Volsunga Saga Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Volsunga Saga

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”