Summary and Analysis: Norse Mythology
Beowulf, The Volsungs, and Sigurd
A distant descendant of the great warrior Scyld, King Hrothgar of Denmark wanted to create something that would make his name imperishable. So he built an enormous mead hall for himself and his earls, one larger than any before it. This was Heorot Hall, where fine bards sang for the king and his men. A curse soon fell on Hrothgar's kingdom. The fiendish ogre Grendel, a monster from the fens, ravaged the land. He was mighty and had a hairy, stinking hide that no weapon could penetrate. Time after time he charged into Heorot Hall, slaughtered the earls like sheep, and feasted on them. Hrothgar alone was exempt, for Grendel was forbidden to touch the king. This lasted twelve years, since nothing could stop the ogre. Denmark trembled in fear and grief.
The Geatish king Hygelac heard of the trouble. Among Hygelac's earls was the invincible Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, a hero who wished to kill Grendel. Taking fifteen bold comrades, Beowulf sailed for Denmark. Arriving safely, they were greeted by an awestruck earl who led the company to Heorot Hall, where Beowulf made himself known to the herald. Led into Hrothgar's presence, Beowulf greeted the king and told him of his perilous mission. Hrothgar lamented his own old age and weakness in the face of bloody Grendel, but he welcomed Beowulf and his men heartily.
At evening, merriment filled the great mead hall after its long desolation. Unferth, one of Hrothgar's earls, was envious of Beowulf and tried to bait him, claiming that Beowulf had been beaten in a swimming contest. But Beowulf had not only won the contest, he had survived a terrible storm after five days and nights of swimming and had killed a sea-monster as well. And now he had come to slay Grendel. Queen Wealhtheow greeted Beowulf warmly, and King Hrothgar offered the hero anything he wished if he should kill the fiend.
That night as the warriors lay asleep Grendel shattered the bolted door, killed a man, and ate of him. Glaring around the hall he spotted Beowulf and sprang at him. Beowulf caught the ogre's right hand and stopped his charge. Grendel was shaken with fear as Beowulf twisted his arm. He tried violently to break loose but the hero held on. Warriors cowered from the terrific struggle, yet one of Beowulf's men tried to cut Grendel down but could not succeed. As Grendel shrieked Beowulf wrenched his arm to the breaking point and finally snapped the whole thing off. The dying Grendel burst out into the night. And Beowulf nailed the trophy to the rafters of Heorot Hall.
News spread quickly of the hero's deed. Songs were written of it, and people gawked at Beowulf. Denmark rejoiced. Hrothgar treated Beowulf as a son, presenting him and his comrades with many gifts. However, Grendel's mother, a demoness, was enraged at her son's death. The next night she stole into Heorot Hall and killed Hrothgar's closest friend. She put the place in an uproar but escaped easily, taking Grendel's arm.
The next morning Hrothgar summoned Beowulf from his neighboring lodge to tell him of the ogress and her treachery. The king also told Beowulf of her lair deep in a frightful tarn not far off. The hero agreed to pursue the hag, and warriors accompanied him to the hellish site. They saw sea-monsters swimming under the waves, so Beowulf killed one with his lance. Then he donned his armor and plunged into the inlet. For hours he swam downward. The ogress saw him and caught him in her claws about his waist. Failing to pierce his armor, she drew him ever deeper past grotesque fish that cut his thighs, down to her underground cavern. In the cave there was air from which he drew breath and a harsh light. He swung his sword, Hrunting, against Grendel's mother but it bent and chipped. In the scuffle Beowulf realized he was no match for the ogress, who would have killed him if he had not seen the fabled sword of the Giants on the cave wall. He seized it and swung, slaying his savage opponent. A golden light then filled the cavern, revealing the dead Grendel. Beowulf cut his head off, looking longingly at the hoard of wealth, but left it behind as he swam to the surface with Grendel's head.
On reaching the surface, he found only his own companions waiting for him, since Hrothgar and his men had left, assuming he was dead. Beowulf and his troop of Geats marched back to Hrothgar with the severed head. Hrothgar, of course, was overjoyed now that Beowulf and Denmark were safe. He gave the Geats more rich gifts. Yet before Beowulf sailed back to his homeland Hrothgar warned him of being proud, for that fault could bring any great warrior to ruin.
Back in his homeland Beowulf gave all his new wealth to his uncle, King Hygelac. Even though Beowulf's prowess, generosity, and courtesy were much praised, the envious spoke evil of him. However, Hygelac rewarded Beowulf with land. When Hygelac fell in battle with the Frisians many felt Beowulf should have had the throne after he defeated the Frisians, but he supported Hygelac's successor. When that king died Beowulf took the throne and ruled virtuously and prudently for fifty years. Then a dragon rose against the Geats. Some man had stolen a golden cup from the dragon's hoard of wealth and used it to buy his freedom. In retaliation the great worm burned dwellings all along the coast and left nothing alive.
Old Beowulf was angered and grieved. He decided to meet the dragon in single combat, and had steel armor made to protect him from the monster's flaming mouth. Then he took thirteen earls to the cliff that overhung the dragon and his hoard. Among these was the man who had stolen the golden cup, whom Beowulf brought to point out the hidden passage to the dragon's nest. Before descending through the passage to meet the beast, Beowulf reminisced about his own life and deeds and what he had seen. He vowed to grapple with the winged serpent alone and made his way through the rock to its lair.
As he challenged the dragon it sent a stream of fire at his legs and uncoiled to attack. Beowulfs sword was useless against the great worm, which scorched the hero's body mercilessly. From above the earls saw that Beowulf was losing, and all but one cowered. That was Wiglaf, who reproached his companions for their cowardice and strode down to aid the gallant old king. Wiglaf stood beside his leader and told him to retreat, but Beowulf could not hear. The serpent burned away Wiglaf's shield and armor, yet Wiglaf stood his ground behind Beowulf's steel shield. Taking courage from Wiglaf's presence, Beowulf assaulted the dragon with a second sword, but that melted too. The monster charged again, coming within inches of Beowulf's face and gouging into his neck with its claws. Meanwhile, Wiglaf kept jabbing at the serpent's belly, which lessened its fire, allowing Beowulf to strike one last blow with his dagger, a blow that finished the dragon for good.
But Beowulf by now was nearly dead as the dragon's poison crept through his body. Wiglaf dressed the king's wounds, and Beowulf asked to see some' of the monster's hoard. Then Beowulf willed the hoard to his people and requested that a funeral mound be built on the cliff above to serve as a beacon for ships. Lastly, he passed the tokens of kingship over to Wiglaf, his successor. The other earls finally came from their hiding places, and Wiglaf declared them outcasts.
The Geats mourned Beowulf's death, for he had been a great king. Now it was likely they would be invaded and enslaved by their enemies. That Beowulf should die because one man had taken a cup was tragic, and so the Geats buried the hoard with curses, never to be unearthed. And as a memorial to their dead king they built a lighthouse over his burial pile on the cliff. The wise and mighty Beowulf would also be remembered in song.
Odin fathered Sigi and at times bestowed favors on Sigi's descendants. When Sigi's son, Rerir, proved childless, Odin gave Rerir's wife an apple and in a short time she gave birth to Volsung, who became a powerful warrior. Among Volsung's children were Signy and Sigmund. Signy married a foreigner, Hunding, a treacherous man with no love for his in-laws.
One day the Volsungs were holding a banquet in their hall when a stranger appeared in a wide-brimmed hat and a large cloak. A gleaming sword was in his hand, and the stranger plunged it into the large tree that supported the rafters. He announced that the person to pull it out should own it, and then he vanished. It was Odin in disguise. Everyone tried to extract it and failed until Sigmund tried and wrenched it free.
Somehow Hunding managed to make captives of all the Volsungs, including Sigmund. Night after night he chained them outside, where they were devoured by wolves. At last only Sigmund was left. His desperate sister Signy, torn between her family and conjugal loyalties, freed Sigmund and brought him the wondrous sword he had won. She also slept with Sigmund to give him a son necessary to avenge the murder of their kin. When the son was an infant she secretly gave him to her brother Sigmund to raise. This was Sigurd, born to be as fine a hero as his father. When Sigurd was grown he and Sigmund returned to avenge Hunding's bloody deeds. After imprisoning Hunding in his hall, they set fire to it. Signy watched enraptured now that her kin had destroyed the evildoer, but Hunding was still her husband, and she rushed into the burning hall to perish with him.
Sigmund performed many marvelous deeds of war with Odin's sword, but the time came that Odin had appointed for him to die. In the middle of a battlefield Sigmund saw the same figure that had entered his father's hall long years before. Odin touched the sword with his wooden staff and it broke in two. Sigmund was then mortally wounded by the foe. His wife tried to save him, but he calmly accepted Odin's will, knowing he would enter Valhalla. Yet he requested that the fabulous sword be allowed to be joined back together for another hero, which Odin granted.
That hero was Sigmund's son, Sigurd. He discovered the two pieces of the sword and had the dwarves forge them together. He had heard of the sleeping Valkyrie Brynhild, who was surrounded by a ring of fire that only a fearless warrior could break through. Brynhild had been punished by Odin for disobedience, and Sigurd resolved to rescue her. His search was long and perilous. During it he met and slew the dragon Fafnir, thereby obtaining the pile. of gold and gems which the beast guarded. He also met an old wise man who revealed his future: Sigurd would prove the bravest of heroes, do nothing base, and yet his end would be full of wrath and anguish.
Arriving at the wall of flame Sigurd rode his horse through and awakened Brynhild, who gave herself to him in delight. He remained several days with her, only to leave her in that place. Sigurd traveled to the Giukungs, who were ruled by Gunnar, a king with whom he swore brotherhood. Gunnar had a sorceress for a mother — Griemhild — and she arranged it that Sigurd forgot Brynhild and married her daughter Gudrun. Sigurd had intended to retrieve Brynhild for himself, but having no memory of her he now undertook to win her for Gunnar, who was lacking in bravery. With Griemhild's magic he assumed Gunnar's form and passed again through the wall of flame. When he lay with Brynhild this time there was a sword between them, a token of Sigurd's loyalty to Gunnar and Gudrun. Brynhild now felt that Sigurd had deserted her, so she rode off to Gunnar's kingdom with this strange hero.
Back in Gunnar's land Sigurd secretly resumed his true form, and Brynhild was married to Gunnar. Brynhild resented Sigurd for his faithlessness. But resentment flared to hatred when, in a bitter quarrel with Gudrun, she learned that it had actually been Sigurd who had rescued her, rather than Gunnar. She wanted a dire revenge. To fan Gunnar's jealousy and injured pride Brynhild told him that Sigurd had possessed her for three nights, when they had really slept with the sword between them. She also told Gunnar that he must kill Sigurd or she would desert him. But Gunnar could not do it, for it would break his oath of brotherhood. Instead, Gunnar had a younger brother kill Sigurd as he slept.
Brynhild laughed bitterly as she heard Gudrun's shrieks on finding herself covered with her husband's blood. The Valkyrie told her anguished husband that Sigurd had remained pure and loyal, that her own love was given totally to Sigurd, and that she would die on his funeral pyre. Gudrun herself could not weep over her husband's murder. She sat silently beside the shroud, and others feared for her life. The women told stories of the terrible things that had happened to them in their lives, but Gudrun remained stony. At last one old woman uncovered Sigurd's head and laid it in Gudrun's lap to kiss. On seeing the bloody, lifeless face of Sigurd, Gudrun's stony reserve dissolved in tears.
These three stories present a dark but accurate picture of how the Norsemen viewed human life. All men, even the strongest and noblest, are fated to unhappiness. Sorrow is man's one sure heritage, and "the best way to meet it is to grapple with it courageously, in one's bare hands so to speak, as the aged Beowulf met the dragon. This quality of risking one's whole life in combat gave the Norsemen a special vibrancy. At its best, in Beowulf, it could be truly ennobling. Beowulf accomplished his feats of monster-killing to help others, and whatever wealth he gained from them he gave away. His unselfishness made him an exemplary king and hero.
At its worst the fighting instinct came down to mere tribalism, as in the tale of the Volsungs. Hunding and Sigmund are of different tribes, and in the animosity between them any cruelty is justified. Signy, of course, is caught between them. And while she does everything possible to avenge the murders of her family, she also decides in the end to die with her husband. This story underscores the ferocity of tribal loyalty.
The legend of Sigurd demonstrates how a notable and courageous warrior is brought low by the cunning and malice of women who want him for selfish reasons. Yet even these women have a somber dignity. They are not ignoble, merely intensely passionate. Sigurd is trapped between Brynhild and Gudrun and he falls victim to their jealousy.
In Norse myth there are no happy endings, because the Teutonic races saw the world as harsh, bleak, cold, with inexorable laws. That gloomy outlook persists today in Scandinavia and northern Germany, although it has been Christianized.