The line between a good, or even great, biography and a really excellent biography lies in the biographer’s ability to tell their subject’s story and also connect it to the larger world. Nancy Marie Brown’s biography of the Icelandic poet and political schemer Snorri is an excellent example of biographies that tie together people and the times they lived in. Not only a biography of a Snorri Sturlason this slim book (It’s only 208 pages in the hardcover.) covers Iceland’s history and lore. Using the arc of Snorri’s life as her guide Ms. Brown tells the story of Iceland’s and continues to the cultural impacts of Snorri’s tales in the 20th century.
It’s refreshing to read a biography that wasn’t written by a sycophant. Ms. Brown addresses Snorri’s numerous flaws (primarily his self-serving nature) but she doesn’t try to explain them away or turn him into an overblown characterization of a villain. Her treatment of the Icelandic culture is similarly fair. Carefully making the point that the Icelandic Vikings were not the horned-helmet-wearing, looting and ravaging hordes that we remember them being she doesn’t hide their darker sides. Along with stories of Icelandic law courts and justice are stories of a six-year old smashing his playmate’s head open with an ax after losing at a ball game and the joy that this brings to his mother, glad that her son will be a true Viking when he grows up.
The legal and political life of 13th century Iceland is carefully explored in Song of the Vikings and it may just the be the political nerd inside of me talking but it is absolutely fascinating. Ms. Brown takes us from the first days of Iceland’s founding by Scandinavians who chaffed under the rule of a king to the arrival of Christianity to the domination of Norway. She adeptly breaks down the legal system that allowed this small island to maintain its unity so that even a complete novice such as myself feels that I understand. As a strict agnostic with an interest in how Christianity spread and its interactions with the native religions I was delighted when Ms. Brown addressed this very topic. The frustrations of the Bishops who tried to maintain a Christian attitude over a population with a very strong “Don’t Tread On Me” mentality provided a nice example of the outside world trying to exert its control over Iceland.
Snorri wasn’t the rough and tumble Viking that one sees in popular culture. A portly writer with dreams of becoming the “Uncrowned King of Iceland,” a strong goal for a Chieftain living in a country ruled by a strong oligarchy that prickles at the idea of a one-man rule. His constant struggle to achieve greatness makes a fascinating tale and one that takes the reader from the intricacies of Icelandic local politics to the court of the young Norwegian king. Unlike his more aggressive neighbors Snorri uses his control over language to work toward his end. In his attempts to court the teenage king of Norway Snorri repackages the old myths of Iceland to make them Christian friendly and presents them as a symbol of his intelligence and craft.
Ms. Brown’s prose is clear and crisp with few unnecessary flourishes. This does not mean that the book is cold or stiff. Rather it is has the comfortable warmth that the Icelandic sagas also hold. Song of the Vikings makes the reader feel that the author understands them and wants to engage them. Ms. Brown even acknowledges the sexual allure of the Vikings, using descriptions such as, “we can imagine his long blond hair loose over his shoulders, his massive chest and manly thighs bared.” Wooof! You can see the grin that must have been on Ms. Brown’s face when she wrote this, a grin that’s quite similar to the one I had when reading it. I would suggest that if you, like I, don’t have a great head for proper nouns then you might want to keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of all the characters in this book. Not only are the names unfamiliar and somewhat similar sounding to an American like me there are also a fucking lot of important people.
The final chapter of Song of the Vikings links Snorri and the myths he preserved to major cultural and philosophical ideas today. Unlike some who make rash comparisons and stretch connections Ms. Brown puts together a thorough chain from the 13th century to the 21st and goes through the chain link by link. She uses concrete evidence to put together her claims and, in my opinion, does so very well.
Song of the Vikings is an entertaining book that adds dimension to a period of European history that has been flattened by simple stereotypes of Vikings. Not just a cultural history, not just the biography of a man who you can’t stop reading about, not just a political intrigue, not just an overview of Icelandic lore, Song of the Vikings is a comprehensive read that covers a wide variety of topics. Yes, the history buff and the folklore buff will devour it but so will the casual reader, who will discover a new interest in Iceland and might just pick up a copy of Snorri’s writing.
Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths; Nancy Marie Brown; Palgrave Macmillan, copyright 2012.