What do J. R. R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman have in common? They were influenced, in ways they might not even have been aware of, by the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. And Tor UK is giving away five copies of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths on their Facebook page, if you’d like to find out more here.
From even a cursory reading of Tolkien and Gaiman, it’s clear both writers love Norse mythology. The Norse god Odin, for example, inspired Tolkien’s Gandalf and Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday. Tolkien describes Gandalf in a letter as an ‘Odinic wanderer.’ (The name Gandalf comes from a list of dwarf names in one of Snorri’s works; Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Thorin, and Oakenshield also appear on Snorri’s list.)
Mr. Wednesday, in Gaiman’s American Gods, is Odin himself: Wednesday comes from the Old English spelling for Odin’s Day. When he reveals himself to Shadow, Mr. Wednesday reels off Odin’s names: ‘I am Glad-of War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed … the Hooded One … All-Father…’
The names of Odin, as well as those of Gandalf and the dwarfs, Snorri wrote down from poems he had memorized and so preserved them for us. But Snorri was not just an antiquarian. The character of Odin, the wandering one-eyed wizard, with his beard and his staff and his floppy hat, his entertaining after-supper tales and his super-swift horse, is as much Snorri’s invention as Gandalf and Mr. Wednesday are Tolkien’s and Gaiman’s. Seeing Snorri’s works in the context of his own life, as I had to do to write his biography, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, it became clear to me that much of what we used to consider ancient and anonymous is really the creation of an imaginative artist.
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Snorri, son of Sturla, was one of the richest and most powerful men in Iceland in the early 1200s. It was the ‘Age of the Sturlungs’ – named for Snorri and his brothers – a violent period during which Iceland’s Golden Age came to an dismal end.
Since it was founded by Vikings in the 870s, Iceland had no king. It was the only government in medieval Europeto be based wholly on a representative parliament of chieftains constrained by a code of law. During the Age of the Sturlungs, that proto-democracy self-destructed. The chieftains fought and killed each other.
Snorri was in the midst of the struggle and largely responsible for it. Enamored of kings, he wished to be one himself. The first chieftain in Iceland to control more than one chieftaincy, at one point he owned nine out of thirty-nine. Twice named Lawspeaker, Iceland’s only elected post, and trusted to see that the laws were followed, he instead twisted them to serve his own ends.
In 1218, seeking more power, he went to Norway, where he expected to impress young King Hakon with his mastery of Viking court poetry. But the fourteen-year-old king would rather hear about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than his own ancestors, the Viking kings. The Viking poetry Snorri so loved was dismissed as old-fashioned and too hard to understand.
Snorri must have been horrified. I believe it was to reintroduce the young king to his heritage – and to gain influence at court – that Snorri began writing his books. When you read Norse mythology with this in mind, that its first audience was a fourteen-year-old boy, its pervasive adolescent humor makes more sense.
Between 1220, when he returned home from visiting the young king, and his murder in 1241 (on orders of that same king), Snorri wrote the Edda, a handbook on Viking poetry and myth. He also finished Heimskringla, a collection of sixteen sagas tracing the history of Norway from its founding in the shadows of time by Odin the Wizard-King to 1177, the year before Snorri’s birth. These two books are our main, and sometimes our only, source for tales of the Norse gods and giants. Snorri is also linked to a third source, the Poetic Edda. Some of the thirty-four verses in this collection seem by their archaic language to be very old. But the oldest manuscript dates to about 1270, well after Snorri’s death. Scholars today believe it is owing to Snorri that the poems were set down in writing. Some of them may not be ancient pagan verses at all, but 13th-century imitations inspired by – or even written by – Snorri.
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When C. S. Lewis first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, he wrote to a childhood friend, ‘It is so exactly like what we would both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry.’
That world was largely Snorri’s, though Tolkien did not think of it that way. Introducing Snorri’s Edda to his friends, Tolkien called it the Younger Edda, as opposed to the purer, poetic, Elder Edda. He did not think of Snorri as an author. But we shouldn’t blame him for not giving credit where due: Tolkien did not even speak of himself as an author. The stories of The Silmarillion, he said, ‘arose in my mind as ‘given’ things … always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing'. Many of the characters and motifs his readers assume Tolkien invented were, in fact, already ‘there’ in the works of Snorri Sturluson.
In 2005, Shadow Writer interviewed Neil Gaiman while he was touring for The Anansi Boys. Asked if he had a favorite myth, Gaiman recalled having a copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Norsemen when he was about seven. ‘I still remember the sheer thrill of reading about Thor, and going into this weird cave that they couldn’t make sense of with five branches – a short one and four longer ones – and coming out in the morning from this place on their way to fight the giants … and realizing they’d actually spent the night in this giant’s glove, and going, Okay, we’re off to fight these guys. Right.’ It is a tale told only by Snorri.
Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series has a strong Norse element. His children’s book, Odd and the Frost Giants, sounds like it was written by Snorri himself. But the clearest example of Tolkien’s and Gaiman’s debt to Snorri is the character of the wandering wizard: Gandalf, Mr. Wednesday, or Odin.
Odin One-eye was Snorri’s favorite of all the Norse gods and goddesses. Following tradition, he placed Odin, god of Wednesday, at the head of the Viking pantheon of twelve gods and twelve goddesses. Then he upped his power. Rather like the Christian God the Father, Snorri’s Odin All-Father governed all things great and small.
Icelanders had, in fact, long favored Thor, the god of Thursday. They named their children after the mighty Thunder God: In a 12th-century record of Iceland’s first settlers, a thousand people bear names beginning with Thor; none are named for Odin. Nor did the first Christian missionaries to Iceland find cults of Odin. Odin is rarely mentioned in the medieval Icelandic sagas. For a good sailing wind Icelanders called on Thor. But Snorri wasn’t fond of Thor – except for comic relief. Thor was the god of farmers and fishermen.
Odin was a god for aristocrats – not just the king of gods, but the god of kings. He had a gold helmet and a fine coat of mail, a spear, and a gold ring that magically dripped eight matching rings every ninth night. And Odin had the best horse. Snorri is our only source for the memorable comic tale of how Odin’s wonderful horse Sleipnir came to be. He is also our only source for the idea that Sleipnir has eight legs.
In Snorri’s Edda, Odin and his brothers fashioned the nine worlds from the body of the giant Ymir. Then Odin established the godly city of Asgard. There he built his feast-hall, Valhalla, with its roof of golden shields and six hundred and forty doors. In a silver-roofed palace nearby was his throne, where he watched over all the nine worlds. In case he missed something his ravens, Thought and Memory, flew over all the worlds each day collecting news. Sometimes Odin wandered the nine worlds himself. He was very wise, for one of his first quests was to search out the well of wisdom: he traded an eye for a single sip of enlightenment.
In Heimskringla, Snorri says Odin was a human king who ‘could change himself and appear in any form he would,’ including that of a dragon. He could raise the dead. He worked magic by writing in runes. He knew ‘such songs that the earth and hills and rocks and howes opened themselves for him,’ so he could steal their treasures. ‘His foes feared him, but his friends took pride in him and trusted in his craft.’
After his death he became a god, Snorri says in this version, and wandered the world of men. Around the year 1000, for example, he showed up at an Easter festival held by the missionary King Olaf Tryggvason. Odin disguised himself as ‘an old man of wise words, who had a broad-brimmed hat and was one-eyed.’ He told tales of many lands, and the king ‘found much fun in his talk.’ A little later, when King Olaf wanted to speak again with the storyteller, the one-eyed old man was nowhere to be found.
Nowhere but in Snorri’s books, and perhaps in his soul.
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Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths is out now in hardback and ebook editions, and you can find more infomation about the book here. It is published in the UK by Palgrave Macmillan, a sister company of Pan Macmillan.