It is clear that the various strands of The Saga of the Volsungs were not composed by one author, from beginning to end, as a cohesive plot. The seams are readily visible. In looking at how these episodes grew together, one might get some insight into how other myths, of gods and heroes alike, might have come into being.
Exaggeration of a Historical Event
The Saga of the Volsungs is by far the most famous and most celebrated sequence of legends of medieval Scandinavia. More likely, the individual episodes, with stories involving a few characters, developed independently of one another and were transmitted that way for many centuries. It was only later compilers, such as the author of the saga from the 1200s AD, who attempted to create one through-plot for all these episodes.
A powerfully clear example comes from an event near the very end of the Volsungs story, which seems to have its roots in the exaggeration of a real historical event.
In the 500s AD, the Gothic peoples, close linguistic relatives of the Norse, presided over much of the shattered Roman Empire. A historian, named Jordanes, recorded much Gothic history. He told of a king, named Ermanaricus, who killed his prospective bride, Sunilda, by having her trampled to death by horses.
The woman’s death was avenged by her brothers, Ammius and Sarus, who were aided by a witch named Guthrune.
Gothic and Old Norse
Clearly, it’s striking to see how close these Gothic names are, even on the surface, to the names at the end of the Volsungs story. In fact, the names are even closer than they appear at first, because of regular sound changes that distinguish Old Norse from Gothic.
A good example is the change of an old ‘e’ to ‘jo’ in Old Norse under certain predictable conditions; this makes the initial ‘E’ of Gothic Ermanaricus a perfect match to the initial ‘Jo’ in Jormunrekk in Old Norse.
A different version of the story appears in the Poetic Edda, in a poem called Hamthir’s Poem, or Hamthismal. This poem is the source material on which the end of The Saga of the Volsungs is largely based.
Hence, it is interesting to observe that this particular poem is written in some of the most archaic preserved Old Norse we know of. Its language is so old that it might have been composed orally as early as the 800s. It’s a lot earlier in the evolution of the story than the saga from the 1200s.
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Erp, Guthrun’s Step-son
And yet, in this old poem, the story is more self-contained, as we might expect from a more ancient and shorter telling of one episode. To the modern reader, this shorter, older telling also makes more sense, as it makes clear that Erp is not Guthrun’s son, but the son of Guthrun’s third husband, Jonaker, with another woman and thus her step-son.
Suddenly, in a way unclear in the prose saga, the suspicion and murderous resentment of Guthrun’s own sons, Hamthir and Sorli, about Erp have a basis. It also makes more sense that Guthrun approaches Hamthir and Sorli about avenging their sister, Svanhild, but never Erp—who is the son of another woman.
Connecting Guthrun’s Character
Over the centuries, and through the work of compilers like the saga author, this episode has been slightly simplified within its own bounds, but also connected into a much more complex plot frame.
Thus, over hundreds of years of tellings, Guthrun, who wasn’t originally the boys’ mother at all in The Saga of the Volsungs, but an unrelated witch, becomes their mother, and eventually becomes the same woman as the Guthrun who was the wife of the dragon slayer, Sigurth.
Of course, the fact that Guthrun does not show up as a witch in the earlier chapters of the saga, shows that these episodes have not been seamlessly attached to one another, even after hundreds of years of telling.
No doubt many of the stories of the gods evolved in just such a way as this, slowly flowing together from their disparate fountainheads in multiple different poets’ mouths.
In that process, some of the dream logic, so characteristic of myths, was introduced, oftentimes just from details being glided over. All of this happened as originally separate narratives became prequels and sequels to one another, and originally separate characters became the same.
In fact, it can be hard to draw a line between the canon of the Volsungs stories and what might be called the fan fiction that appeared later—there were just too many poets and scribes who reworked the material over the centuries.
A Paraphrase of Old Disjointed Poems
Unfortunately, there was never a Homer for the Volsungs, no great poet who single-handedly reworked the old material into an original composition that completely superseded all others.
Even the prose The Saga of the Volsungs itself, the most coherent presentation of these myths, is a fairly thin paraphrase of the old disjointed poems. The Saga of the Volsungs is more narratively akin to the compilation offered by Snorri’s Prose Edda than it is to a work like the Iliad.
And yet, some other fan fiction was partly on its way to a sort of canonization, even in the medieval period. The surviving medieval manuscript of The Saga of the Volsungs continues, without interruption or even a new title, into the work known today as The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok.
Common Questions about The Saga of the Volsungs
Jordanes recorded much Gothic history. He told of a king, named Ermanaricus, who killed his prospective bride, Sunilda, by having her trampled to death by horses. The woman’s death was avenged by her brothers, Ammius and Sarus, who were aided by a witch named Guthrune.
The poem Hamthir’s Poem, or Hamthismal, from the Poetic Edda is the source material on which the end of The Saga of the Volsungs is largely based.
Over hundreds of years of tellings, Guthrun, becomes the same woman as the Guthrun who was the wife of the dragon slayer, Sigurth.