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
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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...
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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 civilization—and that the ideas which pervaded his earlier poetry were not lost sight of, but found a richer and fuller expression in the poetry and prose of his later years.
While he was reading and translating the old Norse literature he became much interested in the religion of the Norsemen, and especially in the legend of ragna rök, the decline and fall of the gods in their last great battle. This made upon Morris's mind an indelible impression. Henceforth “The Doom of the Gods” and “The Dusk, or Twilight, of the Gods” frequently occur as expressions used by Morris to indicate the “great change” in an old order and the antecedent of a new. As time went on he was to believe more and more firmly in a coming...
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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 world,”1 the epic religion of Scandinavia. For ten years, during his prime of life, Morris struggled with the Norse sagas in a vain attempt to recreate their passionate nobility in a form accessible to the enervated Victorian. Finally, he achieved the work which encompassed all prior attempts, the work which still stands as his greatest achievement in poetry: Sigurd the Volsung. Sigurd, like all the new-minted myths of the nineteenth century, fails of its end;2 but in its failure it registers the failure of progressive idealism itself, and thus marks the crisis not only of one man's faith but also of England's imperial drama.
The story which is made to bear this burden of prophecy is far less...
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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 Copenhagen and was then mislaid on the wrong floor of the Library. Not until 1821 did it receive its proper place and formal registration in the Library, where it is at present. As manuscripts of such age go, it is today in relatively good condition, and is known officially in the “New” collection as Ms Ny kgl. Saml. 1824 b4°, referred to henceforth as Codex. During the period in which it was “mislaid,” however, it must have been known to some, for a total of twelve paper manuscripts were found in Copenhagen alone, to be dated mostly from the late seventeenth century (with two or three from before 1800). Three more have turned up in Sweden, all from just before or after 1700, three from Iceland of about the same date, and three in...
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SOURCE: Kalinke, Marianne E. “A Paradigm for Bridal-Quest Romance.” In Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland, pp. 25-30. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Kalinke examines the influence of the Volsunga Saga on the “May-December” marriage trope as it appears in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar.]
The Tristan tale may justifiably be considered the medieval European bridal-quest romance par excellence. Neither Brother Robert's Tristrams saga ok Ísondar, however, nor the anonymous Tristrams saga ok Ísoddar is exemplary for bridal-quest narrative in Iceland. The acme of Icelandic bridal-quest romance is Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, which was presumably composed toward the end of the thirteenth century.1 The bridal quest is the saga's raison d'être, and in the quadripartite structure, each section dominated by a bridal quest, the author realized the narrative potential of the bridal quest as the generating force of the plot. The saga evinces a skillful blending of foreign and indigenous motifs and strikingly modifies certain topoi associated with romance on the continent. The author was well acquainted with native as well as foreign traditions, which he combined to fashion a tale characterized by a remarkable lucidity of structure.2
The plot of Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar is based on four...
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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 knowledge, princely jealousies, betrayals, unrequited love, the vengeance of a barbarian queen, greedy schemes of Attila the Hun, and the mythic deeds of the dragon slayer, Sigurd the Volsung. It describes events from the ancient wars among the kings of the Burgundians, Huns, and Goths, treating some of the same legends as the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied. In both accounts, though in different ways, Sigurd (Siegfried in the German tradition) acquires the Rhinegold and then becomes tragically entangled in a love triangle involving a supernatural woman. In the Norse tradition she is a valkyrie, one of Odin's warrior-maidens.
In Scandinavia, during the centuries after the Middle Ages, knowledge of...
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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 Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka and Sigurðr of Volsunga saga. For many of the heroes whose careers and adventures fill the Icelandic fornaldarsogur, origins can be postulated which stretch beyond the realm of the historical in even its most extended definition—where such a reference might indicate nothing more concrete than a postulated text—to a kind of inspiration which borders on the archetypal.1 Before the written fornaldarsogur came into being, some, at least, of these heroic lives were recounted in verse,2 which increasingly came to be embedded in a prose matrix, as in the case of Volsunga saga. Here the compiler of the extant fornaldarsaga has employed the eddic poems that...
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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 Níniel—of which Túrin is the hero: a figure that might be said (by people who like that sort of thing, though it is not very useful) to be derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus and the Finnish Kullervo [Kalevala]” (Tolkien, 1981, p. 150). This paper discusses the relationship between the “Narn i Hîn Húrin” and the Volsunga Saga, the story of Sigurd the Volsung. My thesis is that the “Narn”, an Unfinished Work, shows less polish and craft than The Lord of the Rings, revealing its debts to the originating work more clearly. Tolkien pulled his works out of the cauldron of his imagination. This study investigates what was in that cauldron and how it was served up in this tale. While Tolkien did not...
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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 framework upon an Anglo-Saxon text. This does not work. Although the relevancy of the episode to the whole of Beowulf appears to be unquestionable, readers should not psychoanalyze the characters of both episode and epic from the perspective of modern society. Two of the characters in the Finn episode, Hengest and Hildeburh, have sat on the psychologist's couch recently; and the result has been a sentimentalizing or romanticizing of their roles in the text. In order to avoid this sentimental interpretation of these characters, a reader must consider the harsh and stark environment that forms the background of the Anglo-Saxon epic. By holding up the “Vengeance of Sigmund” episode in the Old Norse Volsunga Saga as a mirror to the...
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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 for the soul), or a revenant. Numerous syntactical and lexical ambiguities—as well as the poem's abstract diction in general—have led to interpretations which differ dramatically even in regard to the basic facts of the poem.1
At the heart of the debate over the general circumstances described by the poem is the narrator's dwelling, an eoroscraef or eorosele underneath an actreo in a wuda bearu (ll. 27-29).2 The dwelling and its surroundings are described at considerable length (ll. 27-36), and this detailed description contrasts starkly with the rest of the poem, whose abstract language and nonlinear order make it difficult to reconstruct the events being narrated. The...
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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 beginning the whetter par excellence, a choice that perhaps reflects poets' awareness of women's bodily weakness as well as their mental strength. Unlike the avenger, whose incarnation was limited to Guðrún, the changing persona of the inciter expanded beyond the Continental setting of the Nibelung drama. Remember that before her coalescence with Brynhildr, Sigrdrífa had been poised in the tree Yggdrasill beneath the branches of the mythological realm. Her image here as valkyrja and shield-maiden inspired a host of female warriors in the heroic universe at the level of the trunk as well as at the human world on the ground. Similarly, Brynhildr joined Hervor between the heroic and the human levels. As the military pursuits of the latter...
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Gillette, Devyn Christopher. “The Son of Odin: A Heroic Analysis of the Volsunga Saga.”
Examines archetypal elements in the Volsunga Saga.
Kirchhoff, Frederick. “The Story of the Volsungs and the Fall of the Niblungs (1876).” In William Morris, pp. 98-110. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
Explores the importance of the Volsunga Saga to Morris's “Sigurd the Volsung” as well as to his development as a poet.
Macfarlane, Robert. “William Morris and the Source of The Waste Land.” The Times Literary Supplement, no. 5146 (November 16, 2001): 14–15.
Reports that a copy of Morris's translation of the Volsunga Saga was once in T. S. Eliot's possession and that his annotations in it point to possible influence of that saga on The Waste Land.