Sigurðarkviða hin skamma or the Short Lay of Sigurd is an Old Norse poem belonging to the heroic poetry of the Poetic Edda. It is one of the longest eddic poems and its name derives from the fact that there was once a longer Sigurðarkviða, but this poem only survives as the fragment Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (see the Great Lacuna).
According to Henry Adams Bellows, the poem was mainly composed for “vivid and powerful characterization” and not for the telling of a story with which most of the listeners of his time were already quite familiar. Bellows notes that the story telling is closer to the German tradition (found in the Nibelungenlied) than it is to the Scandinavian tradition, and that this is because the matter of Sigurd existed in many and varied forms in Northern Europe c. 1100 when the poem was probably composed.
Guthrunarkvitha I is immediately followed in the Codex Regius by a long poem which in the manuscript bears the heading “Sigurtharkvitha,” but which is clearly referred to in the prose link between it and Guthrunarkvitha I as the “short” Lay of Sigurth. The discrepancy between this reference and the obvious length of the poem has led to many conjectures, but the explanation seems to be that the “long” Sigurth lay, of which the Brot is presumably a part, was materially longer even than this poem. The efforts to reduce the “short” Sigurth lay to dimensions which would justify the appellation in comparison with other poems in the collection, either by separating it into two poems or by the rejection of many stanzas as interpolations, have been utterly inconclusive.
Although there are probably several interpolated passages, and indications of omissions are not lacking, the poem as we now have it seems to be a distinct and coherent unit. From the narrative point of view it leaves a good deal to be desired, for the reason that the poet’s object was by no means to tell a story, with which his hearers were quite familiar, but to use the narrative simply as the background for vivid and powerful characterization. The lyric element, as Mogk points out, overshadows the epic throughout, and the fact that there are frequent confusions of narrative tradition does not trouble the poet at all.
The material on which the poem was based seems to have existed in both prose and verse form; the poet was almost certainly familiar with some of the other poems in the Eddic collection, with poems which have since been lost, and with the narrative prose traditions which never fully assumed verse form. The fact that he seems to have known and used the Oddrunargratr, which can hardly have been composed before 1050, and that in any case he introduces the figure of Oddrun, a relatively late addition to the story, dates the poem as late as the end of the eleventh century, or even the first half of the twelfth. There has been much discussion as to where it was composed, the debate centering chiefly on the reference to glaciers (stanza 8). There is something to be said in favor of Greenland as the original home of the poem (cf. introductory note to Atlakvitha), but the arguments for Iceland are even stronger; Norway in this case is practically out of the question.
The narrative features of the poem are based on the German rather than the Norse elements of the story (cf. introductory note to Gripisspo), but the poet has taken whatever material he wanted without much discrimination as to its source. By the year 1100 the story of Sigurth, with its allied legends, existed through out the North in many and varied forms, and the poem shows traces of variants of the main story which do not appear elsewhere.
1. Of old did Sigurth | Gjuki seek,
The Volsung young, | in battles victor;
Well he trusted | the brothers twain,
With mighty oaths | among them sworn.
2. A maid they gave him, | and jewels many,
Guthrun the young, | the daughter of Gjuki;
They drank and spake | full many a day,
Sigurth the young | and Gjuki’s sons.
3. Thereafter went they | Brynhild to woo,
And so with them | did Sigurth ride,
The Volsung young, | in battle valiant,–
Himself would have had her | if all he had seen.
4. The southern hero | his naked sword,
Fair-flashing, let | between them lie;
(Nor would he come | the maid to kiss;)
The Hunnish king | in his arms ne’er held
The maiden he gave | to Gjuki’s sons.
5. Ill she had known not | in all her life,
And nought of the sorrows | of men she knew;
Blame she had not, | nor dreamed she should bear it,
But cruel the fates | that among them came.
6. By herself at the end | of day she sat,
And in open words | her heart she uttered:
“I shall Sigurth have, | the hero young,
E’en though within | my arms he die.
7. “The word I have spoken; | soon shall I rue it,
His wife is Guthrun, | and Gunnar’s am I;
Ill Norns set for me | long desire.”
8. Oft did she go | with grieving heart
On the glacier’s ice | at even-tide,
When Guthrun then | to her bed was gone,
And the bedclothes Sigurth | about her laid.
And the Hunnish king | with his wife is happy;
9. ” (Now Gjuki’s child | to her lover goes,)
Joyless I am | and mateless ever,
Till cries from my heavy | heart burst forth.”
10. In her wrath to battle | she roused herself:
“Gunnar, now | thou needs must lose
Lands of mine | and me myself,
No joy shall I have | with the hero ever.
1. Gjuki: father of the brothers twain, Gunnar and Hogni, and of Guthrun. In this version of the story Sigurth goes straight to the home of the Gjukungs after his victory over the dragon Fafnir, without meeting Brynhild on the way (cf. Gripisspo, 13 and note). Volsung: Sigurth’s grandfather was Volsung; cf. Fra Dautha Sinfjotla and note. Oaths: regarding the blood-brother hood sworn by Sigurth, Gunnar, and Hogni cf. Brot, 18 and note.
3. Brynhild: on the winning of Brynhild by Sigurth in Gunnar’s shape cf. Gripisspo, 37 and note. The poet here omits details, and in stanzas 32-39 appears a quite different tradition regarding the winning of Brynhild, which I suspect he had in mind throughout the poem.
4. Southern hero: Sigurth, whose Frankish origin is seldom wholly lost sight of in the Norse versions of the story. On the episode of the sword cf. Gripisspo, 41 and note. Line 3 may well be an interpolation; both lines 4 and 5 have also been questioned, and some editions combine line 5 with lines 1-3 of stanza 5. Hunnish king: Sigurth, who was, of course, not a king of the Huns, but was occasionally so called in the later poems owing to the lack of ethnological distinction made by the Norse poets (cf. Guthrunarkvitha I, 24 and note).
5. This stanza may refer, as Gering thinks, merely to the fact that Brynhild lived happy and unsuspecting as Gunnar’s wife until the fatal quarrel with Guthrun (cf. Gripisspo, 45 and note) revealed to her the deceit whereby she had been won, or it may refer to the version of the story which appears in stanzas 32-39, wherein Brynhild lived happily with Atli, her brother, until he was attacked by Gunnar and Sigurth, and was compelled to give his sister to Gunnar, winning her consent thereto by representing Gunnar as Sigurth, her chosen hero (cf. Guthrunarkvitha I, 24 and note). The manuscript marks line 4 as the beginning of a new stanza, and many editors combine it with stanza 6.
6. Brynhild has now discovered the deceit that has been practised on her. That she had loved Sigurth from the outset (cf. stanza 40) fits well with the version of the story wherein Sigurth meets her before he comes to Gunnar’s home (the version not used in this poem), or the one outlined in the note on stanza 5, but does not accord with the story of Sigurth’s first meeting Brynhild in Gunnar’s form-an added reason for believing that the poet in stanzas 5-6 had in mind the story represented by stanzas 32-39. The hero: the manuscript originally had the phrase thus, then corrected it to “though I die,” and finally crossed out the correction. Many editions have “I.”
7. Perhaps a line is missing after line 3.
8. Glacier: a bit of Icelandic (or Greenland) local color. “And the Hunnish king | with his wife is happy;” has been added to the end of stanza 8 to conform with the ON; in the Bellows original translation this line is line 2 of stanza 9.
9. Line 1 does not appear in the manuscript, and is based on a conjecture by Bugge. The manuscript indicates line 3 as the beginning of a stanza, and some editors assume a gap of two lines after line 4. Hunnish king: cf. stanza 4.
10. Lands: Brynhild’s wealth again points to the story represented by stanzas 32-39; elsewhere she is not spoken of as bringing wealth to Gunnar.