Introduction to The Volsunga Saga
Memorable as it is, Morris’s proclamation that Völsunga Saga should be to “all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks” rings of the overstated (Preface, xi). It is true that Völsunga Saga has long been a favorite. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the most popular Scandinavian tales. It was equally popular in its Middle High German form, the Nibelungenlied, and is referred to, or appears in, a variety of other early manuscripts. Even Beowulf makes mention of the Volsungs and the treasure-guarding dragon. But Völsunga Saga—in Morris’s time and today—hardly seems English enough or familiar enough to justify Morris’s claim. The best that can be said is that most of us know something about Sigurd and Brynhild or something about Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon Fafnir and the curse that accompanies Fafnir’s treasure hoard. What is known, however, is likely to be based on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, where Siegfried (the German Sigurd) slays the dragon Fafner and woos the larger-than-life Brünnhilde.
Two of Wagner’s four Ring operas (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) had already been performed by 1870, the year William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon published their translation (the first translation into English). But opera is not saga; and though Wagner turned primarily to the Icelandic story for Der Ring des Nibelungen, his treatment of the Sigurd story deeply offended Morris. “Many thanks for your letter and the translation of Wagner,” Morris wrote to Henry Buxton Forman in 1873.
Unlike Wagner (who eliminated inconsistencies, filled in gaps, heightened the drama, added music, and created a stage production) Morris considered Völsunga Saga a treasure to be preserved as much as possible in its original form—hence his insistence on producing a translation as close to the original Icelandic as the English language allows, “doing our utmost,” as he puts it, “to make our rendering close and accurate” (Preface, v).
Given all this, given the story’s differing forms and accumulative nature, why should Wagner not be allowed to create his own version or introduce political touches pertinent to his time or bring in further eddic material than his medieval sources contained? Though on a much smaller scale, Morris and Magnússon themselves chose to expand the saga. Like Wagner, they too included fresh material from the Elder Edda—songs that relate to the story but are not to be found in the original manuscript. They do so openly (making it clear in their title that “certain songs” have been added), but changes have still been made, and change of any sort puts authenticity at risk. This includes translation, even the mostly carefully crafted, best intended translation.
Any number of passages from Völsunga Saga could serve to make the point, but a good example occurs early in the saga where the gods give a needed fertility boost to Volsung family line. Below are three English interpretations of this passage, the first by Morris and Magnússon (1870), the second by George K. Anderson (1982), the third by Jesse L. Byock (1990). The idea of divine intervention through the eating of a fertility apple remains the same, but the question of who eats the apple differs from translation to translation. Names and roles of the gods tend to differ as well.
In the Morris and Magnússon’s translation, both Odin and Freyia hear the prayers of King Rerir and his wife. Freyia then sends her “casket-bearing” maid (the daughter of the giant Hrimnir) to deliver the apple to the king.
In the Anderson translation, Frigg (the wife of Odin) is the one who hears the prayers and tells Odin who sends a “Valkyrie” in “a crow’s mantle” to deliver the apple.
In Byock’s translation it is again Frigg who hears the prayers and talks to Odin. He then places an apple in the hand of one of his “wish maidens,” who heads off in the “shape of a crow.”
To add to this apple-eating uncertainty, a 1930 translation by Margaret Schlauch has both king and queen eating the apple, and a 1965 translation by R.G., Finch clearly has only the king doing so.
But changes that come from translation or the inclusion of new material are minor compared with unapologetic reworkings such as Wagner’s Ring cycle—or, for that matter, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, a verse rendition of the Sigurd story Morris wrote and published in 1876. The decision to create a verse “epic” of Völsunga Saga did not come easily to Morris, though the possibility of doing so had long been on his mind. At first he resisted the idea, claiming (in an 1869 letter to Charles Eliot Norton) it “would be foolish,” to write a poetic version of the saga “for no verse could render the best parts of it, and it would only be a flatter and tamer version of a thing already existing” (I, 99). By 1875, however, he had begun writing his poem.
When it first appeared, Sigurd the Volsung received far more attention than Völsunga Saga had, but the Morris and Magnússon translation had its followers too. It did from the first and still does today. Sixty years after its publication, Margaret Schlauch wrote of the Morris and Magnússon translation as a work “reverently done, with acute understanding of the language, and great sensitiveness to the beauty of the original” (xxx); and Robert W. Gutman (in a 1962 republishing of the translation) calls it “superb,” “a magnificent performance,” a work where eddic songs are rendered “in masterful phrases, dark and sumptuous” (13, 78-9).
Morris would have been pleased by this twentieth-century praise, pleased not only by what both scholars say but pleased as well by the saga’s enduring appeal. Like Wagner (and no less than Wagner), Morris succeeded in giving back an ancient and well-loved story to the modern world. Because of his and Magnússon’s work, Völsunga Saga is studied and read today and far better known. And the saga (with its accumulative, shifting nature) lives on in other ways. It lives on in those who have drawn from its images, figures, and themes for their own creative works, in J.R.R. Tolkien first of all and Tolkien especially.
Before he learned Old Icelandic, Tolkien came to know Völsunga Saga through the Morris and Magnússon translation, meeting it first as a shortened and tamed children’s version in Andrew Lang’s 1880 Red Fairy Book. Though other sagas and other literatures contributed to Tolkien’s fiction, Völsunga Saga—with its multitude of shapeshifters, shieldmaidens, wandering heroes, workers of magic, dwarfs, talking birds, seerers, oathbreakers, false counselors, and magically healing leaves—gave Tolkien the most. Like Sigurd the Volsung, Tolkien’s Aragorn inherits a sword that first must be reforged; and like Fafnir, the saga dragon, Tolkien’s Smaug is a wicked, crafty, eloquent worm who guards a glorious and trouble-causing treasure.
Looked at this way, it may just be that Morris was right after all. Through Tolkien, whose literature is repeatedly rated the most revered and influential of our time, Völsunga Saga (with its sword and sorcery appeal) has been given new life and fresh popularity, so much so that it may be no exaggeration to claim that this saga—what Morris calls “the great Epic of the North” and “the Great Story of the North”—has become for present-day readers (and moviegoers alike) what “the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks.”
It helps to recognize, as Robert Gutman does, the three-part structure of the saga: The opening section is “the most primitive; its character is wild and daemonic” (“monstrous,” in Morris’s words); the middle section forms “the heart of the story, the tragic love of Sigurd and Brynhild,” and the final section “lies within the compass of recorded history,” leaving “the world of myth” behind (28-9).
Anderson, George K. Introduction to The Saga of the Völsungs. Translated by George K. Anderson. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1982.
Byock, Jesse L. Introduction to The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by Jesse. L. Byock. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999. [originally 1990]
Finch, R. G. Introduction to The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by R. G. Finch. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965.
Hascall, Dudley L. “Volsungasaga and Two Transformations.” JWMS 2.3 (Winter 1968): 18-23.
Gutman, Robert W. Introduction to Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs. New York: Collier Books; London: Collier-Macmillan, 1962.
McDowell, G. T. “The Treatment of the Volsunga Saga by William Morris.” Scandinavian Studies, VII (1923): 151-68.
Schlauch, Margaret. Introduction to The Saga of the Volsungs, 2nd ed. Translated by Margaret Schlauch. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation; London: George Allen and Unwin, 1949.
Simcox, G.A. Review of Völsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, With Certain Songs from the Elder Edda, translated by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon, Academy (August 1870): ii, 278-9. Reprinted in William Morris: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Faulkner, 152-156. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1973.