Reviews of Völsunga Saga (ca. 1250–1300) and related work

Völsunga Saga (ca. 1250–1300Text)

Read in 2020.

Read in English, in Jackson Crawford’s 2017 translation, and in Swedish, in Inge Knutsson’s 1991 translation. Both are based on a manuscript from around 1400, since nothing older has survived.

As Crawford notes in his foreword, carvings hundreds of years older than the likely date of composition allude to the contents of the story, and the same contents echo in later stories. This is essentially one version of the myth of Sigurd the dragonslayer, and it’s not the worst version.

To set the scene, in 2018, archaeologists at Sandby Borg found a fifth-century onion, proving a connection between the collapsing Western Roman Empire and Scandinavia at around the time of Attila, the man who became the saga’s heavily mythologized Atli.

In his introduction to Knutsson’s version, Staffan Bergsten remarks that the writing of the saga is simplified and flat compared to the Edda’s glimpses of the tale, noting especially that possible references to garlic (geirlaukr) in the Edda are reduced to a generic onion (laukr), thus losing some significant theorized overtones of sex (the potency of garlic, and a tenuous interpretation of the name “Völsung” itself as meaning “phallus”) and weaponry (geir for “spear”) that would explain the usage.

One particular usage of the onion is symptomatic of the text’s attitudes. Here’s Knutsson’s version of one part of chapter 32:

Det berättas, att en dag då Gudrun satt i sin sal så sade hon: “Bättre var mitt liv när jag hade Sigurd, för han overglänste alla andra män så som guldet järn eller löken andra örter eller hjorten andra djur, tills mina bröder missunnade mig en sådan man som var mer framstående än alla andra; de kunde inte sova förrän de hade dödat honom.”

Here’s Crawford’s English version (audiobook, guessing at punctuation):

It is said that one day Gudrún sat in her room and said: “My life was better when I had Sigurd; he was better than all other men, as much as gold is better than iron, or garlic is better than other plants, or a stag is better than other animals, until my brothers became jealous of this man who was better than all others, and they could not sleep until they had killed him.”

The saga of Völsung’s family is not blindly focused on loyalty like the medieval remakes, but it equates badassery with a person’s value. In the excerpt, Sigurd is flatly better than others, and his sheer superiority—not a hero’s journey—drives the plot, including his murder. Chapter 22 is a list of his dubious virtues. Don’t be fooled by the unintentionally comedic suggestion that Sigurd was superior only to the same extent that Crawford’s and the Edda’s garlic (or Knutsson’s and the saga’s onion) and stags are superior: The author apparently believed that each living thing was somehow ranked like the wrestlers in a glima tournament. To approach the classic Indo-European heroic ideal on that basis was not a good idea. It is, at its heart, a repugnant fantasy of force conflated with authority, and its poetic virtues are indeed few, but I don’t miss the kennings.

There are more onions. In a bizarre coda, Sigurd and Brynhild’s daughter Aslaug (Aslög) is secretly carried around inside a giant modular harp and eats mainly a type of onion that satisfies all human nutritional requirements. I want to believe this love of onions is a faint early-medieval echo of their once-great importance and exoticism, like Atli.

Indeed, this saga is not the worst version of the legend of Sigurd the dragonslayer, but it can’t be the best Viking saga for seeing how society worked. Family feuds, horrific violence and onions were all important to Vikings, but they are badly distorted in this telling, and the reasons for them are not apparent in this one story. There are other pleasures instead, like Gunnar’s hilariously contrarian misreadings of dour prophecy.

References here: Action Comics (1938), Fafner (2004).

text poetry fiction

The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (ca. 1300–1350Text)

Read in 2020.

Read in Crawford’s translation. Omitted from Knutsson’s.

Appended to Völsunga Saga in the oldest manuscript, this is later fan fiction: “perhaps up to fifty years later” in Crawford’s estimation.

The most amusing episode is that of Kråka’s adoptive parents. Everyone, including the parents themselves, find it implausible that two people so extraordinarily ugly (i.e. poor) could possibly have such a pretty daughter. Perhaps Crawford, in his idiomatic English, exaggerates the almost metafictional comedy of the situation.

The cow battle is also fun. It echoes Deuteronomy 12, where nebulous human sacrifice is the only crime attributed to the enemy to justify war.

text spin-off fiction

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924Moving picture, 130 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

I saw the 2010 restoration.

The plot is awful. Iron-jawed maidens wrestle callous men in dresses in a way that makes me think of Shana Mlawski’s “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women” (Overthinking It, 2008). Specifically, there was an opportunity to adapt the legend’s Brünhild as a rounded and interesting character for the flapper age, but instead, she is only physically strong, and correspondingly stupid.

The plot hinges on Brünhild’s decision to await suitors inside a castle in a lake of fire. What does she eat in there, and what does she need a suitor for? We never learn. Dissatisfied with the man she calls her captor, she nonetheless abandons her home, following him to his castle, where she essentially demands to be raped. Nominally, this is so her captor can prove himself worthy of her. Having been raped, she’s proud of her new position in the Burgundian hierarchy until she finds out that the man who had sex with her was not actually the same one who overpowered her. It was rape by fraud rather than her preference, rape by force. Only when learning this, Brünhild is furious about being “betrayed” and lies to manipulate others to take her “revenge” for her, even though she herself is still the second strongest person in the known world, as far as we know. When she finally gets her way, she kills herself.

You could possibly explain, based on a proto-German medieval mentality, why some popular versions of the legend were written this way, but the adaptation does not manage to sell the drama with coherent style or characterization. Lang and von Harbou should have done better. There are several less ridiculous versions of the medieval legend where the same character does not demand to be taken by force and does not kill herself. On the other hand, there are sillier versions where the character definitely loses her power with her virginity, i.e. in which a woman’s physical power is a metaphor for her attractiveness within a monogamous Christian moral framework.

I like the huge scale of the production, the simple geometric patterns for the eye to trace, and the attempt to film the previous generation’s static visual adaptations of the mythology. The dwarves look like Arthur Rackham’s, their wood like John Bauer’s. The most lyrical imagery is the most successful: The sand animation of Kriemhild’s dream, and her more cheaply produced vision upon Siegfried’s death. The miniature castle shots are also nice, but the dragon leaves much to be desired: It’s a pretty good prop, but the pre-formalist cinematographer and editor didn’t know how to use it. Fast cuts and a mobile camera would have helped, instead of long, static, deep-focus shots of the poor thing just drooling and not hurting a soul. The tricks of nascent action cinema, as in “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), would also have been good for this blockbuster production.

References here: Hakujaden (1958), The Brothers Lionheart (1977), Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa (2005), Adventure Time (2010).

moving picture same source material fiction

‣‣ Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924Moving picture, 129 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

I saw the 2010 restoration.

This, the second part, is a good deal more interesting than the first. It is the larger spectacle, on the scale of Cabiria (1914). The crude folkloric-allegorical supernatural stuff is gone, but allegory is sustained in Attila’s degenerate horde. Their look is based on fluid medieval notions of the real Attila but the decor ranges even further afield, to loosely Mesoamerican motifs and amazing anthill designs: Anything alien to the German filmmakers. Rüdiger’s scale armour is similarly incorrect: It would be very nearly useless in combat, while Hagen is dressed in more practical mail from a later era.

Unlike Brünhild, Kriemhild is allowed to grow as a character, on the narrow path she chose at the end of the first half. The process of her revenge involves some impressive stunt work that looks genuinely dangerous. The particulars of the plot, however, are still not interesting: Only Kriemhild and Rüdiger are developed. Everyone else operates like a machine, following either some force of ancestral evil (Hagen), base interests (Attila) or an improbable idealization of feudal loyalty (“Treue”), presented in the mode of ancient Greek tragedies for the stage.

References here: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Oldboy (2003).

moving picture sequel fiction