Book review Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown
So, a few weeks ago we saw the new Loki movie—excuse me—Thor movie and I was like, by Odin’s beard! It has been too long since I read up on Norse mythology (which according to my records was in 2011)! I came home, hopped on to the website for my local library and found this book.
Song of the Vikings is an interesting read because it links a few different vectors of Norse mythology. There is a little bit of the myths themselves (we learn about the time Loki got down with a horse, for example, and why gold is otter’s ransom), but more than the myths, Brown lays down the saga of Snorri Sturluson and how the myths came down from the Vikings to the present. In many ways, this is more instructive than the actual content of the myths.
Snorri Sturluson is one of the most influential dudes you have (probably) never heard of. He is the author of several works: The Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. The Edda is perhaps the most well-known of his works, even though no one knows what an “edda” actually is. Some think it might be “the book of Oddi,” (Oddi being the name of a place Snorri lived), or maybe something like “the art of poetry.” It could possibly even be given the cheeky translation of “the art of great-grandmother’s old-fashioned songs.” The Prose Edda (yes, this is in contrast to another author’s Poetic Edda) is the primary compendium of the stories we recognize as Norse mythology. Not only is this mythology awesome, but it has been called “the deep an ancient wellspring of Western culture.” So, if you are not an uncultured lout, you should listen up and learn yourself some Norse business.
Snorri lived in Iceland during the late 12th and early 13th century. Iceland at this time was kind of the way you might imagine it to be. People then and there had plots of land where they might graze cows or goats. There was, of course, a lot of fishing, and exceptionally well-situated landowners might have access to a hot spring. Families were brought together under chieftains, who were not exactly elected, but who could not govern if they did not have the confidence and might of the people behind them. Positions of power were typically cemented through family ties, but people were also respected for being well-versed in the law or for being great poets. Another cultural force at this time was Christianity, which was a surprise to me. There were churches in Iceland during this period and the church was gradually becoming more influential among the people.
In this climate we have Snorri. He was born to a fairly influential family and was a foster son to Jon Loftsson of Oddi, the “uncrowned king of Iceland.” Snorri became educated and grew up to be influential in his own right. He was the chief over some choice chieftaincies and he even became the lawspeaker at the allthing—essentially the most law-knowing and well-versed guy at the annual Icelandic assembly. He was also a great poet and he loved writing about the gods, especially Odin, who was, in Snorri’s opinion, the best god. While most people at the time favored Thor, Snorri seems to have considered him a dumb meat-head, eschewing Thor for Odin and his cleverness and skill in poetry. It should be noted that poetry was not then, as it is today, seen as a sign of femininity. Manly men went on raids and also traded verses to exhibit their keen wit. Vikings love poetry; it is manly business.
Although Iceland was, at this time, an independent commonwealth, the Norwegian king had designs on the land. Snorri, in his quest for more power and influence, spent several seasons at the Norwegian court getting to know the young king and apparently glad-handing with everyone there. Snorri was also semi-obsessed with the concept of kingliness and what it meant to be a king. His first visit to Norway inspired his work Heimskringla, which is a saga about Norwegian kings. Snorri was concerned the Norway’s young king (then 16) was missing out on vital information. He worried that kids these days were losing the ability to understand poetry—that most influential of arts. Heimskringla goes a long way to explain the old stories of the gods; understanding these stories is the key to understanding poetry, and as such, all the important literature of the time. Nordic poetry was fond of kennings, which is basically referring to something by calling it something else. Brown includes this example to illustrate the importance of knowing one’s stories:
“The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the step brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the work; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.”
Brown comments “As the translator of this stanza notes, the audience needs to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or it’s nonsense.” The majority of verses were similarly oblique (if the poet had any level of skill).
The main concept I got from Song of the Vikings is that almost everything we know of Norse myth came from one guy: Snorri Sturluson. It seems obvious that Snorri’s personal biases would have been woven into the myth, but I wonder how much? One thing that comes to mind is the duality of fire and ice, which runs through a lot of the myths (the creation myth, for one). Iceland would have been a place where snow and lava clash, but that would not be true of Norway and Sweden, where the myths originated. Did Snorri come up with this imagery himself because he was a storyteller or was this idea already part of the world of myth? I wonder how the myths would be different if not told by Snorri? We know that he was a big fan of Odin. Would we know that Odin traded an eye for wisdom?
The last chapter of the book deals with how Norse mythology became a part of our present culture. For a long time, the stories were essentially lost. After Snorri’s death, Iceland was annexed into Norway, Christianity became more prominent and, you know, paganism was not really on the rise. The church even tried to change the names of the weekdays to silly things like Third Day and Midweek Day (instead of Tyr’s Day and Odin’s Day, also known as Tuesday and Wednesday). I thought it was interesting that the Germans later (by later I mean 1700-1800s) reclaimed Norse mythology as their heritage. They took it up so fiercely that it essentially inspired modern German nationalism. During the early 20th century, any non-Germans who were interested in Norse myth were suspected to by Nazi sympathizers. Yes, this includes J. R. R. Tolkien, who was hugely influenced by Norse mythology.
Tolkien has probably done more to propel Norse myth into modern Western (American and English, at least) consciousness than anyone. As a professor of English, he started a club to focus on Nordic literature and he fought to get Norse myth into the syllabus. He felt that the Norse mythology was of great import to the English canon than Shakespeare, which is quite the claim.
Now, of course, the Norse gods are very much in pop culture, especially with movies like The Avengers and comics and the rest of it. Although, I think mythology is general is having quite the renaissance. Greek and Roman myth is getting treatment in things like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Camp Halfblood series, as well. I would be interested in see an analysis regarding what draws us to mythology. Is it just that it makes for great storytelling? Is it something more?
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Snorri. He states in the Edda, “But these things [lore] have now to be told to young poets … but these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion.” Thankfully, they were not and it seems like they will not be consigned to oblivion any time too soon.
If you are interested in Norse mythology, here are some suggestions for further reading:
- Loki by Mike Vasich is a fantasy novel that retells some of the Norse mythology with a focus on my personal favorite aesir, Loki.
- From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Heather O’Donoghue is a non-fiction work that focuses on how Norse myth has played out in popular culture over the last several centuries.
- Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson is an academic treatment about the Norse gods, what we know about them, etc.