Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Viking Fairy Tale

A reader of Song of the Vikings, my biography of the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, wrote:

"I am doing a research project for school about Norse mythology and am wondering, are their any classic fairytales ("Beauty and the Beast," "Sleeping Beauty," etc.) or fairytale characters (werewolves, etc.) that correspond to any particular Norse myths, or have a similar storyline or characteristics?"

My response:

There are, indeed, a lot of fairytale motifs in the Icelandic sagas. If you look in Snorri's Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, especially the first saga (Ynglinga saga), you'll find dwarfs, trolls, talking birds, and Odin's shapeshifting and other wizardly skills. There are werewolves in Volsunga Saga and in Snorri's Edda, as well as a hint of one in Egil's Saga.

A wonderful fairytale that Snorri tells himself is this "sleeping beauty"-like one from "The Saga of King Harald Fair-Hair" in Heimskringla. Here it is in the 1932 translation by Erling Monsen:

King Harald went one winter a-feasting in the Uplands and had a Yule feast made ready for himself in Toftar. On the eve of Yule, Svasi came without the door whilst the king was at the table and he sent a messenger to the king to go out to him. But the king was wroth at that behest and the same man who brought in the behest bore out the king’s anger, but notwithstanding, Svasi bade him carry the same message a second time; he said he was the Finn whom the king had allowed to set his hut on the other side of the stream there. 
The king then went out and agreed to go home with him and crossed the stream, egged on my some of his men but discouraged by others. There Snaefrid, Svasi’s daughter, stood up, the most beautiful of women, and she offered the king a cup full of mead; he drank it all and also took her hand, and straightway it was as though fire passed through his body, and at once he would lie with her that same night. 
But Svasi said that it should not be so except by force, unless the king betrothed Snaefrid and wed her according to the law. The king took Snaefrid and wed her, and he loved her so witlessly that he neglected his kingdom and all that was seemly for his kingly honour. They got four sons, Sigurd the Giant, Halvdan Highleg, Gudrod Gleam, and Ragnvald Rettlebone. 
Afterwards Snaefrid died, but the colour of her skin never faded and she was as rosy as before when she lived. The king always sat over her and thought that she would come to life again, and thus it went on for three winters that he sorrowed over her death and all the people of his land sorrowed over his delusion. 
And to stop this delusion, Torleiv the Wise came to his help; he did it with prudence, in that he spoke to him first with soft words, saying, “Is it not strange, O king, that thou shouldst remember so bright and noble a woman and honour her with down and goodly web [cloth] as she bade thee. But thy honour and hers is still less than it seems, in that she has lain for a long while in the same clothes, and it is fitter that she should be raised and the clothes changed under her.” 
But as soon as she was raised from the bed, so there rose from the body a rotten and loathesome smell and all kinds of evil stink; speedily a funeral bale was then made and she was burned. But before that all the body waxed blue and out crawled worms and adders, frogs ,and paddocks and all manner of foul reptiles. So she sank into ashes, and the king came to his wits and cast his folly from his heart and afterwards ruled the kingdom and was strengthened and gladdened by his men, and they by him, and the kingdom by both.

I recently came across a paper that uses this fairytale to explore how Snorri Sturluson worked as a writer--a topic that I discuss at some length in Song of the Vikings. By examining his Edda, looking at the sources he used and the reasons he had for writing, I conclude there that Snorri invented much of what we think of as "Norse mythology."

Now scholar Takahiro Narikawa has convinced me that Snorri also invented--or at least put his own spin on--Norwegian history when it suited him. Narikawa's paper, which I stumbled upon courtesy of the website, appeared in 2011 in the journal Balto-Scandia and is available here:

Why did Snorri include this fairytale in his history of the kings of Norway? Scholars have generally thought of it as an origin myth. It explains the founding of the kingdom of Norway by Harald Fair-Hair, in about 860, in one of two ways. Either Snaefrid is a nature goddess, whom King Harald has to symbolically possess, or she represents the reindeer-herding, fur-harvesting Sami (called the "Finns" in the sagas) of the far north. In order to unify Norway, King Harald has to bring together its two halves--human/divine, Norse/Sami, south/north--and, indeed, future kings of Norway do descend from Harald and Snaefrid's son, Sigurd.

But Narikawa's paper pokes a hole in this theory that Snorri was simply relating a colorful origin myth. It points out that Snorri is the only one to say Sigurd--called "the Giant," by Monsen, though his nickname is usually translated as "the Bastard"--is a son of Snaefrid.

The sleeping beauty tale itself appears in Snorri's source, the anonymous Ágrip af Nóreg's konungasögum (or Synoptic History of the Kings of Norway), nearly word for word. Only three sentences differ--including the one that names Snaefrid's four sons. In Ágrip, there's only one son, Ragnvald, a notorious sorceror.

Sigurd is well known in Norwegian history. Other sources, for example, trace the genealogy of King Harald Hard-Rule (who reigned from 1047-1066) back to Sigurd, the son of Harald Fair-Hair.

Why does Snorri--and only Snorri--connect Sigurd with the mysterious and bewitching Snaefrid?

Narikawa suggests it has to do with the civil wars in Norway, nearly continuous from 1130 to 1240. Snorri presents Harald's infatuation with Snaefrid as cursed, Narikawa says. Snorri insinuates "that such foul elements as a talent for sorcery in the royal blood were caused by Harald's marriage to her" and that these foul elements explained the fighting: "The ancestor of the medieval Norwegian dynasty, Sigurd the Bastard, himself was also half-Finn and not immune to this curse. The discord and murder among members of the royal family were to be inherent in the Fairhair Dynasty," Narikawa writes.

Because of this curse, Snorri argued that a true king of Norway needed to be descended, not only from Harald Fair-Hair, but also from a second king, Harald Gilli (1130-36). During Norway's civil wars, all the pretenders who represented the "Birkibein" (Birch-Leg) party in Norway were descended from King Harald Gilli. Most of their opponents were not.

In particular, the kings and earls for whom Snorri wrote praise poems--King Sverrir, King Ingi, Jarl Hakon, Jarl Skuli, and King Hakon IV--all belonged to the Birkibein faction. "Snorri seemed to be politically attached to this faction since his adolescence," Narikawa says, and, when writing Heimskringla, he shaped his history of the kings of Norway to enhance their legitimacy.

When reading Snorri's history, Narikawa suggests, "we should also keep Heimskringla's own agenda in mind." That is, Snorri's agenda. "He needed to find a cultural as well as political supporter abroad," so that he could become the ruler of Iceland. By writing a flattering history, Snorri hoped to get a king on his side. How that worked out, well, you can read in Song of the Vikings.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saga vs Novel

Juxtaposition is one of my favorite words. So I was understandably thrilled when a 2014 essay by Ben Yagoda in Slate, complaining "Does Novel Now Mean Any Book?" crossed my (virtual) desk at the same time as a 2002 academic paper by Torfi Tulinius of the University of Iceland called "Egils Saga and the Novel."

What is a novel? Seems no one knows. Yagoda, who writes nonfiction and only nonfiction, got his nose out of joint when someone called him a novelist. "I got on Twitter and sent out a tweet asking people if they were familiar with the 'novel = book' custom." He received numerous replies, including one from a very exasperated literary agent: "In queries: ALL THE TIME. People telling me of their 'nonfiction novel' or their 'fictional novel.'"

I admit that "fictional novel" is one phrase that makes me cringe.

That said, I'm the last person you should ask to define "novel." The more closely I look at the question, the harder it is for me to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even though I've published both.

If you get your facts wrong when writing a novel--for example, if your Vikings eat potatoes or you kick your horse in the withers--your story fails.

But to write nonfiction you have to leave out a lot of what "really happened." You have to shape the truth. And you have to speculate (i.e., write fiction) to fill in the gaps between your facts.

And often what you thought was a historical fact you find, if you dig back far enough through your sources, was some prior writer's speculation.

That's especially true when you're writing, like I do, about the Middle Ages. There are an awful lot of gaps in what we know about the world a thousand years ago. And a lot of what we "know" comes from texts that, today, we might be inclined to call novels.

Like Egil's Saga.

Derived from the Icelandic verb "to say," the word "saga" implies neither fact nor fiction. Of the 140 known medieval Icelandic sagas, some are fantasies, some are biographies, some are chronicles--as fact-filled as any medieval text--some approach memoirs, and others may best be described as novels.

For hundreds of years, scholars have argued over whether the sagas are "history" or "fiction."

An Icelander writing in 1957 considered the sagas too good to be true: “A modern historian will for several reasons tend to brush these sagas aside as historical records," he said. "The narrative will rather give him the impression of the art of a novelist than of the scrupulous dullness of a chronicler.”

Archaeologists, too, dismiss the sagas as fiction, though there are notable exceptions. Jesse Byock of UCLA has led excavations in Iceland for twenty years; he and his colleague Davide Zori wrote in 2013, “We employ Iceland’s medieval writings as one of many datasets in our excavations, and the archaeological remains that we are excavating … appear to verify our method.” Of his team’s discovery of a Viking Age church and graveyard, he said, Egil’s Saga “led us to the site.”

Perhaps the greatest of the Icelandic Family Sagas, Egil's Saga may have been written by Snorri Sturluson, as I argued in Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth. Much of my argument was based on Torfi Tulinius's analysis--though this particular paper, "Egils Saga and the Novel," somehow escaped me.

Egil's Saga, Torfi begins, is "a book born of other books." Among its themes are "the status of poetry in human life" and "the individual's need to define himself."

The world of the saga is "both same and different." It is not the 13th-century world of the author, but a fictional 10th-century world against which Snorri and his peers could "project their hopes and worries as well as their ideas about themselves."

The story is realistic--it is "set within a landscape everybody knows"--but it is not true. "It is probable that somebody called Egill actually lived at Borg in the 10th century," Torfi says. "Egils Saga, though, is a work of language." The characterization of this Egill and the events he takes part in may be "purely fictional."

"The originality of Egils Saga--and this is what makes it a novel--is that here it is the audience's own history and reality which are offered to interpretation," Torfi concludes. "However, no keys are given, except those which lie hidden in the text."

As Ben Yagoda documents, readers today have a hard time telling the difference between fictional-by-definition novels and nonfiction books. "An (unnamed) major metropolitan newspaper, in its obituary of Louis Zamperini, referred to Laura Hillenbrand's book about him, Unbroken, as a 'novel,'" he scoffs. An "actual class assignment from an actual (unnamed) school" referred to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as novels.

Yagoda blames, in part, "the blurring of generic boundaries, and the fuzziness of 'truth' in the postmodern era," but, as any medievalist can tell you, that blurring and fuzziness has a long history.

In 800 years, who will know what parts of Unbroken are true and what parts were the writer's speculation? What moments of Louis Zamperini's life did she (of necessity) leave out? And what keys to interpretation lay hidden in the text? If someone else wrote a nonfiction book about Zamperini, would it be the same? Of course not.

A nonfiction book, like a novel, is "a work of language." Perhaps we should call them all sagas.

"Egils Saga and the Novel" by Torfi Tulinius was published in Snorri Sturluson and the Roots of Nordic Literature (Sofia, Bulgaria: University of Sofia, 2002). Download it at

Read Yagoda's essay at

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Vikings in the Canadian North?

The Icelandic sagas tell of several Viking voyages to Vinland, or North America, a thousand years ago. Scholars have long agreed, though, that the sagas don't tell of every voyage--and they've long disagreed on where the Vikings went.

When I was researching my nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman in 2006, the scholarly consensus was that L'Anse aux Meadows, on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, was the only authenticated Viking settlement in the New World. Birgitta Wallace, the lead archaeologist on the project, speculated that the Vikings traveled from there at least as far as south as the Miramichi River. (For her argument, see my post "The Case of the Butternuts.")

When I wrote my young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (just published by Namelos), I followed Birgitta's suggestion and placed Gudrid and Karlsefni's house on the banks of the Miramichi.

If I'd listened to a different archaeologist, though, I might have sent Gudrid north. For there is now a second authenticated Viking settlement in the New World: on Baffin Island.

Ian Robertson, a reader of this blog, has been helpfully keeping me up-to-date with the work of Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, now affiliated with the University of Aberdeen. In 2009, Sutherland published an exciting paper reanalyzing some older finds from the Arctic North. She and her colleagues have now followed that up with a paper in Geoarchaeology that--at least for me--puts all other arguments to rest: There were Viking explorers on Baffin Island a thousand years ago.

Sutherland identifies four sites at which Norse objects--or, as she more carefully says, "objects associated with a variety of European technologies"--have been found.

Yarn spun from animal hair.

Bar-shaped whetstones.

Notched wooden sticks that look like Viking tally-sticks.

And now, a crucible used for making bronze.

This small, broken stone vessel was found at a site called Nanook. It was near "a large structure with long straight walls of boulders and turf and a stone-edged drainage channel." The indigenous Dorset people, a Paleo-Eskimo culture, did not build houses like this. The Vikings did, throughout the North Atlantic, including in Greenland.

Under two inches high, the crucible was carved from a gray metamorphic rock not found near Nanook. Among the possible sources are the west coast of Greenland.

When Sutherland and her colleagues examined the crucible under a scanning electron microscope equipped with an Oxford Energy Dispersive Spectra (EDS) system for chemical analysis, they found "abundant traces of copper-tin alloy (bronze) as well as glass spherules similar to those associated with high-temperature processes. These results indicate that it had been used as a crucible" in which copper and tin were melted, "probably for the casting of small bronze objects."

The Dorset Eskimos, who lived in this area throughout the Viking Age and until being pushed out by the Inuit in the 13th or 14th century, did not make bronze. In fact, no one in North America north of Mexico knew how to make bronze.

But the Vikings did.

To learn more, read "Evidence of Early Metalworking in Canada" by Patricia D. Sutherland, Peter H. Thompson, and Patricia A. Hunt in Geoarchaeology 30 (2015): 74-78.