The Saga of Ref the Sly

Króka-Refs saga or The Saga of Ref the Sly is a relatively short one, with just 20 chapters.

Summary

Everyone thinks Ref is a layabout till he kills his overbearing neighbour and escapes to Greenland where he kills five members of a family who slander him then outwits his pursuers using a Heath-Robinson system of waterworks then comes to Norway where he kills a retainer of the king who’s trying to rape his wife then flees to Denmark where the king lends him the forces to defeat the retainer’s avengers. The King of Denmark rewards him for his ingenuity and generosity, with farms where he and his family are happy. In later life Ref undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome from which he never returns.

Detailed synopsis

1 – In the days of King Hakon (931-964), foster-son of King Athelstan of England (924-927), there lived at Breidafjord a man named Stein, married to Thorgerd, and they have a lazy sluggard son Ref. A rich overbearing man named Thorbjorn moves into the neighbouring farm and starts grazing his sheep on Stein’s land. Stein politely asks him to refrain.
2 – Stein falls ill and dies. He advises his wife Thorgerd to sell the farm and move in with her brother suspecting Thorbjorn will become a bad neighbour. Thorgerd is sentimentally attached to the farm so doesn’t move. She hires a small wiry man named Bardi to guard the border, he builds a hut down by the stream which forms the boundary and makes sure Thorbjorn’s cattle don’t stray onto Thorgerd’s land.
3 – Rannveig, Thorbjorn’s wife, says the cattle aren’t giving as much milk. It’s all the fault of Bardi. Thorbjorn rides to his shed and kills him and hides his body. Thorger’s people notice Thorbjorn’s livestock wandering across the stream and eating their hay so Thorgerd sends out and they find Bardi’s body. Thorgerd bitterly berates her lazy son Ref, wishing she’d had a daughter. Ref takes up a halberd, rides straight to Thorbjorn’s farm, walks into his closet and runs him through with the halberd. As he is leaving a hue and cry is raised so he hides in a woodpile until night then sneaks off. His mother Thorgerd greets him as a true man.
4 – Thorgerd sends Ref west to stay with her brother Gest Oddleifsson. Gest notices he is good with his hands and determines to bring out this skill. He gives Ref tools and wood and iron and he builds a shed and then spends three months building a perfect sailing boat. (This character, Gest Oddleifson or Gest the Wise, appears in no fewer than five sagas – Gísla saga, Laxdæla saga, Njáls saga, Kristni saga, Króka-Refs saga, and Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings.)
5 – Gest goes to see it and sure enough it is a fine ocean-going vessel. He gives it to Ref. Turns out a Norwegian captian once stayed with Stein and Ref carefully observed the model ailing ship his son owned. — Games are coming up. A boisterous neightbour named Gellir comes asks Ref if he’s going to take part. No. Not even in wrestling? No. Gellir challenges him then and there and leaps on him. They tussle, Ref proves the stronger and throws him. Angered, Gellir strikes his spear, but doesn’t injure him.
6 – News goes round about Ref’s ship and Gellir, passing by, stops in to see it, at which Ref kills him at one blow with an axe. Gest praises him for acting so decisively and approves his plan to sail to Greenland. Ref sails with many fine men. Storms take them to an uninhabited fjord where they winter till they can sail to ‘the settlement’. Her Ref builds an impressive hall for a man named Bjorn. Ref falls in love with Bjorn’s daughter Helga and marries her and takes over Bjorn’s farm. He lives there eight years during which time Bjorn dies and Ref and Helga have two sons, Stein and Bjorn.
7 – Coming home from the workshop Ref sees a polar bear tracking him and turns back to the workshop to get his axe. When he returns the polar bear is dead, killed by the sons of nearby Thorgils. The Thorgilssons use the incident to call Ref gay and effeminate, to invent the slur that he was expelled from Iceland for being gay, and they go about telling everyone. Ref hears but does nothing. He quietly sells his land for cash and prepares a ship.
8 – Thormod, Helga’s foster-father, confronts Ref about the rumours that he is gay. Ref fashions a massive mean spear so sharp it can slice whiskers, goes to Thorgil’s house and slices him open before going down to the Thorgilsson’s boathouse and killing all four of the sons. Then he notifies the people he’s sold the farm to that they can take occupancy, he loads  his ship with Helga, his sons and foster-father Thormod and sails away.
9 – Thorgils’ son-in-law Gunnar searches for Ref everywhere, setting lookouts on the headlands and searching north into the wilderness. After four years nothing is heard of them.
10 – A man called Bard is sent out from Norway by King Harald Sigurdarson (1046-1066) to Greenland to get ivory. He meets Gunnar at the settlement and learns about Ref’s exploits. He persaudes Gunnar to launch a sailing expedition along the coast to find Ref and they persist till Bard finds a hidden fjord with a well-built fortification. When they try to burn it Ref channels water onto their fires.
11 – Bard and Gunnar go back to the settlement and Bard prepares to return to Norway. Gunnar gives him three presents for the king: a polar bear, an ivory board game, a walrus skull inlaid with gold.
12 – Bard arrives in Norway and presents the king these gifts. The king asks what Gunnar wants for it and Bard says the king’s help in tracking down a fox. The king has heard all about it and admires Ref for being a ‘real man’.
13 – The King advises Bard not to return to Greenland, prophesying that he will die, but Bard says he promised Gunnar. The the king uses his kingly wisdom to explain to Bard the probable technology behind the fort which can’t be burned ie the planks are hollow and filled with water from a lake further up the valley: dig down till you find the pipes and break them; then you can burn the fort.
14 – Meanwhile Ref calls on the men who offered their support in the settlement to come and join him. They do so and Ref launches his Iceland boat and stocks it with greenland wares, but remains in the fort a little longer. Bard arrives in Greenland, joins up with Gunnar and sails back to the hidden fjord. Here they did down as the king advised to find water pipes and sever them. Then they fire the fortress. Ref asks who gave them this clever advice. As the flames are rising higher, the entire wall facing the water suddenly topples forward, crushing some of the attackers and creating a smooth launching pad and down it rolls a ship on wheels (!) and into the water and sails away.
15 – a) Bard’s ship gains on Ref.s but Ref orders his men to stop rowing so Bard’s overshoots at which point Ref transfixes Bard with a spear and his son cuts the sail’s stays so the mast falls over board. Now they easily escape. b) But Gunnar’s men launch their boat and quickly pursue, but Ref escapes. Gunnar returns to the settlement very unhappy. Bard’s men return to Norway and tell the king of Bard’s death who said it is as he predicted.
16 – Ref and his sons board the main ship and they all sail to Norway, arriving near Trondheim where the king is staying. Ref changes his name to Narfi and wears a fake white beard and pretends to be an old merchant. While he and his sons are attending an assembly of the king, a local braggart and favourite of the king’s named Sheath-Grani came and tried to ravish Helga. As soon as he realised she was alone and unguarded Ref had set off for their hut and discovered Grani in the act. He chased him to a fence where Grani tried to talk his way out of it but Ref skewered him with a spear then hid the body. He realised he must declare it so told his men to ready the ship, then went to the king’s assembly where he interrupted and described the encounter and killing and ran off before anyone understood, joining the little boat which they rowed out to where the ship was moored and so sailed off.
17 – King Harald unravels Ref’s long elaborate coded message to realise Grani is dead. He deduces it must be the act of the well-known troublemaker Ref. He orders his men to search high and low for him.
18 – They sail directly to Denmark where they have an audience with the king who is impressed with Ref’s resourcefulness and the riches he’s brought from Greenland. He asks to keep his two older sons at court, while he finds Ref a farm to settle.
19 – Bard’s men arrive back in Norway (as mentioned in chapter 15) and, along with the killing of his retainer Grani, King Harald nicknames Ref Steinsson Ref the Sly and outlaws him the length and breadth of Norway. He commissions Grani’s brother Eirik to go to Denmark with 60 men to kill him.
20 – As soon as Eirik’s force arrives they are greeted by an old white-bearded man using walking sticks who calls himself Sigtrygg who says he can guide them to Ref if they make a deal to give him an ounce of silver per man and free passage back to Norway. Then he takes two of Eirik’s men into a wood, overpower them, carry on to a headland the other side where there are two fine ships given to Ref by the king of Denmark with two hundred men with whom they attack Eirik, overcoming him and killing all but ten of his men. Ref imposes terms on Eirik saying he will let him live to return to King Harald and say he (Ref) will never cause him any more trouble. Ref gives them a rowing boat and impounds their fine long ship and gives it to the king of Denmark who is overjoyed at his ingenuity and success and generosity. In return he gives Ref some farms for his people. And ref takes his fake name Sigtrygg.

Like so many sagas, this one ends in a few last lines where old Sigtrygg undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome and dies on the way home. I guess the consistency with which all these pilgrims never return suggests both the actual danger and lengthiness of the journey – but also symbolises the way they’ve left their old lives and values never to return.

Chess?

‘Chapter 12 of Króka-Refs saga says that Bárðr brought gifts with him from Greenland when he visited the king of Norway. He gave the king an ivory board game as a gift, and the board was both a hneftafl (for the Viking board game) and skáktafl (for chess). Perhaps it was laid out for a chess-like game on one side and for hneftafl on the other.’ (From the Hurstwic website)

George Clark translates the relevant passages as: ‘The second was a board game skilfully made of walrus ivory…The board game was both for the old game with one king and the new with two.’

Related links

Reviews of other sagas

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