Tag Archives: saga of the volsungs

The Nibelungenlied: Variations

Siegfried and Kriemhilde

In April I was walking through the Universitätsbibliothek here in Tübingen and saw that there was a little display about the Nibelungs there, including some really fake-looking treasure to represent the hoard of the Nibelungs. I looked through it, at copies of editions and translations of the Prose Edda (blogged about here) and the Poetic Edda and the Nibelungenlied as well as a discussion of Richard Wagner and silent film director Fritz Lang.

This made me think, ‘Aha! I should re-read the Nibelungenlied!’ You see, I have a habit of reading literature of the country I am visiting. Plato in Athens, Maupassant in Paris, Ambrose in Milan, Dante in Florence, Burns in Edinburgh. So – why not the Nibelungenlied in Tübingen? To my delight, the uni library has a copy of this mediaeval epic in English, so I took it out (the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Cyril Edwards)!* And I recently finished it.

This is by no means my first contact with this familiar tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, Etzel and Kriemhilde, Hagen and Gunther. Like oh-so-many people, it was through Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (to which I am listening as I write), the glorious music and plot synopses, followed by watching Die Walküre live in Toronto with my uncle and a friend as well as, much later, Siegfried on DVD (my post on that here). At some stage, after having read the Nibelungenlied, I read Roy Thomas’ graphic novel of the Ring Cycle as well. I was a bit disappointed with the stylised vision of the Aesir, whom I would have made more early mediaeval, ‘Nordic’, as in Gareth Hinds’ excellent Beowulf. Wagner’s vision is most people’s primary, first, and very often sole encounter with this tale.

However, because of Wagner, many people like me exist! I thought to myself, ‘Hmph. I should read this Nibelungenlied someday, fan of Wagner that I am.’ In my fourth year of uni, I found a copy of the Penguin Classics translation at this fabulous used book store in Ottawa called ‘All Books’ but resisted. My then-girlfriend (now wife!) bought it for me! So I read it.

The Nibelungenlied is not Wagner. I like it, though. It is a High Mediaeval tale of Deception, Betrayal, and Vengeance. There are no Aesir. Fafnir is a mere reference in describing Siegfried’s background. There are jousts and large amounts of single-handed combat. And a cloak of invisibility. And full-scale slaughter. But it is not actually, despite the name of Wagner’s operatic cycle – Der Ring des Nibelungen – the main source of inspiration for those four famousest of operas.

Like all great tales, especially ones transmitted orally, as the heroic epic of the Nibelungenlied was, there are variations, equally aged, each a bit different, each worth investigating. And Wagner’s main inspiration came not from the continental, ‘German’ epic but the Icelandic/Old Norse versions of the story, encapsulated in The Saga of the Volsungs, various poems of The Poetic Edda, and The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. These were all written down after or around the time that the Nibelungenlied was but sometimes contains strata of story that go back much farther.

These I have read since moving to Scotland, first The Poetic Edda, much of which I have to admit I forgot because it’s so dense a read, and then The Saga of the Volsungs, and in April upon arrival in Germany, The Prose Edda. This version is the one with Otter’s Ransom, with cursed gold, with Fafnir, with Sigurd (Siegfried) and Brynhilt and that burning ring of fire (into which Sigurd fell; actually, he jumped with a horse – sorry Johnny Cash). Of the three, if you’re really into things Nibelung, I recommend The Saga of the Volsungs. It is a fairly easy read, and has much adventure, and is self-contained; it’s also shorter than the Nibelungenlied. The others contain a lot of other material from Norse myth, which is itself interesting and well worth a read. But if you’re looking just for the story of Siegfried, that saga is the place to go.

Between reading the Nibelungenlied and the mediaeval Norse versions, I read J R R Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (about which I’ve blogged here). This is a fabulous attempt at weaving a coherent narrative of the competing versions in modern English following Old English versification. It can get heavy at times, but I like it. This book was where I first actually encountered the Norse version un-Wagnerised, and with the Norse names Sigurd and Gudrun, rather than Siegfried and Kriemhilde.

I hope to soon see Fritz Lang’s silent films about Siegfried. Then, all that will remain will be seeing, rather than listening to over and over and over again, Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung.

Each telling, whether ancient or modern, brings a different angle and flavour to this tale, and I like that. Sometimes what is omitted by one is fully stated in another, and so they make sense together. Sometimes I prefer the motivations of one plot over another. That sort of thing. This is the fun of the competing tellings of these old stories, whether of Troy or Arthur or Siegfried.

My Nibelungenlist – Editions/Translations of Variations

The Nibelungenlied. I’ve read both A T Hatto’s translation for Penguin as well as Cyril Edwards’ for Oxford. I don’t recall how the Penguin holds up to the Oxford, but I remember liking it!

The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. As noted above, this is a volume devoted to nothing but a Norse version of this story. It is heroic and big and wonderful. And a quick read.

The Prose Edda. By Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. This is our major source for Viking myths and worth reading for that alone; along the way, the tale of Sigurd (Siegfried) is told. Like Byock’s translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, this is readable.

The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington for Oxford World’s Classics. Our other major source for Viking myths, this is a dense volume of shorter poems covering the full range of the tales, including – again – Sigurd.

The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) by Richard Wagner. Numerous recordings of this exist. I am listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s from 1989(?). For DVDs, my opera-loving uncle with whom I saw Die Walküre recommends the Toronto production and last year’s production from the Met.

  • As a subsection of the above, do not forget the graphic novel by Roy Thomas for DC. There is another, multivolume graphic novel by P. Craig Russell, but I haven’t read it. If Eric Shanower ever finishes Age of Bronze, I’d like to see him do something similar for the scattered hoard of the Nibelungs.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J R R Tolkien. I cannot say it better than I already have.

*Sadly, they lack Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in English.

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Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 3 – Magical Items

This post will be brief.* Magical items are present in both Beowulf and The Hobbit. Most famously, The Hobbit includes a magic ring, discovered by Bilbo in the roots of the Misty Mountains just prior to his game of Riddles in the Dark with Gollum. This ring can turn its wearer invisible (save his shadow) — but, as readers/viewers of The Lord of the Rings know, it is much more than that.**

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel's Mother

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel’s Mother

Without rereading Beowulf a third time (I read it in June, after all), I can think of no magic rings. There are, of course, many objects of beauty and great craftsmanship. However, the only mangical item I can think of is the magical, used by Beowulf in his combat against Grendel’s mom after the mighty blade Hrunting fails to protect him. Later, he is given Naegling by Hrothgar in honour of his defeat of Grendel’s mom.

The Hobbit also has magic swords — Glamdring (‘Foehammer’, called by goblins ‘Beater’), Orcrist (‘Goblin-cleaver’, called by goblins ‘Biter’), and Sting. These items were forged in the elder days by elves and prove very useful in the combat against goblins and, in the case of Sting, the spiders of Mirkwood. Being of Elvish manufacture, they glow blue when goblins are in the vicinity.***

These are about all the properly magical items I can think of just now. Here the connexions between Beowulf and The Hobbit are more slender than with the monsters. But still we have magic swords that enable their bearers to wreak terrible deeds.

*Unlike the others in this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit: ‘The Epic and the Episodes‘, ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Grendel and the Goblins‘, and ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Dragons‘.

**Here come in the inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs, although Tolkien claims no relation to the former.

***More inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs? Perhaps also The Princess Bride for good measure, right?

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 2 — Dragons (with reference to Fafnir)

Tolkien’s image of Smaug

Thus far, our discussion of Beowulf and The Hobbit has taken us to the world of genre and then into the world of Grendel and the Goblins. Now we turn from such petty monsters as Grendel, trolls, goblins, what-have-you, to the big beasts. Dragons.

Beowulf has a dragon in the last, violent episode. Sadly, this wyrm is much less famous than Grendel, descendant of Cain. I think he deserves his day in the sun. So here it is.

The dragon of Beowulf comes upon a barrow left behind by the men of Geatland of old, now long-dead, long-forgotten — there is a touch of sorrow in the poet’s telling of this fact; the sorrow of the fated — doomed — Anglo-Saxon. Much feared by the Geats, the dragon takes possession of the hoard then lies silent and sleeping for three hundred years, almost if not entirely forgotten.

Then, one day, a wandering thief takes a vessel from the hoard, shows it to his master (Beowulf, King of the Geats?). The dragon knows. Is enraged. The fire worm flies into a rage, realising that men now know of the treasure. The dragon attacks the people of Geatland, attacks Beowulf’s kingdom.

Then the giver of gold disdained
to track the dragon with a troop
of warlike men; he did not shrink
from single combat, nor did he set much store
by the fearless dragon’s power, for had he not before
experienced danger, again and again
survived the storm of battle, beginning with that time
when, blessed with success, he cleansed
Hrothgar’s hall, and crushed in battle
the monster and his vile mother? (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Beowulf did take with him 12 men, 12 thegns, 12 apostles of battle. And he did battle with the dragon, though only one of his men, Wiglaf, would stand by his lord. And, although victorious, clad in armour, Beowulf died in battle with the fire dragon.

Thus the dragon of Beowulf.

Smaug is a very similar case — although he took his hoard from the living. Nonetheless, he, too, has a precious vessel stolen. He, too, flies out in a rage and ravages the countryside. He, too, is slain by a man of valour.

Look, here. Beowulf takes 12 men to defend his kingdom; Thorin takes 12 dwarves (and one hobbit) to reclaim his kingdom. In the events that transpire, Beowulf is slain; so also is Thorin. Not perfect parallels, but present nonetheless.

But what do dragons represent? This, for me, is an important question. If memory serves me right, according to The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s dragons symbolise the evil within human nature.

yawn

Facile.

Easy.

Dragons represent evil.

Outside of Pern or ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ where they are good and Harry Potter where they are mere beasts, this is obvious, taken straight from Revelation and other biblical references where a dragon may represent the devil, or even from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (although E V Rieu was very adamant in the introduction to his translation of it, The Voyage of Argo, that the beast guarding the Golden Fleece is a giant snake, for that is what drakon means).

But what sort of evil?

I believe that dragons are greed, avarice. Tolkien even makes reference to Smaug’s rage at the treasure burgled by Bilbo as being the extreme sort of anger only displayed by the very rich who have lost something they didn’t even know they’d owned until it was gone, but now it is very precious to them. Smaug is avaricious and sly — and so is avarice. It slips in when you aren’t looking, burns up everything, consumes you, and makes you want more, more, more.

The Beowulf dragon is about the same, really, given the parallels between him and Smaug.

Sigurd kills Fafnir; Norwegian stave church door

And if we want to press home this vision of dragons as symbols of greed, I shall quickly bring in the Volsunga Saga (trans. by Jesse L Byock as The Saga of the Volsungs). In this Icelandic saga, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir (an event known to one and all through Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen — read my thoughts on Siegfried here) Tolkien himself tells it in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on which I blogged here and here).

Fafnir, brother of Otr (Otter) and Regin, has demonstrated himself very avaricious from the start, when he and Regin encounter the Aesir with the skin of Otr who was slain by Loki (naturally). He demands, as ransom (wergeld), the skin of Otr filled with gold. And then he wants the entire skin covered with gold. At last — and I believe it is Regin and Fafnir’s father who does this — a cursed ring is added to the treasure, covering the last portion of Otr’s hair. Otter’s Ransom (gold).

Fafnir takes the treasure and the ring and eventually transforms into a greedy dragon.

Dragons are avarice, and this allegorical/analogical/symbolic interpretation of them is perfectly in keeping with mediaeval literary tastes, since mediaeval people loved a good allegory (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl). Now, Beowulf may be an early mediaeval, pre-Viking, Germanic/Anglo-Saxon tale, but it was recorded by a Christian in an England acquainted with Continental tastes — and Tolkien was no stranger to symbol, although he hated allegory.

Could we not say that, although not an allegory for greed, Smaug is a symbol of greed and its destructive power in the human heart? Yes, I think so.