"‘The Atli Lay’ and ‘The Hamthir Poem’ Translated from the Old Norse with an Introduction by Thor Ewing" was published in Comparative Criticism 18, pp.197-212, Cambridge University Press 1996, edited by Dr Elinor S. Shaffer

 

‘The Atli Lay’ and ‘The Hamthir Poem’

TRANSLATED FROM THE OLD NORSE WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY THOR EWING

 

The two poems published here are among the finest examples of narrative heroic poetry from the Viking Age. Both probably date largely from the ninth century, and both belong to the tail end of the epic cycle of poems about Volsungs and Niflungs.

A large part of this cycle has come down to us in an Icelandic collection referred to as The Elder or Poetic Edda, of which the principal manuscript is known as Codex Regius.

 

THE PLOT

The story is known from numerous carvings as well as literary references and a full-length saga. It was mainly on the Icelandic poetry and prose that Wagner drew when he came to rewrite the legend for his Ring cycle. William Morris also retells a part of the story in his Sigurd the Volsung.

There are several variants on the story but the general outline is as follows.

A certain Hreithmar demanded payment from the gods for killing his son Otter. Fafnir, Otter’s brother, then killed Hreithmar his father for the gold, but the third brother Regin remained penniless. Regin incites the hero Sigurd to kill Fafnir.

Sigurd kills Fafnir who warns him against Regin and against the gold. Sigurd learns from the birds of Regin’s treachery and kills him.

Sigurd takes the gold and rides off. He comes to a shining bower where he finds the valkyrie Brynhild asleep. He wakes her and they swear their love for each other.

Sigurd comes to the court of Giuki and the Niflungs. He drinks a forgetting draught, and forgets Brynhild. He marries Gudrun, Giuki’s daughter, and swears brotherhood with Giuki’s sons Gunnar and Hogni. Then he wins Brynhild for Gunnar. Gudrun reveals to Brynhild that it was not Gunnar but Sigurd who courted her.

Brynhild calls for Sigurd’s death. Gunnar persuades his brother Guttorm to do it. Sigurd is killed in his bed, killing Guttorm as he dies. Brynhild tells her side of the story before killing herself. She asks to be burnt with Sigurd. Gunnar and Hogni take the gold, and marry Gudrun to King Atli, Brynhild’s brother.

In ‘The Atli Lay’, Atli, under guise of friendship, invites them to visit him. Gudrun warns them of treachery. They go nonetheless, hiding the gold in the Rhine. Atli has them killed. Gudrun avenges them on Atli.

Gudrun then tries to drown herself, but cannot. She marries King Ionak. King Iormunrek sends his son Randver to woo him Swanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. Randver takes Swanhild for himself, but Iormunrek has the lovers put to death.

In ‘The Hamthir Poem’, Gudrun incites her sons by Ionak to kill Iormunrek. They meet Erpur and, scorning his offer of help, they kill him. They reach Iormunrek’s hall, and succeed in cutting off his hands and feet, before being stones to death.

 

HEROIC LITERATURE

These poems are undoubtedly to be classed as ‘heroic’ in theme but they reveal remarkably different attitudes to the heroism they portray.

In ‘The Atli Lay’, the poet wholeheartedly embraces the heroic ethic; Gunnar and Hogni accept their deaths, to which they go willingly as heroes, rather than face the shame of turning from danger. The bravery of that poem is distilled into a romanticized heroism, exemplified by the Burgundians; Hogni’s slaughter of eight Huns is openly admired. The poet clearly takes sides, and Atli represents the other face of violence; his actions appear as evil and treacherous motivated only by greed.

In ‘The Hamthir Poem’, the poet does not so readily accept the heroic ideal. His heroes are unwilling heroes, and have to be goaded into a fury, in which they blunder into killing their own brother. The suffering caused by heroism is highlighted, and the poem questions the system that caused the deaths of Gudrun’s family, and that now demands that Hamthir and Sorli must die avenging their sister’s death. Whereas in ‘The Atli Lay’, Gunnar is heroic because of his unthinking bravery, walking deliberately into a trap, here Hamthir is upbraided for his foolishness.

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Gunnar is Gundaharius the Burgundian, who was defeated and killed by the Huns in 437.

Atli is Attila the Hun, who according to the most likely accounts, died of a nosebleed during the night after his wedding to a new wife in 453. She was found weeping by his bed. However the rumour quickly went round that she had killed him. Later retellings made her a Burgundian princess, so that now she had a motive, and thus the legend was born.

Iormunrek is Ermaneric the Ostrogoth, who ruled an empire north of the Black sea. In old age, faced with the collapse of his empire before the advance of the Huns, it seems he took his own life. The story of Hamthir and Sorli is early, and if we do not suppose that he bleeds to death from his wounds, might provide an alternative explanation of his suicide. However, the link between the two episodes is pure invention, since Ermaneric died in 376, nearly eighty years before Attila.

 

THE STATE OF THE TEXTS

These poems were probably first written down in the thirteenth century. Over the period before they were fixed in ink, they passed over many lips, and were subject to changes. Some of these changes were no doubt deliberate, some were accidental. It seems likely that someone, probably the editor of The Edda, has occasionally reordered the poems as he saw fit. This has resulted in confusion in the text of Hamthismal, the major source for ‘The Hamthir Poem’.

For the editor, this is the last poem of the cycle, and the fall of Hamthir and Sorli the last tragedy to befall the Niflung line. But he also wants to show Gudrun’s death, alone and grief-stricken, having sent her sons to their deaths. In order to do this he repeats the goading scene, where Gudrun incites her sons to avenge Swanhild, her daughter. It seems to me that he has chosen to split verses between the two poems Hamthismal and Guthrunarhvot which may originally have stood together. By this means he succeeds in repeating the scene without repeating much of the actual wording.

However, to a modern reader, without a background knowledge of the legend, neither scene seems complete in itself and each is as confusing as the other. Whether or not I am right in my assumption that the verses have been artificially split between the poems, the goading scene can be brought to order by combining the verses from the two sources, and this is what I have done. I have also omitted two Hamthismal verses which, I feel, sit better with the remaining material of Guthrunarhvot, which I have translated separately. Having reached these decisions, I was interested to find that the nineteenth-century editors Vigfusson and Powell had arranged the poems similarly.

In ‘The Atli Lay’, I have omitted the final verse of Atlakvitha, which is untypical in its style, and refers to a different version of the story from the rest of the poem. The resulting abrupt ending is found in many Norse lays, for instance ‘The Hamthir Poem’, and is an effective device in oral literature.

 

VERSIFICATION

In my translations I attempt to mirror in English the metres and flavour of the Norse.

The verse form is based on short paired lines, often of uneven syllabic length, but each with two major stresses called ‘lifts.’ Each pair of lines is bound by alliteration between the lifts.

However, each poem contains some lines of three lifts. In ‘The Atli Lay’, these stand in for the two-lift lines at moments of particular significance:

Whát can our síster have méant : when she sént us a ríng
twíned in a tréss of the héath-goer : I thínk she was trýing to wárn us.

In ‘The Hamthir Poem’, they can also replace a pair of lines:

I dón’t think to fóllow : the fáshion of wólves
and gó agáinst one anóther.

In this respect both poems are unusually erratic in their metre.

 

The Atli Lay translated by Thor Ewing

The Hamthir Poem’ translated by Thor Ewing



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