The Northern Way

INTRODUCTION

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, (1) may well be omitted from this brief discussion. A careful and scholarly account of it by Eiríkr Magnússon (2) 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; be 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 bad 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.

1. Sturlunga Saga, edited by G. Vigfússon, Oxford, 1878.
2. The Saga Library, edited by William Morris and Eirikr Magnússon, vol. vi; Heimskringla, vol. iv, London, 1905.


       Eiríkr Magnússon, in the admirable biography to which I have referred, attempts to apologize for Snorri's faults on the ground that he "really compares very favorably with the leading contemporary godar [chieftains] of the land." It is true that hemade no overt attempt to keep his treason-able 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.

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 peoples 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. (1) 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 Magnússon, (2) "were: oral tradition; written genealogical records; old songs or narrative lays such as Thiodolf's Tale (3) 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 is 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


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.

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