The Saga of the Volsungs

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It’s amazing how time can get away from you! It seems like just yesterday I sat down to create my summer reading list, but it also feels as if it’s been much longer than two months since my last post! There has been a lot going on in my life, and I’m kind of amazed at how much I’ve packed into these last two months. I’ve been on a trip to Philadelphia to visit a friend, a trip to Cleveland for work, two separate trips to visit my brother in upstate New York, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July here at home, celebrated a friend’s birthday, celebrated the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, started rowing practice again, I sprained my wrist while hiking, attended a few retirement parties, watched as my company sold the division that I work in, congratulated three different couples on their pregnancy announcements, planned my own birthday celebration (taking place later today!), and throughout it all I’ve been finalizing details for my upcoming trip to London and Iceland. So, yeah, life has been a little crazy lately. I’ve definitely been feeling a little overwhelmed, but looking at my calendar things should slow down after my vacation, which is only two weeks away!

This trip has been in the works for almost a year, so there’s a lot of pent up excitement. I’ll be traveling with a friend to London for five days, and then to Iceland for five days. It’s funny thinking about it now, because a year ago today I was making an impromptu decision to go to Oktoberfest in Munich by myself, and that trip set the ball rolling for this upcoming vacation. Basically, I came back from Munich in the beginning of October last year and was feeling the inevitable post-travel blues. Soon after I got back, the announcement about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, and since I was missing Europe like crazy I came up with the idea to see the play live in London. I enlisted my friend, Michelle, to join me, even though it had been a year since we had seen each other. She also loves to travel, and is a huge Harry Potter fan too. We bought the play tickets last October, and suddenly our “just a few days in London” turned into traveling around more and deciding to go to Iceland because it’s off the beaten track and neither of us have been there. Ten months later, here we are.

In Iceland, we’ll be renting a car and driving along the southern coast of the island. Since we know next to nothing about tourism there, I bought a guidebook a few months ago to figure out a general plan of where we should stay, what we should do, and all that fun stuff. I bought the Rough Guides to Iceland, and I think it has been generally helpful in planning, but we can’t really put it to the test until we get there. As I was flipping through the book, though, I noticed a section at the very end called “Books and Sagas.” As a reader, my interest was piqued. It provided reading recommendations for books on Icelandic history, modern literature, travel and wildlife, and the sagas.

I’ve never heard of the Icelandic sagas before. According to my guidebook, they were written anonymously between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. They cover a wide range of subjects; some are biographies of individuals, others serve as histories of the early Commonwealth, and often contain elements of folklore, Norse kings, and Viking-era adventures. In preparation for my upcoming trip, I decided to read two or three of these sagas to try to get a flavor of the culture and history of the country I’ll be visiting.

I started with The Saga of the Volsungs. According to my guidebook, this saga is said to have inspired The Lord of the Rings (which I’m a fan of) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard). The description said that it more or less follows the adventures of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and contains elements of unrequited love, greed, and vengeance. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to read this.

To be honest, I’ve never read anything quite like this before. The beginning of the saga describes Sigurd’s genealogy. He was a descendant of Odin, the Norse god of war and wisdom, and the first few chapters describe the battles and adventures of his forefathers. Then the saga goes into Sigurd’s own brave adventures: how he avenged his father’s death, slayed the dragon Fafnir, and obtained more treasure than any other man. Following this section, the saga becomes less mythical as it describes the marriages and alliances (and ultimate betrayal) of Sigurd, his wife, Gudrun, her brothers, and Brynhild, a wise and beautiful queen.

One of the things that struck me about The Saga of the Volsungs was that the prose was straight to the point. There weren’t many metaphors or overly poetic lines, and the scenes describing battles were very blunt. I realize that part of this could be due to the translation into English, but I think the overall bluntness is just one of the aspects of the sagas. While I was reading, in my mind I kept picturing Viking-era men sitting around a fire and telling this story aloud. I like that image, and if the prose was different I don’t think I would get the same picture.

Throughout the saga, I definitely picked up on elements that could have inspired Tolkien. The most obvious was a cursed ring that would bring doom to all who had it. Some names also looked familiar, and I wonder if some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings were inspired in part by Sigurd and his contemporaries. There were also a few things that reminded me of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I would be willing to bet that George R.R. Martin has read this saga as well. Namely, a pair of incestuous twins brought Jaime and Cersei Lannister to mind. Also, Iceland is often referred to as the land of ice and fire, and that was in the back of my mind as well. Overall, the themes and battles described in this saga were similar The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m tempted to re-read both series (even though that would set me way back on my reading list).

This was my first saga reading experience, and I’m glad I managed to fit it in before my trip. I’m hoping to finish a second one (Laxdaela Saga) as well, but I don’t know if I’ll have enough time. I’m glad I got a taste of the sagas, though, and the parallels between this and other fantasy series are obvious. I would recommend this to anyone who is into those types of books, or anyone who is interested in Norse mythology or Viking-era tales in general.

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One thought on “The Saga of the Volsungs

  1. Pingback: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein – one happy bookworm

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