Snorri Sturluson

The Icelandic statesman Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was his country's most renowned historian. Although some might with justice question his accuracy, few would deny that he was a literary genius creatively writing from the viewpoint of his own times.

The life of Snorri Sturluson was as eventful as the lives of the Norse heroes about whom he wrote. The son of a chieftain in the western fjords, he was brought up by the powerful chief Jon Lofstsson, who awakened in him an interest in poetry and history. Two successful marriages gave prestige and wealth. Ambitious and a shrewd politician, he twice became president of the Legislative Assembly and as such was the supreme magistrate in Iceland. At times he could be passionate, mean, and untrustworthy if judged by modern standards rather than Viking standards. He was not so bloodthirsty and cruel as his opponents, and his political victories were not marked by maimings and killings.

Snorri traveled twice to Norway: once to avert a Norwegian military expedition to Iceland, and a second time to escape capture and perhaps death at the hands of his brother Sighvatr and his nephew Sturla. With the defeat of his enemies, he returned to Iceland hoping to regain political power but was killed at his estate at Reykholt by his sonin-law Gissur Thorvaldson, who was acting as the agent of the Norwegian king Haakon IV (the Old). He died on Sept. 22, 1241, an Icelandic patriot. By 1262 Iceland had become a tributary to the Norwegian crown.

His writings rather than Viking deeds and intrigue make Snorri one of the most important figures in Scandinavian history. More than any other person, he preserved the knowledge of the skalds and their poetry. He used them extensively in his histories, and the second part of his Prose Edda is a catalog of kennings, whose use in poetry is illustrated by examples. The Heimskringla (Sagas of the Norwegian Kings) shows him as both poet and historian. A highly creative literary genius, he brings the work to a climax in the Saga of St. Olaf. In addition he was probably the author of Egil's Saga, which is the story of a renowned 10th-century Icelandic Viking poet who fought as a mercenary in Norway.

Snorri was a key figure culminating the Icelandic renaissance. The Heimskringla, a work of unique literary achievement, is the single most important source for events that transpired in Norway from the 6th to the late 12th century.

Further Reading on Snorri Sturluson

Most of the editions of the writings of Snorri contain extensive introductions dealing with his life. The Prose Edda, translated by Jean I. Young (1966), and the Heimskringla, translated by Samuel Laing (rev. ed., 3 vols., 1906), are excellent. Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Sagas (trans. 1962), adds much information on Snorri's life and times.