The Saga of the Volsungs is an Icelandic epic of special interest to admirers of Richard Wagner, who drew heavily upon this Norse source in writing his Ring Cycle and a primary source for writers of fantasy such as J. R. R. Tolkien and romantics such as William Morris. A trove of traditional lore, it tells of love, jealousy, vengeance, war, and the mythic deeds of the dragonslayer, Sigurd the Volsung. Byock's comprehensive introduction explores the history, legends, and myths contained in the saga and traces the development of a narrative that reaches back to the period of the great folk migrations in Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed.
The value of this saga on literature is enormous. It influenced the German Nibelungenlied, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and his recently published The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, among others. Many aspects of the saga are reminiscent in literature - a ring of power; a broken sword that is reforged to perform a specific task; a group of kings and warriors attempting to pull a sword out of a tree with only one person succeeding; a horse descended from Odin's Sleipnir making it one of the best horses in the world; a dragon guarding a vast amount of gold and wealth.
As entertainment, The Saga of the Volsungs is up there, with a wonderful story. Of course, the writing is a bit different than most people are accustomed to, being several centuries old and written much differently than today. While some versions may prove a tad difficult and uninteresting to the casual reader, Jesse Byock does an excellent job making it accessible to the common reader while still staying relatively true to the original.
Aside from the entertainment value of the saga, it offers insight into the world of the Norse and Norse literature such as kennings, which replaced a noun with a circumlocution - "battle-sweat" instead of "blood", "sleep of the sword" instead of "death", "bane of wood" replacing "fire", etc. This specific translation of the saga maintains many of the kennings which liven up the saga and aid in its unique style. And, of course, it offers glimpses of Norse mythology as Odin plays many roles in the story, as do the norns and valkyries, as well as magic runes and Norse sorcery and, humorously, a senna - that is, a contest of insults including this zinger:
Sinfjotli replied: You probably do not remember clearly now when you were the witch on Varinsey and said that you wanted to marry a man and you chose me for the role of husband...I sired nine wolves on you at Laganess, and I was the father of them all. (As can be surmised, he is speaking to another man)
The Saga of the Volsungs is an entertaining read, and at roughly 110 pages is not very time consuming and offers a quick glimpse into what some of the Norse valued and how they perceived kingship, courtship, and war.
If you desire to ward
Your sail-steeds on the sound.
On the stem shall they be cut
And on the steering blade
And burn them on the oar.
No broad breaker will fall
Nor waves of blue,
And you will come safe from the sea.
In the Saga of the Volsungs, revenge is the only thing that matters and children are just pawns to be sacrificed without a second thought if it will help you in your quest for vengeance. It's eleven years since I first read it and I remembered quite a lot of what happens, as it's a memorable story taking place over two generations, with the story of twins Signy and Sigmund being followed by that of Sigmund's son, Sigurd the dragon slayer.
I read the Penguin Classics edition of this saga. The introduction describing the origins of the saga in conflicts between the Huns, Burgundians and Goths in the fourth and fifth centuries during the migration period, which are replayed on a smaller scale in the saga as conflicts between families rather than tribes. There is also an interesting section about Wagner, and his use of parts of the Saga of the Volsungs in the Ring Cycle.
Morris made his Victorian adaptation sound more medieval by liberally sprinkling his modern English with archaic words, for example it’s always held instead of yard or courtyard, and dight instead of ordered, thee and thou instead of you, and clingeth instead of clings. However having access to the Oxford English Dictionary—Thank you to the Houston Public Library for making this available online—made it easy for me to decipher these.
This work greatly exceeded my expectations of it.
Learnt for ship's saving,
For the good health of the swimming horse;
On the stern cut them,
Cut them on the rudder-blade
And set flame to shaven oar:
Howso big be the sea-hills,
Howso blue beneath,
Hail from the main then comest thou home.
I am glad I listened to this audiobook after reading the Penguin Classics version of this saga, as the language used in the translation by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon seems self-consciously archaic and it would have been hard to follow if I hadn't already known the plot.
I originally decided to read this saga because of its use in other media- especially J.R.R. Tolkien's poetic "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún" and Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas, "Der Ring des Nibelungen." In Tolkien and Wagner, it is a tale involving Gods, heroes, Valkyries, Giants, and a magic ring. Rather than start with Tolkien's book or performances of the operas, I decided to begin by reading the original material. I selected the 1888 translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnússon because it was conveniently and freely available from Project Gutenberg.
The legend, at least in its original form, isn't quite what I expected. The presence of Gods is slight, and aside from a single (important) scene involving the dragon Fafnir, no other fantastical creatures appear. It is primarily a tale of warriors and kings- it has some of the same fantasized historical feeling as other old legends, histories, and religious tales. (Three examples that come to mind are the Old Testament, China's "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," and "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali.") Although the Volsunga Saga takes place in the 13th century, the setting and characters feel like they come out of the Bronze Age. Politics is very localized- there are numerous "kings" who each rule small areas, more like warlords or chiefs of big clans than the medieval European conception of a "king."
The story is exceptionally violent, and from a modern perspective, the morality is quite twisted. Heroes are praised in proportion to the number of men (especially kings) they have killed. Honor belongs to the strong, and weakness is not deserving of empathy or pity. Not once, but twice, different women of the Volsung clan (generally regarded as positive protagonists) who were forced to marry kings that they did not like choose to have their own children murdered (and in one case, personally murders them with a knife), though the children were innocent of any wrongdoing. The great hero, Sigurd, also performs acts that a modern reader might consider immoral- his treatment of a king's advisor, Regin, comes to mind.
The saga has a few small continuity problems. For example, in one chapter near the middle of the book, the hero Sigurd meets the wise woman Brynhild and, after a time, they swear their love for one-another. In the next chapter, Sigurd has come to a castle. Brynhild arrives there and acts as if she has no memory of swearing to love Sigurd in the preceding chapter, and Sigurd re-acquaints himself with her. Since the saga was assembled out of various oral histories, I'd guess this was a breakpoint between two stories about Sigurd and Brynhild, and the end of one slightly overlaps the beginning of the next.
One bizarre aspect of this story is the way in which more than one character shrugs off immediate and dire verbal threats- well past the point of ridiculousness. For example, after the husband of one woman of the Volsung clan kills her brothers, she directly tells him that she's going to kill him. He blows off the threat and offers her some gold, which she angrily refuses. Shortly thereafter, she runs him through with a sword while he's sleeping. If this happened once, maybe it would be attributable to an exceptionally prideful and foolish character- but the way threats are not acted upon repeatedly by different people seems to make little sense.
I'll close this review by retelling a tidbit of the story that is disconnected from other parts of the story (and so provides no significant spoilers), but which is emblematic of some of the story's weirdness, violence, and morality.
At one point, Gudrun tells her two sons to avenge the death of their sister by killing the king who murdered her. Her two sons dutifully gear themselves for war and begin riding toward the neighboring king's castle. On the way, they meet their brother Erp, who was never previously mentioned and has (apparently) been away and is unaware of recent events. The two sons explain their errand and ask if their brother will come along and help them.
Erp answers, "I shall help you as one hand helps the other hand, or as one foot helps the other foot."
The two sons considered this answer, decided that it meant that Erp would provide no help at all, and slew him. Then they rode on. (Later, they realize that Erp's answer probably meant that he was willing to help.)
While there are certainly interesting historical and cultural things to be learned from reading a story like the Volsunga Saga, as a work of fiction, it is a disappointment. The plot is a meandering set of struggles against numerous petty kings. It is filled with bizarre and flat characters, conversations are either summarized in a sentence or stilted exchanges, and you never feel like you get to know the thoughts or personality of any character. I think a modern retelling of the story (rather than a translation of a very old text) would provide for a better experience. Unless you're primarily interested in historical authenticity, I'd consider going for J.R.R. Tolkien's version rather than the original.
It's fun, it's fast and it is fascinating. The short poetic sections were the best elements of this.
Revenge is what motivates the characters in this saga. What I find absolutely fascinating in this story, is the varying methods the Volsungs use to get their revenge. From one on one fights to training from a young age in the woods, the Volsungs seek and obtain justice for their murdered family.
I enjoyed reading this saga, and only wish it was longer. I recommend reading this book if you are new to the sagas. It is an excellent one to start with. It follows many of the typical themes in the sagas without completely overwhelming a new reader with a lot of different terms.