Nancy Marie Brown. Song Of The Vikings. New York: palgrave macmillan, 2012. 239 pages.
There are books I read quickly, racing through the sentences, the paragraphs, the pages. There are books I read slowly, not because the language is clumsy but because nearly every page gives me something to think about, to ponder. The Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown is one of those books that I have read slowly, that I will read again and, probably, again. I wish it had been written fifty years ago when I was a university student and was taking an evening non-credit course, the sagas in translation, with Haraldur Besseson in Winnipeg.
The sagas are wonderful stories. As Brown tells us in the preface that in the later 1920s, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were debating what the curriculum should be for English majors at Oxford University. C.S.Lewis was all for Shakespeare. Tolkien thought the students should be studying the works of Snorri Sturluson.
It is details like this that engage the reader of Brown’s book about Snorri Sturluson and the sagas and the eddas. She adds details in the introduction such as “I learned that Tolkien had read Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871-1873.”
For someone like me, who reads everything he can about foreign travelers to Iceland, particularly in the 19th C., the bait was too delicious to pass up. The hook was set, of course, and I knew I would not throw it off until the last page.
Brown tells us early in the book that “Snorri created the Viking image so prevalent today, from the heroes of sports teams to the bloodthirsty berserks of movies and video games to the chilling neo-Nazi.” Before the book is finished, she has explored them all.
While the book is focused on Snorri, on his political schemes, his ambition, his betrayal perhaps of Iceland to the Norwegian king, on the endless conflicts among the warring chieftains, it fills in details that if the reader pays attention, helps to explain Viking society.
For example, the strange idea that I heard stated more than once when I lived in Gimli, Manitoba and later, in Winnipeg, that Iceland was a democracy because it had a parliament (the Althing), is corrected in one line. “Iceland’s thirty-nine chieftains and their wives and children and followers gathered for the Althing, the general assembly of all Iceland.”
She explains about the gods, who they were, tells, in summary, some of their stories. She weaves together gods and men and the influence the stories had upon Viking society. Early on, she says, “As parents the gods were pretty dysfunctional./Snorri and his kind had odd love lives and dysfunctional families, too” and then goes on throughout book to detail the jealousies, ambitions, resentments, that led family members to plot, scheme against and kill each other. How could it be otherwise when “The gods were braggarts. They were tricksters and cheats, no good at keeping oaths, greedy, and niggling, always eyeing a bargain but always wanting the best”. The goði took them as models.
She explains Iceland’s relationship to Norway, to the struggle of the Icelanders to stay independent, the temptations for an ambitious man like Snorri (and others) who wanted all the advantages royal favour would give them. We see his rise in power and fortune as he marries off his children, creating alliances, making deals, betraying others, always wanting to be the greatest man in Iceland, its uncrowned king, and then follow its unravelling.
This is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, of his greed and ambition, of his manipulation, of his deceitfulness, of his cowardice, but also of his greatness, for in the midst of constant conflict, he put down for posterity, the tales of a past time. Those tales were lost in other places, and were nearly lost in Iceland. Some, tragically, are only known by their names or by fragments, but others have been preserved. Those stories permeate today’s society. His work affects our lives many times a day, for the concepts he preserved and created are now woven into the fabric of our lives. “In addition to the wizard, dwarves, and elves, Iceland and Icelandic literature inspired Tolkien’s dragon, shape-shifter, warrior women, rider, giant eagles and trolls, not to mention his wargs, barrow-wights, magic swords, Mount Doom, and the cursed ring of power.”
She also touches on the fact that “Snorri’s works —in fact all Icelandic literature—became so identified with Nazism that studying them became suspect in England and America. Even today there is a chilling connection of Snorri’s writing with neo-Nazi groups, as well as with anti-Christian neo-pagan cults (often quite racist themselves) and the blood-and-death-theme rock music known as Viking metal.” Little did Snorri know what his life’s work might spawn in the distant future. Although they were created many hundred years before, Snorri’s stories were co-opted by the Nazis, used to promote the idea of a master race and to justify the idea of conquering other nations.
However, Brown goes on to say “J. R. R. Tolkien held a grudge against Hitler, a “burning private grudge,” Tolkien wrote in 1941, for “ruining, perverting, misapplying and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light”
Snorri Sturluson was born in 1179 and was murdered in 1241. It was a long life in Viking times, 62 years, long enough to rise and fall, to create and record. He was, at the end, Brown tells us, gouty and fat, and is hiding in a cellar when he is hacked to death with a sword. His sins are many but his virtues far surpass them and, on balance, it is hard to think of any single Icelander who has given as much to the world.
People often tell me they are proud of their Icelandic heritage. If that is true, then buy this book, read it, make an effort to understand the tangled relationships, the implications of many of the things that are said, put it under our Xmas tree as a gift to yourself, sleep with it under your pillow and when you wake during the night, turn on the bedside lamp, and read another paragraph or two before going back to sleep.