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Heimskringla, which means “circle of the world,” is a history of the Norwegian kings, beginning in legendary times and ending in 1177 during the reign of Magnus Erlingson. The author, Snorri Sturluson, remains Iceland’s most famous writer, soldier, scholar, and poet. His most celebrated work is Snorra Edda (c. 1220-1230; The Prose Edda, 1987), a handbook for poets that retells many of the Norse myths.

Iceland, which was settled from Norway in the late Middle Ages, has claimed Norway’s history as its own. As a result, Iceland’s most famous historical work is not about Iceland, but about the Norse kings and jarls, or noblemen ranked immediately below the king. Iceland played a marginal role in this history, though Snorri gives disproportionate attention to any Icelanders who do play a part in Norwegian history. He also includes a lengthy digression in “Olaf Trygvason’s Saga” that deals with the discovery of North America by Icelanders.

There is little other evidence of bias on Snorri’s part, who maintains a tone of strict objectivity, leaving readers to wonder about his precise views on Christianity, paganism, Saint Olaf’s brutal methods of conversion, and much more. Snorri’s objectivity, however, is less remarkable than it may seem, for he is writing in the tradition of the Icelandic saga, a form that tells its story through the relentless accumulation of facts and dialogue, while avoiding description, analysis, loaded language, and judgments. The saga is typically centered on character, and the way a person’s fate is worked out through his (or her) responses to a vast accumulation of actions and situations. Snorri’s history is a series of sagas, most of which stand alone nearly as well as they do as parts of a whole.

Another of Snorri’s virtues as a historian is his concern with sources and factual accuracy, which were not major concerns for many medieval historians. In his preface, Snorri lists his sources, the times when they were written, and the writers’ sources. He gives special authority to the works of court poets who wrote poems about the deeds of their royal patrons, pointing out that factual inaccuracies would have been immediately apparent to the king and the other listeners. With so much detail and so few ways to check sources, inaccuracies undoubtedly exist, though few of Snorri’s statements have been disproved, and his accounts of actions and motivations are generally convincing. The saga includes a few magical events that have the ring of folklore, but these are never central to the events Snorri is describing.

The Icelandic saga, whether dealing with legendary material, a famous life, or a family history, is always literature as well as fact, so that the Heimskringla is a sophisticated piece of storytelling and a pleasure to read. The biggest drawback is the constant preoccupation of most of the characters with the struggle for power and the endless quarreling over property and inheritance.

Of the seventeen sagas in the Heimskringla , the first, the “Ynglinga Saga” is the best known, but the least historical. It begins with a brief geographical survey of the earth, followed by an account of the beginnings of the Germanic peoples in the region of the Don River. The Norse and other Germanic kings claim descent from the gods, especially Odin and Frey. Snorri, though a Christian, explains this descent by making the Norse/Germanic gods human rulers. In the process, he retells a great deal of Norse mythology, translated into historical terms. The reader quickly moves into the world of the early Middle Ages and ends with the death of King Gudrod in 821. Why Snorri...

(This entire section contains 1880 words.)

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localizes the beginnings of the Germanic peoples in the area northeast of the Black Sea is a mystery. Coincidentally or otherwise, this area is possibly the original Indo-European homeland.

“Halvdan the Black’s Saga,” not a particularly memorable work, precedes the much more significant “Harald Hairfair’s Saga.” Harald is the king who first united Norway, and he created the concept of a united Norway. Harald’s time is also the time of Iceland’s settlement, a subject of considerable interest to Snorri. The most memorable scene in this saga is maiden Gyda’s refusal of Harald’s offer of marriage. She also refuses the offer of any man unless he has first united Norway, as the Danish and Swedish kings had already done. This saga also contains one of the few accounts of the Norse arrival in Normandy.

“Hacon the Good’s Saga” tells of Harold’s son, Hacon, who takes rule of Norway from his brother, Eric, and is involved in off-and-on fighting, first with Eric and then with Eric’s sons. Hacon is the first Christian king of Norway, who finds it a touchy balancing act between his religion and his ceremonial duties at non-Christian religious festivals. Ironically, this saga ends with a long poem about Hacon’s death and his welcome into Valhalla. On his death, rule is taken by Eric’s surviving sons, who are the subjects of the next two sagas, both brief and not particularly memorable.

The two later sagas, “Olaf Trygvason’s Saga” and “Saint Olaf’s Saga,” take up nearly half the entire book. The first is quite varied in content, including further struggles between the sons of Eric and Hacon the Jarl, the birth of Olaf Trygvason, his enslavement as a child, his rise to prominence, and his return to Norway to claim rule as heir to Harold Hairfair. A long digression deals with the Norse discovery of North America, one of the few places where Snorri wanders off topic. Finally, the saga tells of Olaf’s five-year reign, dominated by fanatical and often brutal efforts to force Christianity upon a largely unwilling people. When he slaps a Swedish queen he had been courting and calls her a heathen bitch for not renouncing the faith of her ancestors, he sets the stage for his ultimate defeat and death.

“Saint Olaf’s Saga” follows. Saint Olaf is yet another descendant of Harald Hairfair, though not the previous Olaf’s son. Olaf begins his Viking career at the age of twelve. He becomes a mercenary in England, fighting first against and then for the English king. In one memorable battle, he brings down London Bridge by tying his ship to the pilings and rowing downstream. He later becomes involved in Norway, France, and Spain, and finally returns to Norway where, as a descendant of Harold, is proclaimed king with little opposition. Once he is king, he devotes himself to Christianizing Norway by force—maiming, blinding, or killing those who will not convert. In the process, he makes enemies. When King Canute of Denmark invades Norway, he finds considerable support, and Saint Olaf is driven from the country. Three years later, Olaf returns and is defeated and killed at the Battle of Stiklestad. Miracle stories grow around Olaf, and he becomes more popular dead than he was when alive.

“Magnus the Good’s Saga” is next. At the age of eleven, Magnus goes to Norway with a Swedish following and is proclaimed king, district by district. One significant event of his reign is an agreement with Hardicanute, the king of Denmark, that should either die childless, the other would inherit the thrones of both countries. Magnus thus became king of Denmark and, by extension, king of England, which Hardicanute also ruled. Magnus did not assert his claim on England, but when the English king dies without an heir, Magnus’s successor does claim the throne.

Magnus is followed by his uncle, Harald Hardrade, a great warrior and adventurer. Snorri takes full advantage of his material to tell a vigorous and entertaining story. As a youth, Harald is wounded in the Battle of Stiklestad and then hides among peasants until he can escape to Sweden. He becomes a military commander, first in Russia then in the Byzantine Empire, where he wins battles, takes strong cities by clever stratagems, and amasses a fortune in gold. He is imprisoned by the empress, escapes with the help of a maiden, and returns to Norway. There, King Magnus gives him the title of king. On learning of the English king’s death, Harald invades England with a large army, but is killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

“Olaf Kyrre’s Saga” tells of peace, prosperity, and the growth of towns. “Magnus Barefoot’s Saga” follows. In the first part of Magnus’s reign, rule is shared uneasily with King Hacon. After Hacon’s death, Magnus harries the coast of the British Isles.

“The Saga of Sigurd the Crusader and His Brothers Eystein and Olaf” tells of three brothers who inherit the throne in childhood. Sigurd goes on a successful crusade to the Holy Land that seems to involve mostly Viking-style plundering. The story is lively and well told, but too full of historically dubious and largely trivial anecdotes and of prophetic dreams and visions to inspire complete confidence.

“The Saga of Magnus the Blind and Harald Gilli” and “The Saga of Sigurd, Inge, and Eystein, the Sons of Harald Gilli” come next. In the first of these, the throne is shared by two heirs who eventually fall out. Harald wins and has Magnus blinded and maimed. The second deals with Harald’s sons, who inherit the throne as infants, but fall out as adults. Sigurd is killed by Inge’s supporters and later kills Eystein. The narration is lively, but many of the scenes and events are anecdotal and insignificant.

“Hacon Broadshoulder’s Saga” tells of Hacon’s rise to power, defeating and killing King Inge. The piece is relatively short and ends awkwardly with a dubious story about Saint Olaf’s sword ending up in Constantinople. In “Magnus Erlingson’s Saga,” the surviving supporters of King Inge choose the infant Magnus as king. His father, Erling, wages war in his son’s name and eventually kills King Hacon. The saga ends with Magnus reaching adulthood and winning a major battle on his own.

Heimskringla is a substantial work as literature. As a work of history it is harder to judge. Snorri was well educated and had doubtlessly read historians such as Tacitus and Livy. In writing his history, however, he follows the Icelandic saga tradition. Heimskringla has a multitude of scenes and characters, and much dialogue. Scenes that seem trivial in themselves are used to illustrate personality and character and to lay the groundwork for how a given character will behave in more vital situations. The anecdotes function like the speeches in Thucydides, though most are not literally historical; they help the reader’s understanding of the characters and context.

What Snorri seldom gives readers is an overview. Readers are close to the action, but to the detriment of learning generalities and trends. The only statistics given are the numbers of fighters or ships in specific engagements. It is a part of the art of the saga to stick to immediate facts and to let the picture grow out of the accumulation of scenes. This is not an entirely satisfactory way to write history, but it is vivid and memorable, and Heimskringla will remain important both as literature and as history after most modern examples of both are long forgotten.