Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, by Nancy Marie Brown – Much of what we know about old Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturluson, a thirteenth-century Icelandic poet and chieftain. Sure, there are earlier references that provide hints, but it’s Snorri who wrote out a collection of the myths from the creation of the world to its destruction at Ragnarok. This book interweaves the story of Snorri’s life with his work and legacy. Snorri himself is said to have been quite clever and able to amass a lot of power for himself, but also rather cowardly, dying hiding in a basement rather than in battle like one of the Viking heroes he wrote about. He was partially blamed for Iceland losing its independence to Norway, although Brown suggests that he might well not have intended this.
Brown’s examination of how much Snorri altered the existing myths, likely making up many of the details on his own, is quite interesting. He shows an obvious preference for Odin, god of kings and noblemen, over the generally more popular Thor. Snorri still uses the latter quite often, but he makes him out to be more of a super-powered buffoon than someone worth worshipping. It’s also significant that Snorri was a Christian, and sought to make the tales from the old religion more palatable to a Christian audience. His framing story for part of his Prose Edda involves the Aesir trying to trick a king named Gylfi, with the implication being that a lot of the tales aren’t actually true. There’s also a prologue in which he tries to explain the gods as simply noteworthy humans who were deified after death. According to this, Odin and Thor actually originated in Asia Minor (“Asgard” deriving from “Asia”), and the former established the royal lines of Germany and Norway. Brown compares Snorri’s attitude on the old gods to that of the prankster giant Utgard-Loki, who is amused by Thor. He came from a background that considered the Norse myths to be lies, yet they were also an integral part of his ethnic history, and good stories to boot.