Hrafnkel’s Saga

Hrafnkel’s Saga
(late 13th century)
   The Saga of Hrafnkel, the priest of Frey, is one of the best known of the Old Icelandic family sagas dealing, as most such sagas, with a feud. Hrafnkel’s Saga is unusual in its directness and its simple, straightforward structure that focuses directly on the feud and eliminates all matters extraneous to it, thus emphasizing the tragic inevitability of its conclusion. Set in eastern Iceland during the first half of the 10th century, the saga was probably written late in the 13th century, though some have suggested it may be more recent, since the earliest surviving manuscript fragment of the saga dates from about 1500.
   Since the plot of Hrafnkel’s Saga revolves around a lawsuit, an understanding of the Icelandic General Assembly, the Althing, is necessary background for the story. In the 10th century, the Althing met annually to make laws and to judge suits in an open-air legislature. Each of Iceland’s four administrative quarters had its own court at the Althing, and each quarter was represented by at least nine godi, who were both chiefs and priests, and appointed the judges for their own quarters. All men of standing put themselves under the protection of the godi of their district, and according to law could be sued only in the court of their godi’s district. If for some unforeseen reason a man wanted to sue his own godi, his only hope would be to find another godi to whom he could shift his loyalty, if that godi would accept him. The saga tells of Hrafnkel, a godi with a rich farm called Adalbol. His most prized possession is his horse Freyfaxi. Hrafnkel vows that he will kill anyone who rides Freyfaxi. He hires a shepherd named Einar who, though warned not to touch the horse, rides him one day when some sheep have escaped. Hrafnkel, bound by his oath, calmly kills Einar with an axe.When Einar’s father, Thorbjorn, asks Hrafnkel for compensation, Hrafnkel refuses but makes a counter offer which Thorbjorn rejects. Hrafnkel also refuses to meet the father in court since that would imply they were equals. Thorbjorn turns to his nephew Sam, a skilled lawyer, for help against Hrafnkel. Since Hrafnkel is their own godi, Sam and Thorbjorn search for another godi who will give them protection and support their suit at the Althing. This proves nearly impossible, for since Hrafnkel is such a formidable foe no other godi is willing to offend him. At last they succeed in convincing the godi Thorgeir to help them, and through his power and influence they manage to get Hrafnkel convicted at the Althing and sentenced to outlawry.
   With the help of Thorgeir and his followers, Sam surprises Hrafnkel at Adalbol and conducts a legal confiscation of his property while Hrafnkel is bound and tortured. Ignoring Thorgeir’s advice to kill Hrafnkel, Sam allows him to live when he agrees to turn over his farm and position of godi to Sam. Hrafnkel and his family are then summarily turned out of their home.
   But Sam has not seen the last of Hrafnkel. He and his family move to the region called Lagarvatn, where he buys a rundown farm on credit. Through hard work and persistence, Hrafnkel builds up the farm and becomes wealthy again. He also obtains the sworn loyalty of all those who move into the area, and becomes godi there. Some time later Sam’s brother Eyvin is killed by Hrafnkel when he passes close to his farm. Before Sam can gather forces to avenge the matter, Hrafnkel descends on Adalbol with 70 men, captures Sam, and gives him the same choice Sam had given him earlier. Sam moves back to his old farm, and though he tries to mount support to avenge himself on Hrafnkel again, he is unable to do so.
   Scholars have been interested in a number of themes suggested by the saga. One, of course, is the danger of pride—something that leads to the fall of both Hrafnkel and Sam. The political implications of the story are also important:Are powerful nobles to be considered above the law? Can justice only be achieved through the use of force? Another question scholars have been concerned about is the historical accuracy of the saga.While Hrafnkel and his family are mentioned in the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), a number of other characters seem to be fictitious. The story is thus generally regarded as historical fiction, based on some independent strands of oral historical tradition.However, its traditional objective but dramatic style coupled with its simple structure and brisk narrative pace make it a good introduction to saga literature.
   ■ Jones, Gwyn, trans. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
   ■ Palsson, Hermann. Art and Ethics in Hrafnkel’s Saga. Copenhagen:Munksgaard, 1971.
   ■ ———, trans. Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1971.
   ■ The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. Preface by Jane Smiley; introduction by Robert Kellogg. New York: Viking, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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