The saga of Hrafnkell is one of the most widely read Icelandic sagas, thanks to its succinct plot and memorable characters. The tale is particularly interesting because its premises seem to derail any modern notions of right, wrong and justice served. The only conclusions one can draw are ‘it’s better to be alive than dead’ and ‘it’s better to have the support of powerful chieftains than rely on any kind of god’.
The main character, Hrafnkell, is a religious fanatic who builds a temple to Freyr on the farm Aðalból in Hrafnkelsdalur. Hrafnkell’s prized stallion, Freyfaxi, is dedicated to the god, and Hrafnkell swears an oath to kill anyone who dares ride him without permission. As might be expected, someone does. Discovering the outrage, Hrafnkell takes his axe to the errant youth.
When the boy’s father, Þorbjörn, demands compensation for his son’s death, Hrafnkell refuses to pay up, offering instead to look after Þorbjörn in his old age. Proudly, the man refuses, and the characters are launched into a court battle that ultimately leads to Hrafnkell being declared an outlaw. He chooses to ignore the sentence and returns home.
Before long, Þorbjörn’s nephew Sámur Bjarnason arrives to uphold the family honour, stringing Hrafnkell up by his Achilles tendons until he agrees to hand over his farm and possessions. Sámur then offers him a choice: to live a life of subordination and dishonour, or to die on the spot. You might think a saga hero would go for death, but Hrafnkell chooses life.
Sámur moves into Aðalból and makes a few home improvements. The pagan temple is destroyed, and the horse Freyfaxi weighted with stones, thrown over a cliff and drowned in the water below. Hrafnkell, by now convinced that his favourite god doesn’t give two hoots about him, renounces his religious beliefs and sets up on a new farm, Hrafnkelsstaðir. He vows to change his vengeful nature and becomes a kind and simple farmer, becoming so well-liked in his new neighbourhood that he gains even more wealth and power than before.
One day, Sámur and his brother Eyvindur pass by en route to Aðalból. Hrafnkell’s maid sees them and goads her employer into taking revenge for his earlier humiliation. Hrafnkell abandons the Mr Nice Guy routine, sets out in pursuit of the troublesome brothers, kills Eyvindur, and offers Sámur the same choice that he was offered before – give up Aðalból and live in shame, or be put to death. Sámur also decides not to die. Hrafnkell thus regains his former estates and lives happily ever after at Aðalból.