Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Brynhild, Sigurd, Gudrun - the fatal love triangle

The Saga of the VolsungsThe Saga of the Volsungs by Anonymous
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Saga of the Volsungs is a great Old Icelandic legendary saga and one of the best magic-heroic tales ever told. It is the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and his family, the Volsungs, and their conflicts with other northern royal families in the pre-Viking period. It is a story full of mythological figures, human drama, love, hate, and endless series of vengeance and murder.

Before Sigurd enters the scene, The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of his forefathers. But how fascinating the story of Sigmund, his sister Signy, and their son (!) Sinfjotle is, it is Sigurd the Dragon Slayer who is the great hero. Sigurd is one of few heroes of old without faults, which does not prevent him from entering his unhappy fate.

Sigurd is fostered by Regin, who tells Sigurd the story of the gold hoard and incites Sigurd to search for the cursed gold. When Sigurd comes of age, Regin forges the magic sword Gram. Sigurd avenges those who murdered his father, and with the sword, Sigurd kills Fafnir, the dragon. When he tastes the blood from Fafnir’s roasted heart, he learns the language of birds. He hears from the birds that Regin is going to betray him, so he kills Regin. Sigurd fetches the gold from Fafnir’s lair, including the ring that brings death to everyone who wears it. He loads the gold hoard onto his horse Grani and rides into a life full of tragedy.

Sigurd and Fafnir (Hermann Hendrick)

First he meets Brynhild. Sigurd and the shield-maiden love each other; they pledge wows to each other, but Sigurd is given ale of forgetfulness and marries Gudrun instead. In his state of forgetfulness and by way of shifting his shape into Gunnar, Gudrun’s brother, Sigurd rides Grani through a shield of fire and thus obliges Brynhild to marry Gunnar: She has pledged to marry the man who could ride the flames; confident that no other than Sigurd would manage such a feat.

In a quarrel  with Brynhild, while bathing, Gudrun gives away the secret of the deceit. When Brynhild learns it was Sigurd who conquered the flames and not her husband, she deeply laments her loss. Thus, the stage is set for a series of vile and deceitful actions, leading to deaths for all the characters in the saga. The fate of Gudrun, especially - she is forced to marry Atli, her brother’s killer - is among the darkest in European literature.

Brynhild and Gudrun (Anders Zorn)

At every turn of events, the use and misuse of magic are involved. In order to betray, avenge, and kill, the characters use all kinds of sorcery: ale of forgetfulness, magic swords, shape shifting, carving of runes, curses and spells. Everyone’s fate is foretold and predicted, and all the characters are under the curse of the gold hoard and the ring. No wonder the story has inspired artists, singers, authors and audiences throughout time.

The translation of the saga is very readable, and, in instructive endnotes, the translator, Jesse L. Byock, explains many aspects of the Old Norse mythology and magic. The Penguin Classic edition also has a glossary of names and persons, maps, and further explanations in an interesting introduction. The extra material enhances the reading and makes it easier to follow the tale. With so many generations, characters, and relations it takes some effort to get into the story. But when you do, The Saga of the Volsungs is an extraordinary tale indeed. I have read the saga before. Even so, when I finished reading it again, I took a deep breath and uttered one word only; “Fantastic.”

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