Friday, September 29, 2006

Historians: also bad motherfuckers?

Your modern historian is a pretty sedentary sort. Happiest in an archive full of the great smell of books, or perhaps thinking Deep Thinks in some kind of Starbucks, absent-mindedly counting his change to see if he can afford that muffin and deciding that it would be better, more virtuous, not to have it anyway. Occasionally, he'll visit some exotic part of the globe and return with cautionary or hilarious anecdotes.

Things were different in Olden Days, I tell you what. Allow me to begin with the example of Snorri Sturluson.

Born in 1178, Snorri wrote some of the greatest quasi-historical stuff you're ever going to read in Icelandic or any other language -- in between being a wealthy landowner and lawspeaker of Iceland, of course. For an appetizer, let's take a gander at the Prose Edda, also known as the Snorri Edda. This is both a quick primer on Norse mythology (as over-educated scholar Snorri understood it) and a guide to writing praise poetry so that the King of Norway will give you expensive presents. It contains lots of gripping stuff about gods and battles, and also tedious lists of names and something called "kennings," which are stupidly elaborate Old Norse metaphors. Here, for instance, is a list of the names of dwarfs:
Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri, Althiolf, Dvalin, Nar, Nain, Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Onar, Oin, Modvitnir, Vig and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Throin, Thekk ...


Anyway, in addition to this catalogue of traditional poetic nonsense, Snorri also wrote the wicked awesome Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway. Specifically, the ways in which the kings of Norway were hard as nails. I'm talking about stuff like:
King Harald laid his ship against King Arnvid's, and there was the sharpest fight, and many men fell on both sides. At last King Harald was raging with anger, and went forward to the fore-deck, and slew so dreadfully that all the forecastle men of Arnvid's ship were driven aft of the mast, and some fell. Thereupon Harald boarded the ship, and King Arnvid's men tried to save themselves by flight, and he himself was slain in his ship. King Audbjorn also fell; but Solve fled.

Now when King Harald Sigurdson saw this, he went into the fray where the greatest crash of weapons was, and there was a sharp conflict, in which many people fell on both sides. King Harald then was in a rage, and ran out in front of the array, and hewed down with both hands; so that neither helmet nor armour could withstand him, and all who were nearest gave way before him.

That's two different King Haralds, by the way. Snorri is also thought by many to be the anonymous author of Egils Saga, which, if true, would make him the author of the manliest work in European literature. No brag, just fact.

But the really great thing about Snorri is that he forgot the advice a great artist once gave: "don't get involved in politics; just play the gig." Snorri spent some time in Norway, where he got pally with people with names like "Hakon the Mad." And back in Iceland he was making enemies, feuding with his relatives. And when I say feuding I don't mean not sending a Christmas card; I'm talking about murdering each other's servants with axes. Snorri backed the wrong horse in one of Norway's interminable political struggles, and as a result he got assassinated by one of his own kinsmen.

It was a saga way to go out, anyway.

Next time: the long-awaited Procopius of Caesarea entry! Or maybe not!


At 2:10 PM, Anonymous ivory_thorns said...

Saw your post on history is fun and thought I'd check it out.

Nice. =)

Question about the Eddas... Weren't they from different time periods? I was under the impression (perhaps incorrectly -- we covered the Eddas briefly in German class, but it was the first week, and I really wasn't paying much attention -- plus, it was discussed in German, which may be another reason for my confusion) that the styles differed as well. One (Snorri's, I assume) was tales, legends, poems, etc while the other was stuff?

Thanks for answering!

At 4:25 PM, Blogger James said...

Other way around -- the Poetic Edda is, well, poetry, while the Prose or Snorri Edda is a manual on how to write poetry, which includes lots of little poems and stories. They're sometimes known as the Elder and Younger Edda, with Snorri's being the Younger, but in fact I think they're roughly contemporary -- both from the 13th century, anyway. The names are probably holdovers from an older dating.

If you haven't read a good translation of the Poetic Edda, you really should. Some of it is really powerful stuff, and a lot of it is just downright weird.


Post a Comment

<< Home