Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths
By Nancy Marie Brown. 2012. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 9780230338845 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital Archives and Special Collections
[Review length: 992 words • Review posted on January 30, 2013]
Iceland’s first settlers were Vikings who migrated from Norway and the British Isles between 870 and 930. The island’s coastal regions grew enough grass to support livestock, but the volcanic landscape was mostly barren, and the winter nights were long. “To while away the dark hours,” Nancy Marie Brown suggests, “Icelanders since the time of settlement told stories, recited poems, and—once the Christian missionaries taught them the necessary ink-quill-and-parchment technology in the early eleventh century—wrote and read books aloud to each other” (3). Iceland became Christian in 1000 by decree at the Althing, the nation-wide assembly of chieftains and their families that convened annually on “the tenth Thor’s Day of summer” (14). The first Icelandic books appeared around thirty years later.
Several highly influential Icelandic books are attributed to Snorri Sturluson, a wealthy landowner, chieftain, lawspeaker, and writer who lived from 1178 to 1241. It is now generally agreed that he composed the Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga (one of the first and best works in the saga genre). The Edda is an encyclopedia of Norse myths. Heimskringla tells of the lives, feats, and shortcomings of Norwegian kings. Sagas were long, detailed narratives tracing several generations of a family. Egil’s Saga follows that formula, but concentrates primarily on the career of the eponymous berserker and trickster, who was equally noted for his clever verse.
All books on Norse mythology “derive” from Snorri’s writings (192, 236), which are typically the main source, and sometimes the only source, for the tales. Poems replete with cryptic hints and rune stones carved with ambiguous pictures and terse words cannot be adequately understood without reference to Snorri, whose works narrate events, explain circumstances, and flesh out the dramatis personae of sagas and myths. Our understanding of ancient Scandinavian beliefs and their fascinatingly “grim humor” (4) is indebted to him far more than to any other source. Brown retells selected stories from Norse folklore, ranging from Yggdrasil (the ash tree at the center of creation) to Ragnarok (the apocalyptic twilight of the gods). Did Snorri invent whole incidents for dramatic effect, she wonders, or merely embellish the details (125-127)? He is with good reason called the “Homer of the North” (4).
Poetry was ubiquitous and tremendously important in medieval Icelandic culture (111), a fact surprising to modern sensibilities, considering the culture’s proclivity for violent family feuds, taste for raiding and pillage, habit of trapping enemies in their houses and burning them alive, and other tortures recounted so frequently in sagas. Most poems were constructed around kennings, elaborate figures of speech rooted in myths and other cultural references. Their meaning had to be deciphered from interlocking, indirect allusions. “A poem was a cross between a riddle and a trivia quiz. The riddle entailed disentangling the interlaced phrases so that they formed two grammatical sentences. The quiz [consisted of] kennings” (113). The opaqueness of a skaldic poem was an intricate and intrinsic part of its appeal. Audiences expected “otter of the ocean” instead of the more prosaic “ship.” Swords flashing in battle became the “fire of the spear clash” (113).
Icelandic sagas are the most interesting and readable books created during the Middle Ages before Geoffrey Chaucer’s late-fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales. The best sagas paint vivid word pictures and follow the actions of well-drawn characters with discernable motivations. Snorri’s style is especially distinguished by his command of narrative and remarkable grasp of detail. His writing is “refreshingly, even provocatively, different” (28-29), characterized by tight plots, convincing dialogue, realistic observations about terrain and weather, beguiling snippets of daily life, and fluent shifts of view point (36).
Snorri, corpulent and not remarkable for his bravery, was unlike the bold Vikings whose feats he celebrated. He rose to a position of high authority in Iceland by means of marriage and other alliances, land acquisition, and sharp dealings. The luxuries that surrounded him at his walled Reykholt compound were modeled on similar amenities seen in well-appointed houses in Norway (some seven days sail from Iceland), including a snug indoor privy, a sauna (the steam came via stone-and-clay conduits from a nearby hot spring), and woven wall hangings (106-108). His household hosted poets and supported henchmen (108-109). At one point, Snorri courted favor with King Hakon of Norway. He may have entered into a clandestine agreement to bring Iceland, an independent republic of about 50,000 persons, under Norwegian rule; or he may merely have been asked by the king to settle a dispute between some Icelandic farmers and a cohort of Norwegian traders. There is no clear evidence either way, but many of his fellow countrymen thought he was a traitor (83, 101). A complex set of circumstances eventually led to Snorri’s murder by armed men in 1241. He may have been working on the Edda at the time of his death. A friend (or a lover of literature) is said to have salvaged loose parchment pages, scattered by the struggle, to preserve them for posterity (111).
The only serious flaw in Song of the Vikings is the inadequate line map (vi-vii), which boasts neither scale nor explanatory keys. Maps should be readily comprehensible without constant cross-reference to the text they are supposed to elucidate. Ubiquitous genealogical references in the text are also bewildering, but a family tree (viii) helps alleviate the confusion. Comparisons (to which considerable space is devoted) between J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasies and Norse folklore will be of substantial interest to some readers and mean much less to others.
Brown, an independent scholar immersed in Icelandic language, literature, and culture for thirty-five years, has an entertainingly conversational writing style. This highly engaging book is aimed at the general reading public, not specialists in Icelandic folklore. It is best read in conjunction with a selection of Icelandic sagas and myths themselves, many of which are available in lively English translations. Egil’s Saga, the Edda, and The Story of Burnt Njal, would be excellent starting points for readers new to this fascinating literature.