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Nancy Marie Brown: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Nancy Marie Brown is the author of several non-fiction books, including The Abacus and the Cross and The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. Her latest book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Tell us about Snorri Sturluson: who was this man, and what did he do?

Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) is the most influential writer of the Middle Ages. It is his wry sense of humor that infuses the Norse myths of Thor bashing giants or of Odin wandering the nine worlds in wizard's guise, telling provocative tales, and it is Norse mythology that has inspired much of modern fantasy. In addition, Snorri created our image of the Viking hero, as seen in today's sports teams, movies, and video games. Finally, he wrote one of the earliest (and best) of the Icelandic sagas, establishing the genre and giving the word the meaning we still use today.

But Snorri is a fantastic character in his own right. He was one of the richest men in Iceland in the early 1200s, in control of nine of Iceland's 39 chieftaincies. It was the "Age of the Sturlungs" (named for Snorri and his brothers), a violent period during which Iceland's Golden Age came to a dismal end—due in large part to Snorri's ambition. At his grand estate of Reykholt, Snorri gave excellent feasts, with storytelling and songs and lots of ale. He was fat, troubled by gout, given to soaking long hours in his hot tub—not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination. But he was an excellent lawyer and businessman. Twice he was named Lawspeaker, the only elected post in the independent Icelandic Commonwealth. He had few scruples, and could out-argue anyone, so he often twisted the law to favor himself and his friends. As a family man he was similarly self-serving. He married a wealthy woman, then left her when he had control of her property. He kept several mistresses before establishing a "partnership" with another heiress, twenty years his junior, of whom he seemed genuinely fond. His daughters were forced into unhappy marriages to further his political goals. He argued with both his sons over money. Shortly after writing his classic books, Snorri was murdered, cowering in his cellar. He had betrayed Iceland's other chieftains and made a pact with the king of Norway, selling out Iceland's independence so that he himself could be called an earl. Then, foolishly, he betrayed the king.

How much of what we know about Norse mythology is Snorri responsible for preserving (and/or creating)?

Snorri is our main—and often our only—source for all of Norse mythology. Other than Snorri's Edda and the beginning of his Heimskringla, there is very little else to go on. We have some poems, true, but few of these would be understandable if we did not also have Snorri's tales to explain who the gods are and why they act the way they do. The same is true for the images of the gods on runestones or jewelry.

People used to think of Snorri as a scholar or antiquarian who just collected and preserved the myths. But the more I learned about his life—and his reasons for writing his books—the more it became clear to me that he was a creative writer in the modern sense. Iceland in the 13th century was a Christian country. It had been Christian for over 200 years. But Icelanders still liked to compose and recite poems in the old Viking style. Snorri was especially good at it and had memorized nearly 1000 verses.

When he came to Norway for the first time in 1218, Snorri expected to be named King's Skald, or court poet, a position historically of some importance. He was horrified to learn that the 14-year-old king would rather read the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than hear poems about the splendid deeds of his own Viking ancestors. The Viking poems Snorri loved were dismissed as old-fashioned, too hard to understand, and possibly blasphemous, filled as they were with references to the old pagan gods.

Snorri began writing his books to impress that 14-year-old church-educated king and to introduce him to his heritage. But it had been 200 years since anyone had believed in Odin or Thor. Many of the references in the old poems were unclear. So Snorri simply made things up to fill in the gaps. Our understanding of the ancient Scandinavian belief system—and especially its humor—is a product of Snorri's imagination.

What first interested you in this topic?

Like most of my books, Song of the Vikings has a long back-story. It begins when I was about four years old and my babysitter read aloud The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was about thirteen. Through my college days, Tolkien was my favorite author, in spite of the scorn such a confession brought down on an English major at an American university in the late 1970s, where fantasy was derided as "escapist".

Then in a course on comparative mythology I was assigned The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. Page 41 in Jean Young's translation was the turning point of my literary life—I began recognizing names: Durin, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin. And Gandalf! What was Tolkien's wizard doing in medieval Iceland? I read Tolkien's biography and learned how important Icelandic literature had been to him. I began reading the Icelandic sagas, first in translation and then in Old Norse. Then I went to Iceland—and ended up going back about 15 times and counting. Everywhere I turned, I kept hearing the name Snorri Sturluson. Who was he? It took me 35 years to answer that question.

Are there any stories from the sagas that you think of as particular personal favorites?

I have so many favorite episodes from the sagas that it's hard to choose. But since Song of the Vikings concentrates mostly on Snorri's Edda (which is not a saga, but a genre unto itself), I'll tell a story from it. This is the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir:

One day while Thor was off fighting trolls in the east, a giant entered the gods' city of Asgard. He was a stonemason, he said, and offered to build the gods a wall so strong it would keep out any ogre or giant or troll. All he wanted in return was the sun and the moon and goddess Freya for his wife.

The gods talked it over, wondering how they could get the wall for free.

"If you build it in one winter, with no one's help," the gods said, thinking that impossible, "we have a deal."

"Can I use my stallion?" the giant asked.

Loki replied, "I see no harm in that." The other gods agreed. They swore mighty oaths.

The giant got to work. By night the stallion hauled enormous loads of stone, by day the giant laid them up. The wall rose, course upon course. With three days left of winter, it was nearly done.

"Whose idea was it to spoil the sky by giving away the sun and the moon—not to mention marrying Freya into Giantland?" the gods shouted. They wanted out of their bargain. "It's all Loki's fault," they agreed. "He'd better fix it."

Loki transformed himself into a mare in heat. That evening, when the mason drove his stallion to the quarry, his horse was uncontrollable. It broke the traces and ran after the mare. The giant chased after them all night and, needless to say, he got no work done. Nor could he finish the wall the next day with no stone. His always-edgy temper snapped. He flew into a giant rage.

The gods' oaths were forgotten. Thor raised his terrible hammer and smashed the giant's skull. Eleven months later, Loki had a foal. It was grey and had eight legs. It grew up to be the best horse among gods and men.

I like this story especially for its humor. How petty and small-minded the gods are! How quickly they forget their oaths! And how outrageous to envision the god Loki as a winking mare, luring off the giant's stallion. It's not clear whether Loki had to remain as a mare all through his 11-month pregnancy, but I imagine it that way. All of Snorri's readers would have known how long a horse's pregnancy lasted and would have been amused by the idea of a male god forced to stay in such a ridiculous form for so long. To be called a mare, even to have the heart of a mare, was one of the strongest insults you could level at a Viking.

Tell us a bit about your research process for Song of the Vikings. Any great surprises along the way?

One of the challenges of reading the Icelandic sagas is that the medieval authors leave so much out. For example, in the first saga to mention Snorri Sturluson, the saga about his father, Hvamm-Sturla, there is a long description of a feud over the ownership of a farm called Deildar-Tunga (I shortened the mouthful to Tunga). This farm was said to be extremely valuable, but the saga did not say why, and I could find no answer when I looked on a map. Most of the valuable farms of the time were chieftains' estates or churchsteads, or both. This one was neither.

Then I did a Google search and discovered that the farm was the site of the largest hotspring, by flow rate, in Iceland—a land with over 250 named hotsprings. I traveled to Iceland a few months later and stood there and marveled at the boiling water pumping out of the face of a house-sized rock. And what I was seeing was just the overflow: This hotspring had been harnessed to geothermally heat the towns of Borgarnes (34 kilometers away) and Akranes (64 km away), as well as a series of greenhouses on the farm itself.

The final piece of the puzzle was provided by the archaeologists who have been studying Snorri Sturluson's own estate, nearby at Reykholt, where there is a somewhat smaller hotspring. The hotspring at Tunga provided warm water for cooking and bathing and washing clothes, as did the one at Reykholt, but these were minor benefits compared to its effect on the hayfields. The hot water from Tunga spilled into the river and spread over the floodplain, which made the grass sprout sooner after winter and stay green longer in the fall. Grass was the foundation of Iceland’s economy, hay being the only crop that grew well. Thanks to his hotspring, the farmer at Tunga could make more hay than his neighbors and so keep more cows, sheep, and horses. The farmer at Tunga's wealth—reckoned, the usual way, in cows or "cow equivalents" (six ewes equaling one cow)—was eight hundred head of cattle. Eighty head was considered a decent farm. No wonder it started a feud in 1180, between the Winter of Sickness and the Summer of No Grass, when Tunga fell vacant.

It was to settle this feud that the chieftain Jon Loftsson offered to educate Hvamm-Sturla's young son, Snorri, at his school at Oddi. There, Snorri received the best education to be found in Iceland at the time. It was at Oddi that Snorri became a writer, so we can credit our knowledge of Norse mythology to a fight over hot water.

The last chapter of Song of the Vikings focuses on the rediscovery of Snorri's works in the centuries following his death. Give us a few examples of how modern authors (let's say from Tolkien forward) are making use of Snorri's stories in their own fiction, if you would.

The popularity of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings created an entire new entertainment industry inspired by Snorri's works. All the fantasy novels, films video games, board games, role-playing games, and online multi-player games that seem to derive their immortal elves, their dwarfs in halls of stone, their wandering wizards who talk to birds, and their warrior women from Tolkien have, in fact, derived them from Snorri.

But many authors outside of the fantasy genre have also been inspired by Snorri Sturluson. The three examples I give in Song of the Vikings are Michael Chabon, A.S. Byatt, and Neil Gaiman—three very different writers. Michael Chabon recently wrote the introduction for a new edition of D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, published by the New York Review of Books. In it, he talks about discovering Norse mythology in third grade and being delighted by the "bright thread of silliness, of mockery and self-mockery" running through the tales—Snorri's master touch and something I see in Chabon's own works, particularly The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

A.S. Byatt rewrote one of Snorri’s tales in her Ragnarok, published in 2011. In an afterword, she writes, "When Canongate invited me to write a myth I knew immediately which myth I wanted to write. It should be Ragnarok, the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed." Like Chabon, she preferred the Norse gods because they were "peculiarly human," she said—again, Snorri's touch.

But my favorite example is Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which essentially updates Snorri's Edda, for both Gaiman and Snorri ask, What do we lose when the old gods are forgotten? Snorri's Odin, in Gaiman's book, goes by the name Mr. Wednesday. In this passage, he reveals himself—by paraphrasing Snorri: "His right eye glittered and flashed, his left eye was dull. He wore a cloak with a deep monklike cowl, and his face stared out from the shadows. 'I told you I would tell you my names. This is what they call me. I am Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and I am the Hooded One. I am All-Father, and I am Gondir Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die.'"

Mourned Snorri in his Edda, "But these things have now to be told to young poets." They have forgotten the names of Odin. "But these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion," he insisted. And because of the books he wrote, they were not. A writer almost 800 years later can call up the names and character of Odin to add depth and texture to his novel.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are probably first on that list. I also loved C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy. I've had a very pretty edition of Tennyson's poems since sixth grade—but I'm afraid I like it more for its fake leather binding and slipcase than because the poems resonate. In high school I discovered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (probably in Tolkien's translation), and that was my entry into studying medieval literature.

What's your home library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

My whole house is a library—my husband, Charles Fergus, is also a writer—so it depends which floor you are on. The basement holds our general fiction, poetry, fantasy, and science fiction collections. In my husband's office is mostly nature and science. Upstairs is the general nonfiction collection and a small collection of children's books and young adult novels, which I'm studying to learn how to write one. My office is taken over by Icelandic literature (both modern and medieval, in English and Icelandic) and books about Scandinavia, Vikings, folklore, medieval literature and scholarship, and travel (mostly to Iceland and northern Europe).

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I've been very impressed with the young adult historical novels of Donna Jo Napoli, particularly Hush, which is set in the Viking Age. Generally I'm very critical of historical novels set in that period, because I know too much about it and am always noticing the writers' little mistakes. I also loved The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater for its wonderful use of Northern folklore.

Among recent adult novels, I loved Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, again for their use of folklore and myth. The Icelandic novelist Sjón's From the Mouth of the Whale is almost as wonderful as his earlier The Blue Fox, and I was pleasantly surprised by Solveig Eggerz's novel set in Iceland, Seal Woman. And I can't forget Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, which is only surpassed by her Wolf Hall.

Do you have a sense of what your next project will be?

As I mentioned, I've been trying for the past couple of years to learn to write young adult historical novels. A draft of my first one, based on my earlier nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, is now with my agent. If that is placed, I have it in mind to write a book about one of Snorri Sturluson's daughters, Ingibjorg. She is hardly mentioned in Song of the Vikings, since so little of what I feel about her can be proved. Her story is one that can only be told as fiction.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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