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Much has been written on Hrafnkel’s saga. The story seems to have attracted more criticism than favor, with most people taking the perspective that Hrafnkel was guilty of murder. However, are they justified to think so? Was he guilty of the crime of Einar’s murder? Or was he simply a victim of a sequence of unfortunate events? The paper analyses the case putting across a strong defense for Hrafnkel.
There has always been a misunderstanding about Hrafnkel. Most critics have considered him a ruthless man guilty of Einar’s murder. However, for murder to be committed the action must be premeditated. The critics have also intentionally decided to forget the setting of his story. The stage is set in the 13th century Iceland. It was the period when chieftains and priests ruled the rural lands and acted as a link between gods and men. It is obvious that the norms of a community are guided by their legal systems. These 21st Century critics are using their cultures and legal jurisprudence to argue out the case. But what if we were to place these arguments in the context of Hrafnkel’s time?
During Hrafnkel's period, the priests were perceived with awe and fear as they relayed messages from the gods. Oral oaths, especially with the gods, were, therefore, considered binding legal contracts. Breaking such contracts was believed to lead to repercussions (Palsson 45). In applying this to proving Hrafnkel’s innocence, at the beginning of the story the author introduced Hrafnkel to the readers as a religious man. Upon settling at Adalbol, he built a magnificent temple for Frey, the nose god, and offered him sacrifices such as half-shares of his properties (Palsson16). The intense affection for Frey earned him the title Freysgodi. It was clear then that Hrafnkel had been religious before becoming a pagan towards the end of the story. He, therefore, had justified religious motives for killing Einar. He had mae a promise to Frey dedicating him a half share of Freyfaxi, the horse, and vowing to kill anyone who rode him. He believed that there would be repercussions for breaking that promise. Hrafnkel depicted this when he confronted Einar before killing him. He told him that good luck did not follow those who caused themselves to be cursed (Palsson 45). He believed he would offend Frey by not fulfilling his promise. He, therefore, had no choice but to kill Einar. It was clearly a case of justified homicide and not murder.
Another justification of Hrafnkel's actions was his love of Freyfaxi, his horse. He felt a deep affection for his stallion and sacrificed half of him for his god. We see that after Einar had ridden Freyfaxi, the horse was sweaty, and perspiration dropped from each hair (Palsson 41). The act clearly showed that Einar rode Freyfaxi for a long time. It prompted Hrafnkel to vow to avenge his horse. To him, the stallion was more than just an animal, he was his friend. Einar’s actions and attitude also did little to help the situation. Einar being the son of Thorbjorn, who was from the same village as Hrafnkel, and knowing of Hrafnkel’s reputation as Freysgodi clearly had to have known of his religious beliefs. Even with these assumptions, we still saw Hrafnkel warning him about riding the horse. He told Einar that “no blame is borne by those who warn” (Palsson 40). With that he washed his hands of the death of his servant should he choose to disobey his order. Einar then promised never to ride the horse, as there were others at his disposal. If Hrafnkel had wanted to kill his servant, he need not have warned him about the horse. The author compared Einar’s actions with those of the fall in Eden when God warned Adam and Eve about eating the forbidden fruit (Palsson 18). The two case scenarios exemplify moral problems connected with the freedom of will, temptation, and disobedience. The persons in these stories were warned of death as the repercussion of engaging in forbidden acts but were at the same time given the freedom of choice. Einar knew the intended consequences of choosing to ride Freyfaxi. A person can then argue in Hrafnkel’s defense that Einar brought his death upon himself. Hrafnkel was merely fulfilling his role in a sequence of unfortunate events that were unavoidable.
A just man always gives the suspects a chance to explain their side of the story before taking any action. Hrafnkel was portrayed as such when he confronted Einar after the latter rode the horse. However, on his part, Einar did not plead any mitigating circumstances. The scenario displayed Hrafnkel as a fair man and Einar - as a servant showing brazen disobedience towards his master. At this point, a critic would jump in with the aim of explaining that Einar’s fate was already sealed in front of his master’s eyes so that any mitigation would not have helped his case. Well, this is untrue. Hrafnkel’s attitude towards Einar at the beginning showed that he held the young man in high esteem. He wondered why Einar came to ask him for employment late when he would have taken him among the first of his workers (Palsson 39).Surely, had Einar pleaded his case, the results would have been different.
One needs to note that in medieval Iceland someone’s reputation was the only means of gaining immortality. Therefore, if Hrafnkel did not live up to his promise, his reputation would have been destroyed. Had he failed to preserve his oath, his legacy and that of his two sons would have been tarnished forever. Also, as already explained, the fulfillment of a promise was paramount as failure could lead to repercussions. The realization was considered more important than the content of the pledge. With such a justified reason, Hrafnkel had to kill Einar. However, before killing him, Hrafnkel swore that he would have overlooked the offense had it not been for the oath he had made earlier (Palsson 39).