The Poetic Edda – the heroic poems

The Icelandic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana starts, in the Codex Regius manuscript, with an unusually large letter A (starting the word ‘Ar’ meaning Early or Once upon a time) which suggests the scribe was well-aware that he was transitioning from the sequence of mythological poems – stories about the unruly Norse gods – to the second part of the Poetic Edda, which records the deeds of heroes and mortal men and women.

The most striking thing about the 19 heroic poems is the way they focus on the same cycle of stories which dominate Snorri’s Prose Edda and are also the subject of the Volsungsaga, namely the legends of King Sigmund, his sons Helgi and Sigurd, the latter’s fight with the dragon Fafnir, his ill-fated love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, the latter’s ill-starred marriage to Atli, and then to king Jörmunrekkr. The Greeks have many cycles of legends – the Trojan War, or Theseus, or Perseus, or Jason and the Argonauts. But Norse legend seems fixated on this one, rather fissile tragedy of Sigurd and Gudrún.

The 14 poems about this legend have the added distinction of having a massive hole ripped out of the heart of them. 8 folios which could have contained anything between 200 and 250 stanzas – at an average of 50 stanzas per poem, some 5 entire poems – have at some stage been removed from the Codex, right in the middle of the Sigurd cycle of poems, giving rise to endless speculation about the missing content.

The heroic poems fall easily into three sections:

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani
The story of the Nibelungs
The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin.


The story of Helgi Hundingsbani

Immediately (and typically of the Poetic Edda) there are textual issues, because poems 1 and 3 are about Helgi Hundingsbana (so-called because he kills king Hunding in battle) but poem 2 is about a completely different Helgi, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, who lived a generation before Helgi Hundingsbana and who Helgi Hundingsbana was named after. It makes for a much simpler experience just to read poems 1 and 3. When you do this you realise that number 3 covers a lot of the same ground as number 1, and both – after the heroic birth and heroic deeds and comic flyting before the big battle – are about the surprisingly romantic story of Helgi the hero and his true love Sigrun the valkyrie. The poems lead up to the climactic scene of Sigrun’s nightly visits to Helgi’s funeral barrow, hoping to meet and talk with her dead lover, a subject which endeared itself to the sentimental Victorians. The (as usual) rather confusing story of Helgi Hundingsbane is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I – The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer
(Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar – The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

As usual, I quote the Henry Adams Bellows translation because it is both out of copyright and easily available online:

1. In olden days, | when eagles screamed,
And holy streams | from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, | the hero-hearted,
Borghild’s son, | in Bralund born.

2. ‘Twas night in the dwelling, | and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life | of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed | of fighters all
And best of princes | ever to be.

3. Mightily wove they | the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns | were trembling all;
And there the golden | threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall | fast they made them.


The Niflung or Nibelung Cycle (the story of Sigurd, Bryinhild and Gudrún)

Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Sinfjötli’s Death) This is a short prose text which summarises the story found in the saga and elsewhere: Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, who had been prominent in the Helgi poems for carrying out dialogues of abuse with various enemies, is poisoned in front of his father by his step-mother in revenge for killing her husband/brother (delete as appropriate, depending on which version you’re reading). In all the versions the grieving Sigmund does nothing to the poisoner but carries the body to a fjord and calls a ferryman to take him across but the boat is only big enough for one passenger and the ferryman takes Sinfjötli’s body and then mysteriously disappears. Was he Odin?

Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy) 53 stanzas – Sigurd abruptly appears in the cycle of poems, rides up to his uncle Gripir’s who prophesies his destiny. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life;
A nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurth shall seem.”

Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin) The editors point out that the next three poems might very well be one long one; they are in a similar style, with frequent short prose inserts to move the story along. The third one breaks off abruptly where vital pages have been torn from the Codex. In Reginsmál the young Sigurd is apprenticed to Regin at the court of king Hjalprek. The king gives Sigurd ships to sail back to Volsung land and take revenge for his father. A stranger shouts at the ships from the shore. It is Hnikar (?) and they ask him what are the best omens before a battle:

20. “Many the signs, | if men but knew,
That are good for the swinging of swords;
It is well, methinks, | if the warrior meets
A raven black on his road.

21. “Another it is | if out thou art come,
And art ready forth to fare,
To behold on the path | before thy house
Two fighters greedy of fame.

22. “Third it is well | if a howling wolf
Thou hearest under the ash;
And fortune comes | if thy foe thou seest
Ere thee the hero beholds.

23. “A man shall fight not | when he must face
The moon’s bright sister setting late;
Win he shall | who well can see,
And wedge-like forms | his men for the fray.

24. “Foul is the sign | if thy foot shall stumble
As thou goest forth to fight;
Goddesses baneful | at both thy sides
Will that wounds thou shalt get.

25. “Combed and washed | shall the wise man go,
And a meal at mom shall take;
For unknown it is | where at eve he may be;
It is ill thy luck to lose.”

Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir) 44 stanzas – Like so many of the poems the action happens before it starts. In the prose prologue Sigurd waits in the trench and kills the dragon. This poem is about what interests this culture, a dialogue between the hero and the dragon about wisdom and fate. Eventually leads to the scene where Sigurd cooks the dragon’s heart, tastes the blood, understand the birds warning him against Regin, who he promptly decapitates.

Sigurth spake:
28. “Better is heart | than a mighty blade
For him who shall fiercely fight;
The brave man well | shall fight and win,
Though dull his blade may be.

29. “Brave men better | than cowards be,
When the clash of battle comes;
And better the glad | than the gloomy man
Shall face what before him lies.

Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrífa) In this poem, in this version, the woman asleep on the Hind’s Fell surrounded by a wall of flame is not Brynhild, but a different Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa. Sigurd wakes her and then they do what these people love: have a wisdom dialogue, in fact a monologue, in which she first explains what runes you need to practice various skills, and then gives a numbered set of practical advice for warriors. It is in the middle of this sequence, after stanza 27, that the poem breaks off abruptly because a great hole has been torn in the codex. The fifth folio of eight sheets is missing, maybe 250 verses, a huge chunk of text covering the central story of the betrothal of Sigurd and Brynhild and the treachery of queen Grimhild, are missing. This is referred to as THE GREAT LACUNA.

6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)

8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.

9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.

Apparently this is the most confused and scraped together of all the Codex Regius poems. As Henry Adams Bellows puts it: “the strange conglomeration of stanzas which the compiler of the collection has left for us, and which, in much the same general form, seems to have lain before the authors of the Volsungasaga, in which eighteen of its stanzas are quoted, is not a poem at all… The Sigrdrifumol section as we now have it is an extraordinary piece of patchwork…a collection of fragments, most of them originally having no relation to the main subject. All of the story, the dialogue and the characterization are embodied in stanzas 1-4 and 20-21 and in the prose notes accompanying the first four stanzas; all of the rest might equally well (or better) be transferred to the Hovamol…”

—–THE GREAT LACUNA—–

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd) After the Great Lacuna this poem starts or rather resumes in mid-flow. Its 19 stanzas cover Sigurd’s murder and the recriminations between brother and sister Gunnar and Gudrun. It’s notable that’s Sigurd’s death, in this poem, happens out of doors by a river on some journey. Also that it is treated very casually:

4. They cooked a wolf, | they cut up a snake,
They gave to Gotthorm | the greedy one’s flesh,
Before the men, | to murder minded,
Laid their hands | on the hero bold.

5. Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine;
From a limb a raven | called full loud:
“Your blood shall redden | Atli’s blade,
And your oaths shall bind | you both in chains.”

6. Without stood Guthrun, | Gjuki’s daughter,
Hear now the speech | that first she spake:
“Where is Sigurth now, | the noble king,
That my kinsmen riding | before him come?”

7. Only this | did Hogni answer:
“Sigurth we | with our swords have slain;
The gray horse mourns | by his master dead.”

“Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine” that’s how the central moment of the entire legend is casually described, preparing the way for stanzas recounting Gunnar’s conversations with Gudrun. Dialogue always trumps action in these poems.

Fra Dauda Sigurdar This is a short piece of prose which admits there are at least three versions of where Sigurd was killed: by a river, in a forest, or in bed.

Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún) In 27 stanzas Gudrun is unable to weep for her dead husband despite various ladies of the court coming to her and telling their life stories and the woes they have suffered; until suddenly she breaks down and bitterly laments..

17. “So was my Sigurth | o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the spear-leek grown | above the grass,
Or the jewel bright | borne on the band,
The precious stone | that princes wear.

18. “To the leader of men | I loftier seemed
And higher than all | of Herjan’s maids;
As little now | as the leaf I am
On the willow hanging; | my hero is dead.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) at 71 stanzas the longest poem in this section, it recaps much of the plot, including the murder of Sigurd which, here, takes place in his bed next to Gudrun. In fact the poem isn’t about Sigurd at all, but in the first part describes Gudrun mourning – and in the second half details Brynhild’s elaborate plans to kill herself and arrange a big funeral pyre for herself and Sigurd. It is striking that, in this poem, Sigurd is killed in his bed and that, again, there appears to be lines or maybe whole stanzas missing, so that the fatal event is strangely mangled and elided.

20. “Gotthorm to wrath | we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, | in rashness blind;
He entered not | in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore | and all our vows.”

21. It was easy to rouse | the reckless one.
. . . . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart | of Sigurth stood.

Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride) a short poem of 14 stanzas in which Brynhild, riding down to hell is questioned by an ogress in a cave and justifies her life and actions. “It shows the confusion of traditions manifest in all the later poems; for example, Brynhild is here not only a Valkyrie but also a swan-maiden.”

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs) A short prose piece recounting the gruesome events after Sigurd’s funeral, where Gudrun is married off to Atli who invites her brothers to Hunland, hoping to steal their gold, tortures them, cuts out Hogni’s heart, then throws Gunnar in the snakepit where he plays the harp until bitten by an enormous adder which may or may not be Atli’s witch mother.

Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún) In these 44 stanzas Gudrun is seen telling her story to captive king Theoderic, from the murder of Sigurd through her drugging and betrothal to Atli, to the visit of her brothers to Atli and their murder, and up until Atli’s fearful bad dreams – which presage Gudrun’s bloodthirsty murder and cooking of her own sons! This is thought to be the oldest poem in the book, dating form the 900s, an estimate reinforced by the use of Germanic details eg the fact Sigurd is murdered in a forest. It seems that the version of him being murdered in bed next to Gudrún is a later, Scandinavian, version.

This poem has real power.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún) a very short 11 stanza poem on a side event, one of Atli’s slave girls Herkja, claims to have seen Gudrun being unfaithful with the captive king Thjodrek. they both undergo ordeal by boiling water: Gudrún plunges her hands into the boiling water to get the stones from the bottom of the kettle and her hands are fine; Herkja does the same and her hands are badly scalded so she is thrown into a bog and drowned as punishment.

Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún) In these 34 stanzas Oddrún laments the tragic events which have overcome them all. She is sister to Atli who became Gunnar’s lover (presumably after Brynhild’s death). She doesn’t feature in any of the other versions or stories. It seems she has been invented in order to author this lament.

19. “Love to Gunnar | then I gave,
To the breaker of rings, | as Brynhild might…

21. “Yet could we not | our love o’ercome,
And my head I laid | on the hero’s shoulder…

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) These 44 stanzas cover Atli’s invitation to Gunnar and Hogni to come visit; Gudrun’s inclusion of a ring carved with runes warning them not to; their deliberation and fateful decision to go; their capture immediately on arrival; Hogni’s heart is torn out but Gunnar refuses to confess where the gold is and so he is thrown into the snakepit; in revenge Gudrun serves up the corpses of their sons to her husband Atli, before stabbing him in bed and then setting fire to the entire stronghold, killing all the staff and servants. This is reckoned to be one of the oldest poems in the collection and is without doubt one of hte grimmest and most intense.

Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli) A much longer version of the above, with 101 stanzas – ie Gunnar and Hogni’s fateful visit to Atli, this time bringing in their wives for extensive conversation before the boys set off.


The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths Though put in a separate category by scholars these stories are just a continuation of the story of Gudrún: having woken up beside the bloodsoaked body of her husband, mortally wounded by her brothers, she grieves and laments then is drugged and married off to Atli, only to witness her two brothers have their hearts torn out or be bitten to death in a snake pit, before she murders her two sons by Atli and serves him up their cooked corpses, before setting fire to the entire stronghold and burning everyone inside to death. She walks into the sea to drown herself but can’t, instead floating across the sea (strongly indicating, as the scholars point out, that she has become part-witch). Here, in a new land, she is found by and marries her third husband, Jonak, and bears him three sons Sorli and Erp and Hamther. Here she brings up Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. The mighty and violent Goth king Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild and sends his son Randver to woo her. Inevitably, Randver and Svanhild fall  in love but are betrayed to the king who promptly has his son hanged, and the beautiful Svanhild trampled to death under horses’ feet.

A handy summary of this story is told on the Kids Britannica website.

To quote Henry Adams Bellows:

“Chief among the popular tales of Ermanarich’s cruelty was one concerning the death of a certain Sunilda or Sanielh, whom, according to Jordanes, he caused to be torn asunder by wild horses because of her husband’s treachery. Her brothers, Sarus and Ammius, seeking to avenge her, wounded but failed to kill Ermanarich. In this story is the root of the two Norse poems included in the Codex Regius. Sunilda easily became the wife as well as the victim of the tyrant, and, by the process of legend-blending so frequently observed, the story was connected with the more famous one of the Nibelungs by making her the daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun. To account for her brothers, a third husband had to be found for Guthrun; the Sarus and Ammius of Jordanes are obviously the Sorli and Hamther, sons of Guthrun and Jonak, of the Norse poems. The blending of the Sigurth and Ermanarich legends probably, though not certainly, took place before the story reached the North, in other words before the end of the eighth century.”

Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting) 22 stanzas. “The present title is really a misnomer; the poet, who presumably was an eleventh century Icelander, used the episode of Guthrun’s inciting her sons to vengeance for the slaying of Svanhild simply as an introduction to his main subject, the last lament of the unhappy queen.” The story is told much more fully in the prose Voldungsaga; what this emphasises is the way the Codex Regius poems are about, emphasise and foreground the experiences of women, especially the figure of the grieving Gudrún. Much more than Sigurd or Gunnar, she is the enduring memory of the heroic poems.

Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir) 31 stanzas. Gudrun’s sons take revenge for the trampling to death by horses of their sister Svanhild. They chop off the four limbs of the king responsible, Jörmunrekkr, before themselves being stoned to death by his men. This is a strange afterthought of a poem, starting with the sons’ foreboding, skipping very elliptically over their murder of their half-brother Erpi on the way, and then in just a few stanzas dealing with what must have been an epic fight in which king  Jormunrek and both sons die, and their last words are a fitting epitaph to the whole sorry story…

“We have greatly fought, | o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low, | like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die | today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night | when the Norris have spoken.”

Or, in the Penguin Andy Orchard translation:

“Great glory we have gained
though we die now or tomorrow;
no man survives a single dusk
beyond the norns’ decree.”

This is Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd and Gudrún. Pretty, eh? Her father is murdered in his bed, her mother drowns herself, and Svanhild is either tied to horses and torn to pieces or trampled to death by horses, depending on which version you read.

Black and white illustration of Svanhild

Svanhild (from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda/Public Domain)

Everybody dies and the Völsung line is wiped out. A fitting end to these strange, damaged, elliptic and addictive poems from the depths of Europe’s long Dark Age.

Sagas

Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

Related links

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

Since the death of JRR Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher has been working through his father’s papers, publishing a steady stream of posthumous editions of the Great Man’s writings. Largest has been the twelve volume set The Histories of Middle Earth in which Christopher compiled all the unfinished, abandoned and alternative versions Tolkien drafted for the epic mythology of which ‘Lord of the Rings’ is only an episode.

Tolkien earned his living, of course, as a Professor of English at Oxford, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. He routinely delivered lectures about both subjects and marked students’ translations of verse from both traditions.

Still, it came as a surprise to both fans and experts in the field when Christopher Tolkien announced he was publishing two long poems by Tolkien, written in English but obeying the rules of the eight-line fornyrðislag metre found in Icelandic Eddaic poetry. Not only is the form Icelandic but the subject matter is an ambitious attempt to retell the entire tale of Sigurd and Gudrún – a central legend of the north European Dark Ages, the subject of a third of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the entire subject of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, of the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, of the long poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris and, most famously, the basis of Richard Wagner’s vast four-opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung.

Contents

The challenge Tolkien set himself to overcome is that the three main sources for the story – the Elder Edda, the prose Edda and the Völsunga saga – contradict each other in the outline of the story, in many details, even in the names. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún aims to cut through the scholarly pernicketiness and hesitancy about manuscript variants and textual ambiguities etc, in order to tell one clear consistent story. It succeeds brilliantly!

The New Lay of the Völsungs is the first and longest of the two poems, nearly 130 pages long and divided into 10 sections. It starts with the creation of the world, a short retelling of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda:

Of old was an age
when Odin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
lightfooted Loki
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.

That’s the fornyrðislag metre: four lines divided in two halves (or eight short lines, as here), two syllables emphasised in each half line, each emphasised syllable in the first half line alliterating with the first emphasised syllable in the second half line.

Birds sang blithely (two alliterating beat words)
o’er board and hearth, (one alliterating beat word, one not)
bold men and brave (two alliterating beat words)
on benches sitting.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
Mailclad, mighty  (two alliterating beat words)
his message spake there  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
a Gautish lord (one alliterating beat word, one not – irregular)
gleaming-harnessed.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)

The tale moves briskly on through the successful career of king Völsung, his son Sigmund, and his son, Sigurd, through Sigurd’s famous killing of the dragon Fafnir, his betrothal to the Valkyrie Brynhild, his drugging by king Gjúki’s wicked wife Grimhild, so that he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrún; in this state of amnesia he swaps bodily shape with his brother-in-law Gunnar to help Gunnar woo and wed Brynhild – but the day after the marriage Brynhild realises Gunnar is not the hero she thought and the oblivion potion wears off a distraught Sigurd, and both lovers are left married to other partners. The infuriated Brynhild tells Gunnar Sigurd has seduced her and Gunnar gets his idiot brother, Gotthorm, to murder Sigurd in his bed. They build a funeral pyre for Sigurd and the deranged Brynhild kills herself and is burned along with the hero whose death she caused.

Commentary on The New Lay of the Völsungs Christopher Tolkien gives a detailed account of the manuscripts JRR left behind along with useful clarifications of where JRR departed from, or chose between, the various sources.

The New Lay of Gudrún is shorter at 56 pages and follows the career of the widow Gudrún as she is married off to Atli, the infamous Attila, king of the Huns (!), who invites her brothers, Gunnar and Högni  to visit and promptly tortures them to extract the gold treasure Sigurd brought with him from killing the dragon Fafnir.  Högni  has his heart cut out and Gunnar refuses to talk so Atli throws him into a snakepit where Gudrún sends him a harp which he plays and magically prevents the snakes biting him. Until one does. At her brother’s funeral Gudrún serves Atli the bodies of his own sons, cooked, and then burns Atli’s stronghold to the ground. She summarises the long tragic events, all the dead princes the curse of Andvari’s gold has killed, before drowning herself in the sea.

Commentary on The New Lay of Gudrún shorter set of notes on the poem and the story of Gudrún.

Appendix A – A short account of the origins of the Legend Christopher seeks to  establish, via Tolkien’s lectures, notes, remarks and scattered pieces of paper, where his father stood on the various theories about the origin of the Sigurd and Fafnir legend (dragon, gold, hero) and how it came to be combined with the obviously different legend about the Niflungs. Complex stuff.

Appendix B – The Prophecy of the Sibyl Tolkien essayed a translation of part of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda into 12 6-line stanzas of traditional English rhyming verse. It is interesting how bad this is:

Then darkened shall the sunlight be
and Earth shall founder under sea,
and from the cloven heavens all
the gleaming stars shall flee and fall;
the steam shall rise in roaring spires
and heaven’s roof be licked with fires.

It doesn’t have the compression and power of the long fornyrðislag poems, showing that the eddaic poems live or die by their concision and power. Also shows what a very traditional poet Tolkien is, using outdated poeticisms to fill in the metre of the longer English line.

Appendix C – Two fragments of a heroic poem of Attila in Old English one is 40 lines long, the second 28 lines long, two translations of sections of the Norse eddaic poem Atlakviða into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). One for the specialists.

Changes

The two commentaries detail the changes Tolkien made to his source material in order to create one unified coherent story. Along with the introduction and appendices they dwell at length on the confused state of the old texts, how they appear to be trying to reconcile different traditions, different stories, about different sets of heroes. Christopher Tolkien admirably recounts his father’s theories as expressed in lectures, notes and random scraps of paper. If you have the mental capacity, Christopher supplies the evidence you need to assess Tolkien’s theories about the origins and authorship of all the various Dark Age sources.

But there is one MASSIVE change Tolkien makes in his version of the poems, which is entirely gratuitous, entirely his own addition to this ancient tangle of narratives. He makes Sigurd not just any old warrior, but THE warrior, the Chosen One of Odin who, it is explained in the opening section, will be the last best hope of the gods when the time comes for their Last Battle with the giants, at the Ragnarök.

This is hugely unlike the Norse originals, a complete and surprising transformation. One reason the Völsunga saga is so confusing is because, as so many of the other sagas, one damn thing happens after another. There is no sense of foregrounding individuals or important scenes. Plenty of other lives and stories occur before we get to Sigurd in either the Völsungasaga or the Poetic Edda, and the story carries right on after his death without a blip.

One of the challenges of reading the sagas is this complete lack of all the devices we know from novels and plays and films and TV which make crystal clear who the hero and heroine are, prepare the ground for them, and then focus in on dramatic moments in their story. In the sagas one person with a complex family tree follows another in puzzling profusion – leaving the reader struggling to figure out who among the scores of Helgis and Hognis is the actual “hero”.

In sharp contrast Tolkien makes Sigurd a hero of world-shattering importance, not just another Helgi but THE man who will come to Valhalla to help the gods fight against the giants.

Thy womb shall wax
with the World’s Chosen,
serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin.
Till ages end
all shall name him
chief of chieftains,
changeless glory.

It transplants the entire story into a different worldview. Very tempting to remember Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and has here imposed a Christian-shaped importance to the hero. If not that personal a shift, it at the least gives the narrative a priority and importance which the Norse original lacks.

This big shift is just one way in which Tolkien makes his poems much more modern, comprehensible and meaningful than the original Norse. The story is smoothed out into a comprehensible linear narrative. Characters get lots of dialogue to explain their motives. Scenes are properly set and the way prepared for the protagonists to say what’s on their minds. You understand what’s happening and why.

This couldn’t be more unlike the clipped, laconic, obscure and often impenetrable poems of the Poetic Edda. The obscurity and garbled brokenness of the originals is of a piece with the compressed power of the originals. Tolkien can’t match or replace that. But this paperback might make a good transition for readers who like modern fantasy and want to tentatively explore the sources of Tolkien’s imagination before diving  straight in to the challenging Poetic or Prose Eddas.

Photo of the woodcarving of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sagas

Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green (1960)

First of all, what a fabulous name! Where does the Lancelyn come from? His name is redolent of all the Puffin paperbacks, about Troy and King Arthur especially, which I read as a child, curled up in a snug corner and transported to faraway lands.

Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87) was an Oxford scholar, a younger member of the Inklings group of Oxford English scholars which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He is well-known for his series of books for children telling the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt and, as here, of the Norsemen.

To an extent I wouldn’t have appreciated as a child, he uses the same limited, fragmented, scholarly sources as everyone else (in the preface he credits the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga) and cheerfully admits the challenge of making one coherent narrative from them:

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us. (Author’s Note)

He does a great job, a really great job, of splicing all the scattered material into one coherent and thrilling narrative. One can take a diachronic or a synchronic approach to myths ie narrate the Creation story and how the pantheon grew from its primal origins; or accept the mythic landscape and tell the stories which occur within it. RLG combines the two: swiftly retelling the Norse creation myth before moving on to tell the main stories, but skilfully weaving in asides about the origins or relevant features of the supernatural protagonists of each adventure to fill out their personalities and divine attributes. Thus:

Chapter 1 – Yggdrasill the World Tree The creation story, Ymir the frost giant, Yggdrassil the Worldtree, Audumhil the World Cow, Odin the AllFather, Asgard the abode of the gods, Gladsheim the gods’ palace, Valhalla Odin’s hall of heroes (the Einheriar) and the Valkyries, Midgard the earth of humans, Bifrost bridge from Asgard to Midgard. — Heimdall the bright roams through Midgard disguised as Rig the Walker, breeding the three human classes of thrall, craftsman and lord.

Chapter 2 – Odin in search of Wisdom Realising he needs wisdom and knowledge to prepare for the coming war with the giants, Odin roams the universe. He gives one eye to Mimir to be allowed to drink from the well of Wisdom at the root of the WorldTree. He hangs himself on Yggdrasil for nine days in order to understand death. Gullveig the beautiful giantess provokes war with the Vanir, the gods of the air, until peace is made with their leader, Niord, lord of Vanaheim, who settles in Asgard and fathers the fertility gods, Frey and Freya. Mimir and Honir, Odin’s brother, go to live among the Vanir as hostages. Mimir is beheaded. Odin keeps his living head by him to speak wisdom. — The long story of Kvasir the wise, murdered and his blood turned into kvas, the Mead of Inspiration, by dwarves, which is then stolen by the giant Suttung. Odin in disguise tricks the giant Baugi into helping him enter the dungeon where the Mead is guarded by the beautiful giantess Gunnlod whom Odin seduces, swallowing all the Mead and turning into an eagle to fly with it back to Asgard.

Black and white illustration of dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Chapter 3 – The apples of Iduna The arrival at Asgard of the minstrel and harpist Bragi, son of Odin and Gunnlod who obviously became very familiar in the cave of Kvasi (see above). Accompanied by beautiful Iduna who keeps the gods supplied with the golden apples of eternal youth. Wandering through the world Odin and Honir encounter Loki, part giant and all trickster. Carried off by the Storm Giant Thiassi Loki promises to deliver him Iduna, who he leads into a wood where Thiassi, as an eagle captures her and carries off to his castle in Thrymheim, Kingdom of the Winds. Loki promises the Aesir to rescue her and flies to Thiassi’s castle as a falcon and carries Iduna back in the shape of a nut. Thiassi as an eagle, chasing, is burned by the fire at the threshold of Asgard. His daughter Skadi demands vengeance and is married to an Aesir she chooses by his feet from behind a curtain. It is Niord of the Vanir, and of their union are born Frey, Lord of peace and fruitfulness, and Freya, Lady of Love and Beauty.

Painting of “Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

“Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

Chapter 4 – Loki and the Giants From the start Loki’s ambiguous status in Asgard, Odin has made blood brothers with him but Loki is quite prepared to betray the Aesir if it suits him. Along with Odin and Honir he helps the peasant save his son Rogner from the giant Skrymsir who has vowed to eat him, by hiding him in an ear of corn, a swan’s feathers, a flatfish roe. — A man appears who promises to build a wall which will keep out the Rime Giants and Hill Giants in three years. He demands Freya and the moon and the Sun. Loki advises they contract to give him Freya if he can do it in one year since that’s obviously impossible. The gods agree but the man proceeds to almost build it with help from his supernatural horse, Svadilfari. Loki transforms into a beautiful white mare and steals Svadilfari away. The man turns into a monstrous giant who threatens Asgard until Odin casts down the sheild Svarin which was hiding the sun which turns the giant to stone. Loki returns some months later with Svadilfari and a foal, the eight-legged superhorse Sleipnir who will become Odin’s magic steed.

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Chapter 5 Loki makes Mischief Loki copulates with the giantess Angurboda three monsters: Odin sends Hela down to the underworld of Nifelheim, protected by the bloody dog Garm; and he flings the monster serpent Jormungand out into the sea where he grows until he stretched right round the world and bit his own tail; the giant wolf Fenris grows larger, the gods try to bind him in two chains which break; then Frey commissions a magic chain from the Black Dwarfs of Svartalfheim, Gleipnir and the gods trick Fenris into trying it on, but only if one of them places his hand in the wolf’s mouth. The war god Tyr does so, Fenris is bound until Ragnarok, and Tyr loses his hand. — Secretly angered, Loki cuts off the hair of beautiful Sif, wife to Thor, who goes berserk. As recompense Loki commissions Dvalin, chief of the Black Dwarfs, to make the spear Gungnir for Odin, the ship Skidbladnir for Frey, and new golden hair for Sif. But rivalry breaks out among the dwarfs and Loki bets his head that another dwarf, Sindri can’t do better. Sindri proceeds to make Gullinbursti, a golden boar, for Frey, Draupnir the magic ring to Odin, and Mjolnir the hammer to Thor. a) Loki, as a gadfly, distracts Brok while he’s pumping the bellows, so Mjolnir’s handle is a trifle short; b) the gods deem Sindri’s gifts best and prepare for Loki to be beheaded until Loki says Brok can have his head – but not his neck! Angered, the dwarf sows Loki’s lips shut.

'Loki loses his bet' by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

‘Loki loses his bet’ by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

Chapter 6 Freya the Bride  Freya is happily married to Odur and lives in Folkvanger. She goes walking in Midgard and sees the Brisingamen, the Brising necklace, being forged by Black Dwarfs. She is bewitched; they will only give it if she spends one night with each four of them; and she does. Shamefully she returns to Asgard and hides the necklace. but Loki steals it form around her neck and shows it to Odur who wanders off distraught. Freya goes searching for him through Midgard dropping golden tears of sorrow. — Frey sits in Odin’s chair Hlidskjalf and sees a beautiful giantess, Gerda; he sends his companion Skirnir to woo her (which involves threatening her with the sword of sharpness). She says yes. Marriage feast in the wood Barri, where Freya reappears reconciled to Odur.— In the night someone steals Thor’s hammer. Loki flies to Thrymheim for it has been stolen by Thrym the Giant of Noise and buried 8 miles deep in the earth unless he can marry Freya. Thor is dressed as a woman and accompanied by Loki goes to Thrymheim where he plays the part until the hammer is brought out whereupon he kills Thrym, his sister and all their kin.

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Chapter 7 – Thor’s visit to Utgard The giants sue for peace and invite Thor to Utgard, in the heart of Jotunheim, to stay with Utgardhaloki. En route they sleep in a vast hall which turns out to be Skrymir’s gloves. As he sleeps Thor three times tries to kill him with Mjolnar, each time the giant complains it tickles. Arriving at the giant’s castle they are challenged to an eating contest, a running contest, then Thor is invited to drink from a horn, to lift a cat off the ground then wrestle with an old lady. As the gods leave Utgardhaloki reveals he was Skrymir and Thor’s three hammer blows knocked valleys in a mountain range. The foot race was against Thought. The eating contest was against Fire. The other end of the drinking horn was in the Ocean and Thor drank a lot of it, creating the first tides. The cat he lifted off the floor was the world snake Jormungand, and the old lady was Age.

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 8 – Odin goes wandering The tale of the brothers Agnar and Gerrad, how they stay with Odin and Frigga pretending to be kindly humans; how they sail back to their kingdom but Gerrad pushes Agnar and his boat out to sea, inherits the kingdom, but Agnar returns to be a poor servant in his brother’s court; and how upon visiting Odin in disguise is ill-treated and tied between two fires for 8 days, until he sings a song about the creation of the heavens and Gerrad in his hurry to release him trips over his own sword and impales himself. — Odin wins a knowledge competition with the giant Valfthrudnir. — Odin challenges the giant Rungnir to a horserace between Sleipnir and Golden Mane. Odin wins and invited Rungnir into Asgard where he gets drunk and insults everyone. Thor challenges him to a fight at Giottunagard. Rungnir’s hone smashes into Thor’s hammer in midair. The hone is shattered scattering all the flint we find in the earth. Mjolnir kills the giant, but a) a fragment of flint enters Thor’s head b) the giant’s leg pins Thor to the ground until his three year old son comes to free him. The sorceress Groa recites spells to loosen the fragment and Thor tells her how much the gods love her husband Aurvandill.

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad's castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad’s castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Chapter 9 – Geirrodur the Troll King Loki is trapped by Geirrodur into inviting Thor to his palace without his armour or hammer. En route Thor is entertained by the friendly giantess Grid who gives him a girdle of power and a magic staff. When he sits in a chair in Geirrodur’s castle it rises to crush him against the ceiling but he uses the magic staff and Geirrodur’s two daughters beneath the chair break their backs. As Thor approaches the giant he suddenly seizes a rod of white hot metal from the fire and throws it at Thor who catches it and throws it straight back; it passes through a stone column, through Geirrodur’s body, through the castle wall and outside into the earth. Thor leaves the crippled family and returns to Asgard. — The adventures of Thorkill the traveller who comes to Geirrodur’s kingdom some time later, surviving various hazards and witnessing the carnage of Thor’s visit.

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Chapter 10 – The Curse of Andvari’s Ring Wandering through Midgard with Odin and Honir, Loki sees an otter eating a salmon and kills both with one stone. They arrive at the castle of Hreidmarr who recognises his dead son Otr and calls  his brothers Fafnir and Reginn. They keep Odin and Honir hostage while Loki gets a net off Ran the goddess of shipwrecks and captures the dwarf Andvari in the shape of a pike. Andvari hands over all his gold but curses the ring. Loki returns and stuffs and covers the dead otter with gold. The cursed ring is the last piece, covering the last hair. The gods depart but Hreidmarr’s sons kill him over the gold hoard and then Fafnir takes it off to Gnita Heath and turns into a dragon. Reginn goes to find employment as a smith with Hialprek, King of the Danes.

Here arrives the wife of the dead King Sigmund, once blessed by Odin, as a boy the only one able to pull the magic sword placed by Odin in the tree in his father King Volsung’s hall, but when his fate decreed, met by Odin in battle and his sword shattered. Reginn raises Sigmund’s son Sigurd filling him with tales of glory and especially about the gold hoard on Gnita Heath. The young hero asks Reginn to make a sword: twice he makes inferior ones which Sigurd smashes against the anvil; for the third one he asks Queen Hjordis for the fragments of Sigmund’s sword and forges the sword of power, Gram. On the advice of a strange old man with a broad brimmed hat and one eye, Sigurd builds trenches where Fafnir comes to drink. Lying in wait he thrusts up into the dragon’s body: there is a death colloquy. Reginn asks Sigurd to burn the dragon’s heart and as he cooks it Sigurd touches it, burns his finger and sucks it, tasting the dragon’s blood. Instantly he understand the conversation of the birds who are warning that Reginn plans to kill him. Without hesitation Sigurd decapitates Reginn.

He hears the birds singing of a maiden in Hindfell, surrounded by fire. He rides his horse through the fire and wakes the maiden from her sleep. It is Brynhild, a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was pricked by a sleeping thorn. She serves him mead. They plight their troths. She encourages him to deeds of prowess so he rides out of the flames to the court of King Guiki. Sigurd wins fame with Guiki’s sons Gunnar and Hogni but their mother witch Queen Grimhild magics his drink to that he forgets Brynhild and falls in love and marries Gudrun. Then one day Gunnar decides to go try his hand at the maiden who lives behind fire, but he can’t ride through, not even when Sigurd lends him his horse, Grani. Only when they exchange shapes, so that it is Sigurd in the shape of Gunnar riding Grani can he cross the flames. Now he wins the surprised Brynhild who marries Gunnar and comes to live at King Guiki’s.

One day at the river Gudrun reveals the deception to Brynhild. Gunnar never rode through the flames. Brynhild is distraught. She confronts Sigurd who knows the truth but has kept silent to honour his blood brotherhood to Gunnar. Distraught Brynhild tells Gunnar that Sigurd lay with her and Gunnar and Hogni commission their thick brother Gutthorn to murder Sigurd in his bed. Brynhild kills herself. they are both burned on a pyre.

The widowed Gudrun is married by King Guiki to King Atli (Attila the Hun). He invited the brothers Gunnar and Hogni but captures and tortures them to reveal the location of Fafnir’s hoard. Atli cuts out Hogni’s heart. He binds Gunnar and throws him into a pit of snakes. Gudrun sends her brother a harp which he plays with his toes to charm the snakes, all except one which bites and kills him. In revenge Gudrun conspires with a thrall to murder Atli in  his bed then burn down his stronghold, killing everyone in it. She throws herself into the sea and the curse of Andvari’s ring is finally quenched. (Source: The Volsunga Saga)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 11 Ægir’s brewing kettle Ægir is the Ocean Giant, husband of Ran whose net Loki used to catch Andvari. Ægir holds feasts on an island in the Kattigut for the souls of drowned sailors, waited on by his nine Wave-Daughters. He invites the Æsir to a feast but only if they can provide a kettle big enough. Tyr says his grandfather the giant Hymir has such a kettle so he and Thor journey to Hymir’s castle. Hymir invites them fishing, and while Hymir catches two whales Thor hooks the serpent of Midgard, Jormungand, until Hymir cuts the line at which Thor smacks him in the head. Back on dry land they feast on the whales. Then Thor must win the kettle by shattering a beaker. His mother tells him the secret; it can only break against Hymir’s thick skull. Having broken the beaker Thor picks up the mighty kettle and wears it like a helmet. — Back at the river Elivagar which divides Midgard from Jotunheim Thor has a long flyting with the one-eyed ferryman. It is, of course, Odin ho ho ho. (Sources: Hymiskviða, the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda)

Chapter 12 The Death of Baldur In Breidablik on the island of Ida dwelt Baldur the beautiful and his fair wife, Nanna, and his blind, gloomy brother Hodur. He foretells his death. Odin rides on Sleipnir to the river Gioll, the border of Nifelheim with Hel where the dead who don’t die in battle go. The skeleton maid Modgul guarding the bridge lets Odin pass to ride through the Iron Wood to confront the hellhound Garm and turn aside to raise the dead prophetess Volva to predict Baldur’s death. — Arriving back at Asgard Odin finds Frigga has made everything in the universe promise not to harm Baldur; the gods are amusing themselves throwing spears and arrows and axes at the indestructible Baldur. But Loki changes into an old crone and questions Frigga who concedes she didn’t extract the promise from one thing, the mistletoe which grows on an oak east of Asgard. Loki fetches the mistletoe, sharpens and stiffens it using magic and then guides blind Hodur’s hand to kill his beloved brother. — Baldur is set on his longboat Ringhorn and as she bends to kiss him Nanna falls dead. Only a giant can push the flaming boat out to sea and a great cry goes up from heaven and earth (the same cry as greeted the death of Osiris and the agony of Christ). — Hermodur the messenger of the gods rides down to Helheim, past Modgul and Garm to confront Hela and ask for Baldur back. Only if every living thing weeps for him says Hela so Hermodur returns to incite the whole universe to weep over Baldur and it does except for Thokk the wicked giantess. And so Baldur remains in Helheim and Odin knows Thokk is none other than Loki.

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

Chapter 13 Vali the Avenger Odin tasks Hermodur with riding Sleipnir to the far north to bind Rossthiof the wizard in his castle of green ice and force him to foresee who the avenger will be. Rossthiof says Odin must woo Rinda. — So Odin travels across Midgard to the kingdom of King Billing; he gains control of the king’s armies and leads them to victory, but Rinda rejects him. He returns disguised as Rosstheow the goldsmith and offers Rinda a priceless bracelet and rings, but she rejects him. A third time Odin appears as an ardent young lover and Rinda asks him to come to her bower secretly but her dog barks and wakes the whole palace who come running. Odin touches her and makes Rinda mad. Days later he reappears as the crone Vecha and promises King Billing to cure his daughter if left with her for a day and a night. This is what it takes to woo and impregnate her. Some time later a little boy with a bow and arrow walks up Bifrost Bridge to confront Heimdall the watchman. It is Vali. He grows in size even as the gods watch, takes his bow and arrow to the woods where blind Hodur is walking and despite  his magic shield and spear shoots him dead. Vali rejoices. Hodur’s spirit goes down into Hel to meet his dead brother Baldur. (Source: book III of the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus)

Chapter 14 The Punishment of Loki Loki goes and hides at the Frananger falls. Odin sees him from his chair Hlidskjalf.  The gods find a hlaf-finished net and finish it and trawl the river for Loki in the shape of a salmon. As he leaps out of the water Odin clasps him tight which is why salmon’s tails are so slender to this day. They bind him with magic sinews to three enormous rocks in a cave under Midgard and suspend over him a venomous snake which drops agonising poison onto him.

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 15 – Ragnarok Odin visits the prophetess Haid who foretells Ragnarok. The Fimbal Winter will come covering the earth for 3 years. Depravity and greed will ruin man. The Wolf Skull will swallow the moon and the sun. Fenris Wolf breaks free. Jormungand swims ashore flooding Midgard. The ship Naglfar made of dead men’s fingernails approaches. The sky splits open and the Surtur leads the sons of Muspel over Bifrost bridge which breaks beneath them. Loki is set free and comes with Hymir leading the frost Giants and the hellhound Garm. Surtur kills Frey who gave his sword to Skirnir to win the giantess. Garm and Tyr kill each other. Thor kills Jormungand but staggers 9 paces away and dies from its venom. Loki and Heimdall fight to the death. Odin is swallowed by Fenris who is killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Triumphant Surtur spreads fire over the entire universe which is consumed in flames.

And yet a new world will arise from the flames, pure and clean and beautiful and new gods will govern it wisely and a new race of men will be born, fair and good.

“The sagas of Midgard, whether the heroes be Gunnar or Grettir, or Sigurd himself, all end in tragedy – in the picture of the brave man struggling in vain  against the powers of fate – ‘And how can man die better than facing fearful odds?’ – This was the Norseman’s view of life – and the deeds and fate of the heroes of saga must have been but the earthly counterpart of the deeds of the Gods of Asgard in their struggle against the Giant forces of Nature so apparent to the men of the North, and of the doom, the Ragnarok, which was to overtake them.”

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Sagas

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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