INTERVIEW: Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths
Medievalists and author, Nancy Marie Brown, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages (2010), and The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (2007), has just released an new book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. This latest historical narrative has been named one of the best books of the year by the American Booksellers Association and it appears on the December 2012 Indie Next list at Indiebound.org. Peter had the chance to interview Nancy Marie Brown about the history, and inspiration behind the book.
1. This book was inspired by your own love of Norse mythology and Icelandic culture, of which Snorri Sturluson is one of the most important sources. Why do you find these topics, and Iceland itself, so fascinating?
Iceland speaks to something very deep in me. The elemental landscape, the warmth of the people, with their equal love of nature and books: the fact that everywhere you go you’re standing on a story.
My path to Iceland was blazed by stories, first those told by J.R.R. Tolkien and then Snorri Sturluson’s. As I explain in the preface to Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, when I was four a babysitter read me The Hobbit. My older sister gave me The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen. Through college, Tolkien was my favorite author—even though such “escapist fiction” was considered inappropriate for an English major to read in the late 1970s. Imagine my delight when I was assigned The Prose Edda, by the thirteenth-century Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson, in a class on comparative mythology and began recognizing names out of The Hobbit: Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin … even Gandalf. What was Tolkien’s wizard doing in medieval Iceland?
I read Tolkien’s biography and learned about his love of Icelandic literature. I decided to follow in his footsteps. Beginning with Njal’s Saga, I read every Icelandic saga I could find in a modern translation. (William Morris’s and George Dasent’s versions didn’t appeal to me then.) Running out of English versions, I took a course in Old Norse and began reading the sagas in the original. Finally, I went to Iceland and, like many other writers before me (though sadly, not Tolkien himself), rode through the countryside on horseback to visit the saga sites.
I learned modern Icelandic to speak with the friends I’d made on the farm of Helgafell, where no one then knew English. I will never forget the thrill of being invited in for coffee and sitting with the family around the kitchen table while the farmer told tales out of Eyrbyggja Saga—tales of people who had lived on his farm a thousand years ago. In the US, we don’t have that sense of continuity. In Iceland, the past is alive. And not only the past, but the spirit world. In one of the tales the farmer told, the whole north side of the mountain Helgafell opened up like doors, revealing the great feast hall of the god Thor, to which new guests were being gladly welcomed—the chieftain of Helgafell and his men, who had just drowned. I cannot look at the mountain now without feeling, simultaneously, the warmth of the family’s greeting to a young foreign writer and the shiver of the Otherworld.
2. Your book centres around the life and writings of Snorri Sturluson—could you tell us why you wanted to write about him?
For many years, while visiting Iceland, I peevishly avoided Snorri Sturluson. I kept being told I should write about him, but I was interested in other Snorris. In 1986, for example, I was in Iceland writing a historical novel about Snorri Þórgrimsson, the chieftain of Helgafell. In 2005, I was there working on my book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt 2007), which tells of Guðriður Þórbjarnardóttir. Her son, Snorri Þórfinsson, was the first European child born in America. In each case, when I told my Icelandic friends I was writing about Snorri, they would send me to Reykholt, the estate of Snorri Sturluson, or tell me stories out of Sturlunga Saga, in which Snorri Sturluson is a character. One of my friends even gave me, for Christmas, the 1920 biography of Snorri Sturluson by Sigurður Nordal. I put it on the shelf unread.
After finishing my second book of medieval history for the general reader, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages (Basic 2010), I began looking for another topic to write about—as a fulltime writer, I’m never without a project. As I usually do, I started my search on my own bookshelves, and the Nordal biography caught my eye. Reading it, I was surprised to learn what a fascinating character Snorri Sturluson was. I picked up my copy of Anthony Faulkes’s translation of Snorri’s Edda and reread it. Although I’m sure I had heard this many times before, I was newly struck by the idea that Snorri was our main, and sometimes our only, source for all of Norse mythology. I wondered how much of it he had simply made up. Digging a little deeper, I came upon Faulkes’s review of the only biography of Snorri in English, Marlene Ciklamini’s 1978 volume in the Twayne’s World Authors Series. Faulkes rather uncharitably noted: “it is possible to write about Snorri interestingly and sensitively while still maintaining proper scholarly standards,” implying that Ciklamini had not. I took that as a challenge.
3. Sturlunga Age Iceland has been seen as a kind of sad era—the end of Iceland’s independence—and doesn’t usually get much attention from historians. How do you view this period?
Our major source of information about the Sturlunga Age is the collection of sagas known as the Sturlunga Saga, which were written at the time and whose authors we can in some cases name. These contemporary sagas are much darker and more violent than the classical Icelandic sagas like Egil’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, or Laxdaela Saga, and I admit I had a hard time reading and re-reading them, as I needed to do to research Song of the Vikings. But beneath the grim surface of these sagas is an enormous amount of information about thirteenth-century Iceland and about the key players in Iceland’s loss of independence, one of whom—perhaps even the most important—is Snorri Sturluson.
Reading Sturlunga Saga alongside Snorri’s own works, I began to see that things could easily have turned out differently if Snorri had succeeded in bringing Iceland under his control … if Duke Skuli had won the Norwegian civil war … if King Hakon had not reigned so long (much longer than any Norwegian king before him). Thirteenth-century Iceland sparkles with possibilities. Snorri wrote the Edda, a handbook on skaldic poetry that incidentally contains most of what we know about Norse mythology, to impress the young king—only fourteen years old when Snorri met him—and to introduce him to his Viking heritage. It didn’t work. King Hakon probably never read the Edda; instead, he introduced chivalry to Norway and sponsored translations of the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Snorri wrote Heimskringla, the set of sixteen kings’ sagas that give us the history of Norway from its founding by Odin to 1177, to teach young king Hakon how to be a good king. Again, it didn’t work; Hakon probably never saw Heimskringla. Snorri wrote Egil’s Saga to convince his fellow Icelanders that there was a precedent for one man to rule a quarter (or more) of Iceland. This failed too; Snorri may have thought he was Egil’s equal, but posterity disagreed.
In terms of its effect on modern culture, Iceland’s Sturlunga Age is vastly important, as I try to show in Song of the Vikings. It was during the Age of the Sturlungs that saga writing began, and Egil’s Saga may be the first true Icelandic saga, the one that created the genre. If so, it was due to Snorri Sturluson, in large part, that we have Njal’s Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and the other classic Icelandic sagas that are considered monuments of world literature; some scholars even consider them the first novels. Less controversially, it is due to Snorri that our culture is infused with what Tolkien and C.S. Lewis called “Northernness”: dragons and dwarves, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, trolls that turn into stone, and men with a bitter courage who stand fast on the side of Right and Good even when there is no hope at all. In one direction, through the Brothers Grimm and Richard Wagner, Snorri’s Norse mythology led to Hitler’s Master Race. In another direction, Snorri inspired the gothic novel and, through Tolkien, modern heroic fantasy. All the fantasy novels, films, video games, board games, role-playing games, and online multi-player games that seem to derive their immortal elves, their dwarves in halls of stone, their wandering wizards who talk to birds, and their warrior women from Tolkien have, in fact, derived them from Snorri. Given the popularity of the fantasy genre today, I consider Snorri Sturluson to be the most influential writer of the Middle Ages, in any language.
4. This is your third book that explores the Middle Ages. Are you planning to do any more writing in this area?
Absolutely. For the first twenty years of my writing career, I worked as a science writer, though my master’s degree focused on medieval literature. I was able to combine my two interests in The Far Traveler, which draws upon modern archaeology as well as Icelandic sagas, and The Abacus and the Cross, which discusses medieval science; my next nonfiction book will most likely bring together medieval literature and science writing again in some way. Recently, however, I finished writing a young adult novel that retells the story from The Far Traveler of the Viking explorations of North America. It seems Guðríðir Þórbjarnardóttir wasn’t finished with me, and I wonder now if Snorri Sturluson is—or if I will soon find myself writing a novel about him. Parts of his story couldn’t be told in a narrative history like Song of the Vikings: we simply don’t have the sources. But as Snorri himself well knew, a good saga needn’t be limited to the facts.