Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar I – The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding

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aka Völsungakviða ,The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani

When Helgi was but fifteen years old, he slew a man named Hunding.This caused Hunding’s sons Eyjólfr, Álfr, Hjörvarðr and Hávarðr to approach Helgi asking for wergild and the return of the booty Helgi had taken from their father. When Helgi refused them this, Hunding’s sons declared war and in the ensuing battle, Helgi killed all of Hunding’s sons.

Helgi met the Valkyrie Sigrún who informed him that her father Högni has betrothed her to Höðbroddr, the unworthy son of king Granmarr of the Hniflung clan. Helgi promised to take on Höðbroddr and to claim her as his own. Helgi then assembled a mighty host and departed to wage war on Höðbrodd’s family.

When they had arrived at Granmar’s kingdom, the poem deals with a flyting between Helgi’s half-brother Sinfjötli and Höðbrodd’s brother Guðmundr. Then, the armies clashed at Frekastein and Helgi was victorious winning Sigrún as his bride.

Bellows’s notes on the poem

Introductory Note:

The general subject of the Helgi lays is considered in the introduction to Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, and it is needless here to repeat the statements there made. The first lay of Helgi Hundingsbane is unquestionably one of the latest of the Eddic poems, and was composed probably not earlier than the second quarter of the eleventh century. It presents several unusual characteristics. For one thing, it is among the few essentially narrative poems in the whole collection, telling a consecutive story in verse, and, except for the abusive dialogue between Sinfjotli and Gothmund, which clearly was based on another and older poem, it does so with relatively little use of dialogue. It is, in fact, a ballad, and in the main an exceedingly vigorous one. The annotator, who added his prose narrative notes so freely in the other Helgi poems, here found nothing to do. The available evidence indicates that narrative verse was a relatively late development in Old Norse poetry, and it is significant that most of the poems which consist chiefly, not of dialogue, but of narrative stanzas, such as the first Helgi Hundingsbane lay and the two Atli lays, can safely be dated, on the basis of other evidence, after the year 1000.

The first Helgi Hundingsbane lay is again differentiated from most of the Eddic poems by the character of its language. It is full of those verbal intricacies which were the delight of the Norse skalds, and which made Snorri’s dictionary of poetic phrases an absolute necessity. Many of these I have paraphrased in the translation; some I have simplified or wholly avoided. A single line will serve to indicate the character of this form of complex diction (stanza 56, line 4): “And the horse of the giantess raven’s-food had.” This means simply that wolves (giantesses habitually rode on wolves) ate the bodies of the dead.

Except for its intricacies of diction, and the possible loss of a stanza here and there, the poem is comparatively simple. The story belongs in all its essentials to the Helgi tradition, with the Volsung cycle brought in only to the extent of making Helgi the son of Sigmund, and in the introduction of Sinfjotli, son of Sigmund and his sister Signy, in a passage which has little or nothing to do with the course of the narrative, and which looks like an expansion of a passage from some older poem, perhaps from the “old Volsung lay” to which the annotator of the second Helgi Hundingsbane lay refers (prose after stanza 12). There are many proper names, some of which betray the confusion caused by the blending of the two sets of traditions; for example, Helgi appears indiscriminately as an Ylfing (which presumably he was before the Volsung story became involved) and as a Volsung. Granmar and his sons are called Hniflungs (Nibelungen) in stanza 50, though they seem to have had no connection with this race. The place names have aroused much debate as to the localization of the action, but while some of them probably reflect actual places, there is so much geographical confusion, and such a profusion of names which are almost certainly mythical, that it is hard to believe that the poet had any definite locations in mind.