Friend or Foe? The Significance in the Difference between Heroes and Enemies


Although there is not an abundance of character description to be found in the Icelandic sagas, more often than not, one is able to judge the character of the men through their actions as well as what is said about them. The explanations found in the introductions of the major players are often short and sweet, embodying only those traits deemed most important and relevant to society. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to clearly distinguish the difference between protagonists and antagonists based on direct characterization alone. This is not solely due to the lack of character description, but also due in part to a relatively high level of similarity between the two. However, it is the finite distinctions that make each character a recognizable hero versus a foe, that define the values and morals of eight and ninth century Icelandic society.

Direct characterization, or the specific words used to describe each character, is remarkably similar for both the “friends” and the “foes” in these sagas. In fact, they are so similar that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other based on these facts alone. In the saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, Gunnlaug is the character whom the reader readily identifies as the protagonist, and Hrafn the antagonist. But the pair are described as “big and strong/ big, strong,” (565-6) “[having] a pleasant face and broad shoulders/well worth looking at,” (565-6) “very manly/accomplished,” (565-6) and “a gifted poet/a good poet,” (565-6) respectively.

Strength, appearance, status, and talent for poetry are four of the most esteemed qualities in Icelandic society, and it is apparent that both men uphold them all. With the sagas’ frequent absence of a narrator, the reader is forced to delve deeper to determine where his/her loyalties should lie. On the surface, Gunnlaug and Hrafn both seem to display the ideal qualities of a “Viking,” but that is not so. The clear distinction between the two lies in how they interact with others. Gunnlaug is clearly in love with Helga the fair, and this was public knowledge to which Hrafn was well aware. After a dispute over poetry in the faraway court of a King, Hrafn suddenly cuts his formerly friendly ties with Gunnlaug and leaves at once to capture Gunnlaug’s beloved as his own bride.

This deliberate betrayal and insult Hrafn bestows on Gunnlaug displays his true colors; he values his own selfish desire to avenge his wounded pride over Gunnlaug’s embarrassing poem over the happiness of both his former friend, and his new bride who is utterly miserable to be married to him. In contrast, Gunnlaug approaches the situation with dignity and follows the guidelines of the day. When Hrafn proposes the idea to leave Iceland to finish the duel, Gunnlaug offers him “whatever hospitality [he] would like [there]” (588). He even upholds his honor and ethics so far as to offer to stop fighting after chopping off Hrafn’s leg, saying he “will not fight [Hrafn], a wounded man, any longer” (591). But, true to the characteristics of the typical Icelandic “foe,” Hrafn promises not to trick Gunnlaug as he fetches him water, then “cruelly tricks him [anyway], and…hack[s] at Gunnlaug’s head” (591) as he reaches to give him the water. The clear discrepancy between the behavior and morals, or lack thereof, of Gunnlaug and Hrafn show who is the hero in the saga and who is thus deemed the foe.

There is a similar pair of characters in the saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, where there are only one or two distinct differences that distinguish Hrafnkel, the “foe” in this case, from Sam and Einar, the antagonists. Hrafnkel is described as “promising and able,” (439) and his love for his stallion, Freyfaxi, demonstrates his ability to show compassion. Sam and Einar were both “good-looking and promising men” (439), and as Einard later displays in his inability to lie to Hrafnkel about the use of his horse (which may very well have saved his life), he is an honest man as well. Sam displays the magnitude of his character as well by going into conflict with Hrafnkel for his uncle, although it is done grudgingly. It is stated that Hrafnkel “never paid anyone reparations,” (443) a great crime and dishonor at the time. Yet, when Einar’s family comes to collect them anyway, Hrafnkel offers a compromise, which is turned down.

Sam and Hrafnkel action’s differ from this point on in the saga based on one principle: honor. Sam, for the most part, follows all legal guidelines and procedures during his quest for revenge, and Hrafnkel attempts to evade the law at all costs by running away from the Althing when he realizes he will lose the lawsuit. The interesting aspect in this story, however, is that although Sam is technically the antagonist and Hrafnkel the foe, both behave in ways that are representative of either side. Neither is capable of acting utterly good or utterly evil. There is no direct need for Sam to kill Hrafnkel’s beloved horse, but he does so anyway purely out of spite. Both characters display measures of desirable qualities and both commit dishonorable acts. The distinguishing factor between the two, however, is the higher regard Sam holds for the sacred principle of honor—he habitually follows the rules of revenge and reparations, while Hrafnkel tends to disregard these rules, and therefore becomes the antagonist in society.

This one clear distinction that clarifies and defines the “hero” character over the “foe,” is the utmost important aspect in these sagas, because it represents the highest value Icelanders could hold dear: Honor.
If it weren’t for the clear differences in the behaviors of opposing characters regarding the principle of honor, there would be no distinction between hero and enemy; they would both exist as equals in a grey area. And it is important to observe the grey area that is present in these conflicts. It is a noteworthy component of the sagas, signifying a maturity in literature apparent in Iceland far before the European countries ceased their stale stories of good versus evil, written late into the thirteenth and fourteenth. Not often in a saga does one character act as a saint, doing no wrong to anyone at any time.

Neither do many of the foes act in a disrespectful way at all times. Hrafnkel’s love for his horse and “warmth” when first meeting Einar show that he is not a purely evil character. In the same way, Sam’s revenge upon Freyfaxi and the fact that Gunnlaug would leave the woman he loved for so long, knowing that he was breaking their contract in the process, show that Viking heroes are not objects of perfection either. If sagas presented flat characters, representative of Christ-like heroes or Devilish, unadulterated antagonists, the plot would be uninteresting and today’s society would be completely unable to relate.

It is this grey area, this realistic perspective on characterization, which makes these sagas interesting and applicable to modern life.



By: Keara Flynn
Major (at the moment): Construction
Expected Graduation Date: Spring 2011
Hometown: Maple Valley, WA

The topic I chose for this paper reminded me of a study we did in my AP Literature class in high school on the characterization and traits of Epic heroes, which I particularly enjoyed. I like to be able to pick apart why characters are described the way they are, and what point their every action serves not only in the development of their persona, but in the overall suggestiveness of the text. In this paper, I began just by starting to explore why only certain details were included, and it led me to discover it was the author’s way of subtly underlying the most important virtues in society.