In Defense of Revenge
William Ian Miller
One of the risks of studying the Icelandic sagas and loving them is, precisely, loving them. And what is one loving when one loves them? The wit, the entertainment provided by perfectly told tales? And just how are these entertaining tales and this wit separable from their substance: honor, revenge, individual assertion, and yes, some softer values, too, like peacefulness and prudence? Yet one suspects, and quite rightly, that the softer values are secondary and utterly dependent on being responsive to the problems engendered by the rougher values of honor and vengeance. Is it possible to study the sagas and not be attracted to the nobility, the dignity, the heroism of an ethic of “face,” not to thrill to revenge and the open admission that it is the most satisfying way to reestablish the moral, if not the social, order after a wrong has been done? The risk, it so happens, is in coming to love their way as well as their way of talking about it.
Revenge, for us, is not a publicly admissible motive for individual action.1 Church, state, and reason all counsel against it; as sin, as crime, or as an irrationally backward-looking obsession with sunk costs. Officially revenge is a bad thing, although collectivities are given greater leeway than individuals in asserting it as a justification for action. The very polity that will not allow its citizens to claim revenge as justification in its courts of law sees nothing strange about telling its people that revenge and honor are good reasons for invading another state. In sports, the desire to pay back for past humiliations is thought to add to and not merely to reproduce the motive of winning for the present and future. The big difference between us and the denizens of the saga world is that revenge was constitutive of much of their public, personal, and moral order. The person who did not want to take it had to feel shame for not wanting to, or at least had to come up with a plausible account as to why it was not shameful for him not to seek revenge; this marks an obvious contrast with us.
By the twelfth century in Iceland, Christianity helped provide a discourse for vengeance avoidance and helped legitimate a politics of forgiveness.2 But even Christianity could not tolerate too much forgiveness. It allowed revenge to God and kings in the same proportion that it insisted on denying it to average mortals.3 A practical and somewhat legal-