(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)