June 15th, 2021


Whaddya know

I grew up with Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Others grew up with the work of Thomas Bulfinch, also titled, Mythology. These were the authoritative guides to the stories of the past, mainly from Greece and Rome, but also from Old Norse sources. The format was the same. They were written as a guidebook, telling the story of each myth as coherently is possible, and sprinkled with quotations from the ancient poems.

Reading Edda by Snorri Sturluson, I expected something rather different, but what I found was almost exactly like Edith Hamilton's work. Story after story, sprinkled with quotations from older poems. While Hamilton and Bulfinch treat Snorri as a source and excerpt him, they mask the fact that Snorri was doing the exact same thing. He was an antiquarian and poet, a secular man of letters (rather a rare thing c. 1200) writing a guidebook to old stories and poems that were passing out of fashion. He engaged, according to his lights, in some speculative literary criticism, too, trying to explain where the stories came from and how they were put together.

The result is, I don't feel like I'm penetrating behind the carefully curated veil to the real secrets of the ancient stories when I read Snorri. I'm just reading another carefully curated veil summarizing what came before. But that's not Snorri's fault. It's the fault of people like Hamilton and Bulfinch, who picked the best quotations out of Snorri, neglecting to point out that often, they were merely recycling Snorri's choices.

This doesn't mean that Snorri isn't worth reading. It's just that I experience him as very modern. He is looking back at a world that had largely vanished by his day. The real world of Norse myth, the society that first wrote the surviving poems and where people actually believed in the Norse gods, is at a further remove. Most of what remains to us is preserved in the Elder, or Poetic Edda, though there it is often assumed that one already knows the outline of the stories the poems ornament.