V is for the Volsunga Saga
Moving (slowly but surely) right along in my 2017 AtoZ Challenge, we’ll examine another story from ancient mythology — this time travelling to Scandinavia, to examine the legendary 12th-13th century Norse prose poem that includes the slaying of the dragon Fafnir by the hero Sigurd in the Volsunga Saga.
The full Volsungs Saga has been translated and summarized many times. These two images of Sigurd slaying Fafnir come from the famous Sigurd Portal in Norway on the left, and a (clearer) drawing of it from the J.R.R. Tolkien rendition of the story on the right, which I’ll talk about more in a moment.
The photo of the Sigurd Portal comes from the collection of folklore historian D.L. Ashliman, an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh. You can read his entire translation if you like, but for brevity, Dr. Ashliman sums up the encounter between Sigurd and Fafnir when he describes these intricate wood carvings from the Hylestad stave church doorway. Also believed to be from the late 12th to early 13th century, they tell the story in just a few pictures. (You can see the door and more carvings below.)
Sigurd and Regin, a master swordsmith, plan to kill the dragon Fafnir and take possession of his treasure.
Sigurd positions himself in a trench beneath the dragon’s trail, and stabs him from beneath when Fafnir leaves his lair for water.
Regin asks Sigurd to cook the dragon’s heart and give it to him to eat. While cooking the heart, Sigurd tests its doneness by putting some of its juice into his mouth with his finger.
Upon thus tasting the dragon’s blood, Sigurd can understand the language of the two nearby birds, who are conversing with one another as to how the treacherous Regin plans to betray Sigurd.
Forewarned by the birds, Sigurd kills Regin.
Sigurd then loads Fafnir’s treasure onto his horse Grani and departs for new adventures.
Those Icelandic heroes didn’t mess around! These photos above are of the doorway itself, then Sigurd roasting the heart for Reign, then Sigurd killing Reign, and finally, Sigurd’s horse Grani loaded with Fafnir’s treasure.
Dr. Ashliman has translated many texts and published many pieces on folklore, and he has an amazing site called Folktexts where you can peruse hundreds of his edited or translated works, grouped by author and subject!
It’s definitely worth a look, and it reminded me of one of my fellow AtoZer’s themes from this year. If you’re looking for even more interesting reading, please go check out Hungarian blogger Zalka Csenge Virág’s amazing site called The Multicolored Diary, and her 2017 AtoZ series WTF: Weird Things in Folktales.
As I mentioned, J.R.R. Tolkien also tried his hand at interpreting — and he thought, improving — the entire Volsunga saga. According to Wikipedia, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and HarperCollins in May 2009. Originally written in the 1930s, but then lost for a time, Tolkien’s son Christopher rediscovered it and had it published with “copious notes and commentary on his father’s work.”
The elder Tolkien called his version “an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza.” Portions of the Sigurd Portal have been used as cover art for various editions, and you can see Sigurd’s horse Grani on the one above.
Up next, here are images of what is known as the Ramsund carving, one of the earliest representations of the Sigurd legends — this one dates back to the year 1030! You can just barely make out some of the carving on the flat stone if you look directly at the center of the photo, and then just a little to the left and down. Luckily, the drawing below shows off all the details.
The drawing is labeled out of order, but you can see (1) Sigurd cooking Fafnir’s heart and tasting the dragon’s blood; (2) the birds relaying Reign’s treachery; (3) Sigurd has decapitated Reign; (4) the horse Grani with treasure; (5) Sigurd slaying Fafnir from below; and (6) a picture of Ótr, Fafnir’s brother, who is murdered at the very, very beginning of the Volsung Saga, which sets off the whole chain of events.
There are many other ancient runestone sites throughout Scandinavia besides the variety of Sigurd stones, and you can check all of them out through those Wikipedia links. But now, let’s see how some modern artists have interpreted the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir!
Up first is a really colorful version called Sigurd kills Fafnir by Danish deviantartist emilsa. He captions it with a line from the poem — “Gruesome was the wound-hoe flame, / Sigurd gave the worm, / tremble woods and meadows did / and all of elf-glory hall.” Check out his awesome gallery for more epic artwork.
Next is Sigurd and Fafnir by Mexican deviantartist mauricio1983. Here Fafnir is lizard-like, with four limbs, with the hero Fafnir slaying him from beneath. Check out his dark gallery for more in his unique style.
This next one is neat, called Viking Shield – Sigurd Slays Fafnir the Dragon by American professional artist Nancy Garbarini, posting as davinciscousin. Inspired by the Sigurd Portal carvings herself, Nancy’s caption reveals her technique: “Painted using trompe l’oeil technique to provide illusion of high relief wood carving. Right, I covered this wooden shield in canvas, then painted it to look like…wood.” I think the effect is stunning! Check out her gallery and her official website for more awesome work.
Here’s a quieter image, called Sigurd y Fafnir by Mexican deviantartist ArielRauograni. He captions this in Spanish, but Google Translate tells me it reads in part, “… the mythical hero Sigurd, after having killed Fafnir, with his legendary sword Gram, characters from the poetic Edda … I hope you like it and encourage you all to read about those wonderful stories.” I second that! Check out his fanciful gallery for more.
Here’s another piece done in a traditional style, called Sigurd Slays Fafnir by English deviantartist Sean Kelly, posting as Odinns-Grove. The dragon Fafnir here looks to me more like a wolf-creature, but it’s still amazing! Sean creates “traditional, folkish art and crafts of Northern Europe,” and you can see more of his really neat work in his gallery and Storenvy shop.
The dragon Fafnir is often portrayed as a wyrm-type, rather than a traditionally Western dragon, but that hasn’t stopped people from letting their imaginations run wild. Up next is Sigurds fight with Fafnir by German deviantartist Andre Kosslick. He captions it with “illustration to Richard Wagner ‘Siegfried’ Act II,” which is an opera that follows the Volsunga saga. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dragon like this one! See Andre’s gallery, including his piece Fafnir Study, for more.
In another quite different take on the tale and the dragon, here is Sigurd VS Fafnir by French professional artist Sabine van Apeldoorn, posting as Sa-chan1603. It’s seriously epic, and Sigurd mounted on Grani is so tiny! Check out Sabine’s lovely gallery and portfolio for more epic dragons, and don’t be surprised to see more from her later!
Here’s another take called Death of Fafnir by Russian professional artist Maria, posting as Atenebris. I think Fafnir looks like a giant monitor lizard in this one, and those are some scary teeth! And Sigurd is stabbing him from below in a trench, in keeping with the story. You can see more epic fantasy art at her gallery.
And finally, I wanted to end on this super cute version of Fafnir by Italian deviantartist Andrea Morandini, posting as Andrewsarchus89. In fact, Andrea has drawn a few other mythological dragons in this style, including Balaur, Tarasque, and Tarantasio, and you can check out even more great art in his gallery!
All right. It looks like every two weeks is when I’m going to be posting the rest of my AtoZs… but really, it’s working out well, so I hope you stick with me! AtoZ definitely jump-started me back into blogging and writing, which I’m happy about, but I’ve also got some other stuff going on, and I’m working on keeping my balance.
I’ll go over it more in my AtoZ Reflections post, which I’ll write after Post Z is finished, but for now, I just want to say thank you as always for reading, take care, and stay creative!!
Images from the Sigurd Portal in Norway published by D.L. Ashliman
Sigurd Slaying Fafnir from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien, found at the Tolkien Library
Cover art of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun from Wikipedia
Ramsund carving and drawing from Wikipedia
Sigurd kills Fafnir by emilsa
Sigurd and Fafnir by mauricio1983
Viking Shield – Sigurd Slays Fafnir the Dragon by Nancy Garbarini, posting as davinciscousin
Sigurd y Fafnir by ArielRauograni
Sigurd Slays Fafnir by Sean Kelly, posting as Odinns-Grove
Sigurds fight with Fafnir by Andre Kosslick
Sigurd VS Fafnir by Sabine van Apeldoorn, posting as Sa-chan1603
Death of Fafnir by Atenebris
Fafnir by Andrea Morandini, posting as Andrewsarchus89