What I’m Reading: Song of the Vikings

Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown, gives us the story of Snorri Sturluson, a wealthy and powerful Icelandic landowner of the early 1200s who at one point was as close as Iceland ever got to a native king.  He lived a full and dramatic life, but most importantly for us today, he was also a poet and a collector of the old Viking stories.  In his three main works he preserved the majority of what we now know of Norse mythology.

Snorri wished at one point to become skald, or court poet, to Norway’s new sixteen-year-old King Hakon, who had come to the throne in 1220.  Up to that time, Scandinavian kings had always had skalds to entertain the court with tales of heroes past and to create the stories that would spread their fame and preserve their names for posterity.  To Snorri’s dismay, however, young Hakon had no interest in the musty old Viking tales, preferring instead Latin stories about Christian heroes, like King Arthur.  On the theory that Hakon simply didn’t understand them, Snorri decided to write a handbook to explain the forms and meaning of the traditional poetry and stories.

Hakon never did see Snorri’s work, known as the Edda, but copies survived.  Without it, we would today remember only a handful of the Norse myths and our understanding of them would be fragmentary.  The Edda provides us with a framework, a complete explanation of the old Norse pagan view of the world and its gods, the world’s creation and eventual death, the heroes and dwarves and elves that populated it.  It also teaches us how to read the elaborate, metaphor-laden skaldic-style of poetry that preserved the myths and histories.

Song of the Vikings is really three works in one: a biography of Snorri, as well as such a thing can be put together from our limited sources; a re-telling of many of the key myths he so loved; and a social and political history of Snorri’s time, giving us the context we need to appreciate his life.  The final chapter is a commentary on how Snorri’s work has shaped our modern artistic world, especially his profound influence on Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien, on Johann Herder, the “father of German nationalism,” and on the nineteenth-century Gothic novel and the modern fantasy genre.

Before reading this book, I had a vague idea of Snorri as an old Norse storyteller, but I didn’t realize just how critical he was in literary history.  I doubt most people have any clearer idea of him than I did, if they’ve heard of him at all.  This book is a corrective, and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in Norse mythology and its huge impact on the Western tradition.  I hope that doesn’t make it sound like an academic tome, though, because this is also one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I’ve read in the past year.  Brown skillfully untangles the threads of Snorri’s complicated life and has a nice way of illuminating its various milestones with the myths he wrote down.

Let me put it this way: Do you like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?  Well, this book explains where Tolkien got his ideas from, and in a style that Tolkien lovers will enjoy.  But this is perhaps even better, for it’s real history, straight out of that age just after the Vikings when forceful, charismatic men furthered their ambitions for honor and wealth with swords and poetry.

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