on 11 May 2002
It's rare to find a book that's a good read for readers of all stripes, but this is one of the them. History and saga fiends will love the maps and the way Byock's introduction ties the tale into other historical contexts. Lovers of literature will enjoy the prose and a fantastic episodic narrative that builds one story on top of another into a great epic. It helps that Byock's translation is superb--he catches the rhythm and flow of the original Old Icelandic while crafting a very readable text that isn't dry or overworked as some translations can be. The notes, too, provide a wonderful background that enriches the reader's experience of the saga.
This saga is the one to start with. It's a fun saga--with lots of action, and also one of the most important stories in western literature, a Viking Age epic of the hero Sigurd and his wild Volsung kinsmen. Along the way, the famous Attila the Hun and the Gothic horsemen of the steppes enter the story along with others of their ilk.
The Saga of the Volsungs is the core basis of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a professor of Old English and taught Old Norse. In his creative way, he mined the Volsung story for the essential elements of his trilogy. If you want to understand Tolkien as well as Scandinavian myth and legend, then this saga is the best place to get started. The sword that was reforged, the ring of power and its connection with water, the Gandalf character, the origin of the Gollum and Aragorn, elves, dwarves, the riders of Rohan and much more all step off the pages of The Saga of the Volsungs.
I heartily recommend Jesse Byock's translation of The Saga of the Volsungs for new and old readers of the sagas, and of course for the Tolkien fans out there!
This 13th century Icelandic saga of Sigurd the dragon slayer was rediscovered in 19th century Europe and was a prime source for Wagner's Ring cycle, especially the Siegfried part. Elements will also be found in Tolkien. Personally, I came to Norse mythology through The Adventures of Noggin the Nog (Did he ever put an end to Nogbad the Bad?).
It is a neglected tradition, as evidenced by the paucity of translations in print. We commonly talk of the Classical (Greek and Roman) and Judeo-Christian roots of our culture, but greatly underestimate the Norse and Celtic influences. The Volsung saga and the Niebelungenlied are among the best known and influential of the medieval epics and if you enjoy one you will probably enjoy the other. You might start with the Volsungs because theirs is the shorter and more coherent story, even though the more mythical and fantastic.
Byock's translation is very readable, reflecting the sparse, unadorned style of the original. His introduction is excellent, especially the notes on Wagner, in which he traces the influence of this work in the Ring.
The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and The Lay of the Raven follow the Volsung saga in the original manuscripts and form a continuous narrative. So why, as the Volsung saga is quite short, are they not published together in one volume? I felt rather short changed. Even so, I heartily recommend this book.
on 24 April 2001
Jesse Byock's translation of the Saga of the Volsungs is not only complete, but elegant. Certainly, this story is an antecedent to The Lord of the Rings, but rather than comparing it with Tolkien's work, it should be taken as a beautiful story, probably from an earlier oral culture. The story is full of all the things we enjoy in the a good story today: love triangles, feuds, heroes, etc. The translation is VERY straightforward and easy to read. Economical in his style, and direct in his approach, Byock's translation is a must have.
on 11 November 2006
Some things don't change - this is and always has been the stuff stories are made of. In addition to the usual soap-opera material, there are shape-shifters, dragons, sorcerers and gods: the sort of thing we expect to find in modern fantasies. But this isn't a fantasy. It's a mixture of myth, legend and history and it forms part of the foundation that fantasy was eventually built upon, predating the genre by hundreds of year. The Volsungs were a family that traced their ancestry back to the god Odin. They were a bloody-handed collection of 'heroes' who killed not only rivals and enemies, but their own family members. Volsung mothers killed their own children to annoy the children's fathers or to test the children's courage. Obviously, natural selection was going to punish such unnatural behaviour in the long run. In the story, the family suffered as the result of acquiring (stealing) a cursed treasure, but actually, the habit of killing each other faster than reproducing seems to have been the real cause of the family's demise. They were a perfectly charmless lot, but terribly brave. I found it quite an enjoyable read but I mean to try William Morris's translation at some time. His style is more poetic and I felt this translation (although very easy to read), was a little bit too prosaic for one of the great mythical tales of northern Europe.
on 1 April 2003
When I bought this book - purely by chance I admit - I was expecting it to be difficult to read, a bit boring and full of needless and intricate details about a story I cared nothing about. I had read The Lord of the Rings and immediately told myself to buy it because Tolkien's classic was based on it.
I couldn't have been farther from the truth. This book is amazing and far from boring. In fact it's very easy to read and, unlike someone says in another review, you don't really need to know a lot about old norse mithology and vikings and such to enjoy the book and understand it.
The stories are about a mythical family, the Volsungs, and their adventures. Although most events are obviously fantasy it is precisely that ficional and fantastic edge that makes the book really remarkable and awe-inspiring. The common factors in all the stories are honour, tradition, fighting and thirst for power with quite a lot of sorcery and fantasy mixed in.
To help the reader understand those intricate details I mentioned above the translator did a wonderful job adding notes. They make the stories even more interesting and give them an extra dimension, especially if you are interested in carrying on reading more sagas.
The only 'but' I have about the book is the long, boring and extremely baldy written introduction, so much so that if you know nothing about the historical background to the sagas you are still left with nothing. I even nearly fell asleep at times! If you are reading this take my advice: go straight to the story. (And don't forget reading the notes.)
The feeling I got after I read this is that The Lord of The Rings seems to be just 'regular' fiction. Perhaps I am being too harsh on Tolkien?
on 16 May 2013
An excellent and well-presented account of the settlement of Iceland in a style which is surprisingly modern. I found it a great help in understanding the Icelandic people when I visited there recently.
on 5 April 2009
This saga has become essential in our culture thanks to Wagner who made it one of his primary sources for his Ring quadrilogy. It has also been used by Tolkien to inspire his Lord of the Rings series. The introduction is very important, just like the "glossary" that lists all the mentions of every character in the text, because it is trying to set correspondences with confirmed historical facts and figures. It also tries to connect this saga with other epic poems of the time, or before, from the vast Germanic zone including Franks, Burgundians, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, Icelanders and Germans. This might be interesting but is limited in scope. In fact the "historical truth" or should I say "veracity", is little interesting from a wider point of view. This epic poem has to be dealt with as an anthropological document. It conveys elements that go back to extremely ancient myths coming from the very source of the Indo-European or rather Irano-European tradition, that itself comes from unknown older traditions. The basic I/E motif can be condensed to [(the hero)-(kills)-(the dragon)-(with a weapon/sword)-(with the help of a partner)]. Then the dynamic being longer, the evolution is also longer, the possible comparisons multifarious and the meaning quite different. The main element then is the value of the dragon and of the sword, and eventually of the horse. The main focusing point is the role of the only God that intervenes, Wotan or Odin, and his daughter or his warrior/shield maiden. But then that is too archaeological to be enough. This tale coming from the past was only finally codified in the 13th century. It would be interesting to see how it could be contrasted with some of the Semitic tales of the Old Testament, since the Semitic tradition was close to the old I/E tradition in time, and in direct competition in space, and then we could see how it was influenced by Christianity. There are some obvious signs, among others the parallel between Archangel Michael and Sigurd, the two dragon slayers. In Sigurd's case it leads to pure horror and infernal strife. We can think the main idea then is that this tale is the proof that the killing of the dragon cannot lead to any salvation if not inspired by Christianity. The parallel with Beowulf is typical as for that. The presence of Siegfried as a dragon slayer on the portals of old Scandinavian stave-churches is just as typical. It is the illustration of what happens to heroes if they do not discover the truth of God. Paganism is not then the aim of the tale but the defeat of paganism is, the triumph of the good faith. It reminds us the presence of the Celtic "wuyvre" (the male head representing the deep tellurian or magnetic or aquatic underground forces) on the portals of Romanesque churches in France and other places, and similar Celtic symbols on the portals or carved capitals of Irish and continental Romanesque churches. We then find the same target as in Beowulf, with the difference that the treasure will be buried for ever after the killing of the dragon, not by Beowulf, who will die in the battle, but by his spiritual "son", a killing that comes after the killing of a monster and his mother, and that first killing is in no way Christian. We can also note the parallel with Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare is also a master of horror but this play gets a fresh meaning when we know that Queen Elizabeth I ordered the last amputation of the right hand ordered in England for a pamphlet against her. Shakespeare's use of Roman and Barbarian horror, with an added anti-Semite dimension, is very effective to bring about more light in this world by contrast. The world has luckily left the past behind, or has it really? We will never know the real intention of the authors of such tales. But we can and should analyze them from the audience's point of view, at the time, and today. Today it has lost most of its mystical and mythical value. We do not see the tale as barbaric or pagan. For us it is a human adventure, the adventure of humanity. Greed and power can only lead to destruction and, as Shakespeare believed, when something disturbs or perturbs a balanced situation, all the proponents have to disappear to let a new power in. Fatality is inescapable. The only question is then: what started it? From the mythical point of view it is the caper of Wotan, or Odin, and two of his friends or acolytes, and their capturing an underground treasure to save their skins for having killed some trout that was nothing but some disguised human being. The emergence of that treasure is the starting point that prompts creed and envy and violence. Titus Andronicus refuses the throne offered to him and he thus destroys the balance of things. Then we have to let history run to its own epiphany after the total disposal of the various actors of that situation, the total expurgation of the venom. And that's the modernity of these tales. Evil is in the human heart and mind and it has to run its course, the course of the curse, to open onto a regeneration that is not specified, except on the stave-church portals: enter the church, or in Titus Andronicus. The heir of such violence is the only surviving victim of the systematic killing that could be considered as genocidal if it were not simply tribal.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines, CEGID
on 2 September 2009
It's been many years since I read the Icelandic sagas, and this has reawakened my interest with a vengeance! For those who love Lord of the Rings and similar works, it is refreshing to read the original (translated as I don't read mediaeval Norse) works upon which Tolkien based his classic. One can only imagine the impact of hearing such tales told by a skald in the hall of an evening lit only by a fire or rush lights!
on 12 November 2002
I bought this item for my partner, who is fascinated by all things fantasy-like - dragons, hero's the lot. Tearing him away from Lord of the Rings, has become an impossible challenge.
He absolutely loved this book, and read it in less than a week of me buying it.
The tale is quite involving, and if you like historic fantasy tales, you'll love this. You may need a bit of background knowledge on Norse Gods and Legends, but otherwise, it's a good read for anyone,
on 24 March 2013
This may not be in every ones list of good reads but I found it splendid work for the cold winter nights and suggest it is worth a try.