General Introduction to Sigurd the Volsung
Florence S. Boos
History’s Pattern of Myth and Hope
In 1870, Morris and his collaborator and eventual fellow traveler Eiríkur Magnússon published their translation of the Volsungasaga, and in 1877, four years after Love Is Enough, Morris brought out Sigurd the Volsung, a four-book epic poem based loosely on the Volsungasaga. Morris’s extended ‘nordic’ poem of twilit struggle is utterly remote in plot from the delicate allegory of renunciation of Love Is Enough, but even here he managed to project some of the patterns mentioned above into an originary tale of brutal conflict between two aristocratic houses of medieval Northern Europe. In Sigurd, Morris tried to write a sophisticated ‘popular’ epic, which would draw on the Icelandic historical and legendary materials he had learned. As he had already done in ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’, The Earthly Paradise’s dramatic reworking of the Laxdaela Saga, Morris rearranged legendary materials in rather drastic ways. He expanded and interpreted hundreds of incidents in Sigurd to express his personal preoccupations with love and endurance, and transmuted the original epic’s carnage and macabre disruptions into a poetic tragedy of fulfilled prophecy and fate.
Morris chose the grim tale of the Volsungs with a good deal of thought, and it held personal as well as cultural significance for him. His co-published prose rendering of the Volsunga Saga is still considered a model of Victorian translation, and in its preface, Morris expressed hope that the saga’s beauty and power would endure:
Morris also inserted an introspective prefatory poem, which makes its parallel claim in different terms:
Morris expressed his admiration for the saga even more directly in a letter to the American critic and translator Charles Eliot Norton: ‘I daresay you have read abstracts of the story, but however fine it seemed to you thus, it would give you little idea of the depth and intensity of the complete work … the scene of the last interview between Sigurd and the despairing and terrible Brynhild touches me more than anything I have ever met with in literature; there is nothing wanting in it, nothing forgotten, nothing repeated, nothing overstrained; all tenderness is shown without the use of a tender word, all misery and despair without a word of raving, complete beauty without an ornament’ (Artist, Writer, Socialist I: 472).
In what follows, I will note some features of the poem’s scene-patterning, and emphasize a few plot-elements which I believe have been neglected by earlier critics. These include: proto-feminist roles of women as active agents in the poem’s tragic sequence of events, and the presence of certain female wisdom-figures; motifs of prophesy, foresight, and cyclical unraveling, which permit deeply flawed characters to reform and express incongruously noble social ideals; and ‘All-father’s’ (Odin’s) role as heroic mentor, reminiscent of Homeric divinities and certain facilitating male guardians in Love Is Enough, and of the quasi-angelic Steelhead in Morris’s The Sundering Flood. Finally, I will also remark on the poem’s prosody and contemporary critical responses, and consider the role of rhythms, brocaded patterns, and sense of fate in the poem’s final complex tonalities.
The four ‘books’ of Sigurd the Volsung tell relatively self-contained stories, but their interrelations of scene, plot, and motif reverberate with ironic, iconic, and prophetic significance. As the reader traces through the work’s many superposed and retrospective debates between female protagonists, scenes of courtship and mating, pledges of ‘brotherhood’ undermined by male ambition and Grimhild’s evil and narrow-minded counsel, allusions to the originary tree ‘Branstock’ (‘Fire-trunk’) and the rings of Andvari (‘Vigilance’), these contrapuntal echoes accumulate, and gradually heighten a sense of oppressive subjectivity and implacable fate.
Consider, for example, several scenes of the interrelations between thwarted and/or vaguely transgressive sexuality. In one, Sigurd kneels beside the recumbent Brynhild. In another, Sigurd and Brynhild lie transfixed beside each other like figures on a medieval frieze or tomb. And in a third, Sigurd comes to Brynhild’s bed in the shape of his ‘blood brother’ Gunnar. Each of these unions is interdicted in some way – by a sword, a distortion, a disguise, or death itself, on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. When Sigurd first enters the ring of fire and finds Brynhild asleep in her coat of armor, he uses ‘Wrath’ (his mighty Branstock sword) to free and – symbolically – to enter her.
Parallel descriptions attend Sigurd’s later visit to Lymdale, when the two exchange antiphonal vows, foresee their ultimate destinies, and fatalistically embrace. All these pledges, vows, and embraces are ironically recapitulated when Sigurd later enters the fiery ring in the guise of Gunnar, to exchange another ‘pledge’ with her on Gunnar’s behalf:
This frieze-frame of recumbent stasis also persists in other scenes. In one, Brynhild sleeps beside Gunnar, and ‘the Lie is laid between them, as the sword lay while agone’ (III, ‘Of the Contention betwixt the Queens’). In another, Gudrun sleeps at Sigurd’s side before his murder by Guttorm’s sword. In a third, Brynhild lies abed and relates a bitter dream: ‘Dead-cold was thy bed, O Gunnar, and thy land was parched with dearth’ (III, ‘Of the passing away of Brynhild’). In the final such scene, Brynhild orders her laying-out on Sigurd’s funeral pyre:
Similar associations also accrete around much simpler dramatic images – ring, cup, bed, sword, tree, and sun, as well as fire.
Generative Women, and Generational ‘Grief and Wrack’
As in Morris’s other poems, Sigurd’s women characters also assume much more active roles than in his sources. The epic plot ostensibly celebrates male heroism in a warrior-dominated society, but the poem’s most important women determine much of its action, and all but Grimhild – a stereotypical meddling mother-in-law – are admirable and/or courageous in their culture’s terms. Morris’s rhetorical legerdemain of prophetic visions, frozen tableaux, patterned reversals et alia, permitted him to portray these women as innocent as well as complicitous, providentially wise as well as vengeful, and active initiators in many cases of the events they witness and record.
They are also prophetic, or at least chastened by what they behold. When Brynhild in Sigurd learns that Sigurd has connived in Gunnar’s deception, she predicts the downfall of the Niblungs, and her prophesy prompts Gunnar to conspire in Sigurd’s assassination. Brynhild’s powerful rhetoric thus leads indirectly to Sigurd’s death, but her pronouncements can be interpreted as simple acts of the sort of clairvoyance central to her character. Gudrun, in her turn, is clearly motivated by insecurity about her husband’s affections when she tells Brynhild of the origins of the ring, but she is devastated by her husband’s murder, and lives to preserve as well as avenge Sigurd’s memory.
Sigurd’s aunt, Signy, daughter of the original King Volsung, provides in Book I another roughly parallel exemplar of vengeful courage and doomed clairvoyance. King Volsung, her father, triggers the bloody events of the poem’s entire plot when he arranges Signy’s marriage to Siggeir the Goth, for reasons of ambition:
A faint hint of Morris’s later socialist critique of marriage appears in Signy’s apparent self-sacrifice for her father’s gain. Pathetic in her terrible foreknowledge, she goes unillusioned to her marital doom. In the destructive field of her world’s social forces, Signy’s complicity in this marriage she loathes is a mark of forced solidarity, but her subsequent union with her brother Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, helps ensure that this branch of the Volsung line will continue to exist.
Signy and Sigmund have survived Siggeir’s treacherous assault on his in-laws, and she resolutely commits herself to revenge their deaths. She disguises herself and visits Sigmund in his cave hideout, where they conceive a son, Sinfiotli. When Sigmund and his adult son later attack Siggeir in his dwelling, Signy urges Sinfiotli to kill two of Siggeir’s children, his half-siblings, but when Sigurd and Sinfiotli set fire to the king’s house, she immolates herself in the flames.
Sinfiotli is later poisoned by Borghild, Sigmund’s new queen, but Sigmund remarries in old age before he dies in a final battle. His prophetically gifted wife, Hiordis, survives to bear Sigurd, their son, whom she carries away to safety in the distant land of the friendly Helper and his son Elf, where Regin (‘Gods’) nurtures and trains Sigurd, as Sigmund had done with Sinfiotli. The bloody collaboration of Sigmund’s skill with Signy’s and Hiordis’s foresight and ironwilled loyalty thus bring the dynasty through the first book.
Another striking woman appears very briefly in Book III, in an addition by Morris which briefly highlights the victimization of women and children by war. As Gudrun is mourning Sigurd’s murder, a ‘war-chattel’ interrupts with a grimmer tale:
Gudrun ignores this ‘chattel’s’ eloquent lament, and with it a possible moment of genuinely prophetic insight and solidarity. The Welshland Queen’s account, a medieval ‘ubi sunt’ lament in female voice, recalls the ‘Lay of Gormley’ as well as the plight of Euripides’s Trojan women, and her sorrow overshadows – in some perspectives, at least – the collective griefs of Gudrun, Brynhild, Gunnar, and the rest of the self-lacerating Volsung/Niblung line.
Sigurd the Volsung’s most conspicuously impressive heroine, in any case, remains Brynhild, who is clearly a woman of quick intelligence and resolute will. Brynhild’s utterances in the original Volsunga Saga and Edda are full of flat, sententious Polonian bits, such as the following:
Morris’s Brynhild, by contrast, speaks in resonant biblical periods. When she first meets Sigurd she interprets the Gods’ motives, and enjoins Sigurd to constancy of purpose in eloquent, Ecclesiastes-like cadences:
This iconically vatic Brynhild is Sigurd’s ‘speech-friend’ indeed. She is more articulate than any of Morris’s poetic heroines, with the possible exception of Guenevere, and more fluently eloquent and loving than any other female character in Morris’s work before the advent of Birdalone and Elfhild, in the last prose romances. Sigurd learns his destiny well, and falters only when he is drugged by the devious Grimhild. At their original meeting, the newly-plighted lovers even projected a ‘day of better things’, in language that recalls Christ’s view of kingdoms of the earth, or Aurora and Romney’s vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of Aurora Leigh:
The poem provides sources for all this vatic wisdom, in the first appearance of yet another motif to which Morris recurs in the late prose romances. Male protagonists are helped by their Allfather, Odin, but Brynhild learns her lore from a female figure – ‘Wisdom’ herself, with possible echoes of the book of Proverbs:
Morris later fashioned brief versions of such tutelage for other, comparably mythic heroines – Birdalone, for example, in Water of the Wondrous Isles, who learns nature’s lore from the benign witch Habundia.
Another, less visionary woman is central to Morris’s version of the plot: the bitterly wronged and vengeful Gudrun, whose marriage to Sigurd precipitates much woe. Aware that a bond exists between Sigurd and Brynhild, Gudrun boasts to Brynhild that she has spent the night with ‘the best man in the world’ (Sigurd), which goads the momentarily petty Brynhild to retort that Sigurd is ‘the serving-man of Gunnar … King of the King-folk who rode the Wavering Fire’. Gudrun then shows Brynhild the ring of Andvari that Brynhild had herself given Sigurd, and he in turn to her. Gudrun is later devastated by Sigurd’s murder, ordered by Gunnar, and she flees the royal homestead to live for seven years among the "peaceful folk," an echo, perhaps, of Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years in the fields. In the poem’s final book, Gunnar sends again for Gudrun and asks her to marry his oppressive royal neighbor Atli. She consents, but incites Atli to murder her brothers in revenge for Sigurd’s death. Shamed by the aftermath of all this vengeful carnage, she then torches Atli’s palace, stabs her terrified husband in his bedchamber, and leaps to her death:
The more wholeheartedly evil Sthenoboea in ‘Bellerophon in Argos’, a late Earthly Paradise tale, also leapt to her death from a cliff. Here, Gudrun’s courageous and spectacular leap ‘away from the earth’ finally ends the noble Volsung line, and brings the cycle to its close.
Blood-drenched Antiheroes and Numinous Visions
The poem’s many prophecies and intermittent expressions of introspective remorse and atonement interdict final judgments in complicated ways, and one such example of narrative redemption occurs earlier in Book IV. Gunnar, Sigurd’s ‘blood-brother’, and contractor of his murder, struggles heroically to organize the Niblung’s doomed resistance to Atli’s treacherous attack (itself an analogue of Siggeir’s murders in Book I), in one of the grimmer battle scenes in modern English poetry. He is then overwhelmed, and withstands imprisonment in a snake pit after he refuses under torture to divulge to Atli the secret location of Andvari’s gold, ‘the ransom of Odin’.
In the final scenes of his life, Gunnar even becomes a skald, and chants several truly beautiful songs as he fights and withstands torture. Like Orpheus and the Gunnar of the Njálssaga, the Niblung Gunnar sings most poignantly, as it were, from beyond the grave. His social conscience awakened, he even chants the merits of the ‘brother’ he has killed:
This sudden afflatus of physical heroism and prophetic powers adds unexpected power and eloquence to the poem’s final book. Gudrun witnesses all this, and her horror at it is one of the reasons for her final murder of Atli and despairing suicide.
Gunnar’s redemptive fervor and remarkable end help create, in effect, a kind of collective protagonist for the poem, drawn from all of the Volsungs and Niblungs, more specifically from the original incestual unit of Signy, Sigmund, and Sinfiotli, and their tragically mismated descendants – Brynhild, Sigurd, Gudrun, and Gunnar. All but Sigurd and Brynhild are complicit in the poem’s many crimes, and all have epiphanies of courage and self-knowledge.
One recurring quasi-religious motif of the cycle, mentioned earlier, is Odin’s advent at moments of stress. The appearances of ‘All-father’ are too numerous to trace; Old-Testamental echoes abound, but these ‘sendings’ sometimes bring a simple sense of renewed purpose, and sometimes comfort. After Sigurd has fallen prey to Grunhild’s spell, for example, he struggles to regain clarity and falls into a visionary trance:
Sigurd’s manifold effects are also heightened by its intricate variations in meter and stanza-form, which follow the narrative with the fidelity of a skillful movie soundtrack. Morris uses one such quasi-musical device, for example – antiphonally-rhymed interlocution, in which two speakers declaim in rhymed alternation – to present lovers’ vows and marital conversations, to report events, and to create a stylized form for hostile confrontations. Consider, for example, Atli’s exchange with Gunnar before he throws him into the pit of adders:
A Lost Art
Exquisitely sensitive to such metrical nuances, classically-trained Victorian reviewers praised Sigurd in excelsis. May Morris cites George Saintsbury’s long analysis of the poem’s varied seven-beat line,12 and a reviewer for the Saturday Review affirmed that: ‘We regard this Story of Sigurd as his greatest and most successful effort; of all poetical qualities – strength, subtlety, vividness, mystery, melody, variety – there is hardly one that it does not exhibit in a very high degree … (January 1877). North American reviews were equally favorable:
Peter Faulkner is surely correct to suggest that critical indifference did not move Morris to abandon the writing of long poems (Critical Heritage, 14-16). After one allows for cliques, fashions and evanescent hyperbole, these remain remarkable reviews. They are also just appreciations, I believe, of the poem’s depth and passion.
The polar tensions of the ‘dialectical conflicts’ between loss, renunciation, and the attainment of ultimate meaning are more apparent in Sigurd than in other works – in the unrepentant vengefulness of many of its major characters, for example, and the horrific, near-masochistic descriptions of the cycle’s extended final battle-scenes, unique in Victorian poetic representation of war. Critics have justly noted that Sigurd’s protagonists sporadically express certain social ideals, but their agonistic lives of unceasing dynastic conflict, in my view, provide few plausible realizations of them. What the poem’s antiphonal patterns do furnish are intricate motives of prophecy, foresight, and cyclical unraveling, which permit deeply flawed characters to ‘reform’ before their death, and express incongruously noble ideals. Viewed in this light, Sigurd’s dramatic embrace of opposites in suspension yields a work of prosodic brilliance, structural originality, and emotional intensity and narrative depth.
Text adapted from "'The Banners of the Spring to Be': The Dialectical Pattern of Morris's Later Poetry," English Studies 2000.