Many scholars con­ sider the Teutonic epic of Sigurd the Vo/sung to be The Iliad of the northern countries.

The story is found in Scandinavian, British, and German literature. The earli­ est existing version appears in the epic of Beowulf (written in about A.D. 1000), where a minstrel sings the tale as enter­ tainment for the nobility. Clearly, the story was already famous at that time. The Volsunga Saga, written in 1300 by an anonymous author, is the definitive Norse version because it is the most detailed, cohesive, and complete ver­ s ion of the story.

The saga of Sigurd reflects the unstable political conditions in north­ ern Europe between A.D. 400 and 600, before the arrival of Christianity in that part of the world. The wars between neighboring kingdoms produced many local heroes and villains, and their dar­ ing deeds became the subjects of pop­ ular songs and poems.


For hundreds of years the story of Sigurd disappeared from view, because its stark drama and pre-Christian val­ ues did not appeal to people living during those centuries. In the nine­ teenth century, Sigurd again became popular when writers recognized the saga’s many attractions.

First, Sigurd is an outstanding adventure story. It contains magic, a monster, cursed treasure, passionate love, violent hatred, jealousy,treachery, danger, and death. Within its pages are both an early version of the Sleeping

Beauty tale and a major source for the tale of the cursed ring

that J . R. R. Tolkien

used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Richard Wagner used in his cycle of four

operas, The Ring of the Nibelung.

Second, Sigurd is an ideal hero. His wisdom is as great as his courage. He chooses to lead an honorable Iife by putting the needs of others above his own personal desires.

Third, the story contains numerous complex characters who are loyal to their families and friends until circum­ stances lead them to act treacherously. They are intelligent but they act fool­ ishly, with tragic consequences. They cannot profit from prophecies because their human frailties doom them. No one in the saga is completely pre­ dictable or completely trustworthy, and this creates an atmosphere of sus­ pense, excitement, and danger.

The reader can easily identify with the problems and emotions of the characters in Sigurd. They struggle to find happiness and to lead meaningful lives in a world that is uncaring, brutal, and treacherous. Death is inevitable, and the Norse gods offer no comfort. The characters cannot control their fates. They can try only to control their values, attitudes, and behavior. Their struggle to create meaning in their lives is viewed on a bare stage under harsh lighting. Life is a tragic experience, and the best the characters can hope for is to live with dignity.

The story of Sigurd strikes a sympa­ thetic chord today because we too must create a meaningful life in a world that is often uncaring and dan­ gerous. Ultimately, we must accept the inevitability of death. We must not give

478 N o r t h e r n E u r o p e

in to despair but must concentrate on the aspects of our Iives that we can control. Like the characters in Sigurd, we cannot determine when we w ill die, but we can try to determine how we live.


In the Norse world, events are con­ trol led by an unalterable fate. Both gods and humans know that their inevitable destiny is death. Since immortality exists only in the memory of the living, achieving honor and fame is the hero’s principal goal.

The Norse hero creates his own meaning by living in such a way that others honor him. His greatness is measured by the quality of his life and his courage and dignity in facing death. Honor is earned primarily on the battlefield, where the hero attains glory according to whom he kills and the amount of treasure he acquires. The heroic goal is fame after death, the only immortality that a mortal can achieve. The hero aims to accomplish feats worth remembering-the type of great and glorious deeds that inspire poets and singers.

In the Norse world, a person’s first loyalty is to his or her king. Family comes second, and friends third. No one else seems to exist. Gold is the greatest treasure. The noble person shares it generously,but the temptation to hoard treasure and let it corrupt one’s personal va lues is very strong. Only the best human beings can with­ stand the temptation.

Retribution dominates Norse soci­ ety. Justice is a private affair between one person and another or between one family and another. Even in the case of accidental death or murder, an

individua l takes full responsibility for his or her actions. The killer may choose to offer wergild (man-price), which is a designated payment as resti­ tution for the death, but the recipient is free to reject the offer. As often as not, blood vengeance is the rule. The char­ acter accepts his or her punishment­ death-without flinching, and the fam ily feud continues to demand one Iife after another.

The fittest survive for a time, but raw courage and strength are not enough. Although the man or woman who is generous and loyal is less likely to have to stand alone against the human and natural world, in the Norse world no one is safe.

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