- Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices by William Ian Miller
Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices, by William Ian Miller, does much the same for Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða as his 'Why is your axe bloody?': A Reading of Njáls Saga (Oxford University Press, 2014) did for Njáls saga, walking the reader through a detailed, nuanced, and challenging reading of the saga while also sharing the author's deep understanding of legitimate legal traditions in medieval Iceland, as well as his command of the legal fictions often found in its sagas. As so often with Miller, the best material is often saved for the footnotes, where we see that he has been attentive not only to editions of the saga but to the manuscripts themselves. He has drawn his own conclusions on some controversial readings (see especially chap. 17, where he argues forcefully against modern editors' emendation of land/"land" to lund/"character, frame of mind," as what changes for Hrafnkel, after his initial fall from power).
As is well known, this saga set in eastern Iceland involves the tragedy of a young man, Einar, forced by his father, Thorbjorn, to seek employment at the farm of the local goði (chieftain) Hrafnkel when Thorbjorn's own resources are stretched too thin in the springtime. Einar arrives too late to get any better work than the demeaning low-status position of herding sheep and is warned by Hrafnkel not to ride his stallion Freyfaxi, who is a shared possession of Hrafnkel and the god Frey; Hrafnkel has earlier sworn an oath to kill any man who rides him. In spite of the warning, circumstances conspire to put Einar on Freyfaxi's back in desperate pursuit of lost sheep, and Hrafnkel subsequently kills Einar, keeping his [End Page 133] vow. Thorbjorn demands compensation, and Hrafknel uncharacteristically offers him an incredible sum, seeming to experience some regret for the killing even though he has become famous for never compensating any family for a killing. Nonetheless, Thorbjorn rejects Hrafnkel's offer and enlists the reluctant support of his nephew Sam in prosecuting Hrafnkel for the killing. With the help of two powerful men from western Iceland, Sam succeeds in outlawing Hrafnkel and personally stripping him of his property and authority. Six years later, having risen again to the rank of goði by his own bootstraps, Hrafnkel kills Sam's brother Eyvind and takes back possession of his old farm. Exactly what changes Hrafnkel has endured as a perennial scholarly question, the subject of more character analysis than perhaps any other personal transformation in the pages of sagas of Icelanders.
Miller is well aware of the sheer weight of previous scholarship on this saga. In chapter 1, he explains why he finds much of the scholarship simplistic and peculiarly unanimous in its simplistic judgments, especially in seeking to explain the motivations of the saga's characters. In chapter 2, he outlines some of the reasons why the saga is so overstudied: it is short, has only eight significant speaking characters, and is found in widely used introductions to the Old Norse language (beginning with Gordon), and "Sam" (Sámr) suffers from a name that looks familiar and, subconsciously perhaps, unserious to English-speaking readers. For his part, Miller seeks to reframe discussion of the saga with a fresh look at the multiple actors portrayed by its author.
Chapters 3 through 20 provide a tour-de-force reading, chapter-by- chapter and moment-by-moment, not only of the saga, but also of the early Icelandic laws encoded in Grágás and the later Járnsíða, both of which Miller has masterfully studied and shows to have subtleties and fine distinctions not usually considered in readings of the sagas. And while previous writers have emphasized that the Iceland depicted in the sagas is a world of desperate scarcity, Miller is unique in demonstrating how the laws themselves reflect this scarcity both in reality and saga. Miller also examines the agricultural calendar of...