Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces
Brynhild and Gudrun are two women who are, for all intents and purposes, diametric polarities on the scale of Norse women. Brynhild represents a strong, feminine warrior, a valkyrie, a woman of conviction. Gudrun’s character leans toward a more passive role, a woman who is a perpetual bride and the passive victim of the circumstances that surround her. In spite of these pronounced differences, both their stories end with the same basic outcome: death and sorrow.
Brynhild’s story begins when we are introduced to her on a fiery mountain top. She reveals to Sigurd that she is either a valkyrie or a shield maiden (depending on which version you accept), and that she is there as a punishment from Odin. The Sigrdrifumol in the Poetic Eddas says:
“Odin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.”
Immediately we know that this is not a woman to be trifled with. She is a warrior, she is a chooser of the slain, and she is self-possessed enough to go against a god. She is also a woman who lives by her convictions. Odin imposes a condition on her future, that she will be forced to lay down her sword and get married. Brynhild counters with a near impossible condition of her own, that he will be a man who knows no fear. Even in the face of divine castigation, she is defiant and insists on calling the shots. It is only through subterfuge and trickery that she is forced into breaking her vow. When the deception is revealed to her by Gudrun, she takes action, and has Sigurd killed. In the end, Brynhild chooses to take her own life, making the final decision about her destiny herself. She is even burned on the funeral pyre of another woman’s husband at her request. It takes a great deal of chutzpa to have a man killed and then ask to have your body burned along with his in front of his widow.
Conversely, all of Gudrun’s actions and decisions are made for her by others. When we first meet Gudrun in the Volsungasaga, she is introduced thusly:
There was a king hight Giuki, who ruled a realm south of the Rhine; three sons he had, thus named: Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and Gudrun was the name of his daughter, the fairest of maidens; and all these children were far before all other king’s children in all prowess, and in goodliness and growth withal; ever were his sons at the wars and wrought many a deed of fame.
She is defined as someone’s daughter, an object of beauty. She is there to be strategically married. Gudrun desires Sigurd, but he only has eyes for Brynhild. It is Grimhild who takes action by poisoning Sigurd and making him forget his love for Brynhild. Then it is Gudrun’s brother Gunnar’s desire for Brynhild that takes Brynhild out of the equation once and for all for Sigurd. Gudrun gets to marry Sigurd not because of any action she has taken or decisions she has made, but by default. When she reveals Gunnar and Sigurd’s deception to Brynhild, it is in response to Brynhild’s boasting and snubbing at the river while washing their hair. Again, she does not act, she reacts. Her character is summarized completely by her response to her husband’s death, which is literally to do nothing. She becomes dormant, inactive, almost catatonic. Gudrun is incapable of independent, unfacilitated action throughout the story.
Both Gudrun and Brynhild share a common thread in the tapestry of fate. They both, at different times, are wed or betrothed to Sigurd, both dream of their shared destiny before it happens, and both end up widowed (Brynhild posthumously). There the similarities end. These women are opposite sides of the same coin of how Norse life was for a woman. While there were opportunities for a woman to fight alongside men, to stand up for herself, and to have an independent personality, far too often they were used as bullet points on a trade agreement, a peace offering, or currency. Brynhild demonstrates the perils of life as an independent woman. She is punished repeatedly for pursuing things that she desires. She is forced to give up the only thing she ever wanted, being a shield maiden, and her anger over this is palpable. Gudrun, on the other hand, demonstrates how a life without self-advocacy leaves an individual at the mercy of the maelstrom of world around her. Both women end up victims of their own actions (or inactions), and in the end neither way seems to be the right way in this story.