The life of Snorri Sturluson fell in a great but contradictory age, when all that was noble and spiritual in men seemed to promise social regeneration, and when bloody crimes and sordid ambitions gave this hope the lie. Not less than the rest of Europe, Scandinavia shared in the bitter conflict between the law of the spirit and the law of the members. The North, like England and the Continent, felt the religious fervor of the Crusades, passed from potential anarchy into union and national consciousness, experienced a literary and spiritual revival, and suffered the fury of persecution and of fratricidal war. No greater error could be committed than to think of the Northern lands as cut off by barriers of distance, tongue, and custom from the heart of the Continent, and in consequence as countries where men’s thoughts and deeds were more unrestrained and uncivilized. Even as England, France, and Germany acted and reacted upon one another in politics, in social growth, in art, and in literature, so all three acted upon Scandinavia, and felt the reaction of her influence.
Nearly thirty years before Snorri’s birth, the Danish kingdom had been the plaything of a German prince, Henry the Lion, who set up or pulled down her rulers as he saw fit; and during Snorri’s boyhood, one of these rulers, Valdamarr I, contributed to Henry’s political destruction. In Norway, Sverrir Sigurdarson had swept away the old social order, and replaced it with one more highly centralized; had challenged the power of Rome without, and that of his own nobles within, like Henry II of England and Frederick Barbarossa. After Sverrir’s death, an interregnum followed; but at last there came to the throne a monarch both powerful and enlightened, who extended the reforms of Sverrir, and having brought about unity and peace, quickened the intellectual life of Norway with the fructifying influence of French and English literary models. Under the patronage of this ruler, Hákon Hákonarson, the great romances, notably those of Chrétien de Troyes, were translated into Norse, some of them passing over into Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic. Somewhat later, Matthew Paris, the great scholar and author, who represented the culture both of England and of France, spent eighteen months in Norway, though not until after Snorri’s death.
Iceland itself, in part through Norway, in part directly, drew from the life of the Continent: Sæmundr the Learned, who had studied in Paris, founded a school at Oddi; Sturla Sigvatsson, Snorri’s nephew, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and visited Germany; and Snorri himself shows, in the opening pages of his Heimskringla, or History of the Kings of Norway, the influence of that great romantic cycle, the Matter of Troy.
Snorri Sturluson was in the fullest sense a product of his time. The son of a turbulent and ambitious chieftain, Sturla Thórdsson, of Hvamm in western Iceland, he was born to a heritage of strife and avarice. The history of the Sturlung house, like that of Douglas in Scotland, is a long and perplexed chronicle of intrigue, treachery, and assassination, in all of which Snorri played an active part. But even as among the Douglases there was one who, however deep in treason and intrigue, yet loved learning and poetry, and was distinguished in each, so Snorri, involved by sordid political chicanery, found time not only to compose original verse which was admired by his contemporaries, but also to record the myths and legends, the history and poetry, of his race, in a prose that is one of the glories of the age.
The perplexing story of Snorri’s life, told by his nephew, Sturla Thórdsson, may well be omitted from this brief discussion. A careful and scholarly account of it by Eiríkr Magnússon will be found in the introduction to the sixth volume of The Saga Library. From Snorri’s marriage in 1199 to his assassination at the hands of his son-in-law, Gizurr Thórvaldsson, in 1241, there was little in his life which his biographer could relate with satisfaction. His friends, his relatives, his very children, Snorri sacrificed to his insatiate ambition. As chief and as lawman, he gave venal decisions and perverted justice; he purposed at any cost to become the most powerful man in Iceland. There is even ground for belief that he deliberately undertook to betray the republic to Hákon of Norway, and that only his lack of courage prevented him from subverting his country’s liberty. Failure brought about his death, for Snorri, who had been a favorite at the Norwegian court, incurred the King’s suspicion after fifteen years had passed with no accomplishment; and daring to leave Norway against Hákon’s command, he fell under the royal displeasure. Gizurr, his murderer, proved to have been acting at the express order of the King.
Eiríkr Magnússon, in the admirable biography to which I have referred, attempts to apologize for Snorri’s faults on the ground that be “really compares very favorably with the leading contemporary godar [chieftains] of the land.” It is true that he made no overt attempt to keep his treasonable promise to Norway, but I think it by no means certain that repentance stayed his hand. Indeed, familiar as he was with the hopelessly anarchical conditions of his native land, its devastating feuds, its plethora of lawless, unscrupulous chiefs, all striving for wealth and influence, none inspired with a genuine affection for the commonwealth, nor understanding the fundamental principles of democracy, Snorri may well have felt that it were far better to endure a foreign ruler who could compel union and peace. If this was the motive underlying his self-abasement at the Norwegian court and his promises to Hákon, then weakness alone is sufficient to account for his failure; if he had no such purpose, he must be regarded as both weak and treacherous.
1 – Sturlunga Saga, edited by G. Vigfússon, Oxford, 1878.
2 – The Saga Library, edited by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon, vol. vi; Heimskringla, vol. iv, London, 1905.
It is with relief that we turn to Snorri’s works, to find in them, at least, traces of genuine nobility of spirit. The unscrupulous politician kept sound and pure some corner of his heart in which to enshrine his love for his people’s glorious past, for the myths of their ancient gods, half grotesque and half sublime: for the Christ-like Baldr; for Promethean Odin and Týr, sacrificing eye and hand to save the race; for the tears of Freyja, the tragic sorrows of Gudrún, the pitiful end of Svanhildr, the magnificent, all-devastating fire of Ragnarök.
His interest in these wondrous things, like Scott’s love for the heroes, beliefs, and customs of the Scottish folk, was, I think, primarily antiquarian. Indefatigable in research, with an artist’s eye for the picturesque, a poet’s feeling for the dramatic and the human, he created the most vivid, vital histories that have yet been penned. Accurate beyond the manner of his age, gifted with genius for expression, divining the human personalities, the comic or tragic interplay of ambitions, passions, and destinies behind the mere chronicled events, he had almost ideal qualities as an historian.
Poet he was too, though the codified rules, the cryptic phrase, and conventional expression, which indeed “bound” together the words of the singers of ancient Scandinavia, must spoil his verse for us. Yet it is well to remember that in his own lifetime, not his natural prose, but his artificial poetry was famous throughout the North.
Snorri’s greatest work is undoubtedly the Heimskringla. Beginning with a rationalized account of the founding of Northern civilization by the ancient gods, he proceeds through heroic legend to the historical period, and follows the careers of his heroes on the throne, in Eastern courts and camps, or on forays in distant lands, from the earliest times to the reign of Sverrir, who came to the throne in 1184, five years after the author’s birth.
“The materials at Snorri’s disposal,” says Magnusson, “were: oral tradition; written genealogical records; old songs or narrative lays such as Thiodolf’s Tale of the Ynglings and Eyvind’s Haloga Tale; poems of court poets, i.e., historic songs, which people knew by heart all from the days of Hairfair down to Snorri’s own time. ‘And most store,’ he says, ‘we set by that which said in such songs as were sung before the chiefs themselves or the sons of them; and we hold all that true which is found in these songs concerning their wayfarings and their battles.’ Of the written prose sources he drew upon he only mentions Ari the Learned’s ‘book,’ . . . probably, as it seems to us, because in the statements of that work he had as implicit a faith as in the other sources he mentions, and found reason to alter nothing therein, while the sources he does not mention he silently criticises throughout, rejecting or altering them according as his critical faculty dictated.
1 – An excellent description and classification of the MSS. may be found in The Saga Library, vol. vi, Introductory, pp. lxxiv-lxxvi. For Snorri’s sources consult pp. lxxvi ff.
2- Ibid., p. lxxxvi.
3 – Tal is used here in the sense of an enumeration (of ancestors); hence, a genealogy.
“Before Snorri’s time there existed only . . . separate, disjointed biographical monographs on Norwegian kings, written on the model of the family sagas of Iceland. Snorri’s was a more ambitious task. Discerning that the course of life is determined by cause and effect, and that in the lives of kings widely ramified interests, national and dynastic, come into play, he conceived a new idea of saga-writing: the seed of cause sown in the preceding must yield its crop of effect in the succeeding reign. This the writer of lives of kings must bear in mind. And so Snorri addresses himself to writing the first pragmatic history ever penned many Teutonic vernacular–the Heimskringla.”
The evidence for Snorri’s authorship of Heimskringla is not conclusive; but Vigfússon’s demonstration is accepted by most scholars. We may safely assume, apart from the general tendency of the external evidence, that one and the same author must have written the histories and the Prose Edda. A comparison of the names of skalds and skaldic poems mentioned in both works will show that the author of each had a wide acquaintance with the conventional poetic literature of Scandinavia, particularly of Iceland, and that, if we suppose two distinct authors, both men had almost precisely the same poetic equipment. Each of the works under consideration begins with a rationalization of the Odinic myths, and reveals an identity of attitude toward the ancient faith. Furthermore, the careful reader will be charmed with the sinewy style of both the Heimskringla and the Edda, and will be obliged to admit the close similarity between them in structure and in expression. Finally, Vigfússon has shown that they exhibit occasionally a remarkable identity of phrase.
1 – See Sturlunga Saga, vol. i, Proleg., pp. lxxv ff. The limitations of an introduction do not permit an abstract of the discussion in this place.
The Prose Edda is undoubtedly by Snorri. It is preserved in three primary manuscripts: Codex Regius, early fourteenth century; Codex Wormianus, fourteenth century, named from Ole Worm, from whose hands it passed, in 1706, into the hands of Arni Magnússon; and Codex Upsaliensis, about 1300, perhaps a direct copy of Snorri’s own text. This last manuscript, and also the Arnamagnæan vellum No. 748, which preserves a portion of the text, testify unmistakably to Snorri’s authorship; the Codex even gives, in detail, the subjects of the three divisions of the book.
These three divisions, but for the evidence of the manuscripts, might seem to afford ground for assuming plural authorship. The first part, the Gylfaginning, or Beguiling of Gylfi, is an epitome of Odinic mythology, cast in the form of a dialogue between Gylfi, a legendary Swedish king, and the triune Odin. Snorri, though a Christian, tells the old pagan tales with obvious-relish, and often, in the enthusiasm of the true antiquary, rises to magnificent heights. Ever and again he fortifies his narrative with citations from the Poetic Edda, the great treasure-house of Scandinavian mythological and heroic poetry.
1 – See Sturlunga Saga, vol. i, Proleg. pp. lxxvii, and note.
One passes from Gylfaginning to Skáldskaparmál with very little shock, in spite of the great difference in subject and treatment) which the author has attempted, rather skilfully, to modulate through a second dialogue. The questioner this time is one Ægir; and replies are made by the god Bragi, famed for eloquence and the gift of poetic expression. This intermediate dialogue, called Bragarædur, or Bragi’s Discourses, strikes the keynote of the entire book, and really reconciles the first section to the second and third, whose dissimilarity to Gylfaginning have led some scholars to believe that one or the other is not Snorri’s work. The god relates several adventures of the Æsir of the same character as those recounted in Gylfaginning, and concludes with a myth concerning the origin of the poetic art. From this point on, barely maintaining the fiction of the dialogue, Snorri makes his work a treatise on the conventional vocabulary and phraseology of skaldship, for the guidance of young skalds.
The third section of the Edda is the Háttatal, or Enumeration of Metres, and combines three separate songs of praise: one on King Hákon, a second on Skúli Bárdsson, the King’s father-in-law and most powerful vassal, and a third celebrating both. Each of the hundred and two stanzas of the work belongs to a distinct metric type or subtype, and between stanzas Snorri has inserted definitions, occasionally longer notes, or comments.
We are now in a position to see the purpose and the artistic unity of the Prose Edda: the entire work is a textbook for apprentice poets. Gylfaginning, conceived in the true antiquarian spirit, supplies the mythological and legendary background which, in the Christian age that had superseded the vivid old heathen days, a young man might not know or might avoid. “Do not lose sight of these splendid tales of the fathers,” Snorri, by implication, says to the youthful bard; “but remember always that these old legends are to be used to point a moral or adorn a tale, and not to be believed, or to be altered without authority of ancient skalds who knew them. Belief is sin; tampering with tradition is a crime against scholarship.”
The second and third sections, Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal, offer the rules of composition, and drive them home by means of models drawn, in the one case, from acknowledged masters of the craft, in the other, by the example of a complete skaldic trilogy, the work of a man who was accepted by his own time as a worthy successor of Bragi, Kormákr, and Einarr. A needed transition from the literary to the technical portion of the book is supplied by Bragarædur, which narrates, in the same spirit as Gylfaginning, further useful tales, and concludes with a mythological account of the skaldic art.
Even the Prologue, which many scholars consider spurious, is an integral part of the work–a fact established by Snorri’s single address, in the character of the author, to beginners. In this apostrophe he refers to the Prologue: “Remember, these tales are to be used only as Chief Skalds have used them, and must be revered as ancient tradition, but are neither to be believed nor to be tampered with. Regard them as I have indicated at the beginning of this book.” The beginning of the book is a summary of the Biblical story of the Creation and Deluge, followed by a rationalized account of the rise of the ancient pagan faith, according to which the old gods appear, not as deities, but as men.
The word “Edda,” as applied to the whole work, has long furnished scholars with material for disputation. The different theories regarding it need not be re-stated here. It is the translator’s personal opinion that Magnússon’s etymology, if not established, is at least the most satisfactory one likely to be offered. Magnússon’ points out that Snorri passed the interval between his third and nineteenth years at Oddi, under the fostering of the grandson of Sæmundr the Learned; that Sæmundr, who had studied at Paris, had founded a school at Oddi; that Snorri became the author of a book which was called Edda; and that this book contains, in its first section, a prose paraphrase of many of the songs from the Elder or Poetic Edda, together with a number of quotations from that work. Now the Poetic Edda was ascribed by its earliest recorded possessor, Bishop Brynjólf Sveinsson, to Sæmundr; and while it is improbable that Sæmundr composed the poem, it is highly probable that it once formed part of his library at Oddi. There Snorri may have learned to know it; and we may assume that he gave the prose edition the, name of its poetical original. That original, “the mother MS.,” he thinks would naturally have been called “the book of, or at Oddi,” which would be expressed, in Icelandic, either as “Oddabók,” or as “Edda,” following, in the latter case, accepted linguistic laws.
Snorri’s familiarity with the Elder or Poetic Edda is demonstrated by his frequent quotations from Völuspá, Hávamál, Grímnismál, Vafthrúdnismál, Alsvinnsmál or Alvissmál, and Grottasöngr. He knew Lokasenna as well, but confused three stanzas, apparently failing to remember the order in his original. One poem that he mentions is lacking in the Poetic Edda as we know it: Heimdallargaldr, the Song or Incantation of Heimdallr; moreover, he makes seventeen citations from other poems which, although lost to us, evidently formed portions of the original Eddic collections, or belonged to the same traditional stock. The disappearance of the manuscript which Snorri used is a great loss.
1 – Magnússon’s theory, with a summary of all others in the field, was presented in a paper read before the Viking Club on November 15, 1895, published in the Saga Book of that society, and separately printed at London in 1896.
The first translation of the Prose Edda was published at Copenhagen in 1665, when the complete text appeared, with Latin and Danish interpretation. This was entitled Edda islandorum an. Chr. 1213 islandice conscripta per Snorronem Sturlæ, nunc prinium islandice, danice, et latine ex antiquis codicibus in lucem prodit opera p. J. Resenii. The standard Danish translation is that of R. Nyerup, Copenhagen, 1865. In 1746, J. Göransson printed at Upsala the first Swedish version, with a Latin translation. Göransson’s original was the Codex Upsaliensis. Anders Uppström made an independent translation in 1859.
In 1755-56 there appeared at Copenhagen a work of the greatest importance for the study of Scandinavian antiquities in England: Mallet’s Monumens de la Mythologie et de la Poesie des Celtes et Particulièrement des Aciens Scandinaves. This book, which comprised a general introduction on the ancient Scandinavian civilization, a translation of Gylfaginning, and a synopsis of Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal, was turned into English by Bishop Percy, under the title of Northern Antiquities. Percy claimed to know Göransson’s text as well as the French. Northern Antiquities was published at London in 1770, and was reprinted at Edinburgh in 1809, with additions by Sir Walter Scott.
The best-known translation, and the only complete one which is at all trustworthy, is that in Latin, combined, with the Icelandic text, in the Arnamagnæan edition, Copenhagen, 1848-87.
In 1842, G. W. Dasent, the translator of Njáls Saga, and a prominent scholar in the Scandinavian field, printed at Stockholm his Prose or Younger Edda, which contains a translation of Gylfaginning and of the narrative passages of Skáldskaparmál. A similarly incomplete English version was printed at Chicago, in 1880, by Rasmus B. Anderson. Professor Anderson also edited a combined translation of both Eddas, the Poetic Edda by Benjamin Thorpe, and the Prose Edda by I. A. Blackwell. Blackwell’s translation, which stops with Bragarædur, had first appeared at London in 1847, together with an abstract of Eyrbyggia Saga by Scott. Samuel Laing’s translation is likewise incomplete.
A French version of Gylfaginning, La Fascination de Gulfi, was published at Strassburg by F. G. Bergmann. A second edition appeared in 1871.
So far as I can ascertain, the first translation into German was the work of Friedrich Rühs, Berlin, 1812. This contains a long historical introduction, and ends with the story of the Völsungs in Skáldskaparmál. Karl Simrock’s Die Jüngere Edda, published in 1851 and reprinted in 1855, although incomplete, is more accurate than any earlier translation, and is remarkable for its literary excellence. The most scholarly rendering into German is by Hugo Gering, Leipzig, 1892, but unfortunately it includes only the narrative portions of the book.
Until 1900, the best edition of Snorri’s Edda was by Thórleifr Jónsson, Copenhagen, 1875. This was superseded by Finnur Jónsson’s splendid Danish edition. In 1907, Professor Jónsson produced an Icelandic edition, which forms volume xli of the Íslendinga Sögur, published at Reykjavík.
It was fortunate for me that these last two editions appeared before I began my work. Professor Jónsson provided me with an excellent text; and, second in value only to this, with an index and an invaluable Icelandic prose re-phrasing of the skaldic verses.
I regret exceedingly that the highly technical nature of Háttatal forbids translation into English. There are, to be sure, more or less–usually less–accurate translations into Scandinavian and into Latin. Even in the excellent Arnamagnæan edition, many of the glosses are purely conjectural; and any attempt to convey into English a vocabulary which has no equivalent in our language must fail. Skáldskaparmál, however, is here presented, complete, for the first time in English.
To those who have helped me I wish to express my deepest appreciation. First of all, to Professor William Henry Schofield I owe a debt of gratitude which is more than four years old, and has increased beyond computation. Dr. Henry Goddard Leach, my first instructor in Scandinavian literature, gave me my greatest single intellectual stimulus, and thereby determined the current of my work. Dr. Frederick W. Lieder, of Harvard University, deserves my thanks for his devoted assistance in reading proof, a task as dreary as it is essential. I am also indebted for valuable suggestions to Mr. H. W. Rabe, of Simmons College.
It is a great satisfaction to acknowledge these debts, incurred in the course of a labor which has been my delight for several years. I should, however, do injustice to those who have aided me, as well as to myself, if I did not assume full responsibility for the faults of the translation. Whatever these may be, I trust that the book may perform some service in bringing before the English reading public a greater portion of Snorri’s classic treatise than has previously been accessible. The reader will perceive the value of the Edda if he will compare it, for legendary and antiquarian interest, with the Mabinogion, and will also realize that the Edda is a masterpiece of style,–style that no translator can ever reproduce.