The most famous saga set in the east of Iceland is Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. The saga is relatively short and its plot is simple; with regard to interpretation, however, it is a highly ambiguous saga in many ways and more has been written about it—and what its ‚message‘ may be—than about many other sagas put together. It is a narrative about power, certainly, and what it takes to hold on to power, but it is by no means a black-and-white picture...
|Aðalból today, looking south down Hrafnkelsdalur|
|Faxagil, south of Aðalból|
|Looking north up Hrafnkelsdalur|
Hrafnkell prospers on his new farm and builds up his power again; he abandons his devotion to the god Freyr. Some years later, Sámr‘s brother Eyvindr returns to Iceland after a stint abroad. Hrafnkell learns that Eyvindr is travelling to visit Sámr at Aðalból; pursues him, and kills him in order to exact vengeance on Sámr. Sámr finds his dead brother, raises a burial mound over him. Hrafnkell goes home to Hrafnkelsstaðir, calmly has a meal, and then sets off to Aðalból where he gives Sámr the same choice of options that Sámr offered to him before: to die, or to live (with shame) and move out of Aðalból. Sámr chooses the latter and moves back to his farm at Leiksskálar. Hrafnkell dies of sickness and is buried in a mound at Aðalból; his sons take over his chieftancy and become powerful men themselves. ‚And there concludes what there is to say about Hrafnkell‘ (Ok lýkr þar frá Hrafnkeli at segja, Hrafnkels saga ch. 10, p. 133).
The saga has long been a test-case in the debate over whether the sagas are essentially 13th-century fiction, or have their origins in oral traditions about historical events that were passed down from one generation to the next and finally inscribed on parchment several hundred years after the times these events are said to have taken place. Much scholarly ink has also been spilt over the extent to which the presentation of local topography in Hrafnkels saga ‚fits‘ or can be reconciled with what is to be found in the local area in modern times.
|Hrossageilar, above Aðalból, where Sámr and |
his men left their horses before going down
to Aðalból to torture Hrafnkell??
Many of the places named in Hrafnkels saga—individual farmsteads, shepherd‘s cots, natural features such as rivers and gullies—can be found on a map, though as always, it is possible to debate whether the identification of these places today corresponds with where they were (or were thought to be) at the time when the saga was written, and again, at the time when the events that the saga describes took place. The farm at Aðalból itself is one example of this—was the Aðalból of the saga located where the modern Aðalból is today, or was it originally somewhere further south in the valley? Some of those who have written about topography and Hrafnkels saga have questioned the ‘fit‘ between the saga‘s description of the natural features around Aðalból, and the lie of the land in which the present Aðalból is set. Others are certain that the saga Aðalból was located where the modern Aðalból is, though the valley has not been continuously inhabited from the saga-age to present times, due to volcanic ash falling at different times (after the volcano Hekla erupted in 1185, for example, the valley seems to have been deserted until the late middle ages when it was resettled).
|Basalt formations with moss|
The saga continues to draw people to the remote Hrafnkelsdalur valley, however—on the present farm there is accommodation, a petrol pump, and a bar which goes by the name of ‘Sámsbar‘...and in which I am writing up this post. When I asked the owners why the bar is named after Sámr and not Hrafnkell, they replied that they found him to be a more sympathetic character...and so he is in many, though not in all, ways (here I think of his hamstringing of Hrafnkell). But the victory of the underdog turns out to be short-lived—perhaps it would have been more enduring had Sámr killed Hrafnkell as he was urged to do by others...but this is an uncomfortable equation/conclusion. „Svona er lífið“ (‚Such is life‘), an Icelander might say...
|From the southern foot of Hrafnkelsdalur|
For those who want to read more about Hrafnkels saga and place-names, one place to start is with an article by O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ‘The Topography of Hrafnkels saga‘, published in the Saga-Book of the Viking Society 19 (1974-77), 239-63, and accessible online at http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Saga-Book%20XIX.pdf. Further references to previous scholarship can be found therein.