Snorri Sturluson Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

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)...

(The entire section is 2746 words.)