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In the day of Thorstein and his contentious relationship with Thord, the sense of competition they both faced in their community was commonplace. They were both in similar horse businesses. Their respective personalities, however, could not be further apart. Thord was known as an arrogant man, while Thorstein was more quiet and calm of temper.
In what today would probably be described as a sheriff, Bjarni was the community chieftan. One of his servants was Thord, who was known to be a braggart about his prestigious position in working for Bjarni.
Even in the Middles Ages, when Thorstein the Staff-Struck is set, as today, human traits in society such as jealousy, gossip, revenge, pride and competition are universal. So are the human traits of family dysfunction, ridicule, trickery. When reading this Medieval story with the intent of searching for human traits, it is very easy to see how the story is rife with them. Thorstein lives with and is in business with his elderly, cantankerous father Thorarin. These two men as well couldn't be further apart in temperament. Thorarin goads and ridicules his son Thorstein, for his even-temperedness and calm demeanor. Sure enough, at one point Thorstein and Thord do have a physical confrontation, which Thorstein is reluctant for his father Thorarin to be made aware of, as he realizes how his pugnacious father will most likely react. Sure enough, his father reacts true to form, goading and ridiculing his son by asking him if had been “beaten senseless like a dog”, and accuses him of being a coward. If Thorstein was able to mature to adulthood with healthy self-esteem intact with a father like that, it would have been a miracle in itself. Thorarin exemplifies many a cantankerous father who has always liked a good fight, even if it is his own son who has to do the fighting. He would rather alienate his own son through ridicule and contempt, than to have a son who rejects violence and revenge. It is to Thorstein's continuing credit that he does not lash out at his father, nor does he follow in his father's footsteps, preferring instead quiet, consistent hard work and a life lived in peace with others. It is apparent in this story that Thorstein did not inherit his sense of goodwill and benevolence from his father.
This is a fascinating and colorful story that demonstrates the pointlessness of hatred and revenge, and at the same time the powerfulness of one's choice to take the high road, to walk away from violence. Each character in this story has the choice whether or not to make “low-road”, or “high-road”, decisions.
Trickery and revenge show their ugly heads later in the story, by way of Thord's associates Thorvald and Thorhall contriving together to lure Thorstein, by way of a ruse to examine horses, into a meadow where they proceed to attack him. Thorstein seems to be a trusting man who does not hold grudges, and because of this, he trusts the two men and goes into the meadow with them. Actually, it was Bjarni who conspired with the men to trap Thorstein and to kill him. The ruse isn't successful, as Thorstein defends himself, ultimately killing Thorvald and Thorhall both.
The standard marriage relationship in this Middle Ages story is not appreciably different than some marriages of today's society. Bjarni must weather the nagging storm from his wife Rannveig, who belittles him into finally dealing with the Thorstein-issue head-on. He, as in countless marriages throughout time, tells Rannveig that she is arguing against the same thing she wanted only hours ago, and delivers to her the classic female insult - calling her a “typical woman”. Ironically, Bjarni's further response to Rannveig is to defend Thorstein, explaining that Thorstein had never killed anyone “without good reason”. (He obviously did not find it necessary to admit to his wife Rannveig that the “good reason” was Bjarni's putting the two men up to trying to kill Thorstein in the first place…)
Ultimately, in the town of Hof, everything seems to “work out for the best”, for lack of a better phrase. Thorstein retains his own good reputation, integrity and character throughout the remainder of his life, and spends that life working in service to Bjarni. Likewise, Bjarni grew in integrity and character as he got older, and became more respected in the community, and was considered trustworthy. The saga describes him actually growing into a devout Christian. Curiously, it does not detail Bjarni's wife Rannveig reaction to this evolving relationship.
We have examined the roles of Bjarni and Thorstein. In my opinion, it is the life of Bjarni that has evolved more, in terms of “from here to there”. This was a man who at one point conspired to have Thorstein killed, then later in life embraced Christianity. He surely had the opportunity to, at worst, have Thorstein killed, at later opportunities. Instead, at best, he and Thorstein forged a mutually-respectful working relationship where each benefitted personally and certainly in view of their society as a whole.
One glaring example of trickery and violence in this story is when Thorarin, the elderly and infirm father of Thorstein, obstensibly tries to shake the hand of Bjarni. Not unlike the proverbial Judas kiss, Thorarin asks Bjarni to come closer, while reaching for a concealed sword with which to kill him. Instead of killing Thorarin immediately himself, perhaps even justifiably, or having it done by someone else, Bjarni instead assures Thorarin that he will still have domestic help for the remainder of his life and will not want for anything. One definition of true power is that, when holding the choice of life and death in one's hands, the holder chooses life instead, and this aptly applies to Bjarni.
This story eloquently demonstrates that any society, whether in the Middle Ages or today, can be dictated by revenge and bloodlust and violence, or can overcome those basic traits by choosing to honor the traits of integrity, character, hard work, and honor.