Jesse L. Byock’s Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer

Volsungasaga is the Norse version of the pan-Germanic epic that shows its southern persona in Das Nieblungenlied. Like so many national epics, it is a series of stories linked by a folk hero, in this case Sigurd (Siegfried in the German version) and his ancestors. Sigurd comes complete with divine ancestry (the grandson of Odin himself), childhood as an orphan, and a doom-filled destiny. (Oops — almost forgot the magic ring, the reforged sword, and the dragon.) Astute observers will recognize not only the elements of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen but also J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

This version, first put in writing in Iceland in the thirteenth century, represents an anthology as much as a unified story. In this it is similar to not only its German counterpart, but also the Welsh Mabinogion, the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge, and the Anglo-Celtic Arthur Cycle, not to mention just about any other national epic you can think of. (Let us not ever, ever think that the ancient and medieval poets who preserved these stories merely wrote things down. They were poets, not stenographers, with all that implies.) So, the epic deals not only with the adventures of Sigurd as he goes in search of his destiny, but also with the history of his family and the relationships between the kings and princes among whom he lived. (To be strictly accurate, the saga is about the whole family of the Volsungs, but Sigurd is the one that has caught everyone’s attention.)

The story begins a generation or two before the birth of Sigurd. In this case, there are some differences with Wagner’s version: Sigmund’s son by his sister Signy is Sinfjotli, who lives with his father in the woods as Siegmund did with Waelse. Sigurd is the son of Sigmund and Hjordis, born after Sigmund’s death. The killing of Fafnir and Sigurd’s adventure on the Valkyrie mountain, his bewitchment at the court of Gunnar (Guenther), and his death by treachery are all recounted. The saga then continues with the story of the fate of Guenther, Gudrun and their kin.

The translation is based on a manuscript dating to approximately 1400 C.E. (the epic is believed to have first been put in writing around 1260-70, although possibly earlier). The diction gives a real feel of the northern style of story telling. The style in general is one that carried through well into the Middle Ages. Motivations are transparent, and although there is a high degree of treachery involved in Sigurd’s story, personal interchanges tend to be bluff and straightforward. One gets a real sense of the degree to which reputation counted, particularly demonstrations of skill with weapons and words — one of the favorite pastimes of heroes is “flyting,” the exchange of insults, cleverly belittling the opponent’s skills and valor. (I was struck by the similarity to the Irish epic Tain Bo Culaigne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), in which Cu Chulain spends a lot of time insulting his rivals.)

This version comes with an instructive introduction by Jesse L. Byock, the translator, as well as a discussion of the manuscripts used and their provenance, which is, I suspect, of interest mostly to scholars or very devoted students. The story is followed by a listing of the Eddic poems used as sources and by a very helpful glossary that includes characters, places, and terms.

This is really an excellent version of this saga, capturing the feel of the Nordic skalds in a fluent and readable translation. With the supporting texts, it certainly merits a place on your bookshelf.

(Penguin, 2000)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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