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Heimskringla ([ˈheimsˌkʰriŋla]) is the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas. It was written in Old Norse in Iceland by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241) ca. 1230. The name Heimskringla was first used in the 17th century, derived from the first two words of one of the manuscripts (kringla heimsins - the circle of the world).
Heimskringla is a collection of sagas about the Norwegian kings, beginning with the saga of the legendary Swedish dynasty of the Ynglings, followed by accounts of historical Norwegian rulers from Harald Fairhair of the 9th century up to the death of the pretender Eystein Meyla in 1177. The exact sources of his work are disputed, but included earlier kings' sagas, such as Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna and the twelfth century Norwegian synoptic histories and oral traditions, notably many skaldic poems. Snorri had himself visited Norway and Sweden. For events of the mid-12th century, Snorri explicitly names the now lost work Hryggjarstykki as his source. The composition of the sagas is Snorri's.
The earliest parchment copy of the work is referred to as Kringla. It voyaged from Iceland to Bergen, Norway and was moved to Copenhagen, the University Library. At that time it had lost the first page, but the second (the current beginning of the Ynglinga saga) starts Kringla heimsins, "the Earth's circle" of the Laing translation.
In the 17th century copies were made by Icelanders Jon Eggertson and Asgeir Jonsson. Eggertson's copy went to the Royal Library at Stockholm. The Copenhagen manuscript was among the many valuables destroyed in the Copenhagen Fire of 1728. Only one leaf of the manuscript survived and it is now kept in the National and University Library of Iceland.
By the mid-16th century, the Old Norse language was unintelligible to Norwegian, Swedish or Danish readers. At that time several translations of extracts were made in Norway into the Danish language, which was the literary language of Norway at the time. The first complete translation was made around 1600 by Peder Claussøn Friis, and printed in 1633. This was based on a manuscript known as Jofraskinna.
Subsequently the Stockholm manuscript was translated into Swedish and Latin by Johan Peringskiöld (by order of Charles XI) and published in 1697 at Stockholm under the title Heimskringla, which is the first known use of the name. This edition also included the first printing of the text in Old Norse. A new Danish translation with the text in Old Norse and a Latin translation came out in 1777-1783 (by order of Frederick VI as crown prince). An English translation by Samuel Laing was finally published in 1844, with a second edition in 1889. Other English translations followed.
In the 19th century, as Norway was achieving independence after centuries of union with Denmark and Sweden, the stories of the independent Norwegian medieval kingdom won great popularity in Norway. Heimskringla, although written by an Icelander, became an important national symbol for Norway during the period of romantic nationalism. In 1900, the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, subsidized the publication of new translations of Heimskringla into both Norwegian written forms, landsmål and riksmål, "in order that the work may achieve wide distribution at a low price".
Heimskringla consists of several chapters, each one individually called a saga, which can be literally translated as 'tale'. The first of these tells the mythological prehistory of the Norwegian royal dynasty, tracing Odin, described here as a mortal man, and his followers from the East, from Asaland and Asgard, its chief city, to their settlement in Scandinavia (more precisely to east-central Sweden, according to Snorri). The subsequent sagas are (with few exceptions) devoted to individual rulers, starting with Halfdan the Black, and ending with Magnus V of Norway. The saga narrates the contests of the kings, the establishment of the kingdom of Norway, Viking expeditions to various European countries, straying as far afield as Palestine in the saga of Sigurd the Crusader. The stories are told with a life and freshness, giving a picture of human life in all its reality. A version of the Óláfs saga helga, which is about the saint Olaf II of Norway, is the main part. His 15-year-long reign takes up about one third of the entire work.
The saga of Harald Hardrada narrates his expedition to the East, his brilliant exploits in Constantinople, Syria, and Sicily, his skaldic accomplishments, and his battles in England against Harold Godwinson, the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, where he fell at the battle Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 only a few days before Harold himself fell at the Battle of Hastings. This saga is a splendid epic in prose, and is also of particular relevance to the history of England. The first part of the Heimskringla is rooted in Norse mythology; as it advances, fable and fact all curiously intermingle, and it terminates in factual history.
The value of Heimskringla as a historical source has been estimated in different ways during recent times. The historians of mid-19th century put great trust in the factual truth of Snorri's narrative, as well as other old Norse sagas. In the early 20th century, this trust was largely abandoned with the advent of saga criticism, pioneered by Curt and Lauritz Weibull. These historians pointed out that Snorri's work had been written several centuries after most of the events it describes. In Norway, the historian Edvard Bull famously proclaimed that "we have to give up all illusions that Snorri's mighty epic bears any deeper resemblance to what actually happened" in the time it describes. A school of historians has come to believe that the motives Snorri and the other saga writers give to their characters owe more to conditions in the 13th century than in earlier times. Heimskringla has, however, continued to be used as a historical source, though with more caution. It is not common to believe in the detailed accuracy of the historical narrative and historians tend to see little to no historical truth behind the first few sagas, however, they are still seen by many as a valuable source of knowledge about the society and politics of medieval Norway. The factual content of the work tends to be deemed more credible where it discusses more recent times, as the distance in time between the events described and the composition of the saga was shorter, allowing traditions to be retained in a largely accurate form, and because in the twelfth century the first contemporary written sources begin to emerge in Norway.
Heimskringla contains the following sagas (see also List of Norwegian monarchs):
- Ynglinga saga
- Saga of Halfdan Svarte (Svarte: "the Black")
- Saga of Harald Hårfagre (Hårfagre: "finehair") (died ca. 931)
- Saga of Håkon Góði (Góði: "the Good") (died 961)
- Saga of King Harald Grafeld (Grafeld: "Greycloak") (died 969)
- Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason (died 1000)
- Saga of Olav II Haraldson (died 1030), excerpt from conversion of Dale-Gudbrand
- Saga of Magnus Góði (died 1047)
- Saga of Harald Hardråde (Hardråde: "Hardruler") (died 1066)
- Saga of Olaf Kyrre (Kyrre: "the Gentle") (died 1093)
- Saga of Magnus Berfættur (Berfættur: "Barefoot") (died 1103)
- Saga of Sigurð the Crusader (died 1130) and his brothers
- Saga of Magnus Blindi (Blindi: "the Blind") (dethroned 1135) and of Harald Gilli (died 1136)
- Saga of Sigurð (died 1155), Eystein (died 1157) and Inge (died 1161), the sons of Harald
- Saga of Håkon Herðibreiðs (Herðibreiðs: "the Broadshouldered") (died 1162)
- Saga of Magnus Erlingson (died 1184)