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Hrafnkel's Saga

In his book, "The Music of Failure", Bill Holm comments:

"[r]eading the Icelandic sagas, I am struck with the idea that half the story happens to humans and the other half to Iceland itself...Most Minneota Icelanders came from the immediate vicinity of [Hrafnkel's] saga. It was their great-grandfather's land...A thousand years of legends, corpses, dead goats, stumbling horses, and battles have given human, thus divine life to the most insignificant bog in this part of Iceland. That land belongs not only to the farmer who pastures his sheep on it, but to me because I know the name of Freyfaxi's Cliff, and to you, if you want it, and to no one" [p. 11]

Holm invites the reader to look at the physical world in a new way. In Iceland, human acts that are part of larger and more significant narratives are geocoded. Much like the way your Google map points to where a dry cleaner can be found, the sagas point to physical places where an act of bravery occurred, an act of revenge, or where some fateful decision was made. How might you see the world differently if every otherwise insignificant pasture, bend in the river, or cliff in your local area signified something important that would help you better understand the human condition?

We also invite you to begin seeing the world this way. Stand on a green lump of grass by a river in East Iceland and talk about Hrafnkel, or Þorsteinn the White, or Halla Lytingsdóttir, or whoever it is that stood at that place. Or, do so online. You may use the Icelandic Roots Close Saga Places link (which integrates a map developed by Emily Lethbridge and her team at the University of Iceland) to help you explore these places whether you travel to Iceland in the flesh or on the internet. For those deeply interested in a boots-on-the-ground analysis of Hrafnkel's Saga, I highly recommend The Topography of Hrafnkel's Saga [p. 239-63] published by the Viking Society of Northern Research.

The Icelandic Roots "nearby places" function, showing saga events 10km from Aðalból, the farm of Hrafnkel Frey's Goði.

Now, back to the story. Hrafnkel's Saga, only 24 pages in length, is notable for how it deviates from the structure of a modern story, while still providing symmetry in conflict. It tells of a dispute between Hrafnkel and another family. Hrafnkel starts out as a dedicated worshipper of the god Freyr and a sometimes violent chieftain who most were afraid to cross. He is described as "Ójafnaðarmaður"—an uneven or unfair man. In the rising tension of the story, Hrafnkel suffers an unlikely defeat and humiliation. At the Althing, a man named Sam defeats Hrafnkel in a court case over the murder of Sam's brother, Einar. Hrafnkel is kicked off of his farm, his temple to Freyr is destroyed, and his favorite horse is thrown off a cliff and perishes. At this point, most stories would close with an unambiguously happy ending: "Justice was served to Hrafnkel. The End"—but not so with Hrafnkel's Saga. In response to the judgment, he gives up religion and his disposition changes for the better. He becomes more kind, thoughtful, and peaceful in dealing with others. The community to which he was banished respects him and is pleased with his leadership.

After gradually building goodwill and resources, he achieves violent revenge against those who fought and won the judgment against him in court. Hrafnkel kills Sam's brother Eyvind who, by chance, rides by Hrafnkel's farm. Hrafnkel then surprises Sam and captures him. Hrafnkel returns to his original farm, banishes Sam to a distant farm called Leikskalar (pictured, courtesy of Mats Wibe Lund Photography), and lives out the rest of his life as a powerful and respected chieftain.

Most readers are left with mixed feelings about this outcome. On the one hand, Hrafnkel did rehabilitate himself. Punishment should not be forever for those who learn to live justly. On the other hand, why should the plaintiffs in the case against Hrafnkel suffer such horrible losses at the end of the story? We also do not believe evil has prevailed. Hrafnkel does not hold a grudge and learns from his mistakes. When all is said and done, he lets Sam live, as Sam let him live. Hrafnkel holds no ill will after he gets back what he had before.

Some aspects of the story have a crystal clear message. Hrafnkel realizes that true power lies with the fellowship he maintains with others and not in being in good standing with the gods. Further, the story suggests that love does not lead us to the wisest choices. It causes a father, Þorbjörn, in the story to be too soft on his son, Einar. He let Einar delay finding a job until the only one available was to work for Hrafnkel—a decision that leads to Eyvin's death. Love of his horse Freyfaxi and of the god Freyr also cause Hrafnkel to kill Einar, a decision Hrafnkel regrets.

The story is also about how Hrafnkel and Sam play a strategic game—a zero-sum game over the farm at Aðaból. Sam gains Aðaból and Hrafnkel loses it. Then, Hrafnkel gains the farm and Sam loses it. The material exchange is zero, but the events of the story leave Hrafnkel a changed man and a better person. The members of the community also reconcile with Hrafnkel, though in an unsatisfying way, Sam is excluded. Hrafnkel's Saga is available in English here. I encourage you to read this rather brief, action-filled story which is bound to the physical landscape of East Iceland. The story and the land are intertwined, belonging to those who live on it and also to you.


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