The Saga of the Volsungs

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Sigurd and Regin at the forge.
Woodcarving from the Sigurd Portal of the Hylestad stave church, Norway, c. 1200.


"No one will protest that there has been too little killing."
Brynhild, Völsunga saga

Völsunga saga, or Saga of the Volsungs, is an Icelandic Legendary Saga, easily the single most prominent work of that group. It was composed in the late 13th century (though the only extant manuscript dates from c. 1400). Like most of the Icelandic sagas, it is of anonymous authorship. The author obviously worked along the heroic lays collected in the Codex Regius.

Structurally, Völsunga saga is a sprawling Generational Saga, starting with Sigi, supposedly a son of Odin, who commits murder of a slave. For this, he is banished from his homeland (the identity of which is never disclosed), eventually becoming a sea-rover and conquering himself a kingdom. Sigi’s son Rerir is the father of Völsung, who marries a Valkyries and from whom the lineage receives its name, the Völsungs.

All the descendants of Sigi, male or female, are of excessive strength, courage, and willpower. Yet for all their heroism, they are, in every new generation, haunted by bad luck and a tendency to come to horrible and untimely ends, and their history is chock full of bloodbaths and grisly tragedies -- most frequently, the betrayal of in-laws, the perennial curse of the Völsungs. None of them dies a peaceful death, and only a few die in honorable battle – more often they are backstabbed, murdered, or even commit suicide.

With every new generation, there arises a son who is even more prodigious and formidable than his father, until the lineage reaches its climax with Sigurd, Sigi’s great-great-grandson, who reaches the pinnacle of heroism when he kills the dragon Fafnir, and thus earns fame unparalleled by any mortal hero before or after him -- and not to forget, the enormous treasure of the dragon. But Sigurd does not escape the Völsung’s curse: An intrigue causes him to get caught up in a love triangle between two beautiful and proud women, each from a powerful heroic clan in their own right -- Brynhild of the Budlungs, a Valkyrie who is his first love, and Gudrun of the Gjukungs, also known as Niflungs, whom he marries. Sigurd ends up being murdered by his in-laws, the brothers of Gudrun, and no son of him survives to pass on the Völsung name.

But the Niflungs seem to have inherited the curse of the Völsungs with Sigurd’s murder, as they are lured to their death by Atli, Brynhild’s brother and Gudrun’s second husband, who in turn wants to get his hands on the treasure.

The last chapters are dedicated to Gudrun, whose sufferings are still not over, as she must live to see Svanhild, her daughter from Sigurd and the last Völsung alive, being unjustly killed by King Jörmunrekkr, and the vengeance Gudrun exacts comes at a high price.

In 1888, William Morris made a translation that can be read here.

Tropes used in The Saga of the Volsungs include:
  • Animorphism: Sigmund and Sinfjotli are temporarily transformed into wolves by two cursed wolfskins.
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Sigmund and Sinfjotli escape from the gravemound by using Sigmund's sword to saw through a massive stone slab. Later, Sigurd tests the same blade, reforged into the sword Gram, on an anvil, and slices it clean in two.
  • Apple of Discord: Odin's sword. King Siggeir is so angry that Sigmund refuses to sell him the sword that he decides to backstab the Volsungs to get the sword by force.
  • Art Shift: Chapter XXII abandons the terse and plot-driven Norse saga style and switches to a much more florid and exuberant style to hold forth at length about Sigurd's attire, virtues, and general heroism. Then, the narrative shifts back to the old tyle. The reason is that the chapter is a translation from a German manuscript on Siegfried, which was borrowed into the saga with few changes.
  • Baleful Polymorph: When Sigmund and Sinfjotli cover themselves in the wolfskins they took from two outlaws they killed, they are transformed into werewolves.
  • Bed Trick: Signy swaps form with a sorceress to sleep with Sigmund.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Siggeir has the sons of Volsung abandoned in the woods to perish. This gives Sigmund the opportunity to escape. Apparently Siggeir has learned nothing from this, as he makes the same mistake again when he has Sigmund and Sinfjotli walled up in a gravemound alive.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Signy in disguise consciously sleeps with her brother Sigmund to conceive Sinfjotli.
  • Buried Alive: King Siggeir has Sigmund and Sinfjotli entombed alive in a gravemound. It doesn't stick.
  • Continuation: Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons is a continuation to Saga of the Volsungs.
  • Continuity Snarl: There are several. For example, all of a sudden Brynhild and Sigurd have a daughter, Aslaug, even though they supposedly never had sex. Also, the circumstances of Gunnar's wooing of Brynhild are told differently in different sections of the narrative; and the subplot about the ring Andvaranaut -- Wagner's eponymous Ring of the Nibelung -- is garbled: When Sigurd in Gunnar's form marries Brynhild, she gives him Andvaranaut as a token, even though Sigurd never gave it to her previously, and a later section again insists that Brynhild gave him an entirely different ring.
  • Chained to a Rock: Siggeir has the sons of Volsung tied to a tree trunk in the woods, and each night an old she-wolf comes to bite one of them to death.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Hogni gets his heart carved out alive, and his brother Gunnar is thrown into a Snake Pit.
  • Divine Parentage: Sigi is said to be a son of Odin, though the saga is ambiguous on whether this is true, or to be understood literally.
  • Death Trap: Siggeir chooses to starve the sons of Volsung to death in the woods, rather than simply killing them. See Bond Villain Stupidity.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The author must have been well aware of the shock value of such scenes as Brynhild ordering human sacrifices for Sigurd's funeral, Signy making Sigmund and Sinfjotli kill her own children, and Gudrun killing her sons by Atli and serving their cooked hearts to their father.
  • Death by Childbirth: Rerir's wife dies in giving birth to Volsung.
  • Driven to Suicide: Signy willingly burns to death in Siggeir's hall. After Sigurd's death, Brynhild commits suicide by piercing herself with a sword. Much later, Gudrun also tries to drown herself, but inadvertently survives. Yes, it's always the women that end up this way.
  • Evil Matriarch: Grimhild, the matriarch of the Gjukungs, is the main villain of the second half of the saga -- in order to maximize the Gjukungs' power, she makes Sigurd forget about Brynhild with an oblivion potion, so that he can marry Gudrun, and thus is tied to the Gjukungs; she also advises Gunnar how to swap forms with Sigurd so that they can trick Brynhild into marrying Gunnar. Finally, she forces Gudrun to marry Atli, even though she hates him.
  • Family Eye Resemblance: All the Volsungs have unusually bright, piercing eyes.
  • Flaming Sword: When Regin lifts the sword Gram from the forge, "it seemed to the smiths as though fire burned along its edges." Seems to be metaphorical fire rather than literal flames, though.
  • Forging Scene: The forging of Gram. Short, but dramatic.
  • Heroic Lineage: The Volsungs.
  • Human Sacrifice: Brynhild orders thirteen of her slaves (five female and eight male) to be killed and burnt with Sigurd on his pyre. Although the saga doesn't explicitly say it, we must assume that the order is carried out.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The oblivion potion that Grimhild tricks Sigurd into drinking only extinguishes his memory of Brynhild, and nothing else. Later, the same trick works on Gudrun so that she forgets of Sigurd. Both times the memory comes back after a while, though.
  • Nasty Party: Prepared by Siggeir for the Volsungs. Later, Atli does the same to the Niflungs.
  • Offing the Offspring: Both Signy and Gudrun kill their own children to exact vengeance on their hated husbands (Siggeir and Atli respectively).
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: At the wedding of Signy and Siggeir, Odin thrusts a sword into the tree Barnstokkr, and Sigmund is the only one able to pull it out.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Fafnir is one of the more famous dragons of literature. He is probably the Trope Maker for the sapient dragon that is able to speak (most other dragons of old literature are essentially beasts). He is also strictly ground-based and breathes poison rather than fire.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: Despite everything Grimhild undertakes to increase the power of the Gjukungs, her deceptive schemes only lead to disaster, and in fact result in the Gjukungs' extermination in the end.
  • Reforged Blade: Sigurd and the dwarf Regin forge the sword Gram from the pieces of the sword that Odin gave to Sigmund, and which later broke in Sigmund's last battle, again at the will of Odin. Völsunga saga is probably the Trope Maker.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: It is never spelt out, but the betrayal of in-laws that befalls every new generation of Volsungs appears to be a supernatural punishment for the murder committed by Sigi, their ancestor, and for the cruelty that Rerir showed when he slaughtered his mother's brothers for killing his father.
  • Snake Pit: The manner of Gunnar's death.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: After tasting the blood of dragon's heart, Sigurd understands the language of the birds. This power is critical to the plot only once, though.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: The mortally wounded Sigurd throws his sword after his murderer Gutthorm, who is promptly cut int two.
  • Tyke Bomb: Sinfjotli is conceived and raised for no other reason than to exact vengeance on Siggeir.
  • Wrecked Weapon: In the battle with King Lyngvi, Sigmund's sword (which he had received from Odin earlier) breaks on Odin's spear when the latter appears in Lyngvi's ranks, thus causing Sigmund to be killed.