Rating: 4 out of 5.

For a seminal work of ancient mythology, when I finally obtained a copy of the Volsunga Saga what I most noticed was that it is far shorter than I expected.  The translation I found is barely over a hundred pages, and yet it manages to cover several generations of drama, framed and interspersed by Odin’s one-eyed appearances.  At first I worried that I had somehow found an incomplete version, but that does not seem to be the case, and as I read the translation by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris, everything I enjoyed about The Story of Burnt Njal came back to me, from the chapter titles that are really summaries to the amusing juxtapositions of broad strokes summaries and immersive and detailed descriptions.

If I were feeling lazy, I could probably summarize this review by saying that reading the Volsunga Saga was a little like reading a cross between Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and The Story of Burnt Njal.  That would leave out so much of the experience, though, most significant of which might be that I feel I am finally beginning to grasp the sense of ‘northerness’ that scholars like Tolkien considered so compelling, and which forms so much of the basis and inspiration for modern fantasy.  Much like the Hellenic peoples shared a common mythos and similar cultures and values, but were nonetheless composed of distinct tribal identities even within a given city-state, and especially between city-states, the peoples of the north were politically and environmentally diverse, but united by stories like the Volsunga Saga.

Unlike Tolkien, I did not read this in the original tongue, nor did I force my writing group to learn the language with me by reading and translating aloud in real time.  A translation will have to be sufficient for me.  While doubtless elements are lost in translation, by tying in my larger understanding of the mythology and storytelling traditions that surround the Volsunga Saga, I found the version I read plenty sympathetic with those other sources.  In fact, I would not recommend reading the Volsunga Saga without some other grounding in ‘northerness’ – Norse Mythology being probably the most approachable place to begin that effort.

It is necessary to bear in mind when reading the Volsunga Saga that it is written in a sparse, almost summarizing style of prose that jumps from vignette to vignette.  If you go into it expecting to follow along with a few characters the way you would in a typical novel, you will be disappointed.  I found that it took until a good third into the book for me to really pick up on the key characters and enter the proper mindset to appreciate the storytelling format employed, though with such a short book it is worth recalling that means it only took a few dozen pages.  Once I made that mental transition, I could begin to understand the characters and their motivations as clearly as in a more traditionally written story.

Volsunga Saga was on my reading list for a very long time, so I am very pleased to have finally read it – it certainly did not disappoint after the long wait.  If you’ve been following the site and my reviews for long enough, you know that I like to intersperse pieces like this into my reading, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the Eddas eventually make an appearance.  As much as I find Hellenic culture fascinating for its familiar resonances, northern culture might be even more fascinating because of its differences.  I hope you consider immersing yourself in The Saga of the Volsungs soon.

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