Snorri Sturluson: traitor hero

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.

Song of the Vikings: poetry

When I was reading and commenting on Wakeful Nights, Vidar Hreinsson’s biography of Stephan G. Stephanson, I was puzzled by the importance that the Icelandic North American and Icelandic communities put onto poetry. Today, with a population of 33,000,000 in Canada, books of poetry are published in issues of 200 copies or 500 copies. Even these few copies seldom are put onto book store shelves and, usually, only because some staff member or the book store owner, is a poet or keen on poetry.

How many books of poems, dear reader, have you purchased in the past twelve months? Twenty? Ten? One? Zero? I expect the answer for the vast majority of people is zero.

Does this mean that the quality of poetry has fallen so drastically that it isn’t worth reading? Is it that the illiterate writers can’t find an audience among the illiterate readers? That is quite possible. However, there are still fine writers writing poetry in Canada and, occasionally, having it published. Why then so small an audience?

Amazingly, in Iceland, with no formal school system, with people living on isolated farms, literacy during the 19th C. was quite high. The practice of reading aloud in the evening as people worked at knitting, spinning, or repairing small equipment, meant everyone was familiar with religious texts, the sagas and translated literature.

However, today, reading in the baðstofa exists no more. It has been replaced by computer games, television shows, radio, movies, constant communication on Facebook, Twitter, Skype.

Rhymed poetry, a device for remembering long and complicated histories, isn’t needed anymore. It’s all there on the web. If you want to know about Christian IX, look him up on the web. The family crowded around the reader has disappeared. The family crowded around the radio has disappeared. The family eating their TV dinners in front of the TV has disappeared. The house I recently purchased has a TV outlet in every room except the bathrooms. Watching shows has changed from a communal, participatory event to one of isolation.

So, it’s not hard to understand that when a new book of poems is published, no matter how good, it’s hard to find five hundred people who are interested.

This change started a long time ago. We are just on the tail end of it.

In Song of the Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown tells us “A skald you must have.Throughout Heimskringla it is a point Snorri stresses. Who would remember a king’s name if no poems were composed about him? In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse provided a king’s immortality.”

The change from the skald being critical to kings to no longer being important came with King Hakon. “But King Hakon didn’t acknowledge the poems Snorri composed for him—he may have declined to hear them. The sixteen-year-old king didn’t like skaldic poetry. He didn’t’ understand it. Worse, it was old-fashioned.”

“Chivalry came to Norway during Hakon’s long reign, 1217 to 1263. He had clerics translate for him the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table”.

And yet, in Iceland, poetry remained powerful. It was still used for entertainment, news and politics. It survived the printing press, was, in some ways, enhanced by it. But even in the early 1900s poetry still had a place of honour. We know that because of the high regard Stephan G was held in Iceland. We know that because of the large number of books of poetry published in many places, including places you’d not expect a printing pressto be churning out literature, places such as Gimli andRiverton, Mantioba, small poor fishing villages.

Gylfaginning” (“The Tricking of Gylfi”) outlines the whole history of the Viking gods, from the creation of the world in fire and ice to is destruction.” However, it is locked away in Icelandic. Even more problematic, it is locked away in highly complicated verse forms and traditions that make it difficult, if not impossible, in some places, to understand.

“Viking court poetry,” Brown says,  “or skaldic poetry, was a sophisticated art form. The rules are more convoluted than those for a sonnet or a haiku art form. In the most common form for a praise poem, a stanza had eight lines. Each line had six syllables and three stresses. The rhythm was fixed, as were the patterns of assonance and alliteration….Each four line stanza contained at least two thought—and these could be braided together so that the listener had to pay close attention to the grammar (not the word order) to disentangle subject, object, and verb. Especially since nothing was stated plainly. Why call a ship a ship when it could be “the otter of the ocean”?”

When I first went to Iceland, Finnbogi Gudmundsson was my host. He was highly educated, knew his history and literature, and was politely appalled at my not knowing anything of kennings. I wasn’t up on “otter of the ocean”. I’d do better now.

Poetry was, all through time in Iceland, highly political, used to praise and attack, to make one’s case, to insult. It was frequently highly personal. People even had insulting contests in poetry. That means that Stephan G, writing from Markerville, Alberta, in Iceland, was right in a tradition that went back to Viking times.

Song of the Vikings is helping me to understand some of this, I, who live in a society where poetry is ignored, published only when it is subsidized, supported by competitions and prizes by people who know little about poetry’s history or importance. It has become, like amma’s spinning wheel, something to point out to people as a part of our Icelandic heritage.The spinning wheel goes unused and the books go unread. There is no need, anymore, to know how to spin wool. There is no longer, anymore, any need in Canada to know how to read Icelandic. With the loss of the language and its tradition, there’s been little, if any transfer of tradition to the Icelandic population in Canada.  Even though there are still some writers producing poetry, it cannot compete for people’s time against hockey or football or soap opera or cartoons or a movie on the TV. Poetry has always been demanding, requiring not just the ability to read but the intelligence and knowledge required to understand. It’s a shame that we have become a society where poets are no longer read and honored, where language is reduced to a few characters on a hand held device.

Only those of us with an Icelandic background will care about this chapter on the history of poetry within our miniscule culture but for those of us who do care, Nancy Marie Brown has done a good job of helping us understand who we have been and why we have changed.


Viking women


Nancy Marie Brown in Song of the Vikings says that “Marriage in Iceland had long been business transactions, arranged by the couple’s families….The bride’s family supplied a dowry, the groom’s family a bride-price of land, livestock, and other goods that the couple would jointly own while their marriage lasted. The fathers then shook hands on the deal. It was the same way they sold a plot of land or an ocean-going ship or transferred a chieftaincy. The bride didn’t even need to be present—much less agree to the deal. Nor was the groom expected to be monogamous.”

After all, the gods were not monogamous. They had children with many different women. The myths of the gods provided a model for the behaviour of Icelandic men.

So much for the depiction I’ve heard of Icelandic women in saga times being independent, swashbuckling, Amazon types standing on the prow of their long ship, leading their followers into battle. Good romance novel stuff, Disney stuff, comic book stuff, but not much connected to reality.

There are, in the sagas, examples of women who did manage to rise above childbearing, cooking, knitting, spinning, weaving, raking hay. There was, after all, Aud the Deep Minded, and Guðriður beating her breast with a sword. Aud was the only woman to ever become a chieftain. However, in his book Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874, Bayard Taylor says about saga times

“As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.”

So, there were social restrictions on ambitious females. Add that to being pregnant a good part of the time and it was pretty hard to lead forays abroad. And with Icelandic men not feeling bound by monogamy, the opportunities to get pregnant abounded.

Brown says “Before they went to Norway, Gudny and Ari had married her eldest son, Thord, then twenty-one, to his daughter, Helga. With his young wife Thord got Ari’s chieftaincy and a rich farmstead. When Ari died, the rest of his wealth went to Thord as his wife, but, as the saga says, “Thord was not lucky enough to feel for Helga the love he should have.” After four years of marriage and no children, they divorced. Thord kept the farm, most of Ari’s wealth, and the chieftain’s title. He took up with a married woman, Hrodny, the estranged wife of Bersi the Rich of Borg—the farm of his famous ancestor Egil Skallgrimsson—but though “they enjoyed a lasting love,” Thord and Hrodny didn’t marry. Instead Thord married a rich widow named Gudrun, who “brought a great deal of money with her,” the saga says. “Thord then became a great chieftain.” He and Gudrun had a son, Bodvar, who was his father’s only legal heir, and a daughter. Later in life Thord fell in love again, taking as his mistress Thora, who gave him six children, her son Sturla, born when his father was fifty, wrote the saga.”

Although people like the archbishop of Trondheim tried to explain that a Christian wedding was a sacred event that joined a couple for life in an exclusive relationship, he didn’t have much effect. Even those priests who represented Christianity ignored the rules. In the 19th Century, it was still common for men, including priests, to impregnate young women and to absolve themselves of responsibility by paying someone to declare falsely that he was the father. Halldor Laxness describes this process in detail in Paradise Reclaimed.

I didn’t know this, or maybe I did in a way because of having read some sagas but it didn’t mean much, sort of like the begats in the Bible, read but bored and ignored. Nancy Marie Brown explains what was going on and why. It stops being boring. It even becomes a bit shocking. Those saga heroes were into sex in a big way with all sorts of women, inside marriage and out. None of this takes into account all those serving girls. The only way forward for an ambitious woman was to have a relationship with a powerful man. The men took it for granted that they could have sex with many women. Of course, all women didn’t get the chance to be the wife, mistress, consort of some important man. They needed to bring with them money, connections, land. The indentured girl who was going to spend her life grinding barley wasn’t going to get to even be a mistress. She might get a baby but then she’d be pawned off to some young crofter.

Brown’s book is causing me to do a lot of thinking, not just about saga times but about Iceland during the years of emigration and the Icelandic communities in North America during and after the immigration.

I wonder if it was these myths, these sagas that gave permission to men like Björn of Leirur to behave in the way he did in Paradise Reclaimed. I know it is a novel, but it also obviously is based on what Laxness observed and Björn represents not just one man but many men for his friend the sheriff says that he is constantly busy having to deal with the problems created by men getting girls pregnant.

The pattern of the privileged man, the landowner, the well paid civil servant having the right to have sexual relations outside of marriage seems to have followed the Icelanders to North America, in spite of the fact that the church had done all it could over hundreds of years to make marriage monogamous. The Icelandic priests, for all their preaching of the value of virtue, often behaved like Björn of Leirur. They, too, paid other men to say that a child was theirs. Old saga ways prevailed.

Perhaps we are separated from the vikings by time but the story of Snorri raises the question of how separated we are from them in action.

The viking age only lasted from the 9th to the 11th century. After that it was all downhill, not just for the women but also for the men. Norway took over Iceland in 1262 and Iceland didn´t get its independence back until 1944.

Iceland´s history has been one of physical cataclysm, volcanoes, earthquakes, dreadful weather with the onset of the Little Ice Age, political repression, rampant disease and famine. However, the sagas, those stories of a time when Iceland was powerful and there was wealth, continued to be told. After Bayard Taylor visited Iceland in 1874,  he wrote of an experience with the local farmers at the Geysers,

“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemunds Edda!” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njil and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature and their vital interest in it.”

According to Kneeland in his book, An American in Iceland, 1874, “The authority of the father, however, or the natural guardians, in case of proposed marriage, was decisive, either with or against the girl’s inclinations; a widow could not be compelled to marry a second time, nor could she marry without the consent of her father, brother, or sons. Marriage was a regular business affair and the settlement of the conditions often a shrewd bargain. If a girl married without the consent of her parents, the father cold disinherit her and her children; and the man who made her his wife, under such circumstances, was liable to be punished for abduction; this right was not always exercised. If the father were dead, the nearest male relatives became her natural guardians. Betrothal could not be extended beyond three years, and neither party could break it without punishment and disgrace. With the introduction of Christianity, marriage became a religious rite. Plurality of wives though not expressly forbidden, was never general, either in Norway or Iceland. Should a man lay violent hands upon his wife three times, she was at liberty to leave him, taking both dower and settlement; but such violence was rare, as it was looked upon as most  unmanly. Says their old law; “Every man owes the same duty to his wife that he owes to himself;” but the husband alone possessed all rights concerning the disposal of the children. As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.

Divorces were very common; mutual disinclination, the will of the husband, abuse of his wife, or the wearing by either party of garments belonging to the opposite sex, were sufficient grounds for separation. When the wife sought the divorce, she was obliged to proclaim her lawful reasons within the house, before its principal entrance, and at the public assembly. A divorce offered no impediment in the way of either party marrying again. When marriage became a religious rite, divorce was granted by the church, and never without the strongest reasons.”

When our myths support positive outcomes for our group, family, ethnic, national, they are to be heralded. I grew up with people mentioning women in the sagas. A lot of what was said was not based on fact. There weren’t armies of Amazons with their own ships raiding the Baltic coasts. Men and women were not equal. There were a few women in the sagas who obviously were exceptional but that’s the whole point, they were exceptional. They also weren’t the vast majority of women who were having babies nearly every year, spinning, weaving, knitting, cooking, milking, raking hay, living in conditions that required constant work just to survive. Nor were they the female servants or slaves. The problem was that there was no golden age for women and the myths obscured and hid the brutal reality of most women’s lives.

Brown’s description of life during the time of Snorri Sturlusson makes clear the relationship of men and women. The attitude that neither the gods, nor men need to be monogamous surfaces in various accounts as late as the 19th Century. According to English travelers like Richard Burton (1872), the number of illegitimate children in some syslas were one in three.

I love the image of the swashbuckling female Viking, standing at the prow of the longboat, sword uplifted, long hair streaming in the wind, riding the waves of the North Atlantic, heading into battle but I’m afraid it is only an image for comic books, movies and fantasy novels. Men could have sex, sail away from the outcome but women couldn’t. They had children to feed and clothe, to educate, farms to tend. That they had a few rights (if they were part of the upper class) was good. It would have been better if they’d had more but with the growing power of the church and its inherent misogyny, with the betrayal of Iceland by Snorri and Iceland becoming a vassal state, their rights became less. For centuries, Icelandic women would live in darkness and not until well after Icelandic regained its political independence would Icelandic women start moving toward undoing an unjust system.


Brown: Song of the Vikings

I love books. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books.

My grandmother taught me to read by sitting beside me on the living room couch and reading the newspaper comics to me and getting me to recognize words and sound them out. Comics led to picture books and picture books led to novels and collections of short stories.

I love to read. Reading makes who worlds come alive. Reading takes me places I will never go physically.

Books are filled with details that inform and fascinate.

I’ve been enjoying my new book, Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown. It’s all about Snorri Sturlusson, one of the great figures of Icelandic history and literature. However, the author knows that she’s got to make the times she is writing about come alive. The way a writer does that is with concrete, specific detail. That details allows us to share the time and place. It does more than that, however. It also tells us that the writer knows what she is talking about, that her narrative voice can be believed. Added to that is that these concrete details inform, make this reader feel that he now knows something he didn’t know before.

I love to learn. To stop learning is to die. A good book leaves the reader knowing more than before he read it.

Brown’s Song of the Vikings is filled with concrete detail, with information, but there on page 31 there was a paragraph that to me was worth the entire price of the book.  I expect there will be many more of these paragraphs. I will, I think, be repaid many times as I read.

Here is the paragraph:

“Quill pens were cut from swan, goose, or raven feathers (also easily come by in Iceland); left-wing feathers were best for right-handed writers because they bent away from the eye. Ink was made by boiling whole bearberry plants with a clay commonly used to dye wool black. A few shavings of green willow twigs were added to the pot, and the mixture was simmered until it turned sticky. “Let a drop fall onto your fingernail,” says one recipe. “If it remains there like a little ball, then the ink is ready.” A little bit of gum from the first milk of a young ewe or heifer was added to the ink to make it shiny. The result was ink that was black, glossy, and impermeable to water—important to people who often traveled by ship.”

All those sagas, hand printed on vellum. Deposited in Reykjavik. National treasures. Ink on vellum.  And did you ever wonder where that ink came from in the land of fire and ice, the land of earthquakes and volcanoes, the land of long, dark winters, the land of huts made of turf and rock? Without ink, ink that would last through the centuries, there could be no written sagas. Snorri could not have written, could not have recorded the stories we still read today.

Simple questions. Obvious questions. But often unasked and so unanswered. Here is a saga. How could the pages be created? From where came the ink? From where came the pens to dip in the ink? Without knowing these things, how is one to appreciate what one sees when looking at a saga in a glass case, not created by God, not created by magic, but  by our ancestors on some isolated farm, read and re-read, surviving the vagaries of the weather, the conditions in the turf houses, the smoke, the dampness, the handling.

Quill pens. From swan, goose or raven. Knowing that being right-handed, we needed feathers from the left wing. Going shopping for pens meant hunting those swans, geese and ravens. You might stumble across a dead bird and be blessed with the wings for your winter’s printing. More likely, you had to hunt the birds or have the wealthy farm owner have his hired help hunt them for you. A winter’s supply of quill pens.

And having ink meant you had to know the bearberry plan. Know the right clay and where to collect it. Knew where to collect the green willow. Know when you could get the first milk from a young ewe. No going to an office supply store where all you need is a credit card.

Let us read this book together. You can post your discovered treasures, make your comments, on my blog site.