Saturday, December 24, 2016

Book Review: Song of the Vikings

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths
Nancy Marie Brown
Biography, history, mythology

When I reviewed the author's Ivory Vikings, I ended with this comment:
I don't know that I'd be in a rush to read another non-fiction book by Nancy Marie Brown. On the other hand, if she ever publishes any translations of those sagas, I'm there.
Song of the Vikings isn't quite that, but it's the next best thing: the story of how the sagas and myths came to be written down, and the biography of the man who did the writing. It's a subject that play's to Brown's strengths (hugely evocative writing, a sense of place and time, deep knowledge, passion for the subject) and largely avoids her weaknesses (a lack of intellectual discipline).

There are excerpts from the myths themselves, which are nicely done. There's also a good character portrait of Snorri Sturluson, "the Homer of the North"--a sobriquet which is richly deserved, as a vast chunk of what we know about Norse paganism comes from his writing. He was no neo-viking himself: fat, gouty, duplicitous, funny, learned, ambitious, and perhaps a bit greedy. That, if anything, makes him more comprehensible and more sympathetic to us.

In contrast, the weakest parts of Song of the Vikings are about what a true viking would consider important: fighting. Brown tries mightily to make sense of the dense, generations-long series of feuds and counter-feuds, raids and revenge, politics and war that characterized Iceland and Norway in the middle ages, but she doesn't pull it off. (It's a small-scale echo of the absolute spaghetti that characterized the dizzying interrelationships of the classical Greek city-states.) To be fair, putting this history into a coherent story would be hard for anyone.

Finally, any fantasy lover owes a big debt to Snorri Sturluson. Brown does a nice job tracing the later influence of the Norse Eddas, particularly regarding J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To read Song of the Vikings is to catch a glimpse of the troll-haunted, giant-ridden, bleak, and beautiful world of our collective imagination. I wouldn't recommend the book to everyone, but if you're interested in the roots of fantasy literature or in Iceland or in the Norse myths it's worth checking out.

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