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Byockís Translation of The Saga of the Volsungs

-Michael J Dangler

The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragonslayer. Trans. Jesse Byock. UC Press, Berkley, CA. 1990.


This particular piece of literature is one of the most important in Nordic mythology. From its pages, Tolkien, Wagner, and Morris drew heavy influences, which helped to shape the twentieth century. It is one of the great hero myths, involving the slaying of a dragon, intervention by the Gods themselves, and magic beyond belief. Love is lost, gained, and lost again, and the heroís closest friends betray him for the love of a woman (and we canít forget his money). In the end, everyone dies a glorious death, putting Hamlet and other substandard works to shame.

In all, the story is a remarkable one. The most amazing thing about this story is that it survives mostly intact, free from Christian influence due to the arrival of writing in Iceland before Christianity took full root. Looking at the story, one can imagine what Beowulf would have been like without the Christian influences it suffered. The key significance of this work is that we have a strong, unadulterated record of how the Gods were seen to interact with the heroes, and in turn the people, who were the Norse.

Odin leads the ancestor of Sigurd from the underworld, and later returns to give a sword, called Gram, to another of Sigurdís ancestors, which Sigurd used to slay Fafnir. Odin also helps Sigud pick Grani, a descendant of Sleipnir, for his horse.

Since Iím not here to summarize the story, however, Iíll move on to the edition and translation I read.

Byockís translation is easy and upbeat, non-archaic and sweeping. The style is well written, and the story sweeps along at a good pace, only occasionally bogging down when the story itself became boring to me (Norse stories have a tendency to repeat things over and over and over). The real reason I like this version, however, is because of the history and research that went into the introduction. Most of the main characters are placed with an historical personage, who either reflected the same sorts of attributes (such as Atli and Atila the Hun, for instance) or a like name (such as Gunnar and Gundaharius). The historical introduction keeps us informed about the events that shaped the Germanic peoplesí thoughts, and puts the Gods and the events of the story into a perspective that someone outside the culture would not understand without being briefed on it first.

The significance of this particular story is obvious, and the translation magnificent. This book should be required reading in public schools, as far as Iím concerned, as it gives an excellent view of the mythology of the Norse people, and our schools focus far too much on classical deities when they teach mythology. Personally, I like it better than Beowulf. As far as those looking into traditions, I would suggest this story if you have an interest in Norse myth, but arenít sure you want to pursue the pantheon or the religion. It is also extremely helpful for comparing to Celtic resources to discern more of the continental feelings towards the Celtic Gods, given the obvious exchanges which took place across the Rhine.


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