Gods, Demons and Others
Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, the history of the Norse Kings up to the end of the twelfth century, is a unique sort of historical work. It supplies the vital accompaniment to our Saga picture of the heroic age of the Norsemen that the epic worlds of the Iliad, the Irish Cycles, the Niebelungenlied, and so on, have to do without. Those are unequalled and infinitely lively stuff, but they don’t give what we’d also very much like—some touchstone sense of the atmosphere they grew out of, the minute to minute life that the poets looked at, and that men turned back to when the sound of the verse ceased. Everything’s in a slight flush of glorification, which in its special quality may well be what makes those poems so valuable to us. But when we come down to it, still don’t know what a Homeric duel was really like. We don’t know, for instance, whether it was fought within a certain agreement of formal styles—as in the duelling of rattlesnakes, or seventh-century Blades—or whether it exploded straight off into mutual destruction by all means, as between modern infantrymen. We don’t know whether under all that godly coverage the warriors—so much closer to the selective breeding of the Pleistocene—were physically tremendously strong, like orangutans of an equivalent weight, like Sandows, or about like modern heavy construction workers, or comparatively feeble, as Burton said all “primitives” are, and as he found the North American Indians. We lack essential details of that sort.
We lack, I suppose, eye-witness observations recounted in the scientific spirit. Even just eye-witness accounts would do, because it’s one of the mysteries that a couple of words and a gesture, or even just a look, from a veteran, often does more work on our imagination, and our whole nature, and so subsequently on our outlook and actions, than many volumes of history and vivid reconstruction. What comes over, maybe, in any narration, is not so much the facts as the mood that floats them. From Epic poets we get the individual poet’s epic music, from scholarly historians we get scholarly historicality. Only from the veterans do we get the original hot waft of the event. Maybe this is what decides the difference in ultimate value between any literary works. The man behind the education is finally what comes through it, is the only living thing in it, and the only thing that can really affect the man behind our own education. Though education can tangle with education for a lifetime, as is the rule, without the men waking up on either side.
But Snorri Sturluson was wide awake, giving out a strong steady radiation of the events that had befallen. He was a poet, and used poetry—judiciously—as one of his sources for checking details of dramatis personae and geography, and he was a scholarly historian—perhaps the most meticulous of his age, in the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.