Snorri Sturluson

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    Snorri Sturluson (1179--September 23, 1241) was a medieval Icelandic chieftain, landholder and political official, and a poet, historian and mythographer. His name may also be encountered spelt Snorre Sturlason (Norwegian) or Snorre Sturlasson (Swedish), but Snorri Sturluson is the recommended form in English, as it’s correct in Icelandic and Old Norse. Note that Sturluson is a Patronymic, not a family name; he is correctly referred to as Snorri for short, not “Mr. Sturluson”.

    Snorri is the single most famous author of medieval Iceland and Old Norse literature in general. His life marks the beginning of a Golden Age of Icelandic literature, during which the island produced The Icelandic Sagas. It was also a time when the Icelanders, with their literary skills honed by the reception of foreign literature, and some 200 years after their Christianization, re-discovered their own history and the beliefs and traditions of their pagan forebears.

    Snorri's most famous work is the Prose Edda, also known as Snorra Edda after its author. The Prose Edda is easily the single most important source for Norse Mythology; not because it records a lot of myths itself -- which it does – but because it attempts to actually explain the myths and to describe them systematically. Without Snorra Edda, much of the Poetic Edda and many other sources on the matter would remain incomprehensible.

    His other Magnum Opus is traditionally Heimskringla, a massive chronicle of Norwegian history; or, more accurately, a work moving from pseudohistory through Historical Fiction to history in its description of the lives of the kings of Norway from Odin and Yngvi-Freyr up to 1177 AD. There is, however, no absolute certainty on how much of Heimskringla is Snorri's creation, as it is an anonymous work and may be a collaboration of various writers.

    There is a hypothesis, grounded on an analysis of the vocabulary, that Snorri is also the author of Egil's Saga, one of the big Sagas of Icelanders. Tentatively, Snorri might have taken an interest in Egil, as Egil was Snorri's own ancestor, and was considered Iceland's best poet from pagan times. Definite proof for that conjecture, however, is lacking.

    Besides his fame as a poet and writer, Snorri also had a rather illustrious political career, which came naturally with his being born into the Sturlung clan, one of the most powerful Icelandic families of the era. He was raised at Oddi in Southern Iceland, at the time Iceland’s center of education, which laid the foundations for his later literary accomplishments.

    As a personality, Snorri has been described as “avaricious, ambitious and aspiring”; while these characteristics were hardly unique among people of his class at the time, he was more successful than most in accruing wealth and power. His father died when Snorri was only five years old, and when Snorri reached adulthood, he was relatively poor. Yet by inheritance, marriage, clever politics, and a thorough knowledge of the law, he was owner of several large estates by his late twenties, besides being regarded an oustanding poet and jurist.

    In his mid-thirties he was elected lawspeaker of Iceland, an office (comparable to “President of Parliament” in modern terms) that he held for four terms (12 years) in total. He took a break from the office to travel to Norway (with a side trip to Sweden), to make diplomatic connections as well as to satisfy his hunger for learning. The journey was the climax of Snorri’s fame; he enjoyed the patronage of the teenage King Håkon and his co-regent Jarl Skule, and was endowed with gifts and titles in return. Yet Håkon was not without ulterior motives: The king employed the plan to annex Iceland to Norway (a goal he would achieve more than 40 years later), and persuaded Snorri to swear an oath of allegiance that obliged him to represent Håkon's interests in Iceland.

    Håkon's support benefited Snorri -- for a while, it made him the possibly most powerful man in Iceland -- but it also earned him enemies. Other chieftains who opposed a union with Norway increasingly resented him; most consequentially, Snorri’s selfishsness aroused discord within the Sturlungs themselves, which erupted in a feud that pitted Snorri against his brother Sighvat and the latter’s son, Sturla. This was the beginning of Snorri’s downfall, as he did not excel as a military leader, and got the short end of the stick. After his son Órækja and his cousin Thorleif had been captured by Sturla and forced into exile in Norway, Snorri himself ceded ground and, in 1237, left for Norway too.

    It did not help. Håkon was opportunistic enough to switch his support from Snorri to Sturla, and Snorri spent his time with Jarl Skule instead, thus getting entangled in a brewing conflict between Håkon and Skule. In 1238, Sighvat and Sturla were killed in Iceland in battle with Gissur Thorvaldsson of the Haukdælir clan, and Snorri planned to return to Iceland. Yet Håkon, sensing that Snorri was no longer his ally, denied him permission to sail. Snorri left anyway, against Håkon’s orders, but with the help of Skule.

    Soon after, Skule raised a rebellion to challenge Håkon’s rule. He failed and paid with his life. Håkon, regarding Snorri as a traitor, allied with Gissur and gave the latter free reign to kill Snorri, should Snorri not surrender himself to Håkon. Snorri did not submit, and eventually was successfully attacked by the Haukdælir clan in his house at Reykholt, where, at the age of 63, he was killed with an axe-blow.

    Snorri's works provide examples of the following tropes:

    • Demythtification: Snorri tried to rationalize Norse Mythology to fit it in with Christian cosmology and Classical history; consequently, he explained the Æsir as an advanced (yet human) nation of magic-wielders who were remembered as gods by posterity.
    • Retcon: In the Snorra Edda, Snorri claimed that Asgard, the city of the gods, was Troy, but by the time he wrote Heimskringla, he had scrapped that idea and described Asgard as a wholly different place, somewhere around southern Russia or the Caucasus.