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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2746

Article abstract: Snorri preserved the myths, poetry, history, and culture of the early Germanic people; in doing so, he created an original literature of permanent significance and renown for himself as one of the foremost authors of the Middle Ages.

Early Life

Snorri Sturluson was the son of Sturla Thortharson,...

(The entire section contains 2746 words.)

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Article abstract: Snorri preserved the myths, poetry, history, and culture of the early Germanic people; in doing so, he created an original literature of permanent significance and renown for himself as one of the foremost authors of the Middle Ages.

Early Life

Snorri Sturluson was the son of Sturla Thortharson, a shrewd and ambitious landholder who had acquired wealth and power through incessant legal feuds with neighboring farmers and other devious manipulations of the law. Snorri’s mother, Guthńy, was the daughter of Bothvar Thortharson, who was descended from the famed warrior-poet Egill Skallagrímsson. When Snorri was three, he was taken (for reasons which are obscure) by Jón Loptsson, the most powerful chieftain in Iceland, to live at Oddi, Jón’s family estate in southern Iceland, as a foster son. Oddi had been for several generations the center of Iceland’s highest culture and functioned as an informal school for clerics as well as for the study of law, history, Latin, and skaldship (poetry). Snorri thus spent his formative years in an atmosphere which engendered a respect for learning and culture and which provided him with a thorough knowledge of law, history, and skaldship.

Snorri’s father died in 1183, and his mother, a woman of extravagant tendencies, soon squandered Snorri’s patrimony. Snorri thus lacked the means to establish himself in a society in which wealth was important. He remained at Oddi after the death of Jón Loptsson in 1197 and seems to have remained there for several years following his marriage in 1199 to Herdís, daughter of Bersi the Rich. The marriage appears to have been one arranged solely for money—a marriage typical of the chieftain class in medieval Iceland. Following the death of his father-in-law, Snorri inherited and moved to Bersi’s estate at Borg, which was also the ancestral homestead of the saga-hero Egill Skallagrímsson, Snorri’s distant relative. Thus, through marriage and inheritance of extensive properties, Snorri went from being penniless to being a very rich young man, but his desire for money, power, and fame was unsatisfied. In 1206 he left his wife and their son and daughter in Borg and moved to Reykjaholt, an estate more glamorous and famous. Within a few years, Snorri had greatly increased his fortune and stature. One evidence of his standing is the fact that he was twice elected to the influential post of “lawspeaker” for the Althing, the Icelandic high court. Because laws in Iceland were not originally written, the lawspeaker’s duty was to preserve them by memory and to pronounce the letter of the law in doubtful cases. Given the litigious nature of Icelandic society, a lawspeaker had numerous opportunities for enriching himself through unscrupulous dealings and subtle manipulations of the law, opportunities of which Snorri fully availed himself.

It must be noted, however, that Snorri was in many ways merely a product of his times. The Sturlung Age (mid-twelfth century to the fall of the Commonwealth in 1262), so named because of the predominance of Snorri’s family, was a time of great moral corruption, licentiousness, turbulence, and bloodshed. Sturlunga saga (Sturlunga Saga, 1970, 1974), written by Snorri’s nephew Sturla Thortharson in the thirteenth century, gives a particularly unflattering portrait of Snorri in his willingness to exploit enmities for personal gain; his disregard for friendship, kinship, or alliance; and his seeming indifference to questions of right and wrong. Historians have wondered to what extent Snorri’s early poverty and the influence of his foster father, Jón, contributed to Snorri’s character. Certainly Snorri’s avarice and thirst for power appear as serious character flaws, but the mystery is that they are so ironically inconsistent with the character and personality that readers sense in his writings. Beyond doubt, however, is that Snorri’s avarice led to an increasing immersion in feuds and legal quarrels which did not always turn out to his financial advantage, which made him many enemies, and which led ultimately to his violent death. Before that grim ending, however, Snorri did achieve one of his life’s goals. Through successful lawsuits, advantageous marriages for his children, and a liaison with the country’s wealthiest woman (Hallveig Ormsdóttir), he became, like his foster father before him, the wealthiest, most powerful man in Iceland.

Life’s Work

Nevertheless, Snorri had another goal in life, beyond wealth and power. He desired fame as a skald (poet), something which could best be achieved through recognition at royal courts. He had composed poems to the rulers of Norway even before he set sail for the Norwegian court in 1218, and on one occasion he was rewarded with the gift of a sword, a shield, armor, and an invitation to visit. Little is known of Snorri’s first trip to Norway except that he attached himself to Earl Skúli, regent for King Haakon Haakonsson, who was then a boy of thirteen. Snorri was given lavish gifts and the title of baron, and he was charged with a major diplomatic mission: to settle disputes between Icelandic and Norwegian merchants and to persuade the Icelanders to become subjects of the Norwegian crown. Upon his return, Snorri did nothing to advance the royal cause, but he did write a poem, no longer extant, in honor of Earl Skúli and King Haakon (Háttatal, 1223). Presumably, it was during this period of his life, between 1220 and 1235, that Snorri wrote the major works for which he has been universally recognized and which secured his lasting fame: Snorra Edda (c. 1220-1230; partial translation as The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, 1916, 1954), better known as The Prose Edda, and Heimskringla (The Heimskringla: Or, Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, 1844).

Snorri’s The Prose Edda is a handbook for the composition of skaldic poetry, which in the twelfth century was doubly jeopardized: by the Church, which frowned on the pagan mythology contained in the kenningar (that is, the unique system of paraphrasis and metaphor used by skaldic poets), and by the dancing ballads, or songs, which were becoming popular. Even the noblemen who were frequently honored in skaldic verse began expressing a preference for a simple, less oblique poetry. The Prose Edda was Snorri’s attempt to preserve an intellectual and poetic tradition that was vanishing. It demonstrates his love for and his thorough knowledge and mastery of this difficult, esoteric art. The Prose Edda, in addition to a prologue, has three parts. “Háttatal” (list of meters) consists of 102 stanzas in one hundred different “meters,” composed in honor of Haakon Haakonsson and Earl Skúli (this poem is not, however, the one dedicated in 1223 to Haakon and Skúli). “Skáldskaparmál” (“Poetic Diction”) records a number of old tales about gods, giants, dwarfs, and heroes to illustrate the two primary technical devices of skaldic poetry: heiti (poetic names) and kenningar (poetic circumscriptions). “Gylfaginning” (“The Beguiling of Gylfi”) presents a comprehensive survey of Old Norse mythology; it is on this section that the reputation of The Prose Edda chiefly rests. Gylfi, King of Sweden, comes in disguise to the citadel of the gods to learn their secrets. Finding three of them—known as High, Equally High, and Third—sitting on the high seat, Gylfi proceeds to ask them questions concerning the origin of the world, the gods, and the end of the world. In response, the gods recite classic tales which present the complete cycle of Northern mythology, from the birth of the universe to the destruction of the cosmos (Ragnarok) and its rebirth. Besides being an indispensable compendium of Scandinavian mythology, “The Beguiling of Gylfi” reveals Snorri’s mastery of the art of storytelling. The stories are told with a charm, sophistication, and satiric wit which is rare in any age and which only a natural storyteller can command. To placate the Church (Iceland had accepted Christianity around 999), Snorri included in his work a disclaimer about the veracity of his pagan stories (“Christians . . . must not believe in pagan gods or that these tales are true in any . . . way”), but he succeeds in bringing the stories and the gods to life. In the end, however, the myths are revealed as a delusion: Gylfi heard a loud crash; looking around, he saw that there was no citadel, nothing but a level plain. Thus, the myths were a heathen deception which temporarily beguiled Gylfi and which has continued to beguile readers.

The Heimskringla is indisputably Snorri’s greatest achievement. It begins with the Swedish kings of legendary times and chronologically follows the dynasty across to Norway to the year 1177. Actual history begins with Halfdan the Black, who ruled in the first half of the ninth century, and with Halfdan’s son Harald I Hårfager (Fairhair), the first king of Norway, who ruled from 872 to 930. Each king is given a saga, but the saga of the royal saint of Norway, Olaf II Haraldsson, is Snorri’s masterpiece, both in its extended consideration (some three hundred pages) and in its quality.

Snorri has been praised as being a more realistic and critical historian than his predecessors—with the exception of Ari the Learned, whose work Snorri knew and admired. (Ari is the only one of his sources that Snorri mentions by name in his foreword.) To appreciate Snorri as historian, something of his methods and assumptions must be taken into consideration. In part, he used written sources (only some of which survive), but he also made important use of oral literature—folktales, tales told by wise people, and particularly skaldic poems, which he regarded as his most trustworthy source. The idea of relying on poetry as a source for history appears ludicrous to a modern historian, but for a historian of a preliterary age, poetry may be the only source available. Some modern commentators have conceded that skaldic poetry’s rigid form and meter render it less subject to corruption than other forms of oral literature. Snorri presents his own argument for skaldic veracity in his foreword:

At the court of King Harald [Fairhair] there were skalds, and men still remember their poems and the poems about all the kings who have since his time ruled in Norway; and we gathered most of our information from what we are told in those poems which were recited before the chieftains themselves. . . . We regard all that to be true which is found in those poems about their expeditions and battles. It is [to be sure] the habit of poets to give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are; but no one would have dared to tell them to their faces about deeds which all who listened, as well as the prince himself, knew were only falsehoods and fabrications. That would have been mockery, . . . not praise.

In “Oláfs saga Helga” (“Saint Olaf’s Saga”), which is part of The Heimskringla, Snorri reminds readers that one of the functions of the skald was to be a truthful recorder of events: Olaf called his skalds to be important witnesses at his final battle at Stiklestad.

It is Snorri’s own concern with truth and realism which makes “Saint Olaf’s Saga” a masterpiece. He rejects much of the tendentious, hagiographic tradition associated with Saint Olaf, ignoring some of the early miracles and rationalizing others. Snorri presents a man of complex psychological shadings, a man who was a ruthless Viking and an ambitious king, who nevertheless became a saint as he gradually faced the painful trials at the end of his life. Snorri’s objectivity allows readers to understand and appreciate the motives of those who opposed Olaf as well as Olaf’s own view. His superb dramatic gift brings a host of characters to life, while his narrative skillfully interweaves complicated stories of internal politics with the king’s saga. It is this incorporation of epic tradition with high standards of historical truthfulness which has caused some scholars, such as Lee M. Hollander, to assert that Snorri bears favorable comparison with Thucydides, the great Greek historian:

Considering the great disparity in general culture and intellectual advancement between his [Snorri’s] times and Periclean Greece we may marvel all the more at Snorri’s genius. His work is unique in European historiography in presenting us with a continuous account of a nation’s history from its beginnings in the dim prehistoric past down into the High Middle Ages.

Summary

In many ways, Snorri Sturluson’s own death seems as fateful and tragic as any about which he wrote. Like many of his subjects, Snorri came to grief partly because of bad political judgment and partly because of character flaws. During his second journey to Norway (1237-1239), he failed to seek out King Haakon and spent his time instead with Earl Skúli, who was now the king’s enemy. Rumors circulated that Skúli had in a secret ceremony made Snorri an earl and that Skúli planned a revolt against the king. The king issued a ban on travel from Norway, but Snorri in open defiance sailed to Iceland, at least partly in hope of recovering some property which his own relatives had seized. Haakon then sent a letter to Snorri’s estranged son-in-law, Gissur Thorvaldsson, ordering that Snorri be brought to Norway or that he be killed, because he had committed high treason. Because of Snorri’s avarice and treatment of his relatives, Gissur and his followers chose to surprise Snorri the night of September 22, 1241, at Reykjaholt and kill him rather than deliver him to the king. Ironically, the king claimed Snorri’s properties and thus gained the foothold in Iceland that he needed. Twenty-three years after Snorri’s death, Iceland was subjugated to the Norwegian crown; the country remained under a foreign ruler until the Republic was proclaimed in 1944.

Snorri Sturluson’s life seems in many ways a paradigm of the vices and virtues of the Sturlung Age. He was energetic, astute, imaginative, well learned, and a leader. Yet these qualities were vitiated by the controlling passion of greed, which according to Snorri’s nephew Sturla in Sturlunga Saga led directly to his death. So great is the discrepancy between Sturla’s depiction of Snorri and the Snorri that readers encounter in his writings, that some have doubted that Snorri could be the author of The Prose Edda or The Heimskringla or Egils saga (c. 1222-1230; Egil’s Saga, 1893), which computer-aided scholarship has recently tended to ascribe to him. Given the remoteness of the times and the scant evidence which survives, such questions will inevitably continue to be the focus of scholarly debate, as will the question of whether Snorri should be revered chiefly as historian or as literary stylist. In the meantime, The Heimskringla has become a kind of national bible for Norwegians, who found inspiration in it for their nineteenth and twentieth century struggle for national emancipation, and The Prose Edda remains an invaluable, delightfully readable sourcebook of northern mythology and culture.

Bibliography

Ciklamini, Marlene. Snorri Sturluson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. A complete discussion of Snorri’s life and writings. Includes summaries and a detailed literary analysis of all Snorri’s works with a view to placing them in the context of medieval European culture. A selected bibliography contains few entries in English.

Einarsson, Stefán. A History of Icelandic Literature. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957. Provides a succinct summary of Snorri’s life and achievements as well as comprehensive background material on twelfth and thirteenth century literature and life. Extensive survey of saga literature.

Hallberg, Peter. The Icelandic Saga. Translated by Paul Schach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962. An introductory work which provides a lucid overview of the Sturlung Age as portrayed in Sturlunga Saga. Contains a summary and interpretation of Egil’s Saga. Discusses theories of origin, composition, and significance of saga literature.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964. In addition to the most readable translation of Snorri’s major work, Hollander offers an introduction to Snorri’s life and times filled with valuable insights and information and written in a way which seems to belie the immense scholarship it required. Probably the best introduction to Snorri’s life and work.

Turville-Petre, G. Origins of Icelandic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953, reprint 1967. Examines the uses that Snorri made of some of his sources to illustrate the skald’s imaginative and creative genius. Accepts the theory that Snorri was the author of Egil’s Saga.

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