Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VIII: The Heroic Middle Ages A.D. 800-1200

Week 28: The Volsunga Saga: Pagan Germanic Epic in Iceland,
13th Century (1200-1260/70?)

By class time this week, please have read:

Odin, nineteenth-century picture
Odin as Wanderer, by Georg von Rosen.

I have asked you to read the whole of the anonymous Volsunga Saga. I realize it is rather long, but it is eninently readable — more like a modern novel, in some ways, than anything you’ve read to date. It presents in perhaps its most direct and primitive form the great story that lies behind this and several other Norse sagas, the poems of the Elder Edda, the Middle High German courtly epic called the Nibelungenlied (which we will be reading soon), and Richard Wagner’s nineteenth-century cycle of music-dramas called Der Ring des Nibelungen. In its basic form it is rather raw, and very different from the courtly epic of the later Middle Ages, which we’ll be examining next week. If you do find that you are having difficulty getting through it, concentrate on the central section dealing with Sigurd and his marriage, and the problems that emerged from it (ch. 13-30).

Behind all these pieces lies a cast of historical characters who are rather murky, and their relationship seems to shift from one version of the story to the other. But the names remain, in changed form, talking about something, perhaps, that happened early on in the history of the Germanic migrations. In this convoluted and mythically decorated story we find the names of Attila (Atli in the Norse sources; Etzel in the German ones) and Bleda (Budli) his brother (here become his father); the kings Gundaharius (Gunnar here; Gunther in the German), Gibica (here Gjuki; Gibich in the German), and Gislaharius (Giselher in the German; omitted here). We also find Brynhild, mentioned earlier by Gregory of Tours, who becomes opera’s most famous Wagnerian soprano. Theodoric the Ostrogoth does not come into the Volsunga Saga, but he is represented by the Thidrek’s Saga of the same tradition. One cannot trust these stories as direct historical sources, of course: Attila, for example, died (according to the best historical sources) from drinking too much wine, not at the hands of some disgruntled in-laws.

The dwarf Regin forging Sigurðr’s sword
The dwarf Regin forging Sigurðr’s sword.
Medieval wood carving.

But this is far from being a mere patchwork of historical details in search of a theme: the story is a direct and visceral tale from a pagan heroic age, and a story structured around a persistent pattern of revenge that would not be out of place in Homeric epic or the tragedies of Aeschylus. The figure of Odin wanders in and out of the story at significant times (look for the one-eyed man) and gets the ball rolling; a multi-generational web of personal entanglements ensues that can stand toe-to-toe with any over-wrought soap opera. It is garnished with broken oaths and familial bonds and blood vengeance, and laced with a truly staggering number of deeds of violence and mayhem. For all that, it represents a great story at its roots, and is an interesting foil to the heroes we have met along the way from Homer to Roland.

For those who’d like a little taste of the original text in Old Norse, I give the first chapter here. No, I don’t expect you to be able to read Old Norse either. But it’s fun to look at different languages, isn’t it?

HÉR hefr upp ok segir frá þeim manni, er Sigi er nefndr ok kallaðr, at héti sonr Óðins. Annarr maðr er nefndr til sögunnar, er Skaði hét. Hann var ríkr ok mikill fyrir sér, en þó var Sigi þeira enn ríkari ok ættstærri, at því er menn mæltu í þann tíma. Skaði átti þræl þann, er nokkut verðr at geta við söguna. Hann hét Breði. Hann er fróðr við þat, er hann skyldi at hafast. Hann hafði íþróttir ok atgervi jafnframt hinum, er meira þóttu verðir, eða umfram nokkura.

Þat er at segja eitthvert sinn, at Sigi ferr á dýraveiði, ok með honum þrællinn, ok veiða dýr um daginn allt til aptans. En er þeir bera saman veiði sína um aptaninn, þá hafði Breði veitt miklu fleira ok meira en Sigi, en honum líkaði stórilla ok segir, at sik undri, at einn þræll skuli sik yfirbuga í dýraveiði, hleypr því at honum ok drepr hann; dysjar síðan líkit í snjófönn. Nú ferr hann heim um kveldit ok segir, at Breði hafi riðit frá honum á skóginn, -- "ok var hann senn ór augliti mér, ok veit ek ekki til hans." Skaði grunar sögn Siga ok getr, at vera munu svik hans ok mun Sigi hafa drepit hann, fær menn til at leita hans, ok lýkr svá leitinni, at þeir fundu hann í skafli einum, ok mælti Skaði, at þann skafl skyldi kalla Breðafönn heðan af, ok hafa menn nú þat eptir síðan ok kalla svá hverja fönn, er mikil er. Þá kemr upp, at Sigi hefir drepit þrælinn ok myrðan. Þá kalla þeir hann varg í véum, ok má hann nú eigi heima vera með feðr sínum. Óðinn fylgir honum nú af landi brott, svá langa leið, at stóru bar, ok eigi létti hann fyrr en hann kom honum til herskipa. Nú tekr Sigi at leggjast í hernað með þat lið, er faðir hans fekk honum, áðr þeir skildu, ok varð hann sigrsæll í hernaðinum. Ok svá kemr hans máli, at hann fekk herjat sér land ok ríki um síðir. Ok því næst fekk hann sér göfugt kvánfang, ok gerðist hann ríkr konungr ok mikill fyrir sér ok réð fyrir Húnalandi ok er inn mesti hermaðr. Hann á son við konu sinni, er hét Rerir. Hann vex þar upp með feðr sínum ok gerist brátt mikill vexti ok gerviligr.

Consider for discussion in class:

  1. What is the principle of continuity that holds such a multi-generational story together?
  2. What do you make of Odin? Are we to take him seriously as a religious entity, or is he merely a narrative convenience?
  3. What kind of hero is Sigurd? That is, what’s he in the hero business for, and what (if any) are his failings?