The story of the Volsungs is the great legendary (as opposed to mythic) story of the Germanic people, though it does not develop into a cycle of stories in the same way that the Troy, Arthur, and Charlemagne cycles do. The various versions of the story remain close to the central theme.
The story has five primary sources: the Eddas, which tell various episodes of the story in considerable detail, the Prose Edda, which summarizes the story, and The Volsunga Saga which tells the story in continuous form, including important episodes and connections not available from the Eddas, Thidrekssaga, a very long work in Old Norse, though with material that appears to be more German than nordic, and the Nibelungenleid, a long epic poem,which begins with Sigfried's arrival at the court of the Burgandians. The first three sources are Icelandic, one corner of the Germanic world, while the last is from Austria, the opposite corner. Both the saga and the poem were written in the Christian era, but the former retains the Norse gods. The latter is thoroughly Christianized, with the characters going to church. The age of the Eddas is disputable, but they are obviously older, and are the source for much of the material in the saga. In addition, there are a few other scraps, including a passage from Beowulf, and rock and wood carvings of scenes from the story. Of these the Eddas are clearly the oldest, then the Nibelungenleid, Thidrekssaga, and finally The Volsunga Saga. It is odd that the newest version contains some of the most archaic material, while the older Nibelungenleid seems most modern.
For the modern world, though, the most familiar version is The Ring of the Niblungs, Richard Wagner's set of operas, one of the most ambitious undertakings in the whole history of the arts. This is the work that introduced winged and horned helmets to our picture of the Vikings, and made the stereotype opera singer and large, fat woman with blonde pigtails, horned helmet, and cast-iron bra. The whole cycle takes seventeen or so hours to perform, and consists of four operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods). Many more who have not seen the operas in their original version are familiar with the Bugs Bunny version, with Elmer Fudd's unforgettable rendition of "Kill the Wabbit." Wagner greatly tightens and steamlines the story, and brings out certain motifs and images that appear less prominantly in the original versions. One is that of the cursed ring of power, which Tolkein uses to great advantage in The Lord of the Rings. For his account of the hero's youth, he uses the version in the little known Thidrekssaga, in which Sigrfeid is discovered in infancy by a dwarf and raised in isolation in the forest, takin on the strength of nature, as Tarzan does later.
Since it's not a primary source, I won't give the whole outline of Wagner's four opera's. A summary of the first, however, will give a sense of his direction and methods. Wagner begins with the Rhinemaidens singing and playing in the water. They are approached by Alberich, an ugly, but infatuated dwarf. They tease him until in a rage he steals the gold it is their job to guard. With it he can forge a ring that will allow him to rule the world, but at the cost of forswearing love. Meanwhile, two giants, Fafnir and Fasolt are demanding Freia (Freya) their promised payment for building Valhalla. She flees and they capture her, and the gods began to grow weak and age. Loge (Loki) arrives with news of the Rhinegold, and the desperate gods offer it in place of Freia. The giants give them until evening. Odin and Loki find Alberich, who has enslaved the dwarves, trick him, and force him to give up the gold, even his ring, which he curses. The gods return, and give the gold for Freia, even the cursed ring. Fafnir then murders Fasolt, showing that the curse is working. The gods enter their new, but tarnished hall, and the Rhinemaidens end the opera with a lamentation for their lost gold. It all has been streamlined and simplified in a way more suited to drama than to myth, and followers of Northern religion are likely to be put off by Frigga being reduced to a jealous housewife, and Freya being combined with Iduna, the actual possesser of the apples of youth and immortality. Further, the strong, hot tempered Freya is reduced to a Victorian maiden in distress.
We will now move from the newest literary account of the Volsungs to the oldest, the brief account of the story in Beowulf. Here we are told that the hero Waels' (Volsung's) son, Sigmund performed many great deeds accompanied by his nephew, Fitila (Sinfjotli), and that he killed a dragon and won its treasure, though without his nephew being with him. Sigmund is a major figure in the Volsunga Saga, but it is his son, Sigurd (Sigfried) that kills the dragon. One might suppose that the author was confused, but that does not seem possible; he is an encylopedia of traditional heroic tradition; there is no way he could make so obvious a mistake about the most famous story of them all. He also fails to mention that Fitila is not just Sigmund's nephew, but also his son, but this is probably because he is a Christian writer writing for a Christian audience, and such a detail would not speak well of the great ancestors. Apparently at a fairly early point the story added a hero from the next generation who takes over some of his father's exploits. How does this happen, and why? Bear with me.
What bites at my byrnie? Who breaks off my sleep?
Who frees me from grip of ghostly fetters?
Sigmund's son with Sigurd's sword,
Late come from the raven's carrion field.
Long have I slept. Long did I sleep.
Long are the miseries of men.
By Odin's will, unable to wake,
Held fast in fetters of sleep.
Hail Day! Hail the sons of Day!
Hail Night, and daughter of Night!
Gaze on us with gracious eyes;
Award us victory, we who wait.
Hail the Aesir! Hail Asynjur!
Hail the all-giving earth! And grant
Wisdom and fair speech to us, far-famed,
And hands of leechcraft while we live.
To go to the Sigdrifa page.
The story of the Volsungs gains a historical context during the age of migrations. Some have suggested that the story began here, but that is unlikely. Legendary material is often older than the historical contexts it comes to be associated with, and the killing of the dragon is very old indeed. This story does not represent the very earliest levels, or the issue would be the freeing of the waters rather than the gaining of treasure, but it is still quite an old theme. As far as gaining wisdom from the dragon is concerned, knowledge and wisdom have been viewed as properties of serpents and dragons from the beginning. One old example is the Eden story.
In 473 a.d. the Burgandians led by King Gundahari were defeated and nearly destroyed by the Huns. Thus, Gunnar and Atli, two major figures of the story (Gunther and Etzel in theNibelungenlied). Atilla died shortly afterwards on his wedding night with a Germanic princess whose name is variously reported, but usually containing "hild" as an element, thus the origin of the name Kriemhild (Gudrun in the saga). Another element is Sigebert, king of Austrasia, who was successful in war, discovered a treasure, was killed in 573 a.d. by assassins sent by his sister-in-law, and had a fierce wife named Brunhilda. These elements, however, come from south and east, and were probably unknown in the north until after the time of Beowulf, but were by the time of the Poetic Edda. My point is that the story of the Volsungs picked up historical material that did not quite fit earlier versions, so that Sigmund had to be given a son, Sigurd, who took over some of his father's adventures. The other sons, Helgi and Sinfjotli were probably already a part of the story. It is significant to note how completely Sigurd (Sigfried) is cut off from any connection with either of them.The new arrangement of the material, however, has problems of its own as well.
The Problem of Sigdrifa
The Valkyrie offers Sigurd (Sigfried) a horn of beer.
Is Sigdrifa, the Valkyrie Sigurd awakens in the edda, the same woman as Brynhild in the saga or Brunhilda in the epic? Henry Adams Bellows in his translation of the edda insists with absolute conviction that it is, and that Sigdrifa is not a name but a title, meaning "victory-
bringer." There is something to be said for this view, but how do we know how to distinguish a name from a title? And, aren't supernatural beings such as Valkyries likely to have names that are titles? The advantages of Bellows' view are several. It brings this poem in line with both the saga and the Prose Edda. It also saves the awkward necessity of the hero awakening two separate valkyries sleeping surrounded by walls of flame. Also, the name Sigdrifa does not appear elsewhere in the eddaic poems except in the lines immediately before this one begins. Even if Sigdrifa and Brynhild are the same woman, however, there are still problems. The one-time feat of riding through the flames has to be repeated when Sigurd goes with Gunnar to claim the valkyrie. Also, the saga cannot get a clear conception of what Brynhild is--valkyrie, warrior woman, or simply a Germanic princess with a ferocious temper. Sigurd has three meetings with Brynhild, all of which have the character of a first meeting.
In the epic, valkyries of course are not possible, since the poem is placed in a Christian context. Brunhilda, therefore, seems much closer to the historical queen. In one scene, however, she shows her valkyrie nature. On her first night with Gunnar she is put off by his advances, and so trusses him up and hangs him on the wall until morning.
Of all our sources, the oldest is the Edda, and so it seems possible to me that the original valkyrie might have actually been named Sigdrifa, but that her story became fused with that of the historical Brunhilda, fused, but not in a seamless way. The epic has the least problem, but only because that story begins after the hero's early exploits. The whole matter of the name and nature of Sigdrifa/Brynhild/Brunhilda, and of Sigurd's relationship to her is a serious problem in the story that probably can have no satisfactory resolution.
A Condensed Version of the Saga
Sigi, a son of Odin and minor king is out hunting one day with the thrall of a neighboring king. The thrall kills more game than Sigi, who is enraged at being shown up. He kills the thrall and buries the body in a snowdrift. The murder is later discovered and Sigi is driven from the land, ultimately becoming an even more powerful king, marrying, and having a son named Rerir.
Sigi is ultimately ambushed and killed, but is avenged by Rerir, who becomes a greater king than his father. Rerir's wife is long barren, but at last their prayers are heard by Odin and Freya.
the latter sends a crow with an apple to Rerir, and both he and his wife eat of it. She shortly becomes pregnant, but Rerir is ambushed by enemies and killed. After a six year pregnancy, the wife has the baby cut out, and dies. The child, Volsung, not surprisingly, was big from birth, and grew up to avenge his father, and to become a mightier king than his father or grandfather. Volsung has eleven children, ten sons and a daughter. The two most notable are the oldest, twins named Sigmund and Signy.
Volsung builds a hall around a huge oak called the Branstock, and becomes quite famous. His daughter, Signy, has many suitors, but the wealthiest and most powerful is King Siggeir of the Goths. His suit is accepted, and a grand wedding feast is held, during which an old, one-eyed man in a long cloak enters carrying a sword. He drives the sword into the Branstock, and promises that it will be the best of swords to whoever can draw it out. The last to try is Sigmund, and he succeeds. Siggeir offers to buy the sword (how tacky can you get?), but Sigmund refuses to sell. The next morning Signy wants a divorce. Volsung, however, thinks that that would look bad, and persuades her to stay. Then, in another breach of decorum, Siggeir decides to leave immediately while the weather is favorable, rather than remaining for a two week bash. He promises a feast in return, however.
King Siggeir does send an invitation, and Volsung, his ten sons, and a small band of followers set out by water and land. They camp short of their destination, and Signy comes in the night to warn them of their danger, but Volsung will not listen. The next day they are set up, and everyone is killed but the sons who are brought back to King Siggeir's hall as prisoners. Signy pleads with the king not to kill them immediately, and so they are placed in stocks, and a she wolf comes and kills one each night until only Sigmund is left. Signy rubs honey on his face and puts some in his mouth. The wolf licks his face and then sticks her tongue in his mouth. He latches down on it, and in the ensuing struggle the stocks are shattered, the tongue pulled out by the roots, killing the wolf, and Sigmund escapes to the forest. The wolf was thought to be Siggeir's mother in werewolf form.
Signy sends her oldest son to Sigmund when he is ten years old, and the next year her second son, hoping that they can help Sigmund in his revenge. Both fail the test he sets them, and so at Signy's urging he kills them. Despairing of Siggeir's unworthy genes, Signy changes forms with a witch woman and visits Sigmund in the forest. When the son of this meeting, Sinfjotli, is ten, she sends him out to the forest. He passes Sigmund's test, but as he is over-young, he and Sigmund spend several years living by highway robbery and murder while Sinfjotli is being toughened up. At one point they find wolfskins, don them, and become wolves. Sigmund, becoming angry, bites Sinfjotli in the throat and kills him, but manages to revive him with a leaf sent by one of Odin's ravens. When the moon changes, they shed their skins and burn them.
Sinfjotli is finally old enough and he and Sigmund go to Siggeir's hall and hide inside, but are spotted and betrayed by two more son's of Signy. She brings them to Sigmund, but he refuses to kill them (apparently somewhat mellowed with age), but Sinfjotli has no scruples about doing so. A fight ensues with Siggeir and his followers and Sigmund and Sinfjotli are overcome and captured. Siggeir decides to bury them alive in a rock mound in two compartments with a large, flat stone between them. As they are being covered over, Signy brings some straw and throws it into the pit. The workmen assume she is concealing some food, but it is Sigmund's sword, and with it, he and Sinfjotli tunnel their way out. (How many times has the villian gotten the drop on the hero, and then, instead of killing him outright opts for something sadistic, which proves his undoing? Samson, for instance, and every James Bond movie ever made.) They heap wood around the hall and set it on fire. They call Signy out, but she only comes out long enough to tell them that she has only consented to live this long in order to complete their revenge on Siggeir, then returns to the hall and dies with Siggeir and his followers.
Having completed the first obligation of a son in the heroic age, Sigmund then sets about doing his own thing, becoming a rich and powerful king and finding a wife. He marries a woman named Borghild and has two sons, Helgi and Hamund. Helgi is famous in Eddaic tradition, but the saga says little about him, except that he was friends with Sinfjotli and raided with him. Sinfjotli wins a wife by killing a rival who is, unfortunately, Borghild's brother. Not even an offer of compensation from Sigmund can appease her, and ultimately she poisons Sinfjotli. Sigmund kicks her out of the house, and later marries Hjordis, who chose him over a younger, but less celebrated rival. The rival suitor gathers an army and comes to attack Sigmund. In the battle Sigmund is holding his own until he breaks his sword against the spear of a one-eyed man. The battle turns against him, and he and his followers are killed, though the rival fails to find either Hjordis, who has hidden in the woods with Sigmund's treasure.
Shortly another fleet arrives, this one led by Alf, son of Hjalprek, King of Denmark. He takes the pregnant Hjordis, her bondmaid, and the treasure back to Denmark. King Alf marries Hjordis and when he is born, her son, Sigurd is given as foster son to Regin the smith, who gave him a princely education. Regin also tries to stir up resentment on Sigurd's part against the king, but with no success. Sigurd's calm and rational nature, in fact, seems almost an anomoly in this perversely vicious story. Regin's claim that Sigurd was made to go on foot like a thrall inspired him to ask the king for a horse, and from the kings herd (with a little help from Odin), he chooses a horse that he names Grani. Regin next encourages him to win much wealth by killing the dragon, Fafnir, which Regin claims is only an ordinary dragon, but which Sigurd points out is very large, even by dragon standards. Sigurd wants to know what Regin's grudge is against the dragon, and Regin tells him the following story:
Once there was a man named Hreidmar (probably either a jotun or a dwarf; there is evidence both ways), who has three sons, Fafnir, a grim and fierce man, Otter, a shapeshifter who spends much of his time in the water in otter form, and keeps the family supplied with fish, and finally Regin, a clever workman. Once three of the gods, Odin, Hoenir, and Loki are on a journey and pass the stream where Otter is sunning himself on the bank in otter form. Loki throws a stone and kills him, then skins him out and takes the hide with him. The come to Hreidmar's house and are somehow taken prisoner until compensation can be paid--the otter skin completely filled with gold, and covered completely with gold. Loki returns to the stream with the net of Ran and catches a dwarf named Andvari who spends much of his time there in the form of a pike. Loki forces him to give up all his gold, then, just as he is letting him go, spots a gold ring on his finger, and demands that as well. In a rage, Andvari curses the gold in general, and the ring in particular. Loki returns and fills and covers the otter skin.
Hreidmar points out that one whisker is exposed, so Loki throws on the ring that he had been holding back. The gods are freed and go on their way. Shortly, however, Fafnir murders his father for the gold, and cuts Regin out entirely. Fafnir becomes a dragon, guarding the gold, and Regin goes off to the king and becomes royal smith.
Having heard Regin's story, Sigurd asks Regin to make him a sword. The first two swords are not aqequate to Sigurd's strength, and so he goes to his mother for the shards of his father's sword, Gram, and from that Regin makes a sword that will both cut through an anvil, and a scrap of wool floating on the water. To Regin's surprise, though, Sigurd's first interest is not to kill the dragon, but to avenge his father. Borrowing ships and men from the king he does so. Then on his return, he goes with Regin to scout out the dragon. Regin suggests that he dig a pit and hide in it, so that he can get to the dragon's soft underside. Sigurd points out the possibility of drowning that way, and Regin suggests that he is merely being wimpy. When Regin is gone, however, the old, one-eyed man appears, and suggests that he digs a trench to carry the blood off. Sigurd does so. He also kills the dragon. The dying dragon asks Sigurd his name. Sigurd will not tell him, perhaps for fear of it being used in magic against him, but Fafnir tells him that he already knows who he is, and further warns Sigurd of the curse on the gold. Sigurd points out that no one is immortal, and that heroes take wealth where they can. Fafnir dies.
Now that the danger is past, Regin returns whining about the fact that Sigurd has killed his brother and implicated him in the matter. But all he wants is that Sigurd cut out the dragon's heart and roast it for him. Sigurd complies, but when he tastes the heart to see if its done, he can suddenly understand the language of the birds, who are saying that Regin is planning to murder him, and that if he was wise he would kill Regin, keep the treasure, and go over to the Hindfell where Brynhild lies sleeping, surrounded by flames. Sigurd takes their advice. Riding through the flames he finds a person sleeping in armor. He cuts off the armor and discovers it is a woman. She awakens, greets him, and tells him her story.
Sigurd and Brynhild plight troth, and then Sigurd rides off--not a very logical follow-up, but one necessitated by the awkward meshing of some of the elements of the story. Sigurd comes to the court of Heimir and Bekkhild, a sister of Brynhild, and becomes fast friends with their son, Alswid. One day while hawking, Sigurd's hawk strays, and following it he comes onto a beautiful woman sitting in a bower with her women, overlaying cloth with gold, "sewing therein the great deeds which Sigurd had wrought, the slaying of the worm . . ." Sigurd grows melancholy and depressive, and finally tells Alswid about seeing the woman. Alswid tells him that it is Brynhild, and Sigurd says that he knows it is. This clumsy scene tries to have it both ways--a very conventional first meeting, that is not really a first meeting. And, why does a valkyrie have handmaids? In any case Sigurd and Brynhild get together and plight troth again. Sigurd gives her a ring, and again rides away.
Sigurd comes to the hall of King Guiki and his wife, Grimhild. There he becomes friends with the sons, Gunnar and Hogni, and swears an oath of blood brotherhood with them. Grimhild, who is something of a witch woman, as well as a meddlesome mother, decides that Sigurd is the ideal husband for her daughter, Gudrun, and so makes a charmed drink to cause Sigurd to forget about Brynhild. Sigurd and Gudrun are married. Next, Grimhild turns her attention to her oldest son, Gunnar, and decides that the most worth possible mate for him is Brynhild. She sends Gunnar and Sigurd to win her. Brynhild is now back in her hall, and it is surrounded by fire again, though winning the valkyrie by riding through the flames should be a one-time event, and Sigurd has already done it.
Gunnar's horse won't carry him through the flames, so he borrows Grani, but Grani will not carry him through either. So, they resort to a trick supplied by Grimhild; they do a shape-shift, and Sigurd rides through the flames in Gunnar's form. He and Brynhild remain in the hall for three days, but sleep with a sword between them. Brynhild gives Sigurd (though she thinks it's Gunnar) a ring, and they ride out. At fist chance, Gunnar and Sigurd trade forms again, and they return home and Gunnar and Brynhild are married.
Matters remain quiet for a time, but one day Brynhild and Gudrun are bathing in the river and Brynhild wades out deeper and asks Gudrun if she knows what that symbolizes. Then she tells her that she is superior to Gudrun, and that she has a greater husband, the son of a king who rode through the flames for her, while Gudrun is married to a servant of the king of Denmark. Angry, Gudrun tells her that her husband is every bit as good, and as for the matter of riding through the flames . . . She produces the ring that Brynhild thought she had given Gunnar. Brynhild turns pale, and stalks silently back to the hall where she shuts herself in a room, refusing to eat or drink, intending to starve herself. Gunnar tries to reason with her, and then Sigurd, who even offers to divorce Gudrun, but she will not listen. She tells Gunnar that she will not be part of a threesome--someone has to die. Let matters alone, and it will be her. Otherwise it has to be either Gunnar or Sigurd. Not wanting to lose her, Gunnar conspires with his brother, Hogni, to kill Sigurd. Since they have sword an oath of blood brotherhood, however, they leave it up to the third brother, Guttorm, who was not a part of the pact. Grimhild makes him fierce with a charmed drink, and he enters the room where Sigurd is lying three times. Twice he is driven away by the sun-like brightness of Sigurd's eyes, but on the third, Sigurd is asleep, and he runs Sigurd through, then flees. Sigurd wakes and throws his sword after Guttorm, severing his backbone and killing him. Gudrun makes a great lamentation, and Brynhild laughs. However, when the funeral pyre is lit, Brynhild stabs herself and falls on the pyre to be consumed with Sigurd.
Gudrun wanders off into the forest, thinking it better to die than to live without Sigurd, but instead ends up at the court of King Alf of Denmark, where she remains for seven years. At last Grimhild, meddlesome as ever, decides it is a waste to leave her there and so goes with Gunnar and Hogni, and bearing a charmed drink to make her forget her resentment against her family, goes to Denmark, makes peace, and arranges a marriage with Atli. She has two children by him, though the marriage does not seem to have been particularly happy. Atli begins thinking of the treasure Sigurd won from the dragon, and which rightly belongs to Gudrun, and so invites Gunnar and Hogni to his hall for a feast, planning to take them and force them to give it up. Their wives have dreams that suggest treachery, and Gudrun too is suspicious. Gudrun sends them a gold ring with warning runes carved in it and a wolf's hair tied around it by way of warning, but the messenger alters the runes so that they seem to express eagerness for the brothers to come.
Atli falls upon Gunnar and Hogni with a large force, and all are killed but the two brothers, who are captured. Atli demands of Gunnar the whereabouts of the treasure, which has been hidden in the Rhine River, but Gunnar refuses to tell until he sees the bloody heart of his brother Hogni. At first Atli kills a thrall and cuts out his heart, but Gunnar is not fooled. Therefore, he does cut out Hogni's heart, only to be told by Gunnar that now only one person knows where the treasure is, and he isn't talking. At last Atli throws Gunnar into a snakepit with his arms tied, but Gudrun drops him a harp which he plays with his toes. All the snakes are lulled to sleep but one, which is apparently tone-deaf, so Gunnar is bitten and dies, and with him, the knowledge of Sigurd's treasure.