Ethnic Studies

The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer

Introduction and Translation by Jesse L. Byock

I’m not sure which part of this book was the more fun to read, the saga itself or the introduction.

Byock’s Introduction discusses various parts of the saga; the propensity of carved art following the dragon-slaying theme, possible historical analogs for some of the primary characters and battles within the saga, how the saga may have grown to include new heroes or antagonists, and the effect the saga has had upon modern fantasy.  He goes into detail on the migrations of the Huns, Burgundians, Visigoths, and Goths and how the historical battles may have been included within the saga as a historical record of events.  Even some of the characters, like King Gunnar, may have had a basis in a historical person – Byock thinks the Burgundian King Gundaharius may have been the source for King Gunnar in the saga, just as Attila the Hun for Atli and others, even though they did not live during the same decades and very likely could never have met in battle.

The saga itself tells a tragic story of a doomed family that I’d definitely not want to marry into.  No matter whether male or female, it seems that a horrible death awaited anyone who joined with the line of Volsung.  One thing that passed through my thoughts while I read this was what purpose the familial treachery served.  Was there a reason this happened so often within the saga, or was this just a way to show just how heroic Sigurd is to have been born in the first place?  Or was it all because of a wish – a wish for a child that was granted by Odin?  Unfortunately, I can’t answer those questions.  But the results definitely make for a fun read and would translate quite well into some form of action-adventure movie.

Wait.  That’s already happened, hasn’t it?

The themes that I can clearly identify as ‘borrowed’ by Tolkien are the ‘sword that was broken’ and the dragon’s hoard.  It is my opinion that he actually got the idea for the Ring from Wagner’s Nibelungenlied.  Wagner had altered the properties of the Ring from one that will bring bad luck to anyone who possesses it to one that will grant the owner the power to rule the world – much more like what the One Ring was.

Dying, Sigmund tells his wife “Guard well the broken pieces of the sword.  From them can be made a good sword, which will be called Gram.  Our son will bear it and with it accomplish many great deeds, which will never be forgotten.  And his name will endure while the world remains.”  Another wish that has come true.  At least this time, a wish shouldn’t cause any deaths.