One does not know quite what to expect from a nonfiction book titled Song of the Vikings, and approaching the book for the first time it is a surprise to see the subtitle, Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. The title clearly suggests that the book is intended for a popular audience, though it is unlikely that many people in that popular audience know who Snorri Sturluson is. The author, Nancy Marie Brown, has previously authored the non-fiction The Abacus and the Crown (on Pope Sylvester II) and the fictional Viking-Age narrative The Far Traveler. Incidentally, the claim, made on the back cover, that Snorri was “as unruly as the Norse gods he created” shows a careless misunderstanding of the nature of Snorri’s Edda that Brown does not actually share; she emphasizes the role of Snorri’s artistry in preserving and popularizing these myths, and perhaps in inventing a few isolated narratives, but she does not claim that the Norse gods originated in his imagination.
A preface, titled “Gandalf,” leads off unpromisingly, with the same tired nods to the inspiration that J. R. R. Tolkien derived from Norse myth that one may read in a hundred other books of this class. There is also a bizarrely mistaken attempt to link the literature of medieval Iceland with the vast wealth of loanwords from Viking-Age Danish that have made their way into the English language (xii). The following introduction presents a brief summary of Snorri’s literary achievements, acknowledging the uncertainty of the claim that he wrote Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar but then taking it for granted in the rest of the book regardless. Snorri Sturluson is linked in exaggerated ways with the modern Republic of Iceland in such statements as “The country’s unshakable sense of its own worth is grounded in a speech Snorri wrote about freedom. Ironically, Snorri’s greed and ambition cost Iceland its independence …” (5). Not to attribute only good to Snorri’s influence, Brown also claims that “In another direction the rediscovery of Snorri’s works led to Hitler’s master race” (6), with no further expansion on this statement until the final chapter.
The six chapters in the main body of the text each begin with a retelling of a key myth from Snorri’s Edda, some aspect of which is then compared with Snorri’s own biography, recounted in these six chapters in roughly chronological order. Chapter 1, “Odin’s Eye,” passes quickly from a haphazard survey of the Norse creation myth through a description of medieval Icelandic society, a brief outline of Snorri’s own life, and several digressions of various length about other prominent early Icelanders such as Sæmundr the Learned and Jón Loptsson. Those familiar with the original material will find descriptions such as “Thor, the god of Thursday” (10), and the renaming of Kvasir as “Truce Man” (his original name is actually never mentioned) jarring. Chapter 2, “The Uncrowned King of Iceland,” draws a series of parallels between members of Snorri Sturluson’s family and the gods as Snorri describes them in his Edda, especially Odin, and particularly in regard to their multiple sexual liaisons. This chapter’s vibrantly imagined descriptions of Snorri’s youth, marriage, and rise [End Page 239] to power in medieval Iceland make for the most interesting reading in the book. The summary of Egils saga (45–50) is well done, though “What an ancestor for man of learning!” [sic] contains an odd typo, and the comparison of Snorri to the character of Egil is stretched too thin.
Chapter 3, “On the Quay at Bergen,” is the first chapter to draw heavily, whether directly or indirectly, from the compilation Sturlunga saga, and this material benefits from Brown’s ability as a storyteller, even if the use of terms such as the “Sturlung Age” expects more background than the average reader will have, and Brown casts her net so quickly between retelling one saga and then another that it can be...