People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)
OK, this is where things start getting confused for me. Because the story of Sigurd the Dragonslyer is basically the “ur-myth” for Northern Europeans, I always get it confused with millions of similar stories. Even rereading it now I am confused, and I keep having to refer back to it to remember what happened. I am going to try and stick with the saga version for this, but please be forgiving if I wander a bit.
The interesting thing about Sigurd is how completely uninteresting he is. The heroes of Norse mythology tend to be extremely flat and one-dimensional. They are large, brave, strong, and great warriors… and that’s about it. It’s the ancillary characters that are truly fascinating. Take Fafnir, for example. Fafnir starts out as your average dull Norse warrior, brave, strong, blah blah blah. Then Loki kills his brother, his father takes Odin and Hoenir captive, and Loki has to pay to get them back. Suddenly, Fafnir becomes greedy, kills his father, steals the gold, and becomes a horrific poisonous serpent and J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal poster boy. I’m not really sure why he suddenly goes from honorable warrior to fire-breathing patricidal douche, but he’s at least more interesting as a dragon. Sigurd, on the other hand, seems to drift from life event to life event. “Go kill the dragon, Sigurd.” “Switch bodies with me, Sigurd.” “Drink this magic potion, Sigurd.” Dude is either bone stupid or just really eager to please. We never really get a sense of how he feels about what he is doing, what is driving him. All of his actions are punctuated with “raaaaaahhhhrrr!” and a mighty charge towards the danger, or which ever direction someone has pointed him in.
The women of these stories are far more often the real stars. Brynhild is complex, driven, and tormented. She has stated values and a very specific world view. She has motives for her actions, she interacts with her world, Sigurd only reacts to his. In the Poetic Edda version of his fight with Fafnir, Fafnir warns him repeatedly that the gold will be his undoing and that Regin will betray him. Sigurd’s response is to continue on his single-minded path to ruin. Snicker-snack, the deed is done. In many of these stories, the concept of the concrete tapestry of “urd” (or wyrd, fate or destiny) is demonstrated by the actions of bull-headed heroes who blindly ignore all warnings and forge ahead with their mission. They are pathologically incapable of veering off course. Sadly, this does not lead to very sympathetic or relatable characters for modern readers. Sigurd has no inner conflict, in fact the one place where he could have had inner conflict, his betrothal to Brynhild being obliterated by Grimhild’s memory wipe potion, is taken away from him.
Another important thing to note, Brynhild’s oaths are to herself, she is not beholden to anyone else. The men tend to take oaths to one another. Gunnar and Hogni can’t kill Sigurd because they have sworn oaths to him, but Guttorm can. As restrictive as a woman’s world was in that time, men were bound by equally stringent and confining social rules. Of course, this doesn’t make them any less impulsive. When Brynhild is told of Sigurd and Gunnar’s deception, she outright accuses Sigurd of impropriety. Her husband Gunnar then reacts by devising a plan to kill Sigurd, confirming that it was not Gunnar who rescued her from her bower (he would have know if things had gotten extra friendly on the mountain if it had been). Brynhild has confirmation, but Gunnar just assumes she is being truthful. Just like Sigurd assumes the birds are being truthful when they tell him Regin means to do him harm. Time and time again, the men of Norse myth burst forth with swords drawn at the slightest provocation, whereas the women are more than happy to bide their time before getting their revenge. Just know that the longer that revenge festers, the more painful it will be in the end. Not to mention the more dead children she will leave in her wake. Seriously, I am going to start a dead baby body count for these stories. There is this attitude of “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out again for the simple reason I don’t like your daddy”.