Snorri Sturluson Essay - Critical Essays

Snorri Sturluson


Snorri Sturluson 1179-1241

Icelandic poet, prose writer, and historian.

Snorri is the most celebrated figure in Icelandic literature, remembered for his dramatic renditions of history. His Heimskringla (c. 1220-35) is a comprehensive history of Norway, told largely through a series of biographies of Norwegian kings, and is the best known of all the major works in Icelandic saga literature. Although based on earlier histories, it includes considerable material added by Snorri and showcases his talents as both an historian and a writer of sagas. Much of what is known about Old Norse myth, religion, and poetry comes from the Heimskringla. In the Prose Edda (c. 1222-23) Snorri recounts assorted myths and offers a guide to would-be skalds, providing them with a course on kennings and with numerous examples of the meters used by early Icelandic skalds. Enormously popular and influential, especially in Norway, Snorri's works served as inspiration for Norwegians when they sought independence from Sweden in the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Snorri was born in Hvamm, in western Iceland, in 1179 to a wealthy and powerful family. His lineage included, on his father's side, the chieftains Snorri the Priest and Gudmund the Powerful and, on his mother's, the poets Markus Skeggjason and Egil Skallagrimsson. (Egil is the hero of Egil's Saga, written about 1230—a work some believe to have been written by Snorri.) In 1181 Snorri was sent to Oddi, in southern Iceland, to be raised by Jón Loptsson, the most important chieftain in Iceland. Loptsson's grandfather, Sæmund Sigfusson the Learned, was the first historian of Iceland and had written a history of the Norwegian kings. Under Loptsson's guidance, Snorri’s education strongly emphasized tradition, history, and scholarship. In 1199 Snorri married Herdis, the heiress of the important estate of Borg and, over the following years, continued to increase his ownership of land, eventually becoming one of Iceland's wealthiest men. In 1206 he moved to Reykjaholt, in western Iceland, while Herdis stayed in Borg, where she would remain until her death in 1233. Snorri served his first term as Law-Speaker of the Althing, Iceland's high court, from 1215 to 1218. During this time he collected Court Poetry and also wrote his own verses. In 1218 he visited King Haakon IV in Norway and encouraged him to become king of Iceland, a move which angered many Icelanders. After visiting Sweden and Scandinavia, Snorri returned to Iceland and wrote Háttatal (c. 1222), a lengthy poem which would later become the last section of the Prose Edda, honoring his supporters in Norway. Starting in 1222 Snorri again served as Law-Speaker, this time for ten years. This period was marked by distrust between Norwegians and Icelanders, and included trade wars, embargoes, political intrigues, and ruthless slaughters. Political allegiances were volatile and often dangerous. Snorri did not adequately promote Haakon's plans, the king believed, and by 1237 Snorri had unequivocally turned against Haakon's plans of Norwegian expansionism. In 1241 Haakon sent seventy men to storm Snorri's estate at night. They found it unguarded. Snorri, aroused from sleep, attempted to hide in the cellar. There he was discovered and chopped to death with a battle-ax.

Major Works

Writing of the Prose Edda (sometimes called the Snorra Edda) first began with the Háttatal, “A Catalog of Meters,” which gives examples of 102 different meters known by Snorri to have been used by skalds and includes some new arrangements of his own. Although Háttatal, was originally a self-contained work, Snorri incorporated it into the Prose Edda. The prologue, which justifies the retelling of the tales and explains Snorri's methods, is followed by the Skáldskaparmál, “The Language of Poetry,” which deals with imagery and the proper use of kennings. This is followed by the Gylfaginning, “The Deceiving of Gylfi,” which is a dialogue concerning a visit of Gylfi, King of the Swedes, to Asgard, home of the gods. The gods recount a series of Norse myths, which Snorri is simply passing on to the reader. The Heimskringla, which means “orb of the world,” traces the history of Norway from prehistory, with its myths and gods, up to 1177. Scholars speculate that writing the work likely consumed ten or more years of Snorri's attention. Structurally, the Heimskringla, is a series of sixteen biographies of succeeding Kings. The initial section, entitled Ynglinga saga, follows Norway up to 1000. The second section, some forty percent of the work, is a biography of King Olaf, who ruled from 1016-1030, called St. Olaf's Saga. It was originally written as a self-contained work. The final section covers the years 1030-1177. Some controversy exists over whether Snorri is the author of the anonymous Egils saga.

Critical Reception

Snorri is acclaimed for his historical insight, his critical standards as an historian, and for his ability to tell an exciting tale. Considerable scholarly attention is devoted to Snorri's sources and how he made use of them in his own versions of the sagas. Anthony Faulkes explores these sources, as does Hans Kuhn, who contends that there is a definite folktale element in Snorri's sagas. Marlene Ciklamini concurs, and explains that, as an historian, Snorri “could not ignore cultural traditions accepted as historic truth. … He had recognized that the legends of Óláfr had expressed an essential truth about his complex character, just as folktales and myths articulate in poetic form essential truths about the quality of life and the actions of men.” Both O. D. Macrae-Gibson and Diana Whaley analyze Snorri's views on skaldic verse, imagery, and his own poetic intentions. Lotte Motz examines the treatment of female characters and their power in Snorri's works and in other texts, while Arthur D. Mosher suggests that Snorri tailored some of his tales to relate to Biblical stories. Numerous scholars explore the very different concept of history predominant in Snorri's era. A. Ya. Gurevich explains that the “ideas of Scandinavian society of the period were permeated by mythological and religious concepts. ‘Historical theory’ in such a society is first and foremost a myth. Rationalization of social life and comprehension of developed philosophical categories that were characteristic of feudal Europe were out of the question in thirteenth-century Scandinavia.” Gurevich further studies the important roles luck and fate played in the Scandinavian conception of history. Sverre Bagge studies the significance of morality, character, and personality in Snorri's biographies, especially as they relate to politics: “What Snorri describes is the various persons' amount of beauty, strength, courage, intelligence, and other qualities that serve to gain support and ultimately success in the political game. These qualities are all easily observed by other men; hidden qualities are irrelevant from a social point of view.” Bagge explains that, for Snorri, a man's character is the sum of his acts, and that “each new act may in principle change it.”

Principal Works

Heimskringla (history and biography) c. 1220-35

Prose Edda (poetry and mythology) c. 1222-23

Heimskringla, Part One: The Olaf Sagas [translated by Samuel Laing and Peter Foote] 1930; revised 1979

Heimskringla: Sagas of the Norse Kings [translated by Samuel Laing] 1961

Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway [translated by Lee M. Hollander] 1964

The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology [translated by Jean I. Young] 1964

King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway [translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson] 1966

Edda [translated by Anthony Faulkes] 1987


A. Ya. Gurevich (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Gurevich, A. Ya. “Saga and History: The ‘Historical Conception’ of Snorri Sturluson.” Mediaeval Scandinavia 4 (1971): 42-53.

[In the following essay, Gurevich explores various texts by Snorri to illustrate that the Scandinavians of his time did not interpret history theologically and that their concept of it is implicit in their sagas.]

Discussion of the “general meaning”, or “tendency”, in Snorri's historical construction can be hardly considered finished. Divergencies in the appraisal of his views by H. Koht,1 Fr. Paasche,2 J. Schreiner,3 H. Lie,4 G. Sandvik,5 and S. Beyschlag6...

(The entire section is 6028 words.)

Marlene Ciklamini (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ciklamini, Marlene. “Grégóríús Dagsson, Snorri's Flawed Hero.” Scandinavian Studies 50, no. 2 (spring 1978): 186-94.

[In the following essay, Ciklamini focuses on Snorri's complex characterization of Grégóríús in the Heimskringla.]

Heimskringla is full of admiration for the martial skill, spirit, and intelligence of the hero. Indeed, the importance of the warrior for the survival of society is intimated at the beginning of the monumental work, the mythical prologue to the history of the Norwegian kings. Óðinn heads the Norse pantheon. His qualities explain his dominance in the mythic and heroic ages, and his veneration justifies on a...

(The entire section is 4193 words.)

Marlene Ciklamini (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ciklamini, Marlene. “The Prose Edda” and “Snorri's History of the Norwegian Kings to the Reign of Óláfr the Saint: Heimskringla, ca. 1230.” In Snorri Sturluson, pp. 43-91. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Ciklamini provides overviews of the three sections of the Prose Edda and of the sagas found in Heimskringla.]


Snorri's best-known and most popular work is probably the Prose Edda.1 With the exception of some skaldic poems it is also the earliest work Snorri composed. Its history of origin is interesting. Snorri first conceived and executed a part...

(The entire section is 19621 words.)

Lotte Motz (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Motz, Lotte. “Sister in the Cave: The Stature and the Function of the Female Figures of the Eddas.Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi / Archives for Scandinavian Philology 95 (1980): 168-82.

[In the following essay, Motz surveys the treatment of female characters in Snorri's narratives.]

According to the sources from which we gain most of our knowledge concerning Germanic myth, the prose and poems of the Eddas, the world is governed by divinities, the Aesir, and their female consorts and companions, the Asynjur. The group, interrelated by marriage or parenthood, lives as an extended family in the stronghold Asgard, much like the gods who feast,...

(The entire section is 7516 words.)

Arthur D. Mosher (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Mosher, Arthur D. “The Story of Baldr's Death: The Inadequacy of Myth in the Light of Christian Faith.” Scandinavian Studies 55, no. 4 (autumn 1983): 305-15.

[In the following essay, Mosher explores parallels between Baldr's death and Jesus's crucifixion.]

Scholars have repeatedly been attracted to three narratives in the so-called Snorra Edda which are stylistically unique: the stories of Thor's visit to Útgarðaloki, Þórr's fishing expedition, and Baldr's death. Jan de Vries1 has correctly pointed out that the numerous details and the complexity of the narratives differentiate these stories from the rather tersely related anecdotes...

(The entire section is 4902 words.)

O. D. Macrae-Gibson (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Macrae-Gibson, O. D. “Sagas, Snorri, and the Literary Criticism of Scaldic Verse.” In Úr Dölum til Dala: Guðbrandur Vigfússon Centenary Essays, edited by Rory McTurk and Andrew Wawn, pp. 165-86. Leeds, England: University of Leeds, 1989.

[In the following essay, Macrae-Gibson discusses whether the skalds meant for their compositions to be interpreted in a larger cultural context and also analyzes Snorri's stance on the subject.]

Among Guðbrandur Vigfússon's scholarly concerns was the proper interpretation of Snorri's account of Old Norse poetry. He was particularly troubled that contemporary critics were misapplying it to Eddaic verse: “[Snorri's]...

(The entire section is 9094 words.)

Sverre Bagge (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Bagge, Sverre. “Morality and Human Character.” In Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's “Heimskringla,” pp. 146-91. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Bagge examines Snorri's views regarding morality, chivalry, personality, and character.]


In the present chapter I shall attempt to draw the conclusions from Snorri's treatment of conflicts for his ideas of morality and human character, thereby directly addressing the question of “political man” mentioned in the introduction. I shall treat Snorri's ideal king and aristocrat and the norms they are supposed to adhere to,...

(The entire section is 29043 words.)

Sverre Bagge (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Bagge, Sverre. “From Sagas to Society: The Case of Heimskringla.” In From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland, edited by Gísli Pálsson, pp. 61-75. Middlesex, England: Hisarlik Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Bagge explores the question of how reliably Snorri depicts political aspects of historical society.]

In contrast to its treatment of the family sagas, modern criticism has not entirely expelled the kings' sagas from the field of historiography to that of literary criticism. This has, however, proved a mixed blessing. Since they are not considered to be pure fiction, literary scholars have avoided them, while the...

(The entire section is 6781 words.)

Hans Kuhn (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Kuhn, Hans. “Fabulous Childhoods, Adventures, Incidents: Folktale Patterns within the Saga Structure of Heimskringla.Fabula: Zeitschrift fur Erzahlforschhung / Journal of Folktale Studies 41, no. 1-2 (2000): 76-86.

[In the following essay, Kuhn discusses the role of folktale elements in the narratgive and structure of Heimskringla.]


At the conference of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research in Innsbruck in 1992, I gave a paper entitled The Supernatural Turned Natural: Icelandic Folk-Tales between Fairytale, Legend and Saga. My point of departure was the observation that the usual genre...

(The entire section is 5663 words.)

Further Reading


Amory, Frederic. “Kennings, Referentiality, and Metaphors.” Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi / Archives for Scandinavian Philology 103, no. 1 (1988): 87-101.

Linguistic analysis of the metaphorical content of Snorri's kennings.

———. “Second Thoughts on Skáldskaparmál.Scandinavian Studies 62, no. 3 (1990): 331-39.

Lengthy review of Margaret Clunies Ross's work on Snorri and Skáldskaparmál.

Andersson, Theodore M. “The Politics of Snorri Sturluson.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93, no. 1 (January 1994): 55-78.

Compares and...

(The entire section is 519 words.)