Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Death of Snorri Sturluson


In 2010, on the night of Snorri Sturluson’s murder, September 23, I sat on the stones surrounding his hot tub at Reykholt in western Iceland and dabbled my feet in the warm pool. The weather had turned: A cold mist replaced the sunshine of Thingvellir, where I’d walked, picking blueberries, that afternoon, memorizing the verse on the bronze plaque beside Snorri’s Althing booth, the place he called Valhalla. In English the lines run:

Snorri’s old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys—and the ravens—a feast.

I knew the next two lines of this poem by Jónas Hallgrimsson (in the translation by Dick Ringler):

Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers’ fame faltered—and died from the earth!

And knew its fears were unsubstantiated: Researching Snorri Sturluson’s life for my book Song of the Vikings, I had concluded that Snorri, who lived from 1178 to 1241, was the single most influential writer of the Middle Ages.

For that we must thank the king of Norway, Hakon IV. Only fourteen when Snorri met him in 1218, King Hakon preferred the fashionably new French legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to traditional Viking skaldic poetry and tales of the gods Odin, Loki, and Thor. Snorri must have been shocked. It also hit him in the pocketbook. Poetry was Iceland’s cultural capital, to use a term popularized by sociologists. It was all Snorri had to sell on the international market. Iceland’s other exports were wool and dried fish. The bright-colored alum-dyed cloth from England and Flanders was more highly prized, and Norway had ample fish.

Perhaps, Snorri thought, King Hakon was just ill-educated. He simply needed a good introduction to the lore of the North. Snorri began writing his books to teach the young king to appreciate his own heritage.

His motives were not pure. Snorri was not only a poet and lover of books. He was one of the richest men in Iceland, holder of seven chieftaincies, owner of five profitable estates and a harbor, husband of an heiress, lover of several mistresses, a fat man soon to go gouty, a hard drinker, a seeker of ease prone to soaking long hours in his hot-tub while sipping stout ale, not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but clever. Crafty, cunning, and ambitious. A good businessman. So well-versed in the law that few other Icelanders could out-argue him. At age forty-two, he was at the height of his power.

His secret ambition was to rule Iceland—and he almost succeeded. On the quay at Bergen in 1220, departing for home, he tossed off a praise poem about the king’s regent, Earl Skuli, said to be the handsomest man in Norway for his long red-blond locks. In response, the earl gave him the ship he was to sail in and many other fine gifts. Young King Hakon honored Snorri with the title of landed man, or baron, one of only fifteen so-named. The king charged Snorri, too, with a mission: He was to bring Iceland—then an independent republic of some 50,000 souls—under Norwegian rule.

Or so says one version of the story. The other says nothing about a threat to Iceland’s independence. Snorri was not asked to sell out his country, simply to sort out a misunderstanding between some Icelandic farmers and a party of Norwegian traders. A small thing. A few killings to even out. A matter of law.

This trip to Norway was the turning point of Snorri’s life. One quick, persuasive speech to the king, along with one colorful poem pronounced on the quay at Bergen, would mar his reputation—and seal his doom. When he sailed to Norway in 1218 he was, by most calculations, the uncrowned king of Iceland. When he returned in 1220, he was a suspected traitor.

The voyage did not go well. It was late in the year to sail, and the weather in the North Atlantic was fierce. His new ship lost its mast within sight of Iceland; it wrecked on the Westman Islands off the southern coast. Snorri had himself and his bodyguard of a dozen men ferried over to the mainland with their Norwegian treasures. They borrowed horses and rode, bedecked in bright-colored cloth like courtiers, wearing gold and jewels and carrying shiny new weapons and sturdy shields, to the nearby estate of the bishop of Skalholt. There Baron Snorri’s new title was ridiculed. Some Icelanders even accused him of treason, of having sold out to the Norwegian king.

From then until his death in 1241, he would fight one battle after another (in the courts, or by proxy) to see who, if anyone, would be Earl of Iceland, deputy to Norway’s king. He would die in his nightshirt, cringing in his cellar, begging for his life before his enemies’ thugs. He did not live up to his Viking ideals, to the heroes portrayed in his books. He did not die with a laugh—or a poem—on his lips. His last words were “Don’t strike!” As the poet Jorge Luis Borges sums him up in a beautiful poem, the writer who “bequeathed a mythology / Of ice and fire” and “violent glory” to us was a coward: “On / Your head, your sickly face, falls the sword, / As it fell so often in your book.”

Yet his work remains. In the twenty turbulent years between his Norwegian triumph and his ignominious death, while scheming and plotting, blustering and fleeing, Snorri Sturluson did write his books: the Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. He covered hundreds of parchment pages with world-shaping words, encouraging his friends and kinsmen to cover hundreds of pages more.

I had come to Reykholt to keep vigil on the night of his death. The clouds crept up on me as I drove north from Thingvellir, slowly, on the torturous, washboard roads of Uxahryggir and Kaldidalur, alone for hours, no other cars, not even a bird, only the gleaming presence of Skjaldbreidur over my shoulder, the inverted smile of Ok, a chunk of rainbow here and there, a hidden stream, patches of dirty snow, a cairn. Now, at Reykholt, I sought darkness—some place I could see if the northern lights were shining in celebration of Snorri’s life and art.

Snorri’s Reykholt is much the same as it was in 1241, though nothing medieval but his hot-tub remains: Beside an imposing church is a school, hotel, and library. Up a spiral stair is a writer’s studio. But the modern designers were in love with light. Streetlamps and spotlights washed the night sky everywhere but here, at Snorri’s pool, tucked beneath the hill beside the school. I leaned back and looked up—no northern lights; the stars were faint, veiled in cloud. I imagined Snorri’s last moments.

His enemy (and former son-in-law) Gissur of Haukadal had spies watching Reykholt. Late at night on September 23, 1241, he rode up with seventy men. They broke into the building where Snorri slept. He leaped out of bed in his nightshirt and ran next door into the fine Norwegian-style loft-house he had built at the height of his power twenty years before. He was heading, perhaps, for his writing studio and the secret spiral stair that led from it down into a tunnel to his hot-tub and escape…

It is cold in Iceland in late September. The birch leaves are bright gold, the berry shrubs crimson, the songbirds have all flown. Swans flock in the marshlands, sounding their haunting note. Night falls quickly and lingers long, the wind has the bite of ice. An old fat man in his nightshirt, barefoot, would not get far in the cold and dark of a late-September night.

Snorri hid in a cellar. A priest gave him away. Gissur sent five men down.

I dried off my feet and headed back toward the Snorrastofa writer’s studio, which I had booked for five days. On the way I heard people oohing and aahing. They were halfway down the drive, looking up at the northern lights, they said. I saw nothing. “They’re breaking up now,” said a man standing in the road.

Turns out that I, like Snorri that fateful night 772 years ago, had been looking the wrong way.

Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


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