Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Attila and the Nibelung Gold

Attila the Hun left a major impression on fifth century Europe, invading not only cities and lands but legends as well. He turns out to have a small but very notable role in one of the most important Germannic legend-cycles, the tale of the Nibelungs.

You will remember the basic outline of the story, or at least one version of the story: the great hero Sigurd (Sivard/Siegfried) slays a dragon and comes into possession of its gold, which was cursed long ago by its original owner, Andvari. This gold is the Nibelung gold Soon after he meets Brynhild (Brunnehilde). Here is the first connection to Attila; in the Volsunga Saga, Brynhild is the daughter of a king named Budli. Budli has other children, one of whom is named Atli (Etzel), and is pretty clearly a fictionalized version of Attila. So Brynhild in at least some versions of the story is sister to Attila. She is also a Valkyrie who, having disobeyed Odin on the battlefield, has been doomed to marriage. She is asleep, Sigurd wakes her, they fall in love, and he proposes to her with the most precious part of the treasure, the ring of Andvari, and heads out to make his fortune.

Sigurd comes to the court of King Gjuki. He meets Gjuki's son, Gunnar (Gunther), and they get along famously, but dark things are a-foot. Gjuki is married to a sorceress, Grimhild (Ute), who takes into her mind the notion that Sigurd would make an excellent husband for their daughter, Gudrun (Kriemhild). She arranges for Sigurd to drink a magic potion that makes him forget about Brynhild; Sigurd and Gudrun marry. Grimhild decides it's also a good idea for Gunnar to marry the Valkyrie, but Brynhild is currently in a castle surrounded by flames -- Gunnar can't get to her. Through Grimhild's magic, Sigurd is given Gunnar's appearance and rides through the flame, thus winning the Valkyrie for Gunnar; he takes the ring of Andvari from her. In some legends, however, Brynhild is in the hands not of fate but of politics: Gunnar and his brothers lay siege to one of Atli's castles, and to get them off his back, Atli promises Brynhild in marriage to Gunnar; since Brynhild has sworn to marry only Sigurd, this occasions the deception in question. So here we have Attila again.

For a while things go well enough, but Brynhild and Gudrun eventually begin to quarrel over who has the better husband, and in the heat of argument Gudrun lets slip the fact that it was Sigurd who really rode through the flames, not Gunnar, and that Sigurd has given Gudrun the ring of Andvari. Brynhild is put into a rage fit for a Valkyrie over this; she begins to push Gunnar to kill Sigurd. Gunnar has sworn an oath of brotherhood to Sigurd, but eventually he gets his younger brother, Gutthorm, to kill Sigurd in his sleep, by means of a magic potion that enrages the young man; Sigurd wakes in the process, and his last act is to kill Gutthorm. Brynhild kills Sigurd's three-year-old son and then throws herself on Sigurd's funeral pyre. Solid tragic ending.

But Gudrun yet lives, and she eventually gets married off to Atli himself. Atli ends up killing her brothers, however; apparently if your family is associated with a large quantity of gold people begin to get a bit a greedy. Gudrun in revenge kills the two sons she had had with Atli, Erp and Eitli, and serves them to Atli in a feast. Atli takes sick. Gudrun kills him and burns down his hall, finally trying to kill herself by throwing herself into the sea. The sea, however, does not oblige by killing her and instead carries her to Sweden, where she marries yet again and has children who are involved in other legends entirely. But note that Attila here meets his end by Gudrun's hand.

This is actually closely associated with the stories of the death of Attila. We have two conflicting stories about how Attila died. In one story, found in Priscus, says that Attila died in 453 at a feast celebrating his marriage to Ildico. The Huns were polygamous, so Ildico was probably a new political alliance, perhaps with some line of Goths. In any case, he became so completely drunk he was unconscious, suffered a nosebleed, and choked to death in his own blood. The other story, a few decades later, is that Attila died because he was killed by one of his wives while he slept. No one knows the real answer; either story could easily have been simply made up, and either clearly provides an end to the Scourge of God that, if true, would be a case of poetic irony fit for any narrative. In any case, we see here how the stories about the death of Attila were taken up in the sagas.

I've been thinking about this from havng read Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which is Tolkien's own retelling of the Sigurd and Gudrun tales (dating about the 20s and 30s). While Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon, and thus is best known for his work in Old English, he was also an expert in Old Norse, as well, and had studied the sagas extensively. Taken together, they don't present this particular story in an entirely coherent way, so there was plenty of room for poetic invention. I think he manages to do a very good job at balancing a conservative approach -- no operatic changes -- with sufficient innovation to make the story cohere more completely. Christopher Tolkien provides an extensive apparatus that gets into some of these connections between legend and history.

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