(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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

The Stories:

In Asaland in Asia near the Black Sea lived Odin, the conqueror of many nations, and a great traveler, whose people believed he would have success in every battle. When a neighboring people beheaded his friend Mime as a spy and sent the head to Odin, he smeared the head with herbs to keep it from rotting and sang incantations over it. Thereafter the head could speak to Odin and discover secrets for him. While the Romans were subduing the world, Odin learned that he was to rule the northern half. Traveling through Russia and northern Germany, he finally settled in the Scandinavian peninsula. There he appeared handsome to his friends and fiendish to his enemies. His foes were helpless in battle against him, for he could change his own shape and wish himself from place to place. He made laws for his people: that the dead should be burned, that blood-sacrifice be made for good harvests, and that taxes be paid yearly. When he was near death, Odin said that he would go to Valhalla and wait there for all good warriors. Then he died quietly in his bed, and afterward the rulers of the northland claimed descent from him.

The sacrifices his people made to Odin were sometimes great. When King On Jorundsson of Sweden was sixty years old, he made an oracular sacrifice of a son to Odin. His answer from Odin was that he would live sixty years longer if he sacrificed a son every ten years. He sacrificed as he was told until he had given up nine of his ten sons. By that time he was so old and weak that his people refused to let the tenth son be sacrificed, and so On died of extreme old age. After that people dying from weakness of age were said to have On’s sickness.

After twenty generations of Yngling rulers in the Scandinavian countries came Halfdan the Black, born about 820, the king of Norway. In those days a king was an intermediary between the people and the supreme powers, whose favor he courted by sacrifices. Halfdan was considered a good king because the harvests were plentiful during his lifetime. He died young in a sleighing accident while crossing thin ice. His people begged so hard for his body to insure continued good seasons that finally the body was quartered, and each quarter and the head were sent to separate provinces to spread his good influence.

Harald the Fairhaired was Halfdan’s son. He sent some of his henchmen to bring him a young woman to be his concubine, but she refused to bow to a king of such a small territory and sent word that she would consider him when he ruled all of Norway. His attendants thought her attitude warranted punishment; Harald considered it a challenge. Ten years later, after he had conquered all of Norway, he sent for the woman and married her. He had many children by her and other women. When he was fifty years old, he divided his kingdom among his sons and gave them half the revenues.

At that time Aethelstan, the king of England, sent Harald a sword. When Harald accepted it, however, Aethelstan’s messengers claimed that he was then subject to their king. The following summer Harald sent his nine-year-old son Hakon to Aethelstan to foster, as a foster father was always subject to a real father. Each king tried to outdo the other, but each ruled in his own kingdom until his dying day. When he was seventy-nine years old Harald died in his bed.

Hakon went from England to Norway when he heard of his father’s death. He was then fifteen years old. At the same time, the chief Norse king had sailed west to ravage England; he was Hakon’s brother, Eric Blood-Ax, so called because he had slain at least four of his brothers. Eric was killed in England and Hakon subdued Norway. Hakon, who had been converted to Christianity while in England, began to practice Christian habits of fasting and prayer in Norway. Although he did not insist on forcing Christianity on his followers, many of them, out of friendship for him, allowed themselves to be baptized. Hakon wanted to forego sacrifices to the gods, but a counselor persuaded him to humor the people who still believed devoutly in blood sacrifice. Known to his country as Hakon the Good, he was killed in battle with Eric’s sons, to whom he left the kingdom.

The years during which Eric’s sons ruled Norway were so bad that there was a scarcity of both fish and corn, and the people went hungry. Among other petty kings, the sons killed Tryggve Olafsson, whose wife escaped to bring Olaf Tryggvesson to birth.

As a child, Olaf Tryggvesson spent six years in slavery before his uncle learned where marauding Vikings had sent him after capturing the boy and his mother as they were on their way to a place of safety in Russia. By the time he was twelve, Olaf himself was a Viking chieftain. After harrying various parts of England he made peace with Aethelred, the English king, and thereafter always kept the peace with England. By that time his aim was to be a crusader, for he had come under the influence of Christianity during his raids on England. Having been converted and baptized by the English priests, he wanted to Christianize his own land as well. He set sail for Norway in 995. Between that date and 1000, when he was decoyed into a one-sided battle with the kings of Denmark and Sweden and lost his life at Svolder, he converted all of Norway as well as many of the outlying islands, either by the force of his own personality, or, when that did not suffice, by force of arms. Norway was a Christian land by the time Olaf died, but there was no Norwegian king strong enough to rule its entirety while the Danes and Swedes laid claim to various parts of the country.

When he was very young, Olaf Haraldsson joined Viking expeditions to England, Jutland, Holland, France, and Spain. In England, where the Norwegians were fighting the Danes, who were then in power in England, he was present at the stoning to death of the archbishop who had confirmed Olaf Tryggvesson. It was said that in Spain Olaf Haraldsson dreamed of a fearful man who told him to give up further travel to the Holy Land and to go back to Norway. In 1015, he sailed for Norway to reestablish Christianity and to regain the throne once held by his ancestor, Harold the Fairhaired. Though he did not have the striking personality of Olaf Tryggvesson, Olaf Haraldsson had persistence enough to spread Christianity by his bands of missionaries, to win control over Norway, and to set up a central government. The latter was his hardest task, as it meant taking away some of the traditional powers of the chieftains. He created a form of justice that worked equally for the chieftains and the common people, and because of their resentment the chieftains rose against him at last. With a superior force they fought him at Stiklestad, and in 1030 he was cut down. His hope for national union and independence seemed doomed until suddenly rumors were spread that miracles had occurred where his body had fallen. People began to give Olaf Haraldsson a new name, Olaf the Saint, and the whole Norwegian people suddenly craved the independence for which he had fought.

Olaf the Saint’s stepson, Magnus, obtained the title of King of Norway without much trouble. Afterward he made a treaty with King Hardacanute of Denmark to keep the peace as long as they both should live, the one surviving to become the ruler of the other’s country. When Hardacanute died, Magnus thereupon became king of Denmark. Since Hardacanute had also become king of England after the death of his father, Magnus laid claim to England when Edward the Good became the English king; he was prevented from invading England, however, by trouble stirred up in Denmark by a false friend whom he had made earl there. Letters were exchanged between Magnus and Edward over Magnus’ claim to England. Edward’s reply was so sensible and courageous that Magnus was content to rule in his own land and to let Edward reign in England.

Greater troubles beset Magnus when his uncle, Harald Sigurdsson, returned north after many years in Russia, Constantinople, and the Holy Land. Harald had left Norway after the battle of Stiklestad, when his brother Olaf the Saint was killed. He plundered all through the south lands and at Constantinople joined the royal guard called the Vaeringer. Meanwhile he had collected much booty, which he sent to the Russian king for safekeeping until he should have finished his wanderings. When he tired of life in Constantinople, he traveled north to Russia. There he married Ellisiv, the king’s daughter, and then traveled with her and his booty toward Norway. Eventually he made a deal with Magnus. He received half of Norway in return for half his booty. When Magnus, called the Good, died of illness, Harald, in contrast called the Stern, ruled alone. He was a harsh ruler and he met...

(The entire section is 3589 words.)