Episode 2: Hrafnkel’s Saga

Our grand quest to put the sagas of the Icelanders on trial begins with an acknowledged classic–the relatively brief (but totally epic) Hrafnkels saga Freysgoði. This is the timeless story of a harsh chieftain who falls from power and rises again, the men who band together against him, and the horse at the center of it all. Hrafnkel’s saga offers a listener-friendly introduction to the complex and blood-drenched world of the Icelandic sagas. And it comes with torture! But is bloodshed and torture enough to earn this saga a top score from John and Andy? Or will the saga be judged harshly for its lack of scope and poor treatment of animals? Find out now!

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Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories (Penguin Classics)

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6 thoughts on “Episode 2: Hrafnkel’s Saga

  1. I’d have chosen Hrafnkel as a Thing Man as well. I have not yet read the Saga, as my university did not offer such an awesome course as Icelandic literature, but from your discussion I’d have to go with him being the “hero” of this tale. He may be hardcore, but he does nothing wrong by the standards of his culture. Except for the slacking.

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  2. Pingback: Why is this blog ‘hloegiligt’? | hloegiligt

  3. Pingback: Episode Archive | Saga Thing

  4. I started your wonderful podcast today and expect it to be included in my regular listening this summer here in Iceland. A few thoughts on this saga as I read through it after listening to your show. I’m reading it in Icelandic, so I’ll have to translate any quotes on my own. I apologize if the translations are clumsy.

    You translate Ólafur trételgja Svíakonungur as Olaf the woodcutter, but I read it as “woodcarver” or “whittler.”

    Aðalból is a pretty remote place place by Icelandic standards. If I happen to be driving through the East Fjords this summer I’ll make a point of visiting. According to Emily Lethbridge, there’s a bar in the area called Sámsbar, thus named because the locals found him a more sympathetic figure than Hrafnkell.

    Interestingly, Hrafnkell dedicates half his horse to Freyr, not the whole animal. Is it possible that this is significant – if he considered the horse to belong wholly to Freyr, would it be wholly incumbent upon the deity to exact vengeance? Could Hrafnkell indeed swear any oath like the one he did if he didn’t keep a stake in the animal?

    Some good words from a conciliatory Hrafnkell to Þorbjörn: “We often will regret having said to much, but only seldom having said too little.”

    Sámr: “It cannot be considered much in the way of news if Hrafnkell kills a man.”

    More choice words as Þorgeir asks Þorkell whether he would watch over Hrafnkell as he hangs by his feet or preside over the judgment. Þorkell answers: “I’d rather sit here by Hrafnkell. Seems like less work to me.”

    Hrafnkell’s answer to Sámr: “Many would prefer a quick death to such misery, but I must, as so many others, choose life when it is offered. This I do mostly for the sake of my sons, as they would not be able to seek elevation if I were to die.”

    The washerwoman’s spiel to Hrafnkell is wonderful. It seems strange to start off by haranguing him as a coward and loudly questioning his manhood, and only then actually notifying him who’s riding past his house. Hrafnkell is a little peeved: “It may be that you speak rather too many truths, though not in any way because of good intentions. It’s now appropriate that your work become rather harder. Hurry south to Víðistaðir …”

    The work shows little interest in Þorbjörn as a character and gives us very little insight into his motivations, and doesn’t even bother to tell us what finally becomes of him. Sámr settles Þorbjörn at Leikskálar after his big day. Hrafnkell then drives Sámr to Leikskálar after he settles the scores. What becomes of poor, emotional Þorbjörn? Though he is the driving force behind the plot, he is discarded as soon as his usefulness to it ends. We are also not told how he is compensated for his son, since his lawyer takes all of Hrafnkell’s property as his own. This seems odd to me, but also implies that the text’s sympathies lie ultimately with Hrafnkell. A more modern version of this story would surely focus a bit more on the proud but poor farmer who takes on a mighty and violent chieftain.

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    • Excellent response, Gisli. Glad you found us. We look forward to hearing more from you, especially if you have any insights or alternate readings from what we offer. Be sure to take pictures on your journey and send a few of your favorites for our Statues and Monuments page.

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  5. Pingback: Where to begin reading in the Icelandic Sagas? | The Scholarly Scribe

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