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The Saga of Ref the Sly: Developing Views of Viking Ships and Shipping
M R Stevenson

Like many written documents from the ancient times, certain writings that reflect an orally told story need to be analyzed with reserve. The major problem in studying these documents is that they are written about stories that have been exaggerated and extended by the storytellers and writers. This means that when trying to recreate the culture of a society, if this is the only information that remains, only general conclusions can be created. When outside areas of study are added, like archaeology, the further analysis of particular areas of a culture can be proven and the worth of the story can be known. The Viking Sagas are great tools for analyzing Viking culture through the manner in which the stories were written and through description of aspects of culture within them. However, the assistance of archaeology is needed in order to prove whether these stories are something other than fabricated. This paper will discuss how the saga ‘Ref the Sly’ translated by George Clark, which was written in the late fourteenth century, reflects aspects of shipbuilding, trade, and navigation in the culture of the Vikings. Assisting in this analysis will be the material remains which archaeologists have located and interpreted about the Vikings. For this analysis to be completed thoroughly, an analysis of each verse which contains these aspects of Viking naval practice and construction will be mentioned in systematic order. This will allow the flow of the story to be understood as well as well as the analysis to be consistent.

The story begins, like many Vikings sagas, with a dispute which results in the exile of the protagonist, in this case it is from Iceland. It is important to note this because it shows the cause for the story's existence and must be explained sufficiently to allow for better interpretation. It is also important to introduce the characters which will be analyzed also. The outlawing occurs during the first three verses of the saga which begin with the death of Stein, Ref’s father. Stein’s last wishes were for his wife, Thorgerd, to sell the farm because he did not believe that the neighbor next to him, Thorbjorn, would maintain his promise of not having his animals graze in Stein's property. Thorgerd does not sell the farm and relies on the help of a herdsman named Bardi to look after the livestock of Stein. This results in a quarrel between Bardi and Thorbjorn and the killing of Bardi over where the each person’s livestock may or may not graze. Ref, after a lecture from his mother, asks for a fair compensation payment from Thorbjorn and only receives mockery which ends in the death of Thorbjorn.

After these few verses we see the beginnings to a story that might be filled with needless bloodshed over relatively small quarrels. The small quarrels are the cause for movements through Norse territories, hence why the introduction to the saga needs to be discussed even though it does not offer any reference to anything navigational. However, this is the only digression that will be made to explain the plot of the story in any sort of depth and from here will only focus on the navigational aspects of Ref the Sly.

In the fourth verse, Gest, who is his uncle, gives Ref a task to build him a boat which can be used for sealing. For this Gest provides Ref with all the material he so desires in order to not blame any misconstruction on the lack of supplies. He also mentions that he has never built anything. It seems odd that Gest wanted to find a skill in craftsmanship for Ref even though he was an outlaw and was only with them to remain inconspicuous. That being said, a boat shed would be a good place to do this. Gest also provides a knorr, which was shipwrecked on his beaches, and gave the timbers from it to Ref to use. After three months Gest sends a man to go investigate to find that his man believes that no ship matching its appearance has been seen in Iceland. This task is written to have taken Ref five months to complete from start to finish. 1

Archaeological findings can shed some light as to the appearance of what the mentioned knorr would have looked like in the saga. Unger describes a ‘knarr’ as a cargo ship that could travel in the Atlantic as well as Baltic waters with strength dues to its wooden nails. ‘Tree nails’ were used instead of iron nails because of the strength of the wood. The knarr, like the large Skuldelev ships, was built for the purpose of carrying approximately 10-30 tons of cargo especially in the long distance expeditions and was about 25 meters in length. These ships, Unger also describes, can hold from 20-30 families with their cattle, fodder, and furniture and that the masts are permanently set because of lack of appearance of a mastfish2. This description supported Marcus’ statement in so far as to say that the ships used in the trade between Norway and Greenland was made by shorter ships like the ‘knorr’3. The actual construction of the ship would have begun with the keel modification and finishing, followed by the creation of the ribs and the attachment of the stern and stem which were riveted to each end and propped upon the stocks.4

There is a contrast in the size of the ships when comparing either account. If a ship like the one that Ref is building has never had an Icelandic counterpart equal in size than the ship must have been longer and much bigger than the ship described by Unger. In which case, Ref’s ship may be larger than the knorrs which brought settlers to Iceland. It should also be noted that if Ref’s ship was in fact very similar to the cargo vessels in Iceland, the boat house would have to be taller than the mast of the ship because, as Unger established, the mast s permanently attached on cargo vessels.

In verses five and six, Ref receives the boat which he was crafting as a present from Gest for constructing the vessel with the skill like a regular craftsman and for doing so without any help. In the midst of a quarrel with another neighbor Ref obtains the riggings necessary to make a voyage with the ship he just received. Gest then gives him the supplies and the crew for the journey to Greenland which is where Ref would like to go after killing another person because of a quarrel. On route to Greenland it is mentioned that all went well until the voyagers caught sight of Greenland but the harsh waters along the coast pushed them north. Ref then casts anchor at the outlet of a fjord in order to go up the nearby mountain to see the layout of the land. They sailed up the fjord the next day to find a good place to have a harbor and Ref began another construction on a ferry to take him and his men to "the settlement".5

Even though Ref’s ship could have been longer and wider than the ships which have been found, mentioning the riggings that were given to Ref raises a question of what kind of riggings were used. The same question has been discussed by archaeologists and scholars have not been completed fully. All that is agreed upon by all authors is that all Viking ships had "one mast, a square sail hoisted on a yard, with the yard held to the mast by a perrel made from a naturally carved piece of wood."6 Because of the lack of evidence of actual use of the rigging of ships like the Gokstad ship and the Skuldelev ships, any interpretation toward Ref’s ship will be met with much speculation. Based on the saga the riggings were not attached to Ref’s ship until after the boat was constructed resulting in the possibility that his ship had a removable sail like a warship.

In the seventh verse Ref sees a polar bear and realizes that it would be worth much in selling and in meat. Unfortunately the polar bear is killed by his neighbor’s two sons by the time he gets a weapon in order to slay the bear. The neighbor mentions that the bear makes a great contribution to the support of the household even though the brothers were unsuccessful at fishing. The bear is worth much more than the fish that the two sons were out to catch anyways. During this time Ref constructs another ship. 7

This verse shows us the existence of both resources which the Vikings used to trade from Greenland. These resources are the furs of animals which the rest of the European world had never seen before such as the polar bear. It is also mentioned that the fishing was attempted but not successful by the two brothers. Although they were unsuccessful, it can be seen that the attempt at fishing off the shores of Greenland did exist. With regards to the building of another ship by Ref, Marcus states that "apart from the driftwood the Greenlanders depended upon timber fetched from overseas." 8 The wood required for the construction of a ship could not have been found on the island of Greenland. It must have come from elsewhere but in order to obtain such resources trade for such objects would have been accomplished through goods like the polar bear however it is not yet shown in the saga.

In chapter ten King Harald, from Norway, asks a man named Bard to go to Greenland and trade for Walrus ivory and ship ropes. Bard had little difficulties traveling to Greenland and maneuvers effortlessly to the western settlements. During a discussion between Gunnar and Bard, they conclude that Ref was probably killed in the open seas when he left on the eve of a winter in the years previous. They recommence a search for Ref under the new leadership of Bard. After Bard finds the shavings of wood near a fjord harboring area that he discovers that Ref was a master craftsman. 9

Yet another trading reference is evident here through the attempt at the acquisition of ivory and rope. We also see a contrast in description here in the travels of Bard and Ref when they first traveled to Greenland. Ref had trouble sailing when he got to the coast of Greenland whereas Brad did not seem to have any troubles in sailing anywhere. They automatically assumed that Ref had died at sea but they had no troubles themselves. Their emphasis on the harsh winter seas is an example of how all Norsemen agreed that the seas were treacherous in and around the winter months. Ref did not actually go out to sea, rather went along the coast to another fjord, but it is interesting how much focus is put on the fact that he sailed in the winter.

Although fairly brief, verse eleven introduces us to another example of some resources and materials that come from Greenland. Bard sets sail to return to King Harald with gifts from Gunnar. These gifts are a trained polar bear, an ivory board game, and the third was a skull inlaid with golden teeth.10

Once again we have another reference to the goods that the Greenlanders posses. It is clear that there was interest in these materials when such travels were undertaken to gather such resources, although what was traded for the unique resources has yet to be mentioned in the saga.

After the quarrel Ref constructs a fortress which is described to be made with one solid piece of wood when he traveled upstream to escape Gunnar. In verse fourteen, Ref rallies those who are loyal to him and have them bring his ship which he built in Iceland to him in the ‘wilderness’ of Greenland. The ship was stored in the boat shed on the property that Ref used to own. It was preserved very well by the tar that was applied in its construction and because the structure of the boathouse protected against the harsh winters. Once again in this chapter we discover the loading of Greenland goods into the ships for the purpose of trading or for the value in which they possess. We also find that Bards trip did not have any difficulties in sailing from Norway to Greenland again. When Bard starts to burn Ref’s fortress, Ref collapses the wall for his ship to escape from the inside of the fortress. It slides down the wall on wheels and into a canal that was built and connected to the fjord.11

It would seem that if the fortification was as grand as it is described, there would have been news of trading for timber so the search for Ref would not have been that long. Realistically this construction could have existed in Greenland but it is surely exaggerated in the saga. The saga seems very realistic right until this particular moment when the wall collapses and the ship rides into the water on wheels. This would have required much modification to the ship by cutting holes for an axle or through a great series of ropes. It would make more sense if these were placed logs that the ship rolled on into the water, that way the ship stays unmodified. All this construction and ship modification would have taken Ref a great amount of man power to devise these, which he did not have. It is also important to mention that Bard again seems to have no difficulties in sailing from Norway to Greenland. The voyages to Greenland were very dangerous especially near the coastal areas where harsh weather and changing currents could easily sink a convoy of ships. 12

One area of interest that has not been mentioned so far is that when Bard lands outside of Ref’s fortress, Ref asks for the news which is denied to him. This is interesting because Marcus makes reference to another saga where the traders would "gather[ing] at the waters edge to exchange news, to examine the merchants wares, and to do business." 13 Ref asks this question when Bard arrives at his domain in verse fourteen and is evidence for a common politeness towards traders at this time. Politeness in this case is a bit of a stretch because Ref knows that these men are here to cause him harm and not for the purpose of trading. It is projected in the saga as sarcastic, but it is still interesting that this common language is used towards traders.

Verse fifteen shows that the sailors that were with Bard did as was mentioned by Marcus which was to trade with the locals before leaving for Norway.

In verse eighteen once again we turn to the act of trading, this time in Denmark after Ref had killed one of the followers of the King of Norway. The king of Denmark hears the desires to be taken in by the king because of the merchandise that ref had brought with him. Ref brought with him five polar bears, fifty falcons and walrus hide ropes. 14

In the Viking saga, Ref the Sly, the navigation practice, the trade, and above all the ship building customs can be seen. It was intended to have the archaeology assist in the description of these but it was only successful in so far as the ship building was concerned. There are no current finds that are attributed to the items that are mentioned in the saga nor is there and way in which archaeology can prove navigation practice. However, when it comes to shipbuilding, archaeology helps to prove that the Vikings were in fact great craftsmen. In the saga, outside of the fact that Ref was not trained, it still shows that construction was completed as a necessity for success in their society. We see craftsmanship through the Skuldelev finds that were mentioned, including their riggings, and other finds that were mentioned. The whole saga, aside from the archaeological associations shows us that the Vikings in the later Viking age were great sailors as well as traders. Numerous identifications of tradable goods from Greenland in the saga also show reason for the colonization which occurred there. Great values were placed on items such as the polar bears, falcons, and walrus hides and ivory. Unfortunately conclusions about the navigation practices of the Vikings could not be extrapolated out of this saga apart from the lack of sailing in winter. There was no mention of how the characters made it from place to place with ease, even though it was documented to be very dangerous.

References 1. Clark 2000, 602-3 (back) 2. Unger 1980, 91 there is also a great description of the Oseburg and Gokstad finds in this book but were interpreted to be warships and not a knorr design. For this reason they are irrelevant to this topic but still offer great insight into the culture of the Vikings. Also see bibliography. (back) 3. Marcus 1954, 74 (back) 4. Shetelig 1971, 77-8 (back) 5. Clark 2000, 604-6 (back) 6. Christensen 1979, 189 (back) 7. Clark 2000, 606-7 (back) 8. Marcus 1954, 71 (back) 9. Clark 2000, 610-12 (back) 10. Clark 2000, 612 (back) 11. Clark 2000, 615-17 (back) 12. Marcus 1954, 73 (back) 13. Marcus 1954, 72 (back) 14. Clark 2000, 622 (back) Bibliography Shetelig, Haakon. The Viking Ships. 1971. In "The Viking Ships". 1979. A.W. Brogger. Oslo.
Clark, George. Ref the Sly. 2001. In "The Sagas of the Icelanders" 2001. Penguin Books. United States. Christensen, Arne E. Viking Age Rigging, a Survey of Sources and Theories. 1979. In "Medieval Ships and Horbours in Northern Europe". 1979. Sean McGrail. BAR International Series 66. Marcus, G. J. The Greenland Trade-Route. 1954. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 7, No. 1. pp. 71-80. Unger, Righard W. The Ship in the Medieval Economy: 600-1600. 1980. McGill University Press, Montreal. Sjøvold, Thorleif. The Oseberg Find And the Other Viking Ship Finds. 1963. Trans. Mary Fjeld. Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo.
      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © M. Rhys Stevenson, 2007
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