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The Saga of the Volsungs by Anonymous
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The Saga of the Volsungs (1962)

by Anonymous

Other authors: William Morris

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,1581410,237 (3.84)21
  1. 10
    The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous (inge87)
  2. 10
    The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J. R. R. Tolkien (ed.pendragon)
    ed.pendragon: Worth comparing the original saga (in translation) with Tolkien's modern English version of the tale in verse.
  3. 00
    Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess (isabelx)
    isabelx: Bloodtide is a really interesting telling of The Saga of the Volsungs.
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» See also 21 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Sea-runes good at need,
Learnt for ship's saving,
For the good health of the swimming horse;
On the stern cut them,
Cut them on the rudder-blade
And set flame to shaven oar:
Howso big be the sea-hills,
Howso blue beneath,
Hail from the main then comest thou home.


I am glad I listened to this audiobook after reading the Penguin Classics version of this saga, as the language used in the translation by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon seems self-consciously archaic and it would have been hard to follow if I hadn't already known the plot. ( )
1 vote isabelx | Feb 23, 2015 |
Morris took the Völsunga saga, a late 13th century Icelandic prose mixture of heroic deeds, vendetta, court intrigue, the revenge of queens, dragon slaying and a cursed ring, and using this as his source turned it into a powerful and moving English epic poem. I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would. The characters are vivid. The dramatic tension at the center of the poem where the conflicting values of honor, political necessity, love and envy that lead to tragic conclusions is portrayed realistically in rhyming verse with the flavor of a bygone era.

Morris made his Victorian adaptation sound more medieval by liberally sprinkling his modern English with archaic words, for example it’s always held instead of yard or courtyard, and dight instead of ordered, thee and thou instead of you, and clingeth instead of clings. However having access to the Oxford English Dictionary—Thank you to the Houston Public Library for making this available online—made it easy for me to decipher these.

This work greatly exceeded my expectations of it. ( )
1 vote MaowangVater | Jan 18, 2015 |
The Story of the Volsungs, or the Volsunga Saga, is a 13th century Norse epic (by an unknown author) that chronicles the struggles of the Volsung clan/family over the course of a few generations. The most notable member of this family, Sigurd, is the protagonist for around half of the book. The rest of the story features his ancestors, romantic interests, and descendants.

I originally decided to read this saga because of its use in other media- especially J.R.R. Tolkien's poetic "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún" and Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas, "Der Ring des Nibelungen." In Tolkien and Wagner, it is a tale involving Gods, heroes, Valkyries, Giants, and a magic ring. Rather than start with Tolkien's book or performances of the operas, I decided to begin by reading the original material. I selected the 1888 translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnússon because it was conveniently and freely available from Project Gutenberg.

The legend, at least in its original form, isn't quite what I expected. The presence of Gods is slight, and aside from a single (important) scene involving the dragon Fafnir, no other fantastical creatures appear. It is primarily a tale of warriors and kings- it has some of the same fantasized historical feeling as other old legends, histories, and religious tales. (Three examples that come to mind are the Old Testament, China's "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," and "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali.") Although the Volsunga Saga takes place in the 13th century, the setting and characters feel like they come out of the Bronze Age. Politics is very localized- there are numerous "kings" who each rule small areas, more like warlords or chiefs of big clans than the medieval European conception of a "king."

The story is exceptionally violent, and from a modern perspective, the morality is quite twisted. Heroes are praised in proportion to the number of men (especially kings) they have killed. Honor belongs to the strong, and weakness is not deserving of empathy or pity. Not once, but twice, different women of the Volsung clan (generally regarded as positive protagonists) who were forced to marry kings that they did not like choose to have their own children murdered (and in one case, personally murders them with a knife), though the children were innocent of any wrongdoing. The great hero, Sigurd, also performs acts that a modern reader might consider immoral- his treatment of a king's advisor, Regin, comes to mind.

The saga has a few small continuity problems. For example, in one chapter near the middle of the book, the hero Sigurd meets the wise woman Brynhild and, after a time, they swear their love for one-another. In the next chapter, Sigurd has come to a castle. Brynhild arrives there and acts as if she has no memory of swearing to love Sigurd in the preceding chapter, and Sigurd re-acquaints himself with her. Since the saga was assembled out of various oral histories, I'd guess this was a breakpoint between two stories about Sigurd and Brynhild, and the end of one slightly overlaps the beginning of the next.

One bizarre aspect of this story is the way in which more than one character shrugs off immediate and dire verbal threats- well past the point of ridiculousness. For example, after the husband of one woman of the Volsung clan kills her brothers, she directly tells him that she's going to kill him. He blows off the threat and offers her some gold, which she angrily refuses. Shortly thereafter, she runs him through with a sword while he's sleeping. If this happened once, maybe it would be attributable to an exceptionally prideful and foolish character- but the way threats are not acted upon repeatedly by different people seems to make little sense.

I'll close this review by retelling a tidbit of the story that is disconnected from other parts of the story (and so provides no significant spoilers), but which is emblematic of some of the story's weirdness, violence, and morality.

At one point, Gudrun tells her two sons to avenge the death of their sister by killing the king who murdered her. Her two sons dutifully gear themselves for war and begin riding toward the neighboring king's castle. On the way, they meet their brother Erp, who was never previously mentioned and has (apparently) been away and is unaware of recent events. The two sons explain their errand and ask if their brother will come along and help them.

Erp answers, "I shall help you as one hand helps the other hand, or as one foot helps the other foot."

The two sons considered this answer, decided that it meant that Erp would provide no help at all, and slew him. Then they rode on. (Later, they realize that Erp's answer probably meant that he was willing to help.)

While there are certainly interesting historical and cultural things to be learned from reading a story like the Volsunga Saga, as a work of fiction, it is a disappointment. The plot is a meandering set of struggles against numerous petty kings. It is filled with bizarre and flat characters, conversations are either summarized in a sentence or stilted exchanges, and you never feel like you get to know the thoughts or personality of any character. I think a modern retelling of the story (rather than a translation of a very old text) would provide for a better experience. Unless you're primarily interested in historical authenticity, I'd consider going for J.R.R. Tolkien's version rather than the original. ( )
1 vote jrissman | Aug 17, 2014 |
Wow. Well, this was certainly action packed! Magic rings, swords in trees (like swords in anvils, only different), and nearly endless duplicitous in-laws. Loads of good stuff, and loads of weird stuff, too. The ending seemed rather abrupt, but that might just have been because it ended as soon as everyone was dead. The notes are good, and the translation is modern and very readable. I enjoyed this, but I have to say that I can't remember ever reading Anything before in which the cast of characters was so consistently bloodthirsty! ( )
  meandmybooks | Aug 6, 2014 |
I plan on re-reading this now that I'm more interested in this mythology. ( )
  Mags_Standi | Jul 7, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anonymousprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Morris, Williamsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byock, Jesse L.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ennis, JaneIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grimstad, KaarenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harris, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Magnusson, EirikrTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Otten, MarcelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
SPARLING, H. HALLIDAYEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To my daughter Ashley and the fun we had telling the Sigurd story on a trout fishing trip

(Penguin Classics version, translated by Jesse L. Byock)
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Here we begin by telling of a man who was named Sigi, and it was said that he was the son of Odin.

(translated by Jesse L. Byock)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Written by an unknown author in thirteenth-century Iceland, The Saga of the Volsungs is the greatest of the mythic-legendary tales of early Scandinavia. A prose work with epic sweep that tells the extraordinary story of Sigurd the dragon slayer, the saga is based on ancient cycles of heroic poetry carried to Iceland by Norse seaman during the Viking Age.

The saga, whose roots reach deep into the oral culture of the ancient North, recounts the loving and warring of tribal kings and great heroes. Attila the Hun, Valkyries (warrior women of power and anger), and the war god Odin all play major roles. Woven into the medieval narrative is invaluable information concerning early beliefs, including the magical treasure of the Rhine, stories of giants, gods, and creatures. The tale of the hero Sigurd and his family the Volsungs was hugely popular in the Viking world, and the Icelandic saga is related to the medieval German poem the Nibelungenlied. Richard Wagner based much of his Ring of the Nibelung on The Saga of the Volsungs. The Introduction to this edition will open up the world of the sagas to the expert and non-expert alike.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140447385, Paperback)

One of the great books of world literature--an unforgettable tale of jealousy, unrequited love, greed, and vengeance.

Based on Viking Age poems and composed in thirteenth-century Iceland, The Saga of the Volsungs combines mythology, legend, and sheer human drama in telling of the heroic deeds of Sigurd the dragon slayer, who acquires runic knowledge from one of Odin's Valkyries. Yet the saga is set in a very human world, incorporating oral memories of the fourth and fifth centuries, when Attila the Hun and other warriors fought on the northern frontiers of the Roman empire. In his illuminating Introduction Jesse L. Byock links the historical Huns, Burgundians, and Goths with the extraordinary events of this Icelandic saga. With its ill-fated Rhinegold, the sword reforged, and the magic ring of power, the saga resembles the Nibelungenlied and has been a primary source for such fantasy writers as J. R. R. Tolkien and for Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:34 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Originally written in Icelandic in the thirteenth century AD by an anonymous author, The Story of The Volsungs is a legendary saga based on Norse mythology. The epic describes the legendary history and heroic feats of several generations of mythic Viking families and derives from many sources, including preexisting Edda, or heroic poems, Norse legends, historical events, and orally transmitted folklore. The saga is imbued throughout with themes of power, jealousy, love, vengeance, and fear. Often considered a critical influence on such later works as Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Story of the Volsungs is a powerful epic that continues to resonate for modern listeners. This edition-which includes excerpts from the Poetic Eddas, one of the sources of The Story of the Volsungs-is the translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson.… (more)

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