Archives for posts with tag: Sigurd

saul 5

In the 13th century Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied, a little name calling escalates into the death of our hero Sifried (Sigurd from the Volsung lengend). That almost happened in Better Call Saul a few weeks ago when two skateboarders unwittingly attempted to con Tuco’s grandmother.

When Tuco discovers this, he hogties the skateboarders and takes them out to the desert to execute them. Saul Goodman – who at this point in the story is still known as Jimmy McGill – provides legal defense for the skateboarders in an adhoc desert courtroom where the judge is a psychotic drug kingpin and the jury is comprised of the kingpin’s goons.

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Though he seems willing to drop charges on the con, there is another offense that Tuco is not willing to forget: the two offenders called his grandmother a “Biznatch.” He seeks the death penalty for this one.

Smoothing Tuco over with lines like, “You’re tough – but you’re fair – You’re all about justice,” Saul eventually barters the punishment down from death to a broken leg. In the end, everyone feels the punishment fits the crime.

saul 4

Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Tuco (Raymond Cruz) negotiate in Better Call Saul. image copyright 2015 AMC, High Bridge Productions, Sony Pictures Television

Unfortunately for Sifried, Saul Goodman wasn’t around to counsel King Gunter when his wife Brunhild demanded justice after Sifried’s wife Krimhild called her a whore. Instead of Saul, Gunter had Hagen of Troneg who convinced his king that Sifried’s death was the only penalty that fit the crime.

It all started when Brunhild quarreled with Krimhild for daring to walk into church before her, “No maid in waiting is allowed to walk in front of a great king’s very own lady.”[1]

Krimhild doesn’t let this insult go without a comeback:

Krimhild quickly answered     (easily as angry):

“You’d be better much off   holding your tongue. Your shame

Is selling your beautiful body   to acquire a lady’s name.

How can a whore transform     herself a queen, when she’s been so shamed?[2]

(this odd spacing is intentional and is explained at the end of the post)

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s why Krimhild said such a thing to Brunhild:

King Gunter isn’t the fittest man, but he set his eyes on the Icelandic queen Brunhild. To marry Brunhild you had to beat her in several physical challenges – boulder throwing, spear-throwing, stuff like that. If you lose, you die – but if you win, you get to marry Brunhild. There was no way King Gunter could defeat Brunhild in the games so, wearing a cloak of invisibility, Sifried helps Gunter defeat Brunhild. I wrote about this episode in a previous post.

Gunter gets to marry Brunhild, but as you can imagine she quickly realizes that he’s not the gladiator he seemed during the games. On their wedding night, Brunhild refuses sex and instead ties Gunter up and makes him spend the night hanging from the ceiling.

The next day when Sifried asks Gunter how his first night in the sack with Brunhild was, the humiliated king asks Sifried for his help. Sifried appears the second night – and with that cloak of invisibility – breaks Brunhild like a wild horse. Once she yields to him, he takes her belt and ring and lets King Gunter take over.

The belt was a magic belt of Nineveh silk. It was the source of Brunhild’s superhuman strength. And as for the red golden ring- could it be the cursed ring of Fafinir’s horde?

Brunhild looks at Krimhild and realizes she’s telling the truth:

“She’s wearing, now, the silken             belt I lost, and my red-

Gold ring is on her finger.             I’d wish I’d never been born,

My king, and live eternally       sorry, unless you restore

My honor, free me from   this utterly gross and ghastly slander.”[3]

King Gunter summons Sifried to tell his side of the story. Sifried tells Gunter that he never boasted to anyone that he had Brunhild’s body before the king had slept with her. Gunter frees Sifried of all charges. Just before leaving, Sifried adds:

“Men should make certain,”      heroic Sifried went on,

“that women’s tongues are checked,   kept from wagging loose.

You control your wife,     and will try my best to make sure

Of mine.[4] I’m thoroughly          ashamed of such disgraceful behavior.”[5]

Seeing Brunhild unsatisfied with Gunter’s resolution, Hagen of Troneg convinces King Gunter that the only way to resolve this problem is to kill Sifried:

The king listened to evil      Hagen, his trusted man

Burgundy’s faithless knights    set to work

Worthy warriors preparing     hidden betrayal and death

So just two women quarreled       but many heroes would breathe their last.[6]

And so Sifried’s fate was decided just like that – he would be killed in a “hunting accident.” Justice would be served in hidden betrayal. Though King Gunter gave one verdict out in the open, the final verdict given in private was very different.

One wouldn’t expect the final judgment of a psychotic meth dealer on one of his enemies to be fairer than one decided on by a king with the help of his wise advisors, yet it is.

Both of the penalties these powerful men imposed were intended to protect the honor of a woman who was very dear to each of them. For Gunter, it was his wife Brunhild; for Tuco it was his grandmother. Their method, however, couldn’t be any more different.

After receiving their punishment of one broken leg each, the skateboarders are free to go. Tuco agreed to a penalty and stuck with it. Though he is an emotionally unstable gangster who might kill someone for much less, we are somehow confident that he will keep his word.

This is not the case for Sifried though – the king who publicly told him his charge was dropped will – minutes later – turn around and privately condemn him to death. Why is Tuco the character we can trust to be fair and just? It must have been the sleazy, yet strangely ethical lawyer – Sifried failed to call one.

——————————————————————————

A note about the spacing in Burton Raffel’s English translation/rendering: The spacing is to preserve the half-lines of the quatrains. Raffel explains, “Each line is divided, visually as well as metrically, into two half-lines. The first seven half-lines of each quatrain (that is, the first three and a half lines) have three metrical feet; the last half-line usually, but not always has, has four feet. I have followed this pattern very closely.”[7] He also notes that the quatrains in Das Nibelungenlied are not always end-stopped. Using the quatrain above (Raffel’s 876 – the final quatrain of Adventure 14) let’s look at manuscript C of Nibelungenlied.

nibelung last quatrain of adventure 14 C manuscript

detail of Das Nibelungenlied quatrain 876 from manuscript C. image source

Notice the marks indicating the half-lines. In this quatrain they appear after übel, man, untriuwe, an, erfünde, erkorn, bâgen, and verlorn.

To see them a little easier, first look at the transcribed version below. An early 20th century editor[8] preserved the half-lines of the quatrain in his transcription.

876 ed Friedrich Zarncke

The half-lines can look a little odd in Modern English translation in instances where the idea conveyed doesn’t seem to naturally elicit a pause. There’s a strange intoxicating rhythm to the poetry though. Try reading it aloud – but not just one quatrain, otherwise it won’t work – it should be an entire scene – or better yet, a full adventure. I can’t quite describe it – but reading it aloud like that somehow brings you deeper into the poem. Strange to say, but it’s enchanting. These half-lines are not exclusive to narrative poetry in Middle High German. They are used in Saxon poetry and Old Norse poetry as well. Popular examples are Beowulf and the Elder Edda.

[1] Raffel, p. 117, quatrain 838.

[2] Raffel, p.117, quatrain 839.

[3] Raffel, p. 119, quatrain 854.

[4] This reminds me of a rock myth that took place in front of Kurt Cobain’s tent at the 1992 MTV music awards as told by Kurt Cobain at Nirvana’s Portland Meadows show in September 1992:

“You know, yesterday umm… my wife and I were sitting in front of our tent at the MTV Music Awards – we were having lunch – and Axl Rose walked by us. And we yelled at Axl – we said, ‘Axl! Will you be the godfather of our child?’ And he said – he stopped, he turned around – he pointed his finger at my wife […] and so he said to my wife, ‘You better shut up bitch. Don’t pitch me any shit tonight.’ […] and he said, ‘You better keep your wife’s mouth shut – you embarrass everybody. You embarrass your wife, you embarrass your old man, you embarrass me.’ [… ] I was shaking and I said… I told my wife to ‘SHUT UP BITCH!’”

[5] Raffel, p. 120-1, quatrain 862.

[6] Raffel, p. 122, quatrain 876.

[7] Raffel, p. 333.

[8] Das Niebelungenlied, ed. Friedrich Zarncke (Niemeyer, 1905) available online.

edit: 11/11/2016. Removed Spoiler alert for Season 1, ep.2 of Better Call Saul from the top of the post.

The influence of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent classic Die Nibelungen can be seen in the style and design of many Sci Fi and Fantasy films of the 80s from The Empire Strikes Back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Whether unconscious borrowing or deliberate tribute, elements of this German classic helped make these films great.

The guide through the darkness

In Die Nibelungen, Alberich the dwarf leads our young hero Siegfried from a swampy setting into a dark cavern to the Nibelung treasure with a magic glowing globe to light their way. In The Empire Strikes Back, a character of dwarfish height finds Luke in a swampy setting, and, carrying a glowing object, leads Luke to Yoda – a Jedi master he seeks. Instead of a magic orb, Yoda holds Luke’s camp light.

To the primitive being Luke thinks Yoda is, the light seems a magical object. Like Siegfried, Luke is slightly reluctant to follow the short and hunched creature into the darkness. Fortunately for Luke, Yoda has no intention of hurting his guest, but In Die Nibelungen, Alberich tries twice to deceive Siegfried in an attempt to kill the young hero.

To further separate the tone of these two stories, the light serves a comedic purpose in The Empire Strikes Back, prompting Yoda’s classic toddler retort, “Mine! – or I will help you not!” It seems to almost parody the cliché of the guide holding a mysterious light because it isn’t magic at all – just a regular camp light. These references to Die Nibelungen are effective in Empire because the roles of the similar components are reversed. Fear is exchanged for humor and evil is replaced with good.

Though used for a different purpose, several identical elements of these two settings remain: the dwarf guide who appears out of nowhere, dark and swampy setting, glowing object to light the way,  and young hero who has already achieved a great thing – in Luke’s case, destroying the Death Star and in Siegfried’s case, having just slain a dragon – and requires something from his guide through the darkness to reach his next destination.

alberich leads siegfried

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried to the Nibelung treasure in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

yoda leading luke to his hut

Yoda leads Luke to his hut with a camp light in The Empire Strikes Back (copyright 1980 Lucasfilm)

The “guide” carrying a glowing orb is also used in The Black Cauldron, a 1985 Disney film adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In this film, the young princess Eilonwy leads our young hero Taran through the dark depths of a castle in which they are both being held prisoner. Alexander incorporates the element of a glowing magical orb lighting the way in dark underground tunnels but reverses the role of his character by making the guide friendly instead of menacing.

glowing orb

Alberich’s magical glowing orb in Die Nibelungen

eilonwys' globe

Eilonwy leads Taran with a magical glowing orb in The Black Cauldron (copyright 1985 Walt Disney Company)

In addition to the motif of the stunted, odd, and sometimes grumpy guide and the light he carries to lead the way, the contrast of the darkness of a rocky passageway and the light of a luminous cavern is used in Die Nibelungen to invoke sense of wonder and the excitement that is felt from the thought of discovering hidden treasure. The light/dark contrast from dark tunnel to bright open space is also used in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) in a similar way as it is in Die Nibelungen. In The Dark Crystal, the cranky old hunched-over guide is Aughra. She first appears menacing, but seeing that she is good-natured, our young Gelfling hero Jen quickly trusts her. Aughra leads Jen through a dark passageway to a mysterious place. Once inside, a bright light suddenly fills the screen and the film score plays a theme that invokes wonder. It’s like entering another world – a peculiar world where science and magic seem to harmoniously meet in mechanical splendor. In Die Nibelungen, the light/dark contrast between the luminous cavern interior and the dark and swampy exterior is remarkable. To an audience in the silent film era, the sequence would have seemed as bright as the light cast upon Jen as he enters Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal.

bright cavern

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into a luminous cavern in Die Nibelungen

jen entering aughra's workshop

Jen is awed by Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal (copyright 1982 Jim Henson Company)

Inside Aughra’s workshop there is a giant mechanized model of the heavens, a concept Jen has seen drawn in the sand many times by the mystics, but never represented with such heavy and detailed moving industry. The same thing occurs in Die Nibelungen when Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into the luminous cavern. The contrast between dark and light and reality and magic and mystery is just as pronounced in this shot as it is in The Dark Crystal. Just as Jen is shown scientific industry in Aughra’s workshop, Alberich shows Siegfried the magical industry of the secret cavern. A massive crown, for example is being made for an ice giant. When Siegfried tries to reach through the window to touch that “other world” it quickly turns back into the form of a rocky wall of the cavern. It is, in a way, like that for Jen as well. Jen doesn’t understand what the model does. In the way the “magic” of the model is beyond Jen’s understanding, the “magic” of the ice king’s crown is beyond Siegfried’s physical reach.

The intention behind the guides showing the young hero “magical” things in these respective stories are in sharp contrast with each other. Aughra is leading Jen to new knowledge to help him with his quest while Alberich is showing Siegfried the wondrous riches of the caverns only enough to distract his naive guest long enough to kill him. Though both Jen and Siegfried are naive, the mood in each story couldn’t be more different. In The Dark Crystal, it is wonder, and in Die Nibelungen, it is foreboding treachery. Though one creates suspense and the other does not, they both carry epic quality.

Similar shots and wardrobe

The sequence where the Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle and is unloaded looks similar to when Baron Munchausen packs up the Sultan’s treasures and carries it away in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Again, the roles are reversed. The treasure is being packed instead of unpacked in Baron Munchausen while in Die Nibelungen it is being brought to the castle instead of being taken away. In Baron Munchausen, the reference is, of course, used for comedic purpose and any allusion to epic poetry only serves to further embellish the impossible quality of the Baron’s already inflated tales of his many exploits of highly questionable validity.

Also, notice the similar arched entrances of the castle in the two shots.

unloading of Nibelung treasure

The Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle in Die Nibelungen

baron munchausen

The Sultan’s treasure departs from the Sultan’s Palace in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (copyright 1988 Columbia Pictures)

When Brunhild arrives at Gunther’s castle after Siegfried wins her for Gunther with trickery, the wide bright shot with steps and ceremonial guards looks strikingly similar to when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis in Dune (1984). By using this shot from Die Nibelungen, director David Lynch evokes something of the mood of the German story, alluding to the danger that awaits the House Atreides. Just as Brunhild walking into Gunther’s castle brings the demise of Siegfried and Burgundy, the audience watches the Atreides literally walking into the trap set for them by the Harkonnens. It is a beautiful shot and a tragic reminder that the family will soon be torn apart by betrayal.

priest coming down to meet brunhild and gunther

The priest comes down the steps to meet Brunhild in Die Nibelungen

dune

The Arteides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

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The Atreides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

The look of Brunhild’s battle garb was recreated in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Galen, the unlikely dragonslayer, goes after the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative with a round shield and a spear, the same weapons Brunhild uses to test Gunther. Since Dragonslayer deals with the death of magic and its subsequent replacement by religion, the weaponry invokes the magic of the mythic world – and, more importantly, a mythic world with a dragon. The reference works, again, because the roles are reversed. Galen is the hero, while Brunhild is a villain.

By using the contrary sides of these borrowed elements, their usage is balanced, achieving a nearly unconscious invocation of the nearly timeless yet distinctive style, mood, and tone of epic.

brunhild with spear and shield

Brunhild prepares to challenge Gunther in a spear-throwing competition in Die Nibelungen

dragonslayer

Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) enters Vermithrax Pejorative’s lair in Dragonslayer (copyright 1981 Walt Disney Company)

Now, aside from the scenes described in the Nibelungenlied itself, what sort of design and imagery inspired Lang’s unique cinematic interpretation of the epic poem? As Journey to Perplexity points out, Lang seemed heavily inspired by the style of Klimt. In addition to design patterns, Lang also borrowed from other artists. This shot below of Gunther mourning the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen resembles both the composition and mood of Jean-Paul Lauren’s The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875).

gunther upset

Gunther mourns the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen

excommunication of robert the pious jean paul laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens (1875) Musée d’Orsay

A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

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Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get a glimpse of Smaug the dragon. Dragons love gold above anything else and Smaug is no exception – he coils himself around the treasure horde of the dwarf king under the mountain.

Smaug7

Don’t worry Tolkien Estate, it was only a bit of fun for a batch of homebrew!

In a tale from Norse Mythology, a dragon plays the role of a man corrupted by the greed of gold. This corruption manifests itself physically. It changes the person, sort of like how symptoms of a physical or mental illness can change a person’s appearance and personality.

Though dragons are creatures in Norse Mythology – we shouldn’t confine ourselves to always thinking of them in that literal sense. They do not always hatch from eggs as do chickens or snakes. Men can become dragons.

In the tale of Otter’s ransom, we have Fafnir the dragon. He, like Smaug, hordes a trove of treasures mined and crafted by dwarves. But unlike Smaug, Fafnir was not born a dragon. He becomes a dragon from the greed of gold – greed of a particularly cursèd horde of gold: Otter’s ransom.

One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling in Midgard, the land of men. They followed a river which brought them to some falls. There, they noticed an otter eating a salmon. Only it wasn’t actually an otter – it was Hreidmar’s son Otr in the form of an otter:

There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.[1]

Fischotter (Lutra lutra) image: copyright 2012 hellboy2503/Jörg David (original URL)

Loki, never one to miss an opportunity for mischief and games, picked up a stone by the riverbank and threw it at the unwitting creature who sat there feasting on its catch:

Then Loki boasted of his catch – with one throw he had bagged an otter and a salmon. They took the salmon and the otter away with them and came to a farm which they entered.[2]

They called at the gate of the farm. When the owner, Hreidmar, asked who it was at the gate, Odin called out to him, “We are three travelers looking for a night’s lodging. We bring a salmon and an otter fur, both of which you are welcome to it in exchange for your kind hospitality!”

Hreidmar quickly called his two sons, Fafnir and Reginn, to his side and told them that their brother Otter had been killed and that his murderers were waiting at the gate wanting supper and a bed for the night.[3]

Fafnir and Reginn came at Odin, Loki, and Hoenir with fore-hammers of the smithies to kill them, accusing them of killing their brother Otr, who often shape-shifts as an otter when he fishes by the falls. As there was a blood price in those days for killing kin, Odin asked Hreidmar what Otr’s blood price would be:

“Peace,” said Odin. “We have slain thy son, it would seem, but it was unwittingly that we did the deed. We will give a recompense for the death of thy son.”[4]

Hreidmar named a blood price for Otr. They would bring a piece of treasure for every hair on the otter skin as Otr’s ransom:

Redgolden rings.

Ransom costly,

This fell must fill,

This fur cover![5]

Since Loki got them into this mess, Odin and Hoenir made Loki go to Svartalfheim, the world of dwarves, and bring back the dwarf Andvari’s horde.[6]

There he searched until he found a silent black lake, and in that lake he wriggled his fingers… until they closed upon the gills of a large pike, which Loki jerked up onto the shore.[7]

“What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!”[8]

It was Andvari in fish form. Loki told him that he would let him go only if he paid Otter’s ransom. Andvari reluctantly agreed and turned back into his dwarf form. Andvari gave Loki all of his gold, but kept from him one single ring. Loki noticed this, and demanded that Andvari give up the ring:

“What hides thy hand

Thus hollow bending?”[9]

To which Andvari replied:

 “The ring is little –

Let it rest with me!”[10]

But Loki would not let Andvari short Otter’s ransom:

“All, Andvari,

All shalt render,

Light rings and heavy,

Or life itself!”[11]

If Andvari gave up this perfect ring to Loki, he would lose his ability to make treasures. This ring, like the Philosopher’s stone, was free of any impurity. He who has this ring, possesses the secret power of making gold. Andvari cursed Loki for taking the ring from him:

“The ring with the rune

Of power upon it:

May it weigh down your fortune,

And load you with evil,

You, Loki, and all

Who lust to possess

The ring I have cherished.”[12]

This wasn’t the first time anyone had cursed Loki. So why should he put any stock in this angry old dwarf’s threats? After all, Loki won the gold fair and square – it’s not like Andvari saw him coming.

So Loki brought Andvari’s horde, and the ring, back to Odin. Since Odin quite liked the ring, he kept it for himself. Hreidmar flayed the otter, filled the inside of the skin with gold and then covered every little hair. After the very last piece of gold was placed on the otter’s skin, a single whisker remained. Realizing the ransom was one treasure short, Odin surrendered the ring to Hreidmar. It covered the whisker and Otter’s ransom was paid. With their debt paid, Hreidmar let Odin, Loki, and Hreidmar go.

After their guests from Asgard left, Reginn and Fafnir asked Hreidmar for shares of the gold. Hreidmar refused their request – he would not even part with the smallest bit of copper. Reginn and Fafnir turned against their father and murdered him for his horde. After this was done, Reginn realized that Fafnir had no intention of sharing the gold either. Fafnir told his brother Reginn that if he ever tried to take some of the gold for himself, he would kill him. Reginn left the farm and:

…Fafnir went up on to Gnita Heath and, making a lair there, turned himself into a dragon and lay down on the gold.[13]

The cursèd ring from Otter’s ransom – the piece of treasure that covered the very last whisker on the otter’s dead body, which had the power to pit father against sons and brother against brother, turned Fafnir into a dragon. It also played a part in causing the tragic deaths of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brynhild – and, depending on your interpretation, even played an important role in bringing about Ragnarök – The Twilight of the Gods – “THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!…or the beginning,” as Aughra from The Dark Crystal would say…

aughra

Aughra tells Jen about the Great Conjunction in The Dark Crystal. image copyright: 1982 Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company

 

 


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009), 67.

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 110. (Italicized emphasis: mine)

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path (Seven Paws: Chapel Hill, 2005), 72.

[4] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineola, 1996), 144.

[5] Tolkien, 68.

[6] Some say Loki went to Queen Aegir who gave him a magic net with which to catch Andvari and that Loki returned to the same falls – Andvari Falls. As deeds are always returned in Norse Mythology, a magic net was also used to catch Loki when he tried to hide in fish form from the Gods when they brought him to justice for killing Baldur.

[7] Rossman, 73.

[8] Tolkien, 68.

[9] Tolkien, 69.

[10] Tolkien, 69.

[11] Tolkien, 69.

[12] Colum, 149.

[13] Snorri Sturluson, 112.

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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