/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

J. Tolkien

antiqueJ.R. R.TolkienThe Legend of Sigurd and GudrúnengJ.R. R.Tolkiencalibre 0.8.486.5.20120d3a6115-b41e-4eaa-81fb-513a826c17f41.0



J.R.R. Tolkien

Edited by Christopher Tolkien







VÖLSUNGAKVIÐA EN NÝJA (‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’)













GUÐRÚNARKVIÐA EN NÝJA (‘The New Lay of Gudrún’)











In his essay On Fairy-Stories (1947) my father wrote of books that he read in his childhood, and in the course of this he said:

I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates, and Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable.

That the ancient poetry in the Old Norse language known by the names of the Elder Edda or the Poetic Edda remained a deep if submerged force in his later life’s work is no doubt recognised. It is at any rate well-known that he derived the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit from the first of the poems in the Edda, the Völuspá, ‘the Prophecy of the Sibyl’ – remarking in a lightly sardonic but not uncharacteristic tone to a friend in December 1937:

I don’t much approve of The Hobbit myself, preferring my own mythology (which is just touched on) with its consistent nomenclature . . . to this rabble of Eddaic-named dwarves out of Völuspá, newfangled hobbits and gollums (invented in an idle hour) and Anglo-Saxon runes.

But it is certainly not well-known, indeed scarcely known at all (though it can be discovered from existing publications), that he wrote two closely associated poems treating of the Völsung and Niflung (or Nibelung) legend, using modern English fitted to the Old Norse metre, amounting to more than five hundred stanzas: poems that have never been published until now, nor has any line been quoted from them. These poems bear the titles Völsungakviða en nýja, the New Lay of the Völsungs, and Guðrúnarkviða en nýja, the New Lay of Gudrún.

My father’s erudition was by no means confined to ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but extended to an expert knowledge of the poems of the Elder Edda and the Old Norse language (a term that in general use is largely equivalent to Old Icelandic, since by far the greater part of Norse literature that survives is written in Icelandic). In fact, for many years after he became the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925 he was the professor of Old Norse, though no such title existed; he gave lectures and classes on Norse language and literature in every year from 1926 until at least 1939. But despite his accomplishment in this field, which was recognized in Iceland, he never wrote anything specifically on a Norse subject for publication – except perhaps the ‘New Lays’, and for this, so far as I know, there is no evidence one way or the other, unless the existence of an amanuensis typescript, of unknown date and without other interest, suggests it. But there survive many pages of notes and draftings for his lectures, although these were for the most part written very rapidly and often on the brink of illegibility or beyond.

The ‘New Lays’ arose from those studies and belong to that time. My inclination is to date them later rather than earlier in his years at Oxford before the Second War, perhaps to the earlier 1930s; but this is scarcely more than an unarguable intuition. The two poems, which I believe to have been closely related in time of composition, constitute a very substantial work, and it seems possible, as a mere guess, since there is no evidence whatsoever to confirm it, that my father turned to the Norse poems as a new poetic enterprise after he abandoned the Lay of Leithian (the legend of Beren and Lúthien) near the end of 1931 (The Lays of Beleriand, p.304).

These poems stand in a complex relation to their ancient sources; they are in no sense translations. Those sources themselves, various in their nature, present obscurities, contradictions, and enigmas: and the existence of these problems underlay my father’s avowed purpose in writing the ‘New Lays’.

He scarcely ever (to my knowledge) referred to them. For my part, I cannot recollect any conversation with him on the subject until very near the end of his life, when he spoke of them to me, and tried unsuccessfully to find them. But he briefly mentioned the work in two letters to W.H. Auden. In that of 29 March 1967 (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, no.295), thanking Auden for sending his translation of the Völuspá, he said that he hoped to send him in return ‘if I can lay my hands on it (I hope it isn’t lost), a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza’ (that being the name given to the Norse alliterative stanzaic metre used in the greater number of the ‘Eddaic’ poems, the ‘Old Lore Metre’). And in the following year, on 29 January 1968, he wrote: ‘I believe I have lying about somewhere a long unpublished poem called Völsungakviða en nýja written in fornyrðislag 8-line stanzas in English: an attempt to organise the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gunnar.’

To ‘unify’, to ‘organise’, the material of the lays of the Elder Edda: that was how he put it some forty years later. To speak only of Völsungakviða en nýja, his poem, as narrative, is essentially an ordering and clarification, a bringing out of comprehensible design or structure. But always to be borne in mind are these words of his: ‘The people who wrote each of these poems [of the Edda] – not the collectors who copied and excerpted them later – wrote them as distinct individual things to be heard isolated with only the general knowledge of the story in mind.’

It may be said, as it seems to me, that he presented his interpretation of the sources in a mode that can be received independently of the doubts and debates of ‘Eddaic’ and ‘Nibelung’ scholarship. The ‘New Lays’ themselves, elaborate poems closely modelled in manner as in metre on the ‘Eddaic’ lays, are therefore paramount; and they are presented here in plain texts without any editorial interference; all else in the book is ancillary.

That there should be, nonetheless, so much else in the book requires some explanation. It may be felt that some account should be given of the actual nature of my father’s distinctive treatment of the legend. To provide a comprehensive account of the much discussed problems that he sought to resolve would lead all too easily to the first appearance of the ‘New Lays’ after some eighty years with a great weight of scholarly discussion hung about their necks. This is not to be thought of. But it seems to me that the publication of his poems provides an opportunity to hear the author himself, through the medium of the notes with which he prepared for his lectures, speaking (as it were) in characteristic tones on those very elements of doubt and difficulty that are found in the old narratives.

It must also be said that his poems are not at all points easy to follow, and this arises especially from the nature of the old poems that were his models. In one of his lectures he said: ‘In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at. Old Norse poetry aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning – and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form . . .’ That ‘seizing a situation’, ‘illuminating a moment’, without clear unfolding of narrative sequence or other matters with a bearing on the ‘moment’, will be found to be a marked characteristic of the ‘New Lays’; and here some guidance may be looked for in addition to the brief prose statements that he added to some of the sections of the Völsungakviða en nýja.

After much deliberation I have therefore provided, at the end of each poem, a commentary, which is intended to clarify references, and passages that may seem obscure; and also to point out significant departures made by my father from the Old Norse sources or between variant narratives, in such cases indicating his views, where possible, by reference to what he said in his lectures. It must be emphasized that nothing in those notes suggests that he had written, or had it in mind to write, poems on the subject himself; on the other hand, as one might expect, congruence between the views expressed in his lecture notes and the treatment of the Norse sources in his poems can often be observed.

As a general introduction in this book to the Elder Edda I have cited at length a more finished lecture with that title; and following this I have contributed brief statements on the text of the poems, the verse-form, and some other topics. At the end of the book I have given a brief account of the origins of the legend and cited some other related verses of my father’s.

In thus making much use of my father’s notes and draft discussions on ‘the Matter of Old Norse’, and the tragedy of the Völsungs and the Niflungs, hastily set down and unfinished as they are, I have chosen to try to make this book, as a whole, as much his work as I could achieve. Of its nature it is not to be judged by views prevailing in contemporary scholarship. It is intended rather as a presentation and record of his perceptions, in his own day, of a literature that he greatly admired.

In the commentaries I refer to the two poems as ‘the Lay of the Völsungs’ (Völsungakviða) and ‘the Lay of Gudrún’ (Guðrúnarkviða). But in the title of the book, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, I have taken up the subordinate title that my father gave to the Völsungakviða on the opening page of the manuscript, Sigurðarkviða en mesta, ‘the Longest Lay of Sigurd’, on which see p.234.

The sections of this book are each preceded by drawings made by Mr Bill Sanderson. These are derived closely from wood carvings that adorn the wide door-posts of the twelfth century church of Hylestad in the south of Norway, which are now preserved in the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The scenes depict in continuous vertical series on each side of the doorway the story of Sigurd’s most famous deed, which in the Lay of the Völsungs is told in section V, Regin: the slaying of the dragon Fáfnir, which gave him the name Fáfnisbani. The carvings begin with the forging of swords by Regin the smith and their testing. Then follow the slaying of Fáfnir; Sigurd tasting his blood with his finger, which enabled him to understand the voices of the birds (stanza 41 in the Lay); the slaying of Regin (stanza 45); and Sigurd’s horse Grani, famous in legend, foal of Sleipnir, the mythical horse that Ódin rode: he is shown here laden with the treasure of the dragon, although not portrayed by that artist as so huge a burden as it is in the Völsunga Saga and in the Lay (stanza 48). The continuous carving ends with a different scene: Gunnar playing the harp in Atli’s snake-pit (the Lay of Gudrún, stanza 135): in this version playing it with his feet, his hands being bound (see p.330).

It will be seen that there is no reference in this book to the operas of Richard Wagner that are known by the general title of Der Ring des Nibelungen, or The Ring.

For his work Wagner drew primarily on Old Norse literature. His chief sources, known to him in translation, were the lays of the Poetic Edda and the Saga of the Völsungs, as they were my father’s also. The great epic poem Das Nibelungenlied, written about the beginning of the thirteenth century in Middle High German, was not a source for Wagner’s libretti in at all the same sense as were the Norse works, though this may be superficially disguised by his use of German name-forms (Siegfried, Siegmund, Gunther, Hagen, Brünnhilde).

But Wagner’s treatment of the Old Norse forms of the legend was less an ‘interpretation’ of the ancient literature than a new and transformative impulse, taking up elements of the old Northern conception and placing them in new relations, adapting, altering and inventing on a grand scale, according to his own taste and creative intentions. Thus the libretti of Der Ring des Nibelungen, though raised indeed on old foundations, must be seen less as a continuation or development of the long-enduring heroic legend than as a new and independent work of art, to which in spirit and purpose Völsungakviða en nýja and Guðrúnarkviða en nýja bear little relation.



Many years ago my father referred to the words of William Morris concerning what he called ‘the Great Story of the North’, which, he insisted, should be to us ‘what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks’, and which far in the future ‘should be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.’ On this my father observed: ‘How far off and remote sound now the words of William Morris! The Tale of Troy has been falling into oblivion since that time with surprising rapidity. But the Völsungs have not taken its place.’

It is obviously desirable that a theme and a mode become so exotic should be ‘introduced’ in some fashion; and for this first publication of my father’s ‘Norse’ poems I have thought that it would be both interesting and suitable if such an introduction could be provided by the author rather than the editor.

Nowhere in his Norse papers is there any reference whatsoever to the New Lays, except for a collection of four small slips of paper of unknown date on which my father hastily wrote interpretative remarks about them (they are given on pages 51–55). While of great interest in themselves they do not constitute any large view of the mode and matter of his Norse lays in an historical context; and in the absence of any such writing I have ventured to include here a substantial part of the opening lecture (with the heading General Introduction) of a series in the English Faculty at Oxford titled The ‘Elder Edda’.

It is to be borne in mind that this is the draft and record of a spoken lecture to a small audience. No thought of publication could be remotely present. His purpose was to communicate his vision in broad clear strokes. He set the Edda forcibly within a large temporal context, and eloquently conveyed his own conception of this poetry and its place in the history of the North. In other lectures, on particular poems or specific topics, he expressed himself, of course, with caution; but here he could be bold, or even extravagant, not hedging every statement with qualifications in a subject where disagreement over doubtful evidence dogs the steps. Indeed, ‘perhaps’ and ‘probably’, ‘some hold’ and ‘it may be thought’, are notably absent from this account as he wrote it.

My impression is that this was a relatively early writing; and he added later a number of qualifications to his original statements. There survives also an earlier and much rougher draft lecture with the title Elder Edda. This was expressly delivered to a ‘club’, unnamed; but it was the basis of the much developed lecture of which a part is given here. My father treated that first text in a characteristic manner, retaining phrases amid much rewriting and addition, and produced a new manuscript. It can hardly be doubted that the lecture in its earlier form was what he read, with that title, to the Exeter College Essay Society on 17 November 1926. But how long a time elapsed between the two texts it is impossible to say.

It is primarily in order to hear the voice of the author of the poems presented in this book, writing (in order to speak) personally and vitally of the Poetic Edda, on which he has never been heard since he last lectured on Old Norse at Oxford some seventy years ago, that I print it here, in its later form.

The text is rapidly written and not at all points perfectly legible, and it is here slightly edited and somewhat shortened, with a few explanations added in square brackets and a few footnotes.



The poetry that goes by this misleading and unfortunate title attracts occasionally from afar people of various sort – philologists, historians, folklorists, and others of that kidney, but also poets, critics, and connoisseurs of new literary sensations. The philologists (in a wide sense) have as usual done most of the work, and their ardour has not more than usual (probably less than in Beowulf ) been diverted from at least intelligent appreciation of the literary value of these documents.

It is unusually true here that a real judgement and appreciation of these poems – whose obscurity and difficulty is such that only the devoted labour of many philologists has made them available – is dependent on personal possession of a knowledge of the critical, metrical, and linguistic problems. Without the philologist, of course, we should not know what many of the words meant, how the lines ran, or what the words sounded like: this last is in old Scandinavian verse of possibly more importance even than usual. The poets expended an unusual share of their ingenuity in securing at any rate that the noise of the verse should be fine.

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the ruin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) – such at any rate has been my experience – only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

And so it is that the best (especially the most forcible of the heroic Eddaic poems) seem to leap across the barrier of the difficult language, and grip one in the very act of deciphering line by line.

Let none who listen to the poets of the Elder Edda go away imagining that he has listened to voices of the Primitive Germanic forest, or that in the heroic figures he has looked upon the lineaments of his noble if savage ancestors – such as fought by, with, or against the Romans. I say this with all possible emphasis – and yet so powerful is the notion of hoary and primeval antiquity which clings to the name (quite recent) Elder Edda in popular fancy (so far as popular fancy may be said to play with so remote and unprofitable a theme at all) that, though the tale ought to begin with the seventeenth century and a learned bishop, insensibly I find myself leading off with the Stone Age.

The Scandinavian lands, archaeology says, have been inhabited since the Stone Age (not to go into niceties of palaeo and neo). The cultural continuity has never been broken: it has been several times modified and renewed, from the South and East in the main. One seems more justified in Scandinavia – more justified than usual – in saying that most of the people now living there have always been there.

About 400 A.D. or earlier, our inscriptional (Runic) glimpses of the Northern tongue begin. But these people, though speaking a Germanic language – it would seem in a somewhat archaic form – did not take part in the great Germanic heroic age, except by ceasing to be Scandinavian. That is: the peoples whom later we call Swedes, Gautar, Danes, etc., are descendants of people who did not go off, as a whole, into the adventure, turmoil, and disasters of that period. Many of the peoples who did go came ultimately out of Scandinavia, but they lost all connexion with it: Burgundians, Goths, Lombards.

Echoes in the form of ‘tidings’, of strange news, and new songs imported ready-made, or made at home from the raw material of news, these peoples did receive from those now obscured and confused events. The material of tale and verse came to them – and found very different conditions in Scandinavian lands to those which produced them: above all they found no wealthy courts in the Southern sense, nor headquarters of powerful warlike forces, no great captains of hosts or kings to encourage and pay for poetic composition. And more, they found a different local store of mythology and stories of local heroes and sea-captains. The local legends and the local myths were modified, but they remained Scandinavian, and they could not if we had them, and still less can the tattered fragments of later disjointed memories of them, be taken as a compensation for the loss of nearly all that belonged to more southerly Germania, least of all as the virtual equivalent of those vanished things. Related they were, but they were different.

Then the matter became confused further by the development of a private Scandinavian heroic age – the so-called Viking age, after 700 A.D. The stay-at-homes took to ranging all over the earth – but without losing hold on their ancient lands and seas. Though courtly conditions then arose, epic poetry never developed in those lands. The reasons are little understood – the answers to most really pertinent questions are seldom given – and at any rate we must here rest content with the fact. The causes may be sought in the temper of the times and of the people, and of their language which was the reflexion of them. It was not until relatively late that ‘kings’ in the North were rich enough or powerful enough to hold splendid court, and when this did come about the development was different – verse developed its local brief, pithy, strophic [i.e. stanzaic], often dramatic form not into epic, but into the astonishing and euphonious but formal elaborations of Skaldic verse [see pp.34–37]. In the Eddaic verse it is seen ‘undeveloped’ (if ‘strophic’ verse could ever anywhere at any time ‘develop’ into epic by insensible gradations, without a break, a leap, a deliberate effort) – undeveloped that is on the formal side, though strengthened and pruned. But even here the ‘strophic’ form – the selection of the dramatic and forcible moment – is what we find, not the slow unfolding of an epic theme.

The latter, so far as represented, was accomplished in prose. In Iceland, a Norwegian colony, there grew up the unique technique of the saga, the prose tale. This was chiefly a tale of everyday life; it was frequently the last word in sophisticated polish, and its natural field was not legend. This of course is due to the temper and taste of the audience rather than the actual meaning of the word – merely something said or told and not sung, and so ‘saga’ was also naturally applied to such things as the partly romanticized Völsunga Saga, which is quite unlike a typical Icelandic saga. To Norse use the Gospels or Acts of the Apostles are a ‘saga’.

But in Norway at the time we are looking at Iceland was not founded, and there was no great king’s court at all. Then Harald Fairhair arose and subdued that proud land of many stubborn chiefs and independent householders – only to lose many of the best and proudest in the process, in war or in the exodus to Iceland. In the first sixty years or so of that colonization some 50,000 came to that island from Norway, either direct or from Ireland and the British Isles. Nonetheless in Harald Fairhair’s court began the flourishing time of Norse verse to which Eddaic poetry belongs.

This Norwegian poetry, then, is founded on ancient indigenous mythology and religious beliefs, going back heaven knows how far, or where; legends and folk-tales and heroic stories of many centuries telescoped together, some local and prehistoric, some echoes of movements in the South, some local and of the Viking age or later – but the disentanglement of the various strata in it would require for success an understanding of the mystery of the North, so long hidden from view, and a knowledge of the history of its populations and culture, that we are never likely to possess.

In form – and therefore probably also in some of its older content – it is related to other Germanic things. Of course it is in a Germanic language; but its older metres are closely connected with, say, Old English metre; more – it has formulas, half-lines, not to speak of names, and allusions to places and persons and legends, actually current independently in Old English: that is, it is a descendant of a common Germanic verse and tradition of verse which now escapes us: of neither the themes of this old Baltic verse nor its style have we anything left save the suggestions afforded by the comparison of Norse and English.

But this form in the Edda remained simpler, more direct (compensating for length, fullness, richness by force), than that developed, say, in England. Of course, it is true that however much we emphasize the Norwegian character and atmosphere of these poems it is not free from importation. Actually imported themes – such as pre-eminently the Völsung and Burgundian and Hun stories – not only acquired a leading place in the Edda, but may even be said to have received in exile their finest treatment. But this is because they were so thoroughly naturalized and Norwegianized: the very uprooting had set the tales free for artistic handling unhampered by history or antiquarianism, for recolouring by Northern imagination, and association with the looming figures of the Northern gods.

The only really important modification one must make is in favour of the Goths – difficult as it is to decipher the hints that survive the ages, it is clear that these people of Scandinavian origin but whom fate had marked out for a special history and tragedy were followed step by step by the people of the North, and became with their enemies the Huns the chief themes of poets – so much so that in later days gotar remained as a poetic word for ‘warriors’, when the old tales were overlaid and mingled with other matters. From the Goths came the runes, and from the Goths came (it would appear) Óðinn (Gautr), the god of runic wisdom, of kings, of sacrifice. And he is really important – for the astonishing fact that he is clearly un-Scandinavian in origin cannot alter the fact that he became the greatest of the Northern gods.

This is a sort of picture of the development. This popular local verse of intricate origin was then suddenly lifted up by the tide of Viking wealth and glory to adorn the houses of kings and jarls. It was pruned and improved, doubtless, in style and manners, made more dignified (usually), but it retained in a unique fashion the simpler pithier temper, a nearness to the soil and to ordinary life, which are seldom found in so close a connexion with the graces of ‘court’ – that is the mastery of the deliberate and leisured artist, even occasionally the pedantry of the genealogist and philologist. But this is in keeping with what we know of the kings of that court and their men.

It must be remembered that the time was a heathen one – still in possession of special, local pagan traditions which had long been isolated; of organized temples and priesthoods. But ‘belief’ was already failing, mythology and still more anything that could be more properly called ‘religion’ were already disintegrating without direct attack from outside – or perhaps better put, without conquest or conversion and without destruction of temples and pagan organization, for the influence of foreign ideas, and of the sudden rending of the veil over the North (rent by men from within) cannot be dismissed. This was a special transition-period – one of poise between old and new, and one inevitably brief and not long to be maintained.

To a large extent the spirit of these poems which has been regarded as (a branch of) the common ‘Germanic spirit’ – in which there is some truth: Byrhtwold at Maldon would do well enough in Edda or Saga – is really the spirit of a special time. It might be called Godlessness – reliance upon self and upon indomitable will. Not without significance is the epithet applied to actual characters living at this moment of history – the epithet goðlauss, with the explanation that their creed was at trúa á mátt sín ok megin [‘to trust in one’s own might and main’]. [Author’s note, added later: Yet on the reverse it must be remembered that this was applied only to certain commanding and ruthless characters, and would not in any case have been worth saying if many (indeed the bulk of) men had not remained believers and practitioners of pagan worship.]

This applies more to the heroic, of course, than the mythological. But it is not untrue of the mythological. Such tales of gods are of a kind that can well survive to a time when they are rather the themes of tales than the objects of cults, but yet to a time which has not replaced the gods by anything new, and is still familiar with them and interested in them. Nor of course was blót [heathen sacrificial feast] given up. Heathenism was still very strong, though in Sweden rather than in Norway. It had not suffered that uprooting from ancient fanes [temples] and local habitations that is so fatal to it – as it proved in England.

The end of the period began with the violent apostolate of that great heathen figure and hero of the North – the christianizing king Ólaf Tryggvason. After his fall, and the fall of many of the greatest men through him or with him, there was a relapse into heathendom. But this was quickly ended by the no less vigorous but far wiser christianizing efforts of Ólaf the Holy, which at the time when Edward the Confessor was reigning in England left Norway completely christianized, and the heathen tradition destroyed.

The tenacity and conservatism of the North, however, can be measured not only by the efforts which had to be made by such great figures as the Ólafs, but in other smaller ways: such as the survival of the runes, so closely if accidentally associated with pagan traditions, even after the North had learned to write in Latin fashion. This happened chiefly in Sweden, but all over Scandinavia runes remained in use (through direct tradition, not revival) for such things as memorial inscriptions down to the sixteenth century.

Nonetheless, after 1050, certainly after 1100, poetry dependent on the heathen tradition was in old Scandinavia moribund or dead – and this means Skaldic verse whatever its subject, quite as much as lays actually dealing with myths, for the Skaldic verse and language depended upon a knowledge of these myths in writer and hearer, both of whom were normally what we should call aristocratic – nobles, kings and courtiers after the Northern fashion.

In Iceland it survived for some time. There the change over (about the year 1000) had been rather more peaceful and less embittered (a fact probably not unconnected with removal and colonization). In fact poetry became a profitable export industry of Iceland for a while; and in Iceland alone was anything ever collected or written down. But the old knowledge swiftly decayed. The fragments, much disjointed, were again collected – but in an antiquarian and philological revival of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Perhaps it would be more true to say, not antiquarian revival, but kindly burial. This was a new piety which pieced the fragments together without completely understanding them: indeed we often feel we understand them better. Certainly the old religion and its attendant mythology as a connected whole or anything like a ‘system’ (if it ever possessed one, as is, within limits, probable) has not been preserved at all, and was certainly not within the reach of the great prose artist, metrical expert, antiquarian and ruthless politician Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century. How much is lost can be appreciated by anyone who reflects how little we know now of even the major details of the extremely important temples and their ‘cultus’ and the priestly organization in Sweden or in Norway.

The ‘Younger Edda’ or ‘Prose Edda’ of Snorri Sturluson was a pious collection of fragments – to help in the understanding and making of verse which needed a knowledge of myths – when gentle, even tolerant and ironic, learning had supervened upon the struggle between religions.

After that the gods and heroes go down into their Ragnarök,* vanquished, not by the World-girdling serpent or Fenris-wolf, or the fiery men of Múspellsheim, but by Marie de France, and sermons, medieval Latin and useful information, and the small change of French courtesy.

Yet the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the darkest hour, saw a resurrection after Ragnarök, almost as if there were fulfilled in it the words which the Völva [the sibyl who prophesies in the Eddaic poem Völuspá] speaks concerning the rearising of a new earth, and the return of men and gods to find and marvel at the golden pieces in the grass where once were the halls in which the gods had played at chess [see the tenth verse of the poem The Prophecy of the Sibyl given in Appendix B].

The discovery of the fallen pieces of the old splendour was often accidental, and the research which led to the recovery proceeded from various motives. In England theological zeal was powerfully blended with the historical and linguistic curiosity which it begot by accident. In the North this was not so. But whatever the motives the result was not only the rescue from the wreck of time of such fragments as we have, but swift recognition of their virtue, and regret for the loss of more. This was specially so with the ‘Edda’.

The salvage from the ruins left by natural losses, accidents of time, the heedlessness and forgetfulness of men, and the ravages of war and fanaticism (whether theological or classical) was scanty. Nonetheless the eighteenth century seems to have marked its disapproval of these ‘Gothic’ bones dug from their graves by two fires which contrived to destroy some part of what had been saved, and narrowly missed destroying all the best. In 1728 in the fire at Copenhagen much of what had there been collected went up in smoke. Three years later the Cotton collection in London was partly burnt. Beowulf was scorched badly. But it escaped, just – for the embarrassment of later Schools of English. At Copenhagen the finder’s own parchment transcript of the manuscript of the Elder Edda seems to have been among the losses. Lost it is at any rate. But the manuscript itself survived. Yet the gods and heroes nearly found a final and fatal Ragnarök, which would have left our knowledge and estimate of northern literature in a totally different state.

When the ‘Elder Edda’ is mentioned, we practically mean a single manuscript – no. 2365 4° in the Royal Collection in Copenhagen: now known as the Codex Regius (of the Elder Edda). It contains 29 poems. There are 45 leaves of it left. After leaf 32 a gathering, probably of eight pages, has been lost.* There appear to have been no losses at beginning and end – where losses frequently occur.

This is all we know about this remarkable survivor of time, fire, and flood. In 1662 King Frederick III of Denmark sent the well-known Thormod Torfæus with an open letter to the celebrated Brynjólfr Sveinsson. Since 1639 Brynjólfr had been bishop of Skálaholt in Iceland, and had been a keen collector of manuscripts. Torfæus was commissioned to get his help in collecting for the king materials for ancient history, and any antiquities, curiosities, or rarities that could be found in Iceland. In 1663 the bishop sent the choicest of his collection to the king. Among these now priceless treasures was the Codex Regius. Where the bishop had found it, or what was its previous history is unknown, except that he had picked it up twenty years earlier: for on the front page he had written his monogram and a date (LL 1643, i.e. Lupus Loricatus = Brynjólfr), just as we should scrawl our name and a date on a new and interesting acquisition from a second-hand bookshop.

Two hundred and fifty years have followed* – of examining, puzzling, construing, etymologizing, analysis, theorizing, arguing and sifting argument, of asserting and refuting, until, short as are its contents, Eddaic ‘literature’ has become a land and a desert in itself. From all this study, amidst a vast disagreement, certain things have reached, more or less, the stage of authoritative consensus of opinion.

We now know, at any rate, that this collection of poems should not be called Edda at all. This is a perpetuation of an act of baptism on the part of the bishop in which he acted ultra vires. The collection had no comprehensive title at all so far as we know or the manuscript shows. Edda is the title of one of the works of Snorri Sturluson (died 1241), a work founded on these very poems, and others now lost like them, and it is the title of that work only, by rights; a work which is concerned primarily, even in the earlier parts which are cast in narrative or dialogue form, with the technicalities of Northern poetry, which for us it rescued from oblivion. The name is therefore quite inapplicable to a collection of actual antique poems, collected largely for their merits as verse, not as exemplars of a craft.

Beyond this we can say little about the manuscript. It appears that the Codex Regius belongs palaeographically to say about 1270 (early in the latter half of the thirteenth century), and is itself apparently a copy of an original belonging to 1200 (some say earlier). It belongs in fact actually as we have it to a period thirty years after the death of Snorri; but even if it were not a fact that Snorri used these very poems substantially as we have them, it is clear enough internally that the matter, the manner, and the language of the poems entitles them to the name ‘Elder’.

As for when they were written, we have no information other than an examination of the poems themselves will yield. Naturally the datings differ, especially in the case of individual poems. None of them, in point of original composition, are likely to be much older than 900 A.D. As a kind of central period which cannot possibly be extended in either direction we can say 850–1050 A.D. These limits cannot be stretched – least of all backwards. Nothing of them can have been cast into the form we know (or rather into the forms of which our manuscript offers us often a corrupt descendant), except for occasional lines, allusions, or phrases, before 800. Doubtless they were afterwards corrupted orally and scribally – and even altered: I mean that in addition to mere corruption producing either nonsense, or at least ill-scanning lines, there were actual variants current. But in the main these things were the products of individual authors, who, whatever they used of old tradition, even older poems, wrote new things which had not before existed.

The antiquity and origin of the mythology and legends met in the poems is another matter. In general it is not really so important to criticism (however attractive to curiosity) to know what answers can be made to this sort of question, as it is to remember that wherever they got their material the authors lived in the last centuries of heathenism in Norway and Iceland, and treated their material in the style and spirit of those lands and times. Even formal etymology has seldom much to say, attractive though I personally find it. Even when, as often happens, we can equate a name with its form in other Germanic languages it does not tell us much. Thus Jörmunrekkr is Ermanaríks, and his name an echo of the history of the Goths, their power and ruin [see pp.322–23, note to stanza 86]; Gunnarr is Gundahari, and his story an echo of events in Germany in the fifth century [see Appendix A, pp.337–39]. But this does not tell us much of the state in which these tales first reached the North, or the paths (certainly various) they came by. And still less does it help us to unravel the literary problems concerning the various treatment of the Burgundian theme in Scandinavia.

But intriguing as all this questioning is, we may end on the note we struck before: it is not of the first importance. Far more important than the names of the figures, or the origins of the details of the story (except where this helps us to understand what is unintelligible or to rescue a text from corruption) is the atmosphere, colouring, style. These are products only in a very small degree of the origin of the themes: they chiefly reflect the age and country in which the poems were composed. And we shall not be far wrong in taking the mountains and fjords of Norway, and the life of small communities in that disconnected land, as the physical and social background of these poems – a life of a special sort of agriculture, combined with adventurous sea-faring and fishery. And the time: days of the fading of a special, individual, pagan culture, not elaborate materially, but in many ways highly civilized, a culture which had possessed not only (in some degree) an organized religion, but a store of partly organized and systematized legends and poetry. Days of a fading of belief, when in a sudden changing of the world the South went up in flames, and its plunder enriched the wooden halls of the Norse chieftains till they shone with gold. Then came Harald Fairhair, and a great kingship, and a court, and the colonization of Iceland (as an incident in a vast series of adventures), and the ruinous wars of Ólaf Tryggvason, and the dying down of the flame, into the gentle smoulder of the Middle Ages, taxes and trade-regulations, and the jog-trot of pigs and herrings.

It may be that it was with that characteristic flourish that my father ended this lecture; at any rate (though the manuscript text continues, and soon turns to a consideration of individual poems) it seems a good place to end it here.

I append here a number of notes and brief statements on various topics that are best treated separately, as follows.

§1 The ‘Prose Edda’ of Snorri Sturluson

§2 The Saga of the Völsungs (Völsunga Saga)

§3 The text of the poems

§4 The spelling of Norse names

§5 The verse-form of the poems

§6 Notes on the poems by the author


The name Edda properly belongs only to a celebrated work by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). This is a treatise on the distinctive art of Icelandic poetry which in Snorri’s day was dying out: the old metrical rules disregarded, the old mythological knowledge essential to it attacked by a clergy hostile to any survival of heathendom. This book, in its three parts, is a retelling in prose narrative of ancient myths and legends; an account of, and explanation of, the strange diction of the old ‘court poetry’; and exemplification of its verse-forms.

In my father’s lecture (p.29) he noted that the application of the name Edda by Bishop Brynjólf of Skálaholt to the poems of the great Codex that he acquired in 1643 was without historical justification. In Brynjólf’s time it had come to be supposed among Icelanders interested in the ancient literature that there must have been ‘an older Edda’ from which Snorri’s work was derived. Brynjólf himself wrote in a letter in 1641, before he knew of the existence of the Codex: ‘Where now are those huge treasuries of all human knowledge written by Sæmund the Wise, and above all that most noble Edda, of which we possess now, beyond the name, scarcely a thousandth part; and that indeed which we do possess would have been utterly lost, had not the epitome of Snorri Sturluson left to us rather the shadow and footprints than the true body of that ancient Edda.’

Sæmund the Wise (1056–1133) was a priest whose prodigious learning became a legend, but for the title Sæmundar Edda that Brynjólf gave to the Codex there was no foundation. Thus arose the conception of the two Eddas, the Poetic or Elder Edda and the Prose or Younger Edda. Why Snorri’s work was named Edda is not known, but there have been several explanations: by some it is related to the word óðr in the sense ‘poem, poetry’, as if it meant ‘Poetics’, by others derived from the place Oddi in south-west Iceland, a centre of Icelandic learning where Snorri grew up.

From the ‘Poetic Edda’ emerged the adjective Eddaic (and Eddic), used in contrast to Skaldic (a modern derivative from the Old Norse word skáld meaning ‘poet’). Of Skaldic verse my father wrote in his lecture on the Elder Edda (p.20): ‘It was not until relatively late that “kings” in the North were rich enough or powerful enough to hold splendid court, and when this did come about . . . verse developed its local brief, pithy, strophic, often dramatic form not into epic, but into the astonishing and euphonious but formal elaborations of Skaldic verse.’ This ‘court poetry’, as it may also be called, was an extraordinarily intricate and distinctive art, with extreme elaboration of verse-forms subject to rules of exacting strictness: ‘elaborations’, in my father’s words, ‘in which various kinds of internal and final full-rhyme and half-rhyme both vocalic and consonantal are interwoven with the principles of “weight” and stress and alliteration, with the deliberate object of utilizing to the full the vigour, force and rolling beat of the Norse tongue.’ To which must be added the huge poetic vocabulary, and the extraordinary cultivation (described below) of the device of the ‘kenning’.

‘To us,’ he wrote, ‘thinking of the Elder Edda, “Eddaic” means the simpler, more straightforward language of the heroic and mythological verse, in contrast to the artificial language of the Skalds. And usually this contrast is thought of as one of age as well: old simplicity of good old Germanic days, unhappily given up in a new taste for poetry become an elaborate riddle.

‘But the opposition between “Eddaic” and “Skaldic” verse is quite unreal as one of time, as between older and younger, as of a fine old popular manner being pushed out by a younger, newer fashion. They are related growths, branches on the same tree, essentially connected, even possibly sometimes by the same hands. Skalds can be found to write in fornyrðislag, the oldest of old metres; Skaldic kennings can be found in Eddaic lays.

‘All that remains true of this contrast of age is the fact that the simpler metres, e.g. fornyrðislag and the style that goes with it, are far older, much closer, for instance, to other Germanic things, to Old English verse, than the specially Skaldic verse and manner. The Eddaic poems we have belong to the same period as Skaldic, but the metrical traditions and style they employ carries on still, without fundamental alteration, something of the common Germanic tradition. Old and new in metre rubbed shoulders – it was as we have seen already a transition period, a period of poise between old and new, not maintainable for long [see p.23].’

It is the highly artificial Skaldic poetry that is the subject of Snorri’s instruction in his Edda, and indeed by far the greater part of what survives of it owes its survival to him. In the second part of the book, Skáldskaparmál (‘Poetic Diction’), he treats above all of kennings, with a great number of exemplifying verses by named skalds: but very many of these kennings are wholly incomprehensible without a knowledge of the myths and legends to which they allude – and such themes are not characteristically the subject of the Skaldic poems themselves. In the first part of the Edda (the Gylfaginning) Snorri drew extensively on Eddaic poetry; and in the Skáldskaparmál also he told the stories on which certain kennings rest. The following is a single example.

Hvernig skal kenna gull? How shall gold be named?

Thus: by calling it the Fire of Ægir; the Pine-needles of Glasir; the Hair of Síf; the Head-band of Fulla; Freyja’s Tears; the Drop, or Rain, or Shower of Draupnir [Ódin’s gold ring, from which dropped other rings]; Otter’s Ransom; Forced Payment of the Æsir; . . .

Following such a list as this, Snorri gave explanations of these locutions.

Hver er sök til þess, at gull er kallat otrgjöld? What is the reason that gold is called Otter’s ransom?

It is told that when the Æsir, Ódin and Loki and Hœnir, went out to explore the world they came to a certain river, and they went along the river to a waterfall; and by the waterfall was an otter . . .

And thus it is that we have the story of Andvari’s Gold told both by the author of the Völsunga Saga and by Snorri Sturluson (see the Commentary on the Lay of the Völsungs, pp.188–91); but indeed Snorri here continued his narrative into a résumé of the whole history of the Völsungs.

It remains to add that the celebrity of Snorri’s book in the centuries that followed, and most especially of the Skáldskaparmál, led, before the emergence of the Codex Regius, to the term Edda being widely used to mean, expressly, the technical rules of the old ‘court’ poetry, or ‘Skaldic’ verse. In those days poets complained of the tyranny of Edda, or offered apologies for their lack of proficiency in the art of Edda. In the words of Gudbrand Vigfússon: ‘An untaught poet who called a spade a spade, instead of describing it by a mythological circumlocution, would be scouted as “Eddaless”’ (Eddu-lauss, ‘having no Eddaic art’). Thus the term ‘Eddaic’, as now used, in opposition to ‘Skaldic’, is a perfect reversal of its former meaning.


Völsunga Saga


The Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems of great diversity, composed by poets who lived centuries apart; but it was compiled and ordered with intelligent care. Most of the heroic poems are concerned with the story of the Völsungs and the Niflungs; and these the compiler of the collection arranged, so far as the diverse structure and scope of the individual lays allowed him, in a narrative sequence, adding explanatory passages in prose at the beginning and end of many of the lays, and narrative links in the course of them.

But much of the material thus arranged is of the utmost difficulty. Poems are disordered or defective, or even patchworks of different origin altogether, and there are very many obscurities of detail; while worst of all, the fifth gathering of the Codex Regius disappeared long ago (see p.28), with the loss of all Eddaic poetry for the central part of the legend of Sigurd.

In this situation, there is an essential aid to the understanding of the Northern legend. This is the Völsunga Saga, written, probably in Iceland, in the thirteenth century, though the oldest manuscript is much later: a prose tale of the fate of the whole Völsung race from the far ancestry of Sigmund, father of Sigurd, and continuing on to the fall of the Niflungs and the death of Atli (Attila) and beyond. It is founded both on Eddaic lays that survive and other sources now lost; and ‘it is solely from the lays that it has used,’ my father said in a lecture, ‘that it derives its power and the attraction that it has for all those who come to it,’ for he did not hold the author’s artistic capacity in high regard.

This author was faced with wholly divergent traditions (seen in the preserved Eddaic lays) concerning Sigurd and Brynhild: stories that cannot be combined, for they are essentially contradictory. Yet he combined them; and in doing so produced a narrative that is certainly mysterious, but (in its central point) unsatisfying: as it were a puzzle that is presented as completed but in which the looked for design is incomprehensible and at odds with itself.

In the commentary that follows each poem in this book I have noticed many features in which my father departed from the Völsunga Saga narrative, more especially in the case of his Lay of the Völsungs, where the Saga is of much greater importance as a source. He seems not to have set down any critical account of the Saga as a whole, or if he did it has not survived; but comments of his on the author’s work in individual passages will be found in the commentary (see pp.208–11, 221, 244–45).


It is at once obvious that the manuscript of the two lays is a fair copy intended to be final, for my father’s handwriting is clear and uniform throughout, with scarcely any corrections made at the time of writing (and of very few of his manuscripts, however ‘final’ in intention, can that be said). While it cannot be shown to be the case, there is at any rate no indication that the two poems were not written out consecutively.

It is a remarkable fact that no more than a few pages survive of work on the poems preceding the final text, and those pages relate exclusively to the opening (Upphaf, the Beginning) of Völsungakviða en nýja, to section I ‘Andvari’s Gold’, and to a small part of section II, ‘Signý’. Beyond this point there is no trace of any earlier drafting whatsoever; but the earlier manuscript material is interesting, and I have discussed it in a note on p.246–49.

The final manuscript of the poems did however itself undergo correction at some later time. By a rough count there are some eighty to ninety emendations scattered through the two texts, from changes of a single word to (but rarely) the substitution of several half-lines; some lines are marked for alteration but without any replacement provided.

The corrections are written rapidly and often indistinctly in pencil, and all are concerned with vocabulary and metre, not with the substance of the narrative. I have the impression that my father read through the text many years later (the fact that a couple of the corrections are in red ball-point pen points to a late date) and quickly emended points that struck him as he went – perhaps with a view to possible publication, though I know of no evidence that he ever actually proposed it.

I have taken up virtually all these late corrections into the text given in this book.

There are two notable differences in the presentation of Völsungakviða en nýja and Guðrúnarkviða en nýja in the manuscript. One concerns the actual organization of the poem. The Lay of the Völsungs following the opening section Upphaf (‘Beginning’) is divided into nine sections, to which my father gave titles in Norse without translation, as follows:


Andvara-gull [Andvari’s gold]




Dauði Sinfjötla [The Death of Sinfjötli]


Fœddr Sigurðr [Sigurd born]








Svikin Brynhildr [Brynhild Betrayed]


Deild [Strife]

I have retained these titles in the text, but added translations, as above, to those which are not simply proper names. In the Lay of Gudrún, on the other hand, there is no division into sections.

To sections I, II, V, and VI in the Lay of the Völsungs, but not to the other five, explanatory prose head-notes are added (perhaps in imitation of the prose notes inserted by the compiler of the Codex Regius of the Edda).

The marginal indications of the speakers in both poems are given exactly as they appear in the manuscript, as also are the indications of new ‘moments’ in the narrative.

The second difference in presentation between the two poems concerns the line-divisions. In Upphaf, alone of the sections of the Lay of the Völsungs, but throughout the Lay of Gudrún, the stanzas are written in eight short lines: that is to say, the unit of the verse, the half-line or vísuorð, is written separately:

Of old was an age

when was emptiness

(the opening of Upphaf ). But apart from Upphaf the whole of the Lay of the Völsungs is written in long lines (without a metrical space between the halves):

Of old was an age when Ódin walked

(the opening of Andvara-gull ). At the top of this page, however, my father wrote in pencil: ‘This should all be written in short line form, which looks better – as in Upphaf .’ I have therefore set out the text of the Lay of the Völsungs in this way.


I have thought it best to follow closely my father’s usage in respect of the writing of Norse names in an English context. The most important features, which appear in his manuscript of the poems with great consistency, are these:

The sound ð of voiced ‘th’ as in English ‘then’ is replaced by d: thus Guðrún becomes Gudrún, Hreiðmarr becomes Hreidmar, Buðli becomes Budli, Ásgarðr becomes Ásgard.

As two of these examples show, the nominative ending -r is omitted: so also Frey, Völsung, Brynhild, Gunnar for Freyr, Völsungr, Brynhildr, Gunnarr.

The letter j is retained, as in Sinfjötli, Gjúki, where it is pronounced like English ‘y’ in ‘you’ (Norse Jórk is ‘York’).

The only case where I have imposed consistency is that of the name of the god who in Norse is Óðinn. In his lecture notes my father naturally used the Norse form (which I have retained in the text of his lecture on the ‘Elder Edda’, p.22). In the carefully written manuscript of the ‘New Lays’, on the other hand, he ‘anglicized’ it, changing ð to d, but (as generally in all such cases) retaining the acute accent indicating a long vowel. But he used two forms, favouring one or the other in different parts of the Lay of the Völsungs: Ódin and Ódinn. But in section VI, Brynhildr, where the name occurs frequently in the form Ódinn, he wrote (stanza 8) Ódinn bound me, Ódin’s chosen. This is because in the Norse genitive nn changes to ns: Óðins sonr, ‘son of Ódin’.

Seeing that in section VIII, stanza 5, where the name is repeated, Ódin dooms it; Ódinn hearken!, my father later struck out the second n of Ódinn, and since it seems to me that inconsistency in the form of the name serves no purpose, I have settled for Ódin. In the case of the name that is in Norse Reginn my father wrote Regin throughout, and I have followed this.


The metrical form of these Lays was very evidently a primary element in my father’s purpose. As he said in his letters to W.H. Auden, he wrote in ‘the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza’, and I give here an abbreviated account of its nature.

There are three metres found in the Eddaic poems, fornyrðislag, malaháttr, and ljóðaháttr (on this last see the note to the Lay of the Völsungs, section V, lines 42–44, pp.211–13); but here we need only consider the first, in which most of the narrative poems of the Edda are composed. The name fornyrðislag is believed to mean ‘Old Story Metre’ or ‘Old Lore Metre’ – a name which, my father observed, cannot have arisen until after later elaborations had been invented and made familiar; he favoured the view that the older name was kviðuháttr, meaning ‘the “manner” for poems named kviða’, since the old poems in fornyrðislag, when their names have any metrical import, are usually called ~kviða: hence his names Völsungakviða and Guðrúnarkviða.

The ancient Germanic metre depended, in my father’s words, on ‘the utilization of the main factors of Germanic speech, length and stress’; and the same rhythmical structure as is found in Old English verse is found also in fornyrðislag. That structure was expounded by my father in a preface to the revised edition (1940) of the translation of Beowulf by J.R. Clark-Hall, and reprinted in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). In that account he defined the nature of the Old English verse-structure in these words.

The Old English line was composed of two opposed word-groups or ‘halves’. Each half was an example, or variation, of one of six basic patterns.

The patterns were made of strong and weak elements, which may be called ‘lifts’ and ‘dips’. The standard lift was a long stressed syllable, (usually with a relatively high tone). The standard dip was an unstressed syllable, long or short, with a low tone.

The following are examples in modern English of normal forms of the six patterns:

A, B, C have equal feet, each containing a lift and dip. D and E have unequal feet: one consists of a single lift, the other has a subordinate stress (marked `) inserted.

These are the normal patterns of four elements into which Old English words naturally fell, and into which modern English words still fall. They can be found in any passage of prose, ancient or modern. Verse of this kind differs from prose, not in re-arranging words to fit a special rhythm, repeated or varied in successive lines, but in choosing the simpler and more compact word-patterns and clearing away extraneous matter, so that these patterns stand opposed to one another.

The selected patterns were all of approximately equal metrical weight* : the effect of loudness (combined with length and voice-pitch), as judged by the ear in conjunction with emotional and logical significance. The line was thus essentially a balance of two equivalent blocks. These blocks might be, and usually were, of different pattern and rhythm. There was in consequence no common tune or rhythm shared by lines in virtue of being ‘in the same metre’. The ear should not listen for any such thing, but should attend to the shape and balance of the halves. Thus the róaring séa rólling lándward is not metrical because it contains an ‘iambic’ or a ‘trochaic’ rhythm, but because it is a balance of B + A.

These patterns are found also in fornyrðislag, and can be readily identified in my father’s Norse lays: as for example in stanza 45 of the Lay of Gudrún (p.268), lines 2–6:


rúnes of héaling

D (



wórds wéll-gràven


on wóod to réad


fást bìds us fáre


to féast gládly

In the variations on the ‘basic patterns’ (‘overweighting’, ‘extension’, etc.) described in my father’s account there are indeed differences in Old Norse from Old English, tending to greater brevity; but I will enter only into the most radical and important difference between the verse-forms, namely, that all Norse poetry is ‘strophic’, or ‘stanzaic’, that is, composed in strophes or stanzas. This is in the most marked contrast to Old English, where any such arrangements were altogether avoided; and my father wrote of it (see p.7): ‘In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at. Old Norse aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning – and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form, and gradually to greater regularity of form of verse.’

‘The norm of the strophe (for fornyrðislag),’ he said, ‘is four lines (eight half-lines) with a complete pause at the end, and also a pause (not necessarily so marked) at the end of the fourth half-line. But, at least as preserved, the texts in the manuscripts do not work out regularly on this plan, and great shufflement and lacuna-making has gone on among editors (so that one can never tell to a strophe or two what references refer to in different editions).’

Noting that this variability in the length of the strophes occurs in some of the earlier and least corrupt texts, and that ‘Völundarkviða, undoubtedly an ancient poem, is particularly irregular and particularly plagued by editors (who are much more daring and wilful in Old Norse than in Old English)’, he accepted the view that, in the main, this freedom should be seen as an archaic feature. ‘The strict strophe had not fully developed, any more than the strict line limited syllabically’; in other words, the strophic form was a Norse innovation, and developed only gradually.

In my father’s Lays the strophic form is entirely regular, and the half-line tends to brevity and limitation of syllables.


Old Norse poetry follows precisely the same principles in the matter of ‘alliteration’ as does Old English poetry. Those principles were formulated thus by my father in his account of Old English metre cited earlier.

One full lift in each half-line must alliterate. The ‘key alliteration’ was borne by the first lift in the second half. (This sound was called by Snorri Sturluson höfuðstafr, whence the term ‘head-stave’ used in English books.) With the head-stave the stronger lift in the first half-line must alliterate, and both lifts may do so. In the second half-line the second lift must not alliterate.

Thus, in the opening section of the Lay of the Völsungs, Upphaf, in the thirteenth stanza, lines 5–6, the deep Dragon / shall be doom of Thór, the d of doom is the head-stave, while in Snorri’s terminology the d of deep and Dragon are the stuðlar, the props or supports. The Th of Thór, the second lift of the second half-line, does not alliterate. It will be seen that in Upphaf both lifts of the first half do in fact alliterate with the head-stave in the majority of cases.

It is important to recognize that in Germanic verse ‘alliteration’ refers, not to letters, but to sounds; it is the agreement of the stressed elements beginning with the same consonant, or with no consonant: all vowels ‘alliterate’ with one another, as in the opening line of Upphaf, Of old was an age / when was emptiness. In English the phonetic agreement is often disguised to the eye by the spelling: thus in the same stanza, where lines 5–6 alliterate on ‘r’, unwrought was Earth, / unroofed was Heaven; or in stanza 8 of section IV of the Lay of the Völsungs, where lines 1–2 alliterate on the sound ‘w’: A warrior strange, / one-eyed, awful.

The consonant-combinations sk, sp, and st will usually only alliterate with themselves; thus in the Lay of the Völsungs section IV, stanza 9, lines 3–4, the sword of Grímnir /singing splintered does not show alliteration on both lifts of the second half-line, nor does section V, stanza 24, line 3–4, was sired this horse, / swiftest, strongest.




Together with the manuscript of the New Lays were placed some small slips of paper on which my father made some interpretative remarks about them. They were written very rapidly in ink or in pencil, and in the case of (iv) in pencil overwritten and added to in ink, clearly at the same time. It seems impossible to put any even relative date on them; a sense of distance and detachment may be artificial.


After the mythical introduction and the account of the Hoard, the Lay turns to the Völsung-family, and traces the history of Völsung, Sigmund, and Sigurd. The chief part is the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, which is of interest for itself; but the whole is given unity as a study of the way in which a wilful deed of Loki, the purposeless slaying of Otr, and his ruthless method of extricating Ódin and himself from the peril into which this deed has brought them sets in motion a curse that at the last brings Sigurd to his death.

The full working of this curse is only hastened by Ódin’s own interventions – to provide Sigurd with horse and weapon fit for his task, and to provide him with a fit bride, the fairest of all Ódin’s Valkyries, Brynhild. (It appears that Ódin purposes through Sigurd to punish the family of Hreidmar (Fáfnir and Regin) for the exaction of the ransom of Otr.) In the story of Sigurd

Here this text breaks off.


Grímhild, wife of Gjúki King of the Burgundians (or Niflungs), is the chief agent of evil, not because of any farsighted plans of wickedness: she is rather an example of that wickedness that looks only to each situation as it occurs, and sticks at nothing to gain from it what seems immediately profitable. She is ‘grey with wisdom’ being a witch in lore and still more skilled in the reading of minds and hearts to use their weaknesses and follies. Her will dominates her daughter Gudrún and her oldest son Gunnar.

Gudrún is a simple maiden, incapable of any great plans for profit or vengeance. She falls in love with Sigurd, and for herself has no further motive. A sensitive but weak character, she is capable of disastrous speech or action under provocation. The occasions of this that are described are her fatal retort to the taunting of Brynhild, which more than anything is the immediate cause of Sigurd’s murder, and in the sequel, the Slaying of the Niflungs, her terrible deeds at the end when driven to madness and despair.

Gunnar is a hot impatient character, dominated by Grímhild. Though not too stupid to perceive prudence, in cases of doubt or difficulty he becomes fey and reckless, turning to violence.


After Sigurd was slain, Brynhild took her own life, and they were both burned on one pyre. Gudrún did not take her own life, but for grief was for a time half-witless. She would not look upon her kinsmen nor upon her mother, and dwelt apart in a house in the woods. There after a while she began to weave in a tapestry the history of the Dragon-hoard and of Sigurd.

Atli son of Budli became king of the Huns, ancient enemies of the Burgundians, who had before slain his father.* His power growing great becomes a threat to Gunnar, who is now king in his father Gjúki’s stead; and as Högni his brother had foretold they miss now the valour of King Sigurd their sworn-brother.


This lay [i.e. Guðrúnarkviða en nýja] is a sequel to the Lay of Sigurd and assumes knowledge of it, though by the device of Gudrún’s tapestry the history of the accursed Hoard and of Sigurd is brought to mind and outlined at the beginning.

In the former Lay it was told how the dominion of the Gods was from the first threatened with destruction. Ódin, Lord of Gods and Men, begets in the world many mighty men, whom he gathers in Valhöll to be his companions in the Last Battle. One family in especial he singles out, the Völsungs,* all of whom are his chosen warriors, and one, Sigurd son of Sigmund, is to be the chief of all, their leader in the Last Day; for Ódin hopes that by his hand the Serpent shall in the end be slain, and a new world made possible.

None of the Gods can accomplish this, but only one who has lived on Earth first as a mortal, and died. (This motive of the special function of Sigurd is an invention of the present poet, or an interpretation of the Norse sources in which it is not explicit.)

Evil is not, however, to be found only in the ever-watchful host of the Enemies of Gods and Men. It is found also in Ásgard itself in the person of Loki, by whose deeds, wilful, merely mischievous, or wholly malicious, the counsels and hopes of Ódin seem ever turned awry or defeated.

Yet Loki is seen ever walking the world at the left hand of Ódin, who does not rebuke him, nor dismiss him, nor refuse the aid of his cunning. At Ódin’s right hand there walks another figure, a nameless shadow. It would seem that this poet (seeing that the Northern Gods represent but written large the ways of Men in the hostile world) has taken this old legend to symbolize Man’s prudence and wisdom and its ever present accompaniment of folly and malice that defeats it, only to bring forth greater heroism and deeper wisdom; while ever at the right hand walks the shadow that is neither Ódin nor Loki but in some aspect Fate, the real story that must be blended of both. Yet Ódin is master of the Three and the final outcome will resemble rather the hope of Ódin than the malice (shorter sighted) of Loki. Ódin at times gives expression to this, saying that his hope looks out beyond the seeming disasters of this world. Though Ódin’s chosen come all to an evil end or untimely death, that will only make them of greater worth for their ultimate purpose in the Last Battle. On this in many ways mysterious writing see the commentary on the Upphaf of the Lay of the Völsungs, and the commentary on the first section of the poem, Andvari’s Gold, stanza 1.

In conclusion, this seems a suitable place to refer to remarks of my father’s that bear upon, but have no (at any rate overt) relation to, Guðrúnarkviða en nýja. In his introduction to lectures at Oxford on the Eddaic poem Guðrúnarkviða en forna, the Old Lay of Gudrún, he said that ‘curiously enough’ he was more interested in Gudrún, ‘who is usually slighted, and considered as of secondary interest’, than in Brynhild. By implication, he contrasted the long agony of Gudrún with the irruption of Brynhild, who soon departs, ‘and her passion and death remain only in the background of the tale, a brief and terrible storm beginning in fire and ending in it.’








Of old was an age

when was emptiness,

there was sand nor sea

nor surging waves;

unwrought was Earth,

unroofed was Heaven –

an abyss yawning,

and no blade of grass.


The Great Gods then

began their toil,

the wondrous world

they well builded.

From the South the Sun

from seas rising

gleamed down on grass

green at morning.


They hall and hallow

high uptowering,



rock-hewn ramparts

reared in splendour,

forge and fortress

framed immortal.


Unmarred their mirth

in many a court,

where men they made

of their minds’ cunning;

under hills of Heaven

on high builded

they lived in laughter

long years ago.


Dread shapes arose

from the dim spaces

over sheer mountains

by the Shoreless Sea,

friends of darkness,

foes immortal,

old, unbegotten,

out of ancient void.


To the world came war:

the walls of Gods

giants beleaguered;

joy was ended.

The mountains were moved,

mighty Ocean

surged and thundered,

the Sun trembled.


The Gods gathered

on golden thrones,

of doom and death

deeply pondered,

how fate should be fended,

their foes vanquished,

their labour healed,

light rekindled.


In forge’s fire

of flaming wrath

was heaviest hammer

hewn and wielded.

Thunder and lightning

Thór the mighty

flung among them,

felled and sundered.


In fear then fled they,

foes immortal,

from the walls beaten

watched unceasing;

ringed Earth around

with roaring sea

and mountains of ice

on the margin of the world.



A seer long silent

her song upraised –

the halls hearkened –

on high she stood.

Of doom and death

dark words she spake,

of the last battle

of the leaguered Gods.


‘The horn of Heimdal

I hear ringing;

the Blazing Bridge

bends neath horsemen;

the Ash is groaning,

his arms trembling,

the Wolf waking,

warriors riding.


The sword of Surt

smoketh redly;

the slumbering Serpent

in the sea moveth;

a shadowy ship

from shores of Hell

legions bringeth

to the last battle.


The wolf Fenrir

waits for Ódin,

for Frey the fair

the flames of Surt;

the deep Dragon

shall be doom of Thór –

shall all be ended,

shall Earth perish?


If in day of Doom

one deathless stands,

who death hath tasted

and dies no more,

the serpent-slayer,

seed of Ódin,

then all shall not end,

nor Earth perish.


On his head shall be helm,

in his hand lightning,

afire his spirit,

in his face splendour.

The Serpent shall shiver

and Surt waver,

the Wolf be vanquished

and the world rescued.’



The Gods were gathered

on guarded heights,

of doom and death

deep they pondered.

Sun they rekindled,

and silver Moon

they set to sail

on seas of stars.


Frey and Freyia

fair things planted,

trees and flowers,

trembling grasses;

Thór in chariot

thundered o’er them

through Heaven’s gateways

to the hills of stone.


Ever would Ódin

on earth wander

weighed with wisdom

woe foreknowing,

the Lord of lords

and leaguered Gods,

his seed sowing,

sire of heroes.


Valhöll he built

vast and shining;

shields the tiles were,

shafts the rafters.

Ravens flew thence

over realms of Earth;

at the doors an eagle

darkly waited.


The guests were many:

grim their singing,

boar’s-flesh eating,

beakers draining;

mighty ones of Earth

mailclad sitting

for one they waited,

the World’s chosen.




(Andvari’s Gold)

Here first is told how Ódin and his companions were trapped in the house of the demon Hreidmar, and his sons. These dwelt now in the world in the likeness of men or of beasts.


Of old was an age

when Ódin walked

by wide waters

in the world’s beginning;

lightfooted Loki

at his left was running,

at his right Hoenir

roamed beside him.


The falls of Andvari

frothed and murmured

with fish teeming

in foaming pools.

As a pike there plunged

his prey hunting

Dwarf Andvari

from his dark cavern.


There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.


With stone struck him,

stripped him naked,

Loki lighthanded,

loosing evil.

The fell they flayed,

fared then onward;

in Hreidmar’s halls

housing sought they.


There wrought Regin

by the red embers

rune-written iron,

rare, enchanted;

of gold things gleaming,

of grey silver,

there Fáfnir lay

by the fire dreaming.



‘Do fetters fret you,

folk of Ásgard?

Regin hath wrought them

with runes binding.

Redgolden rings,

ransom costly,

this fell must fill,

this fur cover!’


Lightshod Loki

over land and waves

to Rán came running

in her realm of sea.

The queen of Ægir

his quest granted:

a net she knotted

noosed with evil.



‘What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!’


‘I am Andvari.

Óin begot me

to grievous fate.

Gold I bid thee!’



‘What hides thy hand

thus hollow bending?’


‘The ring is little –

let it rest with me!’


‘All, Andvari,

all shalt render,

light rings and heavy,

or life itself!’


(The Dwarf spake darkly

from his delvéd stone:)


‘My ring I will curse

with ruth and woe!

Bane it bringeth

to brethren two;

seven princes slays;

swords it kindles –

end untimely

of Ódin’s hope.’


In Hreidmar’s house

they heaped the gold.


‘A hair unhidden

I behold there yet!’

Out drew Ódin

Andvari’s ring,

cursed he cast it

on accurséd gold.



‘Ye gold have gained:

a god’s ransom,

for thyself and sons

seed of evil.’


‘Gods seldom give

gifts of healing;

gold oft begrudgeth

the greedy hand!’


Words spake Loki

worse thereafter:


‘Here deadly dwells

the doom of kings!

Here is fall of queens,

fire and weeping,

end untimely

of Ódin’s hope!’



‘Whom Ódin chooseth

ends not untimely,

though ways of men

he walk briefly.

In wide Valhöll

he may wait feasting –

it is to ages after

that Ódin looks.’



‘The hope of Ódin

we heed little!

Redgolden rings

I will rule alone.

Though Gods grudge it

gold is healing.

From Hreidmar’s house

haste now swiftly!’




Rerir was the son of the son of Ódin. After him reigned Völsung, to whom Ódin gave a Valkyrie as wife. Sigmund and Signý were their eldest children and twins. They had nine sons beside. Sigmund was of all men the most valiant, unless his sons be named. Signý was fair and wise and foresighted. She was given unwilling and against her foreboding to Siggeir king of Gautland, for the strengthening of the power of King Völsung. Here is told how hate grew between Gauts and Völsungs, and of the slaying of Völsung. The ten brothers of Signý were set in fetters in the forest and all perished save Sigmund. Long time he dwelt in a cave in the guise of a dwarvish smith. By Signý was a fierce vengeance devised and fulfilled.


On the coasts of the North

was king renowned

Rerir sea-roving,

the raven’s lord.

Shield-hung his ships,

unsheathed his sword;

his sire of old

was son of Ódin.


Him Völsung followed


child of longing,

chosen of Ódin.

Valkyrie fair

did Völsung wed,

Ódin’s maiden,

Ódin’s chosen.


Sigmund and Signý,

a son and daughter,

she bare at a birth

in his builded halls.

High rose their roofs,

huge their timbers,

and wide the walls

of wood carven.


A tree there towered

tall and branching,

that house upholding,

the hall’s wonder;

its leaves their hangings,

its limbs rafters,

its mighty bole

in the midst standing.




‘What sails be these

in the seas shining?

What ships be those

with shields golden?’


‘Gautland’s banners

gilt and silver

Gautland’s greeting

grievous bearing.’



‘Wherefore grievous?

Are guests hateful?

Gautland’s master

glorious reigneth.’


‘For Gautland’s master

glory endeth;

grief is fated

for Gautland’s queen.’


Birds sang blithely

o’er board and hearth,

bold men and brave

on benches sitting.

Mailclad, mighty,

his message spake there

a Gautish lord




‘Siggeir sent me

swiftly steering:

fame of Völsung

far is rumoured.

Signý’s beauty,

Signý’s wisdom,

to his bed he wooeth,

bride most lovely.’



‘What saith Sigmund?

Shall his sister go

with lord so mighty

league to bind us?’


‘With lord so mighty

league and kinship

let us bind, and grant him

bride most lovely!’


Ere summer faded

sails came shining,

ships came shoreward

with shields gleaming.

Many and mighty

mailclad warriors

to the seats of Völsung

with Siggeir strode.


Birds sang blissful

over boards laden,

over Signý pale,

Siggeir eager.

Dark wine they drank,

doughty princes,

Gautland’s chieftains;

glad their voices.



night cometh;

wind ariseth;

doors are opened,

the din is silenced.

A man there enters,

mantled darkly,


huge and ancient.


A sword he sweeps

from swathing cloak,

into standing stem

stabs it swiftly:


‘Who dares to draw,

doom unfearing,

the gift of Grímnir

gleaming deadly?’


Doors clanged backward;

din was wakened;

men leapt forward


Gaut and Völsung

glory seeking

strove they starkly,

straining vainly.


Sigmund latest

seized it lightly,

the blade from bole

brandished flaming.

Siggeir yearning

on that sword gazing

red gold offered,

ransom kingly.



‘Though seas of silver

and sands of gold

thou bade in barter,

thy boon were vain!

To my hand made,

for me destined,

I sell no sword

to Siggeir ever.’




‘My heart is heavy

my home leaving!

Signý’s wisdom

Signý burdens.

From this wedding waketh

woe and evil –

break, sire, the bonds

thou hast bound me in!’



‘Woe and evil

are woman’s boding!

Fate none can flee.

Faith man can hold.

Ships await thee!

Shame to sunder

the bridal bed,

the bounden word.



‘Sigmund, farewell!

Siggeir calls me.

Weak might hath woman

for wisdom’s load.

Last night I lay

where loath me was;

with less liking

I may lay me yet.’


‘Hail! toft and Tree,

timbers carven!

Maid here was once

who is mournful queen.’

Wild blew the wind

waves white-crested.

On land of Völsung

she looked no more.



A ship came shining

to shores foaming,

gloomy Gautland’s

guarded havens.

Sigmund lordly,

sire and kindred,

to fair feasting

fearless journeyed.



‘Father Völsung,

fairest kinsman!

Back my brethren!

This beach tread not!

A bitter drinking,

baleful meeting,

swords hath Siggeir

set to greet you.’


With thousand thanes,

thronging spearmen,

his guests welcomed

Gautland’s master.

Ten times Völsung

towering wrathful

casque and corslet

clove asunder.


Through and through them

thrice went Sigmund;

as grass in Gautland

grimly mowed them.

His shield he shed:

with shining sword

smoking redly

slew two-handed.



Black the raven

by the body croaketh,

bare are Völsung’s

bones once mighty.

In bonds the brethren

are bound living;

Siggeir smileth,

Signý weeps not.



‘Sweet still is sight

while see one may!

A boon, my husband –

bid men linger!

Slay not swiftly

seed of Völsung!

For death is lasting,

though the doom tarry.’



‘Wild and witless

words of Signý,

that pain and torment

plead for kindred!

Glad will I grant it,

grimly bind them

in the forest fettered,

faint and hungry.’


In the forest fettered,

faint and naked,

her ten brethren

torment suffered.

There one by one

a wolf rent them;

by night after night

another sought she.



‘What found ye in the forest,

my fair servants?’


‘Nine brothers’ bones

under night gleaming;

yet were shackles broken,

she-wolf lying

torn and tongueless

by the tree riven.’




‘Who hath deeply delved

this dark cavern?

Dwarvish master,

thy doors open!’


‘Who knocks at night

at nameless doors?

In may enter

elvish maiden!’


Brother and sister

in a bed lying,

brief love, bitter,

blent with loathing!

Answer, earth-dweller –

in thy arms who lies,

chill, enchanted,

changed, elfshapen?


Back went Signý

to Siggeir’s hall,

nine months brooding

no word speaking.

Wolves were wailing,

her women shuddering,

Signý silent,

when a son she bore.




‘Who calls so clear

at cavern’s doorway,

fords so fearless

the foaming stream?

Fair one, thy father

thy face gave not!

What bringest bound

in bast folded?’



‘My face is Völsung’s,

father of Signý.

Signý sent me

a sword bearing.

Long years it lay

on the lap of Siggeir;

Sigmund drew it,

since hath no man.’


Thus son of Signý

came Sinfjötli,

to vengeance bred

of Völsung slain.

In the forest faring

far in warfare

long they laboured,

long they waited.


Wide they wandered


men they murdered,

men they plundered.

Daylong slept they

in dark cavern

after dreadful deeds

of death in Gautland.


Moon was shining,

men were singing,

Siggeir sitting

in his sounding hall.

Völsung vanquished

voices chanted;

wolves came howling

wild and dreadful.


Doors were opened,

din fell silent.


‘Eyes we see there

like eager fire!

wolves have entered,

watchmen slaying!

Flames are round us



Sigmund stood there

his sword wielding,

and Signý’s son

at his side laughing.

Sigmund &Sinfjötli

‘Pass may no man,

prince nor servant!

In pain shall perish

pride of Siggeir.’



‘Come forth, Signý,

sister fairest!

Gautland’s glory

grimly endeth.

Glad the greeting,

grief is over;

avenged is Völsung




(Sigmund’s sister

Signý answered:)

‘Son Sinfjötli,

Sigmund father!

Signý comes not,

Siggeir calls her.

Where I lay unwilling

I now lay me glad;

I lived in loathing,

now lief I die.’




(The Death of Sinfjötli)


Ships they laded

with shining gear,

gems and jewels,

joys of Gautland.

Wild blew the winds,

waves were foaming;

they viewed afar

the Völsung shore.


Long ruled Sigmund,

sire and uncle;

Sinfjötli sat

at his side proudly.

There towered the tree,

tall and ancient,

birds in the branches

were blithe again.


Ever Grímnir’s gift

gleamed in warfare;

at Sigmund’s side

Sinfjötli strode.

Hard, handlinkéd,

helm and corslet

glasswhite glittered

with grey silver.


Seven kings they slew,

their cities plundered;

wide waxed their realm

the world over.

Of women fairest

in war taken

a wife took Sigmund;

woe she brought him.


Sinfjötli came

sailing proudly

ships goldladen

to the shore steering.


‘Hail! Ódin’s son,


War no longer!

Wine is pouring.’


In came the queen

evil pondering –

her sire was slain

by Sinfjötli – :


‘Hail! Völsung fell,


Weary art thou.

Wine I bring thee.


Steep stands the horn,

Stepson thirsty!’


‘Dark seems the drink,

deadly blended!’

Sigmund seized it,

swiftly drained it;

no venom vanquished

Völsung’s eldest.



‘Beer I bring thee

brown and potent!’


‘Guile there gleameth

grimly blended!’

Sigmund seized it,

swiftly drank it;

that prince of men

poison harmed not.



‘Ale I offer thee,

eager Völsung!

Völsungs valiant

at venom blench not;

heroes ask not

help in drinking –

if drink thou darest,

drink Sinfjötli!’


Dead Sinfjötli

drinking stumbled.


‘Woe! thou witchwife


Of the seed of Völsung

in Signý’s child

the fairest flower

fades untimely!’


There sorrowladen

Sigmund raised him,

in arms caught him;

out he wandered.

Over wood and wild

to the waves foaming

witless strayed he

to the waves roaring.



‘Whither bringest thou

thy burden heavy?

My boat is ready

to bear it hence.’

A man there steered,

mantled darkly,

hooded and hoary,

huge and awful.


Alone was Sigmund

by the land’s margin;

in Valhöllu

Völsung feasted:


‘Son’s son welcome,

and son of daughter!

But one yet await we,

the World’s chosen.’




(Sigurd Born)


Alone dwelt Sigmund

his land ruling;

cold was his bower,

queenless, childless.

In songs he heard

of sweetest maiden,

of Sigrlinn’s beauty,

Sváfnir’s daughter.


Old was Sigmund,

as an oak gnarléd;

his beard was grey

as bark of ash.

Young was Sigrlinn

and yellow-gleaming

her locks hung long

on lissom shoulder.


Seven sons of kings

sued the maiden:

Sigmund took her;

sails were hoisted.

The Völsung land

they viewed afar,

the windy cliffs,

the waves foaming.



‘Say me, Sigrlinn,

sweeter were it

young king to wed

and yellow-bearded,

or wife of a Völsung,

the World’s chosen

in my bed to bear,

bride of Ódin?’




‘What sails be these

in the seas shining? –

the shields are scarlet,

ships uncounted.’


‘Seven sons of kings

seeking welcome!

Grímnir’s gift shall

gladly meet them!’


High sang the horns,

helms were gleaming,

shafts were shaken,

shields them answered.

Vikings’ standards,

Völsung’s banner

on strand were streaming;

stern the onslaught.


Old was Sigmund

as the oak gnarléd;

his sword swung he

smoking redly.

Fate him fended

fearless striding

with dew of battle

dyed to shoulder.


A warrior strange,

one-eyed, awful,

strode and stayed him

standing silent,

huge and hoary

and hooded darkly.

The sword of Sigmund

sang before him.


His spear he raised:

sprang asunder

the sword of Grímnir,

singing splintered.

The king is fallen


lords lie round him;

the land darkens.


Men were moaning,

the moon sinking.

Sigrlinn sought him,

sadly raised him:


‘Hope of healing

for thy hurts I bring,

my lord beloved,

last of Völsungs.’



‘From wanhope many

have been won to life,

yet healing I ask not.

Hope is needless.

Ódin calls me

at the end of days.

Here lies not lost

the last Völsung!


Thy womb shall wax

with the World’s chosen,


seed of Ódin.

Till ages end

all shall name him

chief of chieftains,

changeless glory.


Of Grímnir’s gift

guard the fragments;

of the shards shall be shaped

a shining blade.

Too soon shall I see

Sigurd bear it

to glad Valhöll

greeting Ódin.’


Cold came morning

o’er the king lifeless

and woeful Sigrlinn

her watch keeping.

Ships came sailing

to the shore crowding,

rovers northern

to the red beaches


The bride of Sigmund

as a bondwoman

over sounding seas

sadly journeyed.

Wild blew the winds,

waves them lifted;

she viewed afar

the Völsung land.


Wind was wailing,

waves were crying,

Sigrlinn sorrowful,

when a son she bore.

Sigurd golden

as a sun shining,

forth came he fair

in a far country.



‘O woman woeful

in war taken,

who was thy husband

while his house lasted?

What father begot

such fair offspring? –

grey steel glitters

in his gleaming eyes.’



‘The sire of Sigurd

Sigmund Völsung;

Seed of Ódin

songs shall call him.’


‘Fair shall be fostered

that father’s child;

his mother be mated

to a mighty king.’




The king of that land took Sigrlinn to wife. Sigurd was sent to be fostered by Regin, of whom it has been told above. Regin dwelt now in the forest and was deemed wise in many other matters than smithwork. Regin egged Sigurd to slay Fáfnir. With the sword Gram and the horse Grani, of which it is here spoken, he accomplished this, though Regin had concealed from him both the great power of Fáfnir and the nature of the hoard that the serpent guarded. Here also are given the dark words of Regin in which the undermeaning is that the real cause of the serpent’s death is Regin, who should therefore have the gold (though this he has promised, at least in large share, to Sigurd); but that Regin should slay the slayer of his brother. Sigurd deeming him only weighed with the thought of his guilt in brother-murder, dismisses his words with scorn. Nor does Sigurd heed the dragon’s words concerning the curse, thinking them merely the device of greed to protect the gold even though its guardian be slain. This indeed was the dragon’s chief purpose in revealing the curse at the hour of his death. Yet that curse began to work swiftly.


The forge was smoking

in the forest-darkness;

there wrought Regin

by the red embers.

There was Sigurd sent,

seed of Völsung,

lore deep to learn;

long his fostering.


Runes of wisdom

then Regin taught him,

and weapons’ wielding,

works of mastery;

the language of lands,

lore of kingship,

wise words he spake

in the wood’s fastness.



‘Full well couldst thou wield

wealth and kingship,

O son of Sigmund,

a sire’s treasure.’


‘My father is fallen,

his folk scattered,

his wealth wasted,

in war taken!’



‘A hoard have I heard

on a heath lying,

gold more glorious

than greatest king’s.

Wealth and worship

would wait on thee,

if thou durst to deal

with its dragon master.’



‘Men sing of serpents

ceaseless guarding

gold and silver


but fell Fáfnir

folk all name him

of dragons direst,

dreaming evil.’



‘Dragons all are dire

to the dull-hearted;

yet venom feared not

Völsung’s children.’


‘Eager thou urgest me,

though of age untried –

tell me now truly

why thou tauntest me!’





falls of Andvari

frothed and spouted

with fish teeming

in foaming pools.

There Otr sported,

mine own brother;

to snare salmon

sweet he thought it.


With stone smote him,

stripped him naked,

a robber roving


at Hreidmar’s house

hailed my father,

that fairest fell

for food offered.


There wrought Regin

by the red embers

rough iron hewing

and runes marking;

there Fáfnir lay

by the fire sleeping,

fell-hearted son,

fiercely dreaming.



“Redgolden rings,

ransom costly,

this fell must fill,

this fur cover.”

From the foaming force

as a fish netted

was Dwarf Andvari

dragged and plundered.



must Andvari,

all surrender,

light rings and heavy,

or life itself.

In Hreidmar’s house

heaped he laid them,

gold ring on gold,

a great weregild.

(Regin & Fáfnir)


“Shall not brethren share

in brother’s ransom

their grief to gladden? –

gold is healing.”


“The wreathéd rings

I will rule alone,

as long as life is

they leave me never!”


Then Fáfnir’s heart

fiercely stung him;

Hreidmar he hewed

in his house asleep.

Fáfnir’s heart

as a fire burneth:

part nor portion

he pays to Regin.





darkling lies he;

deep his dungeons,

and dread he knows not.

A helm of horror

his head weareth



grimly creeping.’



‘With kin unkindly

wert thou cursed Regin!

His fire and venom

affright me not!

Yet why thou eggest me,

I ask thee still –

for father’s vengeance,

or for Fáfnir’s gold?’



‘A sire avenged

were sweet to Regin;

the gold thy guerdon,

the glory thine.

A sword for Sigurd

will the smith fashion,

the blade most bitter

ever borne to war.’



The forge was smoking,

the fire smouldered.

Two swords there fashioned

twice he broke them:

hard the anvil

hewed he mightily –

sword was splintered,

smith was angered.



‘Sigrlinn, say me,

was sooth told me

of gleaming shards

of Grímnir’s sword?

Sigmund’s son

now seeks them from thee –

now Gram shall Regin

guileless weld me!’


The forge was flaring,

the fire blazing:

a blade they brought him

with blue edges;

they flickered with flame,

as it flashed singing –

the cloven anvil

clashed asunder.


The Rhine river

ran by swiftly;

there tufts of wool

on the tide he cast.

Sharp it shore them

in the sheer water:

glad grew Sigurd,

Gram there brandished.



‘Where lies the heath

and hoard golden?

Now rede me Regin

of roads thither!’


‘Far lies Fáfnir

in the fells hiding –

a horse must thou have,

high and sturdy.’


In Busiltarn ran

blue the waters,

green grew the grass

for grazing horse.

A man them minded

mantled darkly,


huge and ancient.


They drove the horses

into deep currents;

to the bank they backed

from the bitter water.

But grey Grani

gladly swam there:

Sigurd chose him,

swift and flawless.



‘In the stud of Sleipnir,

steed of Ódin,

was sired this horse,

swiftest, strongest.

Ride now! ride now!

rocks and mountains,

horse and hero,

hope of Ódin!’



Gand rode Regin

and Grani Sigurd;

the waste lay withered,

wide and empty.

Fathoms thirty fell

the fearful cliff

whence the dragon bowed him

drinking thirsty.


In deep hollow

on the dark hillside

long there lurked he;

the land trembled.

Forth came Fáfnir,

fire his breathing;

down the mountain rushed

mists of poison.


The fire

and fume

over fearless head

rushed by



rocks were groaning.

The black belly,

bent and coiling,

over hidden hollow

hung and glided.


Gram was brandished;

grimly ringing

to the hoary stone

heart it sundered.

In Fáfnir’s throe

were threshed as flails

his writhing limbs

and reeking head.


Black flowed the blood,

belching drenched him;

in the hollow hiding

hard grew Sigurd.

Swift now sprang he

sword withdrawing:

there each saw other

with eyes of hate.



‘O man of mankind!

What man begot thee?

Who forged the flame

for Fáfnir’s heart?’


‘As the wolf I walk

wild and lonely,

no father owning,

a flame bearing.’



‘A wolf was thy sire –

full well I know it!

Who egged thee eager

to mine undoing?’


‘My sire was Sigmund,

seed of Völsung;

my heart egged me,

my hand answered.’



‘Nay! Regin wrought this,

rogue and master!

O son of Sigmund!

sooth I tell thee:

my guarded gold

gleams with evil,

bale it bringeth

to both my foes.’



‘Life each must leave

on his latest day,

yet gold gladly

will grasp living!’


‘Fools! saith Fáfnir –

with fate of woe

this gold is glamoured.

Grasp not! Flee thou!’



‘A fool, saith Sigurd,

could not fend himself

with helm of horror –

hell now seize him!’

In the heather had hidden

as a hare cowering

the fear-daunted smith;

forth now crept he.



‘Hail! O Völsung


of mortal men

mightiest hero!’


‘In the halls of Ódin

more hard to choose!

many brave are born

who blades stain not.’



‘Yet glad is Sigurd,

of gold thinking,

as Gram on the grey

grass he wipeth!

‘Twas blood of my brother

that blade did spill,

though somewhat the slaying

I myself must share.’



‘Far enow thou fleddest,

when Fáfnir came.

This sword slew him,

and Sigurd’s prowess.’


‘This sword I smithied.

Yet would serpent live,

had not Regin’s counsel

wrought his ending!’



‘Nay, blame not thyself,

backward helper!

Stout heart is better

than strongest sword.’


‘Yet the sword I smithied,

the serpent’s bane!

The bold oft are beaten

who have blunt weapons.’


Thus heavy spake Regin

Ridil unsheathing,

fell Fáfnir’s heart

from the flesh cleaving.

Dark blood drank he

from the dragon welling;

deep drowsing fell

on dwarvish smith.



‘Sit now, Sigurd!

Sleep o’ercomes me.

Thou Fáfnir’s heart

at the fire roast me.

His dark thought’s dwelling

after drink potent

I fain would eat,

feast of wisdom.’


Sharp spit shaped he;

at shining fire

the fat of Fáfnir there frothed and hissed.

To tongue he touched

testing finger –

beasts’ cry he knew,

and birds’ voices



first bird


‘A head shorter

should hoary liar

go hence to nether hell!

The heart of Fáfnir

I whole would eat

if I myself were Sigurd.’

second bird



a foe lets free

is fool indeed,

when he was bane of



I alone would be lord

of linkéd gold,

if my wielded sword had won it.’

first bird


‘A head shorter

should hiding dwarf

deprived of gold perish!

There Regin rouses

in rustling heather;

Vengeance he vows for brother.’



Round turned Sigurd,

and Regin saw he

in the heath crawling

with hate gleaming.

Black spilled the blood

as blade clove him,

the head hewing

of Hreidmar’s son.


Dark red the drink

and dire the meat

whereon Sigurd feasted

seeking wisdom.

Dark hung the doors

and dread the timbers

in the earth under

of iron builded.


Gold piled on gold

there glittered palely:

that gold was glamoured

with grim curses.

The Helm of Horror

on his head laid he:

swart fell the shadow

round Sigurd standing.


Great and grievous

was Grani’s burden,

yet lightly leaped he

down the long mountain.

Ride now! ride now

road and woodland,

horse and hero,

hope of Ódin!



Ever wild and wide

the wandering paths;

long lay the shadow

of lone rider.

Birds in the branches

blithe were singing:

their words he heard,

their wit he knew not.



‘High stands a hall

on Hindarfell,

fire it fenceth


steep stands the path,

stern the venture,

where mountains beckon

to mighty heart.’



‘A maid have I seen

as morning fair,



Green run the roads

to Gjúki’s land;

fate leads them on,

who fare that way.’



‘Slumber bindeth

the sun-maiden

on mountain high,

mail about her.

Thorn of Ódin

is thrust in bosom –

to what shall she wake,

woe or laughter?’



‘The Gjúkings proudly,

Gunnar and Högni,

there rule a realm

by Rhine-water.

Gudrún groweth


as flower unfolded

fair at morning.’



‘Too peerless proud

her power wielding,

victory swaying

as Valkyrie,

she heard nor heeded

hests of Ódin,

and Ódin smote

whom Ódin loved.’



Here is told of the awakening of Brynhild by Sigurd. Doomed by Ódin to go no longer to warfare but to wed, she has vowed to wed only the greatest of all warriors, the World’s chosen. Sigurd and Brynhild plight their troth, amid great joy, although of her wisdom she foresees that great perils beset Sigurd’s path. They depart together, but the pride of Brynhild causes her to bid Sigurd depart and come back to her only when he has won all men’s honour, and a kingdom.


Ever wide and wild

the wandering path;

long lay the shadow

of lone rider.

Ever high and high

stood Hindarfell,

mountain mighty

from mist rising.


A fire at crown,

fence of lightning,

high to heavenward

hissed and wavered.

Greyfell Grani,

glory seeking,

leaped the lightning



A wall saw Sigurd

of woven shields,

a standard streaming

striped with silver;

a man there war-clad,

mailclad, lying,

with sword beside him,

sleeping deadly.


The helm he lifted:

hair fell shining,

a woman lay there

wound in slumber;

fast her corslet

as on flesh growing –

the gleaming links,

Gram there clave them.


Brynhild awakening


‘Hail! O Daylight

and Day’s children!

Hail, Night and Noon

and Northern Star!

Hail, Kingly Gods,

Queens of Ásgard!

Hail, Earth’s bosom



Hands of healing,

hear and grant us,

light in darkness,

life and wisdom;

to both give triumph,

truth unfailing,

to both in gladness

glorious meeting!’




‘Brynhild greets thee,

O brave and fair!

What prince hath pierced

my pale fetters?’


‘A man fatherless,

yet man-begotten,

here red from battle




‘Ódin bound me,

Ódin’s chosen;

no more to battle,

to mate doomed me.

An oath I uttered

for ever lasting,

to wed but one,

the World’s chosen.’



‘In the halls of Ódin

it were hard to choose

man there mightiest,

most renownéd.’


‘Yet one they wait for,

in wide Valhöll,

the serpent-slayer,

seed of Ódin.’



‘Seed of Ódin

is Sigmund’s child,

and Sigurd’s sword

is serpent’s bane.’


‘Hail, son of Sigmund,

seed of Völsung!

Warriors wait for thee

in wide Valhöll.’



‘Hail, bright and splendid!

Hail, battle-maiden,

bride of Völsung

Brynhild chosen!’

Troth in triumph

twain there plighted

alone on mountain;

light was round them.



‘A beaker I bring thee,

O battle-wielder,


mead of glory,

brimmed with bounty,

blessed with healing,

and rimmed with runes

of running laughter.’



‘I drink, all daring:

doom or glory;

drink of splendour

dear the bearer!’


‘Dear the drinker!

Doom and glory

both me bodeth,

thou bright and fair!’



‘I flee nor flinch,

though fey standing,

words of wisdom,

woe, or gladness.’


‘Words of wisdom

warning darkly

hear thou and hold,

hope of Ódin!


Be slow to vengeance,

seed of Völsung!

In swearing soothfast,

the sworn holding.

Grim grow the boughs

in guile rooted;

fair flowers the tree

in faith planted!


Where the witch-hearted

walks or houses

linger not, lodge not,

though lone the road!

Though beauty blindeth

bright as morning,

let no daughter of kings

thy dreams master!


Hail, Sigmund’s son!

Swift thy glory,

yet a cloud meseems

creepeth nigh thee.

Long life, I fear,

lies not before thee,

but strife and storm

stand there darkly.’



‘Hail, Brynhild wise!

Bright thy splendour

though fate be strong

to find its end.

Faith ever will I hold

firm, unyielding,

though strife and storm

stand about me.’


Faith then they vowed

fast, unyielding,

there each to each

in oaths binding.

Bliss there was born

when Brynhild woke;

yet fate is strong

to find its end.



Ever wild and wide

the wandering paths;

on roads shining

went riders two.

High towered the helm;

hair flowed in wind;

mail glinted bright

on mountain dark.



‘Here, Sigmund’s son,

swift and fearless,

is our way’s parting,

to woe or joy.

Here, lord, I leave thee,

to my land turning;

hence Grani bears thee

glory seeking.’



‘Why, Brynhild wise,

bride of Völsung,

when at one are the riders

do our ways sunder?’


‘I was queen of yore,

and a king shall wed.

Lands lie before thee –

thy lordship win!’


To her land she turned

lonely shining;

green ran the roads

that Grani strode.

To her land she came,

long the waiting;

in Gjúki’s house

glad the singing.






‘O mother, hear me!

Mirth is darkened,

dreams have troubled me,

dreams of boding.’


‘Dreams come most oft

in dwindling moon,

or weather changing.

Of woe think not!’



‘No wind, nor wraith

of waking thought –

a hart we hunted

over hill and valley;

all would take him,

’twas I caught him:

his hide was golden,

his horns towering.


A woman wildly

on the wind riding

with a shaft stung him,

shooting pierced him;

at my knees he fell

in night of woe,

my heart too heavy

might I hardly bear.


A wolf they gave me

for woe’s comfort;

in my brethren’s blood

he bathed me red.

Dreams have vexed me,

direst boding,

not wind or weather

or waning moon.’



‘Dreams oft token

the dark by light,

good by evil,

Gudrún daughter!

Lift up thine eyes

eager shining!

Green lie the lands

round Gjúki’s house.’



‘The roads run green

to the Rhine-water!

Who rides here lone,

arrayed for war?

His helm is high,

his horse fleeting,

his shield is shining

with sheen of gold!’


Thus Gudrún gazed,

Gjúki’s daughter,

from wall and window

in wonder looking.

Thus Sigurd rode,

seed of Völsung,

into Gjúki’s courts



There Gjúki dwelt

his gold dealing

in Niflung land,

the Niflung lord.

Gunnar and Högni

were Gjúki’s sons,

mighty princes;

men them hearkened.


There Grímhild dwelt,

guileful in counsel,

grimhearted queen

grey with wisdom,

with lore of leechcraft,

lore of poison,

with chill enchantment

and with changing spells.


As ravens dark

were those raven-friends;

fair their faces,

fierce their glances.

With Huns they waged

hate and warfare,

gold ever gathering

in great dungeons.


Silent they sat

when Sigurd entered

Gunnar greeting,

Gjúki hailing.


‘Who comes unbidden

in battle’s harness,

helm and hauberk,

to halls of mine?’



‘The son of Sigmund,

Sigurd Völsung,

a king’s son cometh

to kingly house.

Fame of Niflungs

far is rumoured,

not yet hath faded

fame of Völsung.’


There swift for Sigurd

seat was ordered;

the feast grew fair,

folk were mirthful.

There Gunnar grasped

his golden harp;

while songs he sang

silence fell there.

     Of these

things sang



By mighty Mirkwood

on the marches of the East

the great Goth-kings

in glory ruled.

By Danpar-banks

was dread warfare

with the hosts of Hunland,

horsemen countless.


Horsemen countless

hastened westward;

the Borgund lords

met Budli’s host.

In Budli’s brother

their blades reddened

the glad Gjúkings,

gold despoiling.

     Of these

things sang



Then Sigurd seized

the sounding harp;

hushed they hearkened

in the hall listening.

The waste lay withered

wide and empty;

forth came Fáfnir,

fire around him.


Dark hung the doors

on deep timbers;

gold piled on gold

there glittered wanly.

The hoard was plundered,

helm was lifted,

and Grani greyfell

grievous burdened.


High Hindarfell,

hedged with lightning,

mountain mighty

from mists uprose.

Brynhild wakened,

bright her splendour –

song fell silent,

and Sigurd ended.


By Gjúki’s chair

Grímhild hearkened,

of Gudrún thinking

and the golden hoard.

Gunnar and Högni

gladly bade him

in league and love

long to dwell there.



The Borgund lords

their battle furnished;

banners were broidered,

blades were sharpened.

White shone hauberks,

helms were burnished;

under horses’ hooves

Hunland trembled.


Grim was Gunnar

on Goti riding;

under haughty Högni

Hölkvir strode;

but fleeter was Grani,

foal of Sleipnir;

flamed all before

the fire of Sigurd.


Foes were vanquished,

fields were wasted,

grimly garnered

Gram the harvest.

Where Gjúkings rode

glory won they,

ever glory Sigurd

greater conquered.


Wide waxed their realm

in world of old;

Dane-king they slew,

doughty princes.

Dread fell on folk;

doom they wielded;

victory rode ever

with the Völsung lord.


High they honoured him,

in heart loved him,

Hun-gold gave him

in the hall sitting.

But his heart remembered

house of Völsung,

and Sigmund slain

on sands afar.


A host he gathered,

help of Gjúkings;

to the sea he rode

and sails hoisted.

His ship was shining

with shields and mail;

it was dragon-headed,

dire and golden.


As fire and tempest

to his father’s land

came Sigurd sailing;

the sand was reddened.

Clashed the cloven

casque and hauberk;

shields were splintered,

shorn was corslet.


Men learned there lived yet

line of Völsung!

Now of Völsung land

was a Völsung lord.

But the house once high

was hollow, roofless;

the limbs were rotten

of their leafy tree.


A man there walked

mantled darkly,

his beard was flowing,

and blind his eye:


‘Grímnir hails thee,

glorious Völsung!

Far hence hath flown

the fate of Sigurd.


Where Sigmund drew

sword of Grímnir,

Gram shall shine not.

Go thou, Völsung!

Now king thou art

of kings begotten,

a bride calls thee

over billowing seas.’



His fleet went forth

with flaming sails;

goldladen ships

came glad to shore.

Steeds went striding,

stonefire glinted,

horns were sounded;

home rode Sigurd.


A feast they fashioned,

far proclaimed it,

their highroofed halls

hung with splendour;

boards and beakers,

benches, gilded;

mead poured and ale

from morn to eve.


A king sat Sigurd:

carven silver,

raiment gleaming,

rings and goblets,

dear things dealt he,


his friends enriching,

fame upraising.


(There spake Grímhild

to Gjúki’s ear:)


‘How long shall last

league unbounden?

Here is worthiest lord

of world’s renown!

Were a daughter offered,

he would dwell for ever,

our strength in strife,

standing bulwark.’



‘The gifts of kings

are gold and silver;

their daughters fair

are dearly wooed!’


‘Gifts oft are given

to greedy hand;

wives oft are wooed

by worthless men!’


Sigurd sat silent;

the singing heard not

but in heart Brynhild

bright with splendour:

‘A queen was I once,

and a king shall wed.’

Soon, thought he, soon

I will seek my own.



Grímhild went forth

to guarded bower;

deep horn she filled

that was darkly written.

She drink of power

dreadly blended;

it had strength of stone,

it was stained with blood.



‘Hail, guest and king!

Good go with thee!

Drink now deeply

dear love’s token!

A father hast thou found,

and fond mother,

brothers sit nigh thee.

O bravest, hail!’


Deep drank Sigurd,

drained it laughing,

then sat unsmiling,

the singing heard not.

In came Gudrún


as moon uprising

marvellous shining.


In came Gudrún


as flower unfolded

fair at morning.

Sigurd wondered,

silent gazing;

his mind was glamoured,

mood confounded.




(Brynhild Betrayed)


Brynhild abode

a blossomed summer,

homing harvest,

hoary winter.

A year followed year;

yearning seized her:

the king came not;

cold weighed her heart.


Of her wealth and splendour

wide spread the word;

kings came riding,

her courts thronging.

Her mood was troubled,

her mind darkened;

fell greeting found they,

and few returned.


One armed and mantled

as ancient king

wild steed there rode

than wind fleeter.

Spear upholding

spiked with lightning

her hall he entered,

hailed her darkly:



‘Bond unbroken

shall be bounden oath,

dreed and endured

be doom appointed.

Brynhild full soon

shall bridal drink;

choosing not the slain,

shall choose the living.


Brynhild must drink

the bridal feast,

ere winters two

o’er the world be passed.

A queen thou wert,

a king shalt wed:

Ódin dooms it;

Ódin hearken!’


Fire forth blossomed,

flames were kindled,

high up-leaping

hissed and wavered.

In hall standing

hedged with lightning,

‘one only’, thought she

‘can enter now!’



In Gjúki’s house

glad the singing.

A feast they fashioned,

far men sought it.

To blissful Gudrún

the bridal drank

there golden Sigurd

glorious shining.


Morning woke with mirth,

merry came evening;

harp-strings were plucked

by hands of cunning;

mead poured and ale,

men were joyful,

of peerless kings

praise uplifting.


Oaths swore Sigurd

for ever lasting,

a bond of brotherhood

in blood mingled,

help in venture,

in hate and battle,

in need and desire,

nowhere failing.


Gunnar and Högni

gladly swore it,

as Grímhild counselled

grey with wisdom.

Gunnar and Högni

good they deemed it;

glad was Gudrún



Gudrún walked in joy,

gladness round her;

mornings came with mirth,

mirth at sleeping.

Sigurd dwelt as king

sweet days and nights;

high hope he had,

yet in heart a shadow.



Wide went the word

of woman mighty,

of Brynhild queen

bright in splendour.

Grímhild hearkened,

grimly pondered,

of Gunnar thinking

and of Gjúki’s power.



‘Hail, Gjúki’s son!

Good go with thee!

Fair flowers thy state,

thy fame riseth.

Who could woo as he wills,

a wife yet lacketh,

though his might few match,

or might of friends.’



‘Lo! Gjúkings’ mother

grey in counsel,

what wife shall Gunnar

woo or look for?

Fairest must be woman,

of fame mightiest,

that Gunnar seeketh

his gold dealing.’



‘Of the one fairest

fame is rumoured:

Brynhild the queen

bright in splendour.

Wide walks the word

of her wealth and might;

though high nor humble

her halls enter.’



‘Proud and peerless

in peril woven,

a queen would she be,

our courts’ glory!

Gunnar Gjúki’s son

glory seeking

at thy rede shall ride

to her realm afar.’



‘The son of Sigmund

thy sister holds,

Sigurd the mighty

is thy sworn brother.

At right hand in aid

he shall ride with thee;

counsels potent

shall my cunning find you.’



Gunnar rode Goti,

on Grani Sigurd,

Högni Hölkvir,

horse night-swarthy.

Steeds were striding,

stonefire glinting,

high wind rushing

over helm and mane.


Over fell and lowland

and forest gloomy,

over rocks and rivers

their roads led them.

Golden gables

gleaming saw they;

a light was lifted

o’er the land afar.


Fire forth blossomed,

flames up-leaping,

trees of lightning

twisted branching.

Gunnar smote Goti:

the ground spurning

he reared him backward,

nor rowel heeded.


Sigurd unsmiling

silent waited,

in his shrouded heart

a shadow deepened:


‘For what waits Gunnar,

Gjúking fearless?

Here the queen dwelleth

that our quest seeketh!’



‘A boon grant me,

O blood-brother!

Goti will not bear me,

now Grani lend me!’

Gunnar smote Grani:

on the ground moveless

grey-hewn he stood

as of graven stone.


Gunnar rode not

the glittering flame.

Oaths swore Sigurd,

all fulfilled them.

In hope or hate

help unfailing,

he Grímhild’s counsel

grim refused not.


Counsels potent

had her cunning furnished

of chill enchantment

and changing spell.

In Gunnar’s likeness

on Grani leaped he;

gold spurs glinted,

Gram was brandished.


The earth shivered;

angry roaring

fire flaming-tongued

flashed heavenward.

With sword smitten

snorting leaped he,

Grani greyfell;

the ground trembled.


The fire flickered;

flame wavered,

sank to silence

slaked and fading.

Swart lay the shadow

of Sigurd riding

in helm of terror

high and looming.


Sigurd stood there

on sword leaning;

Brynhild waited

a blade holding.

There helméd maiden

of helméd king

name demanded:

night fell round them.



‘Gunnar Gjúki’s son

greets and hails thee.

As my queen shalt thou ride

my quest fulfilling.’

As on swaying seas

a swan glimmering

sat she sore troubled

seeking counsel:



‘What shall I answer

in hour o’ershadowed,

Gunnar, Gunnar,

with gleaming eyes?’


‘Redgolden rings,

Rhineland treasure,

mighty brideprice

shall be meted thee!’



‘Gunnar, speak not

of golden rings!

Swords were me dearer

to slay my loves.

Art thou all men’s master,

all surpassing? –

to only such

will I answer give.’



‘Yea, swords hast thou reddened,

swords yet shalt wield;

and oaths hast thou sworn,

and oaths shalt keep.

Thy wall is ridden,

thy wavering fire:

thou art doomed him to wed

who dared to pass.’


In a bed them laid

Brynhild, Sigurd;

a sword them sundered

set there naked.

Gram lay between

gleaming sheathless,

fate lay between

forged unyielding.


Dawn came on earth,

day grew round them.


sleeping finger

he slipped her



and Andvari’s gold,

old, enchanted,

on Brynhild’s hand

bound in token.



‘Wake thou! wake thou!

Wide is daylight.

I ride to my realm

to array the feast.’


‘Gunnar, Gunnar,

with gleaming eyes,

on day appointed

I shall drink with thee.’






On day appointed

dawn rose redly,

sun sprang fiery

southward hasting.

Bridal to Brynhild

blissful drank he,

Gunnar Gjúki’s son,

gold unsparing.


All surpassing,

proud and ardent,

Brynhild sat there,

a bride and queen.

All men’s master,

all surpassing,

in came Sigurd

as sun rising.





Gjúki’s daughter,

she saw him seated –

a silence fell.

As stone graven

stared she palely,

as cold and still

as carven stone.



shrouded heart

the shadows parted;

oaths were remembered

all unfulfilled.

As stone carven,

stern, unbending,

he sat unsmiling

no sign making.


Clamour rose again,

clear the singing.

Men were joyful –

mirth they deemed it.

In that hall beheld they

heroes mightiest,

and kings and queens

crowned in splendour.



Forth rode Sigurd,

the forest seeking,

to hunt the hart;

horns were sounded.

To the Rhine-river,

to running water,

queens went comely

with combs of gold.


Their locks they loosened.

Long one waded

to deeper pools

darkly swirling:


‘The water that hath washed

thy wan tresses

shall not flow unfitting

over fairer brow!’



‘More queenly I,

more kingly wed! –

fame all surpasses

he that Fáfnir slew!’


‘Worth all surpasses

who my wavering fire,

flaming lightning

fearless vanquished!’


(Grim laughed


Grímhild’s daughter:)


‘True spake the tongue

of truth unwitting!

Thy wavering fire

wildly flaming

he rode unrecking

who that ring gave thee –

did Gunnar get it

on Gnitaheiði?




old, enchanted,

is on Brynhild’s hand

bound in token.


Gunnar give me

the gleaming ring

from thy hand he drew,

now here on




Coldhued as death

the queen was stricken,

strode swift from stream

as stone silent;

from Rhine-river,

from running water,

her bower sought she

brooding darkly.


Dim fell evening,

dusk was starless;

her mind was as night

as she mourned alone;

alone, lightless,

made lamentation:


‘Fell! fell the fates

that forged our days!


Mine own must I have

or anguish suffer,

or suffer anguish

Sigurd losing.

Yet he is Gudrún’s

and Gunnar’s I:

foul wrought the fates

that framed my life!’


Daylong lay she

drinking nor eating,

as in dead slumber

or dreadful thought.

Her maidens marvelled –

she minded not,

Gunnar sought her;

grim she heard him.


Then spake Brynhild

from bitter pondering:


‘Whence came the gold

here gleaming pale?

Who holds the ring

from my hand taken?’

Nought spake Gunnar,

no word answered.



‘King men call thee!

A coward rather,

from fire flinching,

fearful, quaking!

From witch-woman’s

womb thou camest.

Woe to Grímhild,

woe’s contriver!’



‘Vile words to use,

thou Valkyrie,

thou slayer of men,

and sword-hearted!’


‘If sword I had,

I would slay thee now,

for thy secret treason,

for thy sundered oaths!


Him only loved I

who all surpassed;

an oath uttered,

him only to wed,

him only to wed

who mine ardent fire

vanquished valorous;

I am vow-breaker.


I am oath-breaker,

dishonoured, humbled;

I am love-bereaved

and life-curséd.

In thy halls shalt thou hear

never happy voices,

no queen in thy courts

shall comely walk.’


Long there lay she

in lamentation;

afar heard folk

her fell mourning.

Gudrún she spurned,

Gunnar scorning,

and Högni mocking;

hate was kindled.



From the hunt rode Sigurd

home returning,

found halls unlit

and hearts darkened.

They brought him to seek her

for sorrow’s healing;

his mood was loath,

on the morrow went he.

(He draws back the coverlet

from Brynhild and wakes her,

as before he had done.)



‘Hail, O sunlight

and sun’s rising!

Sleep no longer

and sorrow cast thou!’


‘I slept on mountain,

I sleep no more!

Accursed be thy words,

cruel forswearer!’



‘What grief ails thee

amid good liking,

who to glorious Gunnar

wert gladly wed?’


‘Gladly! gladly!

Grim thou mockest me.

Him only I loved,

who all surpassed.’



‘Yet glory no less

hath Gjúki’s son,

my blood-brother,

best renownéd.

Well he loves thee,

lord unfearing –

look now and learn

light yet shineth!’



‘Nay, Fáfnir Sigurd

fearless conquered;

my wavering fire

he waded twice;

twice he waded

tongues of lightning:

so great glory

never Gunnar earned.’



‘That twice he waded,

who told thee so?

Sigurd hath not said it –

why saist thou this?’


‘Gloom was round us.

Thy gleaming eyes,

thine eyes gleaming

anguish gave me.


Veils of darkness

they vanquished me.

I am life-curséd

and love-bereaved.

Yet I curse thee too,

cruel forswearer,

who rendered to another

the ring taken.


Gudrún I curse

for cruel reproach

of bed broken

and body yielded.

Thy glory alone

seems good to thee;

of all women the worst

thou weenest me.’



‘Woe worth the words

by women spoken!

Woe worth the while

this work began!

Webs enwound me

woven dreadly,

my mind shadowing,

my mood darkening.


Long I loved thee,

long desiring.

Thee only would I hold,

now all I know.

My mood mastering,

my mind wielding,

I sat unsmiling,

no sign making.


This solace sought I,

that I saw thee still,

the one hall walking

though wife of other.’


‘Too late! too late,

love thou speakest!

To allay this evil

there leech is none.’



‘Is hope all fallen,

is healing vain?

Must fate fierce-hearted

thus find its end?’


‘This hope only,

this heart’s comfort –

that Sigurd forsworn

a sword should bite!’



‘Swords lightly sleep,

soon may I feel them!

Then would Brynhild die –

bitter would she deem it.’


‘Well fall the words

from woe’s maker!

Little light in life

hath he left to me.’



‘Yet Gunnar would I slay,

Gudrún forsake,

from death thee to keep,

our doom o’ercoming!’


‘I am wife of one,

I wed no other.

No lord will I love,

and least Sigurd!’



Forth went Sigurd

filled with anguish,

his heart was swollen

in heaving breast.

Mail-rings clutched him,

marred his breathing,

to his flesh cutting

fiercely straining.


There stood Gudrún



‘Sleeps yet Brynhild,

sickness bearing?’


‘Brynhild sleeps not,

brooding darkly.

She broodeth darkly

our bale and doom.’


Gudrún wanly

grasped him weeping:


‘What doth Brynhild brood,

what bale purpose?’


‘Thou shouldst know it,

needless asking.

Woe worth the words

by women spoken!’


(Then spake Gunnar



‘What hope of healing

harm’s amending?

Shall we gold offer,

gold and silver?’


‘Gold and silver

let Gunnar offer!

Her lord alone

her leech must be.’


Then Gunnar offered

gold and silver,

gold and silver



‘Gunnar, speak not

of gold and silver;

swords were me dearer

to slay my life.


All men’s master,

all surpassing,

such only ever

shall earn my love.

Than thy liege lower

thou art less become,

a Völsung’s squire,

a vassal’s servant!


From thy bed parting,

at thy board humbled

I will leave thee alone

to laughter of men,

if life thou allowest

to liege forsworn,

if thou slay not Sigurd,

thy sister’s lord.’



‘Fell-hearted thou,

and foe of peace!

I oaths have sworn

for ever lasting,

bonds of brotherhood

in blood mingled;

though Brynhild bid it,

I may break them not.’




too I swore

for ever lasting –

light thou heldest them!

I am love-betrayed.

Sigurd thou sent me,

thy sworn brother.

My bed he entered,

by my body laid him,

betrayed thy trust,

betraying me.


To Gudrún he told it,

Gudrún knoweth.

In shame am I shrouded,

and shamed art thou!’

Gunnar came forth


daylong he sat,

deeply brooding.


From mood to mood

his mind wandered,

from shame to shame

shorn of friendship.

Högni called he

to hidden counsel,

his true brother,

whom he trusted well.




wrought Sigurd:

oaths he swore me,

oaths he swore me,

all belied them;

betrayed my trust,

whom I trusted most,

truth forswearing,

whom most true I deemed.’



‘Brynhild beguiles thee


woe devising

to woe stings thee;

loathing Gudrún,

her love grudging,

thy love loathing,

she lies to thee.’



‘Brynhild, Brynhild,

I better hold her

than all women,

than all treasure.

I will life sooner leave

than lose her now,

than live lonely

for laughter of men.


Let us slay Sigurd –

forsworn is he!

Let us lords be alone

of our lands again!

Let us slay Sigurd,

this sorrow ending,

and masters make us

of his mighty hoard!’



‘Woe worth the words

by women spoken!

Lords unassailed

our league made us.

The might of Sigurd

we shall mourn later,

and the sister-sons

this sire had got us.’


To Gotthorm turning,

Grímhild’s offspring,

greyhearted lord,

Gunnar hailed him:


‘No oaths thou sworest,

no oaths heedest.

With his blood unblended

his blood now spill!’


Gold he promised him

and great lordship;

his bastard blood

burned with hunger.

Snake’s flesh they took,

seethed it darkly,

wolf-meat gave him,

wine enchanted.


Drunk with madness,

dire and wolvish,

he grinned and gnashed

his grinding teeth.

Of guile unworthy,

no guile dreaming,

yet doom foreboding,

drear went Sigurd.


To the forest fared he,

falcon loosing,

with hounds hunting,

for harm’s solace.

Gotthorm rode there,

and Grani marked he,

assailing Sigurd,

with searing words.



‘O werewolf’s son

and war-captive,

what huntest here

where hart roameth –

thou wooer of women

and wife-marrer,

who wouldst lord all alone

our lands and queens!’


Sword touched Sigurd

swart-red flushing;

white blanched the knuckles

on hilt clenching:


‘Thou drunken dog,

doom hangs nigh thee!

Now slink to kennel!

Sleep may mend thee.’


Gotthorm he left

to grind his teeth;

back rode Sigurd

foreboding ill.

Night fell starless,

none were waking;

asleep was Gudrún

by Sigurd dreaming.


Dawn came wanly:

drunk with hatred

there Gotthorm stalked

as glowering wolf.

Sword leaped naked,

sleeping stabbed him,

pierced through to pillow,

pinned in anguish.


Forth sprang the wolf

by fear blinded

of awful eyes

that opened wide.

Gram was brandished,

gleaming handled,

hissing hurled aloft

at hasting beast.


At the door he tumbled

dreadly crying;

there hell took him

hewn asunder.

Forth crashed the head,

feet fell backward;

blood ran darkly

on bower threshold.


In sweet embrace

to sleep she went,

to grief unending

Gudrún wakened,

to her bliss drowning

in blood flowing.

in flowing blood

of fairest lord.


Breast white and bare

she beat so sore

that Sigurd raised him

from soaking pillow:


‘My wife, weep not

for woe foredoomed!

Brothers remain to thee –

blame them lightly!


Brynhild wrought this:

best she loved me,

worst she dealt me,

worst belied me.

I Gunnar never

grieved nor injured;

oaths I swore him,

all fulfilled them!’


Dead fell Sigurd;

dreadly Gudrún

cried in anguish,

called him vainly.

Swords rang on wall,

and sleepers shivered;

geese screamed shrill

in green meadow.


Then laughed Brynhild

in her bed listening

with whole heart once –

the house shuddered –

Gudrún hearing

in grief’s torment.

Gunnar answered

grimly speaking:



‘Little thou laughest

for delight of soul,

O fell-hearted!

Fey I deem thee.

Thy colour blancheth,

cold thy cheeks are;

cold thy counsels

and accursed thy redes.’



‘Cursed are the Niflungs,

cruel forswearers.

Oaths swore Sigurd,

all fulfilled them.

Ye all shall find

evil fortune,

while all men’s honour

he for ever holdeth.


Bonds of brotherhood

in blood mingled

with murder kept ye;

he remembered them.


sword lay naked

set between us,

Gram lay grimly





Now life no longer

will I live with you;

of love ye robbed me

with lying counsels.

Shorn I leave you,

shame enduring,

of faith and friendship,

of fame on earth.’


In arms he took her,

anguished begged her

her hand to stay,

hope to look for.

She thrust them from her

who thronged round her,

longing only

for her last journey.


(Högni only

withheld her not:)


‘Little would I hinder

her last journey,

so she bide in that land

never born again.

Crooked came she forth

from curséd womb

to man’s evil

and our mighty woe.’



Gold corslet she took,

gleaming hauberk,

helm set on head,

in hand a sword.

On the sword she cast her,

sank down wounded:

thus Brynhild ended

her bright splendour.



‘A boon I beg thee,

this boon at last!

Pile high a pyre

on the plain builded;

shields hang round it

and shining cloths,

blood pour over it

for us brightly shed!


A hawk at each hand,

a hound at feet,

there harnessed set ye

our horses slain.

At his side lay me,

sword between us,

naked gleaming

as on night of yore.


Burn there Brynhild

in the blazing fire

who in flames awoke

to fell sorrow.

In flames send forth

that fairest lord

now as sun setting

who as sun did rise!’


Flames were kindled,

fume was swirling,

a roaring fire

ringed with weeping.

Thus Sigurd passed,

seed of Völsung,

there Brynhild burned:

bliss was ended.



On the hell-way hastened

the helméd queen,

never born again

from bleak regions.

In Valhöllu

Völsungs feasted:

‘Son’s son welcome,

seed of Ódin!’


Thus soon came Sigurd

the sword bearing

to glad Valhöll

greeting Ódin.

There feasts he long

at his father’s side,

for War waiting,

the World’s chosen.


When Heimdall’s horn

is heard ringing

and the Blazing Bridge

bends neath horsemen,

Brynhild shall arm him

with belt and sword,

a beaker bear him

brimmed with glory.


In the day of Doom

he shall deathless stand

who death tasted

and dies no more,

the serpent-slayer,

seed of Ódin:

not all shall end,

nor Earth perish.


On his head the Helm,

in his hand lightning,

afire his spirit,

in his face splendour.

When war passeth

in world rebuilt,

bliss shall they drink

who the bitter tasted.


Thus passed Sigurd,

seed of Völsung,

hero mightiest,

hope of Ódin.

But woe of Gudrún

through this world lasteth,

to the end of days

all shall hear her.








The subtitle Sigurðarkviða en mesta means ‘The Longest Lay of Sigurd’: see p.234.

Throughout the commentary the poem Völsungakviða en Nýja is referred to as ‘the Lay’ or occasionally ‘the Lay of the Völsungs’, and the Völsunga Saga as ‘the Saga’. The name ‘Edda’ always refers to the ‘Elder Edda’ or ‘Poetic Edda’; the work of Snorri Sturluson is named the ‘Prose Edda’.

The nine sections of the poem following the Upphaf are referred to by Roman numerals and the stanzas by Arabic numerals: thus ‘VII.6’ refers to stanza 6 in the section ‘Gudrún’. Notes are related to stanzas, not lines; and a general note on the section precedes notes to individual stanzas.


This prelude to the Lay of the Völsungs echoes and reflects the most famous poem of the Edda, the Völuspá, in which the Völva, the wise woman or sibyl, recounts the origin of the world, the age of the youthful Gods, and the primeval war; prophesies the Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods; and after it the renewal of the Earth, rising again out of deep waters (see the third part of my father’s poem The Prophecy of the Sibyl, given in Appendix B at the end of this book).

But the images of the Völuspá are here ordered to an entirely original theme: for the sibyl declares (stanzas 13–15) that the fate of the world and the outcome of the Last Battle will depend on the presence of ‘one deathless who death hath tasted and dies no more’; and this is Sigurd, ‘the serpent-slayer, seed of Ódin’, who is ‘the World’s chosen’ for whom the mailclad warriors wait in Valhöll (stanza 20). As is made explicit in my father’s interpretative note (iv) given on p.53–54, it is Ódin’s hope that Sigurd will on the Last Day become the slayer of the greatest serpent of all, Miðgarðsormr (see note to stanza 12 below), and that through Sigurd ‘a new world will be made possible’.

‘This motive of the special function of Sigurd is an invention of the present poet’, my father observed in the same brief text. An association with his own mythology seems to me at least extremely probable: in that Túrin Turambar, slayer of the great dragon Glaurung, was also reserved for a special destiny, for at the Last Battle he would himself strike down Morgoth, the Dark Lord, with his black sword. This mysterious conception appeared in the old Tale of Turambar (1919 or earlier), and reappeared as a prophecy in the Silmarillion texts of the 1930s: so in the Quenta Noldorinwa, ‘it shall be the black sword of Túrin that deals unto Melko [Morgoth] his death and final end; and so shall the children of Húrin and all Men be avenged.’ Very remarkably a form of this conception is found in a brief essay of my father’s from near the end of his life, in which he wrote that Andreth the Wise-woman of the House of Bëor had prophesied that ‘Túrin in the Last Battle should return from the Dead, and before he left the Circles of the World for ever should challenge the Great Dragon of Morgoth, Ancalagon the Black, and deal him the death-stroke.’ The extraordinary transformation of Túrin is seen also in an entry in The Annals of Aman, where it is said that the great constellation of Menelmakar, the Swordsman of the Sky (Orion), ‘was a sign of Túrin Turambar, who should come into the world, and a foreshadowing of the Last Battle that shall be at the end of Days.’*

Beyond this, in the absence (so far as I know) of any other writing of my father’s bearing on his enigmatic conception of Sigurd, I think that speculation on its larger significance would fall outside the editorial limits that I have set for myself in this book.

My father’s Ódin does indeed retain his ancient character of gathering his ‘chosen’ to Valhöll to be his champions at the Ragnarök, and in the Lay of the Völsungs he appears against Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, and disarms him in his last fight, so that he is slain (IV.8–11). In Norse legend a belief is expressed that Ódin, faithless, ambiguous, and sinister, desiring strife among kinsmen, turning against his favourites at the last and felling those whom he has favoured, has reason for his conduct: he needs his own, needs his favourites against the day of the Ragnarök (see the note to IX.77–78).

But from the extraordinary complex of ideas that surround Ódin in Northern antiquity – suggesting layer upon layer of shifting belief and symbolism – a God is glimpsed in my father’s work who has retained little of the subtle, sinister, and enigmatic deity of ancient writings: the god of war, lord of the Valkyries; exciter of madness; the initiate, the lord of the gallows, the self-sacrificed, the master of obscene magic, the inspiration of poetry; the shape-changer, the old one-eyed man, the faithless friend, and on the Last Day the victim of the Wolf. ‘Weighed with wisdom woe foreknowing’ (Upphaf 18), and seen by my father, referring to his own poem and to his treatment of the old legend, as symbolizing prudence and wisdom beside the malice and folly of Loki, Ódin seems more like Manwë of his own mythology; and he calls them both ‘Lord of Gods and Men’.

I    On this stanza see p.246. It echoes the third stanza of the Völuspá; and citing the Norse verse in a lecture my father followed it with this first stanza of the Upphaf, with some differences: ‘shivering waves’, ‘unraised heaven’.

II    It is told by Snorri in the Prose Edda that Heimdal (Heimdallr) was the warden or sentinel of the Gods (Æsir), dwelling beside Bifröst (‘the quaking path’), the rainbow bridge between Ásgard, the realm of the Æsir, and Midgard, the world of Men (see note to 12), which he guards against the rock-giants; but at the Ragnarök (the Doom of the Gods) Bifröst will be crossed by the hosts coming from the fiery land of Múspell, and will break beneath them. The red part of the bow is blazing fire. Heimdal’s horn is the Gjallarhorn, whose blast is heard over all the worlds; and he will blow it at the Ragnarök.

      The Ash is Yggdrasill, the World Tree, whose branches stretched out over earth and heaven. The Wolf is Fenrir (named in stanza 13), whom the Gods chained; but at the Ragnarök Fenrir will break his chains and devour Ódin.

12  Surt (Surtr): the great demon of fire, at the Ragnarök coming out of Múspell, the land of fire, against the Gods.

      The ‘slumbering Serpent’ is Miðsgarðsormr, the Serpent of Midgard, who lay coiled through all the seas encompassing Midgard, the world of Men. The Norse name Miðgarðr corresponds to Old English Middan-geard, Middan-eard, which lie behind the later form Middle-earth.

      The ‘shadowy ship’ is Naglfar, made of dead men’s nails.

13  Frey (Freyr): the chief god of fertility, of peace and plenty, in Norway and Sweden; Freyja (stanza 17) was his sister.

      The ‘deep Dragon’ is the Serpent of Midgard: see note on stanza 12.

I ANDVARA-GULL (Andvari’s Gold)

For the story in §I of the Lay of the Völsungs the sources are the Eddaic poem known as Reginsmál, the Lay of Regin, which is indeed less a poem than fragments of old verse pieced together with prose; a passage in Snorri Sturluson’s version of the Völsung legend in the Prose Edda; and the Völsunga Saga. The few verses in Reginsmál that bear on this part of the narrative (dialogue between Loki and Andvari, and between Loki and Hreidmar after the gold had been paid over) are here and there a model for the Lay, but only lines 5–6 in stanza 8 are a translation (Andvari ek heiti, Óinn hét minn faðir).

Apart from this, Andvara-gull in the Lay is a new poem. It is very allusive, and deliberately so, and I give here in abbreviated form the course of the story as it is known from the prose narratives: for the most part the two versions differ little.

It is told that three of the Æsir, Ódin, Hœnir, and Loki, went out into the world, and they came to a waterfall known as the Falls of Andvari, Andvari being the name of a dwarf who fished there in the form of a pike (Snorri says nothing of Andvari at this point). At that place there was an otter that had caught a salmon, and was eating it on the river bank; but Loki hurled a stone at the otter and killed it. Then the Æsir took up the salmon and the otter and went on their way until they came to the house of a certain Hreidmar. Snorri describes him as a farmer, a man of substance, greatly skilled in magic; in the Saga he is simply an important and wealthy man; whereas in the headnote to this section of the Lay he is ‘a demon’.

The Æsir asked Hreidmar for lodging for the night, saying that they had enough food with them, and they showed Hreidmar their catch; but the otter was Hreidmar’s son Otr, who took the form of an otter when he was fishing (the name Otr and the Norse word otr ‘otter’ being of course the same). Then Hreidmar called out to his other sons, Fáfnir and Regin, and they laid hands on the Æsir and bound them, demanding that they should ransom themselves by filling the otter-skin with gold, and also covering it on the outside with gold so that no part of it could be seen.

Here the prose versions separate. According to Snorri (who had not previously mentioned Andvari) Ódin now sent Loki to Svartálfaheim, the Land of the Dark Elves; it was there that he found the dwarf Andvari who was ‘as a fish in the water’, and Loki caught him in his hands. In the Saga, on the other hand, Loki’s errand was to seek out Rán, the wife of the sea-god Ægir, and get from her the net with which she drew down men drowning in the sea; and with that net he captured the dwarf Andvari, who was fishing in his falls in the form of a pike. This is the story that my father followed (stanza 7).

Andvari ransomed himself with his hoard of gold, attempting to keep back a single little gold ring; but Loki saw it and took it from him (stanza 9). In Snorri’s account only, Andvari begged to keep the ring because with it he could multiply wealth for himself, but Loki said that he should not have one penny left.

Andvari declared that the ring would be the death of any who possessed it, or any of the gold. According to Snorri, ‘Loki said that this seemed very well to him, and he said that this condition should hold good, provided that he himself declared it in the ears of those who should receive the ring.’ Then Loki returned to Hreidmar’s house, and when Ódin saw the ring he desired it, and took it away from the treasure. The otter-skin was filled and covered with the gold of Andvari, but Hreidmar looking at it very closely saw a whisker, and demanded that they should cover that also. Then Ódin drew out Andvari’s ring (Andvaranaut, the possession of Andvari) and covered the hair. But when Ódin had taken up his spear, and Loki his shoes, and they no longer had any need to fear, Loki declared that the curse of Andvari should be fulfilled. And now it has been told (Snorri concludes) why gold is called ‘Otter’s ransom’ (otrgjöld) or ‘forced payment of the Æsir’ (nauðgjald ásanna): see p.36.

An important difference between the two prose versions is that Snorri began his account of the Völsung legend with ‘Andvari’s Gold’, whereas in the Saga this story is introduced much later, and becomes a story told by Regin (son of Hreidmar) to Sigurd before his attack on the dragon. But although my father followed Snorri in this, he nonetheless followed the Saga in giving a brief retelling of ‘Andvari’s Gold’ by Regin to Sigurd in the fifth section of the poem, with a number of verse-lines repeated from their first occurrence (see V.7–11).

1    Of all the Northern divinities Loki is the most enigmatic; ancient Norse literature is full of references to him and stories about him, and it is not possible to characterize him in a short space. But since Loki only appears here in these poems, and in my father’s words concerning him given on p.54, it seems both suitable and sufficient to quote Snorri Sturluson’s description in the Prose Edda:

‘Also counted among the Æsir is Loki, whom some call the mischief-maker of the Æsir, the first father of lies, and the blemish of all gods and men. Loki is handsome and fair of face but evil in his disposition and fickle in his conduct. He excels all others in that cleverness which is called cunning, and he has wiles for every circumstance. Over and over again he has brought the gods into great trouble, but often got them out of it by his guile.’

In this stanza he is called ‘lightfooted Loki’, and in Snorri’s version of the story of Andvari’s Gold it is said, as already noted, that after the payment of the ransom to Hreidmar Ódin took up his spear ‘and Loki his shoes’. Elsewhere Snorri wrote of ‘those shoes with which Loki ran through air and over water’.

Of the god Hoenir no more is said in the Lay than that while Loki went on the left side of Ódin, Hœnir went on his right. In my father’s somewhat mysterious interpretation given on p.54 (iv) he calls the companion of Ódin who walks on his right hand ‘a nameless shadow’, but this must surely be Hœnir, or at least derived from him. However, if there is no end to what is told of Loki in the Norse mythological narratives, very little can now be said of Hœnir; and to my understanding, there is nothing in the vestiges that remain that casts light on the ‘nameless shadow’ that walks beside Ódin.

6    Ásgard is the realm of the Gods (Æsir).

7    Rán: the wife of the sea-god Ægir; see p.189.

8    ‘I bid thee’: I offer thee.

13–15   In these concluding stanzas the references to the hope of Ódin, and Ódin’s choice, have of course no counterparts in the Norse texts.


This is a rendering in verse of elements of the narrative of the earlier chapters of the Völsunga Saga. No old poetry recounting or referring to this story exists apart from a single half-stanza (see the note to stanzas 37–39), but this section of the Lay of the Völsungs can be seen as an imagination of it. It is a selection of moments of dramatic force, and many elements of the prose Saga are omitted; in particular the most savage features of the story are eliminated (see notes to stanzas 30–32, 37–39).

The Gauts of the headnote to this section are the Gautar of Old Norse, dwelling in Gautland, a region of what is now southern Sweden, south of the great lakes. The name Gautar is historically identical with the Old English Geatas, who were Beowulf’s people.

1–2   These two stanzas are an extreme reduction of the opening chapters of the Saga which tell of Völsung’s immediate ancestry in a prosaic fashion: my father clearly found this unsuited to his purpose.

2    ‘child of longing’: Rerir’s wife was for long barren.

4    In the Saga the tree in the midst of King Völsung’s hall is named the Barnstock, and is said to have been an apple-tree.

7    ‘Birds sang blithely’: the birds were sitting in the boughs of the great tree that upheld the hall; so again in stanza 11, and see III.2.

10  King Siggeir and many other guests came to the wedding feast held in King Völsung’s hall.

12–13   In the Saga the old man is described in terms that make it plain that he was Ódin, but he is not named. Here in the Lay he is Grímnir ‘the Masked’, a name of Ódin that does not appear at all in the Saga but is derived from the Eddaic poem Grímnismál.

The ‘standing stem’ in 13 line 3 is the trunk of the Barnstock, into which Ódin thrust the sword.

14  ‘Gaut and Völsung’: Völsung’s children and race are often called Völsungar, Völsungs, as in the name of the Saga, and in the head-note to this section.

16  This was the beginning of hatred and the motive for Siggeir’s attack on Völsung and his sons when they came to Gautland as his guests (21–23); Siggeir was enraged at Sigmund’s answer, but (in the words of the Saga) ‘he was a very wily man, and he behaved as if he were indifferent’.

‘bade’: offered (so also ‘I bid thee’ in I.8); ‘boon’: request.

17–22   It is told in the Saga that on the day following the night of the wedding feast (‘last night I lay / where loath me was’, 19) Siggeir left very abruptly and returned with Signý to Gautland, having invited Völsung and his sons to come as his guests to Gautland three months later (21). Signý met them when they landed to warn them of what Siggeir had prepared for them (22), but (according to the Saga) Völsung would not listen to Signý’s entreaty that he return at once to his own land, nor to her request that she should be allowed to stay with her own people and not return to Siggeir.

20  ‘toft’: homestead.

29  In the Saga the sons of Völsung were set in stocks in the forest to await the old she-wolf who came each night. Signý, on the tenth day, sent her trusted servant to Sigmund, who alone survived, to smear honey over his face and to put some in his mouth. When the wolf came she licked his face and thrust her tongue into his mouth; at which he bit into it. Then the wolf started back violently, pressing her feet against the stocks in which Sigmund was set, so that they were split open; but he held on to the wolf’s tongue so that it was torn out by the roots, and she died. ‘Some men say,’ according to the Saga, ‘that the wolf was King Siggeir’s mother, who had changed herself into this shape by witchcraft.’

      While in the Saga the stocks are an important element in the story at this point, in the Lay there is no suggestion of stocks, but only of fetters and shackles; the wolf is ‘torn and tongueless’, but ‘by the tree riven’. See the note on stanzas 30-32.

30–32   This passage is very greatly condensed, and elements in the Saga essential to the narrative are passed over. Thus in the Saga, Signý found Sigmund in the woods, and it is explicit that they decided that he should make a house for himself under the ground, where Signý would provide for his needs. There is nothing in the Saga to explain Signý’s words in the Lay ‘Dwarvish master, thy doors open!’ In the opening prose passage of this section (p.72) it is said that ‘Sigmund dwelt in a cave in the guise of a dwarvish smith.’

      In this connection it is curious, if nothing more, to observe that in William Morris’ poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung Sigmund’s dwelling is explicitly ‘a stony cave’ that was once ‘a house of the Dwarfs’. It is also said in that poem (see the note to stanza 29) that by Siggeir’s orders the men who led the sons of Völsung into the forest cut down the greatest oak-tree that they could find and bound them to it ‘with bonds of iron’; and when the wolf came for Sigmund he ‘burst his bonds’ and slew it with his hands.

      Signý had two sons by Siggeir, and when the elder was ten years old she sent him out to Sigmund in the forest to be a help to him should he attempt to avenge Völsung; but the boy, told by Sigmund to make the bread while he himself went out for firewood, was frightened to touch the bag of flour because there was something alive in it. When Sigmund told Signý about this she told him to kill the boy, since he had no heart; and Sigmund did so. The next year Signý sent her second son by Siggeir out into the woods, and things went in the same way.

      After that Signý changed shapes with a sorceress, and the sorceress slept with Siggeir for three nights in Signý’s form, while Signý slept with her brother. The son born to them was named Sinfjötli.

33  On lines 5–6 of this stanza see the note to 35–36.

      ‘bast’: flexible bark, used for making baskets, and for tying.

33–34   In the Saga Sigmund subjected Sinfjötli to the same test as Siggeir’s sons, and when he came back to the underground house Sinfjötli had baked the bread, but he said that he thought that there had been something alive in the flour when he started kneading it. Sigmund laughed, and said that Sinfjötli should not eat the bread he had baked, ‘for you have kneaded in a great venomous snake.’ There is no mention in the Saga of Sinfjötli’s bringing Sigmund’s sword (see note to 37–39).

35–36   A long passage is devoted in the Saga to the ferocious exploits of Sigmund and Sinfjötli in the forest, where they became werewolves; and it is an important point that Sigmund thought that Sinfjötli was the son of Signý and Siggeir (cf. 33 ‘Fair one, thy father / thy face gave not’), possessing the energy and daring of the Völsungs but the evil heart of his father.

37–39   In the Saga Sigmund and Sinfjötli entered Siggeir’s hall and hid themselves behind ale barrels in the outer room; but the two young children of Siggeir and Signý were playing with golden toys, bowling them across the floor of the hall and running along with them, and a gold ring rolled into the room where Sigmund and Sinfjötli sat. One of the children, chasing the ring, ‘saw where two tall, grim men were sitting, with overhanging helms and shining mailcoats’; and he ran back and told his father.

      Signý, hearing this, took the children into the outer room and urged Sigmund and Sinfjötli to kill them, since they had betrayed their hiding-place. Sigmund said that he would not kill her children even if they had given him away, but the terrible Sinfjötli made light of it, slew both children, and hurled their bodies into the hall. When Sigmund and Sinfjötli had at last been captured Siggeir had a great burial-mound made of stones and turf; and in the midst of the mound there was set a huge stone slab so that when they were put into it they were separated and could not pass the slab, but could hear each other. But before the mound was covered over Signý threw down a bundle of straw to Sinfjötli, in which was meat. In the darkness of the mound Sinfjötli discovered that Sigmund’s sword was thrust into the meat, and with the sword they were able to saw through the stone slab.

I have said that there is no old poetry treating this story save for one half-stanza, and those verses are cited by the author of the Saga at this point:

ristu af magni

mikla hellu,

Sigmundr, hjörvi,

ok Sinfjötli.

‘They cut with strength the great slab, Sigmund and Sinfjötli, with the sword’.

      When they got out of the mound it was night, and everyone was asleep; and bringing up wood they set fire to the hall.

40–41   It was now, when Sigmund told Signý to come forth, that in the Saga she revealed the truth about Sinfjötli – this is no doubt implied in stanza 41 of the Lay, ‘Son Sinfjötli, Sigmund father!’ In her last words, according to the Saga, before she went back into the fire, she declared that she had worked so mightily to achieve vengeance for Völsung that it was impossible for her now to live longer.


DAUÐI SINFJÖTLA (The Death of Sinfjötli)

There intervenes now in the Saga, after the deaths of Signý and Siggeir, the history of Helgi Hundingsbani, an originally independent figure who had been connected to the Völsung legend by making him the son of Sigmund and Borghild (only referred to as ‘the Queen’ in this section of the Lay). In this the Saga follows the ‘Helgi lays’ of the Edda; but in his poem my father entirely eliminated this accretion, and Helgi is not mentioned.

The sources for this section of the Lay are the Saga and a short prose passage in the Edda entitled Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli’s death): the compiler of the Codex Regius of the Edda evidently wrote this, in the absence of any verses, in order to conclude the histories of Sigmund and Sinfjötli. There are no important differences between the Lay and the old narratives.

1–2   In the Saga Sigmund, returning to his own land, drove out a usurper who had established himself there.

3    ‘Grímnir’s gift’: see II.12–13 and note.

4    In Frá dauða Sinfjötla and in the Saga Sigmund’s queen is named Borghild; in the Lay she is given no name (perhaps because my father regarded the name Borghild as not original in the legend, but entering with the ‘Helgi’ connection). It is not said in the sources that she was taken in war.

6    In both sources Sinfjötli slew Borghild’s brother, not her father; they were suitors for the same woman. In the Saga it is told that Borghild wished to have Sinfjötli driven out of the land, and though Sigmund would not allow this he offered her great riches in atonement; it was at the funeral-feast for her brother that Sinfjötli was murdered.

7    It is told in the Saga, at the time of the bread-making incident, when Sinfjötli kneaded in a poisonous snake (see note to II.33–34), that Sigmund could not be harmed by poison within or without, whereas Sinfjötli could only withstand poison externally; the same is said in Frá dauða Sinfjötla and in the Prose Edda.

9–10   In both sources Sigmund said to Sinfjötli, when Borghild offered him drink for the third time: Láttu grön sía, sonr (‘Strain it through your beard, my son’). Sigmund was very drunk by then, says the Saga, ‘and that is why he said it’.

12  The boatman was Ódin (the verses describing him here are repeated in varied form in IV.8). This is not said in the old sources. In those texts the boatman offered to ferry Sigmund across the fjord, but the boat was too small to take both Sigmund and the body of Sinfjötli, so the body was taken first. Sigmund walked along the fjord, but the boat vanished. The Saga tells that Borghild was banished, and died not long after.

13  in Valhöllu: the Norse dative inflexion is retained for metrical reasons.

IV FŒDDR SIGURÐR (Sigurd born)

After the expulsion of Borghild Sigmund took another wife very much younger than himself (IV.2), and she was the mother of Sigurd. In the Saga and in Fra dauða Sinfjötla her name was Hjördis, the daughter of King Eylimi; whereas in the Lay she is Sigrlinn. This difference depends on the view that a transference of names took place: that originally in the Norse legends Hjördis was the mother of Helgi (see the note to III), while Sigrlinn was Sigmund’s wife and Sigurd’s mother. After this transference Sigrlinn became the mother of Helgi (and so appears in the Eddaic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, the Lay of Helgi son of Hjörvarð) and Hjördis became the mother of Sigurd. In the German poem Nibelungenlied, written about the beginning of the thirteenth century, Sieglind (Sigrlinn) was King Siegmund’s queen, the mother of Siegfried (Sigurd).

The narrative in this section of the Lay has been changed and reduced from that in the Saga (to which there is no poetry corresponding in the Edda). In the Saga, King Lyngvi was a rival to Sigmund for the hand of Hjördis, but Hjördis rejected him; and it was Lyngvi, not the seven suitors, ‘sons of kings’, of the Lay (stanzas 3 and 5), who came with great force against Sigmund in his own land.

Hjördis accompanied only by a bondwoman was sent into the forest and remained there during the fierce battle. In the Saga as in the Lay (stanzas 8–9) Ódin appeared, and Sigmund’s sword (‘Grímnir’s gift’, 5) broke against the upraised spear of the god, and he was slain (on the significance of Ódin’s intervention see the note on the section Upphaf, pp.185–86).

As in the Lay, in the Saga Hjördis (Sigrlinn) found Sigmund where he lay mortally wounded on the battlefield, and he spoke to her, saying that there was no hope of healing and he did not wish for it, since Ódin had claimed him (stanza 11); he spoke also of Sigurd, her son unborn, and told her to keep the shards of the sword, which should be made anew.

Immediately upon Sigmund’s death, a further fleet came in to the shore, commanded, it is said in the Saga, by Alf son of King Hjálprek of Denmark (stanza 14 of the Lay, where the newcomers are not named). Seeing this Hjördis ordered her bondwoman to exchange clothes with her, and to declare that she was the king’s daughter. When Alf returned with the women, still disguised, to his own country the truth of the subterfuge emerged. Alf promised to marry Hjördis after her child was born, and so it came about that Sigurd was brought up in King Hjálprek’s household. In the Lay the curious story of the disguising of Sigrlinn (Hjördis) is reduced to the words ‘The bride of Sigmund / as a bondwoman / over sounding seas / sadly journeyed’.

11  ‘wanhope’: despair.

13  In the Saga Sigmund named the sword that should be made from the shards Gramr; this appears in the next section of the Lay, V.18.


The sources of the story in this section of the Lay are not only the Völsunga Saga but also poems of the Edda on which the Saga drew: the conclusion of Reginsmál (see the note to section I, p.188), and Fáfnismál; the story is also briefly told by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, whereby he explains why ‘gold’ is called in poetry ‘the abode of Fáfnir’ and ‘Grani’s burden’.

There is little, in strictly narrative terms, in this part of the Lay that is not found in these sources, and in places (notably in the dialogue between Sigurd and Regin after Fáfnir’s death) the tenor of the verses of Fáfnismál is followed; but only here and there do they correspond at all closely.

The legend of ‘Andvari’s gold’ as told in section I of the Lay does not extend beyond the departure of the Æsir from Hreidmar’s house after the payment of the ransom for his son Otr. In the note to that section (p.190) I have noticed that Snorri Sturluson in his version of the Völsung legend began with ‘Andvari’s gold’, whereas in the Saga it is not introduced until much later, and enters as a story told by Regin himself, son of Hreidmar, to Sigurd before his attack on the dragon. In this section of the Lay we reach that point.

After telling that Sigurd grew up in the house of King Hjálprek the Saga says no more than that Regin became his fosterfather, and that he taught Sigurd many accomplishments, including a knowledge of runes and many languages (see stanza 2). Snorri, on the other hand, continues the story of Hreidmar and the gold of Andvari beyond the point where my father left it at the end of section I of the Lay.

‘What more is to be said of the gold?’ Snorri wrote, and then told this story. Hreidmar took the gold, but his other sons Fáfnir and Regin claimed for themselves some part of the blood-money paid for their brother. Hreidmar would give them nothing (‘Redgolden rings I will rule alone’, I.15); and Fáfnir and Regin slew their father. Then Regin demanded that Fáfnir should share the treasure with him equally, but Fáfnir replied that there was small chance of that, since he had killed his father for the sake of it; and he told Regin to be gone, or else he would suffer the same fate as their father.

Then Fáfnir took the helm which Hreidmar had owned, and set it upon his head – the helm which is called œgishjálmr, Helm of Terror: all living things fear it. Then Fáfnir going up onto Gnitaheiði made himself a lair; and he turned himself into a dragon, and laid himself down upon the gold (as Glaurung did in Nargothrond). But Regin fled away, and came to King Hjálprek, and became his smith; Sigurd was his fosterson.

Having already told the story of the origin of the hoard, Snorri continued now with the story of Regin’s dealings with Sigurd and the slaying of Fáfnir. With that story this section of the Lay is concerned; but before reaching it, as noted earlier (see pp.190–91), my father followed the Saga in introducing here the story of Andvari’s gold (or, in the case of the Lay, reintroducing it) as a story told by Regin in answer to Sigurd’s demanding why he egged him on to slay Fáfnir. In this second appearance of the story in the Lay verse-lines are repeated or nearly repeated in a characteristic way (compare I.2–6, 9 with V.7–11), but the Æsir are excluded, and Loki is replaced by a nameless ‘robber roving ruthless-handed’ (8). In V.12–14, however, Regin’s tale now brings in the slaying of Hreidmar (by Fáfnir – that Regin had a part in it is not mentioned, either in the Saga or in the Lay), the strife between the sons, and the transformation of Fáfnir into a dragon ‘on Gnitaheiði’.

An important element in the story as told in the Saga is entirely absent from this section of the Lay. After the making of the sword Gram and the acquisition of the horse Grani, Sigurd declared to Regin that he would not attack Fáfnir until he had avenged his father; and setting out with a great host and fleet provided by King Hjálprek he achieved this in a bloody battle in which he slew King Lyngvi. But a form of the story of Sigurd’s revenge appears in the Lay at a later point in the narrative (VII.24–29).

14  Gnitaheiði: this name in Old Norse is Gnitaheiðr, of which the second element is Old Norse heiðr ‘heath’, and it is variously anglicized as ‘Gnitaheid’, ‘Gnitaheith’, or ‘Gnitaheath’. In my father’s poems it appears several times but always in the combination ‘on Gnitaheiði’. This may be a retention of the dative case, or it may be a use of the modern Icelandic form of the word, which is heiði.

17–18   It was Sigurd who broke the two swords by striking them on an anvil; whereupon, according to the Saga, he went to his mother and asked whether it were true that Sigmund had entrusted to her the fragments of his sword, and she gave them to him. On the name Gram (Gramr) see the note to IV.13.

20  Both Snorri Sturluson and the Saga know of Sigurd’s testing of the sharpness of Gram by its cutting of the tuft of wool when it drifted in the water onto the sword’s edge; but only in the Lay is the river called the Rhine (Rín in Norse).

‘sheer’: clear.

21  ‘Now rede me’: Now give me counsel.

22–24   Only in the Saga is this story found of how Sigurd came to possess his grey horse Grani (very frequently named in poems of the Edda). The old man is once again Ódin (with the description here compare II.12, III.12, IV.8).

      The name Busiltarn is derived from the Saga; the Norse form is Busiltjörn, which was the form first written by my father in the manuscript of the Lay, later corrected in pencil. The English word tarn, a small lake, is derived from the Norse word; but in the Saga the Busiltarn is said to be a river, as it clearly is also in the Lay.

      Sleipnir was the name of Ódin’s eight-legged horse.

25  Gand: Regin’s horse is not named elsewhere, but this must be the Old Norse word gandr (contained in ‘Gandalf’). Its original or primary meaning is uncertain, but it has reference to sorcery and magic, both beings and things, and especially to the staff used in witchcraft; it is also use of wolves. The word gandreið is used of the witches’ nocturnal ride.

      In a lecture on the text of Fáfnismál my father remarked on the huge height of the cliff from which Fáfnir drank as a good detail in the Saga absent from the poem, since Sigurd thus ‘first got a notion of what he was in for.’

26  ‘long there lurked he’: i.e. Sigurd. In the prose preamble to Fáfnismál in the Codex Regius, as also in the Saga and in Snorri Sturluson’s brief account, Sigurd dug a pit in the path which the dragon took when he crawled to the water (the ‘hollow’ of stanzas 26–27, 29, which is not said to have been made by Sigurd); in the Saga an old man (Ódin) came to Sigurd while he was digging it and advised him to dig other trenches to carry off the dragon’s blood. On this matter my father noted in a lecture:

Ódin and his advice, however, do not appear very intelligible, and the intrusion of Ódin has perhaps been imitated from other places (e.g. the choosing of Grani). The several pits do not seem of much use, for in any case Sigurd has got to be in one, and it is only in the one in which he is (immediately under the wound) that the blood is likely to pour down. The Saga version is due to harping on Ódin, and to an appreciation that the inherited plot did not paint Sigurd’s dragon-slaying (which is later referred to as his great title to fame) in the best light. It could not be altered in manner, and therefore the dragon and his poisonousness must be magnified; but it is not successfully done.

His view was that the original significance of the pit was to enable Sigurd to escape the blast of flame which passed over his head (cf. 27, lines 1–3).

30  In Fáfnismál, repeated in the Saga, Sigurd, in answer to Fáfnir’s question, replies that he is called göfugt dýr, that is ‘noble beast’; and a prose note at this point in the Codex Regius explains that ‘Sigurd concealed his name, because it was believed in ancient times that the word of a dying man might have great power if he cursed his foe by his name.’ My father observed that this note was ‘doubtless perfectly correct for the original writer of the poem, whose audience were probably sufficiently of the “ancient times” not to need the explanation!’ He said also that ‘the mysterious words göfugt dýr are probably meant to be obscure, even nonsensical’, though they might be ‘a riddling way of saying “man”.’

33  ‘glamoured’: enchanted.

34  Sigurd’s words in this stanza refer to the œgishjálmr ‘Helm of Terror’ which Heidmar possessed and which Fáfnir took to wear himself: see p.205, and stanza 14. At the words ‘hell now seize him!’ Fáfnir died.

36–41   My father declared the ‘undermeaning’ of Regin’s ‘dark words’ in his preamble to this section of the Lay; and in notes for a lecture (written in pencil at great speed and now not entirely legible) he discussed in detail the relationship in this episode between the Saga and Fáfnismál, seeking to determine not only how the writer of the Saga compressed and modified the verses but why he did so. I give here, with some slight editing, a part of this discussion, since it well illustrates his critical treatment of such problems in the Edda.

      He begins with a summary of the dialogue of Regin and Sigurd after the death of Fáfnir in the Saga (I give references to the stanzas and lines of the Lay in brackets).

      After the death of Fáfnir Regin came to Sigurd and said: ‘You have won a great victory: your glory from it will be eternal’ [35, 1–4]. Then Regin is suddenly or affects to be suddenly stricken with disquiet – ‘he looks upon the ground for a long while’ and says with great emotion ‘it is my brother you have killed and I cannot be accounted innocent of this’ [36, 5–8]. Sigurd dries his sword on the grass, and simply replies ‘you were a long way off at the time when I tested the sword’ (implying therefore ‘innocent enough!’) [37, 1–4].

      Regin counters with the fact that he made the sword [37, 5]; Sigurd counters with ‘brave heart is better than sharp sword in battle’ [38, 3–4].

      Regin does not rebut this, but repeats again ‘with great emotion’ almost his exact words ‘You slew my brother, &c.’ Then Regin cut out the dragon’s heart, drank the dragon’s blood, and asked Sigurd as a sole boon (no sort of reason for which is given) to roast the heart for him.

      The repetition by Regin of the words ‘You killed my brother and I can hardly be accounted innocent’ is not a feature of Fáfnismál. Does it serve an artistic purpose – or is it just accidental, due to some confusion in the saga-writer’s source, or in the handing down of the saga? It is probably intentional, and perhaps not bad. The saga-writer has constructed a picture of Regin, already plotting Sigurd’s removal, and trying as it were to justify himself to himself. Scornfully relieved of any share of responsibility by Sigurd, he contents himself with mere repetition – he adheres to his remorse, and to his ‘You slew my brother’ ( i.e. his vengeance).

      After such words Sigurd should have needed no igður [the birds whose voices he could understand, see 41, 8 and 43, 1–3]. That the brother of one you had slain was unsafe was learnt almost at the mother’s knee, certainly on the father’s lap, in Scandinavia – especially when he went out of his way to point it out to you.

      There is a curious absence of explanation of the reason why Sigurd must roast the heart. The real reason is of course that Sigurd must cook the heart so as to hear the birds. Fáfnismál supplies a not overwhelming but sufficient reason – ek mun sofa ganga [I shall go to sleep] (we may presume, after the potent draught of dragon’s blood) [39, 5–8, and 40]. Whether there ever was a better reason – connected with this remnant of very ancient belief, the eating of flesh and drinking of blood (of foes especially) to obtain their wisdom and power [40, 5–8; 46, 1–4] we perhaps can no longer say.

      It may be noted that Snorri Sturluson says that Regin expressly proposed to Sigurd as terms of reconciliation for the slaying of Fáfnir, that he roast the heart for him.

39  Ridil: Old Norse Riðill, Regin’s sword; Snorri names it Refill.

42–44   In Fáfnismál there are seven stanzas ascribed (in a prose linking-passage) to the words of the birds (of a kind called igður, of uncertain meaning) chattering in the thicket, whose voices Sigurd could at once understand after the blood from the dragon’s heart touched his tongue; but these stanzas are in two different metres. The poem Fáfnismál is not in the verse-form fornyrðislag in which the greater number of the poems of the Edda are written, but in ljóðaháttr. In this metre the stanza falls into two halves of three lines each, of which the third line in each half usually has three stressed elements and double (or treble) alliteration within itself. Only three of the ‘bird-verses’ are in ljóðaháttr, the others being in fornyrðislag; and my father argued forcefully and in detail that the fornyrðislag verses come from another poem (see further the note to 49–54).

      The three ljóðaháttr verses, he held, are spoken by two birds, with two main motives selected : gold, fear of treachery, and gold repeated. This is the basis for these three stanzas in the Lay (though the suggestion in 42, 5–6 that Sigurd should eat Fáfnir’s heart himself is introduced from one of the other verses); but – rather oddly – they are cast in ljóðaháttr, thus apparently marking them out as intrusive, since the Lay is in fornyrðislag.

      To illustrate the form as it appears in Old Norse I give here the first of the three ljóðaháttr verses with a close translation:

Höfði skemra      láti hann inn hára þul

Fara til heljar heðan!

Öllu gulli      þá kná hann einn ráða,

fjölð, því er und Fáfni lá.

      (Shorter by a head, / let him send the grey-haired wizard / hence to hell! All the gold / then can he possess alone, / the wealth, that under Fáfnir lay.)

46–48   In the Saga Sigurd ate some only of the dragon’s heart, and some he set aside. The purpose of this is seen later in the saga, where it is told that at some time after the wedding of Sigurd and Gudrún ‘Sigurd gave Gudrún some of Fáfnir’s heart to eat, and thereafter she was far more grim than before, and wiser also.’ This element is excluded from the Lay; my father considered it ‘a late piece of machinery to explain Gudrún’s tangled psychology.’

      These verses derive from a prose passage in Fáfnismál, closely similar to that in the Saga, which tells that after the death of Regin Sigurd rode on Grani following the tracks of Fáfnir to his lair, which was standing open. The doors and door-posts were of iron, as were all the beams of the house, which was dug down into the earth (46). Sigurd found there a vast store of gold and filled two great chests with it; he took the Helm of Terror and a golden mailcoat and many other precious things, and he loaded them onto Grani; but the horse would not move until Sigurd leaped upon his back.

49  ‘their wit he knew not’: this very unusual use of the word ‘wit’ seems in the context to be equivalent to ‘meaning’, ‘signification’.

49–54   In Fáfnismàl, after Sigurd has slain Regin and eaten the dragon’s heart he hears the igður again; and these five verses are again in fornyrðislag (see the note to 42–44). There is no indication of how many birds spoke, but the first two verses concern Gudrún, and the last three concern a Valkyrie on the mount of Hindarfell, surrounded by fire, sleeping: Ódin stabbed her with the thorn, for she had felled a warrior against his command. See the note on 54 below.

      My father held that these verses, like the previous ‘bird-verses’ in fornyrðislag, came from a poem ‘which enlarged on the situation, and probably attempted through the bird-tradition to tell more of the tale’- a trace of a poem that attempted ‘to compress a great deal of the story into one situation.’ While accepting that ‘it is useless to discuss which bird says what’, he thought the guess that one bird speaks the verses concerning Gudrún and a second those about the Valkyrie ‘as good as any’.

      In the Lay he did however retain this second group of ‘bird-verses’ (or more accurately, composed verses that echo their meaning), and gave them to a raven (those about the Valkyrie) and a finch (those about Gudrún), and interlaced them. But he displaced them to follow Sigurd’s entry into Fáfnir’s lair and his loading Grani with the treasure that he found there, so that these birds are speaking of things that may lie ahead for Sigurd as he rides away from Gnitaheiði; whereas in Fáfnismál the prose passage cited in the note to 46–48 follows the second group of ‘bird-verses’.

54  ‘her power wielding, / victory swaying as Valkyrie’. In northern legend and poetry the course and outcome of battles was governed by Valkyries, demonic warrior-women sent out as emissaries of Ódin.

      The word Valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’: it is given to them to determine who is to die, and to award victory. Perhaps the most striking example of this conception is found in the Hákonarmál, a poem composed in the tenth century on the death of King Hákon the Good of Norway, son of King Harald Fairhair. The poem opens thus:

Göndul and Skögul Gautatýr sent

to choose who of kings of Yngvi’s race

should go to Ódin and dwell in Valhöll.

Göndul and Skögul are Valkyries; Gautatýr is a name of Ódin. In the poem King Hákon is pictured sitting on the ground with his shield rent and his mailshirt gashed, listening to the words of the Valkyries.

Then said Göndul, as she leant on the shaft of her spear,

‘Now will the might of the Gods grow greater,

since they have summoned Hákon with a great host

      to their dwellings.’

The king heard what the Valkyries were saying

as they sat on their horses, thoughtful their


with helms on their heads and their shields held

      before them.

Then Hákon speaks to the Valkyrie named Skögul:

‘Why have you decided the battle thus, Geirskögul?

We have deserved victory of the Gods.’

‘We have brought it about,’ said Skögul, ‘that you

      have held the field, and your foes have fled


Now we must ride to the green homes of the Gods, to tell to Ódin that a mighty king is coming to him.’


In the note to V. 46–48 I have given the content of the prose passage provided in the Codex Regius describing how Sigurd entered Fáfnir’s lair and took from it the great treasure of gold, which he loaded in chests on his horse Grani. This passage is treated in editions of the Edda as the conclusion of the poem Fáfnismál; but in fact it continues without break or new title into the story of Sigurd’s encounter with the Valkyrie asleep on Hindarfell, and this part is treated as the prose introduction to a strange work to which the name Sigrdrífumál is given.

This latter part of the prose passage, which is found in closely similar form in the Saga, tells that Sigurd rode up onto Hindarfell (Hindarfjall ) and turned south. On the mountain he saw a great light, as of a fire burning, and it lit up the sky; and when he came to it there stood a shield-wall (skjaldborg), and above it a banner. Sigurd went in to the skjaldborg, and saw a man there lying asleep, with all his armour and weapons. First he took the helmet from his head; and then he saw that it was a woman. The hauberk was so tight that it seemed to have grown into the flesh. Then with his sword Gram he cut the hauberk from the neck and along both sleeves, and he took the hauberk off her; and she woke, and sat up, and saw Sigurd.

It will be seen that stanzas 2–4 of the Lay follow the content of this prose passage quite closely, with the ‘wall of woven shields’, the standard, and ‘her corslet fast as on flesh growing’; but the leaping of the flames by Grani is an addition in the Lay, taken from Sigurd’s second visit to Brynhild, when he came to her in Gunnar’s shape. On the occasion of his first coming to her the sources say no more than that he ‘went in’ to the skjaldborg. This word, which is found both in the Saga and in the prose passage in the Edda, is often interpreted to mean here a tower, or a fortress, but my father referred in other writing to Brynhild having ‘surrounded herself with a wall of flame’.

With the Valkyrie’s first words to Sigurd the verses of the so-called Sigrdrífumál begin:

Hvat beit brynju?

Hvi brá ek svefni?

Hverr feldi af mér

fölvar nauðir?

What bit the mail?

How am I roused from sleep?

Who has cast down from me

the pale bonds?

Then in this opening verse Sigurd replied that the son of Sigmund with the sword of Sigurd had cut her free. This verse is in fornyrðislag, but the poem that follows is in ljóðaháttr (see note to V.42–44), with a few stanzas in fornyrðislag. The Valkyrie celebrates her awakening in verse that is echoed in the Lay in stanzas 5–6, and then says:

Long did I sleep,    long was I cast in sleep,

long are the ills of men!

Ódin ordained it    that I could not break

the runes of slumber.

There follows then in the Codex Regius manuscript another prose passage beginning ‘She named herself Sigrdrífa, and she was a Valkyrie’; she told Sigurd that two kings had fought, that Ódin had promised victory to one of them, but the Valkyrie had felled him in the battle. In retribution for this ‘Ódin stabbed her with the sleep-thorn’ (as in the words of the Raven in V.52), and said that never again should she win victory in battle, but that she should wed. ‘And I said to Ódin that in return I made a vow that I would marry no man who knew fear’ (the same words are used in the Saga). In the version of Snorri Sturluson she vowed to wed none but the man who should dare to ride through the fire that surrounded her dwelling. In her oath in the Lay (VI.8) the original text had ‘world’s renown’: I have adopted the late change to ‘chosen’ and capitalized the ‘w’.

The name Sigrdríf or Sigrdrífa of the sleeping Valkyrie has given rise to a great deal of speculative discussion. In the last of the five ‘bird-verses’ that constitute the end of Fáfnismál (and which are represented in the Lay by stanzas V.50–54) there is a reference to ‘the sleep of Sigrdríf’, and in the prose passage just cited she is twice named Sigrdrífa. It has been supposed that this name is unreal, a misunderstanding on the part of the compiler of the Codex Regius, who took the word in the Fáfnismál verse to be a proper name, whereas it is in fact a descriptive term of a Valkyrie, perhaps meaning ‘giver of victory’, used of Brynhild. In the Saga the Valkyrie on Hindarfell is called Brynhild; while Snorri Sturluson says that she named herself Hildr (which means ‘battle’), but adds that ‘she is called Brynhild, and she was a Valkyrie’.

On the other hand, it has been held that ‘Sigrdrífa’ and ‘Brynhild’ were originally two distinct beings who came later to be identified; and thus ‘Sigrdrífa’ becomes an element in the most intractable problem of the Norse Völsung legend, the treatment in the sources of Brynhild in two altogether distinct and incompatible ways. The Lay itself provides no evidence of my father’s view of the name ‘Sigrdrífa’, which does not occur in it. See further the Note on Brynhild, p.243.

The prose passage in the Codex Regius ends, after the Valkyrie’s words to Sigurd concerning her vow, by his asking her ‘to teach him wisdom’, and there follows a stanza in which Brynhild brings him ale brewed with good spells and gamanrúna, which may be translated as ‘joyful runes’ or ‘gladness runes’. On this is founded stanza 12 in the Lay: the last lines of this, ‘rimmed with runes of running laughter’, suggest that my father was thinking of runes graven on the cup.

Of the Sigrdrífumál he remarked: ‘This poem, more than almost any other in the Edda, is a composite thing of more or less accidental growth, and not as one poet left it’; and following the verse about the bringing of ale there is a long series of verses concerned with rune-lore (the magical use of runes, for example victory-runes, speech-runes, wave-runes, birth-runes, and the places on which they should be carved). ‘It does not need much persuasion’, he said, to ‘convince one that all this stuff is accretion. It has no connection with Sigurd’s later life. Its cause is gamanrúna. It is very interesting and important, but it does not concern the Völsungs.’

It is remarkable that the author of the Völsunga Saga included all these verses of runic lore, as verses, in his text. My father saw in this a good example of the saga-writer’s method: ‘Nearly all of this has no point or significance for the tale, is probably a late addition, is not fit for prose; here was a chance if anywhere for omission, if the compiler had been inspired with a truly artistic purpose.’

There is naturally no vestige of these verses in the Lay. In the Eddaic poem the Valkyrie now gave to Sigurd a series of eleven counsels. This element appears, though in greatly reduced form, in the Lay (stanzas 15–16); my father believed them to be, unlike the rune-lore verses, part of the original poem, since they can for the most part be related to Sigurd’s story.

No more is to be learned from the Sigrdrífumál about the first meeting of Sigurd and the Valkyrie beyond her counsels to him, for no more of the poem is preserved: it is here that the ‘great lacuna’ of the Poetic Edda begins. This is the calamitous loss from the Codex Regius of a whole gathering, probably of eight leaves (see p.28): my father guessed that those leaves contained perhaps 200–300 stanzas. For this vitally important part of the Völsung legend there is no Eddaic poetry, except for four fornyrðislag stanzas quoted in the Völsunga Saga; and thus from this point the sources are the Saga and the very brief version in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. The lacuna ends, in terms of the Lay, at stanza 46 in its last section.

My father believed that the troth-plighting of Sigurd and Brynhild (stanza 19), which is found in the Saga immediately after a prose paraphrase of the counsels, derived from the lost conclusion of the Sigrdrífumál.

20–23   The Saga, after the words ‘and this they swore to each other with oaths’, continues at once ‘Now Sigurd rides away’. The conclusion of this section of the Lay, referred to in the prose preamble that precedes it (‘They depart together, but the pride of Brynhild causes her to bid Sigurd depart and come back to her only when he has won all men’s honour, and a kingdom’), is a development altogether peculiar to the Lay.


When in the Lay Sigurd parted from Brynhild his journey took him by intention to the land of the Gjúkings, as is seen from the words (VI.23) ‘green ran the roads / that Grani strode’ together with those of the Finch (V.51) ‘Green run the roads / to Gjúki’s land’. So it is also in Snorri’s greatly condensed account.

In the Saga, on the other hand, he rode from Hindarfell until he came to the house of a great lord named Heimir. He was married to Brynhild’s sister Bekkhild, who stayed at home and did fine needlework, whereas Brynhild wore helmet and hauberk and went to battle (hence their names, Norse bekkr ‘bench’, of the long seats in an old Scandinavian hall, and brynja ‘hauberk, coat of mail’). Sigurd stayed in that house for a long time in high honour.

We are then told that Brynhild was Heimir’s foster-daughter, and that she had come back to his house and was living apart and working on a tapestry that showed the deeds of Sigurd, the slaying of the dragon, and the taking of the treasure. One day Sigurd’s hawk flew up to a high tower and settled by a window. Sigurd climbed up after it, and saw within a woman of great beauty working on a tapestry of his deeds, and he knew that it was Brynhild.

On the next day he went to her, and at the end of a strange conversation she said to him: ‘It is not fated that we should dwell together; I am a shield-maiden and I wear a helmet among the warrior-kings. To them I give aid in battle; and battle is not hateful to me.’ But when Sigurd said that if this were so ‘the pain that lies therein is harder to bear than a sharp sword’ Brynhild replied that she would muster men for battle, ‘but you will wed Gudrún, Gjúki’s daughter.’ ‘No king’s daughter shall beguile me,’ said Sigurd; ‘I am not double-hearted; and I swear by the gods that I shall have you or no woman else.’ Then Brynhild spoke in the same way; and Sigurd gave her a gold ring, ok svörðu nú eiða af nýju, ‘and they renewed their oaths’. Then Sigurd left her, and the chapter in the Saga ends.

Brynhild is here the daughter of King Budli (Buðli) and the sister of Atli (Attila), and Snorri says the same.

Of this extraordinary development in the story of Sigurd and Brynhild there is no trace in the Lay; but I postpone discussion of the treatment of this part of the legend by the author of the Saga to the end of my commentary on the Lay (Note on Brynhild, p.241).

The Saga now turns to the kingdom of Gjúki, which lay ‘south of the Rhine’, to his wife Grímhild (described as a sorceress, and of a grim disposition), his three sons Gunnar, Högni, and Gotthorm, and his daughter Gudrún (Guðrún). It is told that one day Gudrún spoke to one of her waiting-women and told her that she was downcast because of a dream.

With Gudrún’s dream the Lay takes up at the beginning of section VII, but my father treated this episode very differently from the form it has in the Saga. In the latter, Gudrún dreamt that she had in her hand a marvellous hawk with golden feathers: she cared for nothing more than that hawk, and she would rather lose all her wealth than lose it. The woman interpreted the dream to mean that some king’s son would come to ask for Gudrún; he would be a fine man and she would greatly love him. Then Gudrún said: ‘It grieves me that I do not know who he is; but let us go to seek Brynhild, for she will know.’

And so they did. Gudrún and her attendants came to Brynhild’s hall, which was all adorned with gold and stood on a hill. There Gudrún related to Brynhild her dream: but not the dream that she had spoken about before, for now she told of the great stag with golden hair which appears in the Lay. But in his poem (VII.1–5) my father combined and interwove the two episodes, rejecting the dream of the hawk; and the interpreter of Gudrún’s dream(s) is neither the waiting-woman nor Brynhild, but Grímhild, her mother. The dream of the stag in the Lay (VII.2–4) derives in content from the Saga, but there is an important difference. In the Saga Gudrún says to Brynhild that it was ‘you’ who shot down the stag at her feet, and it was ‘you’ who gave her a wolf-cub which spattered her with her brothers’ blood; whereas in the Lay it is ‘a woman wildly / on the wind riding’ who brought down the golden hart, and it was an unidentified ‘they’ who gave her the wolf.

In the Saga, when Gudrún has recounted her dream, Brynhild says to her: ‘I will explain it as it will come to pass. Sigurd, whom I chose to be my husband, will come to you. Grímhild will give him mead that is drugged, which will bring great affliction to us all. You will have him, but you will soon lose him; then you will be wedded to King Atli. You will lose your brothers, and then you will slay Atli.’ Then Gudrún expressed her sense of ‘overwhelming sorrow’ to know such things, and returned to her father’s house.

It may be that this episode was derived by the writer of the Saga from a poem in which the substance of the story was told prophetically, as is seen elsewhere in the Edda; but as a simple element in the narrative, recording Brynhild’s power of foretelling, it is grotesque. As my father observed, ‘Foreknowledge is a dangerous element in a tale.’ In the Lay he of course got rid in its entirety of Gudrún’s visit to Brynhild, and Grímhild offers no interpretation of the dream, but tries to calm her with soothing words about the weather (as does the waiting-woman in the Saga) and the idea that ‘dreams oft token / the dark by light, / good by evil’. Gone too are Brynhild’s sister Bekkhild; Atli son of Budli likewise disappears as Brynhild’s brother. Where Brynhild dwelt after she parted from Sigurd we are not told: ‘to her land she turned / lonely shining’, ‘to her land she came, / long the waiting’ (VI.23). At the beginning of VIII she is seen in her courts of ‘wealth and splendour’, awaiting Sigurd (1–2).

In the Saga, as in the Lay, Sigurd now arrives at King Gjúki’s halls, riding on Grani with his treasure. He was received with honour; and he rode abroad with Gunnar and Högni and was foremost among them. Grímhild observed how deeply he loved Brynhild, and how much he spoke of her, but she thought how fine a thing it would be if he, with his great qualities and his vast riches, should marry Gudrún and remain among them. She prepared therefore a potion and gave it to Sigurd to drink; and with that drink he lost all memory of Brynhild.

In the Lay, at the feast held on his arrival, a new element enters in the songs sung to the harp by Gunnar (of war between the Goths and the Huns, 14–15), and by Sigurd (of Fáfnir and the golden hoard, and of Brynhild on Hindarfell, 16–18); and there is an account of a campaign led by Sigurd to the old land of the Völsungs in vengeance for the death of Sigmund (24–29). In the Saga this took place far earlier, and was carried out with the aid of King Hjálprek (see pp.205–6), whereas in the Lay he was aided by the Gjúkings. Ódin appears here in the Lay as he does in the Saga, but his rôle is altogether different. In the Saga (deriving from verses of Reginsmál) the ships were caught in a great storm, but Ódin stood on a headland and called to them, and when they took him on board the storm abated. In the Lay (28–29) he appears at the end of the fighting, accosting Sigurd at the old house of Völsung, now roofless and the great tree that upheld it dead, to warn him that his fate does not lie in the land of his ancestors; but Ódin says ‘Now king thou art / of kings begotten, / a bride calls thee / over billowing seas’, and after his return Sigurd recalls the words of Brynhild, ‘a queen was I once, / and a king shall wed’ (VI.22, VII.35).

8    ‘Niflung land, Niflung lord’, and 12 ‘Niflungs’: on the name Niflungar Snorri Sturluson was specific: Gjúkingar, þeir eru ok kallaðir Niflungar, ‘ the Gjúkings, who are also called Niflungs’. In this commentary, conceived fairly strictly as an elucidation of the treatment of the Norse Völsung legend in my father’s Lay, it is unnecessary to enter even cursorily into the deep matter of origins that lies behind the name Niflungs (German Nibelungen, Nibelungs); but something is said of this in Appendix A, pp.356–63.

14  Mirkwood: Not occurring in the Saga, the Norse name Myrkviðr, Anglicized as ‘Mirkwood’, was used of a dark boundary-forest, separating peoples, and is found in poems of the Edda in different applications; but it seems probable that in its origin it represented a memory in heroic legend of the great forest that divided the land of the Goths from the land of the Huns far off in the south and east. This is what the name means in the Eddaic poem Atlakviða, the Lay of Atli (Attila), whence its appearance here in the Lay.

      Danpar: Like Mirkwood, this name is not found in the Saga, but occurs in Atlakviða and elsewhere in Old Norse poetry (see further the note to stanza 86 in the Lay of Gudrún). It is a survival of the Gothic name of the Russian river Dnieper.

15  ‘Borgund lords’: This expression occurs again in stanza 20. My father derived it from the notable words in a verse of the Atlakviða, where Gunnar is called vin Borgunda, lord of the Burgundians. Nowhere else in Norse is Gunnar recognised as a Burgundian, nor is the word found as the name of a people; but very remarkably the same expression is found in one of the fragments of the Old English poem Waldere, where Guðhere is called wine Burgenda. Both the Old Norse Gunnarr and the Old English Guðhere are descended from the name of the historical Burgundian king Gundahari, who was killed by the Huns in the year 437. For an account of the historical origins of the Gjúkings see Appendix A.

      Budli’s brother: in the Saga the killing of the brother of King Budli, father of Atli and Brynhild, by the Gjúkings is mentioned at a later point in the narrative.

28  ‘and blind his eye’: Ódin had only one eye: according to the myth that he gave up one of his eyes as a pledge in order to gain a drink from the spring of Mímir, the water of wisdom at the root of the Tree of the World.

38  It is not said in the Lay as it is in the Saga that after drinking Grímhild’s potion Sigurd lost all memory of Brynhild: ‘he drained it laughing, / then sat unsmiling’; but the meaning is clear from IX.4.

39  ‘glamoured’: a word used in V.33 and 47: ‘enchanted’, in the sense of being brought under a spell.


In the Saga the wedding of Sigurd to Gudrún follows, and the swearing of brotherhood between Sigurd and the sons of Gjúki (stanzas 7–10 in the Lay); it is said that by this time he had dwelt among the Gjúkings for two and a half years. After they were wedded Sigurd gave Gudrún some of Fáfnir’s heart to eat: see the note to V.46–48. They had a son named Sigmund.

The coming of Ódin to Brynhild among the suitor kings (2–5) is peculiar to the Lay. It seems (stanza 6) that it was only after his coming that the fire rose about her hall, and that Brynhild conceived it as a barrier against all comers save Sigurd. The description of the fire in the Lay resembles that in VI.2, when on Hindarfell Sigurd saw Brynhild’s fire as a ‘fence of lightning’ that ‘high to heavenward / hissed and wavered’.

In the Saga there follows Grímhild’s counselling of Gunnar to woo Brynhild (stanzas 12–17 in the Lay); and Sigurd is said to have been as eager for the match as were Gjúki and his sons. But they rode first to King Budli, Brynhild’s father, to gain his assent before they went to the hall of Heimir, Brynhild’s fosterfather (see p.223). Heimir said that her hall was not far off, and that he thought that she would only marry the man who would ride through the fire that blazed about it. In the Lay Budli and Heimir are of course eliminated.

The story in the Saga of the refusal of Gunnar’s horse to enter the fire, the loan of Grani, the refusal of Grani to bear Gunnar, and the shape-changing taught them by Grímhild, is followed in the Lay; the Saga here quotes two stanzas from an unknown poem concerning the sudden roaring of the fire and the trembling of the earth as Sigurd entered it, and its sinking down again (followed in stanzas 25–26 in the Lay).

The substance of the dialogue between Sigurd and Brynhild (28–31) is mostly derived from the Saga: her doubt as to how to answer, his promise of a great bride-price, her demand that he slay all who had been her suitors (stanza 30, lines 3–4), and his reminder of her oath. It is strongly implied in stanza 31 that Brynhild had vowed to wed none but the man who dared to pass through the fire, and at this point in the Saga Sigurd explicitly reminds her that she has sworn to go with the man who should do so. With this is to be compared Brynhild’s words to Sigurd on Hindarfell (VI.8):

An oath I uttered

for ever lasting,

to wed but one,

the World’s chosen.

We must understand that in Brynhild’s thought the one who rides the fire must be ‘the World’s chosen’, and that is Sigurd; but it is Gunnar, and she is ‘sore troubled’, and in her doubt likened to a swan ‘on swaying seas’.

In the Saga Sigurd in Gunnar’s form remained three nights with Brynhild, and they slept in the same bed; but he laid the sword Gram between them, and when she asked him why he did so, he replied that it was fated that he should hold his bridal thus, or else get his death.

An important distinction between the Saga and the Lay lies in what is said of the exchange of rings. In the Saga it was told (see p.223) that at their meeting in Heimir’s halls ‘Sigurd gave her a gold ring’, though nothing more is said of it, and now it is said that at his departure ‘he took from her the ring Andvaranaut that he had given her, and gave her another ring from Fáfnir’s hoard’. In the Lay (33), on the other hand, he took from her while she slept the ring that she wore on her finger and put Andvaranaut in its place. In this the Lay follows Snorri’s account: ‘in the morning he gave Brynhild as bridal gift the same gold ring which Loki had taken from Andvari, and took another ring from her hand for remembrance’. See further IX.9–10 and note.

After this, in the Saga, Sigurd rode back through the fire, and he and Gunnar changed into their own semblances; but Brynhild went back to her fosterfather Heimir and told him what had happened, and of her doubt: ‘He rode through my flickering fire . . . and he said that he was named Gunnar; but I said that only Sigurd would do that, to whom I swore faith on the mountain.’ Heimir said that things must rest as they were; and she said ‘Áslaug, Sigurd’s daughter and mine, shall be brought up here with you’. My father regarded the introduction of Áslaug as a ‘grievous damage’ to the story (and see p.242, (6)). It was unquestionably an invention made in order to link together Sigurd and Brynhild and the most celebrated viking of legend, Ragnar Loðbrók: in the largely fabulous Ragnars Saga Áslaug is said to be one of his wives and the mother of several of his numerous viking sons.

4 ‘dreed’ : submitted to, endured.

‘choosing not the slain’: a reference to Brynhild as Valkyrie.

17  In line 6 ‘thee’ refers to Gunnar; in line 8 ‘you’ is plural and refers to Gunnar and Sigurd.

20  ‘rowel’: a spiked revolving disc at the end of a spur.

29  ‘meted’: allotted, apportioned.

IX DEILD (Strife)

As I have said (p.221), the great lacuna in the Codex Regius caused the loss of all ancient Norse poetry for the central part of the legend of Sigurd. The manuscript does not take up again until near the end of a lay of Sigurd which is known as the Brot (af Sigurðarkviðu), the ‘Fragment’ (of a lay of Sigurd). Only some 20 stanzas of this poem are preserved, and these come late in the development of the tragedy, after ‘the quarrel of the queens’, as they washed their hair in the waters of the Rhine. My father noted that it can be seen from what is left of the Brot that there has been lost the greater part of ‘an old and very vigorous poem – for example the supreme vigour and economical force of

Mér hefir Sigurðr

selda eiða,

eiða selda,

alla logna . . .

These words of Gunnar’s come almost at the beginning of the preserved part of the Brot, and are closely echoed in the Lay, IX.46.

What was contained in the pages removed from the Codex Regius has been much discussed. An important factor is the existence in the manuscript of a poem named Sigurðarkviða en skamma, ‘the Short Lay of Sigurd’; but this is 71 stanzas long – almost the longest of all the heroic lays of the Edda. This title must have been used in contrast to something else, very probably in the same collection. My father’s view of the matter was closely argued but tentatively expressed; as he said, ‘one must remember that all this sort of thing (like the dating of individual poems, on which each scholar with equal certitude seems to give a different opinion) is very “guessy” and dubious.’ He thought it possible that there were three Sigurd lays: Sigurðarkviða en skamma, preserved in the Codex Regius; Sigurðarkviða en meiri, ‘the Greater (Longer) Lay of Sigurd’, which is totally lost; and ‘an ancient, terse, poem, concentrated chiefly on the Brynhild tragedy’, of which the conclusion is preserved in the Brot. (To his own poem he gave an alternative title, written under the primary title on the first page of the manuscript of the Lay, Sigurðarkviða en mesta, ‘the Longest Lay of Sigurd’, for in it the whole history is told.)

However this may be, for almost all the narrative from Sigurd’s coming to the court of the Burgundians (Niflungs, Gjúkings) to the beginning of the Brot (Gunnar’s declaration to Högni that Sigurd had broken his oaths) we are largely dependent on the Völsunga Saga, for Snorri tells the story with great brevity, and the preserved Sigurd lay, Sigurðarkviða en skamma, is chiefly concerned with the deaths of Sigurd and Brynhild. In my father’s view, it can be assumed that in so far as the relevant chapters of the Saga had an Eddaic basis they depended on poetry very closely similar to that carried away in the lacuna of the Codex Regius.

Thus, to recapitulate, Eddaic poetry concerning the deaths of Sigurd and Brynhild is preserved, most importantly, in Sigurðarkviða en skamma, and in the conclusion (the Brot or Fragment) of another Sigurd lay. They were used, of course, by the writer of the Saga, and my father wove his version from these sources independently.

3–4   At the end of the feast of the bridal of Gunnar and Brynhild, according to the Saga, Sigurd remembered all his oaths to Brynhild, but he made no sign. There is no suggestion in the Saga of what is implied in stanza 3.

6–11   The quarrel between Brynhild and Gudrún when they washed their hair in the river follows the story as told by Snorri Sturluson and in the Saga, except in the matter of the rings that revealed the truth to Brynhild: see the note to 9–10. A long dialogue between Brynhild and Gudrún which follows in the Saga is eliminated in the Lay.

9–10 As I have noted earlier (p.231), in the Saga Sigurd in Gunnar’s form took the ring Andvaranaut from Brynhild and gave her another from Fáfnir’s hoard, whereas in the Lay, following Snorri Sturluson, this is reversed. So here, in Snorri’s words: ‘Gudrún laughed, and said: “You think that it was Gunnar who rode through the flickering fire? But I think that he who slept with you was the one who gave me this gold ring; but the gold ring which you wear on your hand and which you received as a wedding gift is called Andvaranaut; and I do not think that Gunnar got it on Gnitaheiði.”’ On Gnitaheiði see V.14.

12–20   Brynhild’s withdrawal to her bedchamber in black silence, lying like one dead, and her words with Gunnar when he came to her, derive in a general way from the Saga; but the long reproach that in the Saga she casts at him differs greatly from the equivalent passage in the Lay (stanzas 15–19). In the Saga she began, when at last prevailed upon by Gunnar to speak, by asking him: ‘What have you done with the ring I gave you, which king Budli gave me at our last parting, when you Gjúkings came to him and vowed to harry and burn unless you gained me?’ Then she said that Budli had given her two choices, to wed as he wished, or to lose all her wealth and his favour; and seeing that she could not strive with him she promised to wed the one who would ride through her fire on the horse Grani with Fáfnir’s hoard. This further confusion arising from the ‘doubled’ view of Brynhild is once again eliminated in the Lay, as are other details of the story in the Saga: the fettering of Brynhild by Högni after her threat to kill Gunnar, and her tearing of her tapestry apart.

20  Lines 3–4: In the Saga Brynhild ordered the door of her chamber to be set open so that her lamentations could be heard far off.

21–34   The dialogue between Sigurd and Brynhild derives most of its elements from that in the Saga, but in the Lay it is much more compressed and coherent. In the Saga Brynhild does not curse Gudrún, and Sigurd does not say that he would even be willing to kill Gunnar.

26  In the Saga Brynhild said that she wondered at the man who came into her hall, and she thought that she recognised Sigurd’s eyes, but she could not see clearly because ‘her fortune was veiled’.

27  Lines 7–8: see VIII.33 lines 3–4 and IX.10 lines 5–8.

29  Lines 1, 3: ‘Woe worth’: A curse upon; ‘Woe worth the while’: A curse upon the time. Again in stanzas 37, 50.

30  Lines 7–8: ‘I sat unsmiling, no sign making’: see IX.3–4.

35  Here in the Saga the writer quoted a verse from a poem that he called Sigurðarkviða, in which it is said that Sigurd’s grief was so great that the links of his mailshirt snapped. Of this verse my father remarked that he did not believe it to come from the same hand as the Brot, and so attributed it to the otherwise wholly lost ‘Sigurðarkviða en meiri’ (see p.234). In the Lay the extravagant idea is characteristically reduced.

39–40   Stanzas 39 lines 5–8 and 40 lines 1–4 echo VIII.30.

39–50   Elements in the arrangement of dialogue are altered in the Lay, and the development set in a clearer light and sharper focus. Brynhild’s lie to Gunnar, that Sigurd had possessed her (43), leads to his words to Högni (46): ‘oaths he swore me, all belied them’, which are almost the first words of the Brot (see p.233).

51–64   There were two distinct versions of the story of the murder of Sigurd, each represented in poems of the Edda. In the Brot he was slain out of doors, and Högni had a part in it (despite his perception that Brynhild had lied to Gunnar, which is seen in a verse of the Brot that is echoed in stanza 47 of the Lay); but in Sigurðarkviða en skamma and other poems he was slain by Gotthorm in his bed (see further pp.243–44). The compiler of the Codex Regius put in a prose note about this at the end of the Brot:

In this poem is told of the death of Sigurd, and here the story is that they slew him out of doors; but some say that they slew him within doors, in his bed, sleeping. But German men say that they slew him out in the forest; and so also it is told in Guðrúnarkviða en forna (the Old Lay of Gudrún) that Sigurd and the sons of Gjúki had ridden to the council place when he was slain. But all are agreed in this, that they broke their troth to him, and fell upon him when he was lying down and unprepared.

      The Saga follows the story of his death as he slept in the house, and the Lay likewise adopts this version, but introduces (54–57) a brief episode in which Gotthorm encountered Sigurd as he hunted in the forest, and hailed him abusively – perhaps to give colour to what is said in the Saga, and repeated in stanzas 52–3 – that the diet of wolf and snake on which he was fed made him exceedingly bold and fierce.

51  Grímhild’s offspring: the author of the Saga regarded Gotthorm (Gottormr) as a full brother of Gunnar and Högni, and had Gunnar say that they should persuade Gotthorm to do the deed, because he was young and had sworn no oath. My father here followed a tradition, found in the poem Hyndluljóð, that Gotthorm was the half-brother of Gunnar and Högni, being ‘Grímhild’s offspring’; Snorri Sturluson, also, says that Gotthorm was Gjúki’s stepson.

58–59   In the Saga, Gotthorm went twice to Sigurd’s chamber in the morning, but Sigurd looked at him, and Gotthorm dared not attack him on account of his piercing gaze; when he came the third time Sigurd was asleep.

67–69   These stanzas echo the concluding verses of the Brot, which does not extend to the death of Brynhild.

73  In the Saga, following Sigurðarkviða en skamma, Brynhild dying foretold all the later history of Gudrún; this has no place in the Lay.

77  Lines 5–7 are an exact repetition of lines 3–5 in III.13, where the ‘son’s son’ is Sinfjötli, except that the reading there is Völsung, not Völsungs. The plural form here is clear, but may nonetheless be erroneous. On the form Valhöllu see the note to III.13.

77–82   The concluding passage is of course peculiar to the Lay. With stanzas 79–81 cf. Upphaf, the opening section of the Lay, stanzas 11, 14–15.

77–78   In a fragmentary poem of the tenth century on the death of the ferocious Eirik Blood-axe, son of King Harold Fairhair and brother of Hákon the Good (see the note on V.54) there is a remarkable image of the coming of an ‘Ódin hero’ to Valhöll. The poem opens with Ódin declaring that he has had a dream in which he was preparing