Snorra Edda, c. 1220-1230 (The Prose Edda, partial translations 1916, 1954; full translation 1987)
Heimskringla, c. 1230-1235 (English translation, 1844)
Scion of a family of powerful Icelandic chiefs, Snorri Sturluson (SNAWR-ee STUR-luh-suhn) was Iceland’s most widely influential medieval writer, an adviser to and historian of the Norse kings, and the author of the most coherent Scandinavian cosmography composed in the Middle Ages. When he was three years of age, a legal settlement between his father (a forceful arbitrator) and Jón Loptsson (Iceland’s single most powerful citizen) caused Snorri to become Loptsson’s foster son. Snorri’s benefits from this fosterage cannot be underestimated. Loptsson’s home was a center of learning, and he had connections to continental cultural centers. Snorri was trained not only in ecclesiastical curricula but also in law, history, and Iceland’s rich tradition of saga literature and skaldic poetry.
Snorri became a lawyer, eventually rising to the position of president of the Icelandic legislative assembly and of the highest court of the land. Still seeking power and adventure, he journeyed to Norway, where he curried favor from Norwegian rulers by composing his own skaldic poetry, nearly all of which has been lost. The young King Hákon Hákonarson (1217-1263) appointed him skutilsveinn (page or chamberlain) and later titled him a baron. Returning to Iceland as Hákon’s vassal, Snorri became embroiled in the sturlungaöld, a long period of political turmoil that culminated (in 1262, after Snorri’s death) in Iceland’s subjugation to Norway. He ended a second stay in Norway by returning to Iceland in open defiance of the Norwegian king’s order. Although it is not entirely clear whether the king ordered Snorri to be executed, Snorri was killed by the king’s emissaries at Reykjaholt in 1241.
For all his ambition and avarice, Snorri was apparently regarded by his contemporaries as pious and patriotic. Certainly the Heimskringla indicates his diligent striving after historical accuracy and his desire to immortalize the deeds and characters of the great Norse kings, beginning in the days of the legendary migration of the æsir (descendants of survivors of the Trojan war) to Scandinavia. Following an account of this folk legend, Heimskringla becomes a compendium of saga material, concluding with the reign of Sverri, which ended in 1177. Snorri’s history is set forth in the form of a series of brilliant biographies, from which every irrelevant detail that does not contribute to the characterization has been carefully rejected. He borrows from Thucydides and Plutarch the device of putting into his characters’ mouths speeches, not as they were actually spoken, but as they might have been. Snorri’s sources are many, including the writings of the priest-historian Ari Torgelson the Wise, the orally transmitted traditions handed down in ballad form, and the legendary biographies of Norway’s two King Olafs.
The degree of influence of continental European sources on Snorri’s work remains a divisive issue in scholarship on this period. Many are convinced that the neo-Platonism underlying the twelfth century Chartres school strongly affected Snorri’s historiographical vision, while other scholars reject such ideas. No one denies, however, that Heimskringla is a masterpiece, one that has been somewhat neglected because Iceland’s literary heritage lies at the margins of European traditions. Although Snorri was Christian, he does not condescend to or condemn the pagan elements of his work. The work as a whole has a patchwork quality, but the individual portraits of royal rulers are coherent and witty, offering insight into the kings’ psychologies. Probably the most famous section (sometimes titled The Separate Saga of St. Óláfr) describes the life and death of Norway’s most famous historical figure, King Óláfr, who ruled from 1015-1030. Already in Snorri’s time, the saint’s fame had spread as far east as Constantinople. Possibly this caused Snorri to abandon his scientific approach to history only in his account of miracles attributed to the saint. In addition to forming the zenith of Heimskringla, Snorri’s biographical saga is the greatest work of literature dedicated to Óláfr produced in world literature.
A minority of scholars credits Snorri with the famous Egils Saga, but the only other work universally attributed to Snorri is The Prose Edda. Primarily a primer for young poets, the Edda is the first work of its kind to be produced in medieval Western Europe: a study of vernacular poetics written in a vernacular European language. It is divided into four parts: Prologue, Gylfaginning (the deluding of Gylfi), Skáldskaparmál (poetic diction), and Háttatál (list of poetic meters). The last two of these sections are studied almost exclusively by scholars fluent in Old Icelandic, but Gylfaginning, like Heimskringla, has a much broader appeal. In the form of an extended dialogue, Snorri tells how Gylfi, a pagan ruler of Sweden, was tricked into accepting pagan gods as genuine. Marked with humor and irony, this entertaining story represents the most coherent account of Norse mythology that dates from the Middle Ages, forming an admirable complement to Heimskringla. Written in prose, the language of the entire Edda is highly poetic, reflecting Snorri’s gifts as a creative poet in his own right.