Who in the World is Snorri Sturluson?

From time to time, I’m asked to name my favourite authors. These days, this question is most often put to me on social media, where list-creating games proliferate. But it can happen in real life, too. I’m normally limited to my top ten. Once, I was even limited to seven. And I groan every time I’m asked. Naming your favourite authors is like naming your favourite children. It can’t done. It shouldn’t be done. It should be considered a mortal sin to try.

Yet I do it. And when I do, without a doubt, close to the top of the list is Snorri Sturluson.

“Who?” I hear you ask.

Exactly.

Most English-speaking people educated in literature have heard the names of Europe’s greatest and most influential early modern and premodern writers. Asked to list them, they might say William Shakespeare, Homer, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer. Pressed not to list but to recognise, they’d probably also know Thomas Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Giovanni Boccaccio. Few have ever heard of Snorri Sturluson.

“And why should they have heard of him?” I hear you say.

It’s a valid question. After all, knowledge is vast. No one can know everything. And certainly, no one can know every important piece of literature ever written, or be familiar with every significant author. Certainly, I’m not, and I have PhD in literature.

But there’s something particularly disturbing about Snorri Sturluson’s invisibility. You see, Snorri Sturluson’s main claim to fame is that he wrote the three books collectively known in English as The Prose Edda. The Prose Edda is not only one of the few sources for Norse mythology available to us today, it’s also the main source. Without it, we couldn’t make much sense of the Poetic Edda, Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, or the mythology contained in the sagas.

This means without Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t have Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Marvel’s Thor.

So if, like me, you’re a fan of the Norse pantheon, what should you know about Snorri Sturluson? You should know that he lived in Iceland in the twelfth century, that he’s one of the few writers we know by name from the saga-writing period, that he wrote The Prose Edda as well as The Heimskringla, and that he was a poet with a keen interest in studying poetics. If you’re more curious about this man, you might also want to know that he was deeply involved in Icelandic politics. He served as Iceland’s law speaker, made overtures towards the Norwegian king, and died dramatically by assassination.

But whatever he was — whoever he was – for me, Snorri Sturluson will always be the man who brought Baldr to life in my mind. As well as Loki. And Odinn. I owe the greatest of debts to him, because it is due to his magnificent writing that I can picture so clearly Ratatoskr — by far my favourite squirrel — running up and down the world tree, Yggdrasill, carrying messages. I’d be empty without these rich images. And so, I’ll always be grateful.

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