Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thinking about the Saga of the Volsung

This week I discovered the answer to what has long been (to me) one of the great literary mysteries: why did Siegfried, the hero of Wagner's Ring Cycle, kill his mentor on the word of a couple birds?  I mean, can you picture what would happen in modern times if Siegfried tried to get off a murder charge with `But your honor, some birds said he was plotting to kill me and steal my dragon gold.  It was self defense!'  

Okay, I know that one cannot understand an ancient epic if one tries to read it with a modern mindset, but every time I came across that particular part in the story, my mind would start shouting `hold it Siegfried!  Who're you going to believe?  The guy who raised you, or a bunch of flighty birds?'  And every time, Siegfried picked the birds.  

This week, I finally read The Saga of the Volsung (translated by Jesse Byock.) which is the story on which Wagner's Ring Cycle was based. There the birds say one line that gave Siegfried a genuine motive for killing his mentor:  "He is not as wise as I thought if he spares Regin after having killed his brother."  

Now, in The Saga of the Volsung, the poet has just finished giving numerous examples of how vitally important avenging blood-kin is to the Nordic people.  It's a matter of honor.  Regin is lamenting the fact that he sent our hero (called Sigurd in this version) to kill his brother, the dragon Fafnir.  Suddenly the Siegfried/Sigurd's actions make sense.  Regin really is a threat, and if Sigurd had thought about it two seconds, he'd have realized that without the birds even telling him so.  Since in Wagner's version, Siegfried's mentor is no relation to the dragon, that motivation gets lost. 

All of this got me thinking about myths, and legends, and fairy tales.  So often when you're reading a fairy-tale there will be a piece that just doesn't work.  Someone will toss their comb over their shoulder and it'll transform into an impenetrable forest or something, and you'll be left scratching your head, wondering how the hero knew to toss his comb in the first place.  Likely it all made sense to the original audience -just as Sigurd killing Regin makes sense once you know that Regin is the dragon's brother and would be honor-bound to try to kill Sigurd.  People's attitudes change over time, and when stories don't change with them, well, that's where you get a lot of weirdness.  

One thing I love to do when writing is invent myths, legends, and fairy-tales for my story culture.  Thinking about what people used to believe gives you a wonderful foundation for deciding what people believe currently.  Even when attitudes shift, something of the old often lingers.  

So what about you guys?  Anyone else who uses invented myths and fairy-tales as an important building block in writing?  Anyone have a favorite fairy-tale or legends with pieces that just don't make sense?


  1. I like mentioning legends and stories in my own writing. I think it adds depth. {Smile}

    The only real inconsistency in a fairy tale that I can think of is Rapunzel. I found the story behind it, and like your discovery, the trouble came when a particular author fiddled with a perfectly sensible legend. (She didn't slip and mention the prince in the orignal; she just wondered why her clothes were getting tight. Of course, that wasn't suitable for the tender sensibilities of Victorian parents. {lop-sided smile})

    However, for inconsistencies, read OZ. L. Frank Baum was pretty sloppy with continuity. THE WIZARD OF OZ itself isn't too bad, but his later books only got worse. {lop-sided smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  2. Was that in Pentamerone that you found the original for Repunzel? I have an absolutely wonderful fairy-tale book, a collection by Iona and Peter Opie which has these essays before each story about where the fairy-tale came from, and Pentamerone is mentioned several times. I keep thinking I should make a search for it, then getting side tracked. :)

    I totally agree that background legends can give so much depth to a piece. That's one of the things I adore about `Watership Down.' There's this place where the rabbits hear someone calling Bigwig, and he assumes it's the Black Rabbit of Inle. Since Richard Adams had set the Black Rabbit up previously as their version of the Grim Reaper, the scene is wonderfully eerie. :)

    I'd agree with the Oz books having continuity problems. For me, the biggest problem was when Baum decided no one in Oz could die. It pretty much destroys all suspense for the books that followed -and raises the question of how the wicked witches Dorthy killed actually managed to stay dead. I really like the first two books though. I pretend those are the only ones Baum wrote. :)

  3. Actually, Rapunzel was in an unabridged Grimm's Fairy Tales. Apparently they originally published the story as they found it, with a comment from Rapunzel about her clothes getting tight setting the witch into a rage. Then in a later edition they decided they needed to preserve the delicate sensibilities and innocence of their tender young readers. So they fixed it by having Rapunzel accidentally mention the prince instead. {pause}

    If the delicate young readers they were so concerned with were anything like the kids I grew up with, their sensibilites were plenty robust enough enough to handle Rapuzel's expanding waistline. It's the parents who didn't want to have to answer the questions kids WILL come up with under the circumstances. {AMUSED SMILE, wink}

    I'll have to check out Watership Down. That scene sounds very well-done. {SMILE}

    Yes, the not-dying bothered me. So did the color-change; from the second book on, even the plants are the preferred color of the inhabitants of a quarter, but that wasn't true in the first book. There were plenty of others, of course. In some ways, what really got me was in one of the last books - 13 or 14, I think - he coudln't even keep the way a fanciful bush worked the same thru the single chapter it featured in. I still read the book for other parts, but.... {shake head gently, wry smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. I never got all the way to the last book in the Oz series. I gave up somewhere around -I think it was a book called `Lost Princess of Oz'. Yeah, the colors bothered me too.

    Hmmm, I'll have to keep an eye out for the unabridged Grimms. It sounds like a lot of fun. :)

    `Watership Down' is a wonderful book. The end makes me cry -in a good way.

  5. Well, you missed some interesting encounters with strange characters, but you also missed a LOT of discontinuity if you stopped at The Lost Princess of Oz. {Smile}

    Yes, the unabridged Grimms I found was fun. I think... {run off to check} Okay, it's _The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm_, Translated and with an introduction by Jack Zipes. I've found that the translator can make a big difference when you need one. Since I don't read German, I need one with Grimm. {Smile}

    Yes, I'll have to look into Watership Down. {SMILE}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  6. I don't read German either. Thanks for the translator's name. You're right. Who does the translating makes a HUGE difference. :)