Reviewer: Wouter van Dijk
Song of the Vikings. Snorri and the making of Norse myths, Nancy Marie Brown
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2014 (Hardcover first published 2012)
Paperback with some illustrations in black and white, with notes, literature list for further reading and index
£9,99 / $17,00 / €15,99
The life of the Icelandic Homer
Practically everyone will have heard of Odin, Thor, Loki or some of the other gods of Norse mythology. For a large part, that fact in itself is due to one Icelandic chieftain from the thirteenth century named Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Besides being writer of great medieval works of Norse history and mythology such as the (prose) Edda, the Heimskringla and the Saga of Egil Skallagrímsonn, Snorri was a powerful landowner in Iceland. For some years he even was the most powerful on the whole island, aspiring to the title of ‘uncrowned king of Iceland’. But, eventually, as happens so often in the Norse sagas that he loved so much, chances turned and he met his doom being slain in his own house at the initiative of his foster sons. The author, Nancy Marie Brown, has studied Icelandic history and literature for decades and wrote several non-fiction books on Icelandic culture and history. With this book she returns Snorri from oblivion into the spotlights where he belongs, as the father of the Northern mythology that influenced Western culture so much.
The book follows the life of Snorri, peppered with sections concerning the Icelandic and Norse societies in the Middle Ages. Also, anecdotes and parts from sagas frequently pop up at regular intervals when they fit into the main storyline of the book concerning Snorri and his experiences. The previews of Snorri’s untimely death that Brown gives the reader makes her story as compelling reading as the original saga’s themselves, in which the hero of the tale can’t escape the, often unpleasant, fate that awaits him at the end. Worth recalling here is the part about Snorri in his quest for power trying to bring himself into young king Harald of Norway’s favor and become his skald. He tries to achieve this by composing a praise poem in honor of the king, in the old Norse skaldic tradition. This series of stories and poems would eventually become the Edda. Unfortunately for Snorri, the young king isn’t interested in archaic traditions and keeps his distance.
The greater part of Snorri’s life was dedicated to scheming and plan-making to become Iceland’s foremost chieftain. The weaving of the web of alliances and kinship ties to achieve this takes him years. However, in the first years of the 1230’s his careful scheming comes crashingly to an end when children of him die and former allies turn against him. Eventually, Snorri’s partner Hallveig dies, and it seems then that Snorri didn’t care anymore for his ongoing feuds with his various rivals. Taking no precautions to defend himself against the inevitable attack that he knew would come, he retired to his stately home at Reykholt. It is here that he finally meets his end, in the cellar of his house at Reykholt, begging his enemies for mercy.
To the present day, Snorri keeps the historians busy. There is an ongoing debate between them over the question whether Snorri, in his desire for power over his Icelandic countrymen, was willing to hand Iceland over to Harald of Norway, and rule over Iceland as earl in name of the Norse king. Opposing supporters of this theory are those, and Brown tends to follow them, who argue that Snorri just wanted to rule Iceland as an ‘uncrowned king’, as his stepfather Jon Loftsson had done before. Howbeit, in the end Snorri succeeded in neither and did not made his way into the history books as a mighty ruler. He did, however, through his poetry and prose that survived the centuries. This is also how Brown ends her narrative, telling how Snorri’s heritage was preserved and rediscovered after centuries of obscurity. The author’s last thoughts are on the influence Snorri and his mythical tales had on writers and cineastes today, among which J.R.R. Tolkien is not least.
With her fluent writing style, the depths of the research she has done, and her seemingly effortless intermingling of saga and biography Brown has created a wonderful tale about a great Medieval writer of whom the general public knows far too little. This account can make a change, hopefully it will. Highly recommended!
Wouter van Dijk