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Literature / The Tale of Einar Sokkason

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„Such deeds are not good, and yet this one is excusable.“
Bishop Arnald

Einars þáttr Sokkasonar is an Old Norse short tale, set in the Norse settlements in Greenland of the 1120s.

The Greenlanders have an assembly and decide they want a bishop of their own. Einar, son of Greenland's most influential chieftain Sokki, sails to Norway to ask King Sigurd to send them a suitable man. But no candidate is eager to take a lifetime job on a far-away island in the North Atlantic, moreso as the Greenlanders are reputed to be violent and lawless. Finally, the priest Arnald agrees, but only after he has made Einar swear a solemn vow to always defend the bishop's interests.

Two years later, they are back in Greenland, and Arnald has set up a bishop's see. Captain Sigurd and his crew, hunting seals on the desolate Greenlandic west coast, discover the beached merchant ship of Arnbjorn – and the mortal remains of the crew: Driven off course and closed in by ice, the traders have tried to winter in a fjord, but perished by cold and hunger. Sigurd brings the bodies, the ship and the valuable cargo to the settlements where the bishop has the bodies buried. The goods that are not used to pay for the funeral are divided among Sigurd and his crew, while Arnald claims the ship as church property.

Eventually, Arnbjorn's nephew Ozur arrives in Greenland from Norway, demanding, as Arnbjorn's closest living relative and legal heir, a share of the property. The bishop refuses, claiming that Norwegian inheritance laws do not apply on Greenland. Ozur sues the bishop for the goods, but Arnald's and Einar's influence makes sure the jury rules in the bishop's favor.

Frustrated and angry, Ozur rips out two planks from Arnbjorn's ship. The bishop, infuriated, summons Einar, prompting him to avenge this offence. When Einar is hesitant, Arnald, coldly, reminds him of the vow of loyalty he swore.

And so, Einar kills Ozur. But of course, this is only the beginning.

Like so many Sagas of Icelanders, the "Tale of Einar Sokkason" explores human conflict, the circle of violence, and the tension between law and justice. Think of it as a gloomy Western on 12th century Greenland.

This story provides examples of:

  • Cycle of Revenge: The killing of Ozur triggers more trouble than the bishop expected.
  • Dishonored Dead: After Einar has killed Ozur in a feud on the orders of bishop Arnald in the immediate vicinity of the church, the bishop prevents the proper rites, such as washing and laying out the corpse, taking place until he has finished his dinner at his leisure. Only when Einar chides the bishop for not treating Ozur's corpse with respect, the bishop gives permission to bury the body within a churchyard, but still delays the customary prayers until after the due time. The bishop's behavior contributes to the further escalation of the feud.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Steinthor, a crewman of Sigurd, has a dream that predicts his own death.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The saga never specifies whether Ozur or the bishop are right by the law, nor does it deliver judgement on the rightness or wrongness of the actions taken by any character.
  • Honor Before Reason: Both sides of the feud are stuck in this. Down to the very first killing, in which Einar chooses to honor his connection with Arnald even though he knows a feud will result.
  • Hypocrite: Bishop Arnald makes Einar swear a vow of loyalty because he's afraid of the violent habits of the Greenlanders. But later on Greenland, it is the bishop himself who opts for violence first by demanding the death of Ozur. The bishop's public reaction on Ozur's death also conceals that he had earlier urged Einar to kill Ozur in private.
  • Irony: The initial reason for Einar's vow of loyalty to Arnald was supposedly to protect Arnald from aggressors. Later on Arnald himself is the aggressor, and by pounding on the literal interpretation of the self-same vow, pressures Einar to be his tool.
  • Rash Promise: Arnald will only go to Greenland as a bishop if Einar swears in front of King Sigurd to always defend the rights and the property of the bishop and "to punish those who transgress against it". Years later, Bishop Arnald's selfish and ungenerous behavior leads to crisis when, after claiming the ship of the dead Arnbjorn as stranded goods, he first denies Arnbjorn's heir Ozur a share of Arnbjorn's goods; then, when Ozur in frustration damages Arnbjorn's ship, demands of Einar to have Ozur killed in retribution. Einar makes clear that he disapproves of Arnald's course of action, but nevertheless fulfills Arnald's wish because of the oath he swore. Ozur's death leads to further escalation of the feud and eventually Einar's own death.
  • Vigilante Execution: Einar kills Ozur while the latter is hanging around in front of the church after Mass.

Alternative Title(s): Tale Of Einar Sokkason