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[ Literature (besides fiction) ]


History of the Kings of Norway

By Snorri Sturluson

Translated by Lee M. Hollander

Beginning with the dim prehistory of the mythical gods and their descendants, Heimskringla recounts the history of the kings of Norway through the reign of Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway's patron saint.


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6 x 9 | 880 pp. | 0 illustrated

ISBN: 978-0-292-73061-8

Beginning with the dim prehistory of the mythical gods and their descendants, Heimskringla recounts the history of the kings of Norway through the reign of Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway's patron saint. Once found in most homes and schools and still regarded as a national treasure, Heimskringla influenced the thinking and literary style of Scandinavia over several centuries.

  • Introduction
  • Snorri's Foreword
  • The Saga of the Ynglings/Ynglinga saga
  • The Saga of Hálfdan the Black/Hálfdanar saga Svarta
  • The Saga of Harald Fairhair/Haralds saga Hárfagra
  • The Saga of Hikon the Good/Hákonar saga Góða
  • The Saga of Harald Graycloak/Haralds saga Gráfeldar
  • The Saga of Óláf Tryggvason/Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar Saint Óláf's Saga/Óláfs saga Helga
  • The Saga of Magnús the Good/Magnús saga ins Góða
  • The Saga of Harald Sigurtharson (Hardruler)/Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar
  • The Saga of Óláf the Gentle/Óláfs saga Kyrra
  • The Saga of Magnús Barelegs/Magnúss saga Berfoetts
  • The Saga of the Sons of Magnús/Magnússona saga
  • The Saga of Magnús the Blind and Harald Gilli/Magnúss saga Blinda ok Harald Gilla
  • The Saga of the Sons of Harald/Haraldssona saga
  • The Saga of Hákon the Broadshouldered/Hákønar saga Herthibreiths
  • The Saga of Magnús Erlingsson/Magnús saga Erlingssonar
  • Index

In Snorri Sturluson the northern world has had a historian who in many ways can be compared with Thucydides and in some is in nowise inferior to his Greek counterpart. And considering the great disparity in general culture and intellectual advancement between his times and Periclean Greece we may marvel all the more at Snorri's genius. His work is unique in European historiography in presenting us with a continuous account of a nation's history from its beginnings in the dim prehistoric past down into the High Middle Ages.

The protagonists of both "nature" and "nurture" as influence on the development of a man will find support in the ancestry and the upbringing of Snorri. He was born in 1179 (or 1178) at Hvamm in western Iceland. His father, Sturla Thortharson, was a shrewd and grasping landholder, descended in a direct line from that canny leader, Snorri the Priest, who in many ways played a dominant part in early Icelandic affairs. Snorri's mother, Guthný, was the daughter of Bothvar Thortharson, who reckoned among his ancestors the redoubted fighter and great poet, Egil Skallagrímsson, as well as the lawspeaker and able skald, Markús Skeggjason; while on the spindle side she was likewise a descendant of Snorri the Priest. So much for his ancestry.

While Snorri was still a child of three or four there occurred an incident which was to have a decisive influence on his life and career. As we are told in the Sturlunga saga, that rather chaotic but most informative chronicle of the internecine struggles in Iceland during the thirteenth century, a dispute had arisen about an inheritance between a certain priest, Pál Sölveson, and Bothvar. The latter's case was being argued by Sturla when, exasperated by the lengthy wrangling, Thorbjorg, Pál's wife, rushed at Sturla with a knife, exclaiming, "Why shouldn't I make you like him you most want to be like, and that is Óthin," and with that she aimed at Sturla's eye; but persons standing near pushed her so that the blow struck Sturla on the cheek, inflicting a big wound. A fight appeared imminent between the two parties, but Sturla ordered his followers to put up their swords, proposing that Pál agree to pay a compensation for his wife's attack—hich he set so high that it would have beggared Pál. But later, through the intercession of the great Jón [Jóan] Loptsson, it was lowered considerably. To mollify Sturla, Jón offered to foster his youngest son, Snorri, at his estate of Oddi.

Now to grasp the import of this offer we must bear in mind that he who offered fosterage to another man's child thereby acknowledged himself inferior in rank. As a fact Jón Loptsson was at the time the most powerful as well as the most high-born chieftain in Iceland. Jón's father, Lopt Saemundarson, had married a daughter of King Magnús Barelegs of Norway; and his grandfather, Saemund, a kinsman of the Earl of Moer, enjoyed an almost legendary respect for his wisdom and for the learning he had acquired when studying in France. Oddi, the family estate in south Iceland, had since Saemund's time been the seat of the highest culture the island could boast of, and functioned informally as a kind of school for clerics. It was a place where a knowledge of the common law of the land was handed down and in whose atmosphere the study of history, of skaldship, and of course of Latin, were cultivated.

We do not know why Jón offered fosterage to Snorri in preference to his two (legitimate) older brothers, Thord and Sigvat. Is it possible that he discerned signs of unusual precocity in a child so young? It is tempting to think so. But we may take it for granted that, with so wise and responsible a foster father, the child, and then the youth, early imbibed the respect for learning and culture prevailing at Oddi. And we may be certain that his knowledge of the law, his grasp of history, his profound insight into the nature of skaldship, were derived from instruction there.

When Jón Loptsson died (1197) Snorri, then about nineteen, seems to have continued living at Oddi. Snorri's own father had died, and his widow-from all we can infer, a gifted but extravagant woman-had run through Snorri's share of his patrimony. To set the young man up in the world, a marriage was arranged for him with Herdís, only child of Bersi the Wealthy; and when he died a few years later, Snorri moved with her to Bersi's estate of Borg, which was also the ancestral home of Snorri's family. Meanwhile Snorri had with all the impetuousness of youth plunged into the politics of his time and had quickly amassed a fortune, most likely in the same unscrupulous and ruthless manner he exhibited in his later dealings. With the inheritance from Bersi went the possession of a goðorð (gothi-dom), to which in the course of time others were added, so that Snorri soon became a powerful chieftain. The institution of the goði was peculiar to Iceland. It had come down from heathen times—Christianity had been adopted in 1000 A.D. by resolution of the Althing—and survived till after the middle of the thirteenth century when it was superseded by royal subordinates. The goði (or temple priest) had both religious and secular prerogatives and duties. His office could be inherited or bought and sold or held in partnership, even loaned. The farmers and cotters of his bailiwick, known as his thingmen, had to pay toll to the temple and, later, to the church, and render the goði services. All their minor disputes were referred to him for settlement; and he on his part, like a feudal lord, afforded them protection.

In all likelihood Snorri's marriage to Herdís was only a cold-blooded means of acquiring wealth. In the year 1206 he left her in Borg, with what arrangements we know not. She had borne him a son and a daughter. He himself moved to the estate of Reykjarholt, some twenty-five miles to the east of Borg. He had acquired this property by an agreement with the priest Magnús Pálsson, who then put himself and his family under Snorri's protection. Snorri is said to have been skilful in all he undertook. To this day one may see one of his improvements on this estate, a walled circular basin, some three feet deep and about twelve feet across, which is filled with water from one of the many hot springs in the Reykja Valley. No doubt it was originally roofed over so that it could be used at any time.

That Snorri as a comparatively young man was elected lawspeaker for the Althing, the yearly general assembly, bespeaks the respect of his peers for his ability. He occupied this responsible post during two periods, from 1215 to 1218 (when he went abroad), and then again from 1222 to 1231. As the laws were not written to begin with, the lawspeaker's duties involved pronouncing the letter of the law in any case of doubt; and in Iceland, in particular, reciting the body of the law once a year before the assembled Althing. Needless to say, especially considering the inveterate propensity of Icelanders for litigation, an intimate knowledge of the law offered manifold opportunities for enriching one's self by taking advantage of the subtleties, the ambiguities, the dodges of the law. And Snorri seems to have made good use of this advantage—and made many enemies thereby. The years while he lived at Reykjarholt were filled with feuding in which Snorri was by no means always the gainer.

At a somewhat later time Snorri entered into a "community ownership" with Hallveig, widowed daughter of Orm, reputed to have been the richest woman in Iceland at that time, and "received into custody the property of her sons, Klaeng and Orm, eight-hundred hundreds (ounces of silver). Then Snorri had far greater wealth than any other man in Iceland. Not that he had lived without concubines, both at Borg and Reykjarholt—that was fairly common practice during the Sturlung Period, nor was it particularly frowned upon. At least three are mentioned by name, and he engendered a number of children with them.

Winter in subarctic Iceland with its darkness and inclement weather and long periods of enforced idleness always has been the time when people gave themselves up most to the cultural activities for which the short and hectic summer months offered little leisure. No doubt it was so, too, in Snorri's time; and there is no doubt, either, that Snorri kept up the interests awakened and fostered in him during his youth at Oddi. We hear that he composed a poem now lost, but most likely adulatory, about the Norwegian Earl Hákon Galinn, a nephew of King Sverri, and was rewarded with the gift of a sword, a shield, and a coat of mail, together with an invitation to visit this influential lord. And probably nothing would have suited the ambitious young chieftain better than a chance to get his hands into the larger affairs of the continent. Poems reportedly composed by him about Kings Sverri and Ingi also indicate attempts to insinuate himself into the graces of the royal house of Norway. But the earl died in 1214, and Snorri's plans had to be postponed, especially since most likely he knew that he was selected as the lawspeaker for the following year.

In this connection it is well to bear in mind that though separated from the motherland Norway by broad and stormy seas, for over three hundred years attachment to it never waned in Iceland. The language had scarcely changed, bonds of kinship in Norway were kept intact, intellectual and commercial relations were never interrupted. Young Icelanders of birth in surprising numbers took passage to the "old country" to acquire a knowledge of the world, and returned enriched with experience, incidentally having sold their cargoes of wool and homespun for good money and things not readily obtainable at home. They brought back with them news of changes abroad—news told and avidly listened to at meetings of the Althing and the local assemblies. For one like Snorri, raised in a family that boasted of royal connections, the pageant of contemporary history would naturally rouse interest in what had happened in bygone times and would stimulate a desire to write a connected history of the motherland.

The opportunity for travel came at last in 1218, when Snorri was forty and at the height of his powers. At that time Hákon the Fourth of Norway, the grandson of the adventurer king, Sverri, and then a boy of thirteen, had ascended the throne. The affairs of state were conducted for him by his uncle, Earl Skúli, as regent; and it was to him Snorri attached himself. It may have been a case of like to like, Skúli resembling Snorri in his ambitious, unscrupulous—and indecisive—disposition. One can imagine the two travelling together about the countryside of southern Norway on government errands, with the lively commercial town of Túnsberg (Tönsberg), at that time serving as the royal residence, as their headquarters, Snorri eagerly absorbing and storing in his mind the amazing information about topography and local history which was to stand him in such good stead later. In late summer Snorri by himself made a side trip to visit the lawspeaker of (Swedish) West Gautland (Götland) , who had married the widow of Earl Hákon. We can think of him as travelling in the footsteps of Skald Sigvat two hundred years before him, going by way of Oslo, Sarpsborg, the Eidskog Forest, till reaching Skara (near Lake Vänern), and gathering there and on the way that detailed information about Swedish conditions exhibited in the seventy-seventh chapter of his Óláfs saga Helga. In the fall he returned, possibly by boat down the lordly Gaut Elf River (Göta Elf River) to Konungahella where he took ship for Trondheim to rejoin the king and Earl Skúli. If the trip was accomplished leisurely, sailing only in the daytime, Snorri could have been afforded an insight into the fantastically complicated coast line of western Norway.

In the spring following (1220) the court journeyed south to Bergen. Snorri had mmade himself very useful, among other ways, by composing a bloody altercation between Icelanders and the townsmen of Bergen which had assumed dangerous proportions, almost threatening war. For that, the king rewarded him by conferring on him the title of "landed-man" (approximately "baron"). Even before that, both the king and Earl Skúli had appointed him skutilsveinn (approximately "chamberlain"). For the home journey, Skúli presented him with a ship and "fifteen lordly gifts," after Snorri had composed a poem about him, now lost except for the refrain.

It had been the ambition of several Norwegian kings to subject distant Iceland by conquest to their rule as they had done in the case of the Orkneys and the Faroes; and the recent altercation had suggested this anew to both King Hákon and Skúli. But Snorri was able to dissuade them, promising to accomplish this by peaceful means. However, after his return to Iceland he did not bestir himself in the least to keep that promise—whether because he had changed his mind or because he had never meant to do so, having given the promise only to save his country from warfare and destruction, we shall never know. The action is in line with his ambiguous character. Rumors of this secret deal with the king had gone before him, and when Snorri set foot on land he was met with lampoons and distrust. Nevertheless, born diplomat as he was, he overcame all suspicions, regaining the confidence of his compatriots to the extent that he was chosen lawspeaker for the second time, holding that influential post for ten years. And by conducting successful lawsuits and advantageously marrying off three daughters he was soon again considered the most powerful man in Iceland. It was in these years, presumably, that he composed the works which cause posterity to consider him the most versatile and gifted man of letters in medieval Iceland, nay in the whole North—the Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and, possibly, the Egils saga.

Later, circumstances worsened again for Snorri. He fell out with his eldest brother, Sigvat, who had a just cause against Snorri because of the depredations of the latter's favorite but ungovernable son Óroekja on his properties and thingmen. In revenge, Sigvat fell upon Snorri (1236) and drove him out of house and home at Reykjarholt; on which occasion Snorri showed little physical courage and determination.

It was, possibly, in order to escape his many enemies, or (who knows?) perhaps with a forlorn hope of regaining his possessions through the help of Skúli, that Snorri ventured a second journey to Norway (1237), this time accompanied by Óroekja, even though he might have known that he was under heavy suspicion there for having gone back on his promise to deliver Iceland to the king—sufficient reason for him to avoid King Hákon and associate only with, now, Duke Skúli. Whether Snorri was aware of the dangerous tension which had been building up between the two men we do not know. In the fall of 1238 news was brought to Norway of the bloody Battle of Orlygsstathir in which both Sigvat and his son Sturla were killed. This strongly affected the king, who had hoped to find in Sigvat a more willing tool to bring Iceland under his sway, and also Snorri, who after all mourned his brother. Yet here was his chance to regain his properties and influence. So in the following spring, directly counter to the express order of the king, but with the connivance of Duke Skúli, he sailed back to Iceland. The rumor preceded him that Skúli had conferred on him the title of earl.

Once more Snorri succeeded in re-establishing himself. But he was then struck a hard blow in the death of Hallveig, to whom he appears to have been sincerely attached. All the more we wonder at his cupidity and unwisdom in denying the sons from her earlier marriage their rightful share in their inheritance. That proved to be his undoing: they turned for help to their uncle, the chieftain Gizur Thorvaldsson, Snorri's own, but estranged, son-in-law. The same summer (1241) a letter came to Gizur from King Hákon, to the effect that he was to bring Snorri to Norway, with or without his consent; or else kill him, because he had committed high treason against him in wilfully disobeying his embargo. With sixty of his followers Gizur surprised Snorri in the night of September 23d, 1241 at Reykjarholt and had him slain. The king claimed Snorri's properties. Thus his death may be called the prelude to Iceland's loss of independence, twenty years later, after four hundred years of republican, or at least oligarchic, rule.


For his own contemporaries Snorri no doubt was the powerful chieftain known for his munificence as well as his avarice, the lawspeaker who could throw his weight in ones favor or against one, a ruthless intriguer whom it was dangerous to have as one's adversary. But for us he is the author of the Prose Edda, the Heimskringla, and, possibly, the Egils saga—works, that is, which in after times have had a far-reaching and profound influence on the literary and political life, not only of Iceland and Norway, but of all Scandinavian countries.

Habent sua fata libelli—books have their own, often curious fates. In the case of Snorri's works we do not know when they were written; we are not even absolutely sure that they were written by him.

Least uncertainty obtains with regard to the so-called Prose Edda. Yet only the least authentic vellum of this work, the Uppsala Codex, says in so many words that Snorri had "put it together," i.e. composed it. But the incomparable style of his Edda, surely one of the most delightful of "text-books," allows little doubt as to who could have written it. The avowed purpose of the slight volume is to set forth the principles of skaldship, its foundations and rules—for its times a most original undertaking; in fact, one without parallel for a similar stage of literary development. It was not intended to be a treatise on Northern mythology, even though to us it is invaluable precisely in this respect, but rather to give the beginning skald the material for his kennings, the most characteristic feature of skaldic poetry, and also to explain the metrical rules governing that difficult art. Some of Snorri's information, we see, is drawn from certain lays of the so-called Older or Poetic Edda; but much also from sources otherwise unknown.

The work is in three sections. In the first, called "Gylfaginning," "The Duping of Gylfi," we are given a synopsis of the heathen beliefs of the olden times—at Snorri's time the island had been Christian, at least nominally, for some two centuries. This is done with inimitable charm and verve, even though the myths are presented in the pedantic medieval form of question and answer. King Gylfi asks, and Hár, "the exalted" (i.e. Óthin) and his hypostases Jafnhár, "Even-as-Exalted," and Thrithi, "the Third," satisfy his curiosity about creation and the nature and the fates of the gods.

The second part, "Skáldskaparmál," "The Language of Poetry," deals with the kenningar and their mythologic and legendary background. It, too, is presented in the form of a dialogue, this time between the sea god, AEgir, and Bragi, the god of poetry.

The third section, as its name, "Háttatal," "Enumeration of Metres," indicates, has as its matter the exceedingly numerous verse forms at the disposal of the skald. Each is described in technical fashion, then illustrated by a stanza of Snorri's own encomiastic poem on King Hákon and Duke Skúli—a technical feat, even if dull poetry.


The many sagas of Old Iceland are practically all anonymous. Exactly why, we do not know. Present scholarship inclines to regard most of them as composed by individual authors making more or less use of local tradition. The masterly Egils saga is no exception to this anonymity; but in recent times more and more students are inclined to attribute it to Snorri, and this for a number of stylistic and compositional reasons. It must be admitted, however, that among the many arguments adduced for crediting it to him, the only tangible one is this: through his mother's ancestry Snorri belonged to the kin of the Mýramen, as the kinsfolk of Egil were called. So it must have been a satisfaction for him when coming into the possession of the ancestral estate of Borg, to acquire the intimate knowledge of surrounding localities exhibited in the saga. There also he could, from old retainers of the family, gather reminiscences of the colorful personality of Egil. Negatively, we know of no skald in the thirteenth century from that particular region, and certainly no one equipped like Snorri with the skill to write a saga like Eigla.

We have no certain indications when Heimskringla, a work of so much larger scope than these earlier works, was composed. Most likely it was the occupation of a lifetime. Also, what more likely than that the chieftainly seats of Oddi and of Reykjarholt were well stocked with all the manuscripts about history available and obtainable. For Snorri was by no means the first Icelander to write history. Since the heroic age of the mass migration to Iceland—oversimplified as being due only to the tyranny of King Harald Fairhair—took place about the same time as the introduction of writing, traditions of that time no doubt were in annalistic form, fixed on parchment by clerics, and of course in Latin. Thus Saemund the Learned (1056-1133) is reported to have written about the lives of the kings of Norway from Hálfdan the Black down to Magnús the Good. But as Snorri stresses in his Foreword, it was the priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (1067-1148) who first wrote history in the vernacular.

This remarkable man seems with one stroke to have lifted Icelandic historiography to a high level. As he himself tells us, he bases his history of Iceland on the reliable oral testimony of veracious old persons of tenacious memory, anchoring its chronology on the established dates of Old English annals and world history. His Libellus Islendorum (Little Book about the Icelanders) gives a compact, matter of fact history of Iceland from its first settlement (ca. 874) down to his own times (ca. 1130). His style is admirably clear and quite unpretentious, his account sober, eschewing all imaginative embellishments. No higher praise can be given him than is bestowed on him by his great successor, Snorri, in his Foreword. Ari's more comprehensive work called Islendingabók (Book about the Icelanders), now lost, contained genealogies of the kings of Norway as well as accounts of their lives; and Snorri, for much of his narrative about the earlier kings down to the death of Magnús Barelegs, seems to rely on his predecessor. Another work Ari may have written, or at least have had a hand in compiling, is the famous Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), unique in European historiography in specifying in detail what families first settled in Iceland, and where.

Another Icelander to whom Snorri owes many of the details of the history of Magnús the Blind and Harald Gilli and his sons is Eirik Oddsson. His work, called Hryggjarstykki has come down to us only in what we find in Heimskringla and the Morkinskinna Codex. We gather that it was essentially a history of his own times as witnessed by himself or told him by contemporaries.

Of Karl Jónsson, the author of the excellent Sverris saga, we know only that he twice, and for long years, was abbot of the cloister of Thingeyrar in Iceland and that he wrote it under the supervision of the adventurer king himself. The hypothesis may be entertained that Snorri read this work when in Norway. If so, he may have learned from Karl how to compose the speeches which form so notable a part in both works. And though Snorri does not say so, he may have concluded his own work, rather abruptly, with the accession of Magnús Erlingsson because he knew of the existence of Karl's work, which starts about that time, and considered it unnecessary to continue.

About the turn of the century two Icelandic monks, Odd Snorrason and Gunnlaug Leifsson, likewise of Thingeyrar monastery, composed works in Latin, but now known only in fragmentary Old Norse translation, about the two missionary kings; however, they were more in the style of hagiographic and thoroughly uncritical compilations than historic writing. Still, they probably furnished the basis of more connected lives of the two Óláfs.

Of greater historic interest are the Latin works of two Norwegian (? ) clerics of about the same time. One, Theodricus monachus, in his Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium, gives us a brief, soberly written account of the lives of the Norwegian kings from Harald Fairhair to the death of Sigurth Jerusalemfarer. It is noteworthy thatTheodricus is the first to make use of Skaldic verse and insofar is the forerunner of Snorri and others in recognizing its importance as contemporaneous testimony. The other work, Historia Norwegiae, has been called the oldest continuous history of Norway. But its chief interest for us lies in the copious topographical information it furnishes about Scandinavia and the various tributary lands of Norway, and also Iceland. Unfortunately it breaks off in the middle of Saint Óláf's reign.

Finally there is a poorly written compilatory work in Icelandic from the last years of the twelfth century, properly called Ágrip af Noregs konunga sogum (Epitome of the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings), which, with considerable gaps, deals with all Norwegian history from Harald Fairhair to the sons of Harald Gilli.

Then there are the many works of hagiography, rather than historiography, dealing with the lives of northern saints; among them, fragments of an independent life of Saint Óláf in Icelandic, dating from the latter part of the twelfth century; also, a later Legendary Óláfs saga, apparently based on the former. Snorri leaned heavily on this saga for his Life of Saint Óláf. All these works were in existence by 1220 when the two large compilations, the one called Morkinskinna (Rotten Vellum), the other Fagrskinna (Beautiful Vellum), came into being. The first is a work of high caliber, stylistically, but in typically medieval fashion uncritically decked out with a wealth of anecdotes relating to the various kings, some to be sure brilliantly told. The unknown author makes no pretence of historic reliability, following the happy principle of quod bene dictum est, meum est—what is well told I make my own! The likewise unknown author of Fagrskinna, on the other hand, writes in an awkward style, but more scrupulously foregoes bringing in irrelevant material. What gives his compilation great importance is that, to an even larger extent than Morkinskinna, it cites skaldic stanzas, many not found elsewhere. It is from these two collections that Snorri has lifted bodily some of the most telling pages of the sagas of Harald Sigurtharson and the kings succeeding him—always improving and clarifying their accounts.

I have dwelt on the fact that several of the histories mentioned contain skaldic verses. The modern historian, with documents of all sorts at his disposal, would not dream of depending—of all things—on poems for his source. The case is different for the historian of a preliterary age. Just as Thucydides, quite correctly for his times, relies on Homer as his witness for legendary history, Snorri cites as his authority Thjóthólf's genealogic poem Ynglingatal (Enumeration of the Yngling Kings) and Eyvind's corresponding Háleygjatal (Enumeration of the Hálogaland Chieftains) for the origins in dim antiquity of the Scandinavian nations. Together with scanty living tradition they were the only source available. For later times, he draws importantly on the contemporary encomiastic poems of the skalds, both for the information they contain and for a check on tradition. As he explains in his Foreword:

"At the court of King Harald [Fairhair] there were skalds, and men still remember their poems and the poems about all the kings who have since his time ruled in Norway; and we gathered most of our information from what we are told in those poems which were recited before the chieftains themselves or their sons. We regard all that to be true which is found in those poems about their expeditions and battles. It is [to be sure] the habit of poets to give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are; but no one would have dared to tell them to their faces about deeds which all who listened as well as the prince himself knew were only falsehoods and fabrications. That would have been mockery, still not praise ... As to the poems, I consider they will yield the best information if they are correctly composed and judiciously interpreted."

As to the latter statement, Snorri, himself the greatest expert on skaldic poetry, has for the most part been confirmed in his interpretations by modem Icelandic and continental scholars. Yet skaldic poetry, both intrinsically, and often by faulty tradition, is difficult—perhaps the most difficult body of poetry in existence. The translator of it must ever be on his guard to render these verses faithfully, without adding a tittle of spurious matter and thus falsifying their testimony. At the same time it is in the nature of things that, like any translation of Thucydides, his version needs must read more smoothly than the gnarled original.

It has been the arduous task of historians and philologists to determine which of the sources available at the time were used by Snorri, and to what extent. It cannot be the purpose here to give in detail the often conflicting results of their labors. Nor has it been the aim in the present translation of his work to point out the hundreds of errors of fact or chronology which he is, or may be, guilty of, or to cite variant and differing accounts in English and continental annals or histories. Like every historian, Snorri builds largely with materials brought together by his predecessors. In a number of cases he frankly mentions his sources. But it is generally conceded that, while making abundant use of them, he stands high above all his predecessors in deliberately omitting, or at least rationalizing, what he considers less credible. As he remarks concerning King Harald Hardruler, "Yet many more of his famous deeds have not been set down, both because of our lack of information and because we do not wish to put down in writing stories not sufficiently witnessed ... it seems better that [ome accounts]be added later, rather than that they needed to be omitted."" To be sure, this critical attitude would seem to us moderns to be sorely wanting when he includes the multitude of stories of witchcraft; and still more so when we are regaled with the numerous mawkish, and often revolting, miracles of Saint Óláf, chapters which we would regard as serious blemishes in his work. But here we must not fail to remember that Snorri, like other great men, after all was a child of his own times—in his case, the thirteenth century, a period more given to superstitions of all kinds than any other, before or after. Moreover, the possibility must not be ruled out that Snorri, keen intellectual as he was, may not have put more credence in some Christian miracles than in heathen magic and that he copied these accounts of miracles verbatim from older collections to placate the Church: their sanctimonious, lachrymose style is easily distinguished from Snorri's own cool and matter-of-fact manner. Another matter, born storyteller as he was, Snorri evidently was loath to forego the pleasure of including such entertaining fornaldar saga style yarns of derring-do as the one of the robbing of the temple of Jómali,—nor would we, admittedly, wish this omitted—even though a much briefer account would have sufficed to account for Thórir the Hound's later actions. The same is true of many other telling episodes which often do not seem indispensable, yet add zest and life to his narrative. On the other hand, still others, seemingly irrelevant, finally reveal themselves as indispensable links in the course of events. Take the case of Thórarin Nefjólfsson's ugly feet, where broad bantering leads to a wager, and that to Thórarin's being intrusted with the responsible task of disposing of dangerous King Hroerek. The very long episode of Ásbjorn Selsbani—by the way, one of the pinnacles of Snorri's narrative art—at first blush appears wholly unrelated to the main course of Norwegian history, but then is seen to lead to the irreconcilable, and ultimately fateful, conflict between King Óláf and Erling Skjálgsson.

The extensive saga literature of Iceland contains few "speeches," though it abounds in dramatic dialogue. Admirable examples of both are found in the Foeringa saga, from which Snorri, a good judge of such matters, has lifted bodily several chapters containing in their taut narrative the superb short speech of Sigurth Thorlaksson as well as the prevaricating answers of Thránd. But the "set speech" as a feature of historic writing was introduced by Abbot Karl in his Sverris saga, emulating Livy, who in his turn imitated Thucydides. Snorri had probably become acquainted with Karl's work while in Norway. What Thucydides says about the many speeches he introduces—"I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said"—might have been claimed, with the same slight justice, by Snorri who, wisely, makes only sparing use of long set speeches but, unlike Thucydides, integrates them into the action. Thus, in a famous passage, we see Thorgný, the powerful leader of the farmers, sitting broad and self-possessed at the Uppsala Assembly, facing the king of Sweden. Both Bjorn, the emissary of King Óláf of Norway, and Rognvald, earl of Gautland, have pleaded the cause of peace between the two countries, to be sealed by a royal intermarriage, but have been talked down by the loud-mouthed king of Sweden, and there is much tumult and shouting. Then Thorgný arises to speak, the crowd surges forward, hushed, to hear him. When he has finished, a tumult of applause breaks out; and the king, cowed, promises he will agree to all he is asked to do.

Again, the modern reader finds monotony in the narrative of Thucydides, unrelieved as it is by the innumerable picturesque touches with which Snorri enlivens his pages. Where, in the older historian, will you find such trenchant characterizations of great leaders as—to choose one among many—that of the grizzly, old, wry-necked warrior, Erling Skakki, with his old-fashioned garb and gaunt appearance, which Snorri gives us? Or such a startlingly candid appraisal and comparison as Halldór makes of King Saint Óláf and his half-brother, Harald Hardruler, both utterly different outwardly, but much alike in temperament, nevertheless? Is it a wonder that Heimskringla still is favored reading in Scandinavia among high and low, young and old? Thucydides makes it clear that he intends his work to be "useful." Snorri no doubt intended that too, but he also intended that it might serve til skemmtanar, for entertainment.

Still further, compared with Thucydides' frequently turgid and obscure style, Snorri's prose is simplicity itself, even where it rises to heights of passionate eloquence or expresses high dramatic tension. But it must be admitted that occasionally his paragraphs are disfigured by drab, careless sentences; that there are altogether too many which begin with the childlike "then ... then"; worse, that sometimes sentences, or even whole paragraphs, are absentmindedly repeated and, in places, contain contradictory statements—all shortcomings of which saga literature is rarely, if ever, guilty. Concerning these obvious blemishes (which the translator is often tempted to remove) the surmise may be entertained that they are due to the author's not having had the time or opportunity to set matters straight, what with the huge pile of vellum involved. Perhaps portions of the work dictated from notes had not been gone over by him for a last filing.

Readers of Heimskringla have been troubled by the author's lack of any recognizable philosophy or central view concerning the pageant of history he lets pass before our eyes. There certainly is no enthusiasm shown about the missionary activities of the two Óláfs, and not much enthusiasm for Christian ideals, apart from some obbligato passages in the life of Saint Óláf. Is it that Snorri at heart was a fatalist? Before the decisive battle of Stiklarstathir the saint to be has the vindictively-minded skald Thormóth intone the heathen Old Bjarkamál, and thanks him for it. He trusts that the better cause will win, but "fate will decide the outcome." On the other hand the old heroic ideals of loyalty to king and defiance of death prevail in his evaluation of the fallen—"fair fame will fade never, I ween, for him who wins it," as the thoroughly heathen Eddic "Hávamál" has it.

Intimately connected with this religious indifferentism—after all rare in the Middle Ages—is Snorri's cool impartiality. Earl Hákon the Powerful's great qualities are acknowledged, Sigurth Slembidjákn's stoicism under torture is admired, notwithstanding conduct which in our eyes would brand them as criminals on a grand scale. The opponents of King Saint Óláf have their day in court as well as the hero and his followers. We are given to understand how ill will accumulates against him, how his harsh justice alienates more and more of his former friends. Snorri does not moralize, he is "objective," and is content to let facts speak for themselves; whereas the compiler of Morkinskinna, on whom he leans heavily, often cannot refrain from expressing his indignation or approval.


As was remarked above, we do not know when Snorri's works were written, nor are we absolutely sure that they were written by him. To be sure, the Sturlunga saga tells us that in the winter of 1230 to 1231 "Sturla [Sigvatsson, Snorri's nephew] was for a long time in Reykjarholt and concentrated on having saga books copied from the books which Snorri had put together {composed}." But how can we be certain that this refers to Heimskringla?

Of the main manuscripts (or copies of lost manuscripts) giving us the text of Heimskringla (Kringla, Jofraskinna, Codex Frisianus), not one mentions Snorri as the author. The best of them, Kringla, was written about twenty years after Snorri's death. It was brought to Norway some time in the Middle Ages, and later was transferred to the library of the University of Copenhagen. Already then it had lost the first page containing the Foreword. Toward the end of the seventeenth century two excellent copies of it were made—fortunately; in 1728 occurred the great conflagration of Copenhagen which destroyed also the greater part of the University Library. Codex Frisianus was written about 1300 in Norway, by an Icelander, and contains all of the histories excepting the one dealing with Saint Óláf. It was found in 1550 in Bergen, and was brought to Denmark before 1600 when it was acquired by the book collector Otto Friis, who then sold it to the famous bibliophile, Árni Magnússon, in whose huge collection, now belonging to the University of Copenhagen, it still reposes. The third manuscript, called Jofraskinna (Kings' Vellum) because in it were the pictures of two Norwegian kings, was written about 1320 by a Norwegian who copied an Icelandic original. It contains all of Heimskringla, together with the Sverris saga and the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, and also landed in the University Library where it was burned, but not before a good copy had been made of it. There is, finally, the codex called Eirspennill (Vellum with Copper Clasps), written about 1300 by an Icelander and now in Árni Magnússon's collection. In it are found the sagas of the Norwegian kings, but only from the accession of Magnús the Good to the death of Hákon Hákonsson.

The first, abridged, translation, by the Norwegian lawman, Matthis Størssøn, about 1561, shows no knowledge of Snorri's being the author. Yet Laurents Hanssøn, a royal steward who in the years 1548 to 1551 translated the central portion of Heimskringla, twice states outright, in the heading and at the end of the Foreword, that the work is by Snorri. And the Norwegian divine, Peder Claussøn Friis, who in 1599 translated all of Heimskringla, likewise mentions Snorri twice. A recent study of Hanssøn's and Claussøn's versions seems to show that both used a manuscript now lost.

A copy of Claussøn's translation got into the hands of the learned Danish antiquarian, Ole Worm, who at once recognized the importance of the work and published it in 1633 under the title of Snorre Sturleson's Chronicle of Norwegian Kings. The book soon won a large circle of readers, especially in Norway. A second edition came out in 1757.

The first edition of the original text, with a translation into Swedish, based on the Kringla manuscript, was prepared by the royal Swedish antiquarian Johan Peringskjöld. It was he who gave the work the title Heimskringla, after the two first words of the Ynglinga saga, Kringla heimsins (The Earth's Round). The title has been adopted generally. A more appropriate name would be The Lives of the Kings of Norway as, indeed, it is frequently called in other Old Icelandic manuscripts.

It was subsequently translated into Danish by N.F.S. Grundtvig (18181821), into Dano-Norwegian by Jacob Aal (1838-1839) and P. A. Munch (1859-1871), into Swedish by H. O. Hildebrand (1869-1871)—to mention only translations by outstanding authors. By these translations Heimskringla became a "folk-book" such as few nations possess. Certainly, no other work, the Bible excepted, has exerted such broad and pervasive influence on Scandinavian life, literature, the arts. In Norway especially it has been a source of inspiration and strength in times of national stress as well as in those of prosperity; particularly since Gustav Storm's exemplary translation (1899) in one volume made the work, richly illustrated with drawings by the best Norwegian artists, available to all at a popular price.

The text followed in this translation of Heimskringla is that of the manuscript "Kringla" as edited by Bjami Athalbjarnarson, with the variants of the other manuscripts, in three volumes (Reykjavik: hið Islenzka Fornritafélag, 1941, 1945, 1951). It differs from previous translations into English, and from all others, for that matter, in endeavoring to adhere closely both to the form and the content of the copious skaldic stanzas. I have laid down my views on how best to render skaldic verse in the Introduction to The Skalds (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1945), and also in Scandinavian Studies, XVIII (1945), 233-240. Readers interested in the nature of skaldic art, its verse forms, kennings, rimes, and alliterations will find a brief orientation in the former publication.

Reviewers are urged to take note of what I consider the proper diction to be employed in the rendering of Old Norse poetry (discussed in Scandinavian Studies, V (1920), 197-201), and of what can be said concerning the proper rendering of Scandinavian personal and geographic names (ibid., XXVI (1954), 25-29). As to the latter, I have in general used the forms likely to be most familiar to English-speaking readers. However, a little reflection will show that consistency on this score is unattainable.

I have of course followed Snorri's very capricious division into chapters. The headings to these are mine. Naturally it is difficult to do justice in these to the contents of divisions so greatly varying in length.

As to my Introduction and, to a large extent, the footnotes, I disclaim any independent value. The specialist will without difficulty discern in how far both are based on the conclusions of previous scholarship. The scope of the present translation has, of course, precluded going into the—legionary—difficulties of the interpretation of the skaldic verse. My own interpretation has, I hope, profited from the best scholarship in this field.

The gracious permission from Gyldendal Norsk Forlag of Oslo to reproduce the illustrations by Norwegian artists is hereby gratefully acknowledged; likewise the permission extended by Hið Islenzka Fornritafélag to use the sketch of maps of Nitharós, Ósló, and Bjorgvin from their edition of Heimskringla.

In this book I have had written down old accounts about the chieftains who had dominion in the North and were speakers of the Danish tongue, basing myself on the information given me by well-informed men; also, on some of their genealogies according to what I have learned about them, some of which information is found in the pedigrees which kings or other persons of exalted lineage have about their kin; and still other matter follows ancient lays or legends people have entertained themselves with. And although we do not know for sure whether these accounts are true, yet we do know that old and learned men consider them to be so.

The learned Thjóthólf of Hvinir was a skald at the court of King Harald Fairhair. He composed a lay about King Rognvald the Highly Honored which is called Ynglingatal (Enumeration of the Yngling Kings). Rognvald was the son of Óláf Geirstathaálf, the brother of Hálfdan the Black. In this lay are mentioned thirty of his forebears, together with an account of how each of them died and where they are buried. Fjolnir is the name of the son of Yngvifrey to whom the Swedes made sacrifice for a long time afterwards. That race is called the Ynglings after him. Eyvind Skáldaspillir also enumerated the ancestors of Earl Hákon the Mighty in the lay which is called Háleygjatal (Enumeration of the Hálogaland Chieftains), which he composed about Hákon. There, Saeming is named as the son of Yngvifrey. And in it also we are told about the death of each of them and where his burial mound is. First we have written the lives of the Ynglings according to Thjóthólf's account, and this we amplified with the information given us by learned men.

The first age is called the Age of Cremation. In that age it was the custom to burn all the dead and to raise memorial stones after them; but after Frey was put to rest in a burial mound at Uppsalir [Uppsala], many chieftains used -to erect burial mounds as often as memorial stones to commemorate departed relatives. However, after Dan the Proud, the Danish king, had a burial mound made for himself and decreed that he was to be carried into it when dead, in all his royal vestments and armor, together with his horse, fully saddled, and much treasure besides, and when many of his kinsmen did likewise, then began the Age of Sepulchral Mounds. However, the Age of Cremation persisted for a long time among Swedes and Norwegians.

Now when Harald Fairhair was king of Norway, Iceland was settled. At the court of King Harald there were skalds, and men still remember their poems and the poems about all the kings who have since his time ruled in Norway; and we gathered most of our information from what we are told in those poems which were recited before the chieftains themselves or their sons. We regard all that to be true which is found in those poems about their expeditions and battles. It is [to be sure] the habit of poets to give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are; but no one would have dared to tell them to their faces about deeds which all who listened, as well as the prince himself, knew were only falsehoods and fabrications. That would have been mockery, still not praise.

Priest Ari the Learned, the son of Thorgils, the son of Gellir, was the first man in this country to write in the Norse tongue about lore both ancient and recent. In the beginning of his book he wrote chiefly about the settlement and legislation of Iceland, then also about the lawspeakers, how long each one was in office; and he employed this reckoning, first for the time before Christianity was introduced in Iceland, then for the period down to his own days. He included also much other matter, both concerning the lives of the kings of Norway and Denmark, as well as of England, and also the notable events which had occurred here in his own country. And what he says appears to me most noteworthy. He was exceedingly well informed, and so long lived that his birth occurred one year after the fall of King Harald Sigurtharson [1067]. As he himself tells us, he wrote the lives of the kings of Norway, following the narrative of Odd Kolsson. [Kol was] the son of Hall of Sítha. Odd himself had heard it from Thorgeir Afráthskoll, a well-informed man whose life extended back to the time when he dwelled in Nitharness and Earl Hákon the Powerful was slain. In this same locality Óláf Tryggvason founded the market town which is there now [995].

Ari the Priest when seven years old came to Hall Thórarinsson in Hauka Dale and remained there for fourteen years. Hall was a man of extensive information and possessed an excellent memory. He remembered Thangbrand the priest 'baptizing him when he was three years old. That was one year before Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland [1000]. Ari was twelve years old when Bishop Ísleif died. Hall travelled much and had commercial dealings with Holy King Óláf, and profited greatly thereby. For this reason Hall was well informed about his reign.

Now when Bishop Ísleif expired [1080], nearly eighty years had elapsed since King Óláf Tryggvason's fall. Hall died nine years after Bishop Ísleif's demise. He reached the age of ninety-four years. When thirty years old he established himself in Hauka Dale and lived there for sixty-four years—all this according to Ari. Teit, Bishop Ísleif's son, was fostered by Hall in Hauka Dale and lived there afterwards. He was the teacher of Ari the Priest and gave him much information, which Ari wrote down afterwards. Ari also had much information from Thuríth, the daughter of Snorri the Gothi, who was a wise woman. She remembered Snorri, her father, who was nearly thirty-five years old when Christianity was introduced to Iceland and died one year after the fall of Holy King Óláf. Therefore it is not strange that Ari was well informed about events that had happened in the olden times both here [in Iceland] and in foreign parts, because he had learned from old and well-informed men, and himself was both eager to learn and endowed with an excellent memory.

As to the poems, I consider they will yield the best information if the are correctly composed and judiciously interpreted.


Snorri Sturluson was, without compare, the greatest historian of the Middle Ages. His translator, the late Lee M. Hollander, was a noted authority in the field of Old Norse literature.

"[Snorri Sturluson] speaks—as almost no other historian ever has spoken—with the authority of a man whose masterful skills would have made him one of the formidable, foremost in any of the events he records. So he saturates even remotely past happenings with a gripping first-hand quality...Hollander's translation is very good, fresh on every page ...Wherever you open the book, the life grips you and you read on...."

—Ted Hughes, New York Review of Books

"Among the many contibutions to world literature that ancient Iceland has given us, Heimskringla stands out as one of the truly monumental works. Among medieval European histories in the vernacular it has no equal."

—Modern Philology