Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Volsunga Saga

The Völsunga Saga is a 13th century prose retelling of the heroic lays found in The Elder Edda. For the most part they follow closely the heroic poems, although there are a great many additional and/or alternate details given, including - most importantly - the matter contained in "The Great Lacuna" missing from the Edda, as well as an introductory sequence not found in the Eddas at all which concerns Volsung's descent from Odin. The only existing manuscript dates to circa 1400, and also contains Ragnar Lodbrok's Saga which follows after Völsunga Saga without a break (readers of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles series will know Ragnar's name quite well).

One of the best things about the Völsunga Saga, of course, is that it's in prose, which makes it far easier to read and understand, being more closely akin to the common speech of normal mortals (those of us not endowed with poetic tendencies or divine inspiration). That is not to say that it's written in modern English, nor is it easy to breeze through. But it is much more like reading narrative, poetic though it may still be.

Over the weekend I polished off a comparative re-reading of both R. G. Finch's 1965 edition, and that great staple translation done by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson in 1888. The latter was, in fact, the first English rendering of the Völsunga Saga, and has never been surpassed, at least for popularity. That might be due in part to the fact that all subsequent editions simply pale in terms of poetry: the breadth and beauty of William Morris's work has long been hailed by critics and casual readers alike, and his and Magnusson's obvious love of the material shines through on every page. Today the rendering leans toward the archaic and borders on hard to comprehend, but once the rhythm of the language is grasped it flows freely and with truly astonishing grace and power.

Texts of both of these translations can now be found on a dedicated Resources page in the Ring Saga archives, where you can also find a complete outline of the story and a thorough genealogy (as given in this version of the story). To the Morris-Magnusson edition I have appended, or rather incorporated, all of Finch's academic line notes, while from Finch's own edition I have deleted all of the facing Icelandic pages, as well as his entire introduction, which is poorly written and far less useful than his notes (although you can also download the complete English-Icelandic version if you like). As some of those notes were on the original Icelandic facing pages, you will have to refer to those notes in the Morris-Magnusson edition, or download the complete Finch PDF (which is a monster at 55 megabytes, and one of the primary reasons I deleted half the pages, for those of you without high speed broadband).

I highly recommend you make the effort to read the more poetic Morris-Magnusson translation, which presents more accurately the sense of the old Norse world. A single example will suffice to make my point: for the line given by Morris-Magnusson as "Now these things wear away with time," Finch has simply "Then it was over."

I rest my case.