Honor: A Comparison and Contrast of the Icelandic Saga Characters Hrafnkel and Gisli

            Although Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða and Gísla saga Súrssonar belong to different genres of saga—the one being a saga of wealth and power and the other a saga of outlawry, according to the categorization on page lx—these sagas bear much fruit when comparing and contrasting the main character of each. While Hrafnkel is an antagonist and Gisli a protagonist, they share the common themes of taking revenge, being outlawed by a brother of those whom they injured, and initially worshipping as pagans and then later forsaking the old gods. Because of these similarities, Hrafnkel and Gisli can be seen as foils to one another, one trusting in his own strength and the other in the strength of his angelic vision.

Even though both take revenge, Hrafnkel kills primarily motivated by self-interest. He kills Einar because Einar rode on the horse that Hrafnkel had foolishly or devotedly dedicated to Frey. This oath was not necessarily based on thinking about others because, if Hrafnkel had cared about others, he would not have made that oath in the first place, because he would have realized that someone might accidentally ride it and he would have to execute judgement. Hrafnkel even admits that he would have forgiven Einar had he not “sworn such a serious oath” (442). Hrafnkel’s second murder is that of Eyvind, Sam’s brother returned from Norway. This murder, too, was not based on kinship, but based on self-preservation and self-honor. Hrafnkel wanted to repay the one who had brought him dishonor by suing him at the Alþinigi—Sam—a dishonor, which, in turn, was based on Hrafnkel’s harsh vow.

On the other hand, Gisli kills primarily motivated by kinship. All of his slayings happen because a family member has been injured and he desires to repay. In the beginning, Gisli slays Bard, who had allegedly seduced Thordis (501). Thus Gisli bears his family’s best interest in mind, and, in this instance, he is trying to protect his sister from losing her virginity. He then kills Einar, Arni, and their father, Skeggi the Dueller—Bard’s partner in crime—for burning down his family’s house (503-4). Finally, Gisli kills Thorgrim in his sleep, the one who slew his brother-in-law Vestein. When Gisli and his brother Thorkel discuss the murder, Gisli says, “It was unthinkable that a man such as Vestein should not be avenged” (526). Unlike Hrafnkel, who is concerned only with amassing status and regaining his confiscated property, Gisli fights to maintain his family’s best interest. Even Thordis, who had betrayed Gisli, when she attempts the assassination of Eyjolf, realizes that he had, indeed, been trying to protect her (556).

Both main characters are also outlawed by the brothers of the ones whom they killed. Sam outlaws Hrafnkel, who later murders his brother Eyvind. Thorgrim’s brother Bork outlaws Gisli, who murders Thorgrim, the murderer of Gisli’s brother-in-law Vestein.

A final similarity is that both stories involve initially pagan main characters who relinquish the old gods. For Hrafnkel’s part, it is abundantly clear that he begins as a pagan. After all, he is called Frey’s goði, and the text explains how, according to his immense love for Frey, Hrafnkel builds him a temple and dedicates “half of all his best livestock to him” (439). He even names one of his favorite horses, “a dun stallion with a dark mane and tail and a dark stripe down its back” (439), Freyfaxi, Icelandic for “Frey-horse,” and swears that he will kill whomever rides the strong yet fated horse. The text calls Frey “his friend” (439), which seems to be a condescending reference in the saga, as if the author were calling Frey Hrafnkel’s little pet spirit or a being only subjectively known to Hrafnkel as a sort of personal token god.

However, when Hrafnkel realizes that worshipping Frey is not in his best interest, he abandons this worship. After his confiscation and after he hears how the men destroy Freyfaxi and the temple, Hrafnkel then “considered it vanity,” the text explains, “to believe in gods and said that from that time onwards he would never believe in them” (455). “He kept his word,” the paragraph concludes, “and after this never made any more sacrifices” (455). It seems that Hrafnkel’s piety is skin-deep. He devotedly worships either when it is favored by others and does no harm to his reputation or when the god actually helps him. When both of these cases cease to be true, Hrafnkel abandons Frey (and all the other gods to boot), like a young person forsaking their pet stuffed animal when they are made fun of or it no longer suits them.

In Gísla, Gisli begins as a pagan worshipper. This can be inferred by the fact that he ventures to a Danish village known as a pagan ritual site—Viborg, the prefix of whose name, vi-, indicating an outdoor pagan ritual site “presumably enclosed with stones or poles” (Gräslund 59). Although (my version of) the text is silent about any conversion to Christianity of his occurring at Viborg, Kroesen thinks that “Gísli learned about this religion during a journey through Denmark, and accepted some of its values” (227). However, the text does say that “Gisli no longer sacrificed after he left Viborg,” but is quick to add that “he still held feasts and showed the same magnanimity as before” (512).

In the end, it seems, Gisli did become a Christian. After Bork hires the hitman Eyjolf the Grey to hunt him down, Gisli relates his dream to his wife of the good dream-woman coming and advising him “to stop following the old faith for the rest of [his] life, and to refrain from studying any charms or ancient lore,” with the added injunction “to be kind to the deaf and the lame and the poor and the helpless” (531). By the fact that the good dream-women tells Gisli not to follow the old faith—old Norse paganism—and its practices, but to follow acts compatible with—and essential to—Christianity, and by the fact that his relations went on pilgrimage after his death, it is most probable that Gisli had converted to Christianity, even though the text is not exactly explicit about this point. Nevertheless, Gisli’s conversion from the ancient Norse pantheon is not one based on pragmatism and does not lead to atheism, as is the case with Hrafnkel. Instead, Gisli, trusting in the angelic hope of the good dream-woman, willingly trusts that the god(s) that this messenger represents will lead him to eternity and heal and bind his wounds. Thus, despite both main characters beginning as pagans and later abandoning the old paganism, Hrafnkel remains un-pious and becomes atheistic, while Gisli remains pious throughout the story but replaces the god(s) whom he reverences with, presumably, the Judeo-Christian God and His dream-messenger.

The ends of their lives also show great contrast despite the main characters’ aforementioned similarities in other areas. Because Hrafnkel dies because of an illness, “[h]e,” the author tells us, “did not live to be an old man” (462), a reproach that would have been dishonorable and even heartbreaking. Even though he “kept his honor for many years,” it was merely temporal honor. Ironic that he who told Sam to watch out for pride leading to downfall is the one who died the less honorable death—disease at a younger age—while Sam lived at his farm “into his old age,” even though he never got any redress (462). At least Sam did not have the stigma of being a tyrant, while Hrafnkel dies with forced blood on his hands.

Compared to Hrafnkel, Gisli dies a tremendously honorable death. Not only is his last battle-stand simply amazing and heroic, but also he had become a local hero and his legend of outwitting and escaping the dumb confiscators was spread abroad. The extolling narrator repeatedly reminds the reader that Gisli “defended himself well and with great courage” (554, cf. 555). The narrator concludes the climactic final battle with, “And it is said everywhere that no man in this land had ever been known to put up a greater stand than Gisli” (556). The story of Gisli, the long-invincible local hero outwitting the bad guys, certainly trumps the wealthy, prideful landowner smashing those who try to call him out.

In conclusion, the main characters of these two sagas, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða and Gísla saga Súrssonar, respectively, can be seen as foils to each other due to their similarities. Despite the first being the antagonist of that saga and the second being the protagonist of his saga, Hrafnkel and Gisli share taking revenge, being outlawed by the brothers of the ones whom they kill, and initially worshipping as pagans but later converting from their old Norse gods. The differences of the two characters, then, are in their reasons for taking revenge, what they convert to, and the ends of their lives and their deaths. For Hrafnkel, he kills and worships out of self-interest and dies dishonorably, despite striving his whole life to gain honor. For Gisli, he takes revenge in order to maintain his family’s wellbeing, worships out of true piety and trust in the divine, and dies the honorable death as an authentic local hero. That Hrafnkel dies in dishonor despite trying to earn honor while Gisli dies in honor while not pursuing honor reminds me of the words of one who spoke about trying to earn honor and standing in this life: “He who tries to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake and for the sake of the kingdom will gain it.” Maybe the scribal monks had that principle in mind all along.

Works Cited
“Gisli Sursson’s Saga.” Trans. Martin S. Regal. Sagas 496-557.
Gräslund, Anne-Sofie. “Religion, Art, and Runes.” Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2000. 55-71. Print.
Kratz, Henry. “Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða.” Pulsiano 301.
Kroesen, Riti. “Gísla saga Súrssonar.” Pulsiano 227-8.
Pulsiano,Phillip, ed. Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Garland Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages 1. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 934. New York: Garland, 1993. Print.
“The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi.” Trans. Terry Gunnell. Sagas 436-62.
The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000. Print.

To avoid the confusion which this practice often engenders, “Sagas 496-557,” is an example of an MLA cross-reference, in this case referring to The Sagas of the Icelanders entry. Two other cross-references, for example, refer to Pulsiano’s Medieval Scandinavia encyclopedia.

Written in September 2013
by Joshua Johnson
Major: General History
Expected Graduation Date: Spring 2015
Hometown: Bellevue, WA

I came to the realization that Hrafnkel and Gisli shared some elements as characters, such as both being outlawed, both murdering the brothers of the ones by whom they were outlawed (or, both being outlawed by the brothers of the ones they murdered), and both initially worshiping the ancient pagan Norse gods. I realized also that Hrafnkel gives up all god-worship after he abandons the old Norse pantheon, while Gisli converts from worshiping the old Norse gods to worshiping (presumably) the Christian God as revealed through his good dream-woman. From that point, I argued that Gisli was truly pious, worshiping the divine in no matter what form he perceived it, while Hrafnkel was merely outwardly pious based on if his worship was accepted or pragmatically beneficial (that is, helps him advance in life), but dropping the gods when it put him in an unfavorable social situation or when the gods do not help him. Also, I noticed the trend that Gisli seemed less interested in heaping honor for himself but keeping the well-being of his family in mind. Hrafnkel, on the other hand, seems prideful and wants to gain honor for himself and murders the family of those who try to sue him (that is, stand up to his tyrannic authoritarianism). So, while Gisli does not seek his own honor in life, he ends up dying a heroic death and being received as an honorable local hero, Hrafnkel seeks honor and ends up dying a dishonorable death (sickness at a relatively young age). I thought that this trend was intriguing and it reminded me of Jesus' statement that the one who gives up their life for His sake and for the sake of His kingdom would gain their life while the one who seeks to hold onto their life will lose it. I then hypothesized that possibly the monks who wrote these sagas bore that principle in mind while writing.

In general, (and this brief self-introduction does not reflect this!) I seek to be more concise in writing. I have also been interested in the ideas of both/and as opposed to either/or, a way of looking at the world that, I think, is more consistent with reality. Because of that interest, I have let ambiguity be an element in my writing. For example, in this paper, I wrote, "Gisli remains pious throughout the story but replaces the god(s) whom he reverences with, presumably, the Judeo-Christian God and His dream-messenger" (Johnson 4). The text does not explicitly tell us if Gisli had converted to Christianity and which new god(s) he worshiped. Whatever god Gisli may have actually been worshiping, he thinks he is worshiping the god or gods represented by the good dream-women, a god which is different from the old Norse gods. However, it is most likely that Gisli began worshiping the Judeo-Christian God, but, since the text does not say, the ambiguity or tension must remain.

I am interested in history, literature, comparative and historical linguistics, comparative mythology, religion, and organic living. I like being outdoors, in God's creation. I want to visit Ireland and Scotland.