Icelandic prose, circa 13th century.
Replete with elements now familiar in tales of heroic adventure, the Volsunga Saga is one of a series of medieval Scandinavian prose adventure narratives called fornaldarsogr, and is often considered a precursor for such works as Richard Wagner's monumental cycle of music dramas The Ring of the Niebelungen and J. R. R. Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings. Composed in Icelandic or Old Norse in the thirteenth century by an unidentified author, the Volsunga Saga recounts the legendary history and heroic feats of several generations of mythic Viking families. It derives from preexisting Edda (heroic poems), Norse legends, historical events, and orally-transmitted folklore. Heroes and villains of the Volsunga Saga are endowed with superhuman powers and perform mighty and perilous deeds, with the action spanning several generations. The story embodies primitive and fundamental impulses and conflicts, which are played out in the face of grim destiny.
There is only one extant parchment manuscript of the Volsunga Saga, which dates from 1400. In 1656, Brynjolfur Sveinsson, the Bishop of Skalholt, Iceland, presented it to King Frederick III of Norway and Denmark. It was deposited in the Royal Library in Copenhagen, but mislaid—apparently filed on the wrong floor of the Library. It was not discovered and properly registered until 1821. That text now remains in the Copenhagen Library. Although it was misplaced, the manuscript was not unknown, for there are twenty-one paper manuscripts dating from before 1800 found in Sweden, Iceland, and England. The first printed edition of the Volsunga Saga, edited by E. J. Bjorner, is dated 1737 and contains translations of the work into Latin and Swedish. Volsunga Saga has been the most frequently translated into English of all the Icelandic sagas, notably in 1888 by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson.
Plot and Major Characters
Despite the fact that the narrative is straightforward and simply told, the complexity, length, and episodic character of the story of the Volsunga Saga make it difficult to synthesize the plot. The epic begins when Sigi, son of the god Odin, is exiled from his homeland for killing Bredi, a vassal. Guided by Odin, Sigi becomes chief to a band of warrior sailors who conquer the land of the Huns. Sigi eventually marries and has a son named Rerir. Shortly thereafter, Sigi is murdered, leading Rerir to eventually avenge his father's death and reclaim the throne of the Huns. Unable to have children, Rerir and his wife pray for a child; their wish is granted and the resulting pregnancy, which lasts six years, culminates in the birth of Volsung, a full-grown boy. Like his father and grandfather, Volsung grows up to be a great warrior and becomes King of the Huns. He eventually marries and has ten sons and one daughter. The saga follows the lives and deeds of these descendents, includes Volsung's death, and covers subsequent generations and their adventures and encounters with many strange and formidable creatures.
Amid the episodic richness of plot and the intricacy of its strands, the primary and recurring theme of the Volsunga Saga is power. Through the stories of its many characters, the Volsunga Saga closely examines in various ways the many forms of power, the consequences of having or not having power, and the responsibilities and obligations conferred on individuals by power. Within the saga framework, the Volsunga Saga depicts such emotions and impulses as love, jealousy, rage, fear, revenge, and loyalty in a fundamental, raw state that is usually refined or obscured in later societies.
The Volsunga Saga, embedded in the folk culture of Iceland, has enjoyed great popularity as part of Iceland's literary heritage. Deriving from a set of orally-transmitted legends, the Volsunga Saga in the nineteenth century came to be valued as an example of authentic experience at a time when industrial, economic, and social forces seemed to be denaturing humanity. In his introduction to the 1888 Morris-Magnusson translation of the Volsunga Saga, H. Halliday Sparling wrote, “Of all the stories kept in being by the saga-tellers, and left for our delight, there is none that so epitomises human experience; has within the same space so much of nature and of life; so fully expresses the temper and the genius of the Northern folk, as that of the Volsungs.” Morris and Magnusson themselves commented in their preface, “how strange it seems to us, that this Volsung Tale … should never before [have] been translated into English. For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks.” Wagner, too, was mining the Volsunga Saga at this time for his huge music drama, The Ring of the Niebelungen. Twentieth-century critics including Dorothy M. Hoare, Lloyd Wendell Eshelman, and Hartley S. Spatt have examined the relationship between Morris's own works and his translation of the Volsunga Saga, noting ways in which his sensibility reshaped the text. Jesse L. Byock and Gloriana St. Clair have analyzed the ways in which Wagner and Tolkien incorporated elements of the saga into their works. Studying the sources of the Volsunga Saga and its relation to other sagas, Stephen A. Mitchell and Marianne E. Kalinke have placed the work in literary and historical context. In the late twentieth century, the role of women in the saga has become an area of growing interest, with Robert A. Albano and Jenny Jochens discussing some of the implications of their presence in the work. Melvin Burgess, author of Bloodtide, (2001), a novel transferring the characters and events of the Volsunga Saga to a bleak, dystopian future, considers the Volsunga Saga great because “despite the way the whole narrative spirals down to a final, crushing finale, the characters live their lives and face their deaths with such ferocity and pride.”
Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs [translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson] (poem) 1888
Saga of the Volsungs [translated by R. G. Finch] (poem) 1965
Volsunga Saga [translated by George K. Anderson] (poem) 1981
Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer [translated by Jesse L. Byock] (poem) 1990
SOURCE: Hoare, Dorothy M. “The Dreamer in Contact with Icelandic Saga.” In The Works of Morris and of Yeats in Relation to Early Saga Literature, pp. 50-76. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1937.
[In the following excerpt, Hoare examines Morris' translations and adaptations of the Volsunga Saga, arguing that his rendition of it changes the nature of the original text and replaces its direct style with dense medieval prose.]
It is this writer [William Morris] (who is following his own natural bent when describing the slow-moving pictures of his fancy) who attempts to deal with the vivid, impressive, passionate strength of the Norse tales. How individual a body of literature they are has already been seen; how different, too, from the “sweet” pathos, the dallying sentiment, the tender feeling, which is evident often in Morris' original work. This difference is emphasised strikingly, in a comparison of Morris' translations and free renderings of the Norse matter with the originals.
Morris' work in connection with the Norse sagas consists (1) in the translations which he and Magnússon jointly made from a selected number of them, and of certain of the Edda poems belonging to the matter of the Völsunga Saga; and (2) in the free paraphrases and re-tellings which Morris made of the Norse matter, including two of the greatest stories: the Laxdœla Saga and the Völsunga Saga.
1 (A). MORRIS' TRANSLATIONS FROM THE SAGAS
Any comparison of a translation with the original from which it has been translated is interesting. There is bound to be a difference; something of the essence of the original escapes; something of the essence of the new language enters in. From the point of view of obtaining an exact estimate of the original, this difference is a loss; from another point of view, it may be a gain, by emphasising the difference between two modes of thought. A good translator ought to reduce this difference to a minimum; he ought to be so imbued with the proper tone and atmosphere of what he translates, that the miracle of capturing that in other words is almost achieved. But when one finds that the difference has become so great as to make the translation quite a different thing from the original, one is able sometimes, on examination, to find a sufficiently convincing reason for it.
Morris had a sincere interest in the Norse sagas, spent much time over them, translated and paraphrased and re-told them, and made two journeys to Iceland. This last fact is considerable evidence of the deep interest he had in the Norse matter; the journey to Iceland entailed a fair amount of hardship; once arrived there, there was the rough life, the difficult and even sometimes dangerous travelling by horseback through comparatively uninhabited and unknown country, to be undergone. Morris, the most stay-at-home and contented man, did not relish this when he set out; he was away for six weeks, and, as he himself confesses, was often uneasy and homesick. Yet so much had he been stirred by the poems and tales he had read that, knowing the difficulties which would have to be undergone, he went through with the journey, and two years afterwards went a second time to Iceland. He was quite sincerely and deeply attracted to it; in spite of this, the Norse matter which he deals with turns in his hands to something quite other than its real nature.
His translations,1 as will be seen from any comparison with their originals, change the vitality, directness and freedom of the Icelandic prose to a kind of weighted medieval utterance. For example, in Grettis Saga:2
Hinn þriðja dag fór prestr með þeim ok leituðu allan daginn ok fannȝ Glámr eigi. Eigi vildi prestr optar til fara, en sauðamaðr fannȝ þegar prestr var eigi í ferð. Létu þeir þá fyrir vinnast, at foera hann til kirkju, ok dysjuðu hann þar, sem hann var kominn. Lítlu síðar urðu menn varir við þat, at Glámr lá eigi kyrr.
[On the third day the priest went with them, and they searched all day but Glamr was not found. The priest would not go again; but the shepherd (i.e. Glamr) was found as soon as the priest was not with them. Then they stopped trying to bring him to church, and they buried him in a cairn, in the place where he was. Shortly afterwards people became aware that Glamr was not at rest.]
This has humour, vitality, a neat and direct expression. Morris renders it thus: “The third day the priest fared with them, and they sought all day, but found not Glam. The priest would go no more on such search, but the herdsman was found whenso the priest was not in their company. Then they let alone striving to bring him to church, and buried him there, whereto he had been brought. A little time after men were ware, that Glam lay not quiet.”3 In the ingenious search for the words which come nearest to the actual form of the Icelandic, the life and nearness, the directness has vanished. Again, in his effort to come near the original, he deliberately uses in his translation words which are not modern, forgetting, or not realising, that Icelandic prose is colloquial and rapid. The effective, quiet energy of what is not said, in Icelandic, loses its point in the long drawn out and rounded translation, as for instance, again from the same saga:4
þat var einn morgin er Grímr kvam heim af veiði, at hann gekk inn í skállann, ok stappaði fótum ok vildi vita hvárt Grettir svaefi; en hann brá sér hvergi við ok lá kyrr; … gjörir hann nú hark mikit, svá at Grettir skyldi orð finnast, en at var eigi.
[One morning when Grimr came home from fishing, he went into the hut and stamped his feet and wanted to find out whether Grettir was sleeping; but he lay still and did not move. Then he made a great noise so that Grettir should break into words, but he did not.]
The merit of this consists largely in its simplicity and utmost clearness as of a person relating what he has just seen. Morris at once destroys this: “But one morning whenas Grim came in from fishing, he went into the hut and stamped his foot and would know whether Grettir slept; but he started in nowise, but lay still: so he made a great noise that Grettir should chide him therefore, if he were awake, but that befell not.”5 This use of semi-biblical and dignified language, where such an effect is entirely incongruous, spoils the essential meaning of the passage.
Again, Morris' manner—in his effort to impose a tone of dignity—has often the effect of making his translation appear unintelligible to a reader who has no knowledge of Icelandic, for example:
- (1) Hjarandi said he would not bring his brother to purse.6
Hjarrandi kvazt eigi mundu bera bróður sinn í sjóði.
[Hjarandi said he would not take compensation for his brother's death.]
- (2) They said that they wotted not if he would drag the rule west of the sea to King Harald.
Eigi sögðust þeir vita, at hann draegi Haraldi konungi ríki fyrir vestan haf.7
[They said that they did not know that he would obtain a dominion for King Harald in the British Isles.]
- (3) The body of Bergðor was covered over with a tilt for the night.
En þar var tjaldat yfir Bergðóri um nóttina.8
[A cloth was hung over Bergthor's body for the night.]
Sometimes indeed a wrong impression is conveyed, e.g.
And yet withal it misliked them both.
Ok likaði þo hvargi vel.9
[Yet neither was pleased.]
—which might mean that both had a foreboding of what was to come, which is by no means indicated in the saga. Or again, in full medieval cry—
Then they tilted over a wain in most seemly wise.
þeir tjölduðu vagn allvegligan10
[They put a canopy over a splendid carriage.]
—which surely conveys, if any meaning, the utterly inappropriate picture of a kind of leisurely wrestling.
It is evident that Morris did not grasp the nature of the style and the matter with which he was dealing, or the result would not have been so entirely different from the effect which is obtained on reading Icelandic for oneself. His faults in manner—of reducing the speed, economy, plainness and vividness of the original to diffuseness, false rhetoric, obscurity, unfamiliarity, by making too literal a translation where the idiom needs to be translated by a corresponding English idiom, or by using phrases and syntax not in modern usage, and thus giving a kind of remote, medieval flavour to what is fresh and modern in spirit—may ultimately be reduced to the same first cause, the idea that the life dealt with was heroic in the ideal sense, a kind of earthly paradise where men were simple and free and noble, and untroubled by the misfortunes and oppressions of the modern world. This pre-misconception is what makes his style pitched up, and hollowly dignified. Because of this, the spirit of the Norse matter is altered.
1 (B). TRANSLATIONS FROM THE “EDDA” POEMS
So much for the translation of the sagas. Morris also translated certain of the Edda poems. It is difficult to deal with Morris' work in this connection; again it is obvious that for some reason he appreciated the Norse poems; this time, too, not for a quality superimposed by himself, a romantic feeling for the past, as in the sagas, but apparently with a direct realisation of their proper worth. In the preface to the Völsunga Saga,11 where the translations of the poems are incorporated, Morris and Magnússon say: “As to the literary quality of this work we might say much, but we may well trust the reader of poetic insight to break through whatever entanglement of strange manners or unused element may at first trouble him, and to meet the nature and beauty with which it is filled: we cannot doubt that such a reader will be intensely touched by finding, amidst all its wildness and remoteness, such a startling realism, such subtilty, such close sympathy with all the passions that may move himself to-day.”
On the other hand, one cannot count much artistically on Morris' rendering of the Norse poems; it is not quite his own effort. Magnússon and he read the poems together, Magnússon then produced a literal version from which Morris proceeded to his rendering—a method of collaboration which is unhappy even in the case of a first-rate poet. It comes, in fact, to a poetising of a prose translation; hardly the best way in which to reproduce the spirit of the original.
It will be seen that the same faults are evident as in the saga translations, and it must be said (in spite of the contradictory evidence quoted above) for the same reason, an incapacity to comprehend the spirit which looks on life and death with equal courage and acceptance, which faces facts as they are and deals with them in full knowledge of their value.
Although the Edda poems are in the heroic manner and dignified, they are not static; the verse is compressed, allusive, packed full with meaning, but at the same time it has a fire and energy of speed. The poems are not cold though they are constrained; nor does their energy cloud the flame of high spirit which is evident in them. The words do not make us pause; they are molten and flexible because of the feeling which fills them. In Morris' version because he, whose virtue is a characteristic leisureliness and pleasant discursiveness, is dealing with matter wholly different, he interprets literally, apparently with the desire to imitate the multum in parvo of the Norse. Sometimes the result is merely ludicrous—in the translation of the Runes of Brynhild:12
Brimrúnar skalt kunna ef vilt borgit hafa á sundi seglmörum.
[Thou must know sea-runes if thou wilt have safety for the floating ships (lit. sail-steeds).]
Sea-runes good at need Learnt for ship's saving For the good health of the swimming horse.
Sometimes it is easily apparent that Morris has given himself over to the delight of building up words, of embroidery: as for example in his translation of “ok biðja a dísir duga” [and pray for the help of the dísir (goddesses)], “call for the good folk's gamesome helping”, which at once throws in the antique, pseudoromantic feeling. Sometimes, again, he makes strange and unreal what is said with fierce directness:
Melta knátt móðugr manna valbráðir eta at ölkrásum. …(13)
[You are proudly digesting human flesh and consuming it as a dainty with your ale.]
In most heavy mood Brood over venison of men.
It is very significant that where he is able to catch the tone of the original, and render it without loss, it is when he has an opportunity of dealing, in images, with the softened note of romance. The Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane opens characteristically with the passion, fierceness and energy of the North: Sigrun's immediate outbreak into curses on the news of her lover's death. Yet the poem as a whole belongs to romance rather than to epic; the last verse, which brings one away from the unearthly meeting to the cold twilight on the hillside, strikes a note which is to be heard again and again in balladry. And precisely because of this, Morris' touch in his translation is more certain. Indeed at one point he manages the metaphors well, in the passage:
Svá bar Helgi af hildingum sem ítrskapaðr askr af þyrni eða sá dýrkalfr döggu slunginn, es efri ferr öllum dýrum (ok horn glóa við himin sjalfan).(14)
[So did Helgi surpass the warriors as a graceful ash (surpasses) a thorn, or the deer who moves, bedewed, higher than other beasts—and its horns glitter to heaven itself.]
As high above all lords Did Helgi bear him As the ash-tree's glory From the thorn ariseth Or as the fawn With the dew-fall sprinkled Is far above All other wild things, As his horns go gleaming 'Gainst the very heavens.
It is a different matter when he deals with such a characteristic poem as The Whetting of Gudrun.15 The value of this lies in the exceedingly swift and stern narration, not a word given more than is absolutely necessary, and yet each helping to convey fully the force and passion of the whole. In Morris the expression loses all its sharpness, and becomes clogged and heavy. The first verse, for example, is quite alien to the terse, pointed phrase of the original:
þá frák sennu slíðrfengligsta trauð mál talið af trega stórum.(16)
[Then I heard most dire words of strife, words uttered with difficulty out of mighty grief.]
Words of strife heard I Huger than any Woeful words spoken Sprung from all sorrow.
Again, the mournful emphasis of the Icelandic is destroyed by a banality of rhythm and iteration which is ludicrous:
ól ek mér jóð erfivörðu erfivörðu Jónakrs sonu.(17)
[I brought forth children, the sons and heirs of Jonakr.]
Offspring I brought forth Props of a fair house Props of a fair house, Jonakr's fair sons.
Any translation of such compressed, fiery and allusive utterance is difficult. Indeed, parts of the poem seem almost untranslatable, their peculiar virtue residing in the sound and stress of the words by which the meaning is attained, e.g.
hvítum ok svörtum á hervegi gráum gangtömum Gotna hrossum.(18)
[(Trodden) on the warpath by the white and the black and the grey well trained pacing horses of the Goths.]
Or the fiery scorn which leaps through Gudrun's bare words:
hví sitið ér? hví sofið lífi? hví tregrat ykr teiti at maela … ?(19)
[Why do you sit idle? Why do you sleep away your life? Why does it not grieve you to speak cheerful words?]
The characteristics of this kind of poetry are its speed, its compression, and its pride. Matthew Arnold, in his essay on Homer and the epic way of writing, has laid his finger on the essential thing about it: “That severity of poetical style … which comes from saying a thing with a kind of intense compression or in an allusive, brief, almost haughty way, as if the poet's mind were charged with so many and such grave matters that he would not deign to treat any one of them explicitly.”
This compression and intensity turns in Morris' hands to obscurity and heaviness. His translation is effortful, striving after something which is alien from himself and which he does not seem to understand. In the attempt to come near his original, he uses the same kind of metre, without appearing to realise that the authentic use of it, with the immense stress laid on assonance and alliteration, is entirely different from an imitation of it in English which does not lend itself to that kind of handling, but depends to a much greater extent on accent and rhyme. Even when he is comparatively...
(The entire section is 7554 words.)
SOURCE: Esheleman, Lloyd Wendell. ”Sigurd the Volsung and a Poetry Chair at Oxford.” In A Victorian Rebel: The Life of William Morris, pp. 128-33. New York: Octagon Books, 1971.
[In the following excerpt, Esheleman asserts that Morris found echoes of his revolutionary sentiments in the Volsunga Saga.]
In examining the basic ideas of Morris's literary works one finds that his observations regarding life, history and art are in distinct agreement with his views concerning the individual and society under varying historic conditions. One will note, too, that these views led him eventually to the cause of the people—to an attempt to repurify decadent modern...
(The entire section is 1770 words.)
SOURCE: Spatt, Hartley S. “Morrissaga: Sigurd the Volsung.” ELH 42, no. 2 (summer 1977): 355-75.
[In the following essay, Spatt presents a comparative analysis of the Volsunga Saga and Morris's late-nineteenth-century epic Sigurd the Volsung.]
During the forty years of his career, William Morris sought—at first confidently but later with desperation—a religion which might replace the inadequate Christianity of his youth. He embraced the grandeur of the lost cause in his early poems about Camelot and Troy; he moved on to the archetype of the quest in The Earthly Paradise; and he placed his central faith in “the greatest story of the...
(The entire section is 8576 words.)
SOURCE: Anderson, George K. “Introduction.” In The “Saga of the Volsungs”: Together with Excerpts from the “Nornageststháttr” and Three Chapters from the “Prose Edda,” pp. 21-53. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, Anderson explores the dating, literary sources, and cultural origins and permutations of the Volsunga Saga.]
The unique parchment manuscript containing the Völsungasaga, henceforth called the Saga, was given to King Frederick III of Norway and Denmark in 1656 by Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skalholt, Iceland.1 It was accepted at the Royal Library in...
(The entire section is 12231 words.)
SOURCE: Byock, Jesse L. “Introduction.” In The “Saga of the Volsungs”: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragonslayer, pp. 1-29. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Byock traces the historical antecedents for the characters in the Volsunga Saga and examines its influence on the works of Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien.]
The unknown Icelandic author who wrote The Saga of the Volsungs in the thirteenth century based his prose epic on stories found in far older Norse poetry. His sources, which may have included a lost earlier prose saga, were rich in traditional lore. The Saga of the Volsungs recounts runic...
(The entire section is 9767 words.)
SOURCE: Mitchell, Stephen A. “Origins and Influences.” In Heroic Sagas and Ballads, pp. 66-73. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Mitchell discusses early Eddic poems from which the Volsunga Saga and other Scandinavian heroic prose narratives derive.]
… The saga writers were informed about Nordic mythology through many different conduits (for example, Snorra Edda, Icelandic ‘learned history’), and one of these was surely eddic poetry. This traditional narrative verse was the vehicle by which heroic adventures were recounted before the existence of the extant fornaldarsogur, as in the case of Hálfr of...
(The entire section is 3092 words.)
SOURCE: St. Clair, Gloriana. “Volsunga Saga and ‘Narn’: Some Analogies.” Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992, edited by Patricia Reynolds and Glen GoodKnight, pp. 68-71. Altadena, Cal.: The Mythopoeic Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1992, St. Clair presents a comparative analysis of the plot and characters of Tolkien's story ”Narn” and the Volsunga Saga.]
In a letter to Milton Waldman, a potential publisher of a combined Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, “There is the Children of Húrin, the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar and his sister...
(The entire section is 4811 words.)
SOURCE: Albano, Robert A.”The Role of Women in Anglo-Saxon Culture: Hildeburh in Beowulf and a Curious Counterpart in the Volsungasaga.” English Language Notes XXXII, no. (September 1994): 1-10.
[In the following essay, Albano discusses the primacy of vengeance as a motive in the Volsunga Saga and Beowulf and explores the role of women in the two works' vengeance plots.]
Scholarly debate has raged in recent decades over the Finn episode in Beowulf without reaching a satisfying conclusion;1 for in some articles the critics attempt to promote the thematic relevancy of the text by imposing a modern interpretation or...
(The entire section is 3470 words.)
SOURCE: Battles, Paul. “Of Graves, Caves, and Subterranean Dwellings: ‘Eoroscraef’ and ‘Eorosele’ in the Wife's Lament.” Philological Quarterly 73, no. 3 (1994): 267-87.
[In the following essay, Battles examines references to subterranean earth dwellings in several Scandinavian and Old English works including the Volsunga Saga.]
The past three decades have witnessed a bewildering variety of interpretations of the Old English Wife's Lament. We are no longer even certain that it is, in fact, the lament of a “wife”; critics have suggested that the narrator is a lordless retainer, a heathen deity, the soul yearning for the body (or the body...
(The entire section is 7961 words.)
SOURCE: Jochens, Jenny. “The Whetter: Brynhildr.” In Old Norse Images of Women, pp. 162-73. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Jochens explores the role of whetters—women whose social reputation was based on their ability to incite men to deeds of violent revenge—focusing on the quarrel between Brynhildr and Gudrun in the Volsunga Saga and earlier Nordic texts.]
Guddrún and Brynhildr, the two heroines in the Nibelung drama, each desired revenge for injustices committed against them. Guðrún used physical acts in her youth but resorted to verbal inciting in later years, whereas Brynhildr was from the...
(The entire section is 6505 words.)