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Literature / The Saga of the Volsungs
aka: Volsunga Saga

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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 Valkyrie 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 the early 13th century, the Völsunga saga was adapted and expanded into the Nibelungenlied by an anonymous author. Despite having been written down earlier, it contains anachronistic alterations not present in the versions recorded in the Völsunga saga, Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, which are thought to preserve earlier elements of the story. In 1888, William Morris made a translation that can be read here.

J. R. R. Tolkien also adapted much of it into a novel-length epic poem called The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrun, taking a bit of creative license to fit the tone of his own legendarium.

Tropes in Völsunga saga:

  • Alternative Continuity: To the German tradition, which is represented by Nibelungenlied.
  • Animal Talk: While Sigmund and Sinfjötli are transformed into wolves by two enchanted wolfskins, they can no longer talk but only howl like wolves, yet they understand each other. It is not mentioned whether they can understand other wolves.
  • Animorphism: Sigmund and Sinfjötli are temporarily transformed into wolves by two cursed wolfskins.
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Sigmund and Sinfjötli 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 by striking it against the anvil it was forged on, slicing the anvil in two.
  • Angel Unaware: The old man that advises Sigurd how to best kill Fafnir is obviously Odin in disguise.
  • Animal Motifs: The Volsungs seem to be associated with wolves. Their arch enemies, the Hundings, are by their name (which means 'Hound-clan') associated with dogs.
  • 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.
  • Arch-Enemy: The clan of the Hundings are the mortal enemies of the Volsungs ever since Sigmund's son Helgi killed King Hunding on a viking expedition. Much later, Sigmund is killed in battle by Hunding's sons Lyngvi and his brothers, and they in turn are later vengeance-killed by Sigurd, which seems to be the latter end of the Hunding clan.
  • Arranged Marriage: Signy is forced by her father Volsung to marry King Siggeir. As it turns out, her dislike for him was entirely justified, as Siggeir reveals himself as greedy and treacherous.
  • Artifact of Doom: The ring Andavarinaut is introduced as this, seemingly it is held responsible for the deaths of Hreidmar and Fafnir, and there is some foreshadowing that it will bring about the death of Sigurd. However, the author loses track of who actually owns the ring, and the entire ring plot gets forgotten for good. At no point is the ring strictly necessary to explain or justify the turns of the story.
  • 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 style. The reason is that the chapter is a translation from a German manuscript on Siegfried, which was borrowed into the saga with few changes.
  • Bed Trick: Signy swaps form with a sorceress to sleep with Sigmund.
  • The Berserker: In the battle with the sons of Hunding, Sigurd turns into a killing machine.
  • Best Served Cold: Putting all the data together, it must be inferred that Signy prepared her revenge on her husband Siggeir for at least twenty years.
  • 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 Sinfjötli walled up in a gravemound alive.
  • Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu: Sigmund attempts to attack Odin disguised as an old man on the battlefield with the sword Odin gave him. Attacking a god and especially the supposed ancestral father of your clan with a sword he provided is certainly a case for the department of very bad ideas. Odin causes to sword to break and Sigmund is killed.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Signy in disguise consciously sleeps with her twin brother Sigmund to conceive Sinfjötli.
  • Buried Alive: King Siggeir has Sigmund and Sinfjötli entombed alive in a gravemound. It doesn't stick.
  • 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.
  • Chaste Separating Sword: Gunnar cannot pass Brynhild's Engagement Challenge, but Sigurd can. Serving as Romantic Wingman, Sigurd shapeshifts as Gunnar and they switch places. Sigurd passes the challenge and marries Brynhild in Gunnar's stead. To refrain from consummating the marriage, Sigurd lays his sword Gram between him and Brynhild at night until he and Gunnar can switch back.
  • 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.
  • Cool Horse: The stallion Grani, claimed to be a descendant of Odin's own horse Sleipnir. While out walking in the woods, Sigurd meets an old man (Odin in disguise) and tells the elderly man that he would like his insight in picking a fine steed. The old man suggests he lead a herd of wild horses down into the powerful stream of the nearby river Busiltjörn. All the horses instinctively swim back to the shoreside, while Grani remains perfectly content while standing in the river rapids, signifying both it's bravery and strength.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Hogni gets his heart carved out alive, and his brother Gunnar is thrown into a Snake Pit.
    • Svanhild is trampled to death by horses.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Sigmund and Sinfjötli think the wolf-curse is kinda cool. Only when Sinfjötli is wounded Sigmund feels being wolves is a disadvantage, as not having hands makes it much more difficult to tend Sinfjötli's wound.
  • 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 by Childbirth: Rerir's wife dies in giving birth to Volsung.
  • 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 Sinfjötli kill her own children, and Gudrun killing her sons by Atli and serving their cooked hearts to their father.
  • Devil in Disguise: The old man appears in the battle of Sigmund with King Lyngvi and causes Sigmund's sword to break is Odin. Odin later appears when Hamdir and Sorli has made an attempt on Jörmunreks life and tell's his housecarls to kill the brothers with stones after regular weapons prove useless.
  • Dragon Hoard: Regin relates how Fafnir, after killing his father for Andvari's gold hoard, transformed into a dragon to guard the treasure.
  • 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.
  • Dying Curse: Invoked: Sigurd refuses to reveal his name to the dying Fafnir for fear of being cursed.
  • Evil Makes You Monstrous: After murdering his own father for Andvari's gold, Fafnir turns into a dragon to constantly guard his treasure. It is unclear whether this is a voluntary or involuntary transformation, but Fafnir never leaves his dragon shape afterwards.
    "Fafnir slew his father and murdered him, [...] and so evil he grew, that he fell to lying abroad, and begrudged any share in the wealth to any man, and so became the worst of all worms, and ever now lies brooding upon that treasure."
  • 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.
  • Expy: The Warriors at Helgeland by Henrik Ibsen expies this saga quite blatantly, up to and including the names Sigurd and Gunnar.
  • Familial Cannibalism Surprise: After killing her children by Atli, Gudrun serves him up their roasted hearts, and wine mixed with their blood in goblets made from their skulls, before revealing it and killing him.
  • Family Eye Resemblance: All the Volsungs have unusually bright, piercing eyes.
  • Famed In-Story: Sigurd, after he has killed Fafnir.
  • 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.
  • Forced Transformation: When Sigmund and Sinfjötli cover themselves in the wolfskins they robbed from two outlaws, they are transformed into werewolves.
  • Forging Scene: The forging of Gram. Short, but dramatic.
  • Gender Reveal: After Sigurd crosses the wall of fire on Hindarfell, he finds "a man in armour" in a comatose sleep. Only when Sigurd removes the armour it turns out it's actually a woman, Brynhild.
  • Gold Fever: As prophesied by Andvari (and later by Fafnir), the cursed gold hoard of Andvari frequently causes bloodshed:
    • Fafnir kills his father Hreidmar when the latter refuses to give his sons a part of the gold.
    • After Sigurd has killed Fafnir, Regin suddenly blames him for killing his brother—even though Regin himself had urged Sigurd to do so—and then plots to murder Sigurd. The circumstances very much suggest that his real motive is that he resents to share the hoard with Sigurd, regarding the gold as his own rightful property.
    • Atli entraps the Niflungs so they will hand him over the hoard in exchange for their lives. He claims the plot is his revenge for his sister Brynhild, but it looks like the hoard is a greater concern to him than justice.
  • Handy Feet: When Gunnar is thrown into the snake pit with his hands bound, Gudrun gives him a harp which he plays with his toes, putting the snakes to sleep except for one. In fact, he plays "so excellently well [...] that few deemed they had heard such playing, even when the hand had done it".
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Happens inevitably in old translations. For example, chapter XIII of the Morris/Magnusson translation says that Hjordis gave birth to a "man-child" (= baby Sigurd).
  • The Hedge of Thorns: Anyone who wants to wake Brynhild from her enchanted sleep on the mountain of Hindarfell must ride through a wall of ever-burning fire surrounding the mountain.
  • Hereditary Curse: Every Volsung is struck by — at least — one great disaster in his or her life; most often the cause is betrayal of in-laws.
  • Heroic Lineage: The Volsungs themselves.
  • Historical Domain Character: Atli is none other than Attila the Hun, and has received a Historical Villain Upgrade relative to his portrayal as Etzel in the Nibelungenlied.
  • Hoistby His Own Petard: 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.
  • 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.
  • Interspecies Adoption: Sigurd is fostered by Regin the dwarf.
  • 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.
  • The Low Middle Ages
  • Music Soothes the Savage Beast: When Gunnar is thrown into a snake pit, Gudrun gives him a harp which he plays with his toes. His music puts all the snakes to sleep except one, which kills him.
  • Nasty Party: No less than three times:
    • First, Volsung's son-in-law Siggeir invites the Volsungs to a feast, but ambushes them, killing Volsung and nine of his ten sons.
    • Then, Atli does the same to his wife Gudrun's brothers Gunnar and Hogni.
    • Finally, Gudrun, after killing Atli and their two children in revenge, burns down his fortress during the funeral supper, killing all his followers.
  • Offing the Offspring: Both Signy and Gudrun kill their own children to exact vengeance on their hated husbands (Siggeir and Atli respectively).
    • Jörmunrek hangs is own son Randver when he get's together with Svanhild, who Jörmunrek wanted to marry.
  • 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 Dwarves Are All the Same: Greedy, magical, and Ultimate Blacksmiths.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Fafnir is one of the more famous dragons of literature. He is one of the Trope Makers 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.
  • Outlaw: Sigi is outlawed in his home country for the murder of Bredi the thrall; Sigmund and Sinfjötli live as outlaws in Gautland for years until they take revenge on Siggeir.
  • Perfect Poison: After drinking the poisoned cup given to him by Borghild, Sinfjötli drops dead instantly (though it deserves mention that he sensed the poison because it made the ale cloudy).
  • Reforged Blade: Regin, assisted by Sigurd, forges 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.
  • Rescue Romance: After Sigurd has released Brynhild from her enchanted sleep, they quickly fall in love with each other (although Brynhild is a little more reluctant at first).
  • Rotating Protagonist: Like some of the more down to earth Icelandic sagas, this is the story of a family rather than a single protagonist. Although Sigurd is the most famous character, the story does not begin or end with him. Usually, once one protagonist dies, the saga changes focus to a close relative. The only exception is Gudrun, who is still alive when she tasks her sons to avenge their half sister Svanhild, the last Volsung.
  • Self-Immolation: Despite Brynhild has already stabbed herself with a sword, she is still able to climb on Sigurd's funeral pyre and burn herself to death.
  • 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 karmic 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.
  • Slain in Their Sleep: Gutthorm sneaks into Sigurd's bed chamber three times, but backs down twice because Sigurd is not fully asleep. Only when he finds him sound asleep, he dares to stab him "so that the sword point stuck in the bed under him".
  • Snake Pit: Atli has Gunnar thrown into a snake pit for execution.
  • 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.
  • Supernatural Aid: Zig-Zagged. Odin repeatedly lends valuable aid to the Volsungs, but seems callous and outright malicious another time. Specifically, two of his gifts turn out quite ambivalent: The magic apple that lets Rerir's infertile wife get pregnant leads to the birth of Volsung, but also to the queen's Death by Childbirth, and the sword he bestows on Sigmund is also the trigger of Siggeir's betrayal that costs the lives of Volsung and Sigmund's nine brothers.
  • Test of Pain: Before Signý sends off her sons, at the age of ten, to be trained by her brother Sigmund for the purpose of avenging their father Volsung and their brothers, she tests the boys' toughness by sewing the sleeves of their shirts into the skin and flesh of their arms.context  Her first two sons "complain" about this, and are later deemed unfit to be warriors by Sigmund. When Signý tests her third son, Sinfjotli, in this way, he does not flinch. Signý then rips the sleeve from his arm, tearing off his skin. She remarks that that must have hurt, but Sinfjotli replies that "Volsung wouldn't have thought much of such an injury." Eventually Sinfjotli passes Sigmund's training and avenges Volsung.
  • Together in Death: After ordering his murder, Brynhild burns herself on the funeral pyre of Sigurd, the only man that she was willing to marry but couldn't.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: The mortally wounded Sigurd throws his sword after his murderer Gutthorm, who is promptly cut int two.
  • Trap Is the Only Option: Two times Sinfjötli declines the poisoned cup offered to him by his stepmother Borghild. The third time, he drinks it, even though he knows it is poisoned. It looks like he was tired running.
  • Traumatic C-Section: After seven years of pregnancy, Rerir's wife orders her child be cut out of her body, even though she knows full well it will kill her. Thus, Volsung is born.
  • Tyke Bomb: Sinfjötli is conceived and raised for no other reason than to exact vengeance on Siggeir.
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: Regin, being a dwarf.
  • Valkyries: Hljod (who married Volsung) and Brynhild. Note that Brynhild is also a human (the daughter of King Budli); valkyrie is a job, not a race in this setting.
  • Volleying Insults: Between Sinfjötli and the coast guard Granmar.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifter: Otr (= "Otter"), son of Hreidmar, transforms into an otter to catch fish.
  • Warrior Princess: Brynhild is a valkyrie and the daughter of King Budli of the Huns.
  • We All Die Someday: Fafnir warns Sigurd that Andvari's cursed gold will bring about his death. Sigurd replies that since everyone has to die, and it is better to live rich than poor, he will take the hoard anyway.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Helgi Hundingsbane's brother, Hamund. Yeah, he existed apparently.
    • Helgi's sons are never named nor mentioned more than once. By Sigurd's time, it seems that all the other Volsungs have died (except Aslaug). But if that's true, then how did the children die?
  • Wrecked Weapon: In Sigmund's last battle with King Lyngvi's forces, Sigmund comes up against a strange one-eyed man in a blue cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, wielding a spear. Sigmund strikes his sword at the man's spear, and the sword breaks in two. Subsequently the battle turns in favor of King Lyngvi, and Sigmund is killed. It is transparent that the one-eyed man was Odin.

Alternative Title(s): Volsunga Saga, Saga Of The Volsungs