THE FIRST LAY OF HELGI HUNDINGSBANI IN ITS RELATION TO EARLIER OLD NORSE POEMS.
In order to be able to follow farther back the history of the Helgi-lays, it is important to discover, if possible, what earlier Old Norse poems their authors knew. I confine myself, however, for the time being, to the First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani, and leave out of consideration here its relation to the Lay of Helgi Hjörvarthsson. The present chapter will be devoted to a discussion of the use of separate words and expressions, and to the conclusions which we can safely draw from them. Later we shall consider the saga-material embodied in these lays.
The First Helgi-lay, which in the old manuscript is called both a 'Poem on Helgi the Slayer of Hunding and Höthbrodd,' and a 'Lay of the Völsungs,' is a poem with continuous narrative in the usual popular epic metre fornyrðislag. Beginning with the birth [1-8] and childhood  of Helgi, the son of Sigmund, it next tells how Helgi killed Hunding  and the sons of Hunding [11-14]. After the battle, Sigrún, the poem continues, accompanied by her battle-maidens, comes riding through the air to Helgi [15-17]. She tells him that her father Högni has betrothed her to Höthbrodd, son of Granmar, but that she has declared that she loathes him. Helgi promises to free her from Höthbrodd [18-20]. He calls together warriors from near and far [21-25], and sails to the land of the sons of Granmar [26-31]. Here a gross word-combat takes place between Helgi's brother Sinfjötli and Guthmund, son of Granmar [32-44], to which Helgi puts an end [45-46]. Men ride to Höthbrodd to announce the coming of the enemy [47-50]. He sends out messengers to collect warriors to aid him [51-52]. The battle is described . While it is raging the battle-maidens come from the sky . Höthbrodd falls. Finally Sigrún congratulates Helgi, saying: 'All hail to thee, since thou hast killed Höthbrodd! Now shalt thou possess me without opposition, rule in peace thy land and kingdom, and enjoy the fruits of victory' [55-56].
This first Helgi-lay is well known to be one of the latest poems in the Elder Edda, the Grípisspá and the Atlamál, perhaps also the complete Sigurðarkviða, being the only heroic poems in the collection which are generally regarded as later. It is full of reminiscences of other Eddic poems. (1)
The author knew the verses of the so-called Second Helgi-lay, and he has throughout imitated the poetic expressions he found there. He knew also the Völuspá. This comes out clearly in the word-combat between Guthmund and Singjötli, for the retorts in that scene borrow figures and expressions from the mythical world disclosed to us in the prophecies of the Northern Sibyl. In other parts also of the Helgi-lay we find expressions from the Völuspá. The opening words: Ár var alda | þat er----('It was formerly in the ages that---) are an imitation (2) of Vpá. 3. Ár var alda |þar er (in the later redaction in Snorri's Edda, þat er---). These introductory words are fully justified in the mouth of the sibyl, since she is to tell of the earliest eras of the world, but they have little significance at the beginning of the Helgi-poem.
There are, moreover, expressions in the First Helgi-lay which show that the author knew of the mythic poems, Grímnismál, Rígsþula, and Völundarkviða, and of the heroic poems, Fáfnismál, Brot af Sigurðarkviðu, Atlakviða, Guðrúnarhvöt, and possibly Hamðismál and Oddrúnargrátr.
Probably our poet knew also the Eiríksmál, an encomium on Eric Bloodaxe, who fell in England in 954. This poem was composed at the suggestion of Eric's widow, Gunhild, not long after his death, by a Norwegian, who must have lived in Northumberland.
In order to realise how in most of the verses in the First Helgi-lay notes may be heard to which our ears are familiar from older Norse lays, although the Helgi-poet has somewhat modified them under the influence of foreign art, we have but to listen to the fresh sound of the Lay of Weland, in which we cannot recognise the influence of any other Old Norse poem.
From the fact that the author of the First Helgi-lay knew the older Eddic poems which I have named, we can draw a number of inferences as to the circumstances of his life, and as to the time at which he wrote. Such inferences, however, cannot be certain until the place and time of each one of these older poems has been investigated. I shall note briefly but a few of these probable conclusions, for most of which good reasons have already been given elsewhere.
In the Lay of Wayland we find pictures of nature and life in the most northerly district of Norway, where the author must have lived in his youth. But his lay has an English model. It contains English words, and Frankish and Irish names. He must therefore have travelled in the British Isles.
In the Reginsmál and the Fáfnismál we find Irish and English words, and there are many things which go to show that the saga-material utilised in these poems was known among Scandinavians living in the West.
In Rígsþula, Konr ungr (Kon the young), the representative of kingship, is given the name Rígr on account of his surpassing merit---this being the name of the mythical founder of his race, and the Irish word for 'king.' We are forced to conclude that the kingdom of which the poet was thinking embraced also Irish subjects, and that he himself lived among Irishmen.
The author of the Grímnismál, (3) since he took a story from the northern part of Norway as a setting for his poem, was doubtless born in the district Hálogaland. But it looks as if he must have seen the Bewcastle Cross in Cumberland, or one closely resembling it, and must have heard explanations of its sculptured figures. His poem shows the influence of an English legend, and he evidently learned in England many traditions based on Latin writings, partly heathen, partly Christian. The Grímnismál must, therefore, have been written by a man who had lived in the northern part of England.
And, finally, the famous Völuspá. Fantastic theories as to primitive Germanic mythology have hindered a really historical comprehension of this poem; but the truth cannot be completely hidden: it was in Christian Britian, where the revelations of southern prophets had quickened the souls of men, that the great sibyl of Scandinavian heathendom saw her most splendid visions, and found words in which to make known the fate of the world from the earliest eras to the most remote futurity.
In my opinion, all the
Old Norse poems which the author of the Helgi-lay knew point to the life
of Scandinavians in the British Isles, especially in the north of England
and in Ireland.
1. For a full statement of these imitations see Appendix II. Back
2. See Sijmons in Paul-Braune, Beiträge, IV, 173. Back
3. On this and what follows see S. Bugge, Studien, 450-64. Back