The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (January 2010)|
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún first edition cover.
|Author||J. R. R. Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien (ed.)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
|5 May 2009|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Pages||384 pp (first edition)|
The two poems that make up most of the book were probably written during the 1930s, and were inspired by the legend of Sigurd and the fall of the Niflungs in Norse mythology. Both poems are in a form of alliterative verse inspired by the traditional verse of the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century. Christopher Tolkien has added copious notes and commentary on his father's work. 
- 1 Plot
- 2 Origin
- 3 Commentary
- 4 Audiobook
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The New Lay of the Völsungs
After the creation of the Nine Worlds by the Aesir, the walls of Asgard are besieged by an army of jötunns and trolls. Wielding the hammer Mjöllnir, Thor succeeds in driving these "foes immortal," back to Jotunheim. However, there are new perils to come.
A female seer prophesies the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök and speaks of how Odin shall be slain by the wolf Fenrir and Thor by the Midgard serpent. There is but one chance for the doom of the nine worlds to be averted. If on the day of battle a mortal warrior, a slayer of serpents and descendant of Odin, fights alongside the gods, the forces of evil shall be defeated and the world shall be reborn.
In response, Odin scatters his seed among mortals in hopes of birthing, "the world's chosen". Although many great heroes soon join him in Valhalla, the serpent slayer's coming continues to be awaited.
Ages later, Odin, Loki, and Hoenir arrive at the cave of the dwarf Andvari. There, they encountered the demon Hreidmar's son Ótr and, thinking him to be merely a fishing otter, Loki slays him with a stone, removes his pelt, and steals his catch of salmon. Enraged, Hreidmar and his other sons, Fafnir and Regin, bind the three gods in unbreakable chains and demand that Otr's pelt be covered with gold as weregild for his death.
Seeking to pay the ransom, Loki seeks out the dwarf Andvari and extorts the gold ransom. Although Andvari attempts to conceal a golden ring, Loki seizes it as well. Enraged, Andvari vows that both the ring and the gold will be the death of all who possess them. Pleased, Loki returns and delivers the gold to Hreidmar and his sons. Although Loki gloatingly informs them of the curse, Hreidmar is unimpressed and boasts of the fortune he now possesses.
On the coasts of the North, Rerir the sea lord, grandson of Odin, conducts raids in Viking longships. He is succeeded as King by his son Völsung. The latter, whom Odin favours, has been given a valkyrie as his wife. She bears twins, Sigmund and Signý, during her husband's reign.
Years later, Siggeir, King of the Gauts sends an emissary and demands Signý's hand in marriage as the price of peace. Sigmund counsels his father to arrange the marriage, suggesting that the Gauts will prove valuable allies.
At the wedding feast, Odin enters the hall under the veil of a hoary bearded elder under the name Grímnir. He drives a sword into the oak at the center of the hall and dares the men present to pull it out. After all others try and fail, Sigmund at last succeeds in pulling it from the oak. King Siggeir, coveting the sword, offers Sigmund a fortune in gold in exchange for it. Unmoved, Sigmund boasts that the sword was made for his hands and vows never to sell it.
Enraged, Siggeir declares war on King Völsung, who is slain on a beach after cutting down many Gautish warriors. Although Signý pleads for the lives of her brothers, Siggeir orders them to be bound to trees in the forest and left for the wolves to eat. Although his nine brothers perish, Sigmund slays the she-wolf and escapes into an enchanted cave. There he mates with his sister, who has entered the cave in the guise of an elvish maiden. Nine months later, she bears a son, Sinfjötli.
When Sinfjötli comes of age, he visits his father in the cave and delivers the sword of Grímnir. As the years pass, father and son range through Gautland as outlaws, slaying and plundering many men. Eventually, they infiltrate the hall of Siggeir, slay the watchmen, and vow that no one inside shall be spared. Although they ask Signý to leave with them, she refuses and elects to die at her husband's side.
The Death of Sinfjötli
Laden with the pillaged loot of Siggeir's hall, Sigmund and Sinfjötli return by ship to the land of the Völsungs. Together they rule for many years, slaying seven kings and sacking cities far and near. Although he will live to regret it, Sigmund takes a queen from among the war captives.
Loathing the man who slew her father, the Queen brews a poisoned brew of wine for Sinfjötli. Sigmund, suspecting that the wine has been tampered with, drains the cup instead of Sinfjötli and remains unharmed. Enraged, the Queen brews a beaker of poisoned beer, which again is offered to Sinfjötli but drunk by his father with no harm. Still determined to slay Sinfjötli, the Queen also delivers him a beaker of poisoned ale. This time the cup is drunk by Sinfjötli himself, who to the horror of Sigmund falls dead. Sinfjötli is then welcomed in Valhalla by grandfather King Völsung, who comments that the serpent slayer is still awaited.
As the years pass, Sigmund grows old, having lost both his son and his treacherous Queen. Eventually, however, he learns of the beauteous Princess Sigrlinn. Although seven young sons of kings are also asking for her hand, Sigrlinn marries Sigmund, preferring to be the mother of a mighty hero.
Enraged at this slight, the seven sons of kings invade the land of Völsung. Sigmund vows that they will be greeted by the sword of Grímnir and slays many on the field of battle. However, he is soon confronted by a one-eyed warrior. As the warrior's spear clashes with Sigmund's sword, the blade of Grímnir breaks asunder. Severely wounded, Sigmund sinks to the ground.
Although Sigrlinn vows to heal his wounds, Sigmund refuses to permit this, insisting that Odin summon him to Valhalla. He prophesies that her unborn child will be the serpent slayer and orders her to carefully preserve the fragments of Grímnir's gift. He dies and Sigrlinn is carried into slavery. However, when the parentage of her son is revealed, Sigrlinn is wed to the King of that land. Sigurd is sent to be fostered by Regin, the son of Hreidmar.
Years later, Otr's ransom remains in the keeping of Regin's brother Fafnir, who has been transformed into a dragon. Coveting the gold hoard, Regin goads Sigurd into fighting Fafnir by accusing him of cowardice. When an enraged Sigurd demands to know the reason, Regin relates the story of Otr's murder by Loki and the weregild paid by the Aesir in recompense. According to Regin, Hreidmar refused to share the gold with his sons and was subsequently slain by Fafnir. Unimpressed, Sigurd asks Regin whether he desires his brother's death for justice or the gold hoard. Regin claims that he desires only to avenge his father. The gold and the glory, he adds, are for Sigurd to keep.
Twice Regin attempts to forge a sword for Sigurd, only to see the latter effortlessly break them. At last, Sigurd goes to his mother Sigrlinn and requests the broken pieces of Grímnir. Regin takes these and forges the sword Gram. Although Sigurd wishes to slay Fafnir then and there, Regin tells him he must have a horse. In response, Sigurd buys the horse Grani, who was sired by Odin's eight-legged steed Sleipnir, and goes forth to kill Fafnir.
Later, as the dragon returns from taking a drink of water, Sigurd hides in a subterranean hollow and stabs the fell beast in the heart. As Fafnir's black blood drains over Sigurd and hardens his flesh, the young warrior withdraws his sword and leaps into the dragon's eyesight.
Although Fafnir warns him of the curse, Sigurd is unmoved, believing that the dragon wishes only to preserve his gold hoard. As the dragon belches out his last breath, Regin arrives and attempts to claim a share of the gold, commenting that he also had a role in the slaying and forged the sword. As Sigurd mocks his foster father's logic, Regin draws a knife and slices Fafnir's heart from his chest.
Ordering Sigurd to roast it for him, Regin departs. Meanwhile, Sigurd fashions a spit and kindles a fire. After burning his finger on the roasting heart, Sigurd puts the finger in his mouth and suddenly understands the language of birds.
As he listens to the birds speaking, Sigurd decides to eat the heart whole. Upon seeing Regin sneaking towards him with a drawn blade, Sigurd draws Gram and slays his foster father. He then loads the gold hoard onto Grani and departs, listening all the while to the birds singing of the valkyrie Brynhild, her quarrel with Odin, and the circle of fire which surrounds her sleeping form.
After much riding on the back of Grani, Sigurd arrives at heights of Hindarfell. As they climb the mountainside, Grani leaps the ring of lightning and fire which surrounds Brynhild. As he reaches her side, Sigurd slices her corslet with Gram and awakens the sleeping valkyrie.
Addressing Sigurd, Brynhild explains how Odin doomed her to mate a mortal man. Impetuously, Brynhild had vowed to wed but one, the serpent slayer prophesied by the seeress of Asgard. When Sigurd relates his descent from Odin and the slaying of Fafnir, Brynhild is overjoyed and explains that the gods await his coming in Valhalla. Immediately after, Brynhild and Sigurd plight their troth. There is one complication, however.
Brynhild vows that she will only wed Sigurd when he has won a kingdom for himself. After cautioning her betrothed to avoid the abode of a witch-hearted woman, she returns to the height of Hindarfell and their ways sunder. Meanwhile, Sigurd rides toward the court of the Niflungs' at Worms.
One morning, Princess Gudrun of the Niflungs approaches her mother, the witch-hearted Queen Grimhild, with a disturbing dream. The Niflungs were hunting a stag with a golden coat and towering horns which evaded their grasp. It was Gudrun who caught him, only to see him stung with a shaft by a spiteful woman. Her mother then gave Gudrun a wolf to ease her grief and the former bathed her in the blood of her brothers. Her mother counsels her that evil dreams are often a good omen.
As they converse, Gudrun catches sight of a warrior riding toward the court arrayed for war. A short time later, Sigurd enters the court of the Niflungs, riding upon Grani. When her father Gjuki asks his name and parentage, he is overjoyed to learn that a Völsung warrior has arrived and summons a seat for Sigurd.
As the evening wears on, Gudrun's brother Gunnar seizes a harp and sings a lay of the Niflungs' longstanding war against King Atli of the Huns. As soon as he has finished, Sigurd takes the harp and sings of Brynhild and the gold hoard. Impressed, Gunnar and Högni invite Sigurd to dwell among them as long as he desires.
As time passes and Sigurd accompanies the Niflungs in war, the glory of the Burgundian lords spreads far and wide. Sigurd, however, continues to think of his father's lost kingdom and returns there by ship. There, as he looks upon the roofless remains of his father's mead hall, Odin appears and informs him that Gram is not destined to shine in the land of the Völsungs. As a result, Sigurd returns to Worms.
At a feast thrown to celebrate Sigurd's return, Grimhild advises her sons to regularise their alliance with Sigurd by marrying him to Gudrun. As Sigurd ponders how he soon will depart to claim Brynhild, Grimhild gives him a love potion to drink. Shortly after, Gudrun enters the hall. Colored by the potion, Sigurd's mind is glamoured and his mood confounded.
Brynhild continues to await the coming of Sigurd, slaying almost every suitor who dares to call. Eventually, Odin arrives on horseback and armoured as an ancient king. He prophesies that she shall wed a mortal king before two winters pass. As he departs, a ring of fire surrounds her hall and Brynhild ponders that one man only can reach her now.
Meanwhile, a radiantly happy Sigurd weds Gudrun in a feast which lasts many days and nights in the mead hall of Worms. In addition, Sigurd and his in-laws swear a blood oath of eternal brotherhood. Although he and Gudrun are deeply happy in their marriage, a shadow remains in Sigurd's heart.
As time passes, the news of Brynhild and the gold hoard reaches Grimhild's ears. Certain that such a Queen will bring glory to her son's court, Grimhild counsels King Gunnar that it is time for him to wed. Riding together, Sigurd, Högni, and Gunnar depart for Brynhild's mead hall.
When they reach their destination, King Gunnar's horse shies away at the sight of the fire. Although the King smites the sides of his steed, Honi still refuses to go forward. With Sigurd's permission, Gunnar borrows Grani who, unfortunately, refuses to go forward under another rider. As a result, Sigurd springs to the rescue of his blood brother.
Through a spell cast by Grimhild, Sigurd rides through the fire in Gunnar's likeness. Stunned that a different warrior has ridden through the fire, Brynhild demands to know whether, "Gunnar," is the masterless warrior she has vowed to wed. "Gunnar" reminds her that, as her oath has been fulfilled, she is doomed to wed him.
That night, Brynhild and Sigurd sleep in the same bed with a drawn sword lying between them. As dawn arrives, Brynhild at last agrees to marry, "Gunnar."
During the nuptial feast after Brynhild's wedding to Gunnar, the bride catches sight of Sigurd seated next to Gudrun. As the blood drains from her horrified face, Grimhild's spell dissipates and Sigurd at last recalls the solemn oaths he swore to Brynhild. Realizing he can no longer honourably fulfill them, he stands as cold and unsmiling as a carven stone.
During a subsequent stag hunt, Brynhild and Gudrun bathe together in the Rhine River. Hautily, Brynhild comments that the water washing Gudrun will soon wash one far lovelier. Bristling, Gudrun snaps that she is far more queenly and is married to a better man, citing Sigurd's slaying of Fafnir. Unimpressed, Brynhild boasts of Gunnar's ride through the fire and lightning to claim her. With an icy laugh, Gudrun reveals that Sigurd rode through the fire and shows the ring of Brynhild on her own hand. Shocked and horrified, Brynhild departs the river and return to her bower, where she curses the Norns for framing her fate.
As days pass, Brynhild refuses to eat, drink, or depart her bed. When Gunnar approaches her, she call him a coward and curses him for causing her to break her oath to marry Sigurd. Reluctantly, Sigurd agrees to speak with her and, raising her coverlet, awakens her as he once did on the heights of Hindarfell. Seething with hatred, Brynhild addresses him as, "cruel forswearer," and curses both him and Gudrun to an early death.
Stunned, Sigurd speaks lovingly to her of the spell that was cast upon him and admits that his only comfort has been to see her in Gunnar's hall. Although deeply touched, Brynhild states that it is too late to avert the evil of her curse. The one comfort which she can offer is that Sigurd shall die an honourable death at the point of a sword. Deeply grieved, Sigurd and Brynhild prepare for their respective fates.
Upon returning to Gudrun, Sigurd sadly tells her of the curse, saying, "Woe worth the words by women spoken!" When Gunnar later seeks his advice, Sigurd informs him that Brynhild's only doctor should be her husband. In response, Gunnar approaches his wife, offering her a hoard of gold and silver. Unmoved, Brynhild taunts him as, "a Völsung's squire, a vassal's servant." She adds that she will depart his mead hall and leave Gunnar in disgrace unless he slays his brother in law.
Stunned, Gunnar insists that he has sworn a blood oath of eternal brotherhood with Sigurd and will never break it. Brynhild, however, insists that Sigurd has already broken the oath by seducing her in Gunnar's shape after riding through the fire. Devastated, Gunnar departs Brynhild's room and spends many days pondering over what to do. At last, he summons his brother Högni.
Gunnar declares to Högni that Sigurd has broken the oath and must be slain. Shocked, Högni suggests that Brynhild is lying out of jealousy. Gunnar insists, however, that he loves and trusts Brynhild more than anyone in the world and adds that, by slaying Sigurd, they will be masters again of their kingdom and able to seize the gold hoard of Fafnir. Saddened, Högni declares that, in the future, the Niflungs will miss both Sigurd's prowess in war and the mighty nephews he could have sired. Knowing that he swore no oath, Gunnar approaches his half brother Gotthorm and promises him both gold and lordship if he will kill Sigurd.
Later, as Sigurd hunts with his falcon, Gutthorm accuses him of being a, "wife marrer," who wishes to usurp the Niflung throne. Enraged, Sigurd grips his sword hilt and orders Gutthorm to say no more if he values his life. Waiting for a more opportune moment, Gutthorm obeys.
At dawn the following morning, Gutthorm enters Sigurd's room with a drawn sword and stabs the serpent slayer, impaling him to the mattress. Awakening, Sigurd brandishes Gram and slays his attacker on the spot. In anguish, Gudrun awakens and, in horror, cradles her dying husband. Sigurd, however, orders her not to weep and not to blame her brothers for his death. As the light drains from his eyes, Sigurd declares,
- "Brynhild wrought this:
- best she loved me,
- worst she dealt me,
- worst belied me.
- I Gunnar never
- grieved nor injured;
- oaths I swore him,
- all fulfilled them!"
As Gudrun screams in anguish over Sigurd's body, Brynhild cackles in laughter. When Gunnar criticises her as a cold and "fell-hearted" woman, Brynhild curses the Niflungs for murdering their blood brother. She further reveals that Sigurd's seduction of her was a lie and that the sword Gram lay unsheathed between them. To the further horror of Gunnar, Brynhild announces that she is leaving him forever.
In vain do Gunnar and his courtiers attempt to sway her from her purpose. Högni alone insists that she was born for evil and that they are all better off without her. Attiring herself in a golden corslet, Brynhild falls upon her sword. As she lies dying she requests that her corpse be burned in Sigurd's funeral pyre. She requests that Sigurd's hawks be laid at each side and his dog at their feet. Their horses are to be slain and laid beside them. The sword Gram is to lie unsheathed between them as on their only night together. Her wishes are obeyed and both Sigurd and Brynhild are carried to Valhalla in the flames of a Viking funeral.
Later, Odin and the other Völsungs welcome the serpent slayer whose coming they have awaited for so long. On the day of Ragnarök, Brynhild will attire Sigurd for war and he shall stand deathless against the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard serpent. Although most of the Aesir gods shall die, the forces of darkness shall be struck down at Sigurd's hands. Then, under the rule of Baldur, the nine worlds shall be created anew.
The New Lay of Gudrun
As the flames of the funeral pyre sink down and the ashes turn cold, a devastated Gudrun wanders through the forest witless. Despite loathing every moment of her life, she cannot bring herself to commit suicide.
Meanwhile, King Atli's Hunnic Empire grows ever stronger. Although Atli has overthrown the Goths and seized many treasures, the gold hoard of Fafnir and the beauty of Gudrun have caught his interest. Determined to claim both as his own, Atli's Huns hasten westward.
As the news reaches the Niflung court at Worms, Gunnar asks Högni whether Atli should be met with violent resistance or appeased with tribute. Högni comments that now they have further reason to mourn the passing of Sigurd, as Atli would never have grown so bold if the serpent slayer still lived. Despite the dangers, he advises Gunnar to meet Atli on the field of battle.
Grimhild, however, has another idea and counsels that Atli's friendship can be bought via Gudrun's hand in marriage. It is this advice which the Niflungs choose to take.
Gudrun they find in a forest hut where she has been weaving a tapestry which depicts the story of the gold hoard, the Völsungs, and the arrival of Sigurd into the court at Worms. Although they offer her a large payment of gold as weregild for her husband's death, Gudrun refuses to forgive her brothers or even acknowledge their presence. Only Grimhild is able to gain a response from the widow.
Grimhild advises her daughter to mourn no longer, commenting that Brynhild is dead and that Gudrun is still beautiful. She explains that King Atli wishes her hand in marriage and speaks of the great respect which the Queen of Hunland will command. Gudrun, however, is unmoved.
The widow speaks longingly of the days before Sigurd came, saying that then only nightmares vexed her. She speaks again of the dream she had before Sigurd's arrival, commenting that one half of it has already been fulfilled in Sigurd's death. Gudrun further declares that, although she now has little love for her brothers, she has no desire to see them slaughtered. Believing also that she will never again know happiness, Gudrun sees no point in remarrying.
Grimhild retorts that Gudrun should not blame her brothers. Brynhild was responsible for Sigurd's death and the Niflungs are, quite sensibly, in grief for it. Grimhild continues urging Gudrun to marry, saying that a Queen's bed is better than one cold and empty. When Gudrun angrily orders her mother to leave, Grimhild threatens to curse her daughter to unimaginable torment if she will not obey. Intimidated, Gudrun caves in to her mother's demands.
At their wedding feast, Atli blissfully drinks to Gudrun, moved both by her beauty and by dreams of the dragon hoard. After swearing oaths of kinship to the Niflungs, Atli takes Gudrun back with him to Hunland.
As the years pass, Gudrun remains unmoved, both by the glories of Hunland and by the love which Atli feels for her. Meanwhile, Atli's lust for the dragon hoard remains unquenched. At long last, he sends his herald, Vingi, to summon the Niflungs to a feast in Hunland.
In response to the summons, Gunnar asks Högni whether they are vassals of Atli that they must come when he calls them. Högni is troubled, commenting that Gudrun has sent him a ring with wolf's hair woven around it. He is certain, therefore that there is a trap waiting for them in Hunland.
Gunnar, however, comments that Gudrun sent him a wooden slab graven with, "runes of healing." In response, he summons for wine to be brought to the herald of Atli. As the feast continues in Gunnar's mead hall, Grimhild arrives and gives her opinion of the runic tablet.
The original runes, she says, have been shaven off the tablet but may still be read. Therefore, it is clear that the original message from Gudrun was a warning of danger. In response to his mother's advice, Gunnar informs the herald Vingi that he will not be coming to the feast in Hunland.
Laughing in amusement, Vingi responds that, as Grimhild clearly rules the Niflung kingdom, there is no need for Gunnar to come. Atli, however, had only wished for their assistance. The King of the Huns is growing old and wished for his sons by Gudrun, Erp and Eitill, to have a strong protector after his death. Therefore, he had hoped that Gunnar and Högni would one day rule the Hunnic Empire in their names. Although Gunnar still suspects a trap, he agrees to come to the feast.
Although he states that he will be accompanying his brother, Högni is troubled that they aren't taking their mother's counsel. Vingi, despite knowing exactly what Atli has in mind for his in-laws, swears that the gallows shall take him and that ravens shall devour his flesh if the runes are lying.
Later, as the Niflungs depart for Hunland with Vingi, Grimhild watches as they disappear. Although silent, she is certain that she will never again look upon her sons.
After a long journey in longship and on horseback, the Niflungs arrive in Hunland and sound their horns to announce their coming. To their surprise, they find the gates barred. Vingi at last reveals the real reason for the invitation: Atli has prepared a gallows where ravens will rend the flesh of the Niflungs.
Although the lives of heralds are considered sacrosanct, Högni vows that the treacherous Vingi has forfeited his life. Dragging him to a nearby oak, the Niflungs hang Vingi within sight of the Huns.
Seething with hatred, the Huns pour forth from the mead hall's gates and hurl themselves upon the Niflungs. To Atli's surprise, Gunnar and Högni drive the Huns back inside the mead hall. With frigid loathing, Atli comes forth and refers to the Niflungs as his vassals. He further demands Fafnir's gold hoard as the price of their lives. Gunnar, however, is unimpressed.
He vows that Atli will never receive any gold from him at all. If the King of the Huns desires the Niflungs' lives, he will pay dearly in many dead lords and warriors.
Changing tactic, Atli demands the gold as weregild for Sigurd, saying that he is entitled to it as Gudrun's husband. Gunnar, however, insists that these words are not his sister's. The lust for the gold is Atli's alone. Högni adds that, as the fighting has already begun, the time for atonement is over. Doors spring open and dozens of Hun warriors charge the Niflungs, who defend themselves until the mead hall is filled with carnage.
Meanwhile, Gudrun sits listening to the battle below and ponders that her dream has finally been fulfilled. Devastated, she curses the hour of her birth. She calls upon her husband's Gothic vassals to defend her brothers from the Hunnic "troll people."
Recalling their past wars against Atli and his Huns, the Goths turn against their lord and make common cause with the Niflungs. Högni sings of the great warriors of the past until his son Snaevar is slain before him. Unweeping, Högni continues hewing a pathway through the mead hall.
Coming at last upon Gudrun, Gunnar and Högni declare that the Norns have fated them to always give her in marriage and then slay her husband. However, Gudrun pleads with them not to tempt fate and to spare Atli's life. In response, they mock Atli as unfit for a warrior's death and grudgingly allow him to slink forth from the bloodied mead hall. As he departs in shame and anguish, the Goths and Niflungs hurl the Hunnish corpses from the roof. Meanwhile, night falls as Atli rallies warriors throughout the countryside.
Later, as the Goths and Niflungs begin nodding off to sleep, Högni notices a large column of fire moving toward the mead hall. Commenting that there are no dragons in Hunland, Gunnar rallies his men for the final battle. Declaring that Valhalla lies open to receive them, the defenders of the mead hall succeed in holding the doorways until dawn arrives.
Five days later, the mead hall is still held by the Niflungs and Goths. Bewailing his fate, Atli declares that his power, wealth, vassals, and wife have all deserted him in the evening of his life. His counselor Beiti, however, declares that there is still another way.
Deciding to take Beiti's advice, Atli orders the mead hall built by his father to be set afire. Just before the blazing ceiling of the mead hall falls upon them, the Goths and Niflungs charge forth and are set upon by Atli's minions. Although for weapons the former have only their fists, many Hunnic necks and knees are broken before the Niflung lords are taken.
Casting his captives before Gudrun, Atli vows that he will avenge Sigurd by hurling her brothers into a pit of adders. Disgusted, Gudrun calls her husband evil and expresses hope that his death will be shameful. However, she also reminds Atli that the Niflungs are the uncles of their son Erp and Eitil. For this reason, she pleads for their lives. Atli vows that the only way he will release the Niflungs is if he is given the gold hoard that haunts his dreams.
At last relenting, Gunnar agrees to give Atli the gold, but only if his brother Högni is first slain and the heart is delivered to him. Now frantic, Gudrun pleads with Atli to spare her brother Högni. Atli, however, vows that he will have the gold despite the tears of his wife.
Atli's wise men, however, plead for caution. Fearing the queen, they persuade Atli to instead slay the thrall Hjalli. When the heart of Hjalli is delivered to him, Gunnar is unimpressed, having heard the thrall's screams. He declares that his brother's heart would never quake in such a manner. In response, the Huns visit Högni's dungeon and cut out his heart and the Niflung laughs in their faces.
Upon seeing his brother's heart, Gunnar also laughs in the faces of the Huns. The gold, he declares, is long gone, having been cast into the Rhine after Sigurd's death. Gunnar curses Atli, calling him a gold-haunted murderer. Enraged and devastated at the loss of the gold, Atli orders Gunnar to be stripped naked and cast into the pit of adders.
As her heart hardens in hatred for her husband, Gudrun orders a harp to be sent to her brother in the pit. Smiting the strings, Gunnar chants of Odin and the Aesir, of ancient kings, and the coming doom of Hunland. The whole palace listens in wonder and the snakes are stilled to sleep. At long last, an ancient adder stings Gunnar in the chest. Crying out in a loud voice, Gunnar topples over dead and the harp is stilled.
Gudrun hears the cry as she sits aghast in her bower. At last realising how to avenge her brothers, Gudrun summons her sons Erp and Eitil.
Viking funerals are prepared for the Niflung lords and the champions of Hunland and a funeral feast is held in the remnants of Atli's palace. At long last, Gudrun appears and, presenting two goblets to her husband, she toasts his health.
As he drinks deep from the goblets, Atli feels regret over the loss of the gold. However, he also feels satisfaction that Gunnar is dead. Gudrun then announces that, in vengeance for her brothers, she has slain their sons Erp and Eitil. The goblets were made from their skulls and have been filled with a mixture of their blood and honey. The remnants of their bodies have been fed to Atli's hounds. As the mead hall explodes in horror and anguish, Atli turns pale and falls into a swoon.
As the horned moon rises, Atli is carried to his bed, as sick as one poisoned. Intending to wreak her final vengeance, Gudrun enters his chambers, wakes her husband, and drives a knife into Atli's breast.
As his life drains away, Atli snarls that Gudrun deserves to be torn apart by hounds, stoned, branded, and then burned at the stake. Laughing, Gudrun taunts him with the news that his funeral pyre has already been kindled. Within moments, a blazing inferno consumes Atli's palace and the surrounding town. The night that has proven so fatal to so many at last ends in dawn.
In the aftermath, Gudrun again wanders witless through the forest. At last, detesting her life, Gudrun casts herself into the sea, which refuses to take her.
Sitting on the edge of the sea, Gudrun ponders her woes. At long last, she calls upon Sigurd and, reminding him of their wedding vows, she implores him to return to her. Again she casts herself into the sea, wherein her grief is finally drowned.
- "Thus glory endeth,
- and gold fadeth,
- on noise and clamours
- the night falleth.
- Lift up your hearts,
- lords and maidens,
- for the song of sorrow
- that was sung of old."
According to Christopher Tolkien, it is no longer possible to trace the exact date of composition of the two poems in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, though circumstantial evidence suggests that they date from the 1930s. In his foreword, Christopher Tolkien writes:
"He scarely ever (to my knowledge) referred to them. For my part, I cannot recall any conversation with him on the subject until very near the end of his life, when he spoke of them to me, and tried unsuccessfully to find them."
Tolkien wrote in 1967, in a letter to W. H. Auden:
"Thank you for your wonderful effort in translating and reorganizing The Song of the Sibyl. In return, I hope to send you, if I can lay my hands on it (I hope it isn't lost), a thing I did many years ago while trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza."
In a prefatory text, "Introduction to the Elder Edda", based partly on one of his lectures, Tolkien draws a sharp distinction between epic poems and the Skaldic and eddic poems of the Nordic countries: "...epic poetry never developed in those lands". "verse developed its local brief, pithy, strophic, often dramatic form, not into epic, but into the astonishing and euphonious but formal elaborations of scaldic verse." He also draws a distinction, although not as sharply, between the later elaborate skaldic verse and the simpler forms used in the poems of the Elder Edda. The poems in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún use these simpler forms, which, the book says, arose earlier but persisted alongside the skaldic forms. "But the opposition between 'Eddic' and 'Skaldic' verse is quite unreal as one of 'time.' ... They are related growths, branches on the same tree, essentially connected, even possibly sometimes by the same hands." Tolkien also mentions that the use of the term "eddic" for this simpler style of verse is a later development, even an anachronism: "Thus the term 'Eddaic', as now used, in opposition to 'Skaldic,' is a perfect reversal of its former meaning."
The book contains extensive commentary by Christopher Tolkien on the sources for the two poems by his father, and the ways in which he used, mixed, and differed from those sources, as well as the larger background of legend and history behind the stories. Excerpts from notes for lectures that J. R. R. Tolkien gave on related topics are also included.
- The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (William Morris, 1876)
- Allen, Katie (6 January 2009). "New Tolkien for HarperCollins". The Bookseller. Retrieved 6 January 2009.
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, page 174.
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, page 308.
- "Foreword," The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, p. 5.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 295, 29 March 1967.
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Tolkien, Christopher (2009). "Introduction to the Elder Edda". The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-547-27342-6. OCLC 310224953.
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Tolkien, Christopher (2009). "The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson". The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-547-27342-6. OCLC 310224953.
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Tolkien, Christopher (2009). Christopher Tolkien, ed. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 20, 34–37. ISBN 978-0-547-27342-6. OCLC 310224953.
In the eddic verse it is seen 'undeveloped'
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Tolkien, Christopher (2009). "The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson". The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-547-27342-6. OCLC 310224953.
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Tolkien, Christopher (2009). "The 'Prose Edda' of Snorri Sturluson". The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-547-27342-6. OCLC 310224953.
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun FAQ