Post-classical history



This is a very old story: the Danes who used to fight with the English in King Alfred’s time knew this story. They have carved on the rocks pictures of some of the things that happen in the tale, and those carvings may still be seen. Because it is so old and so beautiful the story is told here again, but it has a sad ending – indeed it is all sad, and all about fighting and killing, as might be expected from the Danes.

ANDREW LANG, ‘The Story of Sigurd’ (1890)1

In 850, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, ‘heathen men stayed over the winter for the first time’. Although this notice passes without commentary in the Chronicle, dropped in almost as though it were an afterthought, the over-wintering of the heathens was the breath of wind that carried off the first leaves of autumn from the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It was the harbinger of a storm that would not only strip those old oaks bare, but tear many of them up by their roots.2

Viking attacks had been increasing in volume and severity since the 830s, particularly in Wessex and the south-east. Between 840 and 853, this part of Britain was attacked at least fifteen times, and an attack is also recorded as taking place in Northumbria in 844 – resulting, disastrously, in the death of the king and his heir.3 The first raids on Lundenwic (London) occurred in 842 and 851,4 and there were attacks on Southampton and Portland (840), Romney Marshes (841), Rochester (842), Carhampton again (843) and Canterbury (851).5 Many of these seem to have started off as raids with, presumably, economic motives, and most seem not to have encountered serious resistance. On occasion, however, Viking raiding armies were intercepted by shire levies raised by local leaders or by the king, resulting in pitched battles in which Viking armies often took a serious mauling.

At the mouth of the River Parrett in 848, the men of Dorset and Somerset – led by their respective ealdormen, Osric and Eanwulf, and Ealhstan, bishop of Sherborne – ‘made a great slaughter’ of a Viking war-band.6 The Vikings were defeated again in 850 at a place called Wicga’s Barrow by Ealdorman Ceorl and the men of Devon,7 and in the following year King Æthelwulf of Wessex and his son Æthelbald routed the Viking army at a place called Aclea where they ‘made the greatest slaughter of a heathen horde that we have ever heard tell of’.8 Achieving a crushing victory over his heathen foes would have brought the king great personal satisfaction. In 843 he had gone to Carhampton with the intention of defeating a Viking army at the very place where humiliation had befallen his father, Ecgberht, in 836. But at the second battle of Carhampton, Æthelwulf too had been outfought. The victory at Aclea in 851, therefore, avenged both his own and his father’s shame, ending it the way that Anglo-Saxon feuds had always traditionally been settled: in blood.9

After this robust West Saxon response, Viking war-bands seem to have become wary of assaulting Wessex directly, with raids in southern Britain confined to Kent for the rest of the decade. But the Viking winter camps of 850 – or at least the concept of such camps – were never abandoned. It became possible for Viking armies to mount raids throughout the year, as seems to have been the case in the early 850s, and by living off the land they could keep large numbers of warriors permanently in arms. Reinforcements from overseas could join them unimpeded, and the numbers of men and the size of their fleets could therefore grow unchecked. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon warriors they faced, there was no imperative for them to return to their fields for the harvest, or – like their compatriots in Scandinavia – to stay at home when North Sea storms kept their ships moored over the winter.10

Conflict between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had always been, to a certain extent, a ritualized activity. The phrase ‘ritual war’ is an unfortunate one, implying something lacking in severity (what one anthropologist has compared to ‘over-enthusiastic football’),11 and in truth there is no reason to believe that Anglo-Saxon battles were not brutal and serious affairs. But they rarely resulted in lasting political change. Warfare seems generally to have followed a traditional pattern that was mutually understood, and battles – as we have seen – were often fought at places that held a mutual significance. Conflict was also limited by the natural constraints of the agricultural year. Campaigns took place during summer, before the harvest, while the weather was at its best and the roads were most passable; fortifications were seldom used, the Anglo-Saxons seeming to have preferred to face their enemies in the open, an opportunity – whether in victory or defeat – to carve out a legend that would be worth remembering.12

The Vikings, however, seemed – in the beginning at least – to be breaking all of these rules.13 They had no respect for the traditional patchwork of allegiances and loyalties, the ancient boundaries or the conventions of war. They were perfectly happy to dig themselves in to fortified harbour-sites on major rivers, and their focus on portable food and wealth meant that much of their violence fell on settlements, monasteries and royal halls. They avoided pitched battles where they could and were able – thanks to their ships – to strike quickly and quietly into the very heart of Britain, regardless of the state of the roads. Places that had been far from any border now found themselves, as a result of a coastal or riverine position, exposed to war in a way that they had not been in the past.14

‘They have no cultivated fields,’ one contemporary Islamic writer observed of the Rūs he encountered travelling through eastern Europe and central Asia. Instead, he went on, ‘they live by pillaging the land of the Saqāliba’.15 These (the Rūs) were men who had chosen a different path to prosperity, and their harvest lay before them, to be reaped on the battlefield: ‘When a son is born,’ the same writer elaborated, ‘the father throws a naked sword before him and says: “I leave you no inheritance. All you possess is what you can gain with this sword.”’16

Entrepreneurial values like these, arising in a society that praised highly the fruits of memorable feats of violence and bravery, bred dangerous men with a single-minded determination to get rich quick or die trying. They were not going home to stack hay and muck out pigs, at least not empty-handed. And this meant – for the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England – a threat unlike any they had previously had to face.

In 866 an army appeared in East Anglia that was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a micel hæðen here – ‘great heathen horde’. Here is a difficult word to translate. It is clear that, in general terms, it meant army – the numerous ‘herepaths’ and ‘herefords’ that can be found among the place-names of England testify to its common usage in describing militarized infrastructure. However, the word normally used of Anglo-Saxon armies in this period is fyrd, and presumably here originally had other connotations. A clue to what these were can be found in the laws of King Ine, which explain how þeofas (‘thieves’) appropriately describes a group of up to seven individuals and hloð (‘band’) a group of more than seven but fewer than thirty-five. Any more marauders than this should, according to the laws, be called a here. A here therefore, in this context, was just a large group of thieves all working together – as good a definition as any for a Viking army operating unlawfully within the bounds of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, without regard to life, property or the king’s laws.17

What is less debatable is that this particular here was hæðen, and that it was micel. Although numbers are problematic (as Ine’s laws make clear, a here need have been no bigger than three dozen – the number needed to crew a single vessel the size of the ship discovered at Gokstad, near Oslo in Norway), the Viking forces that had menaced Carhampton had, on both occasions, numbered perhaps as many as 1,500 men – enough to defeat West Saxon royal armies on two separate occasions. It is probably safe to assume that the ‘great heathen horde’ was considerably bigger; as we shall see – archaeological traces of Viking camps of this period in Britain imply sizeable groupings.18

What happened next is not altogether clear, but it seems that the micel hæðen here, having taken horses from the East Anglians, rode north. Once out of East Anglia, they may have used Ermine Street – the ‘Great North Road’ – that climbs the country between the Pennines and the Fens, linking London with York. It seems likely, though the sources do not tell us this, that the Viking fleet shadowed the progress of the mounted army as it made its way north, carrying supplies and reinforcements and providing the means for a quick getaway if things turned out badly. Certainly this would have allowed the land-based force to travel faster and more lightly than would otherwise have been possible, while at the same time removing the constraint on manpower that a purely amphibious offensive would have entailed.19

Out in the countryside, the inhabitants of the timbered hamlets and farmsteads would have been woken, if they were lucky, by dark news riding hard up the Great North Road: they would have grabbed what they could and fled, the Viking army sweeping through deserted settlements, taking the wheat and slaughtering the livestock, ransacking the church and burning the homes. The horde swept into Northumbria, a sudden blitzkrieg that took the kingdom off guard. Before any resistance could be mustered, the Vikings were already within the walls of Eoforwic (York), the heart of Northumbrian power and the seat of the second most important ecclesiastical diocese in Britain.

By the mid-ninth century, Northumbria was no longer the beacon of Christian learning and sainted warrior kings that it had once been; the lustre of its golden age had dulled considerably by the time of the first raids on Lindisfarne and Jarrow. Civil wars and endemic feuding had weakened the kingdom, and Viking attacks had taken a toll on its ruling class, killing its king in 843 and disrupting the succession. And, although the kingdom was by no means a spent force, there can be little doubt that the sacking of its monasteries – international powerhouses of wealth, learning and industry – had been a setback to Northumbrian culture and economy, disrupting trade and creating the insecurity in which political fragmentation was ever more likely.20

Northumbria’s rivals seem to have sensed its weakness. In 828, Ecgberht of Wessex had led a huge army to Dore (literally ‘door’ or ‘narrow pass’), part of a continuum of features that marked the northern borders of Mercia.21 The result of the meeting at Dore was that Ecgberht received the ‘submission and concord’ of the Northumbrians, and was recognized (in the Wessex-produced Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at least) as ‘Bretwalda’ – overlord of Britain.22 Forty years on and the situation had not improved; the Northumbrian king, Osberht, had been deposed in favour of a rival named Ælle, of whom very little is known, other than that – from the perspective of later chroniclers – he was an ‘unnatural king’ (that is, he was perceived as a tyrant without a legitimate claim to the throne).23 It is unlikely, given the precedent of Northumbrian politics over the previous century, that this had been a peaceful transition of power, and it is probable that murders and civil war had taken a toll on the aristocracy and the fighting capacity of the kingdom. It may have been, in some respects at least, a weakened state, unprepared to face a ruthless and opportunistic enemy seeking to take advantage.24

The Viking capture of York in 866 seems initially to have stunned the Northumbrians into inaction, and it took months for them to organize a response. Part of the delay was probably diplomatic, for when an Anglo-Saxon army was eventually gathered, both the rival claimants to the Northumbrian throne were present. The idea, presumably, was to set differences aside until the existential threat had been overcome. For Ælle and Osberht, however, the reassuring familiarity of their former enmity was gone for ever.

The Anglo-Saxon counter-attack on York was, at first, dramatically successful. The old Roman walls, reduced in height but still largely intact, had been reinforced with wooden ramparts by the ninth century. Nevertheless, it seems the Northumbrian forces were able to break into the city with little difficulty. The exuberance of this head-on assault, however, seems to have been the undoing of the Northumbrians; having smashed their way in, they swiftly found themselves trapped inside the city. Surrounded and outnumbered, with no means of retreat, the vanguard was annihilated.

No one knows what happened within the walls of York in 867. But the remnants of the Northumbrian army must have looked on in horror as the Viking army emerged from a city that remained resolutely in their grip. Perhaps the Vikings jeered at the survivors, or hurled foul abuse; perhaps they bared their arses or displayed the severed heads of fallen Northumbrians on the points of their spears.25 Whatever the case, Northumbrian resistance was broken. Fighting continued, but by the end of the day ‘an immense slaughter’ had been made of the Northumbrian army, and both Ælle and Osberht were dead.26

The capture of York left a deep impression. The story of its fall and the events that led to it and flowed from it were told and retold over the centuries, the form the story took in the Old Norse saga literature of the Middle Ages colouring the way in which the historical events – and the conduct of the Vikings in general – have been perceived. By way of backstory to the capture of York, the sagas offer up the character Ragnar Loðbrók, the supposed father of the leaders of the micel here. Ragnar Loðbrók – which is to say, Ragnar Hairy-pants (ON brók is from the same Germanic root as the English word ‘breeches’) – is of indeterminate historicity, and his exploits, as recounted in several sagas and a twelfth-century history written by the Danish cleric Saxo Grammaticus, tend towards the implausible.27 His deeds, and his death, were used to frame an epic story of revenge and super-human prowess, a tale that flowed from deep seams of myth.

It all begins with the tale of how Ragnar gained his nickname. What follows is my version of the story, rationalized from the various sources in which it is told, embellished a little, but still leaky with plot-holes.


Jarl Herruð of Gautland28 (the land of the Geats, in southern Sweden) had a daughter named Þóra; she was the most beautiful woman of whom any had heard tell. Her father had made for her a fenced hideaway in which she dwelt. One day, the Jarl gave to his daughter a small serpent – a baby – and she kept the snake in a box of ashes upon a mound of gold. But babies, as they are wont to do, grow bigger, and so it was with the snake.29 Larger and larger the serpent grew, and the gold multiplied beneath it, until the serpent was so big that it coiled around Þóra’s dwelling, its tail eventually meeting with its head, lying upon a huge heap of treasure. None could approach it, so fierce and deadly had it grown, and every day it devoured a whole ox – no doubt to the great upset and impoverishment of the folk thereabouts. Jarl Herruð could see that this state of affairs could not continue, and let it be known that whosoever would rid him of this menace could take his daughter as wife and claim all the gold that lay beneath the serpent’s belly. When this news reached Ragnar, the son of Hring, king of Denmark and Sweden, he determined to slay the monster and win for himself the fame, riches and marriage that Herruð had promised. In preparation he fashioned for himself a suit of shaggy clothes of fur and wool. These he boiled and soaked in tar and dipped in sand to harden them (though others say that he drenched them in water and froze them in the snow until they were ice-clad: a glittering suit of crystalline armour, jagged and deadly). Thus attired, Ragnar took up his shield, spear and sword and sought the beast.

When Ragnar reached the lair of the serpent, it was quickly roused against him. Rearing up to a fearsome height, it hung in the air above its challenger, swaying ominously from side to side, fangs bared and dripping with venom. Suddenly, it vomited its poison, but the foul bile was futile against the strange armour Ragnar wore. Enraged, the serpent darted forward, an emerald blur, its great jaws gaping wide, seeking to rend and tear. But Ragnar held his shield steady in front of him and rushed forward to meet the creature, thrusting with his spear. The jaws of the snake closed uselessly around the iron-banded shield, gouging at the wooden boards, snapping on the metal boss; but the spear struck home, biting into the serpent’s neck and through its spine into the ground beyond. The thrashing of the beast in its death-agony shook the earth and made the pillars of Þóra’s hall tremble like the forest trees when the storms come. But Ragnar was unafraid; he drew his sword and raised it high, before bringing it down with all his strength, hacking through the sinewy neck and striking the serpent’s head from its body. The maimed coils flung themselves from left to right, the tail beating on the ground, black blood pouring on to the earth. When at last it lay still, and Ragnar was sure the beast was dead, he departed. But he carried away only the shaft of his spear and left behind the spear-head where it stood, still upright, pinning the head of the serpent to the soil.

The next day, Jarl Herruð marvelled at the carnage that had been wrought and listened to his daughter’s tale. She suggested that he call a great assembly – a thing – to which all men should be commanded to attend. In this way, she thought, the man whose spear-shaft matched the spear-head that had been left in the ground would be discovered, and the mystery of the hairy slayer solved. On Herruð’s orders this was duly done, and – on the appointed day – Ragnar arrived at the gathering, clad as before in his strange suit of shaggy clothes. He stood apart from the other men at the edge of the thing and watched as each hopeful suitor – many of them great earls and powerful warlords, clad in fine embroidered cloaks of bright colours and with silver rings jangling on their arms – came and tried to fit his spear-head to their spear-shafts. None of them, of course, could make the spear-head fit. At last it was Ragnar’s turn and he stepped from the shadows, still stinking with the serpent’s gore and venom. There was a murmuring among the disappointed suitors: how dare this foul-smelling vagrant think to claim such a fair prize? Ragnar cared not: he duly presented his spear-shaft. Þóra lifted the spear-head and slipped it on to the end: it fitted – of course it did – and a gasp went up from the assembled throng. But then Ragnar pushed the fur hood from his head, and suddenly all could see that it was the son of King Hring who was the serpent-slayer. The embarrassed silence lasted for long seconds, but it was broken by Herruð, who let out a great bellow of mirth: ‘My son-in-law shall you be, Ragnar Hringsson, but all shall know you now as “Hairy-pants”!’ At this, all those who were gathered fell about laughing, and Herruð commanded that the thingbecome a wedding feast. Ragnar and Þóra were duly married, and with her by his side, Ragnar in time returned home to rule his father’s realm as king.


The plot-holes are inevitable really, as all of the surviving versions have their internal inconsistencies and none of them agree. Saxo’s version, for instance, has Þóra receiving a clutch of snake-babies that grow up to rampage around the countryside wreaking havoc. But that the story is an old one is confirmed by the fact that the tale seems already to have been well established by the twelfth century, appearing not only in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, but also in the first lines of a poem called Krákumál – purportedly Ragnar’s death-poem, but written long after his death:

We struck with our swords!

So long ago, it was:

we had gone to Gautland

for the ground-wolf’s slaughter.

Then we won fair Thora;

thus the warriors named me

Loðbrók, when I laid that

heather-eel low in battle,

ended the earth-coil’s life

with inlaid shining steel.30

Krákumál makes use of a number of kennings to describe the serpent: ‘ground-wolf’; ‘heather-eel’; ‘earth-coil’. All describe the same thing: a writhing snake-like beast of monstrous size – a wyrm in Old English, ormr in Old Norse – a thing of soil, and ground-dwelling. Although these verses perform a subtle linguistic dance around the issue, we understand intuitively the true nature of the monster. It is the creature that has haunted the imaginations of human civilizations from the moment they were able to express themselves: the oldest terror of all. Dragon.

The Geats of Gautland had already suffered their share of dragons in the literature of northern Europe. Beowulf famously concludes with the hero’s fight – as king of the Geats – against a beast far more terrible than the earth-bound wyrm that Ragnar faced. Beowulf’s dragon is airborne and fire-spewing, like those which presaged the arrival of the Vikings at Lindisfarne, a harbinger of apocalyptic devastation:

The dragon began to belch out flames

and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow

that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger

would leave nothing alive in his wake.

Everywhere the havoc he wrought was in evidence.

Far and near, the Geat nation

bore the brunt of his brutal assaults

and virulent hate. Then back to the hoard

he would dart before daybreak, to hide in his den31

Nevertheless, like others of his kin, this dragon is also at heart an earth-dweller: the ‘harrower of the dark […] who hunts out barrows […] driven to hunt out hoards underground, to guard heathen gold through age-long vigils’.32 This gold-hoarding habit of dragons is a common theme and was regarded as self-evident in Anglo-Saxon verse – the gnomic poem Maxims II presents the idea that the ‘Dragon must dwell in the barrow, cunning, proud of its treasures’ as a fact equivalent to the truth that ‘fish must dwell in water’.33

The dragon’s jealous and possessive attitude towards hoarded treasure seems to have operated in both Old English and Old Norse literature as a symbol of the pernicious and destructive vice of avarice, to be contrasted directly (as it is in Maxims II) with the dictum that ‘the king belongs in his hall, dealing out rings’. The gold-hoarding serpent was thus – as well as being an embodiment of flaming Armageddon – a more subtle nemesis of ordered life, a poison gnawing at the roots of society, breaking the bonds that held people together; it was the duty of heroes and kings to fight them, even if the entropic forces they represented could never be truly defeated.34

These characteristics of the monstrous serpent were well represented in the most epic streams of Norse mythology. Niðhöggr (‘spite-striker’) and Jörmungandr (‘mighty-wand’, aka Midgarðsormr – lit. ‘Middle-earth-serpent’) were creatures of another order of magnitude altogether. The former gnawed at the roots of the world tree, literally undermining the pillar of creation. In the end of days Niðhöggr would, it was foretold, herald the doom of the world:

Then there comes there the dark dragon flying,

the glittering snake up from Moon-wane hills,

it bears in its wings – and flies over the plain –

dead bodies: Spite-striker [Niðhöggr]; now she must sink.35

Jörmungandr – the world-serpent – was a being of yet more profound cosmological significance: he was the mighty wyrm whose body encircled the mortal realm, separating the human world from chaos. He, too, would break his bonds at the end, when the denizens of Utgarð (the ‘out-world’) would thrust the world into oblivion at Ragnarök – the ‘doom of the gods’. To contend with such a menace, no mortal champion would suffice: Thor the Thunderer, protector of gods and men, would be the one to shoulder the futile burden; his many contests with the world-serpent were told in tales that travelled far and wide across the Viking world.

Although mention of more ‘mundane’ dragons in Old Norse literature is fairly common, serpents of Beowulfian splendour are, to quote Tolkien once again, ‘as rare as they are dire’.36 The template for them all, however – the ur-dragon – is Fáfnir, the creature slain in one of the most important cycles of Old Norse hero-tales by Sigurd the Völsung – the godfather of all dragon-slayers. The tale begins as follows:

When Otr, while swimming in the guise of (no surprise) an otter, was killed by the god Loki, recompense was paid in treasure to his father, Hreidmar, and his brothers, Regin and Fáfnir. The treasure, however, as treasure often does in such stories, worked an evil spell upon the brothers, partly as a result of a cursed ring that Odin had added to the treasure hoard at the last moment. The brothers conspired and murdered their father, but Fáfnir betrayed his brother and stole the treasure for himself. He fled with it to a place called Gnitaheiðr, where he became transformed into a dreadful serpent, there to guard his hoard jealously. Regin, meanwhile, plotted his vengeance, becoming skilled in smithcraft and adopting a young man named Sigurd as his protégé. In time Regin forged a deadly sword, which he called Gram, and set Sigurd on the quest to which his life hitherto had led. Sigurd went to Gnitaheiðr and dug a hole for himself, waiting for Fáfnir to slither overhead. The dragon duly returned and Sigurd drove the sword upwards through the serpent’s body.

Fáfnir took a long time to die, and conversed long with his murderer, but die he eventually did, and – as Regin had instructed him – Sigurd cut out the dragon’s heart and began to roast it on a stick over the fire in order that he should serve it up to his master. Anxious not to deliver undercooked organs, Sigurd tested the meat with his fingers, burning his thumb. He stuck the thumb into his mouth and tasted the dragon’s blood that was smeared there. Instantly, Sigurd gained the ability to understand the speech of birds. Seven such creatures, so it transpired, were conversing in the trees above him and were taunting him for his apparent stupidity, explaining that Regin had tricked and used him to enact this vengeance, and that he intended to claim the dragon’s treasure all for himself. On hearing this, Sigurd promptly sought out Regin, and lopped off his head with Gram, the sword Regin himself had forged.37

That is the end of the dragon-slaying part of the tale, though it is not by any means the end of the Sigurd legend. This segment, and the convoluted story of thwarted love and vengeance between kinsfolk that follows, was told and retold throughout the Middle Ages, finding epic form in the thirteenth century in the Old High German Nibelungenlied and the Old Norse Völsunga saga, medieval poems that would ultimately inspire Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a series of operas – Das RheingoldDie WalküreSiegfried and Götterdämmerung – first performed as a cycle in 1876. The original costume designs for these operas, by Carl Emil Doepler, alongside Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for the English-language version of Wagner’s libretti, would prove to be enormously influential for Victorian imaginings of Norse mythological themes; Thoma’s winged helmets and bronze bustiers set a template for how Wotan (Odin) and his valkyries should be presented that has proved remarkably resilient.38

The Völsung legend, however, would also find its way into the British (and global) psyche through a less overt but equally influential route. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, a small boy living with his mother in a village close to the outskirts of industrial Birmingham made a discovery. Towards the end of the Red Fairy Book, the second of British writer and critic Andrew Lang’s compendia of fairy-tales, a young J. R. R. Tolkien found ‘The Story of Sigurd’. It affected him deeply. ‘I desired dragons with a profound desire,’ he recalled in 1939; ‘… the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.’ It would have a seismic effect on his imagination, shaping a lifelong enthusiasm.39

In 1914, having won the undergraduate Skeat Prize for English at Exeter College, Oxford, Tolkien would use his winnings to purchase the 1870 translation of Völsunga saga produced by the great artist, writer, craft pioneer and medievalist William Morris (who was also an important figure in the nineteenth-century Viking revival) and his friend the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon.40 In tone, plot and subject matter, the legend of Sigurd would inspire a great deal of Tolkien’s oeuvre: both directly, in a poem that he wrote in the traditional English alliterative metre (published posthumously as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) and indirectly, in myriad elements of his tales of Middle-Earth: from the slaying of the dragon Glaurung by the hero Turin Turambar (like Sigurd, from beneath) in The Silmarillion, to the gold-madness of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbitand, of course, the cursed ring that defined The Lord of the Rings trilogy.41

William Morris, for his part, also produced his own epic retelling of the Sigurd story that was separate from the translation undertaken with Eiríkr Magnússon. Now largely forgotten, the 10,000 lines of rhyming hexameters that comprised The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1876) was once an object of high praise, and its author considered it his finest poetic achievement. George Bernard Shaw, for one, was filled with enthusiasm, gushing that with Sigurd the Volsung Morris had ‘achieved the summit of his professional destiny by writing the greatest epic since Homer’. According to Shaw, Morris ‘was quite aware of the greatness of this work, and used to recite passages from it, marking its swing by rocking from one foot to another like an elephant. After one of these recitations he sat down beside me. I said “This is the stuff for me; there is nothing like it.”’42

In the longer term, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung suffered from the inevitable comparisons that were drawn between it and Richard Wagner’s monumental work on the same theme. The four operas of the Ring cycle were first performed together at Bayreuth in 1876, the same year that Morris’ poem was published, and caused a sensation in Europe. It was not a comparison that Morris would have welcomed. His own opinion of Wagner’s work, indeed, of opera in general, was not a charitable one: ‘I look upon it as nothing short of desecration to bring such a tremendous and world-wide subject under the gas-lights of an opera; the most degraded and rococo of all forms of art – the idea of a sandy-haired German tenor tweedledeeing over the unspeakable woes of Sigurd, which even the simplest words are not typical enough to express!’43 This is probably unfair to Wagner who, after all, had his own axes to grind about the state of theatrical music. But Morris, by almost any sane measure, is a more sympathetic character than the great German maestro, so I hesitate to intervene in the latter’s defence.

Thus the Sigurd narrative has been – and continues to be – an incredibly potent force in shaping our conceptions of northern mythology and the tone and texture of modern fantasy. This potency, however, arises from and builds on the defining role this legend played in the world-view of northern peoples from an exceptionally early date. As the archetype for many other human dragon-slaying heroes, Beowulf and Ragnar included, Sigurd represented an important and popular figure of early medieval folk culture.44 Images of the hero stabbing the dragon in its soft underbelly – alongside other scenes from the tale – have been found as far afield as Tatarstan.45 The most famous depictions are found cut into standing stones in eastern Sweden, with particularly striking examples at Ramsund and Gök in Södermanland. In these carvings, the body of the serpent coils in an oval loop around the stone, an attenuated ribbon that carries an inscription incised in runes – a message to commemorate the dead. This is commonplace on the Viking Age runestones of Scandinavia – as though the names conveyed by the runes could somehow shimmer into serpentine life, to be carried into immortality on the backs of dragons. But in these examples, down below the runes, an intrusive figure lurks, his sword jutting upwards, piercing the body of the wyrm: here is Sigurðr Fánisbani – Sigurd Fáfnir’s Bane – striking the heroic, cowardly blow that defines him.46

Sigurd imagery also found its way to Britain during the Viking Age: four Christian runestones erected on the Isle of Man by communities of Viking origin display imagery from the Sigurd legend, and an iconographic scheme that depicts the roasting of Fáfnir’s heart and Sigurd sucking his thumb was carved into a standing cross at Halton in Lancashire.47 One of the Manx stones contains a rare detail, found in only a handful of other depictions of the story. This is the image of Gunnar in the snake-pit; a scene from later in the story – pithily summarized in the thirteenth-century Völsunga saga. Gunnar, who with his brother Högni had murdered Sigurd in order to claim the treasure for themselves, fell foul of their brother-in-law, Attila the Hun, who – having invited them over for dinner – had Högni’s heart cut out and Gunnar thrown into a pit of snakes. The latter brother was able to fend off death for a short while by playing a harp with his feet: all of the snakes fell asleep, except for one, which delivered the fatal bite.

Ragnar Loðbrók was in many respects a reinvention of his dragon-slaying antecedent Sigurd; it was even said (with cavalier regard for chronology) that Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug, was the daughter of Sigurd himself (with the valkyrie Brynhildr). Ragnar and Aslaug even had a son they named ‘Sigurd’, a young man who, it was said, had the image of a snake biting its own tail swirling in his iris: for obvious reasons he became known as Sigurd ‘snake-in-the-eye’ (ormr í auga).48

Ragnar may never have existed, and if he did, almost nothing we are told of his life in the sagas is true. His death, as recorded in the sagas and in Krákumál, is pure fantasy. He was said to have died languishing at the bottom of a snake-pit – consigned to this improbable death by Ælle, one of the two kings of Northumbria killed by the micel here in 867. (The similarity to the treatment of Gunnar in Völsunga saga is obvious and probably deliberate.) What is clear, however, is that when Scandinavians of the later Middle Ages came to write about the deeds of Ragnar and his sons they saw them in the light of the most heroic figure of all: Sigurd the dragon-slayer himself. This alone should tell us something about the high regard and wide-ranging fame that attended the reputations of the men who took York in 867. But what is also clear is that it was felt necessary to provide some sort of explanation for the Viking invasions of Britain in the 860s, a compelling origin tale to explain what happened, to justify all the violence and the bloodshed, to explain the appalling deeds and doings of a cast of individuals who (or some of whom at least) have a far better claim to historicity than their supposed father.49


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