Once upon a time in England, two great masters of fantasy – J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – were having an argument. 

Tolkien, who, like Lewis, attended Oxford University, was trying to impress upon him the wonder of the rich tapestry of Norse myths and legends. Lewis, on the other hand, thought that the great bard Shakespeare himself was superior. 

Tolkien won the argument as he stressed to Lewis the importance of Norse literature to modern English, including a horde of words like egg, knife, brag, ransack, and law. 

The two founded a book club dedicated to the study of Norse mythology, starting with the works of Snorri Sturluson

Now, that name, Snorri Sturluson, SHOULD be as well-known as Shakespeare, in the humble opinion of The Viking Herald (whilst great, the allure of Shakespeare has been ruined by generations of high school English tests and exams).

Luckily, Nancy Marie Brown has dedicated an entire book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths – dare we say saga – to the man credited with compiling the great tales, stories, myths, and legends of people from Viking societies in 13th-century Iceland. 

Born and raised in medieval Iceland, Snorri Sturluson stands out as one of the most influential figures in documenting and shaping the Norse myths and historical narratives of his time. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A wily political player and a bard 

According to Brown, while Sturluson may have been a wizard with words, he was a flawed individual. 

Whilst he amassed a considerable fortune and political influence – spending years in the halls of power, teaching a young Haakon V of Norway – he was also said to have been murdered for selling his country out, overseeing its absorption into the Norwegian kingdom. 

Although there is still debate about his role in the ending of the Icelandic Commonwealth, there is no debate about his literary genius. 

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Brown traces his life story from his churlish and powerful father, through his adoption by a powerful chieftain (a common thing in 13th century Iceland), through his literary studies, rise to power, and eventual bloody demise. 

She does this against the backdrop of medieval Iceland and weaves into his story some of the Norse myths, legends, and sagas he helped popularize. 

Indeed, Sturluson was what Brown calls a "wily political power player," but he was also, at heart, a bard who loved nothing more than telling a good tale. 

There is some academic speculation that Sturluson, while compiling most of the Norse sagas and myths, may have embellished many of them. 

Brown provides a compelling example – Sturluson might have inserted the sacred cow Audhumla into the Norse myth of creation. After all, he was a significant landowner and operated a successful dairy farm. 

Regardless of his methods, Sturluson compiled the Eddas – a collection of sagas, myths, and legends in both poetry and prose – as well as the Heimskringla – a biography of all the Viking kings who ruled during the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100). 

Audhumla is the sacred cow in Norse mythology believed to have nurtured the first life forms with her life-giving milk. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Enduring legacy 

However, Brown doesn't conclude the story with Sturluson's demise in the 13th century. She carries the narrative forward to the present, illustrating how his works have influenced and inspired figures ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Carl Jung. 

There is also considerable detail provided about the battle between Denmark and Iceland in the post-war period over the ownership of many of Sturluson's manuscripts. 

This battle seems strikingly modern, especially in light of the global calls for the repatriation of precious cultural artifacts. 

Like Sturluson, Brown is a masterful bard, crafting clear and concise narratives filled with depth and insight. However, in contrast to Sturluson, her writing brims with historical accuracy yet remains as entertaining as any saga Sturluson ever penned. 

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown is available for purchase on Amazon here.

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