Today on the blog, we're sharing an excerpt from the introduction of The Last Viking, written by Don Hollway.
In the high latitudes of the far north it feels as though the summer sun will never set, but when night falls it seems to last forever. By the mid-13th century, the day of the Vikings had long since gone dark. In Ireland, in 1171, the Norman-Irish – themselves partly the descendants of Vikings – captured Dublin, forcing its Norse-Irish king into exile. In 1263 the Scots under Alexander III repelled the attempt by Norway’s King Hakon Hakonarson to reclaim rule over Scotland. By 1240 a new scourge of Christendom, the Mongols, had conquered the heirs of the Viking prince Rurik in Russia, and everywhere else the adherents of Christ had converted the sons of Odin to the new, supposedly gentler faith. The colony in Vinland – Newfoundland – had been abandoned, and those in Greenland were slowly withering. The entire North was growing colder, as the world slid from the benevolence of what we now call the Medieval Warm Period (c. 950–c. 1250) into the Little Ice Age. And this was all long after the fact; historians generally date the end of the Viking Age to an early autumn day in England in the year 1066.
Almost 200 years later and 500 miles away, at Reykholt in the far west of Iceland, it fell to one man to set down the history of Norwegian kings. There are no surviving portraits of Snorri Sturluson from life, but during his lifetime in the mid-13th century he was already famous across the North as the author of the Prose Edda, an account of Norse mythology. Scholar, writer, poet and historian, the “Homer of the North,” Snorri was a Renaissance man well before the Renaissance. Lacking the traditional Viking skill in combat – he seems rarely if ever to have been involved in a fight, and may even have been something of a coward – Snorri instead parlayed his skill with words into a political career. At age fifty he was the richest and most powerful chieftain in Iceland, a colony of ex-Norwegian outlaws and exiles. Twice elected as lawspeaker to the national parliament, the Althing, he was, for all practical purposes, an uncrowned king. Yet he had agreed to become a jarl (earl), a vassal of Norway’s King Hakon IV, and to represent him to Iceland’s bickering chiefs – or to play the ruler against them, which had turned out to please no one. Now, as both Norway and Iceland spi.raled down into separate civil wars, Snorri seemed to recognize that for the feuding chiefs to rise above themselves would require deeds worthy of the sagas. He himself was not up to such tasks, but perhaps it would be enough to simply remind the Icelanders – the Norse – of the great deeds of their forebears, going back to the days of legend when mighty Odin led the ancient Aesir out of Asgard to become the first Scandinavians.
In the stony, moss-covered valley of the Reykjadalsa River, riven with geothermal vents and geysers, each known for centuries by its own name, Snorri moved into a farmstead near the hot spring called Skrifla. He fed its water via conduit into a circular, stone-lined outdoor bath that he named Snorralaug (literally “Snorri’s Pool”), connected to his house by an underground tunnel. The Sturlunga Saga, written after his death about Snorri’s powerful clan, the Sturlungs, includes a passage wherein Snorri and his friends relax together in this pool with drinks in hand, perhaps reciting the age-old sagas under the northern lights, or by moonlight scattered on silvery steam-clouds wafting across the valley from the nearby geysers.
Snorralaug and Snorri’s connecting passage still exist today (if a bit overwhelmed by the big modern hotel, museum and gift shop clustered around them), thought possibly to be the oldest extant structures in Iceland. Archaeological excavations of the old farmstead have uncovered shards of French-style stemmed glasses; clearly Snorri lived life to the fullest. (In addition to being a renowned drinker, he was a notorious philanderer who fathered at least seven children by four different women.) One can sit on the flagstone patio and run a hand through the warm waters of the pool and imagine Snorri late at night, rising naked and dripping from these same waters and perhaps enjoying a quick, very Scandinavian roll in the snow. Then he totters, drink in hand, into the tunnel and up a spiral staircase into the writing studio of his Norwegian-style loft house, there to contemplate the collected tales that were to comprise his greatest work.
Snorri had several primary sources he could pull down off his bookshelf. Heavy, leather-bound manuscripts, laboriously copied by hand, they were valuable beyond words, though in the wild old days an illiterate Viking looter would have considered them useful only as tinder and kindling. Snorri’s personal editions are long lost, but copies survived. Two were named in later times for the condition of the vellum on which the originals were written: the Morkinskinna (Moldy Parchment) and Fagrskinna (Fair Parchment). Though each was inscribed around the year 1220, they are compilations of even earlier, lost accounts of the lives and deeds of Norwegian kings. The Fagrskinna reached over 400 years into the past – in Scandinavia, practically prehistory, so far back that many of the kings named are now considered partly or even mostly mythological. These sagas were recited orally, handed down by memory across generations – and naturally subject to induced errors – and then passed along until finally written down as if original and factual.
Snorri was responsible enough as an historian to know such sources needed cross-referencing, but in remote 13th-century western Iceland such information was hard to come by. He referred to the writings of the skalds, Scandinavian court poets or scribes who had known the kings of Norway firsthand, in some cases fighting at their sides and even dying with them in battle. Comparing their accounts with those of the anonymous scribes and chroniclers, Snorri felt confident of arriving at the essential truths.
“We base our story upon the songs which were once sung before the kings themselves, or their sons,” he would write, “and accept as true all the tales of their feats and battles. For though it is true skalds praise most those to whom they sing, none would dare to tell a chief what he, and everyone who heard it, knew to be a lie about his deeds. That would not be adulation, but ridicule.”
Portrait of Harald in stained glass, St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. (Colin Smith /HaraldHardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Disparity extends even to modern editions of Snorri’s best-known work. There are numerous English translations available, but even between them discrepancies arise. For one thing, Icelandic, like Old Norse and Old English, uses several letters that do not exist in modern English, such as thorn (uppercase Þ and lowercase þ) and eth (uppercase Ð, lowercase ð ). Our retelling uses the standard modern transliterations of th for the former and d for the latter. Also, in Old Norse, many names have a nominative case ending which tends to be dropped in most English translations (for example, Haraldr becomes Harald, and Sveinn becomes Svein). I have followed the usual approach with regard to this. The only exception is that I have used “Sigurdsson“ instead of “Sigurdarson,” as this spelling is common in English translations and will be familiar to readers. When it comes to the Greek names in the narrative, I have used Anglicized versions, for ease of reading.
On top of the question of spelling is different translators’ interpretations and the fact that the English language itself constantly changes. Victorian versions from little over a hundred years ago sacrifice literal translation for rhythm and rhyme – Norse poetry relies less on rhyme, even in the original languages, than on meter, symbolism and double meanings – while the later translations sacrifice the poetry for their more accurate wording. Who can say which better captures the original scribes’ intent? Like Snorri, we can only compare and combine the various interpretations to come up with modern phrasing – including direct quotes and dialogue from the originals – that best expresses the language of the ancients.
Likewise, reconstructing events from a millennium ago requires a certain amount of conjecture and supposition if we’re to do more than merely reprint the ancient sources. If we know a man was in a place at a certain time, and we know what that place and time were like, and what he was like, can we know exactly what he did then and there? Of course not – but in light of circumstantial evidence, we can make a guess so probable that it is all but conclusive.
History is a fog, a fog of uncertainty. The deeper one peers into it, the murkier and more uncertain the fog becomes. The instant any event has transpired and begins receding into the past it becomes vulnerable to memory and interpretation. Accurately reporting a specific fact – say, a direct quote by an individual at a specific time – necessarily requires a bit of faith. We can only learn what others, in most cases not present themselves at the time, claim was said and done, and surmise the rest. There are plenty of historians out there contending with a finite set of known facts. Few make their mark uncovering new knowledge. Most content themselves with avowing or disputing what is already known, these days in contest with every self-proclaimed expert with an internet connection. That is not the purpose of this work, nor of Snorri’s masterpiece, known to the world as the Heimskringla (The Circle of the World), the name given it in the 17th century from the translation of the first two words of the earliest surviving copy, kringla heimsins. Its most famous chapter is often referred to and reprinted as a standalone work, King Harald’s Saga. Snorri described the source of his sagas:
In this book, I have written down the old stories as I have heard them from knowledgeable men, concerning kings who have ruled in the North, and among the Danes, and some of their families as well, according to what has been passed down to me. Some of it is found in old family records, in which the ancestry of kings and lords are written, and part is handed down from old poems and sagas which our forefathers ordered for their entertainment. Though we cannot say just how much truth they contain, still we can be sure that old and wise men considered them to be true.
Three quarters of a millennium later, we can do no less. We have the advantage of more sources than Snorri (see the notes and bibliography at the back of this book), for our subject is a king famed and remembered from England to Byzantium, from Russia to the Holy Land. If some of those sources contradict Snorri, or each other, or appear to be in error, we can only repeat them accurately, point out the contradictions, and try to winnow out the truth from among them. Very likely the differences between these many accounts can never be resolved. To do so is not our task. This book is neither analysis nor refutation (well, maybe a little), but a melding, comparison and recounting of the old tales, as Snorri did at his writing table, setting down his drink to light a tall candle late at night and put quill pen to calfskin parchment: “The sagas seem to me most authentic if they are properly interpreted and correctly repeated.”
We shall do the same, in a retelling of the legend of the last and greatest of Viking kings, Harald III Hardrada, the Hard Ruler.