William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson

The Story of the Volsungs (Volsunga Saga), with Excerpts from the Poetic Edda


The Eddas and the Volsunga Saga first became known outside Iceland in the 19th century. As knowledge of them spread there was an excited realization that many of the personalities and events they referred to did not come from Icelandic or Norse history, but from the Europe of the dark ages. The death of Attila the Hun ('Atli' in the saga), the 5th century defeat of the Burgundians and their king Gundahar ('Gunnar'), the death of Eormenric ('Jormunrek') king of the Goths - all were real, documented events, miraculously preserved in the saga through oral transmission. Scholars - including all the early marxists - pored over both the Volsunga saga and the Eddas searching for clues to germanic pre-history. The combination of real history with pure myth - malicious dwarfs, dragons, magic potions, and even an early version of the story of sleeping beauty - made it appear that the Germanic peoples, like the Greeks, had their own equivalent of the 'Tale of Troy', destined to be retold forever.

Morris and his Icelandic friend Eirikr Magnusson were the first to translate the Volsunga saga into English; Morris was so enthused by it that he went on to create his own epic retelling of the story, Sigurd the Volsung. Since Morris translated the story there have been five more English translations. The advantage of Morris's version is that it is designed to be read, rather than to be a source for philologists: the original (prose) saga had been presumably been created from earlier verse sources similar to those in the Edda; where the verses from the Edda are appropriate or add to the story, Morris inserted them into the prose (the Eddas are also sometimes used to silently correct the text of the saga itself; eg, the name of the dwarf Andvari's father is restored from 'Odin' to 'Oin'), and the whole is rendered into Morris's 'heroic' prose. This makes for a translation which gives the story far more atmosphere than the rather flat modern translations. To take a random selection -- where a modern version of the remaking of the sword that was broken begins:

Regin now made a sword. He gave it to Sigurd, who took it and said "This is your smithying, Regin." Sigurd struck the anvil and the sword broke.

Morris has:

So Regin makes a sword, and gives it into Sigurd's hands. He took the sword and said - "Behold thy smithying, Regin!" and therewith smote it into the anvil, and the sword brake.

In the twentieth century the appeal of the Volsunga saga began to fade slightly; the limits of the information the saga contained about the Germanic dark ages were better understood, and the apparently more realistic family sagas of Iceland became more fashionable. Some, like Tolkien, were still inspired by it, but Wagner's Ring Cycle had made the whole thing seem faintly ridiculous (neither Morris nor Tolkien had a high opinion of Wagner). But for those still reading it for pleasure and interest rather than for scholarly text analysis, Morris's translation is probably the most read of all the versions, if only because the extension of copyright means that Morris's translation alone is free to be distributed on the internet.

Introduction by Graham Seaman, 25th February 2003. XHTML version created by Graham Seaman, derived from the text file prepared for Project Gutenberg by Douglas B. Killings.