A review of King Harald’s Saga and Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson

This is a vigorous and intelligent account by a man who, although he played the political game badly and with fatal results, understood politics, and was able also to breathe life into his work as very few historians can. Neither this nor the other works of the Icelanders are known as well as they should be.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

King Harald’s Saga
by Snorri Sturluson
1966, ISBN 0-14044-183-2, $12.00, 181 pages + maps

by Snorri Sturluson
University of Texas Press
1991, ISBN 0-292-73061-6, $34.95, xxvi + 854 pages

The literature of the Scandinavian and Germanic world existed in some isolation from classical models and this is truer of the former than the latter. Some critics see the use of chapter headings in the sagas as a classical influence, but this is not an important characteristic. The eddas of Scandinavia used verse forms that depended on complex patterns of alliteration, occasional rhyme schemes, and an elaborate use of rhetorical devices whereby a ship became, for example, a horse of the sea. Some of these devices were even more complex and to decipher these kennings, as they were called, requires considerable experience with the literature that uses them.

The sagas of the Icelanders are less complex since, although almost all sagas incorporate frequent and extensive quotations from poetry, the text of the saga is basically prose, prose of exceptional clarity and vigor. The reasons for this have an almost Marxist clarity. To follow the details of Icelandic literature requires a look at the history of Iceland and its relationship with Norway. When Norway was united under one ruthless king, many Norwegians sought asylum in Iceland, asylum in this case meant indulgence in a persistent desire to continue to live unruly lives. In Norway the court provided the literary focus and the skaldic literature was sophisticated and esoteric, the possession of the royal and aristocratic classes. The refugees in Iceland had no courts and few cities. The farm was the literary focal point. Instead of poetry the powerful landowners commissioned prose narratives that celebrated the deeds of their families. Iceland, if we may believe what the Icelanders say about themselves, was a rich source of bardic talent to the courts of Norway, but the staple of entertainment for the powerful of Iceland were the prose narratives of the sagas.

It is necessary to stress the entertainment function of the sagas. Although the narrative will stop to give genealogical information, and the narratives are sober relations of mighty, often bloody, deeds, their historicity is marginal. They are often, so far as we can determine, true in spirit, but the writers’ respect for fact is flimsy. The distance between history and fiction was widened by the method of their conservation. Originally the sagas were probably orally delivered tales created a significant number of years after the events they commemorated. It was not until a later time that they were written down. How much creative authorship may have entered into the act of writing the tales down we don’t know, but obviously there are many stops and starts in the process of transmission, each one a fertile opportunity for changes from the original.

The number of sagas that has survived is large and they are not alike in all respects, but the best sagas are terse and elegantly simple. These qualities, coupled with themes of violence and the predominance of honor as a determining factor, create works that have a curious resemblance to Hemingway at a theoretical best that he may, in fact, never have realized so purely as in the sagas. The isolated literature of Iceland at last succumbed to outside influences and became derivative and uninteresting

One of the most important figures in the cultural and political life of Iceland was Snorri Sturluson. He was born in 1179, grew up under the fostership of another – a commonplace of Nordic life – and quickly displayed an aptitude for political intrigue and literary scholarship. Of the latter we have his works: Edda, Heimskringla and (probably) Egil’s Saga. Each has distinction, interest, and readability of a high order. His political life was less pleasant to contemplate. The independence of Iceland was deteriorating in the internal struggle of the powerful landowners. The disorder in which Iceland had been born was now become chaos. Norway’s king looked to secure his advantage. Snorri sought to play power politics in a singularly devious and corrupt manner. He displeased the king who sent thugs to Iceland. He instructed them to bring Snorri to Norway or to kill him. They ignored the first provision. A gang of seventy led by Gissur Thorvaldsson invaded Snorri’s home on the night of 23 September, 1241. Snorri escaped their first effort in so far as he was able to hide in a cellar. There, his assassins found and killed him. He was sixty-two years old.

King Harald’s Saga is part of the Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway. Heimskringla falls into the early, mythical, tales and the more factual later reigns. The spirit of Snorri’s work is that of the sagas although he sought for historical accuracy and sifted probabilities of the evidence available to him. Unfortunately, not enough evidence was available and his work, admirable as it is, contains errors. Both editions cited correct these with information in their footnotes. Snorri needed little effort to make a saga of King Harald’s life, which had an almost classical pattern of greatness, overweening pride and final disaster. It is, moreover, the last great Viking expedition, which marks the end in a brilliantly colorful style to an entire age.

Both versions are good, but the Penguin translators (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson) relieve the reader of the burden of reading the genealogical information by their putting it into footnotes. Truly compulsive readers cannot turn aside from a footnote so it is doubtful if there is much advantage – and there is certainly annoyance – in this approach. They despair of duplicating the characteristics of the poems quoted in the text. The Heimskringla translator (Lee M. Hollander) does convincingly what they fear to do although the difficulties of Icelandic poetry make his efforts less easy to read. I have used the Hollander translation in this article since I perceive in it some, admittedly slight, advantages. But the Penguin is the more available and this is not a light consideration.

Most of the sagas in general and Snorri’s in particular show a crispness of style and a psychological penetration that has few parallels. Snorri’s chapters tend to be self-contained episodes. The following example (a chapter in its entirety) gives the reader a taste of the special qualities and quality of Icelandic narrative prose at its best. (Understanding of the last sentence depends on the reader’s knowledge that Hakon Ivarsson is related to King Svein.)

There was a man called Asmund who, it is said, was the son of King Svein’s sister and was fostered by him. Asmund was most accomplished, and the king was very fond of him. But as Asmund grew up, he became most overbearing and a killer. The king was displeased by that and dismissed him from his presence; but he procured him a good fief on which he could well support himself together with a company of men. But as soon as Asmund had received these possessions from the king he drew a great host of men together. And since the moneys the king had given him did not meet his expenses, he appropriated other and far greater properties belonging to the king. When the king learned of that he summoned Asmund, and when he came, ordered him to join his bodyguard and not to have any followers; and the king had his way. But after Asmund had been a little while with the king’s court he did not like it there, and he escaped at night and rejoined his company and did more mischief than before. So when the king rode over land near where Asmund kept himself, he sent a body of men to capture him by force. Then the king had him placed in chains for a while, thinking that he might calm him down. But as soon as Asmund was freed he straightway escaped and got himself a company and warships, and then he began to harry both abroad and at home, doing great damage, and killing and robbing far and wide. Those who suffered from these hostilities went to the king and complained about the damage done to them. He answered them, “Why do you tell me this? Why don’t you go to Hakon Ivarsson? He is entrusted by me with the defence of the country and appointed for the purpose of keeping the peace for you farmers and punishing Vikings. I was told that Hakon was a bold and brave man, but now it seems to me he doesn’t want to engage in anything he thinks might involve danger.”

These words were reported to Hakon, together with many that were not said. Than Hakon with his force went to search for Asmund. They met with their fleets. Hakon at once gave battle. And it was a great one, and hard fought. Hakon boarded Asmund’s ship and cleared its decks. Finally, he and Asmund encountered each other and fought. Asmund fell and Hakon cut off his head. Then he hurriedly sought out the king and found him sitting at table. Hakon advanced to the table and laid Asmund’s head on it before the king and asked him if he knew it. The king made no answer, but his face grew red as blood. Then Hakon left. A short time afterwards the king sent men to Hakon asking him to leave his service, “Tell him that I do not wish him harm; but I cannot take care of all my kinsmen.”

King Harald’s Saga falls into three parts. In the first part Harald suffers wounds at the Battle of Stiklestad, a battle at which the rebels kill his half-brother King Olaf (later St. Olaf). Harald escapes, recovers from his wounds, and visits King Jaroslav of Russia. He then leads the foreign contingent of the imperial army of Byzantium. He falls from favor, takes his revenge, and escapes with his men and fortune. Back in Scandinavia he shares the Norwegian throne with Magnus, son of Olaf. There is tension between them but before it comes to a crisis, Magnus dies and Harald becomes sole king.

As sole king in the second part of the saga he continues to show himself as clever, ruthless, and treacherous, but with a presence that keeps him in power, Snorri mixes the material in this section. Everything is episodic and we read of the miracles worked by the late King Olaf as well as of noteworthy events in Harald’s reign. At the conclusion of this section, as orientation for the reader, Snorri gives dateable references.

Snorri relates the events that comprise the third part with economy and efficiency. Edward of England dies and Harold, his adopted son, claims the throne on very suspicious grounds. His brother, the Earl Tostig, seeks help first from Svein of Denmark and then from Harald on Svein’s refusal. Harald calls up an army and transports it to England. At first he is successful, but Harold of England comes up with his forces and defeats the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald’s last appearance in battle is that of a berserk warrior, but an arrow through the throat kills him. The victor makes a forced march back to southern England to face the invasion by William of Normandy. His triumph at Stamford Bridge was great but nineteen days later he is dead and William becomes the first of the line of forty kings and queens that ruled England from his time to ours. This triangular conflict killed two kings and ended the Anglo-Saxon rule in England. William of Normandy was himself a descendent of Vikings and the death of Harald at Stamford Bridge marked the end of the Viking era.

This is a vigorous and intelligent account by a man who, although he played the political game badly and with fatal results, understood politics, and was able also to breathe life into his work as very few historians can. Neither this nor the other works of the Icelanders are known as well as they should be. This is a superb work to start with and will lead the reader into other delights of exceptional power and penetration.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places