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- Henry Adams Bellows
The Short Lay of Sigurth
Guthrunarkvitha I is immediately followed in the Codex Regius by a long poem which in the manuscript bears the heading “Sigurtharkvitha,” but which is clearly referred to in the prose link between it and Guthrunarkvitha I as the “short” Lay of Sigurth. The discrepancy between this reference and the obvious length of the poem has led to many conjectures, but the explanation seems to be that the “long” Sigurth lay, of which the Brot is presumably a part, was materially longer even than this poem. The efforts to reduce the “short” Sigurth lay to dimensions which would justify the appellation in comparison with other poems in the collection, either by separating it into two poems or by the rejection of many stanzas as interpolations, have been utterly inconclusive.
Although there are probably several interpolated passages, and indications of omissions are not lacking, the poem as we now have it seems to be a distinct and coherent unit. From the narrative point of view it leaves a good deal to be desired, for the reason that the poet’s object was by no means to tell a story, with which his hearers were quite familiar, but to use the narrative simply as the background for vivid and powerful characterization. The lyric element, as Mogk points out, overshadows the epic throughout, and the fact that there are frequent confusions of narrative tradition does not trouble the poet at all.
The material on which the poem was based seems to have existed in both prose and verse form; the poet was almost certainly familiar with some of the other poems in the Eddic collection, with poems which have since been lost, and with the narrative prose traditions which never fully assumed verse form. The fact that he seems to have known and used the Oddrunargratr, which can hardly have been composed before 1050, and that in any case he introduces the figure of Oddrun, a relatively late addition to the story, dates the poem as late as the end of the eleventh century, or even the first half of the twelfth. There has been much discussion as to where it was composed, the debate centering chiefly on the reference to glaciers (stanza 8). There is something to be said in favor of Greenland as the original home of the poem (cf. introductory note to Atlakvitha), but the arguments for Iceland are even stronger; Norway in this case is practically out of the question.
The narrative features of the poem are based on the German rather than the Norse elements of the story (cf. introductory note to Gripisspo), but the poet has taken whatever material he wanted without much discrimination as to its source. By the year 1100 the story of Sigurth, with its allied legends, existed through out the North in many and varied forms, and the poem shows traces of variants of the main story which do not appear elsewhere.
Of old did Sigurth Gjuki seek,
The Volsung young, in battles victor;
Well he trusted the brothers twain,
With mighty oaths among them sworn.
A maid they gave him, and jewels many,
Guthrun the young, the daughter of Gjuki;
They drank and spake full many a day,
Sigurth the young and Gjuki’s sons.
Thereafter went they Brynhild to woo,
And so with them did Sigurth ride,
The Volsung young, in battle valiant,—
Himself would have had her if all he had seen.
The southern hero his naked sword,
Fair-flashing, let between them lie;
(Nor would he come the maid to kiss;)
The Hunnish king in his arms ne’er held
The maiden he gave to Gjuki’s sons.
Ill she had known not in all her life,
And nought of the sorrows of men she knew;
Blame she had not, nor dreamed she should bear it,
But cruel the fates that among them came.
By herself at the end of day she sat,
And in open words her heart she uttered:
“I shall Sigurth have, the hero young,
E’en though within my arms he die.
“The word I have spoken; soon shall I rue it,
His wife is Guthrun, and Gunnar’s am I;
Ill Norns set for me long desire.”
Oft did she go with grieving heart
On the glacier’s ice at even-tide,
When Guthrun then to her bed was gone,
And the bedclothes Sigurth about her laid.
“(Now Gjuki’s child to her lover goes,)
And the Hunnish king with his wife is happy;
Joyless I am and mateless ever,
Till cries from my heavy heart burst forth.”
In her wrath to battle she roused herself:
“Gunnar, now thou needs must lose
Lands of mine and me myself,
No joy shall I have with the hero ever.
“Back shall I fare where first I dwelt,
Among the kin that come of my race,
To wait there, sleeping my life away,
If Sigurth’s death thou shalt not dare,
(And best of heroes thou shalt not be.)
“The son shall fare with his father hence,
And let not long the wolf-cub live;
Lighter to pay is the vengeance-price
After the deed if the son is dead.”
Sad was Gunnar, and bowed with grief,
Deep in thought the whole day through;
Yet from his heart it was ever hid
What deed most fitting he should find,
(Or what thing best for him should be,
Or if he should seek the Volsung to slay,
For with mighty longing Sigurth he loved.)
Much he pondered for many an hour;
Never before was the wonder known
That a queen should thus her kingdom leave;
In counsel then did he Hogni call,
(For him in truest trust he held.)
“More than all to me is Brynhild,
Buthli’s child, the best of women;
My very life would I sooner lose
Than yield the love of yonder maid.
“Wilt thou the hero for wealth betray?
’Twere good to have the gold of the Rhine,
And all the hoard in peace to hold,
And waiting fortune thus to win.”
Few the words of Hogni were:
“Us it beseems not so to do,
To cleave with swords the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore and all our vows.
“We know no mightier men on earth
The while we four o’er the folk hold sway,
And while the Hunnish hero lives,
Nor higher kinship the world doth hold.
“If sons we five shall soon beget,
Great, methinks, our race shall grow;
Well I see whence lead the ways;
Too bitter far is Brynhild’s hate.”
“Gotthorm to wrath we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, in rashness blind;
He entered not in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore and all our vows.”
It was easy to rouse the reckless one.
. . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart of Sigurth stood.
In vengeance the hero rose in the hall,
And hurled his sword at the slayer bold;
At Gotthorm flew the glittering steel
Of Gram full hard from the hand of the king.
The foeman cleft asunder fell,
Forward hands and head did sink,
And legs and feet did backward fall.
Guthrun soft in her bed had slept,
Safe from care at Sigurth’s side;
She woke to find her joy had fled,
In the blood of the friend of Freyr she lay.
So hard she smote her hands together
That the hero rose up, iron-hearted:
“Weep not, Guthrun, grievous tears,
Bride so young, for thy brothers live.
“Too young, methinks, is my son as yet,
He cannot flee from the home of his foes;
Fearful and deadly the plan they found,
The counsel new that now they have heeded.
“No son will ride, though seven thou hast,
To the Thing as the son of their sister rides;
Well I see who the ill has worked,
On Brynhild alone lies the blame for all.
“Above all men the maiden loved me,
Yet false to Gunnar I ne’er was found;
I kept the oaths and the kinship I swore;
Of his queen the lover none may call me.
In a swoon she sank when Sigurth died;
So hard she smote her hands together
That all the cups in the cupboard rang,
And loud in the courtyard cried the geese.
Then Brynhild, daughter of Buthli, laughed,
Only once, with all her heart,
When as she lay full loud she heard
The grievous wail of Gjuki’s daughter.
Then Gunnar, monarch of men, spake forth:
“Thou dost not laugh, thou lover of hate,
In gladness there, or for aught of good;
Why has thy face so white a hue,
Mother of ill? Foredoomed thou art.
“A worthier woman wouldst thou have been
If before thine eyes we had Atli slain;
If thy brother’s bleeding body hadst seen
And the bloody wounds that thou shouldst End.”
“None mock thee, Gunnar! thou hast mightily fought,
But thy hatred little doth Atli heed;
Longer than thou, methinks, shall he live,
And greater in might shall he ever remain.
“To thee I say, and thyself thou knowest,
That all these ills thou didst early shape;
No bonds I knew, nor sorrow bore,
And wealth I had in my brother’s home.
“Never a husband sought I to have,
Before the Gjukungs fared to our land;
Three were the kings on steeds that came,—
Need of their journey never there was.
“To the hero great my troth I gave
Who gold-decked sat on Grani’s back;
Not like to thine was the light of his eyes,
(Nor like in form and face are ye,)
Though kingly both ye seemed to be.
“And so to me did Atli say
That share in our wealth I should not have,
Of gold or lands, if my hand I gave not;
(More evil yet, the wealth I should yield,)
The gold that he in my childhood gave me,
(The wealth from him in my youth I had.)
“Oft in my mind I pondered much
If still I should fight, and warriors fell,
Brave in my byrnie, my brother defying;
That would wide in the world be known,
And sorrow for many a man would make.
“But the bond at last I let be made,
For more the hoard I longed to have,
The rings that the son of Sigmund won;
No other’s treasure e’er I sought.
“One-alone of all I loved,
Nor changing heart I ever had;
All in the end shall Atli know,
When he hears I have gone on the death-road hence.”
* * * * * *
“Never a wife of fickle will
Yet to another man should yield.
. . . . . . . .
So vengence for all my ills shall come.”
Up rose Gunnar, the people’s ruler,
And flung his arms round her neck so fair;
And all who came, of every kind,
Sought to hold her with all their hearts.
But back she cast all those who came,
Nor from the long road let them hold her;
In counsel then did he Hogni call:
“Of wisdom now full great is our need.
“Let the warriors here in the hall come forth,
Thine and mine, for the need is mighty,
If haply the queen from death they may hold,
Till her fearful thoughts with time shall fade.”
(Few the words of Hogni were:)
“From the long road now shall ye hold her not,
That born again she may never be!
Foul she came from her mother forth,
And born she was for wicked deeds,
(Sorrow to many a man to bring.)”
From the speaker gloomily Gunnar turned,
For the jewel-bearer her gems was dividing;
On all her wealth her eyes were gazing,
On the bond-women slain and the slaughtered slaves.
Her byrnie of gold she donned, and grim
Was her heart ere the point of her sword had pierced it;
On the pillow at last her head she laid,
And, wounded, her plan she pondered o’er.
“Hither I will that my women come
Who gold are fain from me to get;
Necklaces fashioned fair to each
Shall I give, and cloth, and garments bright.”
Silent were all as so she spake,
And all together answer made:
“Slain are enough; we seek to live,
Not thus thy women shall honor win.”
Long the woman, linen-decked, pondered,—
—Young she was,— and weighed her words:
“For my sake now shall none unwilling
Or loath to die her life lay down.
“But little of gems to gleam on your limbs
Ye then shall find when forth ye fare
To follow me, or of Menja’s wealth.
. . . . . . . .
“Sit now, Gunnar! for I shall speak
Of thy bride so fair and so fain to die;
Thy ship in harbor home thou hast not,
Although my life I now have lost.
“Thou shalt Guthrun requite more quick than thou thinkest,
. . . . . . . .
Though sadly mourns the maiden wise
Who dwells with the king, o’er her husband dead.
“A maid shall then the mother bear;
Brighter far than the fairest day
Svanhild shall be, or the beams of the sun.
“Guthrun a noble husband thou givest,
Yet to many a warrior woe will she bring,
Not happily wedded she holds herself;
Her shall Atli hither seek,
(Buthli’s son, and brother of mine.)
“Well I remember how me ye treated
When ye betrayed me with treacherous wiles;
. . . . . . . .
Lost was my joy as long as I lived.
“Oddrun as wife thou fain wouldst win,
But Atli this from thee withholds;
Yet in secret tryst ye twain shall love;
She shall hold thee dear, as I had done
If kindly fate to us had fallen.
“Ill to thee shall Atli bring,
When he casts thee down in the den of snakes.
“But soon thereafter Atli too
His life, methinks, as thou shalt lose,
(His fortune lose and the lives of his sons;)
Him shall Guthrun, grim of heart,
With the biting blade in his bed destroy.
“It would better beseem thy sister fair
To follow her husband first in death,
If counsel good to her were given,
Or a heart akin to mine she had.
“Slowly I speak,— but for my sake
Her life, methinks, she shall not lose;
She shall wander over the tossing waves,
To where Jonak rules his father’s realm.
“Sons to him she soon shall bear,
Heirs therewith of Jonak’s wealth;
But Svanhild far away is sent,
The child she bore to Sigurth brave.
“Bikki’s word her death shall be,
For dreadful the wrath of Jormunrek;
So slain is all of Sigurth’s race,
And greater the woe of Guthrun grows.
“Yet one boon I beg of thee,
The last of boons in my life it is:
Let the pyre be built so broad in the field
That room for us all will ample be,
(For us who slain with Sigurth are.)
“With shields and carpets cover the pyre,
. . . . . . . .
Shrouds full fair, and fallen slaves,
And besides the Hunnish hero burn me.
“Besides the Hunnish hero there
Slaves shall burn, full bravely decked,
Two at his head and two at his feet,
A brace of hounds and a pair of hawks,
For so shall all be seemly done.
“Let between us lie once more
The steel so keen, as so it lay
When both within one bed we were,
And wedded mates by men were called.
“The door of the hall shall strike not the heel
Of the hero fair with flashing rings,
If hence my following goes with him;
Not mean our faring forth shall be.
“Bond-women five shall follow him,
And eight of my thralls, well-born are they,
Children with me, and mine they were
As gifts that Buthli his daughter gave.
“Much have I told thee, and more would say
If fate more space for speech had given;
My voice grows weak, my wounds are swelling;
Truth I have said, and so I die.”