches and later in his life, deafness, and blindness.
Egil had another distinguishing trait, one only suggested by makeup applied to Irish actor Charlie Kelly, who portrays Egil in Vikings Season Four. Unlike the handsome Kelly, the real Egil was exceedingly unattractive, even perhaps suffering from a deformity that caused his bones to thicken and his skull to bulge at the forehead — a condition that modern-day researchers believe to be the bone disorder Paget’s Disease.
Watch Egil’s introduction in Episode 17 of Vikings Season Four in the video below.
The entire text of Egil’s Saga, translated into English, can be read at this link, courtesy of The Icelandic Saga Database.
The historical Egil was a complex character, to say the least. On the one hand, he was a mean-tempered, bloodthirsty warrior. Hey may have even been a “berserker,” the superhuman warriors of Viking lore who would fly into an uncontrollable rage so all-consuming they appeared to be in a trance, slashing and killing anyone and everything in their paths. Even if Egil was not an actual berserker, he was by his own description an exceedingly violent man.
Perhaps due to his unfortunate physical appearance, Egil relied on tellings of his gruesome and daring exploits and conquests to attract women. At various points in Egil’s Saga, he recounts tearing out an enemy’s throat with his teeth, gouging out another man’s eye with his fingers — and leaving the eye hanging on the man’s face, dangling from its socket — burning down barns, killing the queen’s son and even subduing one enemy by vomiting on him.
At the same time, Egil was a highly accomplished artist and intellectual who dedicated himself to perfecting the art of poetry and was passionate about discussing and debating poems and works of art, particularly in his later years.
Was Egil, as he is portrayed in the History Channel series, an ally of Norway’s King Harald? That’s another point where Vikings diverges from the historical Egil as portrayed in Egil’s Saga. In fact, Egil’s father — there is nothing to indicate that Egil was actually a “bastard” — was a fierce foe of Harald, and eventually fled Norway for Iceland to escape Harald’s savage and repressive rule.
Egil’s issues were mainly with Harald’s son Eirik Bloodaxe, who also became king of Norway, and Eirik’s queen, the lustful Gunnhild, who apparently harbored an unrequited sexual desire for Egil — and whose son Egil killed.
Vikings Season Four, Episode 18, “Revenge,” airs on The History Channel Wednesday, January 18, at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, 8 p.m. Central and 7 p.m. Mountain — with an encore showing four hours later. The episode will also be available for streaming rental via services such as iTunes and Amazon starting Thursday, January 19.
[Featured Image by The History Channel]