the nibelung gap


Many years ago William Morris declared that the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the Völsungs and the Nibelungs, deserved to become the Northern Homer, and he was right. It has everything: the dragon Fáfnir and the valkyrie Brynhild, werewolves and dwarves, mysterious interventions by a one-eyed deity, a sword broken and reforged, a fabulous treasure-hoard and, above all, a magic ring with a curse on it. It also has – and this may have prevented it from realizing its potential, at least in Morris’s long verse retelling of 1876 – many lurking embarrassments: incest, child-murder, human sacrifice, what looks very like ceremonial female suicide or suttee. Yet even more alluring and provoking than what is in the legend, is what might have been there once but is there no more. The relationship between the various forms of the Nibelung legend was recognized in the nineteenth century as the Königsproblem of Germanic philology, which has never been solved. We still possess four main ancient sources, two Norse (the Völsunga saga and a brief epitome in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda), one in German (the Nibelungenlied), and one in Norse but derived from German, in the legendary compendium of the Þiðrekssaga. There is a fifth, for the legend gave rise to over half (fifteen out of twenty-nine) of the poems contained in the main manuscript of Eddic poetry surviving, the Codex Regius. However, some of those poems concern later additions to the cycle, several deal only with the complaints of Gudrún after all is over, and where the heart of the story should be, there is a gap.

more from the TLS here.