Króka-Refs saga

Króka-Refs saga ( listen ) or the Saga of Ref ('Fox') the Sly is one of the Icelanders' sagas. Written in the 14th century the saga relates the adventures of Ref Steinsson, a "coal-biter" or "male Cinderella", whose unpromising origins lead him to greatness in both combat and subterfuge.

History of Saga

Although first recorded between 1350-1400 AD, the only completely preserved saga is dated to the second half of the fifteenth century.[1] Taking place between 950-1050 AD, the saga spans much of the Norse world, including Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Denmark. The Christianization of Scandinavia occurs during the timeline of the saga, with the main character, Ref, converting as well.


The saga of Ref the Sly begins in Iceland with an old man named Stein, who had a wife Thorgerd and a son named Ref, who was known for being very lazy.[2] Stein was neighbors with a man named Thorbjorn, who was an unpopular man that had committed many manslaughters and never paid retribution. For the most part, there was little conflict between the men and they were able to settle any disputes. However, after Stein died from illness and Thorgerd was left to run the farm by herself, Thorbjorn allowed his livestock to graze on Thorgerd’s land. Thorgerd then hired a man named Bardi to help make sure Thorbjorn’s livestock stayed off her land. This led to Thorbjorn’s livestock producing little milk and after some encouragement from his wife, Thorbjorn slayed Bardi in his own shed. After learning of Bardi’s death, Thorgerd calls her son Ref a coward for being useless and doing nothing at a time like this. Ref then went to Thorbjorn’s farmhouse where he kills Thorbjorn with a spear. Thorgerd sent Ref off to her brother Gest while the killing was to be settled. Here, Ref finds that he is an exceptional craftsman and builds one of the greatest ships to have ever been in Iceland, after having only seen a toy model of a boat. Ref uses this boat to sail to Greenland, where he meets a man named Bjorn, who asks Ref to put up buildings on his land. Bjorn had a daughter named Helga, and during this time Bjorn grants Ref his daughter’s hand in marriage. After which, Ref and Helga had three sons Stein, Bjorn, and Thormod, and took over running of the farm, although Bjorn remained living there. Near their farm lived a man named Thorgils, a hateful and difficult man. Thorgils and his sons began spreading slanderous rumors about Ref around the area, so Ref went to Thorgils farm seeking reparations. When Thorgils refuses to offer any compensation, Ref kills him and then goes to their boathouse to wait for his sons to return where he kills them too. Afterwards, Ref leaves on a ferry accompanied by his wife and kids and couldn’t be found, leading some to believe they had perished. At this same time King Harald Sigurdarson of Norway, sent one of his men named Bard to Greenland to acquire rare items. After reaching Greenland, Bard meets Gunnar, son-in-law of Thorgils, who tells him about Ref. The two men decide to gather seven men and launch an expedition into the wilderness in search of Ref. Eventually they came upon a great fortification near the bay and were greeted by Ref. Bard quickly orders his men to burn down the fort, but water flows out of the fort and puts out the fire. After this Bard, Gunnar, and their men left unsure how to proceed. Bard then returns to Norway with fine gifts from Gunnar, including a polar bear, a walrus skull, and a chessboard made of walrus ivory, that he presents to the king. Bard explains that all Gunnar wants in return for these gifts is friendship and counsel on how to deal with Ref. King Harald warns Bard not to return to Greenland, but says that if he does he should try to dig up the water pipes leading to the fort so that they have no way to put out a fire. Bard quickly returns to Greenland where he again meets up with Gunnar, and they sail off with their men to find Ref. When they arrive they do as King Harald said and dig up the water pipes before starting fire to the fort. This time the fort did catch aflame and the part of the wall facing the water fell outwards, killing four of Bard’s men. As the wall fell, a ship containing Ref and his sons, ran down the wall on rollers into the water. Bard and his men also jumped into their ship and were quickly catching up to Ref. Seeing this, Ref told his sons to slow down so that Bard would overtake them. At the moment Bard passed them, Ref through a spear through Bard and told his son to cut through the stays of Bard’s ship. Gunnar and his men then went after Ref themselves, but by this time it was dark and Ref slipped away. Bard’s men returned to Norway with his body and told King Harald about their encounter. Ref and his family then left Greenland for Norway, where Ref took on the alias of Narfi. While Helga was alone in the hut they had rented, a man named Grani, who worked for King Harald, entered and tried to have his way with Helga. While Helga was fighting him off, Ref returned and Grani ran away. Ref was able to chase him down and killed him. Ref thought it’d be better to not keep the killing a secret and thus be charged with murder, and asked Helga to return to the ship. Disguised as an old man, Ref entered King Harald’s assembly and confessed to the killing in riddle. After deciphering the riddle, King Harald sent his men to search for Ref. During this time Ref sailed directly to Denmark where he told King Svein of his story, who gives Ref a farmstead and estates in exchange for his sons’ services. King Harald then sent Eirik, Grani’s brother, and with him sixty men to Denmark to kill Ref. When Eirik and his men arrive in Denmark they come across an old man who agrees to lead them to Ref. The old man takes two Norwegian men ashore while the others wait on the boat, and leads them into the forest where Ref’s sons and twelve of his followers charge at them and capture the Norwegians. At this point the old man rips off his rags and beard, revealing himself to be Ref. King Svein had also sent two longships with two-hundred men, with whom Ref and his men met up with before attacking Eirik at sea. All but ten of Eirik’s men were killed, but Ref allows Eirik his life since he killed his brother. Afterwards, King Svein awards Ref a gold ring and twelve farms for his valiance. After staying in Denmark for years, Ref leaves on a journey to Rome, along which he captures an illness that causes his death. Ref’s sons Stein and Bjorn remained with King Svein a long time, who arranged fine marriages for them, and Ref’s other son, Thormod, returned to Iceland.


See also


  1. Clark, George. "Saga of Ref the Sly". Trans. of Islendinga sogur III, Reykjavik, 1987.
  2. Kellogg, Robert, and George Clark. "The Saga of Ref the Sly." The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. By Jane Smiley. New York: Viking, 2000. 595-625. Print.
  3. Short, William R. "Hurstwic: Honor, Dueling, and Drengskapr in the Viking Age." Hurstwic, 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  4. Hallakarva, Gunnora. "Internet History Sourcebooks Project." The Vikings and Homosexuality. Fordham University, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

External links

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