Christopher Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. A prose account of the story
This synopsis was written by Christopher Tolkien exclusively for the website.
The main text of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún consists of two long poems: ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’, and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’. Because of the ancient style and metrical form adopted by the author, this synopsis may be useful to the reader who is unfamiliar with either the legend or the poetic form. It takes no account of other versions where they differ.
The New Lay of the Völsungs
Of old was an age
when Ódin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.
It is told that these three Gods (who in the Norse tongue are called the Æsir), Ódin (greatest of the Northern Gods), Loki, and Hœnir came to a waterfall where dwelt the dwarf Ándvari. At the falls they saw an otter that had caught a salmon; but Loki hurled a stone at it and killed it.
Then the Gods went on their way until they came to the house of a certain Hreidmar, and they showed him the otter’s skin. But the otter was Hreidmar’s son, who took the form of an otter when fishing; and Hreidmar called out to his other sons, Fáfnir and Regin, and they laid hands on the Æsir and bound them, demanding that they ransom themselves by filling the otter-skin with gold, and covering it on the outside with gold, so that no trace of the skin could be seen.
Then Loki went over land and sea to find Rán, the wife of the sea-god; and he got from her the net with which she drew down men drowning in the sea. With that net he captured the dwarf Ándvari, who was fishing in his falls. Ándvari ransomed himself with his great hoard of gold, but he tried to save for himself a little gold ring; and when Loki saw that, he took the ring from him. Then Ándvari laid a curse upon it.
When Loki returned to Heidmar’s house Ódin saw the ring, and he desired it, and took it for himself. Then Hreidmar and his sons filled up the otter-skin with the gold of Ándvari and covered it; but Hreidmar looking at it very closely saw a hair, and he demanded that that too should be hidden; then Ódin drew out the ring, and covered the hair.
There was a king in the North, a descendant of Ódin, who was named Völsung. Sigmund was his eldest son, and Signý was his sister: she was wise and could foresee much that would come to pass. There were nine other sons besides.
Völsung’s hall was upheld by a towering tree; its boughs were the rafters, and birds sang in them. A king named Siggeir sought Signý to be his bride; but Signý was unwilling. Yet despite her foreboding Siggeir’s wooing was accepted; and in due time Siggeir with many men came to Völsung’s land, and a great feast was held.
At that feast, on a dark night of wind, the door of the hall was suddenly opened, and a man, tall, very old, white-bearded, and covered with a great cloak, entered; and it was Ódin. From under his cloak he swept out a sword, and thrust it into the bole of the great tree, inviting any of those present to try to draw it forth. Many strove, but none could move it, until Sigmund, Völsung’s son, easily released it. Siggeir offered to purchase it at a great price, but Sigmund haughtily refused him; and this was the beginning of hatred.
Yet Signý, despite her foreboding, must leave Völsung’s house and depart with Siggeir. Later in the year Völsung and his sons came as guests to Gautland, the realm of Siggeir; but Signý met them on the shore, and warned them of what Siggeir had in store for them. In the battle that followed Völsung was slain, and all his sons were made captive. They were set in fetters in the forest; and night after night a great she-wolf came to devour one of them, until only Sigmund was left alive. But on the tenth night Sigmund succeeded in slaying the wolf, and escaped into the woods, where he dwelt.
Signý sought ever for vengeance on Siggeir; and at last she changed shapes with a sorceress. Then the sorceress slept with Siggeir for three nights in Signý’s form, while Signý slept with her brother Sigmund. Their son was named Sinfjötli. Far and wide he and his father roamed in the forest in the guise of werewolves; but when the time was ripe they came to Siggeir’s hall by night and set in on fire. There Siggeir died; but when Sigmund told Signý to come forth from the burning, she refused.
At last Sigmund came back to Völsung’s hall upheld by the great tree, and with him Sinfjötli; there they ruled together. Sigmund took for his wife a woman who hated Sinfjötli; and she murdered him in the hall by bringing him a poisoned drink.
Sigmund in great grief carried his corpse to the sea-shore. There Ódin appeared to him as the steersman of a little boat, and taking the body of Sinfjötli bore it away and disappeared.
Sigmund dwelt queenless and childless, until in his old age he married a woman named Sigrlinn. His land was invaded by a great force of his enemies. But as Sigmund fiercely contended against them on the battlefield there appeared before him an ancient man in dark cloak and hood, and armed with a spear. When Ódin raised his spear against Sigmund’s sword, Ódin’s gift that he had drawn from the trunk of the tree in Völsung’s house, the sword snapped.
Sigmund fell in the fighting wounded mortally. Sigrlinn found him where he lay, but he rejected all thought of healing, saying that Ódin had called him. Before he died he told her that she would bear a son, Völsung’s heir; and that she should guard the fragments of the sword, Ódin’s gift, which was named Gram, for from them it should be remade.
After the death of Sigmund, Sigrlinn was married to the king of another country; and when her son, who was named Sigurd, was born he was sent to be fostered by Regin the son of Hreidmar. Regin was a famous smith, but skilled in many other matters beside. He told Sigurd the story of Ándvari’s gold; and he told how Fáfnir, his brother, had slain their father Hreidmar for the treasure; he would give no piece of it to Regin, but he had transformed himself into a great dragon, and made himself a lair in the wilderness of Gnitaheiði.
Now Regin egged Sigurd on to slay Fáfnir, and he forged for him two swords, but Sigurd broke both of them in turn. Then from his mother Sigrlinn he acqired the fragments of Gram that had belonged to his father; and from them Regin forged an incomparable sword.
Guided by Ódin Sigurd chose for himself a horse named Grani, famous in legend, and with Regin he rode to Gnitaheiði. There he hid in a hollow dug in the dragon’s path until he came from his lair to drink, and then with his sword Gram he pierced Fáfnir to the heart from beneath as he passed over.
When Fáfnir lay dead Regin cut out his heart, and he asked Sigurd to roast it. This he did, but he touched it with his finger and put the finger to his mouth, and so he tasted Fáfnir’s heart. Immediately he could understand what birds in the thicket were saying of Regin’s treacherous intent towards him, and he turned, and seeing Regin creeping through the grass towards him he slew him. Then he went to Fáfnir’s lair, and loading the treasure onto Grani’s back he departed from Gnitaheiði.
Now Sigurd came to a mountain named Hindarfell, and he saw a fire and lightning at its summit. He rode Grani up to it and through the flames, and he found that they encircled a man in armour lying asleep; but when he lifted the helm he saw that it was a woman. He learned that she was Brynhild, and she was a Valkyrie, a warrior woman of Ódin, whom the God had laid to sleep because she had disobeyed his command.
On the mountain-top Sigurd and Brynhild pledged themselves to one another; but soon they parted, she to her own land, and he to the land of the Niflungs on the Rhine.
In the court of Gjúki, king of the Niflungs, and the queen Grímhild, Sigurd was welcomed, and he stayed there long. He became the companion in arms of the Niflung princes, Gunnar and Högni, and fought beside them in their wars.
Now Grímhild the queen was a sorceress, skilled in spells, grim and guileful. She looked on Sigurd, and she thought of his might and his splendour, and of his golden hoard; she thought too of her daughter, Gudrún, of great beauty. But he thought always of Brynhild, and resolved that he would soon set out to seek her again.
There was a great feast held, and at that feast Grímhild brought to Sigurd a powerful potion that she had made, and it was a drink of forgetfulness. He drank it, and immediately all memory of Brynhild faded from his mind.
Then Sigurd and Gudrún were wedded; and at the wedding-feast the Niflung princes Gunnar and Högni swore oaths of blood-brotherhood with Sigurd. But Grímhild turned her thoughts now to the marrying of her son Gunnar. She spoke to him of Brynhild, and she told him that Sigurd would ride with him in his wooing, and that she would teach them cunning devices of her sorcery to aid them.
Sigurd and the Niflung princes set out, and they came to Brynhild’s halls, which were surrounded by fire, conceived by Brynhild as a barrier against all comers save Sigurd. But Gunnar’s horse Goti would not enter the fire, and he asked Sigurd for the loan of Grani. Yet neither would Grani move a step with Gunnar on his back. Then Sigurd by the magic of Grímhild was transformed into the likeness of Gunnar, and now Grani leapt through the fire. As Gunnar Sigurd met Brynhild, and as Gunnar he declared himself. Brynhild was uncomprehending and filled with doubt, but Sigurd said that she was doomed by her oath to wed him who passed the fire. They lay together in the same bed; but Sigurd laid between them the sword Gram, unsheathed.
At dawn while she still slept he took the ring from her finger, and in its place he set Ándvaranaut, the ring of Ándvari. Then he left her.
At the appointed time Brynhild came, and was wedded to Gunnar; and at the bridal Sigurd and Brynhild saw each other, as is said in the poem:
As stone graven
stared she palely,
as cold and still
as carven stone.
From shrouded heart
the shadows parted;
oaths were remembered
As stone carven,
he sat unsmiling,
no sign making.
Sigurd rode out hunting, and Brynhild and Gudrún went to wash their hair in the waters of the Rhine. But Brynhild waded the deeper into the river, lest the water that had washed Gudrún’s hair should flow over hers, and they fell to quarrelling: Gudrún claiming that the glory of the slayer of Fáfnir was surpassing, but Brynhild declaring that it was less than that of him who passed through her fire. Then Gudrún laughed, and said: ‘He who rode your fire was he who gave you the ring Ándvaranaut, which is set on your finger. Did Gunnar get it on Gnitaheiði?’
Then Brynhild was stricken, seeing what had been done; and she left the river and went to her bower. There she lay lamenting throughout the day, in a passion of rage and grief, filled wih scorn and hatred for Gunnar and Gudrún, and cursing Sigurd when he came to her. To Gunnar she lied terrribly, saying that Sigurd had possessed her when in Gunnar’s form he lay beside her, and Gunnar believed her. Seeking out Gotthorm, the half-brother of Gunnar and Högni, he urged him to slay Sigurd, since he had sworn no oath of brotherhood.
Then Gotthorm coming to their bedchamber stabbed Sigurd as he slept in Gudrún’s arms. Before he died he said to her:
Brynhild wrought this:
best she loved me,
worst she dealt me,
worst belied me.
I Gunnar never
grieved nor injured;
oaths I swore him,
all fulfilled them!
Then Brynhild cried out on the Niflungs as cursed forswearers, who kept the bonds of brotherhood with murder, while Sigurd remembered them:
A sword lay naked
set between us,
Gram lay grimly
Brynhild threw herself on a sword, and so died. A great pyre was built, and they lay on it side by side, with the sword between them.
Thus Sigurd passed,
seed of Völsung,
there Brynhild burned:
bliss was ended.
The New Lay of Gudrún
Smoke had faded,
sunk was burning;
were wafted cold.
As sun setting
had Sigurd passed;
and Brynhild burned
as blazing fire.
It is told that after the murder of Sigurd, Gudrún distraught with grief would not look on her brothers or her mother, but wandered away into the forest. At that time report came to the Niflungs, Gunnar and Högni, whose father King Gjúki was now dead, of the rising power of Atli, king of the Huns, and the westward movement of his armies; and it was said that, ever greedy for gold, he had heard of Fafnir’s treasure, seized by the Niflungs after Sigurd’s death.
The thoughts of Grímhild the queen turned towards Gudrún, seeing in her beauty an escape from this menace; and they sought for her, and found her, living alone in a house in the woods, where she wove a great tapestry in which she showed all the story from the Falls of Ándvari to the coming of Sigurd to King Gjúki’s courts There Gunnar and Högni offered her gold in recompense, but Gudrún still filled with hatred rejected them, and Grímhild held out to her, in vain, a vision of her power and wealth as Atli’s queen.
But the old sorceress daunted Gudrún with her eyes and the force of her will. Gudrún sorrowful became the Queen of Hunland; and Atli swore oaths of lasting truce and league with her brothers. Atli was enamoured of her, but still more of the treasure of Fáfnir; and the gold that he lusted for never left the land of the Niflungs. Gudrún perceived what passsed in his mind, and forboded evil.
Atli prepared a great feast for guests far and wide; and a messenger named Vingi was sent on the long journey from Hunland to the halls of the Niflungs in the Rhineland.
There he declared to them the vast array of gifts, of treasure and weapons and armour, that they would receive. Gunnar was filled with resentment at Atli’s pride; and Högni said that his sister had sent him a ring, but it was wound about with a wolf’s hair, to be read as a warning. Gunnar received from Gudrún a message carved in runes which carried no suggestion of danger; but Grímhild looked closely at the runes, and saw that there were runes of quite other meaning beneath, which had been overlaid. Then Vingi brought out his last seduction, saying that Atli, now old, desired their help as regents of his kingdom, since his sons were so young. Högni was not fooled by this, but Gunnar, who had drunk very deep, cried out that they would go. And they departed, a small company, and they rode thrugh fen and forest, hill and valley, until they looked down upon the great fortress of Atli, full of armed men.
When Högni smote the barred doors Vingi came out, exulting that they had ridden to their deaths, for gallows, wolf, and raven were waiting for them; and they hanged him from a tree in the faces of the Huns. Straightway fierce battle began. The Huns were driven in from the doors, and Atli came out, demanding the gold ‘that is Gudrún’s right’. This the Niflungs refused with scorn, and they fought their way up the stairs. But Gudrún hearing the cries as they were beaten back, called out to the many Goths at Atli’s court to rise up against their Hunnish masters.
With new strength of men Gunnar and Högni fought their way into Atli’s hall, and there they had him at their mercy, which they would not have shown him, had not Gudrún pleaded for him: whereupon they scornfully let him go. Atli released sent out for more men, and the Niflungs were shut in the hall of which they became now the defenders. For five days the siege lasted; but a counsellor of the king persuaded him to set fire to the hall. Then the Niflungs were brought at last to bay, taken, and bound. Högni was thrown into a dark dungeon, but Gunnar was taken to Gudrún’s bower and thrown at the feet of Atli, who trampled on him. Gudrún saw this, and his own fate drew near. She besought him to forego their deaths, but Atli replied that that could only be if the Niflung hoard were delivered to him.
Gunnar said that he would give up his half portion of the treasure, but that Högni ‘my haughty brother’ would never do so. Let them bring him Högni’s heart, he said, and he would yield all to Atli. The king’s counsellors were wary of what the queen might do, and they seized a slave, a herdsman named Hjalli, and cutting out his heart took it to Gunnar. But Gunnar knew that it was not Högni’s heart, because it quivered; and so they cut out Högni’s heart. Then Gunnar knew that it was true, and he cried: ‘I alone, Lord of Niflungs, now hold and guard the gold for ever! In the waters of the Rhine we cast it; and there it shall lie.’
Cursed be Atli,
king of evil,
of glory naked,
Then Atli, crazed with anger, commanded that Gunnar be thrown naked into the serpents’ pit. But Gudrún had a harp sent to him, and as he played the serpents fell asleep: all but a huge adder that glided slowly towards him, and stung him in his breast.
When Gudrún heard his cry as he died she called to her her sons by Atli, Erp and Eitill.
The Niflungs were burnt on a pyre, and the Huns made a great funeral feast for their fallen, praising Atli, and drinking deep and long. But Gudrún entered the hall bearing goblets, and coming to Atli she wished him health; and he laughed as he drank, for though the gold was lost to him, yet Gunnar was dead. But she said: ‘My brothers are slain that I begged from you. Erp and Eitill do you ask to look on? Ask no longer – their end has come!’ She told him how in her madness she had murdered her sons, and that at their debauch they had eaten their hearts, and drunk from bowls that were made from their skulls.
Atli fell on his face in a swoon, and they brought him to his bed, and laid him down and left him to his dreams. But Gudrún came into the chamber and stabbed him to death. Cursing her as he died, he said that she should burn and wither at the stake; but she mocked him, saying ‘The doom of burning is dight for thee!’ And she set fire to Atli’s dwellings.
Thus Atli ended
to the Niflungs’ bane
the night was come;
of Völsung, Niflung,
of vows broken,
of woe and valour
are the words ended.
But Gudrún wandered witless through the world until she came to the sea, and there she threw herself into the waves and was drowned.
Thus glory endeth,
and gold fadeth,
on noise and clamours
the night falleth.
Lift up your hearts,
lords and maidens
for the song of sorrow
that was sung of old.