Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown
The other night, I was telling someone a story about Red’s Eats, a lobster shack in Maine. (Long story short: my mom loves lobster rolls and I don’t sound Southern. Neither does my mother, but that’s because she’s French.) I tried to think back to exactly when it was; as my memory is pretty shoddy (hence this blog and my copious journals), so I usually have to take my time. But I remembered reading The Far Traveler at the time and came up with 2010 without missing a beat. It’s so nice to have a trail of books to follow! In any case, I remember the reading of The Far Traveler fondly, so when the opportunity to pick up Nancy Marie Brown’s new book, Song of the Vikings, cropped up, I leapt at it.
Song of the Vikings is a casual biography of Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth century Icelandic author of the Prose Edda, a collection of Norse mythology, poetic language, and a guide to verse forms, and Heimskringla, a history of Norwegian kings. The Christian Sturluson’s unique take on Norse mythology is what has survived to this day, and influenced everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien to Marvel Comics to George R. R. Martin. But his own story is just as interesting as the myths he collected; hardly the picture of a perfect Viking, the devotee of wine, women, and story was hellbent on power.
One thing I quite enjoyed about The Far Traveler, as a history text, is how much of Brown’s own journey we saw—Gudrun’s story, necessarily, was a bit thin, so we were treated to Brown’s thoughts on the process of investigating history. The introduction to Song of the Vikings does that too, as Brown walks us through the childhood love for fantasy that blossomed into her ardor for Viking history. Unfortunately, as soon as we hit Sturluson’s biography proper, Brown seems to vanish. There are a few linguistic flourishes here and there that remind us a real, living, breathing historian is writing this (Brown compares reconstructing Norse religion from a certain text to reconstructing Christianity off of Jesus Christ Superstar), but modern voices are utterly absent. Even when Brown quotes modern scholars, she does so vaguely, without naming them. This makes for a slightly cold reading experience, especially after the warmth of The Far Traveler.
It also hurts the readability of the text. Brown opens each section with a part of Norse mythology, which is nice enough, but where the tone really becomes a problem is when it comes to the cast of characters in Snorri’s life. These are sprawling and powerful Icelandic families, intermarried to one degree or another, and several of them have the same names (Saga-Sturla as compared to Sturla Battle-strong, for instance). Add that onto Snorri’s power grabs towards the Norwegian king (Iceland was independent and ruled by essentially a Parliament, although Snorri had his eye on ruling the island alone), and you’ve got some wicked tangles for his life story to get into. And I feel that having a warmer and more conversational tone would have helped, as Brown could have stepped back and gently untangled them for the reader. I realize for Brown that this stuff is fairly second-nature, but given how smooth and accessible Gudrun’s story was, it’s hard to get a bead on Snorri with these obstacles in the way.
And all this being said, Snorri’s story is interesting. I admit, when I picked up Song of the Vikings, I thought it was going to be much more focused on the impact of Snorri’s stories than Snorri himself, especially since the book urgently points out its connections to Tolkien and the upcoming The Hobbit film adaptations. Snorri is a selfish man (although Brown tries to excuse him in places) and immensely occupied with the importance of the Icelandic skald in medieval society, even as the chivalric romances start filtering over to Iceland and Norway. But the difficulty in parsing out who is who makes it difficult to connect with his story. (And in such a short book, too; there’s plenty of room to expand.) When Brown touches on the impact of the Prose Edda on modern writers, I was absolutely riveted, but it’s too brief. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the reading experience, but I know that Brown can do better.
Bottom line: Brown falls short of her first book The Far Traveler with Song of the Vikings; the cast is too snarled and the tone too cold, especially after the triumph of her narrative of the Viking woman Gudrun’s life. Interesting if you want a look at Snorri, but otherwise, a miss.
I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.