Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Song of the Vikings" Giveaway

When I started this blog, I promised to explain why I named it "God of Wednesday." If you've followed me over the past year, you can probably guess. Now comes the quiz: Who is the god of Wednesday and what does he have to do with this blog?

Answer me by email ( or Facebook or in the comment section below, and I'll print the best answers in a future blog.

When I get enough responses, I'll put the names in a hat, and the winner will receive a free, autographed copy of "Song of the Vikings"--or, if you already have it, one of my other books (as available).

Remember, a valid entry has to answer both parts of the question: who? and what?

To make it a fair test, here are some blog posts from 2012 that might help you out:

April 4: "The Lord of the Ring of the the Nibelungs"

May 30: "The Homer of the North" 

June 6: "The Most Influential Writer of the Middle Ages"

November 14: "Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri: Part I"

November 21: "Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri: Part II" 

December 5: "Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri: Part III"

December 12: "The Tolkien Connection"

Remember, all answers to the quiz are entered into the giveaway. Good luck, and be creative--maybe you can explain me to myself.

Join me again next Wednesday for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world at

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Spirit of the North

At the end of Song of the Vikings, I traced the effect of Snorri’s Edda and other medieval Icelandic literature on fantasy writers William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. They were smitten, writes Lewis, by “pure ‘Northernness.’”

One writer I did not include, but should have, was E.R. Eddison.

I read Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, published in 1922, just after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I clearly remember talking to my English teacher about Tolkien—I think I was in seventh or eighth grade—and asking, Are there any more books out there like his? She suggested The Worm Ouroboros.

Tolkien once called Eddison “The greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read.” I wouldn’t go that far. But, looking back, Eddison and Tolkien may be the writers most responsible for my love, not of fantasy novels, but of “Northernness.” Rereading The Worm Ouroboros, my favorite part would have to be the introductory scene on page 2 of my tattered paperback:

…He had her hand in his. This was their House.
            “Should we finish that chapter of Njal?” she said.
            She took the heavy volume with its faded green cover and read: “He went out on the night of the Lord’s day, when nine weeks were still to winter; he heard a great crash, so that he thought both heaven and earth shook. Then he looked into the west airt and he thought he saw thereabouts a ring of fiery hue, and within the ring a man on a gray horse. He passed quickly by him, and rode hard. He had a flaming firebrand in his hand, and he rode so close to him that he could see him plainly. He was black as pitch, and he sung this song with a mighty voice—
            Here I ride swift steed,
            His flank flecked with rim,
            Rain from his mane drips,
            Horse mighty for harm;
            Flames flare at each end,
            Gall glows in the midst,
            So fares it with Flosi’s redes
            As this flaming brand flies;
            And so fares it with Flosi’s redes
            As this flaming brand flies.
“Then he thought he hurled the firebrand east towards the fells before him, and such a blaze of fire leapt up to meet it that he could not see the fells for the blaze. It seemed as though that man rode east among the flames and vanished there… So he went and told Hjallti, but he said he had seen ‘the Wolf’s Ride, and that comes ever before great tidings.’”
            They were silent awhile…

Njal’s Saga was the first saga I ever read—over Thanksgiving break in my second year of college, I believe. I don’t now recall if I recognized that passage from The Worm Ouroboros when I saw it in the original, but I do know that the fire-rider or volcano-spirit has long been one of my favorite images from medieval Iceland.

The Tolkien quote appears on the cover of a new edition of Styrbiorn the Strong, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011 with an afterword by Paul Edmund Thomas.

 “Styrbiorn’s name has sounded in my memory like a drum ever since, twenty years ago, I first read the passing reference to him in the Eyrbyggja Saga,” Eddison wrote in a letter to his younger brother in 1922. According to Thomas, Eddison bought the William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson translation of the saga in 1900.

Writing to his typist just after The Worm Ouroboros came out, Eddison said, “I am starting on a new book: a historical story this time about people who really lived in this world, in the Viking age in Sweden a thousand years ago, the age of the great classic saga literature of the north, which I have studied these twenty years and which I love more than any other.”

What about the sagas inspired him? In the “Closing Note” to Styrbiorn the Strong, Eddison explained: “The spirit of the North, to the inheritance of which I believe (pace Mr. Hilaire Belloc) our own country largely owes her greatness, is embodied in its purest form in its prose epic, the Icelandic Sagas of the classical age, such as (to name a few) Njal’s Saga, the Laxdale Saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson, Gisli’s Saga, and the Saga of Hrafnkel the Priest of Frey.

He continued: “There is no ‘Keltic Twilight’ here, no barbaric exaggerations, no embroidery, no weaving of words or fancies, no boggling at truth: there is much shrewd insight into character and the springs of action, a power of direct and vivid narrative rarely matched in any other literature, much deep-seated humour and philosophy of hard and manly life.”

And finally: “But this is not the place to do more than hint at some obvious qualities of that genius which has shed about the lives of a few great families, dwelling in lonely homesteads in distant Iceland, an atmosphere of tragic and epic grandeur like the grandeur that is about windy Ilios; bringing us, in the end, as Homer brings us, not to take sides with Greeks or Trojans, with Njal’s sons or the Burners, but to ponder (somewhat perhaps as the Gods may ponder) on the greatness and the pitifulness of human things.”

It’s interesting to read Styrbiorn the Strong and see how close Eddison came to his models. And then, of course, to reread a saga. Perhaps Eyrbyggja Saga.

For as Eddison said in his letter to his brother, “There is no saga of the Swedish prince after whom this story is named. If there were, I do not think my story would have been written. For it is not my study to emulate a writer for whose other work I have a respect, in treating the sagas as Tate & Cibber treated Shakespeare, tricking out these imperishable prose epics of the north with modern fripperies of sentimental love interest and psychological disquisition. … I am so simple as to believe that those grand stories are so elemental, so beautiful, so firm set in the soil of life, that they are quite able to look after themselves.”

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Snorri the Hobbit?

A year after completing my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings, I am rethinking his character. Snorri, I now see, was a hobbit.

Writing about Tolkien’s debt to Snorri at the end of my book, I discussed the Icelandic antecedants of the wizard Gandalf, the dwarves, elves and orcs, the dragon, the shapeshifter Beorn, warrior women, the riders of Rohan, the giant eagles, the trolls, the wargs, barrow-wights, magic swords, Mount Doom, and the cursed ring of power.

I may not have gone far enough.

I should have included hobbits on my list, argues Gloriana St. Clair in a paper I recently rediscovered: “Tolkien’s Cauldron: Northern Literature and The Lord of the Rings,” published online by University Libraries Research in 2000 (See (The rediscovery was thanks to the marvelous website

In her chapter four, “Creatures,” St. Clair counts “over 35 types of mortals, immortals, and monsters” in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “Those that show some affinity with the Northern myths and folk traditions are 1) Hobbits, 2) Elves and Orcs, 3) Dwarves, 4) Wizards, 5) Tree-kin, 6) Birds, 7) Dragons, 8) Wargs, 9) The Eye, and 10) Ancients.”

None of the others surprised me, but hobbits? I think of them more as the quintessential English country folk. St. Clair has anticipated my objections.

She writes: “Perhaps one of the most unlikely comparisons possible is between the short, fat, meek hobbits and the tall, strong, daring Vikings”—a term she applies to characters from the Icelandic sagas. “Yet the two peoples do share some traits.”

Her list of traits is convincing—and strangely matches my description of the writer of the Edda, Heimskringla, and (most likely) Egil’s Saga, Tolkien’s muse Snorri Sturluson.

“One of the first things that Tolkien mentions about the hobbits is their fondness for visitors,” writes St. Clair. Snorri also loved visitors—he practically kept open house at his grand estate of Reykholt for poets and writers.

Among hobbits, says St. Clair, “Storytelling was held in particular demand. … Bilbo recollects stories told about Gandalf. … Sam refers sentimentally to the great stories without ends … [and] mentions Frodo’s probable fame in the storytelling of the Shire.” Storytelling was one of Snorri’s great loves too. He collected stories, he memorized stories, he made up stories, and, fortunately for us, he filled page after page of parchment with stories. Otherwise, as I have argued here earlier, we would know little or nothing about Norse mythology.

Hobbits liked to eat six meals a day, if they could get them, and they loved parties. So did Snorri. According to his nephew, who wrote part of Sturlunga Saga, Snorri gave elaborate feasts and was a cheerful host. Snorri himself writes often and at length about eating and drinking: In Heimskringla it seems that a nobleman’s major duty was to organize feasts.

“Hobbits and Vikings were vain about their dress,” says St. Clair. As was Snorri. In his history of the kings of Norway, Heimskringla, Snorri allows King Sigurd the Jerusalem-farer to declare that “a king must be tall, so as to be conspicuous in a crowd.” Scholars believe Snorri was writing about himself when he has King Eystein answer his brother, “It is no less important that a man is well-dressed, so as to be easily known on that account.”

Hobbits and Icelanders “both loved to reckon their ancestors,” St. Clair points out. Snorri’s interest in genealogy is clear in everything he wrote.

Concludes St. Clair, “Even the fear Bilbo shows when he begins to sense the nature of his unrequested journey is not unknown in the sagas. The coward who must be converted to bravery is almost a conventional character.” In the only portrayal we have of Snorri himself, the one written by his nephew, the saga-writer comes off as a very Bilbo-esque coward. Unfortunately, he never “converted to bravery,” though he wrote eloquently about it. 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.”

As I describe him in Song of the Vikings, Snorri 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. A respectable poet and a lover of books.”

Think of Bilbo Baggins with a sex life, a lot of lawyerly cunning, and a lack of moral fiber. Perhaps a Sackville-Baggins?

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making Middle Earth

When I wrote earlier about the Norse creation story, as told by Snorri Sturluson in his Edda, I described how the god Odin and his brothers fashioned the world out of the body of the frost giant Ymir:

His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds. From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.

From his eyebrows? Notice how quickly I skipped over that. Middle Earth is clearly the place where men and women live. Elsewhere Snorri says the earth (or the world, depending on the translator) is round. Now whether you think of it as “round” as a disc (as some scholars still do, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that medieval people knew the world was a sphere [link to Flat Earth blog]) or “round” as an apple (as the Norse did in Snorri’s day, according to the 13th-century encyclopedia called The King’s Mirror), it’s still hard to imagine the world we live in as being made from eyebrows.

So what is Snorri’s “Middle Earth”?

Kevin Wanner of the University of Western Michigan has a brilliant answer. Wanner was one of the scholars who most influenced my understanding of Snorri Sturluson as a writer. Somehow I missed his 2009 article, “Off-Center: Considering Directional Valances in Norse Cosmography,” when I was working on my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings.

Admittedly, the part that’s snagged my interest now is not Wanner’s main argument. It’s the definition of the Old Norse word Miðgarðr, which I’ve always seen translated into the Tolkienish Middle Earth.

As Wanner notes, forms of this word appear in many northern languages. In Old English, for example, middangeard is clearly the Latin mundus, the world as a whole. But Old Norse writers (Snorri included) usually use the word heimr to refer to the world as a whole. So what really is Miðgarðr?

The first part, mið, isn’t contested. It means “middle.”

But garðr, Wanner points out, has two meanings. One is the cognate “yard,” in the sense of an enclosure. The second is “fence” or “fortification.”

Writes Wanner, “As incredible as it may seem in light of the typical understanding and use of the term among scholars, there is not one occurrence of ‘Miðgarðr’ in Snorri’s Edda or eddic poetry in which the second element of the name unambiguously carries the sense of yard or enclosure.” There are many cases, on the other hand, of garðr meaning a fortification.

Instead of “Middle Earth,” Wanner concludes, Miðgarðr might just mean “fence down the middle.”

Go back to those giant eyebrows—which Wanner explains could instead be eyelashes. In either case, think of two arcs of hair. Bushy eyebrows. Spiky eyelashes. A fence of giant hair.

It makes perfect sense if you add another part that I skipped over when retelling Snorri’s creation story: the reason why Odin and his brothers made Miðgarðr. The gods had already given lands on the shore of the sea to the giants, Snorri writes. Then, because of the “hostility of the giants,” they made Miðgarðr—the fence down the middle—to protect the people they were about to fashion from driftwood.

Now whether this fence was an arc, a circle, or a wiggly line I’ll leave it to Wanner to convince you. His paper was published in Speculum (2009): 36-72.

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