Monday, November 10, 2014

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

This biography about the 13th century Icelandic Chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, who was murdered in his cellar when he angered King Haakon IV of Norway, is engrossing and slow at times. Full of great literary facts, sometimes the pacing got bogged down with all the different relatives vying for power. Perhaps if I had written the names down as I was reading, I wouldn't have gotten tripped up at times. I read 40 minutes everyday and perhaps one sitting would have helped me keep everyone straight. Nancy Marie Brown has a straight-forward narrative that is easy to read and engaging. She does a terrific job bringing to life the customs and lifestyle of the Icelandic people.

Snorri's famous books, "Heimskringla" and "Edda," were written on the history of Norwegian kings and Norse mythology and they had an enormous impact on literature, influencing the rise of the gothic novel in the 1700s, inspiring J.R.R. Tolkien, and leaving a footprint that can be seen in the immensely popular modern day Marvel comic movies and Game of Thrones television series. Snorri married a rich heiress and became a chieftain later acquiring more chiefdoms. An accomplished lawyer, he was chosen three times as lawspeaker for the Althing which is like being president of parliament. He got into trouble with King Haakon in his late 50s when he disobeyed the King's order to stay in Norway and returned to Iceland. The King sought consequences for Snorri's disobedience and Snorri's main rival that wanted to usurp him was quite willing to carry out the death sentence.

Snorri was a brilliant storyteller and brought to life the Norse gods of old making them "peculiarly human." The gods had limitations and were not particularly smart. They liked to play games on each other, joke, and be cruel. They also knew that the end of the world was coming but they didn't know how to stop it or save the world. Snorri adds humor and entertainment and while the poems are difficult to understand because of their complex style, they had a resurgence in the 1700s. Brown ties mythology with national history and shows how it evolves to some extent. She doesn't delve deeply into it but I found the few links she does make tantalizing. I'd like to explore this topic more. 

Brown's writing didn't feel as cohesive as her other book I read, "The Far-Traveler." The narrative felt scattered at times and while I know some of that is due to the long genealogies, I also felt the main focus got lost at times as she points out Snorri's skills as lawyer, historian, and poet. The section on kennings and how complex the poems are was really fascinating and I wished it had been closer to the beginning. I kept wondering why she wasn't quoting his poems. As she gives an example then I realized that it would read like nonsense to the modern day reader. What a difficult topic to write about and I admire her effort even if it falls short at times. In "The Far-Traveler," Brown frames the story with archeology and for me it was the glue that held it all together. I needed something more to hold all the pieces together.

The information in this book is valuable and heavily researched. I read about Snorri on Wikipedia after reading Brown's book and there are some conflicts between it and what she has written. They are small things but it would be a way to show students how the Internet is not always a reliable source. Snorri loved power and in the end it was his downfall. This is loaded with great facts and extensive footnotes. If you are interested in the Icelandic sagas and history of Norse mythology then I highly recommend it.

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