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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
September 24, 2018
”Now Sigurd rode away. His ornamented shield was plated with red gold and emblazoned with a dragon. Its top half was dark brown and its bottom half light red, and his helmet, saddle, and buffcoat were all marked in this way. He wore a mail coat of gold and all his weapons were ornamented with gold. In this way the dragon was illustrated on all of his arms, so that when he was seen, all who had heard the story would recognize him as the one who had killed the great dragon called Fafnir by the Vaerings.”

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Move over, St. George. Step aside, St. Michae. And save some of that ale and meat, Beowulf. For there is another dragon slayer in town, and his name is Sigurd. Most of us have heard of these other dragon slayers, but few have heard of Sigurd. Maybe more of us has heard of him by his German name Siegfried, from the tales of the Nibelungenlied. Some people might know the name of this hero from the composer Richard Wagner who drew from both the Icelandic and German sagas for inspiration while creating his grand musical dramas. Unless you are from one of the cold Nordic countries, you probably have not had much of an opportunity to hear about the exploits of the warrior Sigurd.

Sigurd is descended from the Volsung family, and let me tell you, this is one crazy, brutal, blood to the shoulder kind of family. Any perceived slight is a cause for violence; odds such as 10 to 1 or 100 to 1 are never calculated. More men just means more skulls to crack, more arms to lob off, and more spleens to split. A Volsung sword once unsheathed is a weapon that will not be put away without blood dripping from the tip.

A lot of these old sagas would be lost, except for the diligent interest and meticulous work shown by Icelandic writers. ”It is not by chance that in Scandinavia so much of the narrative material about the Volsungs was preserved in Iceland. Fortunately for posterity, writing became popular among the Icelanders in the thirteenth century, when interest in old tales was still strong. Almost all the Old Norse narrative material that has survived---whether myth, legend, saga, history, or poetry---is found in Icelandic manuscripts, which form the largest existing vernacular literature of the medieval West.”

After reading that, my mind just kind of goes KABLOOEY.

The tiny, sparsely populated, volcanic churning, bitter cold country of Iceland is where the Northern oral traditions were best preserved? Still to this day, Icelanders are intense readers who have a wonderful reading tradition that is a part of their Christmas holiday. It is no surprise that they are one of the most literate countries in the world. ”The Nordic countries dominated the top of the charts, with Finland in first place and Norway in second, and Iceland, Denmark and Sweden rounding out the top five. Switzerland followed in sixth, with the US in seventh, Canada in 11th, France in 12th and the UK in 17th place.”

Hey United Kingdom, what gives?

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Let me introduce Sigurd’s father:

”Sigmund had a much smaller force. A fierce battle commenced, and, although Sigmund was old, he fought hard and was always at the front of his men. Neither shield nor mail coat could withstand him, and again and again that day he went through the ranks of his enemies, and no one could foresee how it would end between them. Many a spear and arrow was cast in the air. Sigmund’s spaewomen (female spirits), however, shielded him so well that he remained unscathed, and no one could count how many men fell before him. Both his arms were bloody to the shoulder.”

You thought I was kidding about the bloody to the shoulder thing, didn’t you?

Sigmund has many rather bizarre encounters in his lifetime, including this French snogging action with a she-wolf. ”She licked his face all over with her tongue and then reached her tongue into his mouth. He did not lose his composure and bit into the wolf’s tongue. She jerked and pulled back hard, thrusting her feet against the trunk so that is split apart.”

Patooey...wolf slobbers!!

Behind all of these circumstances is that shifty, one-eyed bastard Odin who appears out of the mist to offer his “help” and then disappears into the mouth of the chaos he has left behind him.

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There are numerous Lady Macbeth characters sprinkled throughout this saga. Women who are more ambitious and, in many ways, more vicious than their men. They goad their husbands/lovers into rash, usually violent actions. It goes well beyond Eve tempting Adam with an apple, as war or revenge are the usual objective. There is also a healthy dose of betrayal, jealousy, incest, sorcery, gore, greed, unrequited love, fratricide, and filicide. One shudder worthy moment was a mother serving a father wine in the skulls of his sons.

There are stories in this saga that would make Quentin Tarantino turn a paler shade of white.

Michael Ridpath’s intriguing Icelandic mystery Where the Shadows Lie turned me onto The Saga of the Volsungs which, now that I’ve read that story, has encouraged me to pursue even more ancient tales, such as Njal’s Saga, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, Egil’s Saga, The Vinland Sagas, The Nibelungenlied, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, and The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok. These will, of course, lead to more sagas, and as I gain a working knowledge of these tales, my enjoyment of them will continue to grow as well.

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Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews684 followers
July 19, 2018
List of Maps
Introduction, by Jesse L. Byock
Note on the Translation

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

Eddic Poems Used by the Saga Author
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
977 reviews1,220 followers
June 8, 2020
It's thrilling that this is a legend from a time when there were hardly any written records: the 4th-5th centuries. It is of course a later mashup - characters meet, marry and fight who were alive at different times - and not written down until the thirteenth century, but it's tantalisingly close to the edge of history. Many readers pick up The Saga of the Volsungs because of Tolkien or Wagner, but for me it was this, one of the first times we can hear an account from the barbarians of the Migration Period, and especially in an interesting and readable narrative. (It's very different from dry chronicle-type works like popular academic primary-source text Two Lives of Charlemagne.)

The concrete, action-based narrative of sagas - in which little or no interiority is shown, but characters do and say plenty - probably isn't for those who need stylistically rarefied writing, but for much of the text, I found the straightforwardness, the absolutes, and clarity of purpose refreshing. Just about everything, including online, looked like ridiculous clutter when I surfaced from the book. Much of the action is Game of Thrones type stuff, but swift and matter-of-fact, in minimalist phrasing. Saga of the Volsungs doesn't have too many instances of those wonderfully likeable metafictional interjections "so-and-so entered the saga"; "And he is out of the saga", but there is a clear sense of its differentness from later novels.

It was amazing being reminded of possible historical details I'd read of elsewhere, such as when Sigmund and his son, both of them wearing wolf-skins, set out into the forest, each going his own way. They agreed then that they would risk a fight with as many as seven men, but not with more, and that the one being attacked by more would howl with his wolf’s voice. This has been suggested as a relic of an initiation rite found in a number of prehistoric Indo-European cultures in which bands of young men wore dog skins, with similar practices hinted at in the Rig Veda (not as straightforwardly as the article suggests; see p.23-24 in the long conference presentation version if you're really into this stuff) and eight - i.e. more than seven - is a number associated with various types of warrior bands. (This is from archaeologist David Anthony, author of The Horse the Wheel and Language, much of which has become widely accepted and supported by further evidence.)

The clarity of purpose in the characters does not last, however. When Brynhild becomes angry and sulky around Chapter 31, it feels as emotionally messy as any later text: it is not simply "so-and-so is an oathbreaker, they must die" as it might have been earlier. And thus, rippling out from one grimly resolute and affronted, but implicitly conflicted, person begins a Greek-tragedy-like series of events in which almost everybody ultimately ends up dead over a number of years. Patterns of blame are sometimes notably far from what contemporary western psychology considers healthy or correct - something often noticeable in classic texts, including far more recent examples than this - which to some extent will be connected with the honour-shame culture. In addition, to the modern reader, as characters consider life-or-death events to be fated, it seems as if this should obviate blame, though it does not.

Jesse Byock's introduction to this Penguin edition is usefully informative about the historical context; the extent to which whole peoples moved around, and can't be associated for long eras with specific locations, still seems remarkable (like Goths from Scandinavia to the Black Sea to Poland to Ostrogoths along the Danube and Italy and the Visigoths to Spain) - because of the current habituation to fixed countries, although quite a lot of those have not been there for very long either on the timescales concerned. He goes into just the right amount of detail about likely origins for the characters - I still can't believe that most of these are Burgundians and that I hadn't heard that before - and also about Wagner's use of the saga.

I have always labelled Wagner "boring", and although in recent years I've been exploring some of the classical music I shunned as a kid, and even didn't find all traditional opera terrible any more, I'd continued to ignore Wagner, so this info was new to me. Plenty of people over the years have recommended that one should listen to Wagner for the music, and not be put off by the politics (one of the first instances was probably a Stephen Fry column in his collection Paperweight) and I think my mother went to see the whole Ring Cycle in the 1970s, but the dubious history was always a good extra excuse to keep ignoring him. But if I was going to actually try, surely this was the time. And in the first minute of Das Rheingold I thought I heard roots of certain [German] techno tunes I love. And the music as a whole - like a couple of Russian operas I got to like - has plenty of lower notes to please a bass fan, and a drama and definiteness to it that makes it interesting when coming from contemporary music, unlike the waftier sort of symphony where the current bit often seems difficult to distinguish from what it sounded like ten minutes ago. Anyway, whatever it may be, it's not boring. (I've been listening to this one from Dutch National Opera - which I was lucky to catch as it was officially streaming for a limited time until 8th June.)

I've been reading about and around the Icelandic sagas for so long - I first got that big Penguin book of them nearly 20 years ago - that I can hardly believe this (which I started in December, perhaps a more usual time to read these things) is the first one I've finished. The sagas are missing from so many lists of classics, like 1001 and several others (why?) that even when I started trying to read more from those, there weren't the prompts. Anyway, especially in the first two thirds, this one made me wish I could just keep on reading more sagas. Though for the moment there are other books I should turn to.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,486 followers
February 6, 2017
oh hai Vikings

I have a great love for Vikings, who are terrific insulters and murderers. Here's the type of thing Vikings do: this one guy Sinfjotli is like "This drink is poison, I can tell," and the other guy's all "That's okay, you can filter the poison out through your mustache," and Sinfjotli's like "Good plan" and then he dies because that's not how mustaches work. You can't read enough of stories like that.

Sinfjotli is one of the many ill-fated men of the Volsung line, and this gets complicated so here's a family tree drawn by someone on deviantArt:

Helpful, right? No, not really, it's a nice job but it mostly just points out how complicated this is. I found it best to not worry too much about which specific Volsung is on any given page. Volsungs isn't really about plot. It's not about style either; there's nothing exceptional here. What you read it for is to bask in that weird Viking world where people try to filter poison through their mustaches and proper battles are 50% carnage and 50% just standing around insulting each other.

This insult battle is the senna, or flyting, whichever, and it's the exact ancestor of the dozens, and yet another example of the spiritual connection between Vikings and rappers, a theme we've discussed before. "You are a great liar," says Sinfjotli. "I do not think you could sire anyone because you were gelded by the giant's daughters on Thrasness." Sick burn, Sinfjotli: sick burn.

The second half of Volsungs mostly settles down into the story of Sigurd, who has lady problems. He's in love with Brynhild, who's both a Valkyrie and the sister of Attila the Hun, because why not, but he gets cursed and forgets they're a thing, and then he pretends to be this other guy and nails her so she'll fall in love with the other guy, which works (because he's awesome at nailing) so she marries the other guy, and Sigurd marries this other lady altogether but then later on he remembers Brynhild but she's like "I will not have two kings in one hall." Lol, I see what you did there Brynhild.

Viking stuff is great. If you're going to read one Viking book, you should start with the Prose Edda; if you want to keep reading, grab yourself a copy of the Volsungs. And a proper Viking helmet to wear while reading it.

Profile Image for 7jane.
683 reviews268 followers
April 11, 2022
This is the Norse epic of Sigurd the dragon slayer, written down by an unknown author in early 13th c. Iceland from poetry carried there from Norway in oral tradition – including one or two lost ones. It is a tale of love, war, historical figures (Attila), Odin, Valkyries, and a great treasure. Volsungs is the family, with Sigurd the center, greatest, character. At the end here are notes, eddic poems used by the author, characters list, and glossary. The introduction (spoilery) also has some maps (of the world of the Vikings c.1000, and the tribe migrations in Europe up to the death of Attila.

The story is told quickly, in short chapters (mostly original, but a few added by the author, and marked so), so it’s a quick read, though packing much within. Its influence is shown for example in the German connection (Niebelungelied, Wagner’s ‘Ring’), Tolkien (Sigmund’s broken sword, the dragon and its great treasure, and the ring). Artistic inspiration of this book has happened (in wood/stone carvings and church decoraitons).
And there’s also the ‘pulling the sword out of something to prove one’s right to-’ moment, this time out of a tree in the middle of a house.
I also realised, having read some of the Oh!My Goddess manga series, that its three center-character goddess sisters are named after the three fate-controlling Norns sisters, Urd, Verdandi (Belldandy in the manga), and Skuld. That made me smile.

The best female characters here – though in rivalry with each other – are Brynhild and Gudrun. Sigurd himself is a very easy character to like, though the story continues on a bit after his part. There are clearly some real historical events mixed within (4th-5th c.), even some pre-Viking age (even prehistoric) things. Nature and supernatural things come very near. Some things may feel strange or shocking (sudden incest, parents killing their young kids, Svanhild’s cruel death etc.).
There is war, betrayals, marriages, raids, prophesies, entertaining guests, Odin, dreams, noble-behaving horses. And the magic of leeks….

This is a quick-moving, easy to follow and seems simple, but much is packed into its depths. There might be many characters but things are easy to follow and the character list makes things really easy. One really could feel the presence of everything in this story of history mixed with supernatural and great adventure. Really worth the read.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
January 7, 2020
What is presented here is a tale of Scandinavian folklore, a tale about several generations of the Völsung clan, tales passed down by word of mouth for centuries. An epic poem, it was first drawn on stone in 1030 A.D in Ramsund, Sweden, as a pictorial carving with the addition of rune lettering. In the thirteenth century it came to be written down in Icelandic.

It is a tale of myth and magic with animals whose words are understood by man, dragons, magical potions and Gods mingling with human beings walking the earth.

It is also a tale of vengeance and retribution, gruesome, bloody killings and gory deaths. It is quite different from a Grimm fairy tale. It is Scandinavian in its essence--the events told are dark, grim and foreboding.

The story itself is not easy to follow. Beside the gruesome details, many of the character names sound very similar.

On completing the saga, I went and read this article on Wiki:
It helped me gain clarity on what I had just read.

I’ll tell you some of the things I thought about as I listened to this. The importance of folkloric inheritance in shaping a culture—the stories told here have a very Scandinavian ambiance. Maybe we view here why people are so frightened by wolves—it is not so strange if people have been raised on stories such as these! People seem to enjoy listening to scary stories. People seem to need stories to explain to themselves why life is so difficult, and they need stories of terrible deeds to minimize their own misdeeds. It is kind of shocking to observe how all the things one absolutely should not do have been done by people for ages.

I am glad to have read this, although I cannot say I enjoyed it.

The lines have a lyrical resonance to them that is quite beautiful once you get into the swing of the prose. I noted this as I reached the end.

Antony Ferguson narrates the audiobook. The detailed introduction he reads way too fast, but once the story is begun the speed is no longer a problem. Three stars for the narration.
Profile Image for Andrea.
435 reviews158 followers
February 8, 2017
Some strange things I learned while reading the book:

1. You can start out as a hunted criminal, and be raised to a place of honor and respect by pillaging villages,
2. Weak children must be killed off. Spartans have nothing on these guys,
3. Incest is okay as long as you switch bodies with someone else before doing it,
4. You want this guy. He tells you he would leave his wife for you. You get the guy killed,
5. When your evil stepmother gives you poisoned ale twice, you have good faith in the third time,
6. Talk in riddles to your brothers, if you want them to kill you for no reason. They will feel really bad about it after the fact though, if that’s any consolation.

For more thoughts on this awesome book head over to Through the Pages
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
February 27, 2018

Description: Drawn from one of the best known Icelandic sagas, a powerful new dramatisation of the tragic story of Sigurd Volsung and Brynhild, the woman he loves, With an introduction by the author. By Melissa Murray

Sigurd ..... David Sturzaker
Regin ..... David Schofield
Gunnar ..... Carl Prekopp
Hod ..... Gerard McDermott
Gudrun ..... Lyndsey Marshal
Brynhild ..... Abbie Andrews
Sadhbh ..... Isabella Inchbald
Arvid ..... Clive Hayward
Alf ..... Rupert Holliday-Evans
Hjordis ..... Kath Weare
Warriors ..... Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong, Gary Duncan, Philip Bretherton

The Last of the Volsungs is based, at times loosely, on part of the 13th century Icelandic Volsunga Saga. The sagas are an extraordinary rich and varied cultural treasury. In style they can be domestic, historical, heroic, funny and tragic and can claim with a lot of justification to be the earliest European novels or at least the precursors to them. The Volsung saga falls within the heroic tradition and it has been the inspiration for many - William Morris, Tolkien and of course Wagner.

At the bedrock of the heroic saga is the idea of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods. At the end of time the Gods go out and fight a last battle with their enemies, the Frost Giants and their allies, and in the conflict the universe is destroyed. The Gods die. This is not a Last Judgement; there are no morally justified winners and damned sinners. It's just the end - the inevitable, organic end of everything. What's deemed admirable - although post apocalypse there's actually no one left to admire it - is the stoicism, the courage of the warriors as they rally round Odin All Father facing certain annihilation in that final battle. It's a stark enough philosophy. It leads to a warrior class more than half in love with bloody death, their own as much as their enemies.
Profile Image for Marquise.
1,746 reviews607 followers
October 27, 2017
Holy Wotan's tits, Batman! This is revenge porn at its finest, like only the Norsemen can pull out. Monsieur le Comte de Monte Cristo has nothing on these fellows of the North when it comes to vengeance, justice, fire 'n' blood. Ahem.

I can see why Herr Wagner liked this saga so much he readapted the plot for his The Ring of the Nibelungs opera quartet, it has everything a proper head-spinningly melodramatic intergenerational imbroglio should contain, albeit in doses not exactly recommendable for reading at meal times. As I came to this story because of the opera, my introduction to the Volsung-Nibelung legend, I've been reading this side by side with The Nibelungenlied, and it was quite enlightening to note and compare which parts Richard Wagner cherry-picked for his own version, which is the one everyone knows. There are several quite significant differences, really many, that make it look as if the only consistent element in common the Völsunga saga/Nibelungenlied/Der Ring trifecta have in common is that all three share Siegfried and his lady problems. Heh.

Anyway, for those interested in knowing the original story, I recommend they pick up The Saga of the Volsungs first, and they can stop without missing anything if they don't continue on to the Song of the Nibelungs, which is much less readable and more confusing, although as epic (in the bloody mess Norse sense of epic) as this one. Just don't expect much similarity if the musical adaptation is what you mostly know about this saga.
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,273 reviews206 followers
December 18, 2021
Best lines:

1. [Twice Sinfjolti's stepmother has offered him a suspect drink, and both times he declined it only to have his father, Sigmund, drink it instead.] She came again with the drinking horn. "Drink now." And she taunted him with many words. He took the horn and said: "The drink is mixed with treachery." Sigmund said: "Then give it to me." She came a third time and bid him drain it, if he had the heart of a Volsung. Sinfjolti took the horn and said: "There is poison in this drink." Sigmund answered: "Filter it with your mustache, son." The king was quite drunk, and therefore he talked in this way.

2. "Sigmund was so hardy that he could eat poison with no ill effect."

3. "When you have fed your pigs and hounds and you meet your wife, say that the Volsungs have come and King Helgi can be found here in the army, if Hodbrodd wants to meet him. And it is Helgi's pleasure to fight with distinction while you kiss your bondwomen by the fire." ... Grandmar said: "I would rather feed the birds on your corpse than quarrel with you any longer."

4. "I know the nature of this serpent, and I have heard that no one dare go against him because of his size and ferocity." Regin replied: "That is not true. His size is no different from that of grass snakes and more is made of it than it deserves." ... "You told me, Regin, that this dragon was no larger than a serpent, but his tracks seem excessively large to me."

5. Now, at the urging of King Atli, they seized Hogni and cut out his heart. Hogni's strength was so immense that he laughed while he suffered this torture.
Profile Image for Neil.
293 reviews44 followers
August 29, 2013
The Volsunga Saga is a Norse prose retelling of the Norse Eddic versions of the Nibelungen/ Volsung legends and is preserved in a late 13th century manuscript that also contains the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrókar. The manuscript tells the story of the Volsung family from its mythical origins to the death of the historical/semi legendary Ragnar Loðbrókar. Unfortunately this edition and translation by R. G. Finch only includes the Volsunga Saga, meaning that the reader wishing to pursue the saga in its wider manuscript context will need to acquire Margaret Schlauch's older or Ben Waggoner's more recent translation of Ragnar's Saga.

Finch begins his edition with an introduction that introduces the reader to the Volsung legend in all its various Norse and German guises and his own theories on problems on transmission of the legends, literary structure of the work and manuscript history.

The saga itself is given in the original Icelandic text with an excellent English translation on the facing page. The story itself recounts the mythical deeds of Frankish, Burgundian, Gothic and Hunnish royal dynasties from the Migration Period, but instead of the southern Germanic Migration Period the saga presents the characters in a Viking Age come Icelandic farmstead context. Many of the characters and events in the saga have historical counterparts such as the fall of the Arian Christian Burgundians at the hands of the Huns and the story of the Gothic Ermanaric. Unlike the earlier German Nibelungenlied which recounts the same legends in a courtly fashion, the Volsunga Saga is interspersed with elements of the supernatural. These otherworldly encounters usually involve Odin (the Norse god of war) guiding the human events of the saga. The prose of the saga writer is often interspersed with sections from older poems from the Poetic Edda and contains a prose passage lifted directly from the Norwegian Thidrekssaga af Bern in which the author gives a physical description of Sigurd Fafnesbane.

This edition of the Volsunga Saga contain three appendices, one on the expression "at sœkja heim Odin" and "hja Odin gista" the second is a translation of the section from Ragnar's Saga on Aslaug and Heimer. Most useful of all though is the section on correspondence between the saga and its extant literary sources, a very useful tool for those doing a comparative study of the Poetic Edda, Thidrekssaga and Volsunga Saga.

The Volsunga Saga has inspired numerous modern adaptions including Wagner's Ring opera, William Morris's Sigurd poem and more recently Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun, making the saga relevant to a modern readership. Since Finch's 1965 edition, both George Anderson and Jesse Byock have produced newer English translations. While Anderson's edition is peppered with mistakes in translation and Byock's edition is aimed at the general reader, thus lacking in critical apparatus, the Finch edition is still the scholars choice.

Profile Image for Zadignose.
254 reviews154 followers
July 7, 2015
This book is very rough and very wild. It brings together story elements from several sources, and they have not been assembled in a fully rational manner. If you want plenty of examples of valor, bullheadedness, and bloody vengeance, it's all in here. The text is very laconic... an entire war may be referred to in a couple of sentences, with one or two pertinent points mentioned.

Odin makes many appearances, and arbitrarily helps then hinders, grants gifts, breaks them, and generally leads people towards their fates that tend to have a lot of bloodshed and tragedy.

There are other supernatural elements abounding, including Brynhild, whose nature is rather enigmatic, she may be a valkyrie, a witch, a shield-maden, these may or may not be the same thing...

There are some amazing scenes. What I found I remembered best was the story surrounding Sinfjotli, Sigmund's bastard son of incest. The sheer determination and cruelty of their acts of vengeance are quite impressive.

There are many parts to this story, but to me the principal division would be into three major parts.

The first part would be the story of the Volsung lineage, through Sigurd's conflict with Fafnir, and acquisition of the Rheingold.

This first part was what I enjoyed the best, largely because it has its own anarchic quality, and it seems most "novel" to me, in that it covers material not discussed in the real classic of the Sigfried, The Nibelungenlied.

The second and third parts intersect with what is directly related of the Sigfried story in Nibelungenlied. There are many differences, of course. Having reread this, I find I must admit that Nibelungenlied handled this story better, but I still enjoy this more peculiar and folk-loric edition of the story.

The "second" part of the Saga of the Volsungs is the part that retains the focus on Sigurd, and the conflict that arises because of the rivalry between Brynhild and Gudrun (this saga's equivalent of Brunhild and Kriemhild).

The "third" part is when the narrative focus shifts to the Gjukungs, the family of Gunnar, Gudrun, etc. (i.e. the "Burgundians"/Nibelung). Plus there's a bit of epilogue to tell about a few descendants of the Volsungs and Gjukungs which again departs completely from what Nibelungenlied covers.

The most bizarre element of what I'm terming the "second" part is Brynhild. We get various versions of her story, her character is very changeable, and she seems to be everywhere at once. In some ways it's quite fascinating. The "roughness" of the story is most apparent here too. The pieces don't all seem to fit together. For example, Sigurd and Brynhild seem to meet one another for the first time "twice", and that doesn't count their later meeting when he doesn't recognize her due to a magic forgetting-potion. The second first meeting is not really so clear, but one can imagine either that they were feigning not to know one another, or there was already some kind of forgetting charm... but what seems most likely is that pieces of different stories were put together and not revised to make a good fit.

Also, there's a whole LOT of people knowing something, not knowing it, acting contrary to what they know, then suddenly revealing that they do know...

There is also evidence that this story has been influenced by the story of Tristan und Isolde. And there are echoes. So elements that appear in the first section, especially the second, and repeated in the epilogue of the third give us bits of illicit love, someone sent to court a woman on behalf of another king, but falling in love themselves... magic potions of course, and even Sigurd and Brynhild sleeping with a bare sword between them, with a lot of ambiguity regarding whether they actually had sex at this time (though it hardly matters, since she may even have already had his daughter earlier, before he forgot knowing her).

The events of the third part are interesting in their own way. They read well unless you feel compelled to compare them to Nibelungenlied... keeping that comparison in mind may hurt your appreciation of this, however... well, that's just something that I had to struggle with.

Ah, one other random reflection. It's interesting that some elements of this story reflect an awareness of the values of "courtly" behavior and chivalry, though these are largely alien to the culture. One of Sigurd's half-brothers, a King Helgi, seems to have been a more chivalrous Volsung, and we know nothing of what happened to his line of the family. Once he goes off and achieves his glory, we get a curt little: "...And he is now out of the saga." This reminded me a bit, though, of how in Egil's saga, each generation seemed to divide the good elements of men into different individuals, so for each fierce and bold but somewhat mad brother, there may have also been a more noble, deliberate, and chivalrous one... maybe, though it's a rough recollection.

Rules to live by in the Norse world:

-Never heed good advice.
-If you know you're being poisoned to death... drink the poison... it's the most manly option.
-Be very large and strong. Sigurd was so broad-shouldered, to look at him he appeared to be two men, and when he walked with a seven-span sword at his belt, the tip of it would barely brush the tops of full grown ears of barley.
-Don't bother with prophecy. It's always right, but you'll never heed it.
-When in doubt, kill your relatives, then rue it when you discover you had no reason to do so.
-Kids are only good for killing, or raising them to kill on your behalf.
-You never know when an ability to play the harp with your toes may come in handy.
-Dreams with an obvious correct interpretation can always be intentionally misinterpreted so you can remain ignorant.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,908 reviews565 followers
February 26, 2018
From BBC Radio 3 - Drama on 3:
Drawn from one of the best known Icelandic sagas, a powerful new dramatisation of the tragic story of Sigurd Volsung and Brynhild, the woman he loves, With an introduction by the author.

By Melissa Murray

Sigurd ..... David Sturzaker
Regin ..... David Schofield
Gunnar ..... Carl Prekopp
Hod ..... Gerard McDermott
Gudrun ..... Lyndsey Marshal
Brynhild ..... Abbie Andrews
Sadhbh ..... Isabella Inchbald
Arvid ..... Clive Hayward
Alf ..... Rupert Holliday-Evans
Hjordis ..... Kath Weare
Warriors ..... Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong, Gary Duncan, Philip Bretherton

Directed by Marc Beeby

The Last of the Volsungs is based, at times loosely, on part of the 13th century Icelandic Volsunga Saga. The sagas are an extraordinary rich and varied cultural treasury. In style they can be domestic, historical, heroic, funny and tragic and can claim with a lot of justification to be the earliest European novels or at least the precursors to them. The Volsung saga falls within the heroic tradition and it has been the inspiration for many - William Morris, Tolkien and of course Wagner.

At the bedrock of the heroic saga is the idea of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods. At the end of time the Gods go out and fight a last battle with their enemies, the Frost Giants and their allies, and in the conflict the universe is destroyed. The Gods die. This is not a Last Judgement; there are no morally justified winners and damned sinners. It's just the end - the inevitable, organic end of everything. What's deemed admirable - although post apocalypse there's actually no one left to admire it - is the stoicism, the courage of the warriors as they rally round Odin All Father facing certain annihilation in that final battle. It's a stark enough philosophy. It leads to a warrior class more than half in love with bloody death, their own as much as their enemies.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
527 reviews243 followers
December 7, 2010
Medieval Icelandic literature is highly variable in quality and comprehensibility, but the Volsung Saga is a masterpiece of the genre, and here it is masterfully translated and presented by Byock. This edition includes extremely useful explanatory notes, a vital glossary of characters, and an introductory essay that is by itself worth the cost of this book.

Like many Icelandic sagas, this is a brooding history of semi-historical kings overshadowed by augers of doom. It exhults in shocking acts of violence that make "Medea" and "Titus Andronicus" seem restrained by comparison. The moral tone is ambivalent and grim, as its heroes slay, conquer, and betray themselves and one another under the watchful eyes and sometimes at the direction of the old Norse pantheon.

The pacing of the work and its frequent evocation of verse remind the reader of its likely origins as a bardic work. The breathless leap from climax to climax is a bit fatiguing, and this book is best sipped.

If you are considering reading this work to enhance your understanding of Wagner's Nibelungen Ring, you should not hesitate to buy it. This saga informed Wagner's "poem" more than any other source material he consulted, and you'll find most of the principle events included within. Many interpretive puzzles that have baffled me for years were quickly resolved by reading this work; in many cases events that I found puzzling were simply reproduced faithfully from the source material.

To the student of history, mythology, opera, or literature, this book is an excellent and worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Yani.
416 reviews179 followers
March 29, 2019
Relectura agosto 2016

Si tuviera que hablar muy seriamente de Volsungos necesitaría dos cosas: ser especialista en Literatura Medieval y haber leído todos los textos que se cruzan con este. Puedo manejar la comparación con Cantar de los Nibelungos pero no podría ir más allá de él. Sin embargo, trataré de aislarlo todo lo posible como para dar una opinión.

Volsungos es una saga islandesa que data del siglo XIII y cuenta las aventuras de un linaje (que puede haber sido real o no, pero los elementos fantásticos siempre definen) que está marcado desde el principio por hechos extraordinarios. El héroe que empieza la familia, Völsungr, nace después de 6 años de gestación. Y este hombre que se diferencia de todos tendrá hijos, que también vivirán situaciones increíbles y que después tendrán más hijos porque, básicamente, las guerras amenazan siempre con extinguir el linaje. El foco estará puesto en Sigurdr (correspondiente al posterior Sigfrido de Nibelungos ).

Es una gran historia de una familia que se jacta por su valor y su astucia y necesita vengar a los integrantes caídos. Este libro me sorprendió por su extrema violencia y la naturalidad con la que se comenta. Al ser una saga, no hay ni grandes descripciones ni profundidad que colaboren en una mejor comprensión de las acciones que llevan a cabo los personajes. Todo tiene una base cultural e histórica que se hace difícil asimilar en este siglo y que, por suerte, la edición que leí (de Gredos) ilumina certeramente. Ni hablar del idioma, que está involucrado hasta en los nombres y los destinos de los héroes. Me resultó llamativo que fuera menos misógino que Nibelungos y que las mujeres tuvieran un papel importantísimo sin que se las trate como locas endemoniadas.

No obstante, disfruté mucho de su aura de leyenda que se combina con mitología nórdica. Los personajes no serán los más simpáticos del mundo, pero Sigurdr, Brynhildr y Gudrún tienen momentos brillantes. Los capítulos son cortos y, a pesar de que contienen demasiada acción e información, se leen rápido porque atrapan. Una vez que me acostumbré al ritmo vertiginoso, la relectura se me volvió amena. Como es esperable, este texto no se escapa de las incoherencias y de los cambios bruscos de este tipo de composiciones. Son errores comprensibles pero queda un gusto amargo, porque una es consciente de que se podrían haber arreglado dando una vuelta de tuerca.

Así y todo, me encantó y me dejó con ganas de seguir encontrando textos como estos, que transportan a otras épocas, encumbran héroes que realizaban hazañas casi imposibles y se dirigían hacia finales trágicos e ineludibles.
Profile Image for Regina Watts.
Author 89 books165 followers
January 30, 2021
Mildly less emotionally traumatizing than THE RING CYCLE.

Profile Image for saïd.
6,316 reviews966 followers
March 21, 2023
Jesse L. Byock and I are officially beefing now. We are academic enemies.

Once again I am reviewing the translation, not the original text. I would give the actual Völsunga saga a solid five stars—it’s got blood, guts, gore, war, drama, revenge, murder, incest, magic, body-swapping, AND MORE!—but in terms of Byock’s translation... well. My recommended translation is R.G. Finch’s 1965 edition: Vǫlsunga Saga. Not only is it a solid translation replete with notes, it’s also a bilingual edition including the Old Norse and Icelandic text alongside the English translation. (Finch references “Wagner’s fertile imagination, and the idea of the inevitable conflict between lust for power, symbolised by the ring, and true love” in his introduction. It’s delightfully funny.) Finch’s translation is available online, as is an interactive side-by-side version.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,867 reviews5,032 followers
June 1, 2010
Craziness with Icelandic psychopaths and their endless cycles of lies, theft, murder, and revenge.
Profile Image for Kaila.
836 reviews103 followers
January 30, 2015
How many movies could Peter Jackson make this 110 page book into? Probably at least 3. It goes through 5 generations in 2 pages!
Profile Image for Phillip.
1,091 reviews52 followers
September 27, 2016
I had a professor in undergrad who told me that medieval lit is more postmodern than postmodern lit, and this is a fantastic example of that principle in action. The Saga of the Volsungs, if it were written today, would be both stylistically and narratively postmodern, but because it's medieval it isn't actually postmodern (or is it? does time work? perhaps not for postmodernists?).
One thing I find fascinating about this saga is the almost complete lack of interiority. For modern readers raised on a diet of the psychological novel (and even movies, which convey bits of interiority through cinematography as well as confessional storylines), this is actually really unsettling because characters simply do things with no real explanation of what motivates them, how they feel about events, or why they're reacting the ways they are. To a certain extent we can infer things--like Sigurd kills the serpent Fafnir for gold and fame, both of which are fine motivations. But then there are other things that seem oddly arbitrary. Like when Sisseir decides to lock the Volsungs in the woods and just leave. This is a terrible form of execution, and it isn't at all clear why he would decide on such an inefficient and obscure method. So this odd absence of interiority is the kind of thing that one sometimes sees in experimental postmodern novels (like Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies).
As far as the plot goes, there's a number of weird things that happen, which hover somewhere between mythology and an acid trip (which is perhaps a good definition of pomo style). For instance, Fafnir is a dude who turns into a giant serpent which can spit poison, but then after Sigurd stabs the snake, he and Fafnir have a conversation. Then Sigurd eats Fafnir's heart and gains the ability to talk to birds (which gets discussed surprisingly little over the rest of the saga). Or, near the end of the saga, Gudrun decides to kill herself by carrying some rocks out into the ocean and drowning herself, but she is picked up by a giant wave and transported across the ocean to another kingdom where she immediately marries the king there.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
September 9, 2013
Incest, murder, more murder, dragons, high level smithing, treason, revenge, and Attila the Hun. Also, short, pleasant to read, and not obsessed with silly details. What exactly is there not to like?
Profile Image for Erin.
36 reviews
March 25, 2023
Lots of drama, lots of blood, lots of Vikings. The fact that Tolkien pulled from these legends is fascinating to me.
Profile Image for Rambling Raconteur.
100 reviews61 followers
July 9, 2022
I reread Saga of the Volsungs and discovered many more layers to the work. It balances on the border of myth and literature as generations of Volsung's descendants engage a horrifyingly violent world, pursuing at various times treasure, love, and most frequently: revenge.

On the side of myth we have Odin as an immanent presence in the saga: "The battle had been going on for some time, when a man came into the fight. He had a wide-brimmed hat that sloped over his face, and he wore a black-hooded cloack. He had one eye, and he held a spear in his hand. This man came up against King Sigmund, raising the spear before him." In an earlier chapter, Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli don wolf skins and beome actual wolves for a time. Their descendant Sigurd slays a serpent (dragon), Fafnir, and later awakens the great warrior Brynhild.

The influence on later fantasy is palpable as when Sigmund draw a sword from the Barnstock that an unnamed, one-eyed stranger with a low-hanging hood had thrust into the tree. Later, we have potions that change the appearance of characters, and the encounters between Sigurd and Brynhild to win her hand will feel familiar to readers.

Saga of the Volsungs is in part based on lays and songs stretching back to the Elder Edda, likely the oldest sources for any of these later Icelandic sagas. History accommodates the thrust of this saga as persons and events collapse or telescope. The historical Burgundians were indeed annihilated by the Huns, but Attila is brought forward by a generation to be part of the cycle of violence. Sigurd may be an incarnation of Hermann, centuries removed from his victory over the Roman Empire in the forests of Germany.

At the heart of the saga are the venal murders and betrayals over a treasure that was itself stoeln by Loki as a ransom for committing a murder. The jealous violence in the relationship between Brynhild and Sigurd, with its generation-spanning fallout, surmounts even this, and their conversations line the most human of these superhuman characters.

Please be warned that htis is an exceedingly violent saga that draws on its time and historical cultures. The violence extends to the children who are part of this terrifying world. It remains a weirdly effective saga, one to reread.

Video discussion and readings:
Profile Image for leynes.
1,111 reviews3,028 followers
January 27, 2022
Yeez this was (from a modern point of view) veeeeery boring and very basic story telling aka:
There once was a guy. He was named Sigmund. He was the bravest king that roamed the earth. He was married to the most beautiful maiden in the land. They had a son. They named him Sigurd. Sigmund died in Battle and Sigurd became the bravest of the Volsungs. He married the most beautiful maiden in the land.
I mean really? It was very repetitive and didn't explore the characters in any way. Apart from that crazy bitch Brynhild all the characters were boring.

BUUUUT (whilst this wasn't a pleasurable read) I AM VERY HAPPY that I have experienced this form of literature and appreciate it highly for what it is.
My TOP 5 reasons for appreciating this piece of work:
1) It was written by an anonymous ICELANDIC dude, so that's pretty cool
2) It was written in the 13th century A.D. and has been passed down up until this day. Thinking about this fucks my mind... 700+ years ago a dude sat down to write down a traditional story and I am reading it in the friggin' year of 2016
3) This is folklore, therefore this legend reflects an important part of northern and germanic culture in the Middle Ages.
4) This legend with its dragons, magic rings of power and Volsungs who are more powerful/ magical than your average peasant is one of the earliest works of fantasy and actually inspired Tolkien who developed the characters of Smaug, the concept of the One Ring and the Numenorians (also better than your average peasant). And seeing the works which inspired Tolkien was just really cool.
5) This was written at the time where literature really wasn't a real thing and only few precious stories (mainly religious ones) got written down by hand and passed down. That this story was one of them is pretty cool. It's very similar to the Germanic Niebelungenlied which I aught to check out sometime in the future.
Profile Image for nyx.
106 reviews34 followers
October 18, 2017
A thoughtful and inspiring piece of Nordic myths and times. I am still enraptured in the characters and the morals that were subtly put forward in the text. It seems, although the author is unknown, that Iceland was the source for a great deal of Norse lore. At first, I thought this a bit fast-paced and had little character development, but in the beginning it was mostly exploring the genealogy of the people in order to get to the main characters developed later. It did take me a while to read it, but I felt this was a better way for the characters to soak into my mind and to allow me to get a grip on the events in this exciting and well-told tale. It did mention some of the characters (Ragnar, Aslaug) that are part of a show I am fond of, Vikings, which demonstrates that the show is basing its characters off of people that really existed in the Norse world, or people that were legends in the myths of the Northmen. Overall, a very interesting story that I think I may read again and that gave me yet another glimpse at Norse culture. I have yet to finish the introduction, which I shall do soon. 4.5/5
Profile Image for Dev Taylor.
68 reviews
November 6, 2021
This might be a minor spoiler, but I think it's almost completely insignificant plot-wise so I'm just going to say it.

This book has a lot of child murder. Like, a LOT of child murder. I'm not complaining, but Almost anytime someone wants to take vengeance for anything, they're like "Hm, aren't there some defenseless, cherubic youngsters nearby I could fucking murder to quench my thirst for blood?" It's an interesting narrative choice to say the least.

All that aside, it's a solid (and short) bit of Norse mythology that's worth a read for fans of the genre - especially if you enjoy the completely unproblematic slaughter of the innocents - although I would probably recommend "The Prose Edda" over this one.
Profile Image for Alex Pler.
Author 6 books226 followers
April 9, 2020
Héroes que matan dragones para robarles el tesoro donde destaca un anillo, reyes traicionando a sus propios hijos, reinas enviando a sus hermanos a la muerte más sangrienta, dioses intercediendo, lobos... Está claro dónde encontraron su inspiración Tolkien y George R.R. Martin.
Profile Image for seismic.
83 reviews4 followers
December 19, 2020
Probably my favourite version, of the legend of siegfried so far, but i havent read the nibelungenleid yet so the jury is still out.
Profile Image for John Snow.
Author 5 books18 followers
May 8, 2013
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.

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, 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.

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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