The stories of Beowulf and Hrafnkel show the human elements that factor into how past societies have chosen to regulate themselves. Middle age societies were characterized by both the power of the Catholic Church and the Feudalist system, to construct a social hierarchy seen most prolifically throughout history and literature from then up until even today. Surprisingly, this cannot be said about Hrafnkel’s Saga because in the 9th and 10th centuries Iceland had no formal, super-imposed political governing body. At a time when most countries struggled to answer the questions of what makes a good King, the Icelanders were more worried about ending the perpetual state of violence infected in any given community. Beowulf made a good King because he provided 50 years of peace for the people of Geatland. Hrafnkel, on the other hand, made a lousy chieftain because he aggravated the people in his community, and often acted out of self-interest; therefore ignoring the needs of others. Within both tales the audience follows powerful heroes and villains, but are these forces necessary in providing the safety and prosperity within their respective communities?

 

It should not be up to one man to save the day, just like it should not be up to one man to ruin it. Yet, even farther back than the middle ages, people have been fascinated with this power dynamic between good and evil. Advocates from both sides make worthy opponents within their prime to do as much damage as possible to one another. The real question is how large a group of people are supposed to handle violence when it happens? Most people would want justice, others vengeance, while a silent few just want to turn the other cheek. The problem is that within the pursuit of ending violence, those justified need to avoid continually perpetuating this deadly game of cops and vigilantes, where it becomes hard to tell who is on which side.

 

Beowulf began his story by killing Grendal for the Danes who live under King Hrothgar. Once doing so Beowulf is handsomely rewarded. Yet, before he can leave Grendal’s Mother shows up and kills Aeschere, to once again pose a new threat to the Danish people. Therefore, Beowulf goes out and kills her too. From there, the reader watches Beowulf’s life unfold as he becomes King of the Geats, and remains unchallenged until the dragon shows up. At this time people spread mythic tales of heroes slaying dragons all by themselves, and who better to live up to this legend than Beowulf? Sadly, this was Beowulf’s last battle and Wiglaf steps in to deal the fatal blow to the dragon. With Beowulf’s death the Geats must now worry about neighboring tribes looking to raid Geatland because they are now without their hero Beowulf. The struggle Beowulf created for his people was not that of oppression and tyranny, but of fostering complacency. The Geats grew to rely on Beowulf too much for their own protection; thus losing the ability to protect themselves.

 

Once again, the reader stumbles across the question of what defines a good king. It is assumed that Hrothgar is not a very good king because he has to outsource this part of his responsibility to Beowulf. However, what Hrothgar lacks in fortitude he makes up for in wisdom. He knows how pervasive violence is, and how necessary a show of force is needed to extinguish it. In calling on Beowulf, Hrothgar shows the most important part of taking kingship. By possessing so much power within the region, Hrothgar must fight for his people and redistribute the loot from conquered tribes. More importantly, Hrothgar must also allocate finite resources to the best of his ability for the sustainability of the Danish lifestyle. With the proper allocation of resources in the form of payments to Beowulf, the King of the Danes can solve this problem of violence without the loss of too many lives or destruction of private property.

 

Beowulf also shares this value in preserving human life, and that is why he headed out to fight the dragon by himself. Alternatively, it is argued that Beowulf did this out of pride and to prove to his people that, even as an old man, he still had it in him to be the hero. By looking back on Beowulf’s last two battles, any help would have been rightly assumed as a greater liability for the hero to manage. Unfortunately, Beowulf consolidates the entire liability of battle to himself, and ends up paying the ultimate price for not working with others. A good hero is empowering to the people he protects, and a good king knows what it takes to properly protect them.

 

Hrafnkel is neither a good king or hero. He is the villain of this Icelandic saga. However, he didn’t have to be. The blood feud began when Hrafnkel killed Einar for riding Freyfaxi. This led to Sam and Thorbjorn putting Hrafnkel on trial at the Althing, where Hrafnkel was kept from representing himself. With all the people who showed up only to block Hrafnkel from entering the Althing and restoring justice, it is clear that Thorbjorn is not the first person Hrafnkel has wronged. In reading the saga one expects Sam, the lawyer, to speak of justice for Einar, but instead Sam seems too bent on revenge. In fact, the first time the word “justice” is even used comes at the end of chapter 12, “Many people were delighted that Hrafnkel had been so humiliated for they called to mind all the injustice he had shown to others on previous occasions (Pálsson, pg55).” It is hard to cite the injustice Hrafnkel inflicts upon the other people of Adalbol, but the fact is that they played an active part in his outlawry. This would certainly mean something about how he related or interacted with them. The conflict also comes out of personal satisfaction versus what is best for the community at large. Once Hrafnkel is outlawed everyone gets a piece of his estate, and therefore Sam facilitates a regional redistribution of Hrafnkel’s wealth. However, by robbing and banishing Hrafnkel the people of Adalbol are now without a chieftain.

 

Unlike in Beowulf, where it is assumed that people need a leader to keep them safe, this is not the case in Hrafnkel’s Saga. In the anarchic culture of Icelandic society they have rules but lack governmental bodies to enforce those rules unto others. Therefore individuals are empowered to take revenge on their own accord, instead of a state issuing justice based on law. Overall, this is a bad situation for all parties involved. Without a hero to extinguish the origin of violence, vengeance takes multiple forms until countless are dead, leading even more parties to feud without even remembering the original cause of such violence and destruction. The best way to handle this contagion is by nipping it in the bud. By killing the original killer the problem dies with him. It is only through this swift administration of justice that humanity can hope to quell the plague of violence. Hrothgar said it best, “A protector of his people, pledged to uphold truth and justice and to respect tradition, is entitled to affirm that this man was born to distinction. Beowulf, my friend, your fame has gone far and wide, you are known everywhere. In all things you are even-tempered, prudent and resolute. So I stand firm by the promise of friendship we exchanged before. Forever you will be your people’s mainstay and your own warriors’ helping hand (Heaney, pg177).” With this advice the observer can recognize the tools it takes to be a good leader. By staying true and pursuing justice the leader can employ heroes to keep the peace. Beowulf tried too hard to keep the peace himself as an individual, and in Hrafnkel’s Saga no one stepped up to keep the peace; only to take vengeance. However, both societies exemplify a way to handle the scourge of violence to provide safety for the people that live in those communities.

 

For Beowulf, by allocating resources correctly and managing exterior threats he can promise peace for his people. Within Hrafnkel’s Saga people are justified in defending themselves, and to seek their own compensation once wronged. By combining these two methods of governance a society can hold community leaders responsible, while still being protected by themselves and others. The leader can assign missions for his heroes to root out the injustice faced by the society, all while the people can also find justice for themselves. Now a clear power struggle would commence between the decisions of the Althing and the decisions of the King, but we even see this take place in contemporary American society. By having the responsibility of protection given to the king and decisions of social justice given back to the people, humanity can work toward a world without needless violence. Even if the leader becomes tyrannical and harms the very people he had sworn to protect, just like Hrafnkel he will be held accountable by community sentiment.

 

In using examples from both stories and combining their theories of social order, one can start to see a new republic take shape. In a way, this can be seen by the reader as self-serving to the ends of the American criminal justice system, but the DOJ could have played a very important part of ending the cyclical violence observed in Hrafnkel’s Saga. Also, one can avoid the disaster brought about by the death of Beowulf by empowering the individual, as opposed to making him dependent and complacent. The heroes of today are the silent type in a blue collar field. For if any new Grendal sought to kill and drink the blood of our countrymen, the boys in blue would be on the scene shortly. Just as Hrothgar outsourced the need of a hero, so too are the immediate needs of the people for protection from violence. The only problem now lies in the people who claim to preserve justice. Once the men in blue costumes lose their status of hero, a new villain is born. This is the people’s villain, and it is once again only up to the people to empower themselves as individuals to handle this new monster. It takes the discretion of the individual to quell violence authority, and that includes the violence done by those whose sole responsibility is to keep individuals safe. It is our responsibility to keep each other safe, and to not solely rely on one man whose beliefs might faultier.

 

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.
New York: W.W. Norton &, 2001. Print.

Pálsson, Hermann. “Hrafnkel’s Saga Pgs 35-71.”
Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories;.
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. N. pag. Print.

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