The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer In his translation of The Saga of the Volsungs: the Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, Jesse L. Byock compiles many versions of this famous Norse epic and creates a very important scholarly work. Of special importance is the introduction, which provides a central working background to base readings upon. There are several themes echoed throughout the translation that reflect accurately on this portion of history. Byock does a superb job of illustrating these important aspects in his work. While the tale Byock tells is a fairy-tale handed down by generations of families, within the reader can find tell-tale signs of important aspects of Norse culture. For instance, important aspects of family life and the role of men and women surface.
Likewise, the importance of wealth and material possessions on the power and prestige of a king is also evident. While these aspects are important to the discussion of the narrative, there is another more important aspect to the story. While it is not necessary to relay the entire contents of the translation, it is important to know that the discourse is focused on the rise and fall of Sigurd the mighty dragon slayer. All events leading up to his birth merely foreshadow the coming of a great yet fated king.
All events following his life and death merely relate the damnation suffered by him and his closest family members. That said, it can be stated that one of the most central aspects of the work is the role that fate and divine guidance play on the family and friends of Sigurd. This, in turn, says much about the importance of fate and religion to the medieval Norse peoples. Crucial to the epic of Sigurd is the presence of Odin. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that this tale is weaved with threads from each of Odin's most divine characteristics: war, wisdom, death, and ecstasy. Only Odin is there to see this epic through from beginning to end.
Indeed, it was Odin who set the events in motion. It could reasonably be asserted that despite the favor shown towards Sigurd, Odin knew of Sigurd's eventual downfall and the downfall of his family. When Odin set the world in motion, he knew what events would transpire and that he would be there to see them through. Indeed, it is Odin who appears in person at crucial times in the story to jump-start or guide the mortals into his bidding. When it appears that one of Sigurd's ancestor's, Re rir, will be unable to produce a son, Odin sends an apple of fertility. In order to insure that young Sigurd will be properly armed, Odin sets a mighty sword into stone that only his ancestor Sigmund would be able to wield.
Ironically it is in battle with Odin that Sigmund will break his fabled sword. The sword Gram, though broken in two, will eventually pass to Sigurd and aid in his slaying of the dragon. Eventually, long after the fall of Sigurd, it is Odin who tells men how to kill Hamdi r and Soli, effectively ending the epic. An important point on the subject of Odin remains that unlike the Christian God, Norse gods such as Odin are fallible.
They show bias towards specific mortals and often act out of their best interest. Often times, advice given by such gods has selfish intent and only serves as the means to which the god creates his ultimate end. If it can be said that Odin's hand was over the entire process, then it can be said that there is an important role for fate in the tale of Sigurd the dragon slayer. This is because the will of Odin and fate itself are not exactly one and the same. While Odin may control events to his liking, and juxtapose himself at important junctures to make sure all goes smoothly, the free will of the characters in the narrative is what makes the characters mortal.
If it were not so, Odin would have no need to enter the story when he does. When he is concerned about the future decision making of his pawns, he asserts himself and helps guide them in their dilemma. However, while Odin may guide them along the path towards damnation, the choices they make freely tend to be the ones that will lead to their eventual downfall. Thus, more important than the role of Odin may be the role of fate. Fate itself should not be viewed the way modern culture views it, which is mostly in terms of good luck and bad luck. Rather, it should be seen as a driving force behind all actions.
It is a living and breathing force residing within each of the major players in the narrative. And unlike luck, the fate of all characters is connected in one large sweeping line. As it is with many other epic poems of tragic heroes, fate does little to favor the Volsungs on their path towards legend. Important decisions major characters face along the way seem to be influenced by a force known to the reader but as yet undiscovered by the characters. For instance, when Sigurd decides to face the dragon, he does not see himself as only one player in a vast chronicle. Rather, the decision to face the dragon comes out of his desire for wealth and prestige.
The reader recognizes this fateful moment for its true meaning, the beginning of the end for the Volsungs. Another important aspect of fate's role comes when the characters are able to see their own destinies but are powerless to stop themselves. For instance, when Brynhild interprets the dream of Gudrun, she predicts the events and circumstances surrounding the betrayal of mighty Sigurd. She predicts her torn love and the mighty rift it will cause between her and her friend. Likewise, she is able to predict the traitorous murder of her lover.
However, despite this foreknowledge, no one in the saga has any power to stop the change the future. The hands of fate and divinity play the most crucial part of the Sigurd epic. As such, this is important to the bigger picture of Norse culture. Because the epic has lasted so long as an oral history, it reflects on the traditions of medieval Norse peoples. For instance, Norse peoples wanted to know that there was help coming from their god's in life's toughest times. As Odin was there to assert his will on the saga of the Volsungs, so also was he there to help guide and direct at other needed times.
As evidence to this fact, Byock's introduction notes the use of religious carvings and runes on the mantle of ancient churches. While modern culture may view these carvings of dragon slayers and one-eyed gods as pagan, the Norse relied on this assistance from above in defending their homes and their church from evil spirits. Likewise, although a helping hand from above is always welcomed, it is equally important that mortals be given free reign to choose their own destinies. More important than the fact that Sigurd killed the dragon is the fact that he was free to do so of his own accord. However, therein lies an important lesson to the Norse storyteller. When man is given free reign to make decisions of his own accord, he must accept that he has made his dent in the fabric of fate and that his actions will effect generations thereafter.
Sins of the father are passed on. In summary, with the gift of free will comes the burden of accountability. This translation tells a wonderful tale and it is amazing that it has been preserved for this amount of time. Byock does a fantastic job of editing and telling his story. His introduction sets the stage very well, as it gives historical and cultural insight into his work. Several important lessons can be taken from the work and applied to the study of medieval Norse peoples.
One of the most important aspects is the role that fate and divine intervention have on the lives of everyday man and that nothing happens by accident. The guidance of Odin and the reliance on fate are echoed throughout the work and serve as the backdrop for each characters action. This insight allows historians to dig into the narrative and extract special significance from the text.