Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2018-19: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VIII: The Heroic Middle Ages A.D. 800-1200

Week 28: The Volsunga Saga: Pagan Germanic Epic in Iceland,
13th Century (1200-1260/70?)

For this week, please read the Volsunga Saga.

Odin as Wanderer, by Georg von Rosen.I have asked you to read the whole of the anonymous Volsunga Saga. I realize it is rather long, but it presents in perhaps its most direct and primitive form the great story that lies behind this and several other Norse sagas, the poems of the Elder Edda, the Middle High German courtly epic called the Nibelungenlied, and Richard Wagner’s nineteenth-century Der Ring des Nibelungen. In its basic form it is rather raw, and very different from the courtly epic of the later Middle Ages, which we’ll be examining next week. If you do find that you are having difficulty getting through it, concentrate on the central section dealing with Sigurd and his marriage, and the problems that emerged from it (ch. 13-30).

Behind all these pieces lies a cast of historical characters who are rather murky, and their relationship seems to shift from one version of the story to the other. But the names remain, in changed form, talking about something, perhaps, that happened early on in the history of the Germanic migrations. One cannot trust these stories as direct historical sources, of course: Attila, for example, died (according to the best historical sources) from drinking too much wine, not at the hands of some disgruntled in-laws.

Regin forging Sigurd’s sword.Even so, in this interwoven story we find the names of Attila (Atli in the Norse sources; Etzel in the German ones) and Bleda (Budli) his brother (here become his father); the kings Gundaharius (Gunnar here; Gunther in the German), Gibica (here Gjuki; Gibich in the German), and Gislaharius (Giselher in the German; omitted here). We also find Brynhild, mentioned earlier by Gregory of Tours. Theodoric the Ostrogoth does not come into the Volsunga Saga, but he is represented by the Thidrek’s Saga of the same tradition.

But this is far from being a patchwork of historical details in search of a theme: the story is a direct and visceral tale from a pagan heroic age. The figure of Odin wanders in and out of the story at significant times (look for the one-eyed man) and gets the ball rolling; a multi-generational web of personal entanglements ensues that would do credit to any over-wrought soap opera. It is bound up with broken oaths and familial bonds and blood vengeance, and laced with a truly horrific number of deeds of violence and mayhem. For all that, it represents a great story at its roots, and is an interesting foil to the heroes we have met along the way from Homer to Roland.