Guðrúnarkviða in forna – The Second, or Old, Lay of Guthrun

Guðrúnarkviða II, The Second Lay of Gudrún, or Guðrúnarkviða hin forna, The Old Lay of Gudrún is probably the oldest poem of the Sigurd cycle, according to Henry Adams Bellows.

The poem was composed before the year 1000 and Bellows considered it to be in a “rather bad shape”, but it was in that shape that it provided material for the Völsunga saga, where it was faithfully paraphrased. He states, however, that it is the only Old Norse poem from an earlier period than the year 1000 in the Sigurd tradition that has come down to modern times in a roughly complete form. The other older poems, Reginsmál, Fáfnismál and Sigrdrifumál, are collections of fragments and only the last part of Brot af Sigurðarkviðu remains. The remaining poems in the cycle are generally dated to the 11th century and the 12th century.

Bellows states that another reason for assuming that the poem derives from a lament originating in Germany is the fact that Sigurd’s death takes place in the forest, as in the Nibelungenlied, and not in his bed. Other elements relating closely to the German tradition are her mother and her brother insisting that she marry Atli, the slaying of the Gjukungs and her future revenge on Atli.


Introductory Note:

It has already been pointed out (introductory note to Guthrunarkvitha I) that the tradition of Guthrun’s lament was known wherever the Sigurth story existed, and that this lament was probably one of the earliest parts of the legend to assume verse form. Whether it reached the North as verse cannot, of course, be determined, but it is at least possible that this was the case, and in any event it is clear that by the tenth and eleventh centuries there were a number of Norse poems with Guthrun’s lament as the central theme. Two of these are included in the Eddic collection, the second one being unquestionably much the older. It is evidently the poem referred to by the annotator in the prose note following the Brot as “the old Guthrun lay,” and its character and state of preservation have combined to lead most commentators to date it as early as the first half of the tenth century, whereas Guthrunarkvitha I belongs a hundred years later.

The poem has evidently been preserved in rather bad shape, with a number of serious omissions and some interpolations, but in just this form it lay before the compilers of the Volsungasaga, who paraphrased it faithfully, and quoted five of its stanzas. The interpolations are on the whole unimportant; the omissions, while they obscure the sense of certain passages, do not destroy the essential continuity of the poem, in which Guthrun reviews her sorrows from the death of Sigurth through the slaying of her brothers to Atli’s dreams foretelling the death of their sons. It is, indeed, the only Norse poem of the Sigurth cycle antedating the year 1000 which has come down to us in anything approaching complete form; the Reginsmol, Fafnismol, and Sigrdrifumol are all collections of fragments, only a short bit of the “long” Sigurth lay remains, and the others–Gripisspo, Guthrunarkvitha I and III, Sigurtharkvitha en skamma, Helreith Brynhildar, Oddrunargratr, Guthrunarhvot, Hamthesmol, and the two Atli lays–are all generally dated from the eleventh and even the twelfth centuries.

An added reason for believing that Guthrunarkvitha II traces its origin back to a lament which reached the North from Germany in verse form is the absence of most characteristic Norse additions to the narrative, except in minor details. Sigurth is slain in the forest, as “German men say” (cf. Brot, concluding prose); the urging of Guthrun by her mother 2nd brothers to become Atli’s wife, the slaying of the Gjukungs (here only intimated, for at that point something seems to have been lost), and Guthrun’s prospective revenge on Atli, all belong directly to the German tradition (cf. introductory note to Gripisspo).

In the Codex Regius the poem is entitled simply Guthrunarkvitha; the numeral has been added in nearly all editions to distinguish this poem from the other two Guthrun lays, and the phrase “the old” is borrowed from the annotator’s comment in the prose note at the end of the Brot.

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King Thjothrek was with Atli, and had lost most of his men. Thjothrek and Guthrun lamented their griefs together. She spoke to him, saying:

1. A maid of maids | my mother bore me,
Bright in my bower, | my brothers I loved,
Till Gjuki dowered | me with gold,
Dowered with gold, | and to Sigurth gave me.

2. So Sigurth rose | o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the leek grows green | above the grass,
Or the stag o’er all | the beasts doth stand,
Or as glow-red gold | above silver gray.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

6. Long I waited | and pondered well
Ere ever the king | for tidings I asked.
. . . . . . . . . .

7. His head bowed Gunnar, | but Hogni told
The news full sore | of Sigurth slain:
“Hewed to death | at our hands he lies,
Gotthorm’s slayer, | given to wolves.

8. “On the southern road | thou shalt Sigurth see,
Where hear thou canst | the ravens cry;
The eagles cry | as food they crave,
And about thy husband | wolves are howling.”

9. “Why dost thou, Hogni, | such a horror
Let me hear, | all joyless left?
Ravens yet | thy heart shall rend
In a land that never | thou hast known.”

10. Few the words | of Hogni were,
Bitter his heart | from heavy sorrow:
“Greater, Guthrun, | thy grief shall be
If the ravens so | my heart shall rend.”


Prose. Thjothrek: the famous Theoderich, king of the Ostrogoths, who became renowned in German story as Dietrich von Bern. The German tradition early accepted the anachronism of bringing together Attila (Etzel, Atli), who died in 453, and Theoderich who was born about 455, and adding thereto Ermanarich (Jormunrek), king of the Goths, who died about 376. Ermanarich, in German tradition, replaced Theoderich’s actual enemy, Odovakar, and it was in battle with Jormunrek (i. e., Odovakar) that Thjothrek is here said to have lost most WE his men. The annotator found the material for this note in Guthrunarkvitha III, in which Guthrun is accused of having Thjothrek as her lover. At the time when Guthrunarkvitha II was composed (early tenth century) it is probable that the story of Theoderich had not reached the North at all, and the annotator is consequently wrong in giving the poem its setting.

2. Cf. Guthrunarkvitha I, 17.

4. Regarding the varying accounts of the manner of Sigurth’s death cf. Brot, concluding prose and note. Grani: cf. Brot, 7.

6. No gap indicated in the manuscript. Some editions combine these two lines with either stanza 5 or stanza 7.

7. Gotthorm: from this it appears that in both versions of the death of Sigurth the mortally wounded hero killed his murderer, the younger brother of Gunnar and Hogni. The story of how Gotthorm, was slain after killing Sigurth in his bed is told in Sigurtharkvitha en skamma, 22-23, and in the Volsungasaga.

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