Face the Consequences: A Reading of Hrafnkel’s Saga
Legality, although often intertwined with morality, is not to be confused with it. In Hrafnkel’s Saga, Hrafnkel is a chieftain who makes an oath to slay anyone who rides his beloved Freyfaxi. He generously provides Einar with a job, only asking that he not ride Freyfaxi. Einar broke this oral oath and was subsequently killed. Although murder seems extreme as Einar was merely trying to better serve his job, an oath was made and not following through with the consequences would have brought tragedy to all. Although Hrafnkel was unjustly charged for murder in a trial he was physically restrained from attending, it is obvious that Hrafnkel should be vindicated on account of Einar’s oral consent, Hrafnkel’s duties as chieftain, Einar’s conscious abuse of Freyfaxi, and Hrafnkel’s compensation.
Einar’s oral consent to Hrafnkel’s conditions demonstrates his agreement to the consequences of defying the oral contract, clearly indicating Hrafnkel’s innocence. To begin with, Einar was fortunate enough to even find a decent job because at the time “all the best jobs [had] been taken by others (39). With such a magnanimous offer, Hrafnkel only imposed one condition; to never ride his cherished Freyfaxi “however urgent the need may [seem], for [he has] sworn an oath to kill anyone who rides him” (39-40). Einar agreed stating “he would never be so wicked as to ride the one horse which was forbidden to him, particularly since there were plenty of other horses at his disposal” (40). Einar evidently gave oral consent. Since Iceland was illiterate, oral contracts were legally binding at the time of the incident. Therefore from a solely legal stance, Hrafnkel is undoubtedly innocent. Moreover, Hrafnkel even went to the extent to tell Einar to do as he tells “for it’s an old saying that ‘warning wards off blame’” (40). Additionally, when confronted about his actions, “Einar said he could not deny it” (42). Hrafnkel reinforced the severity of that single condition and Einar admitted to his undertakings, showing Einar knew he was in the wrong. Consequently, Hrafnkel is not to blame.
As chieftain, Hrafnkel was tied down to his pact with the god Frey and therefore acted only to fulfill his responsibilities. Hrafnkel “had a large temple build and held great sacrifices to the gods,” (36) when he first settled in Adalbol. As both a priest and chieftain, Hrafnkel worshiped Frey above all the other gods and was even “given the nickname Frey’s-Priest” (37). He “gave his patron Frey a half-share in [his horse and] loved this horse so passionately that he swore a solemn oath to kill anyone who rode the stallion without his permission” (38). It is unfortunate that Hrafnkel would have “forgiven this single offense if [he had] not sworn so great an oath (42). It is important to note that if Hrafnkel did not follow the oath he made to the god Frey, there would have been even dire consequences for not only himself, but for all the people he serves. Since the terrain and environment is already hostile, it is critical that Hrafnkel put his people first. The lives of his people were naturally seen as more urgent than just one single servant. Hrafnkel was bound to his actions as Einar set his fate to slay him, showing Hrafnkel’s actions were simply an unwilling effect of Einar’s actions to protect hi people; therefore he is even morally justified for his actions as he not only punished a criminal offense, but also protected his people.
More important than Hrafnkel’s compulsory response is Einar’s conscious decision to ride Freyfaxi despite Hrafnkel’s efforts to evade such situations from transpiring. To begin with, Einar resolved to ride Freyfaxi “thinking that Hrafnkel would never find out” (41), showing that this was in fact a conscious act. Furthermore Einar did not just fleetingly ride Freyfaxi; he rode the stallion to the point where “Freyfaxi was all running with sweat and every hair on his body was dripping. He was covered in mud and panting with exhaustion” (41). This unmistakably illustrates that Einar abused Freyfaxi. Moreover, Hrafnkel did everything he could to ensure Einar would never have to utilize Freyfaxi. This engenders Einar’s deliberate decision to ride Freyfaxi as that much more criminal. Therefore Hrafnkel is plainly innocent as Einar infringed the contract under cognizance of repercussions.
Hrafnkel makes a deliberate effort to compensate for Einar’s death, showing he feels great remorse and should therefore not have a harsh verdict. Einar is not the first casualty of a broken oath. Therefore it is that much more meaningful that Hrafnkel “[admits] this killing seems to [him] one of the worst acts [he has] ever committed,” (43) showing his deep remorse for the unfortunate events that happened. Additionally, although Hrafnkel “refused to pay compensation for the men he killed” (37) in every instance before Einar, he distinctly wants to show Thorbjorn, Einar’s father, “how much worse [he considers] this killing than all the others,” (43) by offering plenty of milk in the summer and meat in the autumn every year as long as he chooses to live on his farm, a good start in life for Thorbjorn’s other sons and daughters, anything in Hrafnkel’s possession that he wants, and to look after him for the rest of his life when he is done farming. This is an extremely generous offer that is a substantial compensation. In addition, Hrafnkel did not simply kill Einar and leave the body to get eaten by ruthless predators; he ‘had Einar’s body buried on the hillock west of the shielding where he raised a cairn over the grave. The cairn is called Einarsvarda, and the shilling people use it to mark the middle of the evening” (43). This shows Hrafnkel cared to have a burial and tried to honor Einar’s life. This remorse and attempt to compensate for even his grudging actions shows that Hrafnkel is not only legally innocent, but he also morally expiates his sins.
Despite being warned of the consequences and agreeing to an legally binding oral contract, Einar voluntarily rides Freyfaxi, knowingly foreshadowing his own demise. Hrafnkel was obliged to kill Einar due to his pact with the god Frey. Failing to do so would have ended up with adverse repercussions for everyone. Furthermore, even though Hrafnkel is already clearly legally innocent, he goes as far as to redress his contrite act of murder. Therefore Hrafnkel is not guilty and his charge of murder should be requited.