Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

The Valkyrie Tragedies

~ 800 words

indigent - adj - lacking the neccessities of life because of poverty; needy; poor; impoverished

interlocutor - noun - a person who takes part in conversation or dialog

duplicity - noun - decietfulness in speech or conduct; double dealing.

So I finished the Poetic Edda over the weekend. I must say, it is an excellent book in all respects. I'm on to Pride and Prejudice now. Never thought I'd see the day when Austen made it to the top of my list, but a friend of mine was rather insistent. I'd like to take a few moments and mention a couple of the really interesting characters that dwell in the Poetic Edda.

The heroic tragedies are divided into two discrete units. First you have Helgi Hundingsbani, who is likely the older archetype on which other variants were based. The second is the Volsung saga, which follows several characters, all related to each other somehow.

Helgi Hundingsbani is a hero, whose auspicious birth was overseen by the Norns (female spirits connected with fate) and who was ready for battle at the age of one day (similar to the god Hod, born to avenge the death of his brother Baldr). It depends on which version you adhere to, as a couple versions of each story are contained in the book, but Helgi falls in love with a valkyrie named Sigrun. Valkyries are interesting, and there is a great deal of modern adaptation of the term to things that have little to do with the actual function of a valkyrie. Valkyries were semi-divine women who determine who falls in battle and serve mead in Valhall, Odin's hall where the spirits of great warriors gather for the final fight of Ragnarok. These are often human women who forgo mundane life for the life of a valkyrie. Helgi falls for Sigrun, but he must first thwart her suitors. Being hand forged from pure awesome, he wins handily, but is subsequently surprise-attacked by Sigrun's brother to avenge their father whom Helgi apparently killed at some point.

More interesting to me are the Volsungs. These more or less start with Sigurd, purportedly the most heroic hero ever to rescue damsels. He is the only hero in the entire book to slay a dragon. The dragon's name is Fafnir, he slays him to reclaim the rightful inheritance of the dragon's brother (who is a dwarf by the way). He finds the dragon's drinking pond, digs a hole over the dragon's tracks, and scores a direct hit when the dragon comes to have a drink.

The sword he uses, which the dwarf brother forged for him, is so sharp, if you dip the tip into a stream and allow unspun wool to float across it, it will part the wool as if it were water.

At any rate, he subsequently saves the valkyrie Brynhild from Odin's wrath (she allowed the incorrect combatant to win in battle), and promises himself to her (for keeps). He subsequently (and conveniently) drinks the ale of forgetfulness, forgetting that he promised to marry Brinhild, and marries another swingin' gal (and valkyrie) Gudrun. Brynhild persuades Gudrun's siblings to kill Sigurd, which they do, and Gudrun is out a husband. She is then fed the ale of forgetfulness and married to Brynhild's brother, none other than Attila the Hun. Brynhild sort of says "Oh, he's dead now isn't he..." and kills herself and a dozen servants.

Attila is beset by Gudrun's brothers, whom he summoned to his court. He intends to steal Fafnir's treasure, which passed to Gudrun's brothers after the death of Sigurd. He murders them mercilessly, cutting the heart out of one and throwing the other in a snake pit. Gudrun is at this point rather peeved with Attila, so she murders their children and feeds them to Attila and his men. She then kills him and burns down his hall and everyone in it.

Gudrun then throws herself into the sea, trying to drown herself, but ends up with still another king. She has two sons who own magic armour, and who set out across the land to avenge the death Svanhild, Gudrun's daughter by Sigurd. They go, knowing it's their doom. They meet their half brother on the road, who is full of wisdom, but also rather annoying. They kill him a few stanzas after meeting him and proceed to the enemy's hall. Though hopelessly outnumbered, their magic armour serves them well. They cut off the king's arms and legs, but the king tells his warriors to use stones to kill the two of them. Apparently the magic only deflected iron, so they say to themselves, "Oops, I guess we shouldn't have killed whats-his-face thirty stanzas ago.

You heard it here first. A brief summary of Old Norse tragedy complete with dragon fighting and child cannibalism.


  1. I tried to read the Saga of the Volsungs last year and gave up after finishing 2/3s of it. The story seems to jump around a lot and motivations were never very clear. As your summary suggests, everyone seemed to be itching for an excuse to kill someone. This may be one of those stories you have to know well before you can appreciate it. Maybe if you know what's coming, the tragedy of everyone's decisions carries the story.

  2. My approach to reading stuff like this is less interested in story continuity or character depth and more interested in themes, ideas, general feeling, sense of drama, etc.

    And for the record, I read the Volsunga Saga not too long ago and it is extremely coherant as compared to the poetic edda, which bombards you with multiple contradictory accounts of the story. That allows you the freedom, however, to choose your own version of the narrative.