This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.
Scribe: Snorri Sturluson
Lived c. 1179 – 1241
Location: Reykholt, Iceland
Prose Edda – literary work, mythological narrative, and poetics guide
Heimskringla (History of the Norwegian Kings) – political chronicle
Egils saga (?) – Icelandic family saga/warrior-poet narrative
Of all the historians and scribes this series will be covering, there are few who will have such a prominent life outside of their written works than the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He is almost certainly the only historian we will be covering with the political agency to directly disobey a king and be assassinated for his temerity. Unfortunately, Snorri’s own fascinating story and contentious political life is generally subordinated in the popular consciousness to his most famous work, the Prose Edda, a text simultaneously praised as our primary source for much of what we know of Old Norse mythology, and condemned refracting that mythology through the lens of Christianity. But to construe Snorri’s legacy as being the Prose Edda, and construe the Prose Edda as being a flawed recollection of pre-Christian belief, is more than a little reductionist and not really fair on either.
I don’t intend to deal with the Prose Edda at any real length as we have other Snorri works to deal with here. Suffice it to say its value to historians goes far beyond the preservation of pre-Christian beliefs. The Prose Edda was intended as something of a handbook for Old Norse poets, a way of linking the vernacular poets of thirteenth-century Christian Scandinavia with a poetic tradition firmly rooted in pagan imagery. As such, the Prose Edda is of incredible value to parsing complex Old Norse kennings and alliterative verse – in many ways it remains a handbook for those interested in Old Norse poetry.
More important to what I want to discuss here is Snorri’s authorship of Heimskringla – a history of the Norwegian kings, and Egils saga. There is a bit of debate around the second one and whether Snorri really is the Egils saga author. I find the case for his authorship quite convincing, but that’s jumping ahead in the story somewhat. We should really begin our biography in true Icelandic fashion: with a genealogy.
Snorri was born into a wealthy and politically influential family, the son of Sturla Þórðarson (first of that name – there is another, more famous one) and Guðný Böðvarsdóttir. His father’s lineage can be traced back to the settler Helgi ‘the Lean’ who arrived c. 890 and claimed a large area of land in Iceland’s north quarter. Helgi is an unusual settlement era leader, explicitly identified in Landnámabók as a Christian (Iceland officially converted in the year 1000 but, as this implies, there is some evidence for Christians and Christian activity from the very first Norse settlement). On his mother’s side, Snorri can trace his lineage back to the settling father-son duo of Kveld-Ulf and Skalla-Grim who have a firmly pagan origin story. Kveld-Ulf died on the journey and was placed in a coffin to be buried at sea, but when Skalla-Grim landed in Iceland he found his father’s coffin had beat him there and was located in the ideal place for him to build his farmstead. More important than this to Snorri and his family though was the link it gave them to one of Iceland’s greatest heroes, Egil Skallagrímsson – warrior, poet, the equal of kings. In a culture lacking a formal noble class, Egil was nobility and so too by extension were his descendants – for this reason alone Snorri is a good candidate for being the writer of the saga that recorded Egil’s heroics.
It’s certainly a storied heritage that comes together in the person of Snorri, his brother and sisters, and their descendants. In fact, it seems a little neat and perhaps a little polished, don’t you think? Our main source for all this is Landnámabók, the earliest extant version having been compiled and redacted by Snorri’s nephew Sturla Þórðarson (yes, the other one), whose own lineage benefits from this narrative just as Snorri’s does. Which is not to say that they were not scions of the families that Sturla claims, but rather that the settlement stories providing them idealised Christian and pagan heritage, linking them to one of Iceland’s heroes, allowed the Sturlungar clan to have things both ways. They are identifying themselves as ‘more Christian’ than other Icelanders as heirs of early adopters of the faith, yet also as a family with strong links to an idealised pagan heritage and pagan past.
Was that a digression? Probably. Onward!
Some Icelandic politics and a bit of legal fidgi-widginess occurred in his youth which can be summarised as the young Snorri being born into a powerful family, fostered by a separate family of similar standing, and married into a third. A few deaths along the road meant that Snorri did not gain much wealth from either his birth or foster families, though his connection to both came with reputation and prestige. His marriage, though, provided him with both lands and a goðorð (chieftaincy) and, from this platform, Snorri began collecting and consolidate other goðorð. It was a practice that would be disastrous for Iceland’s autonomy, but that is not our concern here – we are supposed to be focusing on Snorri the historian. So, let’s take a quick look at Heimskringla and the context for its authorship.
Heimskringla is a collection of sagas about Scandinavian kings – mainly Norwegian – with the opening books concerned with largely legendary material, and the rest concerned with largely historical material. Snorri references some works as his sources, and others have been identified by close reading of his text. Nonetheless, the composition of the sagas appears to be his – making him very much a historian, parsing, summarising, analysing, and paraphrasing his source material. Written c. 1230 it is important to note that this was a time in Snorri’s life around a decade after his first trip to Norway at the invitation of the Norwegian king (Hákon Hákonarson). During that trip he had befriended the king and become heavily involved in Norwegian politics. On his return to Iceland, Snorri took up the role of Lawspeaker. The Lawspeaker was elected every three years and, though technically lacking in any codified power, was understood as the repository of all legal knowledge and thus the arbiter of courts and legal disputes. In that capacity, and on his third term as Lawspeaker since returning to Iceland, in 1230 Snorri was operating as a pro-Norwegian partisan who advocated for Iceland to become a subject of the Norwegian crown. As such, it should come as little surprise that the picture of Norwegian kingship we get in Heimskringla is largely positive.
Let’s look at an example involving my good friend King Æthelstan of England. Early in his reign, around the year 925, Snorri records that Æthelstan was sent an envoy to the court of the Norwegian King Harald Fairhair with a gift: a fine sword ornamented with gold, silver, and precious stones.
The messenger held it with the hilt towards the king and said:
‘Here is a sword, which King Æthelstan said you were to receive.’
The king took hold of the handle, and immediately the messenger said:
‘Now you have accepted it as our king wished, and now you shall be his subject, since you have received his sword.’
It’s a power-play by the Anglo-Saxon king, and Harald recognised it as such. Snorri is clear in indicating that Æthelstan is playing on a known custom in which the act of gift giving places an obligation of service upon the recipient. Harald understands the act to be done in mockery – Æthelstan was not making a play for his throne, but rather establishing a veneer of dominance in the relationship. Naturally, that was not something which the Norwegian king could allow to stand. So the next year, Harald put his own scheme into motion. His envoys arrived at Æthelstan’s court with Harald’s young son Hakon in tow. Placing the lad on Æthelstan’s knee, the leader of the group spoke:
‘King Harald bade you foster a handmaiden’s son for him.’
It’s an impertinent demand. Both the request and the delivery are intended to demean, and Æthelstan became enraged, seizing his sword to strike the boy. But before the fatal blow could drop, the envoy interrupted with the words:
‘Now you can murder him if you like, but you will not by doing that destroy all King Harald’s sons.’
A thinly veiled threat of vengeance. Æthelstan has few good choices here – murder an innocent and incur the wrath of the Norwegian crown, or accept that he lost this exchange and foster the lad. He opts for the latter and we are told that King Harald was pleased because…
‘…it is a common saying that a person who fosters a child for someone is of lower rank.’
It’s a great little piece of drama, recounted in Haralds saga in Heimskringla. The competitive demonstration of power is clearly a literary construct, likely conceived as a framing narrative for the historically grounded fosterage of young Hakon which is referenced in numerous other Scandinavian texts. Indeed, throughout his life he is known as Hákon Aðalsteinsfóstri. But this exchange is unique to Snorri, and there is little doubt that Harald’s portrayal here is positive. Certainly Æthelstan made Harald look the fool initially; however, in forcing Æthelstan’s fosterage of his son, Harald appears to have had the best of the exchange. Snorri may editorialise at the end of the exchange with the statement ‘In such exchanges … no disparity between their status came about as a result. Each was supreme king in his realm until his dying day,’ but there should be little doubt it is an exchange intended to promote Norwegian kingship.
We’ll stick with Æthelstan as we turn to Egils saga, but the authorial context has changed, so let’s take a look at that first. Egils saga was written around 1240 and boy have things changed in Snorri’s life. His attempts to sway Iceland to the Norwegian crown had failed and, though Hákon Hákonarson remained on the Norwegian throne, Snorri’s failures in Iceland meant that a less than amicable reception awaited him when he took his second trip to Norway in 1237. Realising his precarious position, Snorri opted to stay with Skúli Bárðarson, a rival claimant for the throne. It was a short trip, for more violence flared in Iceland, so Snorri requested leave from the king to return home in 1238. Hákon refused, and Snorri went anyway, an act of rebellion that would seal his fate.
Thus, in 1240, we find a narrative in Egils saga that is far less accommodating of Norwegian kingship. Indeed, Egils saga is imbued with something of a nostalgia for the independence of the Icelandic Commonwealth, a period in which free Icelandic heroes were the equals of kings and shaped the fate of north-western Europe. And so it is that we find Egil Skallagrímsson at Æthelstan’s side a his most famous victory, the Battle of Brunanburh. In fact, according to the narrative, the victory was only won through Egil’s agency – an account that verges on panegyric. As noted, Snorri certainly had a motive to portray the warrior-poet in this way. His was not the only powerful family seeking to gather goðorð and consolidate power, and it was politically advantageous to a clan’s prestige if they could differentiate their family by recalling its auspicious ancestors. And there are few more auspicious Icelanders than Egil.
So there are four reasons to believe Snorri was the author of Egils saga, Firstly, and to drive the point home, he was from the lineage of Egil Skalagrimson and, as the foremost Icelandic historian of his day, had something of a vested interested in promoting the reputation of his ancestor. Secondly, the internal dating evidence of Egils saga placing its authorship around the year 1240 makes it a late composition in Snorri’s life, but within the realms of possibility. Thirdly, a close comparison between Heimskringla and Egils saga is suggestive of mutual authorship. The themes and formulae of the Egils saga correlate with Snorri’s known works, and stylistically the similarities are demonstrable. Statistical studies of word usage between the known Snorri text, Olafs saga, and Egils saga (which I won’t make you read) demonstrate a high degree of correlation between the two texts, with only the last chapters suggestive of a separate hand at work. Which brings me to the last point – the fact that the final chapters of Egils saga were completed by a second writer speaks in favour of Snorri’s authorship of the rest of the content. It is a distinct possibility that, given the proximity of the writing of the text to Snorri’s death in 1241, it was incomplete at the time of his assassination.
Thus both Heimskringla and Egils saga are products of Snorri’s political milieu – the first intended for a Norwegian audience, the second for an Icelandic. Heimskringla, despite the early legendary material, shows something of the modern historian’s concern with sources and source analysis and, as such, it remains an excellent source for the early royal history of Norway. Egils saga on the other hand is typical of the saga corpus. It may have a historical core, but is largely a fiction designed to entertain an Icelandic audience, flattering Icelandic identity and agency in the wider Anglo-Scandinavian world. Hopefully you can see from the examples we have looked at, the narratives Snorri records speak as much to his authorial context as to the historical realities of his subjects.
I could and should say much more about Snorri, but must leave it here so as not to let this article get out of control. We have barely touched on the life and works of Iceland’s most infamous politician, historian, and antiquarian. Indeed, there is so much more to be said just on Heimskringla and Egils saga.
This is, however, intended as a biography, so we should close with Snorri leaving the stage. Hákon was not willing to forgive Snorri for either his failures in Iceland or his insults and disobedience in Norway, and so he collaborated with a rival clan to the Sturlungar to enact an assassination plot. So it was that Snorri, cornered in a cellar, was denied mercy from his attackers and was stabbed to death. The only one of our scribes and historians who will meet such a violent fate for, while Snorri’s legacy may be his invaluable writings, he was first and foremost a politician.
- Feature image: Lay person and monk making books in Echternach Abbey (Bremen, Universitätsbibliothek, MS 217, c. 1020).
- Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.
- Landnámabók, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1980.
- Bernard Scudder, trans., Egils saga, edited by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, London: Penguin, 2002.
- Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014
- Ralph West, ‘Snorri Sturluson and Egils saga: Statistics of Style,’ Scandinavian Studies 52 (no. 2, 1980): 163-193.
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