Sunday, January 31, 2021

Fortnightly Book, January 31

 The greatest name in all of Scandinavian literature is, without any doubt, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Born in Hvamm, Iceland, his father Sturla arranged to have him fostered by Jon Loftsson, the most influential Icelandic politician of the day. His foster father made sure he had an excellent education. The boy grew up into a talented young man and clever negotiator, but also a quite ruthless and treacherous one, a combination of traits that worked well toward his worldly success. He soon became the wealthiest man in Iceland. In the long Icelandic winters, though, he practiced more literary pursuits. At some point, probably around the age of forty, he traveled to Norway, where he became linked to Earl Skuli, who was acting as a regent for the young Hakon the Fourth; this connection led him to performing errands for the earl all throughout southern Norway, for the next several years. This and a few well-timed dedicated poems made him even wealthier than he had been. It's usually thought (although we do to know) that it was on his return to Iceland that he wrote his major works: the Heimskringla, the Prose Edda, and Egil's Saga. Various troubles at home led him to Norway and back in later years, and eventually his ruthlessness would catch up with him; denying his stepsons a share of their inheritance led to a large band of people surprising him in the night and killing him.

Icelandic literary works were often written anonymously, and Snorri's major works were no exceptions. That the Heimskringla and the Prose Edda are due to the same person is extremely likely on the evidence; that Egil's Saga was written by the same person is very probable; there is no one we know of at the time who is better equipped to have written them than Snorri; the attributions of the Heimskringla and the Prose Edda to him in manuscripts are in later or less reliable manuscripts, although they are consistent; the oral tradition, as far as we can tell, has also consistently attributed the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla to him. It all amounts to less than a proof, but for all that, there is also no reason whatsoever to reject his authorship -- as noted, there is no plausible alternative candidate, what we know of him makes him a very plausible candidate, the whole tradition, patchy though it may be, is consistent in putting him forward.

The next fortnightly book will be the Heimskringla. The work gets its title from the first two words of the first saga, which mean something like "the circle of the earth". It traces the history of the kings of Norway from mythic origins up to the death of Magnus V Erlingsson in 1184. The sagas included are:

1. Ynglinga saga
2. Saga of Halfdan the Black
3. Saga of Harald Fairhair
4. Saga of Hakon the Good
5. Saga of Harald Graycloak
6. Saga of Olaf Tryggvason
7. Saint Olaf's Saga
8. Saga of Magnus the Good
9. Saga of Harald Hardruler
10. Saga of Olaf the Gentle
11. Saga of Magnus Barelegs
12. Saga of the Sons of Magnus
13. Saga of Magnus the Blind and Harald Gilli
14. Saga of the Sons of Harald
15. Saga of Hakon the Broadshouldered
16. Saga of Magnus Erlingsson

I'll be reading the translation by Lee M. Hollander. The work is quite large, so this may end up being one of those occasional three week 'fortnights', but I actually don't anticipate that; saga storytelling is generally smooth and easy to follow, and, except for the huge Saint Olaf's Saga (about a third of the work), most of the sagas are of very manageable size.