When I’m at the library, with time to spare, I naturally gravitate to the history section. One time I found an enticing collection of sagas and poems. I restrained myself to select only one book: Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories, a Penguin Classics edition translated by Hermann Palsson. The collection includes the following: Hrafnkel’s Saga (of course); Thorstein the Staff Struck; Ale Hood; Hreidar the Fool; Halldor Snorrason; Audun’s Story; and, finally Ivar’s Story.
Hrafnkel’s Saga: This was the longest story of the collection, and one of the saddest. There is a great deal of pain and loss, with even the steps taken to solve the problems twisting to the wrong direction. Although there are attempts at justice, Hrafnkel’s ideas of honour through revenge ultimately come out on top- at a high cost.
“Thorkel said to Sam, ‘I can’t understand why you’re doing this. You’ll have good reason to regret you’ve spared Hrafnkel’s life.’ Sam said that was the way it was going to be.”
Thorstein the Staff Struck: The conflict of this story begins with Thorstein being faced with a decision: whether to peacefully ignore the man who struck him with a staff- as his gentle nature would have it, or to avenge himself- as his father’s feudal feuding traditions would have it. Throrstein’s decision’s later land him with an avenger at his door. This story could have ended up much like Hrafnkel’s Saga. But Thorstein the Staff Struck holds a more hopeful note. Thorstein and his opponent Bjarni do come to blows, but in the midst of it they try and arrange a better deal.
“’Everything seems to be going wrong for me today,’ he (Bjarni) said. ‘Now my shoe-thong’s loose.’ ‘Tie it up then, said Thorstein. When Bjarni bent down to tie it, Thorstein went into the house and brought back two shields and a sword. He joined Bjarni on the hillock and said, ‘Here’s a sword and shield my father sends you. The sword shouldn’t get so easily blunted as the one you’ve been using. And I don’t want to stand here any longer with no shield to protect me against your blows. I’d very much like us to stop this game now, for I’m afraid your good luck will prove stronger than my bad luck. Every man wants to save his life, and I would too, if I could.’”
Ale Hood: Ale Hood is a short story, and didn’t hold my interest as much as the others. The story begins with a highly unflattering description of the titular character. But when Ale Hood has a dilemma, he manages to find an advocate- who then happens to insult many of Ale Hoods accusers. I was bracing myself for another bloody episode, but the story of Ale Hood takes an unexpected route. Ale Hood is mostly ignored in the story, however, and the main focus seems to be on his advocates, and their relationship with the accusers.
“’Help me now, good people, though I don’t deserve it, for without your help I haven’t a chance.’ It would take too long to repeat everything that Ale-Hood said, for he kept on talking and grovelling.”
Hreidar the Fool: This story is about a man who really didn’t intend any trouble, but seemed to attract it anyway and found himself with King Harald as an enemy. He is protected by King Magnus the Good (who rules Norway along with king Harald) and one of his chieftains, Eyvind. But Hreidar chooses to face his accuser and redeem himself- in his own way. At first the parlay seems to work, until King Harald finds another reason to be infuriated with Hreidar and tries to kill him again. But overall this is a story of improvement, even through trial and error.
“’I know he’s here,’ said the king. ‘There’s no point in your denying it.’ ‘Even if he is, I’m not going to betray King Magnus by handing over to you the man he wants me to protect.’ With that he (Eyvind) went out of the hall, and he’d only just left when Hreidar started hammering on the door and shouting he wanted to get out. ‘Keep quiet,’ said Eyvind. ‘King Harald’s here and wants to have you killed.’ But this didn’t stop Hreidar from pounding on the door and demanding to meet the king. Eyvind realized that he’d smash the door so he unlocked it, and said, ‘You’re as good as dead if you go in there.’”
Halldor Snorrason: Similar to Hreidar the Fool, this story brings up the issue of failed reconciliation. King Harald also plays a large role in this one. The story is made up of a series of spats between King Harald and Halldor, a man in his service who starts out with high favour. Another man, by the name of Bard, is long-suffering in his attempts to resolve the problems. But the theme of the story seems to be ‘you can’t win them all’. Watching the deterioration of Harald and Halldor’s friendship is fairly depressing, and yet there are some scenes that are, in a grim way, funny- such as the scene when they crash the ship.
“When Bard woke up he saw Halldor was tying up his hammock. He asked him what he was doing, and Halldor said he was going aboard a merchant ship lying at anchor nearby. ‘We’re most likely parting for good now,’ he said. ‘This was the last straw, and I don’t want the king to damage any more of his ships or valuables just to spite and humiliate me.’ ‘Wait a moment,’ said Bard. ‘I’m going to see the king again.’ When the king saw him, he said, ‘You’re up early, Bard.’ ‘Sir,’ said Bard,’ I have to be. It’s hard to keep peace between you. Now he’s going to clear out and join another ship, and he’ll sail off to Iceland in a temper. That’s not a proper way for you to part, and I don’t think you’ll ever get another man as trustworthy as Halldor.’”
Audun’s Story: Audun’s story almost has a fairy-tale element to it: a poor farmer takes a journey, during which he must use his ingenuity and virtue to make the full trip and return. Audun not only risks visiting the courts of two kings at war, but faces starvation and sickness in his travels. And yet it is repeatedly his humility that gets him out of his trouble. When he gets something valuable, he turns around and gives it as a gift to someone else. He turns down high offers for more modest, and yet better, routes.
“Audun said, ‘I’m planning to travel south to Denmark to give the bear to King Svein.’ The king asked, ‘Are you really so stupid that you don’t know this country’s at war with Denmark? Or do you think you’re so much luckier than everyone else that you can take a precious thing like this where even harmless people carrying nothing with them can hardly manage to travel?’ Audun said, ‘It’s up to you to decide what will happen to my expedition. Naturally, I’ve often heard about this bitter fighting between King Svein and yourself, but maybe I won’t get hurt.’ The king said, ‘I think it’ll be best to let you get on with your journey- it could be good luck will come your way. But I want you do me a favour: let me know how the journey turns out.’”
Ivar’s Story: Ivar’s story is the shortest one in the book, taking up only three pages. Ivar, an Icelander poet, is well loved in the court of the Norwegian king. But then his own brother, unable to contend with Ivar’s higher standing, gives him a terrible emotional blow. King Eystein notices the gloomy mood of his poet, and the rest of the story follows the two of them working out a way to restore Ivar to his old self. It is a very different story than the one the collection started with.
“A man called Ivar was staying at the court of King Eystein (of Norway) . Ivar was an Icelander, well-born and intelligent and a good poet. The king thought very highly of him, and his fondness for Ivar is borne out by the following episode.”
All of these stories bring up the issue of dealing with pain and strife- be it heartache, a threat to one’s life, a threat to one’s honour, or lawsuit. The interesting thing is as the stories progress, the methods of dealing with these troubles change.