The Northern Way

Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer


that Atlamál, Atlakvi&ða,and Hamðismál (1) though dating perhaps from the eleventh century, represent the original sixth-century form of the legend.


The old-time 'maker,' from courtly Gothic scop to itinerant Spielmann, or minstrel, was not hampered by a sense of historical perspective, fruit of a sophisticated intellect and definite documentary evidence. It is not surprising that, in process of time, other popular heroes came into the Legend. Such a hero was Didrek of Bern (O.N. Thjodrekr), a compound figure of Theodonc the Ostrogoth (d. 526), and his namesake the Visigoth (killed at Châlons 451), who, in the thirteenth-century Vilkina Saga, written at Bergen; in Tiðrekssaga, based on German and Norwegian tradition; in an important ballad-cycle; and in the Nibelungenlied itself, is associated with the Burgundian heroes. In Didrek, indeed, not in Sigurd, the twelfth century saw its ideal of kingship. (2) Through one of the Eddic poets, moreover, Suanhilda, queen of the East Goth Ermanarik, whose tragic story is told in the sixth century by Jordanes, (3) became the daughter of Guðrun and a third husband, (4) regardless of the fact
that Ermanarik predeceased Attila by nearly a century.

Ragnar Lodbroks Saga-the one literary echo of the ninth-century Danish conquest of England-is placed as the continuation of Volsunga Saga in the

1. Vigfússon and Powell, cp. cit., Vol. I, p. 52.

2. G. Robertson, cp. cit., p. 77.

3. 'De Origine Actibusque Getarum' (ed. by Mommsen, Berlin, 1882).

4. Hamðismal.


only vellum copy existing; a fourteenth-century MS. preserved in the Royal Library, Copenhagen (Ny Kgl Samlg no. 1024b). The two Sagas may possibly have had a common author; the character of Aslá (Aslaug), at least, who is not mentioned in the Edda, seems to have been created by the author of V.S. Ragnar's Saga, however, from a literary point of view, is by much the inferior work; and, while Ragnar and his sons Ingvar and Ubba had a real, though elusive, historical existence, the story of Aslá and her bridal belongs to the common stuff of Celtic and German fairy-tale. (1) The modern historical novelist does not stick at effective anachronism; his old-time predecessors had far less reason to hesitate in providing local habitations for airy nothings, and associating them with historical names.


The German version of the Legend found its classical expression in the Nibelungenlied; the Northern in that group of Lays, composed by different hands at different dates, which form an important part of the collection known as the Elder, or Poetic, Edda. The principal MSS. containing the Lays, written in Iceland during the early Middle Ages, are preserved in the Royal Library, Copenhagen. (2) The Sigurd Lays

1. M. Olsen, 'Volsunga Saga og Ragnar Loðbróks Saga' (Samfd. tit Udgivelse af gamle Norske Lit. XXXVI and XXXVII. Copenhagen, 1906). Also G. Storm, 'Ragnar Loðbrók ok R. Loðbrókssönnerne' (Den norske Hist. Forening, 2nd series, Vol. I, Christiania, 1877), pp. 371 ff.

2. Vigfússon and Powell, op. cit., Vol. I, Introduction, pp. lvi ff. F. Jónsson, 'Den oldnorske og oldislandiske Litteraturs Historie' (Copenhagen, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 19 ff.


form the principal content of the vellum (no. 23650) known as Codex Regius (R). The text, often broken and confused, is linked up with explanations in prose. Since a leaf, moreover, is missing, some important episodes-notably Sigurd's farewell to Brynhild- ran great risk of remaining entirely unknown. The lacunæ were fortunately filled up, and the plot of the whole story made clear, by the unknown author who, some time between 1250-1300, wrote the prose paraphrase of the Lays known as Volsunga Saga (V.S.).

Once looked on with awful reverence, as monuments of almost unguessed-at antiquity, the Lays have in modern times been studied and analysed from every conceivable point of view. Their date, during the first part of the nineteenth century, was fixed by leading authorities (1) at some period between A.D. 400-800. After 1860 the date began to creep forward-one scholar took the extreme step of placing it between 1000-1300 (2) until it was generally agreed that no Lay could have been composed before the ninth century. This view, based chiefly on linguistic grounds, was thought to be final. As regards Atlakviða and Hamðismál, it has recently been modified on metrical grounds; (3) while the whole position has been revolutionized by the discovery of a grave-slab known as the Eggjum stone, ploughed up in 1917 on the farm

1. R. Keyser, 'Efterladte Skrifter' (Christiania, 1866), Vol. I, pp. 267 ff. S. Grundvig, 'Om Nordens gamle Litteratur' (Dansk. Historisk Tidsskrift, 1867), Series III, Vol. V, pp. 499 ff.

2. E. Jessen, 'Uber die Eddalieder' (Zeitschrift f. deutschen Philologie, 1871), III, pp. 1 ff.

3. G. Neckel, 'Eddaforschung' (Zeitschrift f. deutschen Unterricht, 1916), XXX, p. 87. E. Noreen, 'Edda Studier' (Uppsala Univ. Aarskrift, 1921), pp. 4 ff.


of that name, in Sogndal, parish of Sogn, Norway. (1) This stone, dated by Professor Haakon Shetelig between 700-750, has a long runic inscription in Old West Scandinavian, the language of the Eddic Lays; which language must, therefore, have developed out of Primitive Scandinavian a century earlier than had been supposed. (2)  The anterior time-limit of composition can therefore be pushed back for a similar period. The Helgi Lays, besides, have been assigned to the eighth century on geographical and historical grounds. (3)

A comparatively novel and most interesting method of approach has recently been opened up by way of archæology. (4) The references in the Eddic Lays to the precious metals, to jewellery, weapons, and so forth, classified and compared with the yield of grave-mounds and other excavations, afford considerable support to the theory that many of the poems, or at least a substantial part of their content, existed before the Viking Age. The Sigurd Lays, composed at various periods, vary widely in workmanship. The later ones are by no means mere derivatives of the earlier. They are expressions of individual genius, differing one from an-

1. Described by M. Olsen, 'Norges Indskrifter med de ældre Runer' (Christiania), Vol. III, pt. 2.

2. M. Olsen, op. cit., pp. 193 ff. B. Nerman, 'The Poetic Edda in the Light of Archæeology,' English trans. by G. Grove (Pub. for the Viking Society for Northern Research, London, 1931).

3. T. Hederström, 'Fornsagor och Edda-Kväden i geografisk Belysning' (Stockholm, 1917-19).

4. B. Nerman, op. cit. Also K. Stjerna, 'Studier tillägnade Oscar Montelius' (Stockholm, 1903), pp. 114 ff. Compare 'Essays on Beowulf' (Viking Soc., Extra Series, London, 1912.), Vol. III, pp. 25 ff.


other, not only in atmosphere, but in their versions of actual incidents. For example, the characteristic Northern account of Sigurd's slaying represents it as taking place within four walls, while the Hero lies sleeping beside Guðrun. Two of the Lays, however, agree with the German account in placing it out of doors-on the far side of the Rhine, as Sigurd went to the Thing. (1) " The variety of the three poems of Atli, ending in the careful rhetoric of the Atlamál, is proof sufficient of the labour bestowed by different poets in their use of the epic inheritance." (2).

The problem of the place where the Lays were composed is, to a great extent, bound up with the question as to when and how the legends which form their subject-matter reached the various Scandinavian countries. The fact that the MSS. are Icelandic proves nothing, unless that the legends, remnants of Heathenesse, were gradually driven northwards by the advance of Christian civilization. The authors were travelled men, familiar with types of landscape, vegetation, and animal-life, unknown in the Far North; the language they use shows traces of Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, and other foreign influence. To say they were travelled men, however, is merely equivalent to saying that they were of the Viking breed. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland itself, have all claimed the honour of giving a birthplace to the Lays. Atlamál was, it is generally agreed, composed in Greenland. The Lays of Helgi Hundingsbane have lately been proved (3) to emanate from Ostergötland and Söder-

1. Guðrulnarlviða in Forna (C.P.B. Vol. I) p. 316, lines 9 ff.; and Brot af Sigurðarkviði (ibid.), p. 306, lines 15, 28, 29.

2. W. P. Ker, op. cit., p. 156.

3. T. Hederstrom, op. cit. A. Norden, 'Saga och Sägen i Brabygden' (Norrköping, 1922).

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