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.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... the politics of myth. It's easy to forget that there's any such thing, but people always have a reason for the stories they tell. Thanks for a pointer to a very interesting paper.