Over this past weekend, I decided to buy and read a copy of The Saga of the Volsungs. It was a relatively easy read, at only about 109 pages (with 20 of those pages being part of the translator’s introduction). I got through it in a couple of days — and it only took me that long because I was taking my time and taking breaks in between reading.
One of the first things that struck me is just how many themes it has in common with Tolkein’s books. The most notable one was the “broken sword reforged” motiff. In the saga, Sigmund’s sword (gifted to him by none other than Odin) is broken during the battle in which he falls. The fragments of the sword are then rescued from the battlefield by his wife, who later gives them to their son, Sigurd, so that he can have a new sword forged from them. This new sword is even stronger, and eventually enables Sigurd to kill the dragon, Fafnir. As I read the story, I couldn’t help but think of Aragorn’s sword the entire time. Of course, Tolkein’s tale lacks the whole part of the story where Regin tries unsuccessfully to forge Sigurd a satisfactory blade before the hero asks his mother for the fragments of his father’s sword.
The other thing I noted was how the gods and feats of magic were flawlessly weaved into the first half of the saga. Odin makes several appearances, both helping various heros and bringing about the doom of one (Sigmund). sadly, the fact that this saga is about warriors pretty much guarantees a strong presence of Odin rather than appearances of Vanic deities, but enough of my biases. I can at least take comfort in the fact that the mention of the she-wolf who kills Sigmund’s brothers being a shape-shifted witch probably shows some Vanic influences in the tale, even if poorly aspected. It made for a rather interesting read.
Reading the saga also reaffirmed just how family-oriented ancient Scandinavian society really was. Seeing how each family was left to seek justice — or more accurately, vengeance — for the wrongs done against their kin demonstrated the lack of central authority that historical commentaries can only describe in bland words. Of course, it also demonstrates just how treacherous individuals living in such a society truly can be.
The other thing I noted is that the ancient saga writers were not exactly verbose or descriptive in their tales. Actions are described matter-of-factly, and little attention is given to scenic details, if any attention is given at all. As such, the reading tends to be on the bland side, and doesn’t spark the imagination as much as one might hope. But it was well worth reading, for cultural/religious reasons.
According to one Amazon reviewer, another translator has published a copy of this saga with the Icelandic and their translation side-by-side. I may have to see if I can find a copy. It didn’t come up on Amazon, unfortunately.