Nov 6 2012 4:30pm
For you fans of mythology, check out this excerpt from Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown, out now from Palgrave—it beings with a smackdown between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis:
Much like Greek and Roman mythology, Norse myths are still with us. Famous storytellers from JRR Tolkien to Neil Gaiman have drawn their inspiration from the long-haired, mead-drinking, marauding and pillaging Vikings. Their creator is a thirteenth-century Icelandic chieftain by the name of Snorri Sturluson. Like Homer, Snorri was a bard, writing down and embellishing the folklore and pagan legends of medieval Scandinavia. Unlike Homer, Snorri was a man of the world—a wily political power player, one of the richest men in Iceland who came close to ruling it, and even closer to betraying it… In Song of the Vikings, award-winning author Nancy Marie Brown brings Snorri Sturluson’s story to life in a richly textured narrative that draws on newly available sources.
What troubles the gods? What troubles the elves? . . . Would you know more, or not?
In the late 1920s J. R. R. Tolkien provoked an argument. Opposing him, among others, was C. S. Lewis. Tolkien had not yet written The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Lewis had not yet written The Chronicles of Narnia. They were debating the appropriate curriculum for English majors at Oxford University, where they both taught.
Tolkien believed too much time was spent on dull and unimportant writers like Shakespeare, whom Lewis revered. Instead, Tolkien thought, students should read Snorri Sturluson.
And not only Snorri but the other fine authors of the Icelandic sagas and the the Eddic poems. And the students should read them in Old Norse.
Lewis had read the mythological tales from Snorri’s Edda in English as a boy. He found the Norse myths more compelling—as stories, he said—than even the Bible. Like Tolkien, he was drawn to their Northernness: to their depictions of dragons and dwarfs, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone. To their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of right and good, even when there was no hope at all.
It’s even better in the original, Tolkien said. He had been reading Old Norse since his teens. He loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world. Egg, ugly, ill, smile, knife, fluke, fellow, husband, birth, death, take, mistake, lost, skulk, ransack, brag, and law, among many other common English words, all derived from Old Norse. As for Snorri’s effect on modernity, it was soon to mushroom.
Tolkien convinced his colleagues to substitute Snorri for Shakespeare by starting a club called the Kolbítar. A coalbiter in the sagas is a lad who lounges by the fire instead of working; roused, he transforms into a hero, an outlaw, or both. These academic coalbiters lounged by the fire translating medieval Icelandic poetry and prose aloud. They began with the myths in Snorri’s Edda. A few years later, having finished the major Icelandic sagas and the mythological verse in the Poetic Edda, the club morphed into the Inklings, where they read their own works.
One of those works was The Hobbit.
I first heard The Hobbit read aloud when I was four. I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen. Through college, Tolkien was my favorite author, his books my favorite works of literature—despite the scorn such a confession brought down on an English major at an American university in the late 1970s, where fantasy was derided as escapist and unworthy of study.
Then I took a course in comparative mythology. To learn about the gods of Scandinavia, I was assigned The Prose Edda, a collection of mythological tales drawn from the work of the thirteenth-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. Page forty-one in the paperback edition of Jean Young’s 1954 translation was the turning point of my literary life.
I read: “The gods seated themselves on their thrones and held counsel, and remembered how dwarfs had quickened in the earth. . . . By the decree of the gods they acquired human understanding and the appearance of men, although they lived in the earth and in rocks. Modsognir was the most famous, and next to him Durin.”
I knew that name. In the list of dwarfs that filled the rest of page forty-one and spilled onto forty-two, I recognized several more: “Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, . . . Oin . . . Gandalf—”
Gandalf? I sucked in my breath. What was Tolkien’s wizard doing in medieval Iceland?
I read Tolkien’s biography and learned about the coalbiters. I met a professor with a bookcase full of Icelandic sagas that he lent me, one after the next. When I ran out of translations, I found another professor to teach me Old Norse. As I contemplated earning a PhD, I went to Iceland and, like William Morris and many other writers before and since, traveled by horseback through the wind-riven wilderness to the last homely house. I wondered why Iceland’s rugged, rain-drenched landscape seemed so insistently familiar—until I learned that Tolkien had read Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871–1873 and created from them the character of the home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his soggy ride to Rivendell.
The name of the wizard, Tolkien acknowledged, he had plucked from Snorri’s list of dwarfs, though Gandalf had nothing dwarfish about him. (In the first draft of The Hobbit, the wizard’s name was Bladorthin.) Gandalf’s physical description and his character, Tolkien wrote, were Odinic. They derived from Snorri’s tales of the Norse god Odin, the one-eyed wizard-king, the wanderer, the shaman and shape-shifter, the poet with his beard and his staff and his wide-brimmed floppy hat, his vast store of riddles and runes and ancient lore, his entertaining after-supper tales, his superswift horse, his magical arts, his ability to converse with birds.
But who was Snorri Sturluson? Thirty years after meeting his Gandalf on the page, I finally thought to answer that question.
Song of the Vikings © Nancy Marie Brown 2012