Elder Edda Essays and Criticism

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The Great Romance of the Elder Edda

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Seventeen of the lays in the Elder Edda concern the house of the Volsungs. Fifteen directly or indirectly point towards the Icelandic Volsung Saga, the Middle High German Nibelungenleid, and finally to Wagner's series of operas, Ring of the Nibelungs. They are part of one of the best case histories for the development of the epic from short lays or tales available. The other two "The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane" and "The Second Lay of Helgi Hunding's Bane" could also be approached as points on a continuum of development, but a development that was somehow interrupted. The second lay has already begun the expansion. It adds incidents and treats them with greater complexity, even if it still relies, in true lay style, on the dramatic use of the characters' voices to create atmosphere and setting, direct the audience's sympathies, and propel the narrative. In that process of development, however, Helgi and his beloved Sigrun proved a dead end, while Sigurd and Brynhild became the star-crossed lovers of northern legend, the Viking answer to Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde.

Sigurd was not the only son of Sigmund to inspire the love of a Valkyrie, but his elder brother Helgi and his Valkyrie, Sigrun/Svava/Kara and their love stretching across three lifetimes has never caught the popular fancy; even the extant lays in the Elder Edda are fragmentary. Their story must once have been popular. What happened?

In the second lay, as mentioned above, the story already incorporates events after Helgi's defeat and killing of Sigrun's father, brothers, and unwanted suitor. The audience now had both the beginning and end of their love, expanding Helgi's death into what might otherwise have been detached as a separate lay. Helgi's death by Dag, the brother-in-law he had spared, is of far less importance or interest to the poet than the love of Helgi and Sigurn. To express this love to the audience, the poet devoted slightly over a third of his lay to Sigrun's lament for Helgi and their meeting in his grave mound. He incorporated both the theme of the unquiet grave and an audacious reversal of the demon-lover motif.

Instead of being carried off unwillingly to the horrors of the grave as in the demon lover ballads and tales, Sigrun goes to the burial mound, arranges a bed, and insists "Here in the barrow we'll go to bed, released from sorrow, I will sleep, Helgi, safe in your arms the way I used to when you were alive." This material might serve to flesh out an epic, but placed on center stage, they seem more naturally the stuff of romance. This and the substitution in the second lay of the first's generalized hero's boyhood with Helgi's daring secret mission to spy on his family's enemies suggests a poet with a gift for narrative innovation. What then cuts off the development? Possibly the lack of a theme to support an extended narrative. The winning of Sigrun provided the center of a narrative lay, but the process was never given the emotional complexity to sustain a long narrative.

The core of the story, the unshakable love between Helgi and Sigrun, could not accommodate an emotional struggle between them to take the place of war. Such a change would rob the story of its essential character. In the second version, the scene in which, going over the battlefield, she first finds the despised Hodbrodd dying and then Helgi safe, might easily have become an extended episode. But when Helgi who says "Sigrun I will grieve you by what I say ... there fell this morning at Freka Stone, Bragi and Hogni; I was their bane." Her reaction does not give the society, which produced the Volsung Saga or Njal's Saga , much to work with to extend the conflict and therefore the narrative: "Then Sigrun wept. She said: 'Now I would wish those warriors alive, and still have your arms around me.'" Then, as the story says, they married and had sons, but "Helgi didn't live to grow old" and "grief and sorrow caused Sigrun to die young." Helgi had spared Sigrun's brother,...

(The entire section is 9,992 words.)