Applications 16.  The Phraseological Matrix of the Völsung-Niflung Cycle.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, CANADA [h]
The 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala, Sweden, August 2009.

This paper is about some proverbs and how they are used in extant texts witnessing the legends of the Völsung-Nifling cycle, either directly, or by allusion. Guðbrandur Vigfússon, commenting on the significance of proverbs in the sagas, wrote, “These saws are to a Saga what the gnomic element is to a Greek play.” [discussion of Hrafnkatla, Origines Islandicae, 1905, II, 492]   In compiling my on-line Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Materials of the Old Icelandic Sagas [] I am trying to provide systematically presented access to the paroemial record of the Old Icelandic corpus for use in literary critical studies and textual research.  Today, using data from that compilation, I will identify some patterns of paroemial wisdom inherent in the underlying oral tradition and the ways in which they affirm the values and enhance our understanding both of the Sigurd stories in their various contexts and also of scenes and figures in the Íslendingasögur which echo the mythic-heroic patterns of the Völsung-Niflung cycle.

            Einar Ól Sveinsson remarked that a person who would understand Njáls saga must read all the other sagas first because of that late, post-modern quality which pervades it—as one reads the lines or considers whole episodes one recalls similar phrases and passages in other sagas with which the composer and his audience were obviously familiar and implicit references to which variously nuanced his own text.  On the other hand, I assume that, in teaching surveys of the Old Icelandic sagas, many of us begin with Völsunga saga, if for no other reason, than because of its integral enmeshment in the inter-textual background of these works. [HANDOUT]  When Bergþóra declines Flosi Þorðarson’s offer of reprieve from the flames at Bergþórshvóll, the saga audience cannot avoid the ironic contrast of her response, “I was young when I was given to Njál, and I promised him that one fate should await us both.” [ÍF 12. Brennu-Njáls saga 330.] with Signy’s determination that, not out of loyalty to her husband but rather because of what she has done to exact vengeance from him, the only honour left her is to die with him: “Willingly I shall now die with King Siggeir, although I married him reluctantly.” [FSN 1. Völsunga saga 128.]  In Heimskringla, Sigurðr Búason cunningly avoids his intended execution at the battle of Hjörungavógr, making himself known with the comment, “Not all of the Jómsvíkings are dead.” [ÍF 26. Heimskringla I. 285.]   One recalls the triumphantly vengeful twice-used exclamation, first by Sigmund, and later by Sigurd that the Völsungs are not all dead.  And when the flugumenn return shamed to Þórðr  Kolbeinsson having failed in their errand to kill Björn Arngeirsson he closes the scene apophthegmatically with the observation that he had no men near him though they were at hand.[CSI I. 24. 287.IF III. 24. 176.]  The surface insult to their masculinity is given further weight as the composer of Bjarnar saga and his audience implicitly recall Sigmund’s disappointment in the cowardly son of his sister and King Siggeir whom she has sent to him as an aid in Völsung vengeance—“that he thought himself no closer to a man, even though the boy was there with him.” [Vs 6, 42, modified tr.] One could cite many other instances of this intertextual presence of the Völsung-Niflung cycle in Old Icelandic literature, and a phraseological consciousness of its narratives can provide a most persuasive basis for examining that presence.

[1.]  Of central concern in the conceptual framework of the Völsung-Niflung cycle is the woman—Brynhild, Guðrún, Kriemhild—whose commitment to the maintenance of honor in its pre-Christian setting motivates her to actions so extreme as to require complex apologetical explanation or outright condemnation as her figure makes its way into the ideology of late pagan or medieval Christian culture.  This puzzling figure arises from the structure of the Sigurd legend itself, at least as reflected in narratives of which we know.  Thus, readers of Völsunga saga and of the Nibelungenlied have long recognized their bipartite compositional elements, distinct in subject and in ethos, yet both inhabited by figures of tragically inflexible determination.  The relationship of Sigurd and Brynhild in part one of Völsunga saga and those events leading towards it occupy almost exclusively a mythic-heroic reality, that “Otherworld” of the Nibelungenlied identified by Joyce Tally Lionarons, whose human inhabitants “seem preternaturally strong, with knowledge and power far surpassing the denizens of the “real” world.” (153)   In Chapter 26 of Völsunga saga, Sigurd, armed with his heroically acquired strength, the immense wealth from Fáfnir, and the wisdom imparted to him by Brynhild in her valkyrian avatar of chapter 21, enters the real, the historical world of the Burgundians.  Here, not only his heroically acquired wealth, but also his mythic-heroic powers are perceived at first as of overwhelming value to the military and political interests of the Giuking dynasty and are thus co-opted in the magically contrived union with Guðrún.  This, in turn, deprives him of his legendary commitment to Brynhild and the latter of her honor in their Otherworld existence, leading to the destruction of the historical world upon which they intrude.

            The treasures of wealth and power Sigurd brings to the Burgundians and which motivate them in the pursuit of those ends leading to the final tragedies of the story are derived them from this Otherworld, a world of impossible events and fantastic figures, the world of folklore and dream and, ultimately, of the unconscious.  Thus, both works can be viewed as medieval speculative fiction in that they relate--and the narrative structure of Völsunga saga makes the exercise more obvious--what would happen if the stasis of the real, conscious world were threatened by the intrusion of our psychic Otherworld, the unrestrained impulses of the unconscious.  Both works might thus be seen as similar in describing a threat to the status quo exhibited by modern novels speculative of what the world would be like if Hitler had won WWII or if the Martians invaded earth, with unreal powerful forces of immeasurable and unpredictable violence thus released into our relatively safe and realistically limited world-- or worse, if some alien beings were to invade our actual selves, effecting the destruction not merely of the stasis, but of the very existence of the human ego.

            This destructive alien female figure introduced into the Burgundian kingdom is described phraseologically in several ways.  The Burgundians of Völsunga saga profess puzzlement over Brynhild’s behaviour in lamenting the death of Sigurd which she herself has brought about.  Echoing a passage in the Brót of Sigurðarkviða inn meiri, “little could they understand the behaviour of women,/now that, weeping, she began to speak of/that which, laughing, she’d asked the men for.” [SKM 15. 176.] the saga composer reports, “Now no one thought himself capable of understanding why Brynhild had requested with laughter the deed that she now lamented with tears.”  She explains herself in terms of her integrity, the need to cleanse herself of the broken oath to marry only the bravest, “the son of Sigmund,” paradoxically blaming Gunnar for his strained legal justification for the killing, that “Sigurd had betrayed his trust.” [32.89.] “When he came to me, his oaths were put to the test, for he lay his sharp-edged sword, tempered in venom, between us.” she insists.  Imbued with great strength and clairvoyant in perception, Brynhild the Otherworld woman of Völsunga nevertheless seems lacking in the complexity and perspicacity which mark the characters of the Burgundian court, into which she has been introduced in the first place by deception.  This deception is exaccerbated in the Nibelung version by the Great Lie, first articulated by Siegfried at the end of Aventiure 6, as he prepares Gunther and Hagen for the approach to Isenstein: “you must abide by this one story—that Gunther is my overlord and I am his vassal.  Then all his hopes will come true.” [6.59.]  This deception practiced upon Brynhild in the Nibelungenlied is emphasized there even over that of Siegfried in his surreptitious aid of Gunther, contending against the Maiden King in those feats by which he falsely claims to prove himself worthy of her love.

            The dramatic, outrageously violent response of Brynhild to her discovery of the tricks by which she was coerced into a union from which she had precluded herself by oath can be explained only in part by the archtypal pattern of a naive Otherworld figure in conflict with a real and sophisticated medieval court.  This is one of the places where the concept of the supernatural intrusion on the Burgundians breaks down.  Rather, more generally, the pattern of woman deceived, which can, but need not be, traced throughout the plot of the legend to the deception of Gudrun and Kriemhild’s cruel response in southern versions, has more universal resonance here.

            The composer of Div Chlage takes up this theme in his critically controversial study of Kriemhild.  Responding to the fierce cruelty of her plotting, more fully detailed in the Nibelungenlied, to inveigle her brothers and Hagen to visit her in Hungary, he spends a number of lines justifying her behaviour as motivated by her loyalty to her husband Siegfried:  “This most noble woman acted out of loyalty when, in a state of grief, she exacted her revenge.” [ll. 156-8.p.9.]  His defense of Kriemhild is summarized proverbially quoting “the master of the book” [l.569.]: “The loyal person is dismayed by betrayal. Since Kriemhild died on account of her loyalty, she will yet find God’s favor forever in heaven.” [ll. 571-73.p.29.]  When upon Kjartan’s arrival from Norway Guðrún Ósvifrsdóttir complains to Bolli that “she felt he had not told her the whole truth about Kjartan’s returning to Iceland,” it does not matter that he defends himself, with whatever degree of sincerity, by claiming “that he had told her what he believed to be true at the time.”[44.158.]  The composer of Laxdœla saga and his audience know that his heroine’s speech recalls Brynhild’s discovery of her deception by Gunnar and Sigurd, but in our broader survey of the cycle we are reminded, too, of the Chlage’s “loyal person dismayed by betrayal,” the common theme of the woman’s motivation to tragic undertakings.

              A more mundane strategy for ameliorating the violent trauma of the wronged mythic-heroic woman is also memorable in the Sigurd legend.  Brynhild advises Guðrún, concluding the second episode in the Dispute of the Queens, Ch. 30 of Völsunga saga, “Let us stop this useless chatter.”  And the saga audience is undoubtedly reminded of this suggestion when Auðr in Gísla halts a similarly revelatory encounter with Ásgerðr by her proverbial observation, “Trouble often comes from women’s chatter, and perhaps the trouble from ours will be the worst kind.”  Several other references to the dangers of women’s talk are in the southern corpus of the Sigurd legend.  Bewailing among so many other things Kriemhild’s death among the Huns, the composer of Div Chlage complains, “words from her own mouth had given rise to the sorrow and misery.” [507-13.26-27. Refering more directly to the original conflict, he asks, near the end of his poem, “So what if the two noblewomen railed at each other in such a silly, senseless way?  Their quarrel should have been put aside and Siegfried allowed to live.” [4051-55. 129-30. In the Nibelungenlied when Gunther excuses Siegfried from his oath of innocence the latter immediately blames Kriemhild for causing the trouble: “If my wife were to go unpunished for having distressed Brunhild I should be extremely sorry . . . Women should be trained to avoid irrepressible chatter,” continued Siegfried.  “Forbid your wife to indulge in it, and I shall do the same with mine.” [14.     :tr.116.]  TPMA contains over 100 pages of citations under the category Frau, and such warnings of the destructive influences of women’s talk are of course only a small portion of the vast and fascinating array of medieval paroemial wisdom on women, but the particular subject is unavoidably crucial to our understanding of the Sigurd legend, and there are several echoing passages in the Íslendingasögur.

            [2.] The related subject of loyalty and betrayal, with the supporting ritual of oath and the public shame of breaking it, is also at the core of the Sigurd legend, painted with a fairly heavy brush in the introductory chapter of Völsunga saga, where the composer attributes Sigi’s exile, with Óðin as his guide, to his treachery in keeping secret his killing of Breði, occasioned by his loss of face on a hunting trip.  Successful as a king, in advanced years “his wife’s brothers, that is, they whom he most trusted, intrigued against him,” again an Óðinnic theme of treachery within families.  Attacked when he was least wary, Sigi fell with his men, and later his son, having acquired sufficient power, takes vengeance upon his killers.  Like the Norwegian prelude in many Íslendingasögur, this first chapter establishes the family about whose fortunes the narrative will tell and considers its main themes. 

            The breaking of an oath, the most egregious form of betrayal, is the subject of proverbial passages in Sigrdrífumál, where the valkyrian Brynhild tells Sigurd, “That I advise you, . . .that you do not swear an oath/unless it is truly kept;/terrible fate-bonds attach to the oath-tearer,/wretched is the pledge-criminal.” [SDM 23. 312: tr 23, 170.], with the prose paraphrase in chapter 21. of Völsunga saga, “ . . .do not swear a false oath, because hard vengeance follows the breaking of a truce.” [21.163:22.71.].  This advice seems contrivedly apt as Gunnar later complains to Högni in the Brot, “To me Sigurd gave oaths,/oaths he gave, and all were false,/thus he deceived me when he should have been completely trustworthy.” [SKM 5. 318.]  When, under pressure from Brynhild, Gunnar approaches Högni for help in killing Sigurd, Högni complains “It is not fitting for us to do this,/cutting asunder with a sword/the oaths we’ve sworn, the pledges made.” [SKS 17/ 340.]  “Prepare Guttorm for the undertaking,” suggests Gunnar, “he was away when the oaths were sworn, . . . and pledges made.” [SKS 20. 341.] and thus is not obliged to keep peace with Sigurd.

            Although Hagen’s scruples over the oath of brotherhood as an impediment to Sigurd’s murder are partially resolved in the choice of Guttorm as avenger without conflicting obligations, this solution is not acceptable in broader moral terms.  The paroemial injunctions of Sigrdrífa against oath-breaking and her warning of its consequences resonate with the curse of Guðrún in her first kviða: “So may the people and land be laid waste on your account,/as you have caused it, with the oaths you swore:/you, Gunnar, shall never make use of the gold,/the rings will be the death of you,/since you swore oaths to Sigurd.” [GKF 21. 331.:21.180. The Gjuking decision to ignore the ritual declaration of loyalty in the interest of attempting to pacify Brynhild, the woman betrayed, who with the deed done, chides Gunnar in the Brot, “You clearly did not remember, Gunnar,/that you both let your blood run into a trench.”  “So from all of you of the Niflung line/your strength will pass away: you are oath-breakers.” [SKM. 20 & 21. 323:tr. 16 & 17. 176.]  The format of today’s presentation leaves no time for what we all know anyway, the numerous allusions to the dangers of broken obligations in the Íslendingasögur, with varying degrees of linkage to phraseology of the Sigurd story.

            [3.]  The wolf is a familiar figure of paroemial imagery in only the north Germanic versions of the Sigurd legend, although in the rest of medieval European literature it is fairly common everywhere—the TPMA records 35 pages of pertinent texts, one of the longer articles in that compilation.  Lord Else comments proverbially near the end of Div Chlage as the Burgundian survivors of the visit to the Huns make their way home, “Whoever the wolf avenges has certainly been well avenged, so much so that one ought not to seek vengeance further.” [ll. 3516-9.166.167. The only wolfish text from the south German tradition, it is similar in tone to counterparts in the North.  While the wolf is a familiar beast of Óðin, and Óðin’s unpredictable interest in the Völsungs is a constant in the North, the wolf of the proverbs is not necessarily part of the Óðinnic tradition itself.  Viewed as inimical to humans and their society, with the variant term, vargr, in the legal terminology of outlawry, it is as the hostile outsider that the image of the wolf is used paroemially. 

            Sigrdrífa advises Sigurd, “never trust the oaths of a wrongdoer’s brat,/whether you are his brother’s slayer/or you felled the father;/the wolf is in the young son,/though he seems to be gladdened by gold.” [SDM.35.315-6:tr.35.171.]  “Let the son go the way of the father,” she says as Brynhild, speaking to Gunnar of Sigurd’s son in the Sigurðarkviða in skamma, “Don’t nurture for long the young wolf.” [SKS. 12. 338:tr. 12. 183. The obligation of the son to take vengeance for his father’s death is paramount, making it impossible for the killer to leave him alive, let alone trust him, and her above advice is recorded also in Völsunga saga.  There too, as in Fafnismal, one of the birds warns Sigurd of Regin’s intentions after the hero has killed Fáfnir—in a sense, whatever else his motives, Regin is obligated to take vengeance for the deed he incited, “You have killed my brother,” he twice observes, “and I can hardly be considered blameless in this deed.”[65.]  Advising Sigurd to take the initiative and despatch Regin before the latter can take action himself, one of the birds comments “I suspect a wolf where I see a wolf’s ears.” [Fáfnismál 35.299:tr. 35.154. Vs 66.]  In Völsunga saga, where it is Atli who plots the deaths of the Burgundians with his invitation, Guðrún tries to warn them with a message the import of which, distorted by the messenger, is nevertheless suspected by Hogni: “I wondered at the wolf’s hair I saw tied around a gold ring,” he remarks.  “It may be Guðrún thinks [Atli] has the thoughts of a wolf toward us, and that she does not want us to go.” [97]  Laxdœla saga most heavily influenced of all the Íslendingasögur by the Sigurd legend, employs a proverb from Reginsmál where Regin observes Sigurd’s heroic potential with the comment, “I have expectations of winnings from a ravening wolf.” [RM.13.284: tr.13.154. Jörunn uses it as she persuades her husband Höskuld of the inadvisability of encouraging hostile proceedings with his brother over the latter’s claim to some property.  And when Óláfr Peacock is disappointed in his father’s first attempt to arrange his marriage with Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir, he exclaims angrily, “when one wolf hunts for another he may eat the prey.” [V.23.64:tr.CSI V.23.32. In the northern Sigurd stories these proverbs only occur in or are spoken by characters from the Otherworld, the narrative of primitive forces and unrestrained violence.  It is there in that context that the wolf figure has its compelling value.

            In this paper I have dealt with passages where there are proverbs or clear allusions to communal wisdom articulated elsewhere with paroemial texts pertinent to the events and characters of the Völsung-Niflung cycle.  However, I see the study of proverbs in the sagas as part of a much broader field in need of careful consideration.  Falling in the category of micro-structural studies, it might be thought of as concerned with far more generally similar phraseological strings than the relative fixed texts of proverbs themselves. As an example, in Völsunga saga Hjördís’ unintentional revelation of her status lies in her awareness that her gold ring is cold just before daybreak.  In Aventiure 31 of the Nibelungenlied, Volker the Fiddler says, “My chain-mail has grown so cool on me that I fancy the night cannot last much longer.  I sense from the breeze that it will soon be daylight.”  I don’t mean to attach any isolated interpretive significance to this coincidence, but interesting that it exists!  On his reluctant way to visit the Huns at the invitation of Etzel, Hagen is warned by Eckewart, ‘I much regret your visit to Hungary, for you killed Siegfried, and people hate you here.  I advise you in all sincerity – be on your guard!”  And Hagen is similarly warned again, by Dietrich a few lines on, ‘as long as lady Kriemhild lives, harm can still be done.  Be on your guard, protector of the Nibelungs!” A person could be reminded of these scenes, however coincidentally, when in Chapter 12 of Gísla saga Vésteinn, making his fateful way towards Dyrafjörðr, is warned thrice by characters aware of the hostility awaiting him in Haukadalr, “Be wary for yourself.”  The extent to which the echoes of the Völsung-Niflung cycle reverberate through the scenes of the Íslendingasögur and the mythic-heroic background of the society that created them can never be fully defined, but I think that the phraseological studies of texts could eventually prove helpful in the attempt.

Return to