Etc.: Tolkien's names, Pullman's grimly good

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark WHAT'S IN A NAME: Just some trivia for the end of the weekend about J.R.R. Tolkien's interest in the late, great storyteller Snorri Sturluson.

Nancy Marie Brown's new book on the Viking chronicler (featured in a previous post at Call of the Siren) who gave us stories of Odin, Thor & Company also recalled her shock as she flipped through the pages of Snorri's Prose Edda.

Brown couldn't believe her eyes: There, on the page, was a listing of the names of Gandalf as well as that courageous, merry band of dwarves that traveled far and wide in order to battle the dragon Smaug. The list was written more than seven centuries before Tolkien penned "The Hobbit."

Here's that passage from Snorri:

Then all the powerful gods went

to their thrones of fate,

the most sacred gods, and

decided among themselves

that a troop of dwarves

should be created...

Nyi, Nidi,

Nordri, Sudri,

Austri, Vestri,

Althjolf, Dvalin,

Nar, Nain,

Niping, Dain,

Bifur, Bafur,

Bombor, Nori,

Ori, Onar,

Oin, Modvitnir,

Vig and Gandalf,

Vindalf, Thorin,

Fili, Kili....

(taken from Penguin Classics' edition of the Prose Edda, translated by Jesse Byock)

So, the great Tolkien wasn't smart enough to invent names on his own?

If you've read any of the great Tolkien scholars, like Tom Shippey, you know the answer: The great inventor of Middle Earth (Midgard, in Snorri's epic) wanted to root his saga in older Western traditions. It increased his cycle's mythic reality. Instead of being an isolated, separate invention, his tales would belong to the great web of historical legend ... and live forever. He wasn't unoriginal -- he was aiming for immortality.

GRIMLY GOOD: Philip Pullman, the epic storyteller behind "The Golden Compass" and the rest of the "His Dark Materials" stories, has retold the stories of the Brothers Grimm in a new edition. A friend, Mindy Farabee, has written a review of the book for the Los Angeles Times that's definitely worth checking out.

The 13th century's Stieg Larsson: new in bookstores

My geography is a bit off -- Stieg Larsson, the late author of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," was from Sweden; the early epic chronicler Snorri Sturluson, who wrote in the 13th century, hailed from Iceland.

Still, I think the comparison works. Both authors have created enormous public curiosity about the way people live in the windswept, icy lands of Scandinavia.

Larsson gave us the incredible, unforgettable heroine Lisbeth Salander; Sturluson gave us her fierce, warhammer-wielding ancestors (that must be where Lisbeth gets her skills with a broken chair leg -see Book #2).

In "Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths" (Palgrave Macmillan), Nancy Marie Brown chronicles his life and times, along with our continuing infatuation (and Brown's) of all things Norse. This is perfect reading for anytime of year, but especially now, on one of our (rare) chilly days in Southern California.

An open bottle of stout by your side, cigar smoldering in a dish ... you are ready.

Brown gives us Snorri's life -- the best that we can know it -- and it was an extraordinary one. He was a chieftain and a "lawspeaker," a rich man with a taste for beautiful women, as well as a poet who pieced together stories of his people's gods into a brilliant mosaic. He picked up a raven-feather quill and wrote down what he knew -- and added a few stories of his own invention. Even though Thor was popular in the Norse pantheon, for instance, Brown says Snorri was more interested in one-eyed Odin, and devoted much of his attention to him.

Brown's book is fascinating, especially as it shows how the "odd love lives and dysfunctional families" of the 13th century world were reflected in The Prose Edda, which is Snorri's synthesis of Norse myth. Loki's mischief, broken oaths, secret alliances, greed and lust -- it's all there, in the Icelandic world, and Snorri was brought down by it, too. Assassinated in 1241, Snorri was not only an important epic chronicler: His life could have belonged to the epic, too.

Brown describes the almost-magical influence of Snorri's work on many artists -- like William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien -- and, in the process, I found an answer (at least one answer) for why the Scandinavian world interests so many of us and leads to the enormous bestselling success of authors like Stieg Larsson.

What is it?

Our concerns sometimes seem so ridiculous and unreasonable: We gripe about traffic congestion or a long line in the grocery store. The people of that region  had far more important things to worry about:

"Earth fire--lava--was just something Icelanders lived with," Brown writes, "like the glacial rivers that burst in raging floods, the sea ice that clogged the island's shores, the constant whining wind, and the winter's darkness."

The Norse were (are) an elemental people. And Snorri captured their essence, thank goodness, with ink and a raven-feather quill.