Saturday, November 24, 2012


Struggling to digest our Thanksgiving dinner, we spent some time flipping channels the other night.  Along with the customary Star Trek and James Bond marathons, we also found a station showing The Godfather and its sequels.  We flipped in and out, managing to catch many of our favorite bits: the scene in the restaurant, the strangulation in the car, and - of course -- the baptism-cum-takeover of Las Vegas.

As always, we were captured both by the solemn beauty of the picture, as well as by the characters:  they are crude thugs posing as men of honor, inhabiting a world in which success comes not through hard work or innovation, but through calculated violence and the manipulation of unstable personal networks, in which "family" is everything -- until it is not.

The movie made us think about Snorri Sturluson.

For those who may have forgotten, Snorri was a 13th-century Icelander, remembered principally as the author of the Prose Edda, which is our principal source for understanding Norse mythology.   If you have ever enjoyed the stories of Odin, Thor and Loki -- or the Ring of the Nibelungs, or Tolkien -- then you owe a debt to Snorri.  Because while their names and little bits of story can be found in other sources, not least the dense poetry of the Elder Edda, Snorri's retelling is the only place in which the tales are set out as simple, beginning-to-end narratives.  Without Snorri, we would know very little, almost nothing, about the legends of the pre-Christian north.

So who was Snorri Sturluson?  Not, as we had always imagined, a Viking raider with a bit of literary talent, nor a Christian monk with an antiquarian bent.  He was -- as we learned from reading Nancy Marie Brown's recent book, Song of the Vikings:  Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths -- something quite different.  Fat and cowardly by nature, Snorri was nonetheless one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Iceland; he achieved this not through martial valor but through shrewd manipulation of those around him, as well as through the strategic deployment of a singular gift for poetry.

Brown does a good job of depicting Iceland in the high Middle Ages.  Settled by ninth-century Norsemen fleeing an aggressive king, it was a a land with no king of its own, ruled by clans and chieftains.  It possessed some remarkable civil institutions: its laws were written down long before those of Sweden, and its Althing remains the oldest "parliament" on earth.  On the other hand, though, chieftains arrived at the Althing with their armies in tow, because this was really less like a parliament than like a Mafia conclave.  A tough place to farm, Iceland didn't have many other sources; notably, for a remote island, it possessed no trees large enough to make seagoing ships.  Although Christian by law from A.D. 1000, the Church's presence was not strong.  Divorce, for example, was common and lightly penalized -- as were murder and theft.  Snorri himself was murdered, and the plot was hatched by members of his own family.

One thing Icelanders were famous for, though, was their ability to tell stories.  Like the modern Irish, their achievements in poetry and song seem to have been far greater than you might expect from a small nation.  When they left Iceland, poetry and storytelling were their entree into the courts, and sometimes even ranks, of the European nobility.  Poetry, as Brown says, was power.

Brown is writing for a general audience, and this causes as many difficulties as it resolves.  Making sense of the characters in Snorri's life -- many of them sharing names with each other -- can be maddening.  Brown is a sensitive interpreter of Snorri's writing, and one wishes she had given us less biography and more intepretation -- but then, her readings depend upon a grasp of the biography, so what choice does she have?

To be honest, our favorite chapter is the last, in which she leaves behind Snorri and his violent life, to briefly sketch out the later history of his most famous book.  The Prose Edda was forgotten for centuries, then rediscovered and translated, into Latin and other useful languages, in the 1500s.  This did not merely mark the recovery of the Norse myths themselves although that would have been enough -- but also the birth of an artistic sensibility infused with the vision of wild landscapes and half-remembered creatures hidden in the darkness.  This would, in time, directly shape the Gothic novel, and poets like Thomas Gray and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Through Tolkien, it would would also shape the modern genre of "high fantasy," by now expressed in countless three-novel paperback series as well as video games like Skyrim.

Sadly, as Brown shows, the recovery of Norse mythology would also help create the academic study of  philology, which in turn would lead to a nasty little intellectual obsession with the heritage of Northern Europe -- not only its poetic history, but its half-imagined racial one as well.  Snorri, one must admit with regret, fed the unhealthy fantasies of a pig like Wagner and a monster like Hitler.  He continues to feed the relatively harmless goofiness of the self-styled "Asatru" neopagans, as well as the more menacing underground culture of the Aryan Nations and their ilk.

One irony which Brown observes, but about which she says little, is that our principal source for an understanding of Norse paganism was a Christian and part of a society which had been Christian for centuries.  Snorri prefaces his Edda with an account of the Creation derived directly from Genesis, and his "gods" are strongly Euhemerized -- treated, in other words, as historical men and women about whom legends have grown up.  Nor are they particularly admirable men and women; if the Greek deities were prone to adultery and wrath, the Norse gods often seem petty, cheap, and more than a little dim-witted.  On occasion, Snorri has a good laugh at their expense.

That's probably the point.  While it is tempting to think of Snorri's Iceland as only half-Christian, with pagan rites still practiced in its dark corners, the evidence doesn't really support that, and the Eddas least of all.  The Church may not have had as much authority in Iceland as it did in, say, France, but it had at least managed to so discredit the competition that people had a hard time remembering just why their ancestors had worshiped those cranky old gods.  All of which suggests that the various neo-pagan movements are exceeding the brief presented by the nominal source of their faith, by projecting onto the Eddic outline a religious philosophy which they have themselves invented.

Anyway:  we recommend Song of the Vikings, with only a few reservations.  It is a brief, original and deftly-painted portrait of an important literary figure, the godfather, as it were, of Norse mythology.  We hope that Nancy Marie Brown will follow it with a deeper analysis of Snorri's work, and of its role in modern culture.

No comments: