Friday, March 14, 2014

Author of the Edda, but not the uncrowned king of Iceland - Nancy Marie Brown's biography of Snorri Sturluson

My Icelandic reading, the sagas and Eddas, led me to Nancy Marie Brown’s The Song of the Vikings (2012), her biography of Snorri Sturluson, author (by best guess) of Egil’s Saga, the prose Edda, and the chronicle of Norwegian kings Heimskringla, but it would also be true to say that Brown’s outstanding God of Wednesday blog led me to the Icelandic books.  What commitment to her subject – whether she is writing about her travels in Iceland, or the accuracies and inaccuracies of television Vikings, or most recently her attempts to row a small Viking ship, she is invariably interesting.  Actually, it is her good sense about exactly what is interesting that is so impressive, on the blog and in the book.

I admit that I do not find the posts on Icelandic horses, also the subject of one of her books, all that interesting, although I do enjoy the photographs.

Snorri Sturluson’s literary efforts make him the most important figure in Norse literature.  He not only wrote works of the highest significance but encouraged other writers and made copies of earlier texts.  The earliest surviving Icelandic manuscript has his writing on it, although it is a legal rather than literary document.  The books might make a reader suspect that Snorri was a monk or some kind of court historian.  In fact he was among the wealthiest men in Iceland, a chieftain and lawgiver.  For several years he schemed and fought to become what Brown calls “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”  He died hiding in his cellar, murdered by his rival’s thugs.  Snorri was like a Mafia boss.

Mobsters seem to have lost their taste for poetry.  Snorri was never much of a warrior – other people did his fighting – but he lived in a culture where writing and poetry were sources of prestige, or weapons.  Thus the prose Edda, a gift meant to win the support of an indifferent Norwegian king. 

But King Hakon didn’t acknowledge the poems Snorri composed for him – he may have declined to hear them.  The sixteen-year-old king didn’t like skaldic poetry.  He didn’t understand it.  Worse, it was old-fashioned.  (115)

Our greatest source of those wonderful Norse myths, the only source for a number of them, was the result of a political miscalculation by Snorri, the first of many.  “Hakon was the best-educated king Norway ever had,” so he wanted Latin and French.  Stories of the hot new thing in the early 13th century, King Arthur and his knights.  While Snorri was creating the conditions for the explosion of Icelandic literature, he was also inadvertently helping, in his attempt to become “uncrowned king,” to cause its downfall when Norway takes over Iceland and makes it a backwater, a source of cod and coarse wool, not poems and sagas.

Brown ends the book with a nice discussion of the long recovery of Icelandic literature beginning in the 17th century and really taking off among 19th century philologists, culminating with hit movies about cursed gold rings and Thor.  So a triumph, however tragic Snorri’s own life.

Brown’s book in progress is a history of the Vikings organized around the Lewis chessmen, an irresistible hook (click to see why).  I will clear some reading time for it in 2015 or so.


  1. Oh, I had no idea about him as a kind of preserver of the past and encourager of other writers. And I like that.

  2. It is so interesting, isn't it? Not at all the picture I had of him, even knowing how he died,

    There are actually two sagas about Snorri, one of them written by his nephew.