Prescription and Description in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda

Content originally submitted to Dr. Cami Agan and Dr. John Maple for the course Western Thought and Expression I.

Twelfth-century Iceland saw cultural and economic shifts that significantly altered the means of oral poetry as the source of expression and preservation of tradition. As Iceland transitioned from the heroic Viking age to medieval feudalism, the church attacked traditional power and encouraged economic developments that usurped secular chieftains. With the influx of Christianity, Latin, and newer styles of writing, written prose rapidly supplanted much of Iceland’s oral poetry (Young 10). The thirteenth century would prove to be a period of violence and turmoil in which Iceland would lose independence to Norway (c.1262–4). During the time of the twelfth-and-thirteenth-century Norwegian occupation of Iceland, the loss of the traditional oral poetic forms established perhaps even earlier than Viking times would eradicate many ancestral religious beliefs and practices, as well as historical accounts and creative forms; this would result in a decimation of Icelandic culture as a literary and historic influence on the world.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was a multitalented man of repute in thirteenth-century Iceland (Young 17). Originally from Huamm, Iceland, Snorri was born to an aristocratic family (Sturlungar) and as such, became a well-travelled, well-educated individual. His professions included historian, poet, politician, and wealthy aristocrat. He served two separate times as the Lawspeaker of Iceland at Althingi, the highest position of Icelandic Parliament (1215-1218 A.D., 1222-1231A.D.). As a diplomat, Snorri traveled between Iceland and Norway where his writing absorbed many Norse influences (Faulkes xii). Coupled with Norse influence from his diplomatic arrangements, Snorri’s skillset as Lawspeaker prepared him to be one of Iceland’s greatest writers (Burrows 216). According to Faulkes, Snorri Sturluson composed the Edda in order “to try to keep interest in it alive and to encourage young poets to continue to compose in the traditional Scandinavian oral style” (xiii). Snorri divided the prose Edda into three parts: Gylfaginning, Skaldskaparmal, and Hattatal. Gylfaginning explains pagan Norse mythology, including the creation and the end of the world, as an introduction to the comprehensive and systematic works Skaldskaparmal and Hattatal. Early poems and examples of skaldic poets’ works form the base of the Skaldskaparmal. The Hattatal, the most didactic of the three sections, includes Snorri’s original examples of mythological poetry, court (praise) poetry, Viking age poetry, oral prose stories, and traditional poems. It most thoroughly conveys Snorri’s desire to preserve the Norse poetic traditions. He intended to preserve the style elements of poetic art by instructing learning skalds; in order to educate newer poets in the ways of the tradition, Snorri felt he needed to collate preexisting methods. Prescriptively and descriptively, Snorri’s Edda codified Norse poetry through his prose commentary in the Hattatal; however, his prescriptive approaches potentially limit the interpretations of the original poetry, conceal earlier Norse skalds’ creativities, and restrict the freedoms of subsequent Icelandic poets/grammarians.

The influences on Snorri’s Edda stem from Christian and Nordic roots. The Hattatal “is composed most like a school treatise reminiscent of Latin treatises on grammar and rhetoric” (Faulkes xvi). The Latin treatises were introduced to Icelandic education as a result of the influx of Christian institution. The style of the Hattatal is another one of the many indications of Christian influence in Snorri’s composition, along with a dismissal of Norse gods as the fabrications of confused earlier peoples seeking “truth” in the world (Sturluson 3-9). In fact, Snorri, a devout Christian himself, admits that he only includes Norse mythology to explain the old poetic verse forms and devices such as kennings. Despite his Christian background, the centuries of Viking pagan tradition in Iceland constantly appear throughout Snorri’s writing.

Scholars agree that the orality of the poetry (and the performative creativity that this medium provides) defines Old Norse poetry. A skald’s poetry uniquely conformed to the poet’s style, expressing artistic freedom and creativity. Diego Ferioli explains the poetic transformation of oral and written verse: “Even moving within the tradition he inherited, a poet can have his own ‘custom’ poetical grammar, just as ordinary speakers of the same language all have their own idiolect” (Ferioli). Ferioli describes an adaptation typically called poetic license. Skaldic verse is a free creation in which “the poet can express his personality and aesthetic views through his art” (Ferioli). Sigurdur Magnusson portrays Icelandic poetic language as “sonorous, flexible, and highly translucent, making it a supple instrument for poetry” (4). The beauty of poetic language empowered traditional Icelandic poetry to stir the listeners. Eddic praise poetry, for example, exalted nobility, inspiring common hearers to laud the aristocrats as well. Margaret Clunies Ross explains that the power of poetry “to have a direct impact upon human life” was marked as one of the most significant “characteristics ascribed to it by medieval Scandinavians” (14). As one of the most important attributes of Old Norse poetry, its power by way of creative verse demands composer independence. However, the “emergence of written culture” deprived medieval Icelandic poets of their creative freedoms with the “notion that literacy was identical to rationality” (Stock 31). Deprived of poetic freedom, skalds would not be able to create the freed verses characteristic of Old Norse poetry, as Snorri’s focus was on “Latin textuality” (Stock 31).

Researchers who question Snorri’s prescriptivism express concern for limitations of poetic creativity evident in Snorri’s prescriptivism, despite his intentions to preserve poetic tradition. The traditional ways of transmitting poetry, though under the stress of thirteenth-century transition, were not as endangered as some scholars believe. Skaldic traditions, such as kennings, were such an integral part of Icelandic poetry that they could not be abandoned: “certain phrases and scenes will bear certain traditional meanings whether or not the poet consciously intends them to do so” (Doane 42). Doane does note that preserving Icelandic poetry through text was not the danger, but Snorri’s restrictive prescriptivism. Traditional oral literature already influenced poets so greatly that Snorri’s organization may not have been needed. Concern for the necessity of Snorri’s prescriptive Hattatal for the preservation of Old Norse poetry traditions, raises questions about his motivation for composing it and the effects this had on future poets/scholars. Pernille Hermann believes the “Skaldskaparmal clearly reveals the well-known didactic dimension of the Edda” (291). Particularly, Hermann considers that it “was Snorri’s intention to instruct young poets, to enable them to compose poetry, and to thereby secure continuation of the skaldic tradition” (291). Snorri’s opinion concerning the elements of the tradition that required preservation is the main point of contention in the debate regarding Snorri’s prescriptive approach. Elias Wessen discusses Snorri’s belief: “The Edda contains what precisely in Snorri’s opinion a narrative skald required to know so as to be able to practice his art in a proper manner: mythology, stylistics, and metrics” (94). Wessen claims Snorri’s didactic approach introduces his prescriptive opinions regarding traditional Icelandic poetry. Kevin Wanner affirms later scholarly dependence on the Hattatal’s “pedagogical dimensions” (101). Those who studied Snorri’s approach “used it to further their own understanding of skaldic metric” (101). Thus, the Edda’s indented didactic purpose was actualized. Yet, Snorri’s intentions to preserve a poetic tradition may have halted other aspects of that very same tradition; “Snorri admits he formalized what had earlier been a sporadic variation of style or metre, and used it in every line of a stanza” (Faulkes xvi). Faulkes points out that Snorri did not exercise moderation in his attempts to preserve every line of poetry. Snorri’s zeal for preservation perhaps neglected the need for moderation. Through his methods, Snorri was able to instruct future poets through the Edda, but at the potential cost of limiting the interpretation of previous works and reducing said future poets’ freedom to adopt and adapt the traditional style.

Contending scholars argue that Snorri codified Icelandic poetry appropriately, as a descriptive approach to poetry might have led to an absence of form for learners to adhere. The transitional twelfth and thirteenth centuries did not permit poets to compose in the traditional manner, as Christianity propelled through Iceland, devastating “pagan” art. Jean Young provides the standard explanation of Snorri’s motivation to compose the Edda: “During Snorri’s lifetime the ancient art of Icelandic poetry was threatened on two sides” (10). This refers to the “narrow-minded clergy” that desired the eradication of all “heathenism” containing pagan mythology, such as skaldic verse, and to the introduction of dance poetry that was popularized and becoming increasingly more common than Old Norse poetry (Young 10). Hannah Burrow’s research exposes Snorri’s genius for seizing, classifying, and recording skaldic verse despite the Hattatal’s “intellectually- and technologically-driven innovations” (226). Snorri praised and recognized traditional skalds’ compositions throughout the Edda. Despite claims that he was too prescriptive when approaching skaldic verse-forms, “the poem can still be seen as a culmination and celebration of native tradition” (Burrows 226). In addition, Stephen Tranter states that the traditional style of Snorri’s work accurately reflects the skalds’ style: “In its [the Hattatal] self-confident acceptance of the poet’s competence and value to its patron, it is directly in the tradition of the tenth-century heyday of Icelandic skaldskapr in Norway” (147-8). His conclusions imply that Snorri, while prescriptive, proficiently maintained the ways of skaldic verse. The customs of Old Norse poetry demand freedom of creativity for the poets, a freedom that, while some scholars argue he justly took into account in the context of historical threats, most would agree Snorri Sturluson restricted in his didactic attempt to preserve the skaldic traditions.

Dialogically reminiscent of Latin treatises, Snorri’s prose analysis of the Hattatal’s poetic verses obeys a reasonable thought pattern, from paragraph to paragraph, for identifying the foci of his poetic evaluations. As his first prescriptive step in codifying poetic verse, Snorri classifies three verse forms of poetry, and then subcategorizes the three forms, without much thought to possible combinations of the verse forms. For example, he inquires, “What kinds of verse-form are there in poetry? They are of three kinds. Those that are in accordance with rule, or license, or prohibition” (165). Snorri analyzes the rule verse form of poetry in order to set the stage for the other forms. With the rule form, Snorri’s prescriptive influence on future students creeps into the introductory passages, as rule form is the basest form, and the other two forms’ literary elements originate from the elements of the rule form. He divides the rule further into normal and varied rules for verse form because he prescriptively believes that the normal form is a better form, and varied is deviant.

In the next paragraph of analysis, Snorri focuses on the normal subclass of rule form, which he divides into number and distinction in order to explain their functions. In number, he prescriptively explains that there are the number of verse-forms found in poetry, the number of lines in a stanza of each verse form, and the number of syllables in each line of each stanza. Snorri then provides an original example eight-line stanza of poetry in standard hexameter (in Icelandic, not English):

He causes whose name is Hakon – he emboldens troops – peace-breaking arrogance – the king knows how to free the land – to be banned to men. Himself he rules the land from Gandvik, this young ruler – the king’s grace is the greater – all the way to the Elbe, the prince. (166)

While this stanza exists for the analysis of distinction (the other class of normal form), it also exposes the prescriptive approach Snorri takes to the number of poetic verse forms. The example verse, dedicated to King Hakon and his military prowess, rises and falls poetically, partially due to the hexameter (not consistent in English), while the eight lines allows a four-line comparison between two ideas within the stanza. Orally, this approach is sensible for the ordered, rhythmic phonetic appeal, but prescribing the number of a stanza restricts the freedom of oral and written verse: say perhaps, that a poet wished to write a similar stanza, utilizing seven lines instead of eight – an alteration Snorri later disregards to be part of the “formless” form. Snorri’s approach would then need to give way to the evolution of the verse-form in order to allow poetic freedom. Normal rule form stringently constrains Icelandic poetry. Snorri takes this approach of didactic organization in an attempt to thwart the thirteenth century prose influences that challenged traditional skaldic verse. Furthermore, Snorri needed a set system to explain number and distinction, as both affect the composition of skaldic verse: new poets would require ordered explanations to learn the composition.

Snorri writes the next prose paragraph to explain distinction in the normal rule form, a rather strict form, as divided into distinction of meaning and distinction of sound and emphasizes distinction of sound. Again, this restricts of the oral forms of traditional skaldic verse because “sound” is typically a concern of oral recitation, not written verse; “Sound is distinguished by having syllables long or short, hard or soft, and there is a rule of distinctions of sound that we call rhymes” (165). The example verse is written with the major concepts conveyed by kennings – compound expressions in Old English and Old Norse poetry with metaphorical meanings – where Snorri focuses on the sound conveyed through rhymes, length of lines, and distribution of staves (alliteration). Learners of the text would read this correct form as one of the only ways to convey kenning forms, rhymes, line lengths, and staves. Snorri, thus writes:

Hamdir’s tunic falls around the operator of the fire of the spear-clash where the upholder of the king’s dynasty protects the limbs of his shoulders with rings. The outstanding one covers the hill of the dwelling of the brain with a battle-boar and the distributor of gold brandishes the battle-fish in the hawk’s perch. (168)

The verse’s elements occur as determined by Snorri in his didactic system through his prose commentary. Snorri, in fact, says they “go as was prescribed above” (168). Thus, regardless of potential poetic necessity, Snorri’s original verse examples follow his own prescribed method.

Having briefly addressed sound in rhyme, Snorri’s next paragraph concentrates on the kennings used in the preceding verse, as well as a new verse of kenning examples:

The splendid hater of the fire of the sea himself of gold, defends the beloved of the enemy of the wolf: ship’s prows are set before the steep brows of Mim’s friend’s wife. The noble mighty-ruler knows how to hold the serpent’s attacker’s mother. You who torments necklaces, enjoy the troll-wife’s enemy’s mother until old age. (168)

Kennings are a traditional Norse poetic form where a group of words takes the place of the noun. They are normally used for repetition, imagery, and oral poetic diction. Snorri extracts the traditional kennings from their verses and weaves them into his own structured poetry, while prescriptively categorizing kennings by three usages. Snorri explains, “There are simple kennings, second double, third extended. It is a kenning to call battle ‘spear-clash’, it is a double kenning to call a sword ‘fire of the spear-clash’” (168). His verse makes use of kennings such as, “The splendid hater of the fire of the sea”, meaning: ‘a generous king’, or one who hates gold, so gives it away. In effect, the verse makes use of multiple simple and double kennings to create a single extended kenning that means: a good king keeps and defends his land (Brown 113). Snorri’s attempt to organize kennings in narrow terms indicates a questionable prescriptive approach. However, kennings are known for reliably transferring from one skald to the next without change. In effect, even without Snorri’s prescriptive method, the kenning is one example of an Old Norse poetic tradition that would not change. A kenning is one of the most characteristic devices of Old Norse verse, and Snorri rightly attempts to preserve it, but even for educational purposes it simply was not necessary for him to establish guidelines for kennings.

After introducing kennings, Snorri begins a new verse, making an example of literal kennings, to distinguish between two major types of kennings: an unnecessary action, as the poets would write the same kennings of the oral tradition, regardless of literalism. He explains literal descriptions as such: “It is a literal description when the word is supported with a literal epithet like this, for instance to call wounds severe, because great wounds are heavy: and it is normal to say that they increase” (Sturluson 169). The provided verse invokes poetic words of literal meaning to apply imagery, “exemplifying sixteen literal descriptions in eight lines” (169). The kennings, regardless of their literal application, add greatly to the poetical effect of the verse. In order to further develop the poetic aspects addressed by kennings, Snorri’s focus shifts to allegory in the next verse of poetry, and strictly determines the appropriate use of allegory. His analysis rings clear in the statement: “Allegory is held to be well composed if the idea that is taken up is maintained throughout the stanza. But if the sword is called a worm, and then a fish or a wand or varied in some other way, this is called a monstrosity, and it is considered a defect” (170-1). The claim limits the poets’ creative liberties in their verses by means of numerous allegories. Indeed, throughout the section of Snorri’s analysis addressing kennings and allegories, prescriptivism reoccurs as the focal foundation. However, with the inspection of allegory, it is important to note Snorri’s descriptivism: although he approaches poetic analysis and devices with prescriptive lenses, he leaves small descriptive windows open for any willing poet to jump through. Monstrosities, the “incorrect” allegories, are great examples of this descriptive exception. He does not forbid the use of monstrosities; he simply states that they are not perfect allegories, and consequently less desirable.

Snorri also recognizes the poetic license to change number and sound according to personal style in his own Gylfaginning and in a few comments throughout the text (171). However, his descriptive approaches often simply provide a “junk” category, such as the formless verse form, into which Snorri shovels all the verse variants he cannot classify. Snorri often addresses these irregular verse forms as lesser styles, and seems to not recommend their usage. For example, he states, “but care has been taken to leave out the half-rhymes” (192). Perhaps Snorri’s aversion to abnormality is more a result of the Hattatal’s didactic element, rather than the classifiacation of existing poetries. Snorri recognizes that Old Norse poets “had their own way about things” that he could not codify (Faulkes xvi). The greatest potential harm of Snorri’s prescriptivism rests in the restriction of modern poets’ freedoms and constraining analyses of old poems.

Snorri Sturluson’s prose Edda continues to be a landmark work of traditional skaldic verse in the transitional twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Without question, the Edda established a structure for grammatical and stylistic elements of Icelandic poetry. The First Grammatical Treatise of Iceland heavily drew content from the Edda as a didactic source. Snorri’s work is significant because it gave a name to the existing skaldic poetry when it was just becoming written instead of oral, and it ushered in a completely new written tradition. Snorri’s instructive prose commentary preserved a fading tradition, but mainly highlighted the elements that Snorri personally found to be important. The Edda has preferential tendencies that misjudge the older verses, and restrict the poetic creativity of composers after his own time. Most notably, the possibility stands that the Edda alters the way modern scholars view and analyze traditional poetry. Thus, Snorri’s Edda almost presents a paradox: in an attempt to preserve traditional verse, he may have altered it forever.

Works Cited

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Intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1991. Print.

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Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál.” Nordicum-Mediterraneum. n.p. Web. 19 Sept. 2014.

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Tranter, Stephen. : Clavis Metrica; Háttatal, Háttalykill and the Irish Metrical Tracts, Basel Und

Frankfurt Am Main. AG: ; Helbing & Lichtenhahn Verlag, 1997. Print.

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