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Snorri Sturluson (born 1179- died 22.9.1241)


Icelandic poet, historian, the best-known writer of the saga, author of the Prose Edda, which was written as a textbook for young poets who wished to praise kings, and Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway, the most important prose collection in Old Norse literature. Snorri expanded one of its sections into a separate Olaf's Saga. Like most sagas, Egil's Saga is anonymous but it is thought to have been written by Snorri Sturluson in about 1230. Its greatest poem is 'Lament for My Sons' in which Egil honors his dead sons in verse.

The rough storm has robbed me
Of my best riches,
It's cruel to recall
The loss of that kinsman,
The safeguard, the shield
Of the house has sailed
Out in the death's darkness
To a dearer place.

(from Egil's Saga)

Snorri Sturluson, who belonged to the powerful Sturlunga family, was a descendant of the poet and hero from Egil's Saga, Egill Skallgrímsson. He grew up in the home of the most influential chieftain of Iceland, Jón Loptsson, and acquired a deep knowledge of Icelandic tradition and history. His father died in 1197. Two years later Snorri married Herdis, who came from a wealthy family. In the following years Snorri devoted himself to enlarging his estate, eventually gaining the position of one of the richest men in the country.

In 1206 Snorri settled at Reykjaholt. His marriage was not happy. Herdis lived at Borg until her death in 1233. In Reykjahold Snorri wrote most of his works between 1223-1235. Between 1215-18 and 1222-32 he was the chairman of the Icelandic high court. From 1218-1220 he was in Norway, invited by the young and inexperienced King Haakon IV, who ruled from 1217 to 1263. However, at that time the most powerful man was Haakon's half-brother Jarl Skule. During this period Snorri got deeply involved in political intrigues. He signed to Norway's supremacy over Iceland and perhaps he started to plan to write a saga about the ancient kings. In his homeland Snorri was called a traitor.

After returning to Iceland Snorri was involved in a number of quarrels. In court Snorri lost most of his cases and acquired many enemies. Several of them came from his own family. He had illegitimate children and lived with a widow, whose land he had incorporated with his own. Because he was not active enough in persuading his countrymen to accept Norway's domination, Haakon's suspicions arose. However, he carried out an agreement to protect Norwegian merchants in Iceland. In 1237 Snorri returned to Norway, and joined the opposition against the king. Although Haakon banned all Icelanders from leaving Norway, Snorri sailed in 1239 back to Iceland, where his former son-in-law, Gizurr Thórvaldsson, was his most prominent enemy and ally of the king. Haakon demanded that Snorri should be brought to Norway or killed if he refused to obey him. On September 11, 1241, he was assassinated by Haakon´s order in Gut Reykjaholt. The killer was Árni Beiskur, who hit Snorri with an axe. "Don't strike," were Snorri's last words. He died unarmed in his own cellar. Snorri's fate has been compared to that of Cicero in ancient Rome – also Snorri has remained in history, but not as a great statesman or an orator, but as a great writer.

"I've no doubt that if you join Harald's men, you'll prove yourself a match for them all, and as good a man as the bravest of them in every danger. Just take care not to be too ambitious. Never try to compensate with men greater than yourself, but never give way to them either." (Egil's grandfather Kveldulf in Egil's Saga)

Heimskringla contains sixteen sagas of Norwegian history and records the kings of Norway from the earliest times to 1177, as well as a collection of their sagas and poems. Its name comes from its opening words, 'Kringla heimsins', the 'circle of the world.' "Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland. Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth." (from Heimskringla) One of Snorri's sources was a lost work called Hryggjarstykki, written by Eiríkr Oddson. The only historian Snorri mentions in his foreword is Ari Thorgilsson, "the first man in this country to write in the Norse tongue about lore both ancient and recent."

Prose Edda, also called the Snorra Edda includes in the first part, Gylfaginning, an account of the creation of the world and of pagan poetry, stories about the gods in the second section, explanation of the special vocabulary used in poetry, a poem about King Hákon and Earl Skúli Bárđarson, and technical analysis of meters. The second, Skaldskaparmál, and the third part, Háttatal, can be read as an introduction to the art of writing poetry. Snorri's work preserved in three relatively complete manuscripts: Codex Upsaliensis, perhaps a direct copy of Snorri's own text, Codex Regius, dated palaeographically to about 1270-1280, and Codex Wormianus, from the middle of the fourteenth century. Most translations are based on the Codex Regius, which is made from several collections of poems. The first translation of Snorri's work, entitled Edda islandorum an Chr 1213 islandice conscripta per Snorronem Sturlć, nunc prinium islandice, danice, et latine ex antiquis codicibus in lucem prodit opera p. J. Resinii, was published in 1665 in Copenhagen. G.W. Dasent's incomplete English version of Snorra Edda was published in Stockholm in 1842. Egil's Saga starts with King Harald Fine-Hair's establishment of Norwegian unity at the cost of tyranny and war, and closes in Iceland, honoring the achievement of the founding fathers of the Icelandic nation. The saga embraces five generations, from Egil's grandfather Kveldulf to his grandson Skuli. Egil is a poet, drunkard, lawyer and farmer, he performs his first murder at the age of six and is the most individual character in the Icelandic Sagas. Odin has given Egil the power of words but taken away his two sons. Thorgerd, his daughter, manipulates her father back to the acceptance of life and writing about his suffering.

Gofumk íţrótt
ulfs og bági
vígi vanr
vammi firrđa
of ţat geđ,
es ek gerđa mér
vísa fjandr
af vélondum.

(from 'Sonatorrek' by Egil Skallagrímsson)

Snorri gives a detailed description of Egill's physical appearance: "He had a broad forehead and large brows, a nose that was not long but enormously thick, and lips that, seen through his beard, were both wide and long. He had a remarkably broad chin, and this largeness continued throughout the jawbone. He was thick-necked and broad-shouldered and, more so than other men, he was hard-looking and fierce when angry." A skull thought to be that of Egill was unearthed in Mosfell about 150 years after Egil's death. The skull was described as "ridged all over like a scallop shell." It has been suggested that Egill suffered from Paget's disease of bone or from Van Buchem's disease. Dr Darris Wills, a linguist and historian, has argued that this and other descriptions of physical features in sagas "served as 'mugshots' of likely offenders and a warning to wider Viking society."

The word "saga" is Norse for "tale". Most sagas are adventure tales, essentially retellings of Scandinavian history and folktales in narrative form. If the attribution is correct, Egil's saga is the only one whose author is known. Original sagas were Nordic and Icelandic, written in the 11-14th centuries. The genre covers a wide range of material distinguished primarily by subject matter. The family sagas deal with historical events that occurred in Icelandic and Norway during the period of settlement, from about 870 to 1050. Primarily biographical are Egil's Saga, Grettir's Saga, (11th century, translated in verse by William Morris), and Gisli's saga, from the early 13th century. The poems of the Elder Edda are very old and pagan – poems derived from the Eddas drew heavily on myths and legends. Famous sagas: Burnt Njál Saga (11th century), Volsunga Saga (final form 13th century), Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. Science fiction writer Poul Anderson has retold Hrolf Kragi's Saga in 1973. Several Scandinavian writers have imitated the devices of the saga in historical fiction. Of these, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdotter trilogy (1920-22), including Kranse (The Garland), Husfrue (The Mistress of Husaby), and Korset (The Cross) is best known. In the United States O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth and its sequels make use of multigenerational motivation.

For further reading: A History of Icelandic Literature by Stefán Einarsson (1957); The Icelandic Saga by Peter Hallberg (1962); Snorri Sturluson by Marlene Ciklamini (1978); The Mediaval Saga by Carol j. Clover (1982); Snorri Sturluson: Edda by Anthony Faulkes (1987);  Skáldskaparmál: Snorri Sturluson's Ars Poetica and Medieval Theories of Languge by Margaret Clunies Ross (1987); Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla by Sverre Bagge (1991); Snorri Sturluson, ed. by Von Hans Fix (1998); Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia by Kevin J. Wanner (2008); Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of the Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown (2012); 'Physiology and Behaviour in the Sagas' by Darris Wills, in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 8 (2012) 

Selected works:

  • Snorra Edda, ca. 1220
    - The Prose Edda (translated by A.G. Brodeur, 1916) / The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology (translated by Jean Young, 1954) / Edda (translated by Anthony Faulkes, 1987) / The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology (translated by Jesse L. Byock, 2005)
    - Edda: taruopillinen alkuosa; Gylfin harhanäky (suom. 1911)
  • Heimskringla, ca. 1230
    - The Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings (translated by Samuel Laing, 1844, revised by Peter Foote, 1961) / Heimskringla or Lives of the Norse Kings (translated by A. H. Smith, 1932) / Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (translated by Lee M. Hollander, 1964) / Heimskringla translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 2011)
    - Norjan kuningassaagat I-III (suom. J.A.Hollo ja Aale Tynni, 1960-1961)
  • Egla, ca. 1230
    - Egil's Saga (translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, 1976) / Egil’s Saga (translated by Bernard Scudder; edited with an introduction and notes by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, 2004)
  • Snorre Sturlessřns Norske kongers chronica. Vdsat paa danske, aff Peder Claussřn, forndum sogneprest i Vndal, 1633
  • Heimskringla edr Noregs konunga-sögor, af Snorra Sturlusyni. Snorre Sturlesons Norske kongers historie. Historia regum norvegicorum conscripta a Snorrio Sturlć filio. Qvć sumtibus serenissimi et clementissimi principis, Danić Norvegićqve hćredis Frederici magni regis, Frederici, filii nova, emendata et aucta editione in lucem prodit, opera Gerhardi Schöning, 1777-1826 (6 vols.)

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