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Snorri Sturlson - The Prose Edda

Snorri Sturlson - The Prose Edda

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Published by Scott Thornton

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Published by: Scott Thornton on Oct 05, 2012
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The Prose Edda
of Snorri Sturlson
Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur [1916]
The Prose Edda is a text on Old Norse Poetics, written about 1200 by the Norwegian poetand politican Snorri Sturlson, who also wrote the Heimskringla. The Prose Edda containsa wide variety of lore which a Skald (poet) of the time would need to know. The text is of interest to modern readers because it contains consistent narratives of many of the plotlines of Norse mythology. Although Snorri was a Christian, he treated the ancient Paganmythology with great respect. To this end, Snorri created a quasi-historical backstory for the Norse Gods. Hence the Prose Edda is of interest because it contains one of the firstattempts to devise a rational explanation for mythological and legendary events. It is alsonotable because it contains fragments of a number of manusripts which Snorri had accessto, but which are now lost.
THE life of Snorri Sturluson fell in a great but contradictory age, when all that was nobleand spiritual in men seemed to promise social regeneration, and when bloody crimes andsordid ambitions gave this hope the lie. Not less than the rest of Europe, Scandinaviashared in the bitter conflict between the law of the spirit and the law of the members. The North, like England and the Continent, felt the religious fervor of the Crusades, passedfrom potential anarchy into union and national consciousness, experienced a literary andspiritual revival, and suffered the fury of persecution and of fratricidal war. No greater error could be committed than to think of the Northern lands as cut off by barriers of distance, tongue, and custom from the heart of the Continent, and in consequence ascountries where men's thoughts and deeds were more unrestrained and uncivilized. Evenas England, France, and Germany acted and reacted upon one another in politics, insocial growth, in art, and in literature, so all three acted upon Scandinavia, and felt thereaction of her influence. Nearly thirty years before Snorri's birth, the Danish kingdom had been the plaything of aGerman prince, Henry the Lion, who set up or pulled down her rulers as he saw fit; andduring Snorri's boyhood, one of these rulers, Valdamarr I, contributed to Henry's politicaldestruction. In Norway, Sverrir Sigurdarson had swept away the old social order, andreplaced it with one more highly centralized; had challenged the power of Rome without,and that of his own nobles within, like Henry II of England and Frederick Barbarossa.After Sverrir's death, an interregnum followed; but at last there came to the throne amonarch{p. x} both powerful and enlightened, who extended the reforms of Sverrir, and having broughtabout unity and peace, quickened the intellectual life of Norway with the fructifyinginfluence of French and English literary models. Under the patronage of this ruler, HákonHákonarson, the great romances, notably those of Chrétien de Troyes, were translatedinto Norse, some of them passing over into Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic. Somewhatlater, Matthew Paris, the great scholar and author, who represented the culture both of England and of France, spent eighteen months in Norway, though not until after Snorri'sdeath.Iceland itself, in part through Norway, in part directly, drew from the life of theContinent: Sæmundr the Learned, who had studied in Paris, founded a school at Oddi;Sturla Sigvatsson, Snorri's nephew, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and visited Germany;and Snorri himself shows, in the opening pages of his Heimskringla, or History of theKings of Norway, the influence of that great romantic cycle, the Matter of Troy.Snorri Sturluson was in the fullest sense a product of his time. The son of a turbulent andambitious chieftain, Sturla Thórdsson, of Hvamm in western Iceland, he was born to aheritage of strife and avarice. The history of the Sturlung house, like that of Douglas in
Scotland, is a long and perplexed chronicle of intrigue, treachery, and assassination, in allof which Snorri played an active part. But even as among the Douglases there was onewho, however deep in treason and intrigue, yet loved learning and poetry, and wasdistinguished in each, so Snorri, involved by sordid political chicanery, found time notonly to compose original verse which was admired by his contemporaries, but also torecord the myths and legends, the history{p. xi}and poetry, of his race, in a prose that is one of the glories of the age.The perplexing story of Snorri's life, told by his nephew, Sturla Thórdsson,[1] may well be omitted from this brief discussion. A careful and scholarly account of it by Eiríkr Magnússon[1] will be found in the introduction to the sixth volume of 
The Saga Library
.From Snorri's marriage in 1199 to his assassination at the hands of his son-in-law, Gizurr Thórvaldsson, in 1241, there was little in his life which his biographer could relate withsatisfaction. His friends, his relatives, his very children, Snorri sacrificed to his insatiateambition. As chief and as lawman, he gave venal decisions and perverted justice; he purposed at any cost to become the most powerful man in Iceland. There is even groundfor belief that he deliberately undertook to betray the republic to Hákon of Norway, andthat only his lack of courage prevented him from subverting his country's liberty. Failure brought about his death, for Snorri, who had been a favorite at the Norwegian court,incurred the King's suspicion after fifteen years had passed with no accomplishment; anddaring to leave Norway against Hákon's command, he fell under the royal displeasure.Gizurr, his murderer, proved to have been acting at the express order of the King.Eiríkr Magnússon, in the admirable biography to which I have referred, attempts toapologize for Snorri's faults on the ground that be "really compares very favorably withthe leading contemporary
[chieftains] of the land." It is true that he made no overtattempt to keep his treasonable
Sturlunga Saga
, edited by G. Vigfússon, Oxford, 1878.2.
The Saga Library
, edited by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon, vol. vi;
, vol. iv,London, 1905.]
{p. xii} promise to Norway, but I think it by no means certain that repentance stayed his hand.Indeed, familiar as he was with the hopelessly anarchical conditions of his native land, itsdevastating feuds, its plethora of lawless, unscrupulous chiefs, all striving for wealth andinfluence, none inspired with a genuine affection for the commonwealth, nor understanding the fundamental principles of democracy, Snorri may well have felt that itwere far better to endure a foreign ruler who could compel union and peace. If this wasthe motive underlying his self-abasement at the Norwegian court and his promises toHákon, then weakness alone is sufficient to account for his failure; if he had no such purpose, he must be regarded as both weak and treacherous.

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