Vigfússon was the first to allude to Hrafnkell’s pride and its redress as the subject
of the saga. Crucial to this idea of a “Shakesperean appreciation” of the “growth and decadence of character” has been the contested reading of one particular word, here italicized, in a portion
of the text central to my argument:
Hrafnkell spurði austr í Fljótsdal, at Þjóstarsynir hǫfðu týnt Freyfaxa ok brennt
hofit. Þá svarar Hrafnkell: “Ek hygg þat hégóma at trúa á goð,”—ok sagðisk hann þaðan
af aldri skyldu á goð trúa, ok þat efndi hann síðan, at hann blótaði aldri. Hrafnkell
sat á Hrafnkelsstǫðum ok rakaði fé saman. Hann fekk brátt miklar virðingar í heraðinu.
Vildi svá hverr sitja ok standa sem hann vildi. Í þenna tíma kómu sem mest skip af
Nóregi til Íslands. Námu menn þá sem mest land í heraðinu um Hrafnkels daga. Engi
náði með frjálsu at sitja, nema Hrafnkel bæði orlofs. Þá urðu ok allir honum at heita
sínu liðsinni. Hann hét ok sínu trausti. Lagði hann land undir sik allt fyrir austan
Lagarfljót. Þessi þinghá varð brátt miklu meiri ok fjǫlmennari en sú, er hann hafði
áðr haft. Hon gekk upp um Skriðudal ok upp allt með Lagarfljóti. Var nú skipan á komin
á lund hans. Maðrinn var miklu vinsælli en áðr. Hafði hann ina sǫmu skapsmuni um gagnsemð
ok risnu, en miklu var maðrinn nú vinsælli ok gæfari ok hœgri en fyrr at ǫllu. (Austfirðinga sǫgur 1950 124-25.)
[East in Fljotsdale, Hrafnkell heard what the Thjostarssons had done, the killing of
his Freyfaxi and the burning of the gods and the temple in Hrafnkellsdale.
Then Hrafnkell said, ‘I think it’s a vain thing to believe in the gods.’ He declared
he wouldn’t worship them any longer, and he kept his vow, for he never held any sacrifices
Hrafnkell lived at Hrafnkellsstead and got very rich. He soon gained a position
of power in the district, and everyone was eager to stand or sit, just as Hrafnkell
wished. In those days there were regular sailings from Norway to Iceland, and most
of the district was settled in Hrafnkell’s time. No one was allowed to live there
without Hrafnkell’s leave and every farmer had to promise him his support; in return
Hrafnkell gave them his protection. He gained authority over all the districts east
of Lagarwater, so his new chieftaincy soon became much larger in area and contained
a greater number of people than the one he had controlled before, for it reached as
far as Selwater and south into Skridudale, covering the entire Lagarwater region.
Hrafnkell was a changed man now, and much better liked than he used to be. He
could still be as helpful and generous as before, but he’d become gentler and quieter
in every way.] (Hrafnkel’s saga 1971 61-62.)
In this passage, the narrative seems to shift its focus from 1. settlement of the
district and those parts of it controlled by Hrafnkell to 2. changes in the hero’s
behaviour, if not in his character. This shift compounds the interpretive problems
created by the word italicized in the Fornrit edition cited above—lund—where it is accorded the following brief footnote: lund svo leiðrétt í útgáfum, misritað land í hdr. [manner (behaviour?) so corrected in editions, mistakenly written land in mss.]. That is, manuscripts agree on the reading land [land], making the sentence pertinent to the former subject, the changes in settlement.
But most editors have followed the silent emendation to lund of P. G. Thorsen and Konráð Gíslason in their 1839 edition,
a reading which directs the significance of the sentence to the material following
it, the change in Hrafnkell. An exception to this editorial practise was Jakob Jakobsen
whose 1902-1903 edition of Hrafnkels saga leaves land unchanged and fails to comment on the emendation of his predecessors, but offers
among its variants that from ÁM 551c, 4to,
which omits altogether the phrase “á land [lund?] hans,” but adds “brátt mikil” [very quickly]. If adopted this would connect the skipan [change] to the next sentence. As Randolph Quirk observes, “the scribe of D [the ms. in question] by his phrasing, shows that he understood that
the change took place in Hrafnkell, not merely in his property. It would be easy for
land to creep into the text as an easier reading here, since the preceding sentences have
been dealing with Hrafnkell’s property. This would then be another error arising from
a contraction” (28).
Pierre Halleux, who was the first to question seriously the view that a moral improvement
occurs in Hrafnkell following his fall from pride, blamed this traditional, we might
term it the “redemptivist,” interpretation—on Konráð Gíslason’s silent emendation—which “unfortunately and wrongly replaced the word land (territory) by the word lund (state of mind) in spite of the fact that all manuscripts have land” (1966a 43). Halleux argues that the only change in Hrafnkell lies in his increased popularity
and notices that the saga reports him remaining the same as regards “gagnsemð ok risnu” [approx. helpfulness and hospitality]. He cites the C-V interpretation of gagnsemð
as “usefulness, profitableness,” so that the comment “appears in fact as a sort of restriction” (1966a 43). Rather than having his pride tempered, Hrafnkell has learned to hide those harsher
aspects of his character which made his neighbours dislike him and which thus contributed
to his downfall. Since there is no significant moral change, Halleux translates the
sentence: “The man was still keen on acting in his own interest and kept his inclination to munificence.” So Hrafnkell gives up his pagan faith not through spiritual disillusionment or enlightenment,
if one were to see Christian interest at work here, but rather finding it to have
been unprofitable; he has come to realise the usefulness of winning the support of
his neighbours “through his behaviour, just because this may serve his own interest.” Halleux concludes: “The main features of this pagan chief are self-interest and pride, somewhat tempered
after his downfall, yet through selfish motives. The author of the saga does not feel
sympathy for such people” (1966a 44). This radical “behaviourist” departure from traditional views of the redemption of Hrafnkell was to undergo further
modification in subsequent treatments of the saga.
In 1971 W. F. Bolton attempted to approach Hrafnkatla through analysis of what he called its “heart,” that is, the fourth chapter, or passage at the Alþingi, first noticed by Slater for
its density of “dialogue and of detail” (37). There Bolton observed that power is represented in the voice of the rhetorically
most skilled. In a series of scenes, individuals embedded in ever more persuasive
rhetoric seek help—by means of obfuscation and lies—from successively more powerful
figures in the struggle to get the better of the overbearing Hrafnkell. At the height
of this persuasive process Þorkell Þjóstarson, working to enlist the support of his
chieftain brother Þorgeirr in the suit, stages an encounter that will gain his brother’s
sympathy: he has the elderly, needful plaintif Þorbjǫrn “accidentally” yank Þorgeirr’s sore toe as the latter lies sleeping, intending thereby to strengthen
his argument that Þorgeirr’s physical pain should make him sympathetic to Þorbjǫrn’s
analogous legal distress. Yet he accomplishes nothing with this ploy. To no effect,
he “runs over with proverbial wisdom” (Bolton 41) as he makes his verbal assault upon his brother’s determined resistance. In the end
he gets his way by threatening to desert his brother if he will not help the hapless
farmer of Lagarfljót to humiliate his enemy Hrafnkell. “As each verbalizes his relationship with the ‘trouble at Aðalból’ he falsifies it” (Bolton 51). Bolton sees a dark world in which Sámr wins “by force, not by legal process,” and “there is no principle of stability in the victory” (46). “The language of Hrafnkatla speaks from the heart, but it is a heart of darkness” (52).
After Bolton the list of the redemptivists dwindles significantly, as readers adopt
ever subtler approaches to the crucial passage about Hrafnkell’s change quoted above
and to their appraisal of that change’s illumination of the succeeding episodes of
the story. Edward I. Condren sees him “abandoning those primitive traits which made him much feared throughout Iceland” (531) and yet retaining others, such as his good husbandry and his qualities of leadership.
As he moves decisively to the vengeance killing of Eyvindr and his reinstatement of
himself, “the chieftain’s character is now to be identified with the epitome of physical and
social excellence in the sagas” (532). In this excellence he is “instinctively and strongly opposed to Sámr whose inherent inferiority he abhors” (533).
Also among the behaviourists, Frederik Heinemann in his type-scene analysis of the
saga finds Sámr’s act in sparing Hrafnkell’s life “foolish and motivated by vanity,” whereas Hrafnkell “demonstrates his new moderate behaviour” when he spares Sámr. In the same way, Eyvindr is “foolish to expose himself to Hrafnkell’s might for the sake of delivering an insult” (114) by riding past the humiliated chieftain’s farm in his newly acquired continental
splendour. As opposed to the actions of these men, Hrafnkell’s killing of Eyvindr
shows wisdom, as Þorgeirr explains at the end, and it is legitimate retribution: “the author suggests that judgment and strength are also requisites for the successful
Icelandic chieftain” (115).
In succeeding decades, as the behaviourist principles of Hrafnkatla criticism evolved, the sympathy for Hrafnkell builds significantly. Peter Hallberg,
for instance, sees no moral judgment in the narrative. Rather, Hrafnkell has “outwitted Sámr, he has turned out to be too clever for him” (464). Others agree about Sámr’s inferiority. Klaus von See, acknowledging that he makes
a good chieftain, remarks nevertheless on his crucial shortcomings in that position:
“Es fehlt ihm das Zeug zum Häuptling, die selbstgewisse Art, Macht zu üben. So rechtfertigt
die Saga schliesslich den politisch-sozialen status quo, die Zweiteilung der Gesellschaft
in die Schicht der Häuptlinge und die Schicht derer, die von den Häuptlingen die smámenn genannt werden ([Íslenzk fornrit] XI, 117)” (56) [He is lacking the stuff of a chieftain, the innate skill in exercising power. Thus
in the end the saga justifies the socio-political status quo, the division of society
into the class of chieftains and the class of those who were called by the chieftains
the smámenn (people of no consequence)]. Henry Kratz, too, though acknowledging that “pride, haughtiness and arbitrary exercise of power are berated and the rights of the
weaker subject are championed,” sees that the saga’s composer is also aware of “the untenable position of the little man who has come into power beyond his capabilities” (443).
In an innovative approach to a moral system in the saga, R. D. Fulk distinguishes
between two groups of characters: on the one hand, there are the “ideologues,” who are “overzealous” in the “prosecution of their honour” where “the old Germanic code of honour and vengeance is naturally the proving ground for
the moral opposition explored in the saga” (3). On the other hand, significantly differentiated from these figures, there are the
“pragmatists,” who “also live by the Germanic ethics of honour and vengeance, but who regard them as good
only insofar as they accomplish practical, social ends” (4). These, for instance, pursue vengeance not merely to satisfy offended honour—rather,
“some larger benefit must always accrue to such grave action” (4). In this version of events, Hrafnkell is seen to change in the sense that he moves
from a rigid ideologic world-view to that of the pragmatists. And it is as a pragmatist
that he kills Eyvindr, “not for the sake of any supercilious sense of honour, but rather for the sake of retaining
the confidence of servants and supporters, and nurturing peace in his home” (20). There are echoes of Condren in this study, those “primitive traits” he identifies clearly related to the “rigid ideology” that Fulk says Hrafnkell must relinquish as he adopts more effective methods of leadership.
The most positive response so far to the character of Hrafnkell is that of Jan Geir
Johansen (1995) who doesn’t accept the traditional change of land to lund in the passage on Hrafnkell’s land and behaviour. “We are not meant to see a development of Hrafnkell’s character in this saga” (282). “Hrafnkels saga demonstrates that men of quality, such as Hrafnkell, cannot be suppressed by those
of lesser mettle, like Sámr. Conversely, men like Sámr will not triumph long over
men of quality, inherent defects in character make it impossible” (283). This perspective on the situation, “very much the view of the medieval world with a hierarchical conception of the universe
and of society” (284), probably comes as close to the sanctification of Hrafnkell as is possible in the
behaviourist school, and Johansen’s defense of the killing of Einarr might seem extreme.
Certainly, however, it is doubtful that Hrafnkell, by the time of his reinstatement,
is a man who would allow himself to become entrapped by that rigidity of character
that led to this first killing.
Revisiting the debate over this chieftain’s character in 2006, Theodore M. Andersson
offers a matured revision of that redemptivist sketch found in his first treatment
of the saga in 1967, where he perceived “the most obviously moralistic of the sagas … the history and reform of [Hrafnkell’s] personality; he is purged by the action” (282). Here his view of the hero was optimistic: “The phenomenon of the defective chieftain is familiar, but nowhere else is he remade
into an effective chieftain” (282). Now, however, Andersson asks, “can we say that Hrafnkell is truly reformed?” He finds the answer in the last comments of Þorgeirr, to the effect that Hrafnkell
is more intelligent than Sámr. “The debate,” observes Andersson, “is in effect between those who construe the story morally and those who construe it
politically. The problem of the moralists is that Hrafnkell kills Eyvindr after his
apparent change of heart” (181). Seeing no justification for the killing of Eyvindr, he contends—presumably against
Johansen—“It is not only a modern readership that would find Hrafnkell’s killing of Eyvindr
repugnant” (182). “Hrafnkels saga is about two chieftains, both of them unfinished, each defective in his own way.” While some other sagas might be regarded as “positive blueprints” for the good chieftain, this saga should not: “Whether we look at it through a moral lens or a political lens, it appears to offer
only an array of the deficiencies that afflict the Icelandic chieftaincy.” Thus, Andersson’s thoughts at this point seem close to the heart of darkness whose
language Bolton attempted to penetrate as he first noticed the lack of congruency
between rhetoric and reality in the central scene, as also in the rest of the saga.
Since the time of Guðbrandur Vigfússon interpreters of Hrafnkatla have occasionally visited the proverbs of the saga in a search for its meaning, or
else for clarification of its methods of narration, or for its use of paroemia, that
is, proverbs, to lend rhetorical weight to an argument even when that argument is
In particular, those who follow a redemptivist line of interpretation have found
support in such admonitions as sá er svinnr, er sik kann [he’s a wise man who knows himself] and skǫmm er óhófs ævi [brief is the life of excess], of which saw Andersson (1970) remarks “We need not look far for the moral in this story; it is contained in the old proverb
‘skǫmm er óhófs ævi’” (585). Though strongly stated, Andersson’s position here is more widely shared than that
of Wezel, who comments “The proverbs do not give access to the meaning of the saga; they are merely embellishment,
a display of knowledge to spice up the story, and they do not form an integral part
of the saga” (182). Yet this observation is a useful reminder that we should not take proverbs simply
at face value, as advice meant to be of moral or ethical significance to our understanding
of the work’s characters and their actions, and, in Hrafnkell’s case, our understanding
of his own moral development. It will prove instructive to examine the text yet again
in this essay to see what other directions the proverbial material may take us in
our approach to understanding part of what Hrafnkatla is about.
Early in the narrative there are signs that Þorbjǫrn doesn’t manage his responsibilities
too well. Possessing “fé lítit, en ómegð mikla” [slender means but a large family] (100; 38) which is not a promising indication in itself of wise husbandry, he is in addition
late telling his oldest son, Einarr, that he must seek work away from home, “því at ek þarf eigi meira forvirki en þetta lið orkar, er hér er, en þér mun verða
gott til vista, því at þú ert mannaðr vel” [My other children are getting big enough for work now and you’ll be able to get better
employment than ever they could] (101; 39). From Einarr’s first reaction to the news, “Of síð hefir þú sagt mér til þessa, því at nú hafa allir ráðit sér vistir, þær er
beztar eru, en mér þykkir þó illt at hafa órval af” [You’re rather late in telling me this, now all the best jobs have been taken by others.
I don’t like the idea of getting something no one else wants] (101; 39), it is clear he’s disconcerted over his father’s inexplicably tardy pronouncement
which has placed him at a disadvantage on the job market. When he goes to the local
chieftain, Hrafnkell, as a last resort, the latter’s immediate response, “Hví leitaðir þú þessa svá síð, því at ek munda við þér fyrstum teki hafa?” [Why are you so late in asking this? … I’d rather have hired you than anyone else … ] (101; 39), reinforces the reader’s awareness of Þorbjǫrn’s lack of foresight. And it is then,
because of his father’s poor or at least slow judgment, that Einarr enters service
in the position and household where he will find his death.
The condition laid upon him, never to ride Freyfaxi upon pain of death, is motivated
by Hrafnkell’s regrettable yet apparently irrevocable oath, “at hann skyldi þeim manni at bana verða, sem honum riði án hans vilja” [to kill anyone who rode the stallion without his permission] (100; 38). Past readers have noticed other instances of horse owners who behave irritably towards
those who ride their horses without permission, but in this case the owner claims
to be sharing his horse with Freyr, which is further justification for the stringency
with which he enforces this prohibition.
Those who would defend Hrafnkell’s later actions can point to his proverbial justification
of himself as he warns his new shepherd about Freyfaxi: “Ger nú sem ek mæli, því at þat er forn orðskviðr, at eigi veldr sá, er varar annan” [Do as I tell you, for it’s an old saying that ‘warning wards off blame’] (102; 40). And Einarr emphatically expresses his willingness to comply with this clearly pronounced
Given that the story was committed to the written page in the later thirteenth century
and was not by any means a pagan production, the information it contains about Hrafnkell’s
devotion to Freyr and love for their mutually shared horse may not be without a humorous
and uncomplimentary side. Both Gordon (17) and Nordal (26) find the destruction of the pagan temple in the saga to represent values incompatible
with those that must have prevailed at the time of the action.
One critic has suggested that Hrafnkell’s nickname, Freysgoði, is meant by the composer
to be taken as a joke.
It is also possible that we should read Einarr’s difficulty in finding a horse willing
to be ridden less as a consequence of Fate—or of the malevolently stationary Freyfaxi—than
as a darkly humorous description of the way Einarr moves, seemingly oblivious of the
threat to his safety, towards his demise. He is worried over the great territory he
must cover in search of thirty lost sheep and “hyggr, at Hrafnkell mundi eigi vita, þótt hann ríði hestinum” [thinking that Hrafnkell would never find out] (103; 41). Having failed to catch any of the permitted mounts, he rides the forbidden Freyfaxi
into a lather: “vátr allr af sveita, svá at draup ór hverju hári hans … mjǫk leirstokkin ok móðr mjǫk ákafliga” [all running with sweat; and every hair on his body was dripping] (103; 41). Perhaps we should be amused to see this cherished horse humiliated;
his reaction is certainly unexpected for he “tekr … á mikilli rás ofan eptir gǫtunum” [started to race down the path] (104; 41) to report to his master. Hrafnkell rises from where he is sitting “yfir borðum” [at table] (104; 41) asking “Hvat mun garprinn
vilja, er hann er heim kominn?” [What could the champion want? Why has he come home?] (104; 42). “Illa þykki mér, at þú ert þann veg til gǫrr, fóstri minn, en heima hafðir þú vit þitt,
er þú sagðir mér til, ok skal þessa hefnt verða. Far þú til liðs þíns” [It grieves me to see how you have been treated, my fosterling. You had your wits about
you when you came to me, and this shall be avenged. Go back to your herd] (104; 42). The remarkably clever Freyfaxi understands this speech and goes obediently “þegar upp eptir dalnum til stóðs síns” [immediately … up the valley to his mares] (104; 42).
In the brief interview with his condemned employee, Hrafnkell makes clear how much
more he values the pristine sanctity of Freyfaxi than the recovery of thirty lost
sheep: “Hann kvazk ekki at slíku telja. ‘Eða hefir ekki verr at farit?’” [Hrafnkell said he didn’t mind about the sheep. ‘But hasn’t something more serious
happened?’] (105; 42). “En hefir þú ekki nǫkkuð riðit Freyfaxa mínum… ?” [Is it true that you rode my Freyfaxi yesterday?] (105; 42). Many have remarked Hrafnkell’s verbal reluctance here and his regret later at the
killing of Einarr: “En við þann átrúnað, at ekki verði at þeim mǫnnum, er heitstrengingar fella á sik,
þá hljóp hann af baki til hans ok hjó hann banahǫgg” [in the belief that nothing good could happen to people who break their solemn vows
he leapt down to him from his horse and struck him a death blow] (105; translation my own).
To the thirteenth-century Christian audience of the saga, surely, Hrafnkell’s affirmation
of the sanctity of Freyfaxi in the inflexible yet seemingly reluctant adherence to
his oath must have appeared at least unsympathetic. Some critics have seen in it signs
of pride, and I would add the foolishness of overweening pride, the proverbial outcome
of which is never good, particularly in medieval Germanic literature.
The acknowledgement of the foolishness of this act, even by the perpetrator himself,
is compounded in the very next scene, where he now laments the perceived necessity
of killing Einarr even as he seeks to console the aggrieved father, Þorbjǫrn, “En vit munum opt þess iðrask, er vit erum of málgir, ok sjaldnar mundum vit þessa
iðrask, þó at vit mæltim færa en fleira” [How often we regret saying too much, and how seldom saying too little!] (106; 43). “En þó læt ek svá sem mér þykki þetta verk mitt í verra lagi víga þeira, er ek hefi
unnit” [I’m going to show how much worse I consider this killing than all the others I’ve
done] (105; 43). It is in this mood, with these regrets, in recognition of having exceeded the bounds
of wise behaviour, that he breaks his no-compensation policy for the first time in
his life and offers Þorbjǫrn what is probably a better deal than can be found for
a similar killing anywhere else in the Íslendingasǫgur.
The improvidence of Þorbjǫrn, the fecklessness of Einarr, together with Hrafnkell’s
foolishly proud adherence to arbitrary loyalties and authority pave the way for this
often visited scene between the latter and Þorbjǫrn in which Hrafnkell’s offer is
refused. “Ek vil eigi þenna kost” [I will not accept this offer] (106; 44), responds Þorbjǫrn to Hrafnkell’s amazing generosity. Instead he insists “at vit takim menn til gørðar með okkr” [I want us to choose arbitrators to settle the issue between us] (106; 44). Hrafnkell objects that this would support the false assumption that the two men
are equal, which is clearly not the case. The first to comment on Þorbjǫrn’s utter
foolishness is his brother Bjarni, who refuses to support him in his legal struggles
against the invariably successful tyrant. Despite being a wealthy man, he won’t take
on Hrafnkell, justifying himself—and by extension blaming his brother proverbially
when he comments—“ok er þat satt, at sá er svinnr, er sik kann” [for it’s a true enough saying that he’s a wise man who knows himself] (106; 44). Observing that the adversary has “marga málaferlum vafit, er meira bein hafa í hendi haft en vér” [been known to crush wealthier opponents than me] (106-07; 44), he speaks bluntly: “Sýnisk mér þú vitlítill við hafa orðit, er þú hefir svá góðum kostum neitat” [In my opinion you’ve acted very stupidly, refusing his generous offer] (107; 44).
The traditionally accepted “objectivity” of saga narrative is clearly broken here by Bjarni’s comments. Even readers who lack
sufficient perspective on saga narrative to sense the foolishness of Þorbjǫrn, which
is revealed by his own behaviour and statements, will find the saga writer’s judgment
stated explicitly by his brother, who should legally be first to come to his defense
in this situation. This verdict is affirmed by Sámr, Bjarni’s well-to-do son, “uppivǫzlumaðr mikill ok lǫgkœnn” [a skilled lawyer and very conceited] (100; 38), who is unsurprised by the killing itself, but astonished when he learns of Hrafnkell’s
exceedingly generous offer, and most eager to return and see if the local bully can
be brought to reinstate it. Þorbjǫrn, though, maintaining his foolishly proud stance,
by means of insults and insinuations of cowardice manages to inveigle Sámr into committing
himself to a legal challenge to Hrafnkell. But in agreeing, Sámr makes the statement
that is at the centre of my argument: “Ófúss geng ek at þessu. Meir geri ek þat fyrir frændsemi sakar við þik. En vita skaltu,
at mér þykkir þar heimskum manni at duga, sem þú ert” [I’m very reluctant to bring an action against Hrafnkell … I’ll do so only because we’re kinsmen, but I want you to know that in my opinion
I’m helping a fool in helping you] (108; 46). Called “vitlítill” [stupid] by his brother and by his nephew “heimskr” [foolish], the improvident Þorbjǫrn must seem to readers an unlikely object of sympathy when
he admits to Sámr: “Þó er mér þat mikil hugarbót, at þú takir við málinu. Verðr at þar, sem má” [It would mean a great deal to me if you were to take this case … no matter what comes of it] (108; 45). Given his social standing, it is not fitting that he should seek redress for the
killing in this way. And without the backing of men far more powerful than Sámr and
himself, chances of success are nil.
The realistic but unflattering observation of my paper’s subtitle with which Sámr
accompanies his reluctant agreement to assist his foolish old uncle, Þorbjǫrn á Hóli,
in seeking redress from Hrafnkell Freysgoði for the slaying of his son, Einarr, may
seem to the casual reader of sagas nothing more than the fatalistic pessimism with
which a man sometimes undertakes to help an unpromising relative or carry out some
obviously ill-fated errand. However, an analysis of the narrative with reference to
this allusion may well be helpful to our understanding of what this saga is about.
Sámr and the audience know, after all, that Þorbjǫrn has already rejected an offer
which is generous, given the conditions and the perpetrator of the slaying, and which
cannot be asked for again, given the arrogance with which this penurious farmer has
turned down Hrafnkell’s unprecedented magnanimity. Though wronged and irate, Þorbjǫrn
by any account is nothing here but a heimskr maðr [foolish man], a fact made ever more obvious as the suit progresses. The significance of Sámr’s
remark, however—that he thinks he is helping a fool in helping his uncle—lies in its
obvious allusion to the proverb, Illt er heimskum lið at veita [It’s bad to give help to the foolish]. While some readers might find strained the use of this reference to the proverb
as the means of seeking a conceptual centre of the saga that will allow us the most
comprehensive and coherent view of the point of the work, proverbial allusion is a
cognitive process which we all recognize and use at some level of consciousness, and
such references can have the same psychological weight as fully articulated proverbs
Proverbial allusions are first discussed, so far as I know, by Erasmus, who in the
Preface to his Adages
remarks that their use and appreciation in literature necessitates a comprehensive
knowledge of proverbs in their base form in order to understand more fully what one
Even if there were no other use for proverbs, at the very least they are not only
helpful but necessary for the understanding of the best authors, that is, the oldest.
Most of these are textually corrupt, and in this respect they are particularly so,
especially as proverbs have a touch of the enigmatic, so that they are not understood
even by readers of some learning; and then they are often inserted disconnectedly,
sometimes in a mutilated state … Occasionally they are alluded to in one word, as in Cicero in his Letters to Atticus: “Help me, I beg you; ‘prevention,’ you know,” where he refers to the proverb “Prevention
is better than cure.” (Erasmus 18)
Certainly it seems most likely that competence in a culture’s proverbial inventory
is the best way to be prepared for an awareness, or understanding, of such allusions.
“Earlier scholars have overstated the fixity of proverbs,” observes Wolfgang Mieder: “In actual use, especially in the case of intentional speech play, proverbs are quite
often manipulated” (7). He refers us to Norrick’s comments in How Proverbs Mean, where—speaking of the didactic quality of proverbs—the latter notes that “mention of one crucial recognizable phrase serves to call forth the entire proverb.
Let us designate this minimal recognizable unit as the kernel of the proverb … Proverbs bear much greater social, philosophical and psychological significance for
speakers than do other idiomatic units.” The semantic density of proverbial material thus impresses such texts on our consciousness.
“Consequently a speaker can call forth a particular proverb for his hearer with a brief
allusion to its kernel” (45). The kernel of the proverb in Hrafnkels saga would be the word heimskr [foolish] with the secondary phrase at veita lið [to give help]. It will be instructive to see how the theme of this proverbial wisdom is played
out in the rest of the saga.
However little wisdom accompanies Sámr as he proceeds to give notice of charges against
Hrafnkell, it is partially the foolish pride of the latter that is apparent in his
amused complacency when he hears of this move, “ok þótti hlœgiligt, er Sámr hefir tekit mál á hendr honum” [and thought it amusing that Sámr had started proceedings against him] (108; 46). And again when he arrives at the Alþingi to learn that Sámr is already present there
and is thus obliged to save face by continuing his suit, “Honum þótti þat hlœgiligt” [he thought it vastly amusing] (109; 47). His sophisticated appraisal of Sámr’s disadvantages might well be tempered by thoughts
of the potential danger of underestimating one’s enemy, but the composer at this point
indicates with these remarks that no such anxiety troubles him.
The foolishness of Þorbjǫrn and Sámr in launching a suit against Hrafnkell becomes
yet more apparent at the Alþingi when chieftains universally refuse to help: “einn veg svǫruðu allir, at engi kvazk eiga svá gott Sámi upp at gjalda, at ganga vildi
í deild við Hrafnkel goða ok hætta svá sinni virðingu” [they all gave the same answer: that they did not stand in such debt to Sámr that they
were willing to get involved in a quarrel with Hrafnkell the Priest and so risk their
reputations] (110; 47), in particular because of his 100% success rate in litigation: “at hann hafi alla menn hrakit af málaferlum þeim, er við hann hafa haft” [Hrafnkell had got the better of it in every single lawsuit which had been brought
against him] (110; 47). The foolishness of Þorbjǫrn’s original intransigence, which led them to this pass,
is reiterated by Sámr when Þorbjǫrn wants to abandon the suit and flee home: “þat er vel, af því at þú vildir ekki annat en deila við Hrafnkel ok vildir eigi þá
kosti þiggja, er margr mundi gjarna þegit hafa, sá er eptir sinn náunga átti at sjá” [That’s very interesting, for it was you who insisted on bringing this lawsuit against
Hrafnkell and refused an offer which would have satisfied any other man taking action
over the killing of a kinsman] (110; 48). Þorbjǫrn’s tears of hopeless frustration add to the poignancy of their situation.
Since Bolton’s analysis of Chapter 4, many have accepted the lack of integrity in
the actions and arguments of Þorkell: “Hrafnkell goði hefir vegit son hans Þorbjarnar saklausan” [Hrafnkell the Priest has killed Thorbjorn’s son for no reason] (114; 52). The chieftain’s brother does not include information about Hrafnkell’s prior oath,
nor about his warning Einarr, nor about his offering unheard-of compensation to Þorbjǫrn.
His assertion—“Er honum þetta nauðsyn, en eigi seiling, þó at hann mæli eptir son sinn” [it’s necessity and not greed that makes him take legal action over the killing of
his son] (114; 52)—hardly captures Þorbjǫrn’s motives. And the claim that the refusal of the chieftains
to provide help “sýna í því mikinn ódrengskap” [only shows how small-minded they really are] (114; 52) is a distortion of their understandable unwillingness to tangle with a Hrafnkell
with whom they have no quarrel of their own. But “Hávamál” stanza 45 would seem cynically to urge just such dishonest strategies in securing
help: “Ef þú átt annan,/þannz þú illa trúir,/vildu af hánom þó gott geta:/fagrt scaltu við
þann mæla,/en flátt hyggia/ok gialda lausung við lygi” [If you’ve another, whom you don’t trust,/but from whom you want nothing but good,/speak
fairly to him but think falsely/and repay treachery with lies] (Edda 24; Poetic Edda 20). But the apparent reference to this stanza in Bjarnar saga, shows that this wisdom actually functions as a warning against cozenry.
In the end, Þorgeirr Þjóstarson yields to his brother’s urgings, but not on these
specious grounds, rather because of Þorkell’s irrational appeal to their relationship
and its fragility in this matter: “Kann vera, at Þorkell leppr komi þar, at hans orð verði meir metin” [But it’s quite possible that Þorkell Lock may go somewhere else, where his word will
carry more weight than it does here] (115; 53). Wisely, however, Þorgeirr is not optimistic about their success: “Munu þit þá hafa annat hvárt fyrir ykkart þrá, nǫkkura huggan eða læging enn meir
en áðr ok hrelling ok skapraun” [You’ll then reap something from your stubbornness, one way or the other, either some
comfort or else even greater humiliation, disappointment and disgrace] (115-16; 53). Like Sámr in his dealings with Þorbjǫrn, Þorgeirr gives in to his brother for the
wrong reasons, and he clearly sees the folly of the cause itself.
In the ensuing legal process, Sámr argues the case as competently as he has insisted
he will do. Meanwhile Hrafnkell, who wants to discourage petty folk from litigating
with him, intends “at hleypa upp dóminum fyrir Sámi ok hrakja hann af málinu” [to break up the court by force and so put an end to Sámr’s action] (117; 54). He loses because a crowd of people, arranged by the Þjóstarsons, makes it impossible
for him “at fœra lǫgvǫrn fram fyrir sik” [to present his legal defence] (117; 55). Given what we know of him and have come to expect, it is only predictable that,
in response to their judicial success, Sámr would be jubilant: “En Sámr var á þingi ok gekk mjǫk uppstertr” [Sámr remained behind at the Alþing and went about with a swagger] (117; 55). His ignorance of the next steps of prosecution is surely more helpful to the literary
intent of the narrative than accurately reflective of legal knowledge typical of Hrafnkell’s
time, especially in one who has been described as “lǫgkœnn” [skilled in the law].
“Þorgeirr spurði Sám hlæjandi hversu honum þœtti at fara” [Thorgeir laughed and asked him what he thought of the outcome] (118; 55). To Sámr’s expression of pleasure at it, Þorgeirr responds: “Þykkisk þú nú nǫkkuru nær en áðr?” [Do you really think you’re any better off now than you were before?] (118; 55). But Sámr is content with their immediate victory and peculiarly unaware of the necessity
for the féransdómr [court of confiscation] by which Hrafnkell is to be deprived legally of home and property and made a full
In addition, when the féransdómr is held on the initiative and with the full support of the Þjóstarsons, they and
Hrafnkell are mutually surprised that Sámr doesn’t have his enemy executed. Hrafnkell
himself, pleading for the lives of his men, adds “þat er mér engi ósœmð, þótt þér drepið mik. Mun ek ekki undan því mælask” [but you can kill me without any discredit to yourselves. I’m not going to plead for
my life] (120; 57). Critics are divided as to whether Sámr’s decision is an act of foolish vainglory
He himself says that it is because Hrafnkell has many dependants that he will not
have him killed, if he will accept the degradation of a diminished life: “far þú af Aðalbóli með allt lið þitt ok haf þú eina fémuna, er ek skal skef þér, ok
mun þat harðla lítit … ” [he’s to leave Adalbol with his entire household and take away with him only such goods
as I let him, which will be very little indeed] (121; 58). One of the brothers then comments on the foolishness of Sámr’s self-described leniency:
“Muntu þess iðrask sjálfr, er þú gefr honum líf,” [You’ll have good reason to regret you’ve spared Hrafnkell’s life] (121; 59) and as usual the wisdom of chieftains far outweighs the judgment of this well-to-do
novice in the world of power, whose motives, whatever they actually are, lead him
to this crucially self-destructive decision.
That insubstantial ground of character, of excellence in Condren’s terms, is hinted
at when Sámr holds a gathering of Hrafnkell’s old supporters and “býzk til at vera yfirmaðr þeira í stað Hrafnkels. Menn játuðusk undir þat ok hugða
þó enn misjafnt til” [offered to be their chieftain in his place. They accepted this but some of them had
misgivings about it] (123; 60). Meanwhile, Hrafnkell Freysgoði turns suddenly atheist when he hears of the destruction
of his temple and gods and the horse he shared with Freyr. “Ek hygg þat hégoma at trúa á goð,” [I think it’s vain to believe in the gods] (123; 61) he exclaims, realizing that whatever power is to be achieved in his world will be
obtained only in so far as he helps himself to it.
It is clearly and explicitly with the regaining and maintenance of power in mind that
he gives in to the heroic whetting of the griðkona [housemaid] who goads him into the killing of Eyvindr. Sámr’s rather ostentatious successful
merchant brother, having just come from abroad and thus innocent himself of the workings
of the feud, is an ideal target, as she herself states: “Eyvindr Bjarnason reið hér yfir á á Skálavið með svá fagran skjǫld, at ljómaði af.
Er hann svá menntr, at hefnd væri í honum” [Eyvind Bjarnason was just crossing the river at Skala Ford carrying a bright shield
that shone in the sun. He’s a worthy target for revenge, an outstanding man like him] (127; 64). The validity of her thinking is affirmed at the end of the saga by the chieftain
Þorgeirr when he rejects Sámr’s plea for help: “Er þat nú auðsét, hverr vizkumunr ykkar hefir orðit, er hann lét þit sitja í friði
ok leitaði þar fyrst á, er hann gat þann af ráðit, er honum þótti þér vera meiri maðr” [Now it’s clear how much shrewder Hrafnkell is than you, for he left you in peace until
he could first get rid of the man he knew to be wiser than you] (132-33; 70). Disciplined but in no way morally reformed, Hrafnkell has waited to exact a strategic
vengeance on the ideal victim in Sámr’s family, and with that the possibility of the
latter’s reinstatement in power.
Readers are unaccountably puzzled by Eyvindr’s obliviousness to the threat as Hrafnkell
and his men appear and bear down on him for the kill. The composer has motivated this
complacency by declaring him “fáskiptinn” [little meddling, quiet] (125; 62) when explaining his response to the news of Sámr’s legal adventures during his absence:
“lét hann sér um þat fátt finnask” [he didn’t say much about it] (125; 62). If there was ever a valid subject of type-scene analysis of the sort undertaken
by Heinemann, certainly the approach of Eyvindr’s killers and his death is one. The
identification of the approaching enemy by a shepherd or servant, the ascertainment
of their intention, is balanced by the victim’s insistence on his innocence and then,
with belated acknowledgement of the danger, his heroic determination not to appear
cowardly by taking flight. In the face of such recognizable stereotypes it is futile
to attribute Eyvindr’s speech and actions to any desire on the composer’s part to
render details of his character or intentions here. He is the stock victim of a stock
At the end of the saga, then, a rehabilitated and again dominant Hrafnkell returns
to Aðalból after having killed Sámr’s brother, the only member of that family who
might have presented any significant opposition. When Sámr seeks help from his powerful
friends in Þorskafjǫrðr, he is kindly rebuffed by Þorgeirr, who observes, “Fýstum vit þik, at þú skyldir Hrafnkel af lífi taka, en þú vildir ráða” [We urged you to have Hrafnkell killed—that seemed the sensible thing to do—but you
insisted on having your own way] (132; 70). “Megum vit ekki hafa at þessu gæfuleysi þitt. Er okkr ok ekki svá mikil fýst at deila
við Hrafnkel, at vit nennim at leggja þar við virðing okkra optar.” [We’ve no wish to have anything more to do with your bad luck and we are not so eager
to clash with Hrafnkell again that we want to risk our position for the second time] (133; 70), he adds, refusing to pursue further the development of Sámr’s original undertaking,
upon the folly of which the latter himself had commented at his commencement of the
Although the proverb, Illt er heimskum lið að veita [It’s bad to give help to the foolish] is never explicitly formulated in the narrative of Hrafnkatla, its paroemial—that is, proverbial—force is clearly present in Sámr’s reference to
it and indeed helps to inform the thematic unity of the plot. Hrafnkell loses power
because he exercises it foolishly, and Sámr wins only because he has benefit of the
cunning and wisdom of the Þjóstarsons. Then again, Hrafnkell wins after losing because
he is clever, and Sámr loses ultimately because he is unwise in granting life to his
opponent. The fact that he could never have outwitted Hrafnkell in the first place
without the help of the aristocratic chieftain brothers from Þorskafjǫrðr is underscored
by another unspoken proverb, although there is no clear proverbial allusion to it
in the narrative: Illt er að setja heimskum hátt [It’s bad to establish the foolish in high positions].
These observations are by no means intended to provide the so far elusive key to the
point of Hrafnkels saga, and indeed our developing critical consciousness of a lack of consensus on this
subject may by now suggest to us that, as with most great narrative art, there is
no single key to its meaning. It can, however, be seen that much of the misfortune
in the story results from the foolishness of its actors and that Hrafnkell’s wise
recognition of his own foolishness is what enables the changes in his behaviour that
lead to his restoration. Critics who have emphasized a moralistic lesson in the correction
of Hrafnkell’s pride fall short in attempting to explain how a chieftain whose pride
is reformed can nevertheless undertake a gratuitous vengeance killing of the sort
he exacts on Eyvindr. Most would acknowledge that the hero’s initial overweening pride
is foolish, but it seems reasonable that the last killing is more closely related
to the stark practicality of his desire to regain his position than it is to pride
or a rigid adherence to the maintenance of heroic honour. A more persuasive common
denominator would thus seem to lie in reference to the paroemia of foolishness than
to the moral flaw of pride.
In closing, I would like to consider how in their origins proverbs arise from the
need of society to formulate, preserve and transmit its collective wisdom.
Numerous early societies have incorporated such paroemial wisdom in their law codes,
it is commonly used in the rhetorical discipline of public address and political persuasion,
and indeed it survives even today in legal argument and judicial decision. Secondary
to their main function in the preservation of wisdom, however, proverbs are used in
saga narrative for multiple purposes extending far beyond the impulse of their origins—applied
for emphasis, the definition of character, the delineation of moral value. Occasionally
they are used in the sagas with ironic sophistication, as in Grettis saga and in Fóstbrœðra saga, and their force in intertextual signalling is also a subject upon which there could
be fruitful discussion.
In extant written texts, then, proverbs in their various categories and sub-categories
have widely varying significance, depending on the quality of the saga narrative in
question and the intentions of its composer, for the expression of his own views,
or of views most important to his tale. As Guðbrandur Vigfússon recognized long ago,
it makes good critical sense to pay attention to their occurrence as we study Old
As the opening quotation of this essay playfully suggests, Guðbrandur, who was a keen
etymologist, recognized that in saga and saw we are dealing with an etymological doublet
(and hence cross-referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary). A saga is an extended saying—spoken narrative—so extended indeed as to have become a byword for lengthy story
telling; a saw is a pithy saying which, because it condenses the wisdom of a culture into memorable, iterable form,
can expand into illustrative stories of precisely saga-length. Hrafnkels saga richly explores this last point, which may be precisely why it has occasioned so
diverse a critical heritage. For although proverbial sayings may seem to foreclose
the need for thought, they actually propose a world of moral implications to those
who pause to consider them.