Thursday, March 31, 2011

Celts to Vikings 17: Sigurd/Siegfried

The great epic of the ancient German world was the tale of Siegfried or Sigurd the dragon slayer. The story survives in two independent versions, the medieval German poem known as the Nibelungenlied and a prose telling from Iceland called The Saga of the Volsungs. The popularity of the story is attested by its many appearances in German art, including the numerous carved “Sigurd Stones” set up in Sweden illustrated with scenes from the hero’s career. I find it strange that both of these versions tell the same story, because that story is a mishmash of two separate, tenuously related tales. The first describes how the hero slew the dragon Fafnir and acquired a horde of cursed gold – the Norse version also includes the story of Sigurd’s family, the Volsungs, going back several generations – and the second is the story of a band of heroic warriors besieged and eventually killed by the army of Attila the Hun. The connection is that Sigurd or Siegfried marries into the family that ends up getting slaughtered by the Huns, but is betrayed and murdered by his brothers in law. They are incited by Brunhild, a woman he promised to marry but then abandoned. Sigurd/Siegfried’s widow then marries Attila the Hun, bringing him and his boundless greed into the story.

The story is dark and bloody. Everyone ends up dead, and not for any clear reason. The tale is sometimes taken to be the expression of a gloomy German consciousness, in which fate appears as a doomsday machine crushing all human hopes. It has also been one of the main channels by which ancient Germanic lore was passed down into modern times, and in the form of Wagner’s operas it is the most common way for modern people to encounter the ancient German world. So I assigned the Norse version, The Saga of the Volsungs, in my Celts to Vikings class. This version is shorter than the Nibelungenlied, easier to read, and less Christianized. I had doubts as to how this would work, but it has been great. My students liked the story and enjoyed analyzing what it says about fate and the human condition. They admired the courage of the characters, who are caught up in a tragedy from which they cannot escape but go down fighting instead of whining about their fates or blaming anybody for their troubles. They had interesting things to say about how it compared with the Irish stories we had read, and enjoyed speculating about how Celtic and Germanic culture were different.

It was an interesting exercise and fun, and I would do it again.

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