Tag Archives: Nancy Marie Brown

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

‘Ivory Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

As I write this review, I have beside me an exact-sized, museum-authorized replica of one of the kings from the Lewis chessmen. Because as I read this book, I felt I just had to have one.

The Lewis chessmen are one of the most famous, and intriguing, archaeological treasures in the world. They’re surrounded by mystery – we know they were discovered on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides in 1831, but by whom, and exactly where, are the subjects of contradictory tales. They are 93 objects (one an ivory buckle), which include elements from several chess sets – including, probably, non-chess pieces. And in themselves they’re fascinating objects. Like the contemporary Icelandic sagas, they speak to us across the centuries with almost a modern voice. Each piece is a distinct individual, and their postures and gestures seem to be telling us something – though we can’t be sure we can read them across time and cultures.

Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, was not exactly the book I expected from the title. And that’s good. Over the years, in my amateur historical reading, I’ve come up again and again against books that take one small piece of evidence, build a huge framework of supposition on top of it, and then declare that they have “proved” some radical new theory. This book is not like that. This is a good work of history with a somewhat grandiose title.

Author Brown examines the Lewis chessmen by category – Rooks, Bishops, Queens, Kings, and Knights. First she describes the pieces, and relates how their functions changed over the centuries, and how they worked under the rules of the 12th Century (when they were probably carved). Then she relates those functions to the history of what might be called the Norwegian Sphere of Influence during the early Middle Ages. We are treated to a pretty good overview of Scandinavian/North Atlantic history in that period, with an emphasis on Iceland and Norway.

In recent years the prevalent scholarly view has been that the Lewis pieces were carved in a workshop in Trondheim. Author Brown makes a good argument that the pieces were in fact carved by an Icelandic woman mentioned in the saga of Bishop Pall Jonsson of Skalholt: “Margret the Adroit.”

Her case for Margret is not watertight, but it’s a good, plausible one, worthy of attention. And in the course of the argument, she provides us with an excellent history lesson.

I enjoyed Ivory Vikings, and recommend it.