The Saga of The Volsungs

‘The Saga of the Volsungs’ is one of the most famous sagas in the Icelandic tradition, briefly telling the stories of the founder and main members of the warlike Volsung dynasty (born, grow to be fine strong king, kill enemies, fall heroically in battle) until it arrives at the legendary Sigurd. Here the pace slows down to tell more thoroughly the story of Sigurd, the great ‘hero’ who slays the dragon Fafnir, takes his gold hoard, betrothes himself to the fallen Valkyrie Brynhild but is bamboozled by a magic love potion into forgetting his vow and marrying Gudrun and helping her brother Gunnar to deceitfully win Brynhild’s hand in marriage – until they both realise the deceit whereupon Gunnar persuades his brother to kill Sigurd in his bed and Brynhild kills herself.

The legend of Sigurd and Brynhild This legend was widespread across northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It finds a far more detailed and courtly telling in the medieval German Nibelungenlied, and is retold in numerous other sagas and poems. This is partly because, as the West transitioned from pagan to Christian, the dragons of legend morphed into avatars of Satan, and the dragonslayers of legend morphed into saints and Christian heroes. (The Introduction introduced me to the stave churches of Norway and to the fact that, of the thirty or so surviving medieval wooden porches to these churches, all but three features scenes from the Sigurd legend!) Partly because it is a love story (of sorts) and so was recyclable into the new cult of Courtly Love which swept Europe in the high Middle Ages. It is the later, more courtly version that Richard Wagner took and himself significantly rewrote in order to create his monster 4-opera cycle the Ring of the Nibelung.

Gudrun and Atli The death of Sigurd and Brynhild starts a further section of the saga focusing on Gudrun: she is reconciled to her murderous brothers before being married to King Atli (Attila the Hun). Atli invites the brothers (who now own Sigurd’s gold hoard) to his stronghold where he captures them and tries to extort the location of the gold from them; he cuts out one brother’s heart (Hogni) to show to Gunnar who, when he refuses to tell, is thrown into a snakepit where, despite being bound and tied, he plays the harp his sister Gudrun sends him, with his toes. (This episode, the bound hero in the snakepit playing the harp with his toes, is depicted far and wide in medieval Scandinavian art.) In revenge for her brothers Gudrun murders her two sons by King Atli, has them cooked and served to Atli who eats them. She tells him. They exchange hard words. That evening she conspires with Hogni’s son, Niflung, go to Atli’s room and kill him with one sword thrust (just as Sigurd was killed by one swordthrust in his bed). Atli lives long enough to curse her. Then Niflung and Gudrun burn down Atli’s stronghold, killing all his retainers.

Garbled The sagas are hard to read partly because their source history is so complex. Garbled legendary accounts of wars between Hunnish and other invading tribes from the era of the Great Migrations (400-600, as the Roman Empire collapsed) are permeated with pagan myths common across Northern Europe (Odin appears at key moments throughout the saga), all this formulated into poems and prose tellings in 700-900s – but only actually written down by the newly colonised settler society of Iceland (settled from 870) sometime after 1000AD.

Pagan German characters – retold by Scandinavians to include their mythology – written down by Christian Icelanders.

Attila Thus a major character in the second half of the Saga of the Volsungs is Attila the Hun (d.453), yet we know the saga wasn’t written down until he middle 1200s. That’s a lag of 800 years, a long time for the material to be subject to incalculable revisions and distortions, for it to pass into legend, into verse epic, into songs and stories and tales and back into prose again.

Anomalies So these sagas are anything but pure. Instead they are palimpsests in which you can see, or read, or feel, different layers superimposed over each other. Hard gritty brutal depictions of tribal warfare give way abruptly to sentiments of courtly love. Pages of tedious genealogy suddenly lead into an encounter with a dragon. Hardest of all to process, I found the way there is little or no psychology. Brutal events happen. The protagonists say a sentence, the minimum necessary to convey any involvement in them. Sometimes the sentences of characters in a scene barely match. Sometimes events don’t tally: I am still puzzled how Sigurd leaves Brynhild in her shield hall on a cliff surrounded by flames; but in a later scene, at Gunnar’s castle, follows his falcon which has flown up to a windowledge and glimpses a beautiful maiden who is – Brynhild; but then, later, he and Gunnar ride back to the shieldhall on a hill surrounded by flames through which only the Hero Without Fear can pass.

Seems to me that here and in numerous other places the scribe who wrote the version we have had before him a number of other versions; he tries to reconcile them where possible but where impossible he just sets down what he has. Reminds me of the famous opening of Genesis (in the Bible) where the scribe has two alternative versions of the Creation of the universe – and so writes them both down. the attitude to Truth or authenticity was very different. If it is written or very old, it is important and clearly trumps the more modern idea that there can be only one true account of an event. In a way these are modernist or postmodernist mindsets; multiple alternative versions of a story can all coexist and be valid.

Killing The narrative is very compressed. It has a superprimitive feel. The only counter, the only definition of an event is killing. The key events are all killings, but so many of the killings are bewilderingly casual. Or is it just that, not having the style or rhetoric to explore psychology (something which only came with the invention of the novel in the 1740s) narrative is conceived in a completely different way. As little more than a bald sequence of events with maybe snatches of dialogue attached if you’re lucky. The pleasure for its original audience isn’t in the depth of the text, but in the bluntness of the naming and telling on its surface:

Sinfjotli set off raiding again. He saw a lovely woman and strongly desired to have her. The brother of Borghild, the wife of king Sigmund, had also asked for her hand. They contested the issue in a battle and Sinfjotli slew this king. He now went raiding far and wide, fought many battles, and was always the victor… (50)

Sigmund said: “I will not kill your children, even if they have betrayed me.” But Sinfjotli did not falter. He drew his sword and killed both the children, casting them into the hall in front of King Siggeir. (46)

Sinfjotli drank [the poisoned mead] and at once fell to the ground. Sigmund rose and his sorrow was almost his death. He took the body in his arms and went into the woods, coming at last to a fjord. There he saw a man in a small boat. The man asked if he wanted to accept from him passage across the fjord. Sigmund said yes. The boat was so small that it would not bear them all, so the body was carried first and Sigmund walked along the fjord. The next moment the man and the boat disappeared before Sigmund’s eyes. After that Sigmund returned home, and now he drove the queen [who gave Sinfjotli the poison] out. A short time later she died. (51)

Blunt, clipped, brutal, the most terrible events referred to casually, other trivial events dwelt on at puzzling length, weird and inexplicable behaviour throughout (playing the harp with his toes in a hole full of snakes?); everything about the sagas is strange and alien to our modern, pampered, over-explained sensibilities. Which is what, I guess, makes them so bracing and so strangely addictive…

I read the Penguin version, translated by the US academic Jesse L. Byock. It has a good introduction, going into the actual history behind the saga in some detail, rather thin notes, but a very useful summary at the end of who is who and what they did, given that the text is often very confusing. It’s surprising the penguin edition doesn’t have family trees since these are invaluable in understanding who is who. There are plenty on the internet:

Family trees of the three families mentioned in the Saga of the Volsungs

Byock notes that there have been four previous translations into English, the first of which was by William Morris and Eirikur Magnusson (1870). What a pioneer Morris was, in so many ways! His translation is available online courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Kudos for Morris for being a pioneer, but his prose style is dire, almost unreadable. His introduction is interesting, though, a rugged defence of Norse culture at a time when the Classics dominated higher education and the culture of the ruling class.

Sigurd Fåvnesbane. 12th century woodcarving (Image: Jeblad/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd Fåvnesbane. 12th century woodcarving (Image: Jeblad/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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  1. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien | Books & Boots

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