(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Snorri Sturluson 1179-1241

Icelandic poet, prose writer, and historian.

Snorri is the most celebrated figure in Icelandic literature, remembered for his dramatic renditions of history. His Heimskringla (c. 1220-35) is a comprehensive history of Norway, told largely through a series of biographies of Norwegian kings, and is the best known of all the major works in Icelandic saga literature. Although based on earlier histories, it includes considerable material added by Snorri and showcases his talents as both an historian and a writer of sagas. Much of what is known about Old Norse myth, religion, and poetry comes from the Heimskringla. In the Prose Edda (c. 1222-23) Snorri recounts assorted myths and offers a guide to would-be skalds, providing them with a course on kennings and with numerous examples of the meters used by early Icelandic skalds. Enormously popular and influential, especially in Norway, Snorri's works served as inspiration for Norwegians when they sought independence from Sweden in the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Snorri was born in Hvamm, in western Iceland, in 1179 to a wealthy and powerful family. His lineage included, on his father's side, the chieftains Snorri the Priest and Gudmund the Powerful and, on his mother's, the poets Markus Skeggjason and Egil Skallagrimsson. (Egil is the hero of Egil's Saga, written about 1230—a work some believe to have been written by Snorri.) In 1181 Snorri was sent to Oddi, in southern Iceland, to be raised by Jón Loptsson, the most important chieftain in Iceland. Loptsson's grandfather, Sæmund Sigfusson the Learned, was the first historian of Iceland and had written a history of the Norwegian kings. Under Loptsson's guidance, Snorri’s education strongly emphasized tradition, history, and scholarship. In 1199 Snorri married Herdis, the heiress of the important estate of Borg and, over the following years, continued to increase his ownership of land, eventually becoming one of Iceland's wealthiest men. In 1206 he moved to Reykjaholt, in western Iceland, while Herdis stayed in Borg, where she would remain until her death in 1233. Snorri served his first term as Law-Speaker of the Althing, Iceland's high court, from 1215 to 1218. During this time he collected Court Poetry and also wrote his own verses. In 1218 he visited King Haakon IV in Norway and encouraged him to become king of Iceland, a move which angered many Icelanders. After visiting Sweden and Scandinavia, Snorri returned to Iceland and wrote Háttatal (c. 1222), a lengthy poem which would later become the last section of the Prose Edda, honoring his supporters in Norway. Starting in 1222 Snorri again served as Law-Speaker, this time for ten years. This period was marked by distrust between Norwegians and Icelanders, and included trade wars, embargoes, political intrigues, and ruthless slaughters. Political allegiances were volatile and often dangerous. Snorri did not adequately promote Haakon's plans, the king believed, and by 1237 Snorri had unequivocally turned against Haakon's plans of Norwegian expansionism. In 1241 Haakon sent seventy men to storm Snorri's estate at night. They found it unguarded. Snorri, aroused from sleep, attempted to hide in the cellar. There he was discovered and chopped to death with a battle-ax.

Major Works

Writing of the Prose Edda (sometimes called the Snorra Edda) first began with the Háttatal, “A Catalog of Meters,” which gives examples of 102 different meters known by Snorri to have been used by skalds and includes some new arrangements of his own. Although Háttatal, was originally a self-contained work, Snorri incorporated it into the Prose Edda. The prologue, which justifies the retelling of the tales and explains Snorri's methods, is followed by the Skáldskaparmál, “The Language of Poetry,” which deals with imagery and the proper use of kennings. This is followed by the Gylfaginning, “The Deceiving of Gylfi,” which is a dialogue concerning a visit of Gylfi, King of the Swedes, to Asgard, home of the gods. The gods recount a series of Norse myths, which Snorri is simply passing on to the reader. The Heimskringla, which means “orb of the world,” traces the history of Norway from prehistory, with its myths and gods, up to 1177. Scholars speculate that writing the work likely consumed ten or more years of Snorri's attention. Structurally, the Heimskringla, is a series of sixteen biographies of succeeding Kings. The initial section, entitled Ynglinga saga, follows Norway up to 1000. The second section, some forty percent of the work, is a biography of King Olaf, who ruled from 1016-1030, called St. Olaf's Saga. It was originally written as a self-contained work. The final section covers the years 1030-1177. Some controversy exists over whether Snorri is the author of the anonymous Egils saga.

Critical Reception

Snorri is acclaimed for his historical insight, his critical standards as an historian, and for his ability to tell an exciting tale. Considerable scholarly attention is devoted to Snorri's sources and how he made use of them in his own versions of the sagas. Anthony Faulkes explores these sources, as does Hans Kuhn, who contends that there is a definite folktale element in Snorri's sagas. Marlene Ciklamini concurs, and explains that, as an historian, Snorri “could not ignore cultural traditions accepted as historic truth. … He had recognized that the legends of Óláfr had expressed an essential truth about his complex character, just as folktales and myths articulate in poetic form essential truths about the quality of life and the actions of men.” Both O. D. Macrae-Gibson and Diana Whaley analyze Snorri's views on skaldic verse, imagery, and his own poetic intentions. Lotte Motz examines the treatment of female characters and their power in Snorri's works and in other texts, while Arthur D. Mosher suggests that Snorri tailored some of his tales to relate to Biblical stories. Numerous scholars explore the very different concept of history predominant in Snorri's era. A. Ya. Gurevich explains that the “ideas of Scandinavian society of the period were permeated by mythological and religious concepts. ‘Historical theory’ in such a society is first and foremost a myth. Rationalization of social life and comprehension of developed philosophical categories that were characteristic of feudal Europe were out of the question in thirteenth-century Scandinavia.” Gurevich further studies the important roles luck and fate played in the Scandinavian conception of history. Sverre Bagge studies the significance of morality, character, and personality in Snorri's biographies, especially as they relate to politics: “What Snorri describes is the various persons' amount of beauty, strength, courage, intelligence, and other qualities that serve to gain support and ultimately success in the political game. These qualities are all easily observed by other men; hidden qualities are irrelevant from a social point of view.” Bagge explains that, for Snorri, a man's character is the sum of his acts, and that “each new act may in principle change it.”