Volsunga Saga

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(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...

(The entire section is 964 words.)