Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Saga of the Volsungs

I am going to let CS Lewis introduce something of the flavour of this review.
...[U]nder heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim. 

--from Cliche Came Out of Its Cage
This is very much the mood of one of the best-known of the Icelandic sagas: The Saga of the Volsungs. 

Written sometime in the 1200s by an unknown author, the Volsunga Saga is the more or less definitive version of the old Norse tale of Sigurd the dragon-slayer. Other versions of the story are extant; most notably the German poem Der Nibelungenlied, and in more recent years Wagner's Ring cycle of operas and JRR Tolkien's Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Both the more recent treatments drew more heavily on the Icelandic Volsunga Saga than the German Nibenlungenlied, but are quite different in their aims. Wagner's Ring is very much a work of nineteenth-century romanticist radicalism. Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun is a faintly Christian-flavoured tribute to the Icelandic Eddas he fell in love with as a young man. Both are fascinating cultural artefacts in their own right, but there is no reason at all why the casual reader should not begin with the original Volsunga Saga, which is an eminently accessible story in a fairly slim volume.

A winding tale of love, revenge, war, and treasure, The Saga of the Volsungs traces the hero Sigurd's descent through the legendary king Volsung and the hero Sigmund. As a young man, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir and comes into possession of the monster's cursed treasure. He then wakes the wise warrior-lady Brynhild from her enchanted sleep on a burning mountain and pledges to marry her, but when further wanderings bring him to the land of King Gunnar, a potion of forgetfulness induces him to marry the king's sister Gudrun instead. Not one to take such an insult quietly, Brynhild plots her revenge...

This was the second time I've read the Volsunga Saga, and one of the things which immediately struck me about it this time was the sheer stark grimness of the book's tone. I don't merely mean the excessively lean and spare writing style: that is in itself a pleasure, and I have often wished more modern-day authors would steep themselves in such language for a while:
It is said that one day Sigurd rode into the woods with his hounds and hawks and many followers. When he returned home, his hawk flew to a high tower and settled by a window. Sigurd went after the hawk. Then he saw a fair woman and realised that it was Brynhild. Both her beauty and her work affected him deeply. He went to the hall but did not want to join in the sport of the men. Then Alsvid said: "Why are you so quiet? This change in you concerns us, your friends. Why can you not be merry? Your hawks are moping, as is your horse Grani, and it will be a long time before this is mended."
This may seem concise to you, but it's positively verbose compared to Tolkien's rendition of the story in the style of the Eddas! At any rate, I enjoy this aspect of the saga. It's the harsh pagan worldview that is difficult to take. From the first murder occurring on page one, to the cycle of revenge and battle that characterises the whole book, this is definitely the tale of a hard-hearted people. Reading about Signy, the twin sister of Sigurd's father Sigmund, drove home what Owen Barfield said in History in English Words about the tenderness for women and children that only came with Christianity:
[Signy] rose up, took both children, went to the outer room to Sigmund and Sinfjotli and said they should know that the children had betrayed them, "and I would advise you to kill them."
Sigmund said: "I will not kill your children, even if they have betrayed me." But Sinfjotli did not falter. He drew his sword and killed both children, casting them into the hall in front of King Siggeir.
And I also believe it is Signy who inspired CS Lewis' lines about the women who "walked back into burning houses to die with men", quoted above.

Business as usual.
It is things like this that make me wonder why some folks object to classical education on the grounds that pagans were depraved people whom we should not revere. To my mind, that is precisely the benefit that comes with reading the classics. Without books like this, I might never have known just how dark the world was before the coming of Christ. I might never have known how much the Gospel has changed our world already. I might not have so much hope for the future.

But the Volsunga Saga was written in the 1200s, a good couple of centuries after the Christianisation of Iceland recorded in Njal's Saga. In my book War Games, I discussed my belief that Njal's Saga, Beowulf, and similar epics are works of Christian apologetics, depicting the hopelessness of the pagan condition and the hope of redemption and peace in Christ--this being most visible in Njala. Reading the Volsunga Saga, I have to wonder whether it was written for the same purpose. So far I'm not convinced. It is bleak enough to warn anyone off paganism, but unlike Beowulf or even Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun, the story itself seems to offer no Christian alternative.

However, it should be noted, interestingly enough, that the Sigurd legend itself seems to have found an odd place in Norse culture as a story capable of transmitting echoes of the Gospel. As translator Jesse L Byock notes in his Introduction to my edition of the story, most of the remaining extant carvings depicting the Sigurd legends come from old Norse stave churches. The death of King Gunnar, playing the harp with his toes in a snake-pit, is depicted quite often in baptismal fonts (perhaps to express the fact that we are baptised into the death of Christ?) while a very large number of church portals were carved with images of Sigurd slaying the dragon. Byock explains:
An Old Norwegian sermon (dated ca. 1200) concerning the consecration of stave churches suggests that for these buildings, as for many other churches, the door symbolically represented a spiritual defense of the interior. Dragon slaying was suitable for representation on church portals and on other Christian carvings because in medieval Christian thought the dragon and the serpent were often connected with Satan.
Like other Norse epics of this period--most of them written down by Icelandic authors who, being separated by a long sea voyage from their homelands, chose this method of preserving their heritage--The Saga of the Volsungs is a colourful tale of adventure, revenge, and tragedy, pulling no punches when it comes to the despair and hopelessness of the pagan condition.

Find The Saga of the Volsungs on Amazon, The Book Depository, the Online Medieval and Classical Library or Librivox.

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